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Nick Standlea of Test Prep Gurus: “Focus on the process”

Let’s be honest, in this context, “good” really means “mediocre.” I think the biggest mistake a mediocre company makes is that it tries to make money. My dad was a banker, and he once told me that no organization makes money except the federal reserve. It took me a long time to get that joke, […]

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Let’s be honest, in this context, “good” really means “mediocre.”

I think the biggest mistake a mediocre company makes is that it tries to make money. My dad was a banker, and he once told me that no organization makes money except the federal reserve. It took me a long time to get that joke, but now I understand its wisdom —

Great companies don’t focus on making money, they focus obsessively on being better than anyone at that one unique thing that they do or make.

This leads to real expertise. From there, money and profitability just naturally flow to the business.


As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Standlea, Chief Executive Officer of Test Prep Gurus. After earning a perfect score on the SAT, he founded Test Prep Gurus with the mission of using standardized tests to teach broader life skills for college and beyond. Over the last ten years, Test Prep Gurus has helped numerous students earn perfect scores on the ACT and SAT, and thousands more to improve their scores by hundreds of points, without sacrificing their sanity. Today the firm is a thought-leader in SAT and ACT preparation and works with students across America and around the world.

Before Test Prep Gurus, Nick was a Research Associate at the Quality of Life Research Center, a think tank that studies education, motivation, and learning. He holds a degree in Media Studies from Pitzer College and an MBA from Claremont Graduate University.

Outside of work, Nick loves coaching soccer and traveling. Fun fact, he once won a grant to teach kids how to surf in Hainan, China.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Ironically, Test Prep Gurus began with a research project that aimed to prove that America’s top colleges should not use the SAT to make their admissions decisions.

At that time, the College Board claimed that it was virtually impossible to improve your SAT score, and I wanted to expose that as false. So, I found several old SATs and studied them until various patterns emerged. It became a game to see how high I could push my score — and after a year of studying — I earned a perfect 1600. Along the way, I had inadvertently created a system for how to study for the SAT.

But the interesting thing was that when I spoke to high school students about their experiences studying for the SAT and ACT, I discovered that they were anxious, burnt out, and miserable because of the pressure society put on them to perform.

I started Test Prep Gurus with a mission to flip that dynamic on its head. Prepping for the SAT and ACT might be a necessary burden in students’ lives, but that did not mean the experience had to be painful. On the contrary, we found that by turning the prep process into a game, we could boost students’ scores by hundreds of points, lower their anxiety, and teach them critical skills to help them succeed in college and beyond.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

The beginning stage of any new project is always challenging. If it wasn’t, someone else would have already created whatever it is you’re trying to bring into the world.

Earning a massive score improvement on the ACT or SAT is a great metaphor for starting a new business because they both require the same ingredients for success –

  • Have clear goals for success — make sure the metrics for success are within your control
  • Seek expert advice for creating a plan to reach your goals- if you think it is expensive to hire an expert, wait until you hire an amateur
  • Turn preparation into a game- if you are going to spend hours of your life working at something it might as well be fun
  • Track your results to see if your preparation is working- be scientific in pursuit of the most effective route to reach your goals
  • Focus on the process — If you dedicate yourself to developing real expertise, results will follow

As far as giving up goes, I never really considered it with Test Prep Guru because of the students we worked with. From day one, they were very vocal about how much more they enjoyed our process versus what they had done before. Their feedback let me know that I was on to something special and ultimately gave me the motivation to push through the obstacles I faced to bring that new system to as many students as possible.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

There were so many mistakes in the beginning it is hard to know which one to choose!

This isn’t a funny story, but it is a critical lesson for all budding entrepreneurs. The worst mistake I made in the early days of the firm was hiring a relative of one of our biggest clients. The problem was that this person wasn’t someone who I would have hired if they weren’t related to the aforementioned client, but I felt obligated to after the client suggested it.

Then, when the new hire couldn’t hack it, I found myself in a very bad spot because I knew that if I let them go, it might damage the relationship with the client. In the end, I did what I had to do, and let the new hire go. The client wasn’t happy at first, but he understood once I explained the specific performance issues I had seen.

The takeaway is this — if a client “suggests” you hire their son or daughter, it’s not really a suggestion, and you will only make a tricky situation worse by going against your gut and hiring the person.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We stand out because once a family hires us, we will do anything in our power to help their student reach their goals.

Here is a story — one of our Directors once received a call at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning from a student that had forgotten to bring her ID to her official SAT exam. She was a foreign exchange student, so her parents were on another continent, and she had no one else to call. The test officials said her scores would be canceled if she left the test center to get the ID herself.

The Director drove an hour to the test center, picked up the girl’s keys, drove to the hotel where the student was staying, found her ID, and delivered it to her at the test center. She scored in the top one percent of the nation on the exam that day.

The best part of the story from my perspective? There wasn’t a supervisor that told the Director to do this. It was the right thing to do for the student, so he did it.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

When it comes to teaching the SAT, or teaching someone anything, there are two roles — the hero and the mentor.

Most teachers think that they are the hero. They have it backward. Teachers who get burnt out are stressed because they think their job is to teach. It’s not. Their job is to inspire students to learn.

