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Nived Ravikumar, Founder of Statement Guru

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Nived Ravikumar was born and raised in Southern California to immigrant parents from Chennai, India. Growing up, he developed a fascination with two of the region’s most distinguishing features: diversity and moviemaking. He has since blossomed into a world traveler (30+ countries visited) and expert storyteller. After working in the entertainment industry and at Google’s L.A. offices for several years, he launched Statement Guru as a “storytelling” service to a domestic and global clientele looking for help on their admissions essays. Nived is a lifetime member of American MENSA and currently completing his coursework as a Master’s degree candidate at Harvard University.

In your own words what is Statement Guru?

Statement Guru’s tagline is “My mission is your admission.” To that end, Statement Guru is in the business of getting clients into their dream programs by guiding them through the admissions essay writing process, from brainstorming to final polish and everything in between. 

While GPA, standardized testing and extracurricular experiences are all important, as admissions become even more competitive at elite institutions, it’s no longer enough to be smart or even accomplished. You need to have a story to tell; you need to grab admissions officers in a bold and vibrant way. No part of the application can do this like the statement of purpose (or personal statement). Despite this all-important component, there is a significant lack of understanding out there as to how to actually execute a high-quality admissions essay.

How did you come up with the idea of Statement Guru?

I didn’t. People decided for me! Let me explain. In my social circles, I had developed a reputation for being a strong writer, and I pursued career opportunities that allowed that skill to shine. For example, I was the Newsletter Editor for the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles for several years. Several of my colleagues and friends took notice of my abilities and approached me to help them revise their graduate school admissions essays. In fact, I got some free dinners and extra income out of it. Without direct experience in admissions, I relied on what I’d learned from screenwriting classes and storytelling theory. The acceptance success rate for those early clients was amazingly high, and my methods validated themselves. 

Could you walk us through the process of starting up Statement Guru?

Working with people I already knew in the Los Angeles area was one thing. Standardizing and tailoring my methods to a large audience was another. I needed a catchy name and, to my surprise, StatementGuru.com was available. It was short, memorable, and being of South Asian descent, the “guru” part resonated with me. From there, the process was about challenging myself in unfamiliar situations. For example, one of my early clients was a friend of a friend living in the Bay Area whom I had never met. To this day, I still haven’t met her! All of our interactions were over the phone, and at times, it was a bit awkward trying to pry interesting biographical tidbits out of a total stranger. Nowadays, these type of conversations are second nature to me, and my clients can sense that and feel at ease. I would say my first India-based client was another hurdle. I stumbled my way through it, and he’s in a master’s program at NYU now. So I guess I did something right!

Did you encounter any particular difficulties during startup?

I was so confident in my talent as an essay guru. I worked hard on building an eye-catching website and creating online advertising campaigns. For a couple of years, all that effort was met with a resounding silence. In hindsight, it makes sense—I wasn’t selling a product or tangible good, I was selling a promise, over the internet no less, that I could help someone I had never met, from some part of the globe I had probably never visited, write a compelling personal narrative. If you’re in a business like this, word-of-mouth and third-party referrals are everything. But where do you get those when no one is willing to hire you in the first place? It’s a catch-22. I had to do a lot of free and heavily discounted work in those days and wait for glowing Yelp reviews to trickle in. I would say critical mass was reached around two years ago. Since then, the focus has been less on gaining credentials and more about servicing clients and evolving as an organization. 

How have you been developing Statement Guru since startup?

This is a tricky one because so much of what Statement Guru is revolves around my way of interacting with clients and putting an essay together. The personal touch is what makes Statement Guru Statement Guru, but it is also impossible for me to work one-on-one with everyone out there who wants to work with me. Sometimes, I don’t have the time, sometimes, they can’t afford my quote. Long term, I want to indoctrinate additional tutors in “the Statement Guru way,” but for now, I am more focused on creating content that allows me to reach as many people as possible for as minimal a cost as possible. I have written an admissions essay book 50 Questions for Your Admissions Essay Draft (available on Amazon), I host the admissions-focused Statement Guru podcast (statementguru.podomatic.com) and I post articles on my site and sometimes on my colleagues’ sites.

