I had the pleasure to interview Chandra S. Pemmasani, M.D., founder and CEO of UWorld, an online learning resource that personalizes students’ journey to help them actively learn the skills they need to succeed on high-stakes exams. At age 25, Dr. Pemmasani founded USMLEWorld (rebranded to UWorld in 2014). He ranked 27th out of 60,000 students who took the EAMCET medical school entrance examination, one of the most competitive examinations in India. He completed his residency in internal medicine at Geisinger Medical Center in Pennsylvania and obtained the highest percentile scores in most board examinations. During his postgraduate training, he represented the state of Pennsylvania in a national medical knowledge competition for two consecutive years. He also served as an instructor at Johns Hopkins University/Sinai Hospital in Maryland before moving to Dallas, Texas in 2010, where he established the corporate headquarters of UWorld. What started from a university dorm room has evolved into a leading force that disrupted medical and nursing education and has helped more than one million students across the globe to achieve their educational and career dreams.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up in India and went to medical school there. When I took my U.S. medical licensing exams, they were expensive, were not available online, and I had to sit in the classroom from morning to evening. I excelled in all the exams; however, I realized that what was taught in the course and what was tested on the exam were significantly different.
I decided that I could create something better, so in 2002, I wrote a book of case-based scenarios. I typed it up and sent manuscripts to several publishers, but only one of them responded. The response was, “You just came to America, and you don’t have much teaching experience. I like your ambition, but you’re not ready. Let’s keep in touch.”
One day I was sitting in the Virginia Tech University library looking at all their new computers. I thought, “In the future, why would anybody want to read a physical book?”
I put everything I had typed earlier onto a website. Once I put it online and told a couple of students in forums that we had this study content, people started buying it within two days. That’s how UWorld was born.
Eventually, we received a great deal of feedback from existing customers, and we’ve responded to that feedback by building product after product for CPAs, future nurses and doctors, grad students taking the MCAT to get into med school, or high schoolers preparing for SATs and ACTs.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
One thing I learned early on is that you can either do things quickly or you can do them well, but it’s very difficult to do both. I’m an ambitious person, and I want to scale quickly to meet demand–especially when I see a business need or opportunity–but it’s essentially impossible in my market to be fast without sacrificing quality. We have established a successful brand that doesn’t rely on gimmicks, empty guarantees, or discount pricing. However, that’s often meant being slow and methodical in product development. But the outcome is always rewarding, which is reflected in great customer relationships and positive user feedback because we’ve produced something of genuine value that has helped them advance their academic or professional careers in a meaningful way.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
The main reason is that I’m so obsessed with what I do. Most companies are usually focused on one product area, but UWorld makes products for multiple subject areas. I have a curious mind, so I want to understand it all, whether it’s medicine, law, or finance.
And I have a continuous passion for helping people. When we started, pass rates were very low, and we’ve had a big impact on that. Every day I ask myself and my team, “How can we help them to achieve success? How can we do better?” I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and that obsession with quality and customer focus are what have made us successful.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
1) We have school teachers working on high school products, we have PhDs working on physics, chemistry, accounting, or finance. I thought most people were homogenous when I started, but I wish someone had told me that each group of people work, behave, and think differently. As a CEO, every time I’m with a different group, I have to think and behave differently. One group of people might be sensitive to feedback, while others may not be so sensitive and, in fact, may ask for more feedback.
2) When I started building products, I was altruistic as a CEO, but at the end of the day you need to focus on products that generate revenue. You have to be good at what you do, and you have to care, but you don’t build the product to give it away.
For example, at one point we built a medical taxonomy website and wanted to give it away for free. We spent so much time on it that we shouldn’t have. We should have spent that time and money on scaling the existing product line for different markets instead.
3) If you’re an entrepreneur trying to build a bigger business, finding the best talent is essential. It helps to locate the company where the talent is, but there are other ways to find the right people.
