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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

Dextre Teh, Founder of Rebirth Academy

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Dextre Teh is a consultant and marketing guru, helping F&B businesses to tighten their operations and grow their businesses.

What’s your story?
I help frustrated F&B business owners stuck in day to day operation transform from a glorified operator into a real business owner. I’m a 27 year old Singaporean second generation restaurant owner and a F&B business consultant. Entering the industry at 13 years old, I have always been obsessed with operations and systemisation. At the age of 25, I joined the insurance industry and earned a six figure yearly income. However, I left the high pay behind because it was not my passion and returned to the F&B industry. Now I help other F&B companies to tighten operations and grow their businesses with my consulting and marketing services.

What excites you most about your industry?
The food. I’m a big lover of food and even have a YouTube show on food in development. But that aside, it is really about impacting people through food. Creating moments and memories for people, be it a dating couple or families or friends. Providing that refuge from the daily grind of life. So in educating my consulting clients and training their staff to provide a better experience for their customers, I aim to shift the industry in the direction of creating memories instead of just selling food.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and bred in Singapore. I love the culture, the food and travelling in Asia.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore hands down. The environment here is built for businesses to thrive. The government is pro business and the infrastructure is built around supporting business growth. Not to mention the numerous amount of grants available in helping people start and even grow business. If I’m not mistaken, the Singaporean government is the only government in the world that offers grants to home grown businesses for overseas expansion.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Learning to do things you do not intend to master is a BIG mistake in business. Focus on what you are good at and pay others to do the rest.

Many business owners including myself are so overwhelmed by the 10,000 things that they feel they need to do everyday. We try to do everything ourselves because we think it saves us money. The only thing that, that does for us is overload our schedules and give us mediocre results. Instead we should focus on what we do best and bring in support for the rest.

Who inspires you?
Christopher M Duncan.

At 29, Chris has built multiple 7 figure businesses. He opened me to the possibility of building a business on the thing that I loved and gave me a blueprint of how to do it. He also showed me that being young doesn’t mean you cannot do great things.

Imran Mohammad and Fazil Musa
They are my mentors and inspire me every single day to pursue my dreams, to focus on celebrating life and enjoying the process of getting to where I want to be.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Time is always more expensive than money. Money, you can earn over and over again but time, once you spend it, will never come back.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I am a firm believer that your experiences shape who you are. I am grateful for every single moment of my life be it the highs or the lows, the successes and the failures because all these experiences have led me to become the person I am and brought me to the place that I’m at so I will probably do things the same way as everything was perfect in its time.

How do you unwind?
Chilling out in a live music bar with a drink in hand, listening to my favourite live band, 53A. Other than that I’m big on retail therapy, buying cool and geeky stuff.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Bangkok. It feels like a home away from home where the cost of living is relatively low, the food is good and the people are friendly.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Everything you know about business is wrong by Alastair Dryburgh. It is a book that challenges commonly accepted business “truths” and inspires you to go against the grain, think different, take risks and stand your ground in the face of the challenges that will come your way as a business owner.

Shameless plug for your business:
I’m the creator of the world’s first Chilli Crab Challenge. It gained viral celebrity earlier this year with 3 major newspaper features and more than a dozen blog and online publications featuring it in the span of two weeks. In the span of the two weeks, the campaign reached well over a million people in exposure without a single cent spent in ads.

Now I help F&B companies to tighten operations, increase profits and grow their businesses with my consulting and marketing services. Chilli Crab Challenge (https://www.chillicrab.com/nationalday)

How can people connect with you?
You can connect with me on Facebook (www.facebook.com/djtehkh) or visit www.rebirthacademy.sg for more information or book a 10 minute call with me @ www.tinyurl.com/dexclar

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

Arthur Lam, Co-Founder of Synergy

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Arthur Lam’s business, Synergy offers B2B energy saving solutions.

What’s your story?
I am Arthur Lam, Co-Founder and Vice Chairman at Synergy (1539.HK). I was born and raised in Hong Kong until I was 13. Then, I lived in boarding schools in Melbourne and California during my high school years. After that, I attended the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and graduated with a Mechanical Engineering degree in 2008.

Upon graduation, I came back to Hong Kong and worked for a hedge fund. The financial crisis in 2008 wiped out a big part of the industry and gave me a chance to rethink and reposition myself. After the financial crisis, companies stopped spending and everyone was on cost-cutting mode. As an entrepreneur with an engineering background, I co-founded an energy management company called Synergy, offering B2B energy saving solutions. The idea is simple – clients don’t have to pay anything upfront, we do all the engineering and upfront capital investment. In return, we share part of the savings we create for the client over a period of time. We first started with energy saving lighting technologies based in Hong Kong. We are now also in the field of cooling & refrigeration, solar PV and battery storage with operation in over 10 countries. Synergy is one of the first and few energy management companies listed on the Main Board of The Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
On the side, I started a student co-living space with about 80 rooms.

What excites you most about your industry?
Sustainability, renewable energy and energy efficiency are some of the few industries that can ensure the continuity of our existence! We do not need to quantify the potential market size to justify our effort to provide a more sustainable future for the next generations. Practically every nation and business leader have pledged to work collaboratively, trying to undo the harm we have done to the planet for the past century. As a result, more energy efficient technologies and solutions are always in demand.

What’s your connection to Asia?
My great grandparents were from Chiu Chow and Shunde. I was born and raised in Hong Kong until I was 13. I spent 3 years in Melbourne during middle school before heading to US for high school and college. With Synergy, I was able to travel and work in China and most of the major cities in Asia such as Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Jakarta and Bangkok. Besides Cantonese and English, I speak Mandarin and took 4 years of Japanese during high school. I’m also trying to pick up Bahasa slowly.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Every city has its own merits and it is extremely interesting to learn about the intricacy of cultural diversification and different ecosystems. As a business owner, I believe in top quality service. No other city would exemplify world class service better than Hong Kong with respect to speed, quality, effectiveness and robustness of the financial and legal system.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Life is a journey – you come to this world to enjoy life, to be happier and healthier – Jack Ma

Who inspires you?
Elon Musk

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
I am always amazed by the rapid advancement of technologies and innovations around the world. Everyday there may be a breakthrough coming up in different areas. One thing I learnt recently is the possibility of extracting clean water from air anywhere! Previous technologies require very high energy input, high cost and certain environmental conditions such has high humidity levels to extract water from air. However, MIT and The University of California provide a new method which has the potential for use in any locations. They developed a foam-like material that draws moisture into its pores and is powered entirely by solar heat. Today there is another commercially available product which is also a self-sustaining system, using sunlight to generate electricity to drive a cycle of condensation and evaporation that can produce 2 to 5 litres of clean water per day. People now may obtain drinking water anywhere with no external energy usage and this may solve severe water shortages in some areas in the future!

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would love to learn more languages and learn how to code better. These are two important skill sets which I find very useful wherever I go.

How do you unwind?
On weekdays, I try to visit the gym at least 2-3 times a week after work. A good workout definitely helps to de-stress. Occasionally, I have the luxury to play a round of golf with my father or friends after completing a major project.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Sipadan, Malaysia is an amazing place for scuba diving.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Book of Changes “I Ching”. I make most of my business decisions based on the philosophy from the book.

Shameless plug for your business:
Victoria Park is one of the most famous parks in Hong Kong and it has about 3,500 trees. The amount of energy we have saved in the past 8 years is equivalent to planting 1,000 Victoria Parks worth of trees from the carbon emissions we saved.
Synergy is ranked 2017 top 100 most potential public listed companies in China by Forbes.

How can people connect with you?
Linkedin: Arthur Lam
Email: [email protected]

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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