What kind of feedback did you get for Statement Guru so far?

I never would have imagined that a seemingly simple thing like an admissions essay would actually be a complex, at times emotional process. It is essentially a mission statement for an individual. As many entrepreneurs can tell you, creating and refining a mission statement requires a lot of soul-searching and reflection. If working on your admissions essay does not create similar sensations in you, you’re doing it wrong. I’ve had many clients tell me they’ve found the process therapeutic, and it has helped them gain greater self-awareness and direction in life. I don’t want to take too much credit, as there are numerous ways they could have “found themselves.” But I’m happy to help, and it’s that kind of thing that makes what I do truly rewarding.

What is your strategy against your competition?

I work in a funny industry, so take all of this with a grain of salt. If you look at a university like UCLA, it receives nearly 100,000 applicants for its freshman class. 100,000! Per year! I’m willing to guess a majority of those applicants used some kind of professional service or resource to help them with their SATs. But what percentage hired an essay professional for their personal statements? Much, much lower. While I’ve met a few other essay professionals, some of whom are direct competitors technically, we are barely scratching the surface of the market’s potential. Rather than fight over existing clients, my colleagues and I would rather be collaborative and refer clients to each other if one of us isn’t necessarily the best fit. For example, my focus tends to be on graduate school applicants, like STEM students from India. A lot of my fellow essay tutors concentrate on only undergrad applicants, so they are happy to send along graduate school hopefuls. Because we are playing the long game and aiming for a bigger pie, reaching out to competitors and maintaining good relationships has undoubtedly made my business stronger, and I’m confident the feeling is mutual on their end.

Have you developed any industry insights that you could share?

The main thing I’ve noticed is that there’s a bit of a stigma around it, and one of my goals is to help bring essay tutors “out of the shadows.” My belief is that writing services that write essays for you don’t work, as far as admissions go. The best admissions essays are built on authenticity, and no one can represent you more authentically than you. What Statement Guru and other legitimate companies do is give our clients a set of tools and a pair of objective eyes so they avoid the numerous traps and pitfalls that can sink even the best writers during this process. I consider myself to be a coach. You never see coaches actually on the field competing, yet they help athletes unlock their potential. Similarly, those aren’t my words on the page, yet my client might have never expressed that set of words in that particular way without me around to help them have that breakthrough. 

What is the future of the industry?

I bet at some point SAT coaching was thought of as giving applicants who could afford it an unfair edge, but now, it’s standard practice. I think part of why is that it became accessible to everyone. You can go online and, without paying a dime, find sample exams and videos to make you better at standardized testing. Khan Academy has a bunch of those, and it’s way more entertaining than it should be watching Sal work his way through SAT/GRE/GMAT practice sets! If an applicant needs more SAT help and can pay for it, that’s out there, too. Right now, I see admissions essay resources in their infancy, and that world needs to be legitimized through the Sal Khans of the world. This process is confounded by the subjectivity of essay writing vs. standardized testing, but still, I’ve developed methods and practices that work 100% of the time. Can I guarantee admission? No, but no one can, unless you have a wealthy relative willing to make a large donation on your behalf! As more books are written, more podcasts recorded and more video content shot, I see my industry getting democratized like the standardized testing industry. The only ways to stay relevant are to keep getting results and to keep creating content, and I plan to do both.

Was there anything that disappointed you initially?

Disappointed is a strong word. I think it is more like being caught off-guard. In the early days, I tried to be as informal and friendly as possible in my client interactions to help build rapport. Because of that, I felt weird about asking for payment, especially in advance, when I hadn’t actually done anything yet. At the end of the process, I’d mention wanting to resolve payment. Usually, there was no issue, but there were a few times where this would drag on for months. I never enjoyed sending out reminder emails, and it left relations on a sour note. Now, I have to be more formal about this aspect, but I guess that’s what happens when you go from helping your friends and their friends to running an actual business.

What do you think about being an entrepreneur in Asia?

Though I have many clients based in Asia, my company is based in the U.S.. Because I don’t deal directly with any Asia-based companies, I don’t have much insight on this question.

What is your definition of success?