I built most of our first product, but when we decided to move into nursing, we hired some phenomenal nursing people remotely. With some guidance, they were able to deliver the product exceptionally well. That’s when I realized, “There’s a world of experts out there. You just need to find them and inspire them, and they’ll do a great job.”
4) Another thing I wish I knew is that, when you have 200 or 300 employees, you need a different kind of managerial team than when you had 20 or 25 employees. Sometimes as a CEO you have people who have been with you from the beginning and are quite loyal, but you can see that you need people with different experiences to help in scaling the business.
Replacing people is hard, so having the foresight to recruit the right talent so it’s available when the business needs it is important. I’ve had cases where I’ve dragged out personnel decisions for so long that it has slowed down the growth of the company. The lesson here is to make those difficult decisions earlier in the process.
5) When you’re obsessed with quality, it’s very hard to scale a business. Initially, I was hesitant to delegate because I thought that no one else could do the work as well as I could. That mentality just slowed down our growth process. These days, if we’re looking to launch another product and other people can deliver 70 or 80% of my ideal version of it, we can continue to scale with confidence.
Of course, it’s my job as CEO to set my team up to succeed. A lot of the people who I work with tell me that no CEO has ever spent so much time helping them understand why the work they’re doing is so important. If you create a good culture, and you find the right people, I think you can scale it really well.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Two things: first, I think people have to decide what’s really important for them. When it comes to either family and friends or business, they have to decide what they want to do and be really laser-focused on those things. They should be willing to say no to the rest of it.
The second key to avoiding burnout is delegating as much as possible. Most perfectionists have difficulty delegating. As a founder, it’s hard to find people who care about your company as much as you do, but I’ve been lucky to have some people who care more than me.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My brother and my wife helped me get to this level, but they’re family, so they would have been there no matter what.
But there’s one person who is no relation whatsoever, Edgar Goulian. He’s from the Republic of Georgia, and like me, he came here to do his residency. He’s one of the most brilliant physicians I’ve ever met. He contacted me two years after I started the company and has helped me to create UWorld. In the beginning, I was paying him $10 or $15 an hour, but he’s someone who didn’t expect a whole lot other than a way to express the same passion for education that I had.
He’s been with us 15 years. He’s somebody who works literally every weekend, just like me. With Edgar, I can’t tell just one story–every day he amazes me with his talent. It’s a continuous journey.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
We’re working on a number of products that will have a large impact in the legal, finance, and accounting education, among others. I would like to finish those in the next few years. I believe I’ve contributed quite a bit to American healthcare education, but I don’t think I’ve done enough for India. I grew up there and studied for free there, so I would like to do something at a larger scale in India. One idea is to build several medical schools, middle schools, and high schools.
On the personal side, I’m a badminton player, and I’d like to win the over-40 badminton championship. Badminton is a sport you can play your whole life. As you get older, what you need is flexibility, and badminton is one of the quickest sports in the world, so it keeps you mentally and physically flexible.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
Other than building certain physical educational assets in India, my lasting legacy will be creating this large and varied body of educational content. Every medical and nursing student in America, Canada, and a number of other countries use our products. We created amazing problem-based, conceptual mastering assets that didn’t exist before; we explain things in a very visual format that makes all these complicated concepts easier to remember. We help train 150,000 doctors and 200,000 nurses a year, and I consider that the best legacy for me. People may not know who created those materials, but they appreciate whoever is helping them achieve their dreams.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I have a lot of ideas, but one thing that irritates me every day is my commute. It’s 30 to 40 minutes each way, and when I look at all the cars around me, even the huge cars, there’s only one person in each car. It bothers me.
So, I’d start a movement to create a public transportation system that uses artificial intelligence. How can we create a commuting vehicle that takes people from home to work and back in a micro environment where they don’t have to drive but can have a predictably great experience? How can we make each person’s trip quick without causing delays and congestion for others?
It’s another way of answering the same question that led me to start a company: how can I help the largest possible number of people overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of their happiness and success?