If you remember that the student is the hero, you will remain focused on the only thing that matters — the student’s success.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I’ve had so many wonderful people help me along the way! I’m especially grateful for the help and mentorship that Mihalyi (Mike) Csikszentmihalyi provided to me in the years just before I launched Test Prep Gurus.

I was a research associate at his Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University for five years and that was the best job I’ve ever had. It was an incredible place to work. Mike taught me the importance of pushing myself and constantly encouraged me to be curious. I was doing my graduate work at the time in business management, but I always said that my years working alongside Mike was my real education. The people and ideas I was exposed to, the organization’s commitment to excellence, and seeing Mike’s quiet, stoic leadership style — the whole experience amounted to what felt like a Ph.D. in Education, Psychology, and Management rolled into one.

Most importantly, Mike taught me something that I carry with me every day in my work — keep doing what feels like fun to you, but work to others, and you can’t lose.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

Let’s be honest, in this context, “good” really means “mediocre.”

I think the biggest mistake a mediocre company makes is that it tries to make money. My dad was a banker, and he once told me that no organization makes money except the federal reserve. It took me a long time to get that joke, but now I understand its wisdom —

Great companies don’t focus on making money, they focus obsessively on being better than anyone at that one unique thing that they do or make.

This leads to real expertise. From there, money and profitability just naturally flow to the business.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

Purpose-driven businesses are more successful than other businesses because they are more interesting.

A business with a purpose bigger than itself is an organization that will attract talent. It will develop a devoted tribe of users. It won’t need to “market itself” because its story will naturally spread on its own.

In the future, the only businesses that will still exist will be purpose-driven ones.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

I would start by asking some basic questions — What are your goals for the firm? How big is your firm? What is the ideal size? Is that smaller or bigger than you are now?

Successful entrepreneurs know that bigger isn’t always better. Oftentimes bigger is less meaningful and less profitable.

The idea that bigger is always better only applies to public companies that are traded on the stock market — and even then, that philosophy is just a ruse to lure in more people to buy the stock. If you think it through, never-ending growth is impossible. Even Amazon, Apple, and Google have their limits.

It is much more sustainable to think about a business in terms of why does it exist, what is its larger purpose, and then what is the ideal size to achieve its goals and purpose.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

My experience tells me that the only times a business ever faces are turbulent — it is just a matter of degree. There will always be challenges. The real question is do the major stakeholders have the will and the tools to overcome those challenges?

When any project hits a rough patch, it can be useful to hold a meeting of the major stakeholders to ask that question — do you have the will and the tools to overcome the challenges before us?

If the answer is no, then it is best to move those people on, or close up shop entirely.

If the answer is yes, it is best to end the meeting and get back to doing the necessary things to overcome the challenges at hand.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

The most underestimated aspect of running a company is the more it grows, the easier it is to forget to talk directly to your clients. It is amazing how much any business can learn from their clients and yet how rarely most businesses utilize this rich source of information.

Is something wrong with the business but you aren’t sure what it is? Ask your clients.

Are revenues falling below expectations? Your clients can tell you why.

Not sure how to reach more potential customers? The clients will know how.

And this goes for businesses of any size —

If you only have one customer, talk to that person.

If you have millions of customers, talk to them one at a time.

If you have zero customers, you don’t have a business.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

I try to leave conversion to religious institutions. Instead, I focus my energy on becoming better than anyone ever has been at fulfilling the unique need or want that my organization serves.

Do that, and future clients convert themselves.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

I believe there are three principles to becoming a trusted and beloved brand

  • Be fair, honest, and upfront with everyone who comes into contact with your business.
  • Set reasonable expectations, and then blow those expectations away.
  • Remember that brand is just another way to say long-term reputation.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

One of the most boring things on earth is writing company policies.

But if you put your heart and soul into writing those policies it can change your business, especially if you take the time to emphasize the why behind every policy. If you do that, every person in your organization will be inspired to live up to the ideals that you outline. This will inevitably lead to endless wow! customer experiences and a brand that people can trust.

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Social media is a blessing and a curse for society, so it seems only natural that it would be the same for businesses.

But in the end, social media will be what you make of it.

At Test Prep Gurus, we embrace social media as an opportunity to reach more families. This allows us to help more students improve their SAT and ACT scores, reach the colleges of their dreams, earn more scholarships, and alter their perceptions of what they can achieve in the future.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Every business decision is based on who you are as a person, who you want to become, and what your goals are for the future. So start with that. If you don’t know who you are, or who you aspire to become, it is impossible to make the correct decisions.

To paraphrase Lewis Carrol in Alice in Wonderland

Alice: “Which way should I go?”

Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

Alice: “I don’t know.”

Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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 like to imagine a future in which every person on earth owns their own small purpose-driven business. It wouldn’t have to be each person’s main source of income or generate income at all. People could work at it just one day a week, or even one hour per week. The point is that everyone would have an ownership stake in something that they believe could improve society and serve a larger purpose than themselves. This would change for the better how we each see ourselves, how we each define our purpose, and how we each view our unique place in the universe.

How can our readers further follow you online?

https://www.prepgurus.com/blogposts

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!


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