To me, success is finding that “sweet spot” where you are able to do what you’re best at and there are people out there who value that. In the entertainment industry, there are many talented people, but if they can’t connect their creative output with a wide audience, they aren’t going to survive. On the flipside, there are a lot of cynical, meaningless projects that get made because the filmmakers knew an audience will show up. I can’t define either of these scenarios as real success. Creatives/artists/entrepreneurs have to figure out a way to build that bridge between who they are and what the people want, while being true to both sides. It’s not an easy balance. If it were, everyone would do it.

Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?

As I’ve mentioned, a lot of my background is tied to the world of filmmaking/screenwriting. While I still love movies and the whole artistic process that goes into making them, at the end of the day, it’s still just entertainment. Whereas entrepreneurship has changed and will continue to change the world in profound ways. As we’ve seen with something like Netflix, even the entertainment business can be flipped upside down by a well-implemented business idea. At the same time, I relate to a lot of how businesses are conceived of and developed. It really reminds me of the screenwriting and filmmaking process. I guess even as a filmmaker, I was an entrepreneur. I just didn’t realize it yet!

In your opinion, what are the keys to entrepreneurial success?

Love what your business does—and love business. 

Know yourself—both in terms of strengths and weaknesses.

Know your audience—you can never change human behavior; you can only work within the bounds of what people are willing to do. In both entertainment and entrepreneurship, I’ve seen huge chasms between what creatives think people want and what people actually want. 

Get comfortable with failure—a big ego will blind you from reality.

Be prepared to embrace the process—yes, it’s maddening, but I suspect most entrepreneurs are a bit mad anyway. If you are driven only by dreams of success and rewards, you’ll likely burn out before ever seeing them. The ups and downs of entrepreneurship are like being on a roller coaster 24-7. Some people are perfectly suited for this, most aren’t.

Any parting words of wisdom for entrepreneurs out there from your personal experience?

At the end of the day, people want to feel…

…beautiful

…connected

…important

…efficient

…safe

…listened to

…smart

…respected

…productive 

…healthy

…in control

…loved

…inspired

…heard

…satisfied

…clean

…responsible

…powerful

…stylish

…entertained

Whether you’re making a product, offering a service, penning an essay or shooting a movie, to be any good, form is crucial, so is function. But to truly be transcendent, you must also reach for the third f… you must deliver a feeling, or two, or a dozen.

Connect 

statementguru.com

facebook.com/statementguru

twitter.com/statementguru

yelp.com/biz/statement-guru

linkedin.com/in/statementguru

instagram.com/statementguru

Callum Connects

Marek Danyluk, CEO of Space Ventures

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Marek Danyluk has a talent for assessing the competencies of management teams for other businesses and pulling together exceptional teams for his own businesses!

What’s your story?
I am the CEO of a venture capital business, Space Ventures, which invests in seed and pre-series A businesses. I also own and run Space Executive, a recruitment business focused on senior to executive hires across sales, marketing, finance, legal and change.

My career started as a trainee underwriter in the Lloyds market but quickly moved into recruitment where I set-up my first business in 2002. The business grew to around 100 people. I moved to Asia in 2009 as a board member of a multinational recruitment business with the mandate to help them scale their Asian entities, which helped contribute to their sale this year, in 2017.

My main talent is assessing the competencies of management teams as well as building high performing recruitment boutiques and putting together exceptional management teams for my own businesses.

What excites you most about your industry?
Building the business is very much about attracting the best talent and being able to build a culture which people find invigorating and unique. It’s an exciting proposition to be able to define a culture in that regard and salespeople are a fun bunch, so when you get it right it’s tremendous.

From a VC point of view there is just so much happening. South East Asia is a melting pot of innovation so the ideas and quality of people you have exposure to, is truly phenomenal. The exposure in the VC has taken me away from a career in recruitment. Doing something completely different has given me a new level of focus.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Whilst I came here with work, both my boys were born in Singapore and to them this very much is home. That said, my father in law spent many years in the East so coming and settling here was met with a good degree of support and familiarity.


Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Possibly Hong Kong. It’s the closest I’ve been to working in London. Whilst there are massive Asian influences people will work with you on the basis you are good at what you do and work hard. I find that approach very honest and straightforward.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Always treat people well on the way up!”

