As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Shirag Shemmassian Founder and CEO of Shemmassian Academic Consulting. He is a college and medical school admissions expert who has helped thousands of students get into schools such as Stanford, Yale, and UCLA. Growing up with Tourette Syndrome in a middle-class family, Dr. Shemmassian was often mocked by peers and teachers and discouraged from applying to elite schools. Therefore, he taught himself everything he needed to know to graduate debt-free with his B.S. in Human Development from Cornell and his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from UCLA. Dr. Shemmassian’s work has been featured in The Washington Post, US News & World Report, and NBC. He is also regularly invited to speak on topics including standing out on applications, writing a memorable personal statement, and navigating higher education with a disability.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was born in Los Angeles and raised by ethnically Armenian parents who emigrated from Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War. My parents, both educators, pushed my brother and me towards well-paying professional occupations, such as medicine or law, so that we could earn a stable living.
Throughout my childhood and teen years, I attended all-Armenian schools and attended an Armenian church. My family was so involved in that community that I did not make my first non-Armenian friend until I started college!
My childhood interests mainly centered around sports — especially basketball — and video-games. I could spend all of my time on those activities, and often did.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
In high school, I didn’t have strong college counseling support, so I had to learn on my own everything I could to get admitted to Cornell University. Throughout my college years and beyond, friends and acquaintances sought my support with their applications and enjoyed great success. Over time, word-of-mouth spread.
During graduate school, I became interested in one day starting a business after reading multiple books on personal development and entrepreneurship. Given my nerdy passion for the world of admissions and my students’ track record of success, it didn’t take long for me to put the pieces together and found my admissions consulting business.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
When I first started my business, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know how to find paying customers, what to charge them, or how to systematize operations. The most important things I did were getting started and talking to potential customers. Over time, I tweaked my marketing approach, changed pricing, etc. The customers I spoke with essentially told me their struggles and what they could use support with. It was my job to figure out how to solve their problems.
I think most people don’t complete tasks until “the right time” comes. Frankly, there is no right time. No business gets everything correct at the outset, or ever. However, a surefire way to not succeed is to not get started.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
Explore it on the side and see whether: a) it’s a viable business idea; and b) you enjoy doing it for pay. Don’t put pressure on yourself to go all in from the beginning. Keep your job and test the waters.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
Different aspects of your business will become more or less fun over time. In the beginning, my challenge was figuring out how to systematize admissions success for our students. When I strengthened the formula — I’m always working to improve it — I focused on optimizing other aspects of the business, like marketing. To me, solving big challenges is fun. There will always be a big challenge to solve.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
I love helping students achieve their academic and career goals. I also love supporting our team and offering them meaningful work. The biggest downside is when work spills over into the evenings or weekends. I’m currently working toward delegating certain aspects of my job so that I can devote more time to my family and to self-care.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I was initially naïve about all the different hats I would have to wear. I figured I would just have to help students get into top schools. Now I know that I’m responsible for much more than helping to deliver results.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I was having dinner with one of our consultants who also happens to be a close friend. He insisted on paying for the bill to express his gratitude for the meaningful and well-paying job opportunity during his medical school years. He expressed how the income allowed him to get a head start on his loans and allow him to travel with his girlfriend when he otherwise would not be able to. That experience made me realize another layer of positive impact that my business has.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
My business mentor, Ramit Sethi, and my good friend (also a tremendous business leader), Zahir Dossa. More than their business successes, I admire the way they think about business. They seem to always be clear about the “why” behind what they do.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
In addition to various points mentioned earlier, I accept invitations to speak with students from low-income backgrounds on how to navigate the college and grad school admissions processes. I also donate finances to charitable causes.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Listen to what your customers tell you they want: It’s typical for entrepreneurs to think they know what customers need or should want. However, I learned early on that meeting customers’ stated demands is a surefire way to earn revenue.
- Don’t expect to get everything right from the beginning: You simply won’t. Figure out your most important tasks then move on to your next bottleneck or opportunity.
- It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I’m a very goal-oriented person and have found myself extremely burnt out at various points in my business. My wife routinely reminds me to take things one day at a time. Now, I get done what I can in a day and feel more comfortable with my progress.
- Help people get what they want, and they’ll help you get what you want. My mentor, Ramit, often tells people to find 1 customer and to serve them well before thinking about how to find 100 customers. That one customer will help you refine your work, refer you to others, etc.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would start a movement that helps people believe that they are capable of achieving far more than they think.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” — Henry Ford
Growing up, I routinely heard from parents, teachers, and peers how I would amount to less due to my Tourette Syndrome. Had I bought into that message, I would’ve indeed achieved less than I was capable of. While such comments hurt me emotionally and led to feelings of self-doubt, they ultimately fueled me to work harder and prove to myself that I’m just as able as anyone else.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’ve never had a 1:1 meeting with Ramit Sethi and would love the opportunity to express my gratitude in person for how much his books and courses have shaped my mindset for the better. I intend to reach out to him in hopes of meeting in New York City during a planned trip two months from the time I write this, but perhaps this note will increase the odds of a favorable response!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
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