Who inspires you?
I like reading about people who have excelled in business such as Jack Ma, James Kahn, Phil Knight, Sir Richard Branson, Elon Musk, all have great stories to tell and they are all inspirational. No-one has inspired me more than my parents and they are well aware as to why…

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Pretty much any technology innovation blows me away.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Whilst it is important not to have regrets I do continually wake up thinking I’m still doing my A’ Levels. So, I’d have probably tried a little harder in 6th form.

How do you unwind?
I like the odd glass of red wine and watching sport

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Japan skiing. I love skiing and Japanese food and it’s a time when I can really enjoy time with the wife and kids. I recently tried the Margaret River which was divine, although not technically Asia.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Barbarians at the Gate

Shameless plug for your business:
Space Executive is the fastest growing recruitment business in Singapore focused on the mid to senior market across legal, compliance, finance, sales and marketing and change and transformation. Multi-award winning with exceptional growth plans into Hong Kong and London this year, and the US, Japan and Europe by the end of 2022. We are building a truly global brand.

Space Ventures is interested in any businesses that require capital or management and financial guidance or any or all of the above. We have, to date, invested in on-line training, food and beverages, peer to peer lending platforms, credit scoring as well as other tech and fintech start-ups. We are always interested in hearing about potential deals.

How can people connect with you?
[email protected]

Twitter handle?
@Spaceexecutive

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Callum Connects

Malcolm Tan, Founder of Gravitas Holdings

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Malcolm Tan is an ICO/ITO and Cryptocurrency advisor. He sees this new era as similar to when the internet launched.

What’s your story?
I’m a lawyer entrepreneur who owns multiple businesses, and who is now stepping into the Initial Coin Offering/Initial Token Offering/Cryptocurrency space to be a thought leader, writer (How to ICO/ITO in Singapore – A Regulatory and Compliance Viewpoint on Initial Coin Offering and Initial Token Offering in Singapore), and advisor through Gravitas Holdings – an ICO Advisory company. We are also running our own ICO campaign called AEXON, and advising 2 other ICO’s on their projects.

What excites you most about your industry?
It is the start of a whole new paradigm, and it is like being at the start of the internet era all over again. We have a chance to influence and shape the industry over the next decade and beyond and lead the paradigm shift.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m Singaporean and most of my business revolves around the ASEAN region. Our new ICO advisory company specialises in Singaporean ICO’s and we are now building partnerships around the region as well. One of the core business offerings of our AEXON ICO/ITO is to open up co-working spaces around the region, with a target to open 25 outlets, and perhaps more thereafter.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore, since it is my hometown and most of my business contacts originate from or are located in Singapore. It is also a very open and easy place to do business.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Be careful of your clients – sometimes they can be your worst enemies. This is very true and you have to always be careful about whom you deal with. The closest people are the ones that you trust and sometimes they have other agendas or simply don’t tell you the truth or whole story and that can easily put one in a very disadvantageous position.

Who inspires you?
Leonardo Da Vinci as a polymath and genius and leader in many fields, and in today’s world, Elon Musk for being a polymath and risk taker and energetic business leader.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Early stage bitcoin investors would have made 1,000,000 times profit if they had held onto their bitcoins from the start to today – in the short space of 7 years.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Seek out good partnerships and networks from day one, and use the power of the group to grow and do things together, instead of being bogged down by operations and going it alone from start.

How do you unwind?
I hardly have any time for relaxation right now. I used to have very intense hobbies, chess when I was younger, bridge, bowling, some online real time strategy games and poker. All mentally stimulating games and requiring focus – I did all these at competitive levels and participated in national and international tournaments, winning multiple trophies, medals and awards in most of these fields.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Phuket – nature, resort life, beaches, good food and a vibrant crowd.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Rich Dad Poor Dad by Richard Kiyosaki

Shameless plug for your business:
Gravitas Holdings (Pte) Limited is the premier ICO Advisory company and we can do a full service for entrepreneurs, including legal and compliance, smart contracts and token creation, marketing and PR, and business advisory and white paper writing/planning.

How can people connect with you?
Write emails to [email protected], or [email protected]

Twitter handle?
@malcolmABM

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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