Luck Is Where Preparation Meets Opportunity — A lot of people may think that the entrepreneurs who end up on Shark Tank are lucky. But I don’t think many realize the many hours that go into getting on Shark Tank. It’s not just a business idea. Entrepreneurs like myself have often spent hundreds of hours preparing for their open call audition, video audition, and actual Shark Tank pitch, not to mention the thousands of hours spent building their businesses. Everyone looks like an overnight success until you peel back the curtain and see all of the late nights, long hours, and hard work.
As a part of my series about the ‘5 Important Business Lessons I Learned While Being On The Shark Tank’, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shaan Patel, founder of Prep Expert Test Preparation, a #1 bestselling SAT & ACT prep author, an MD/MBA student at Yale and USC, and winner of an funding deal with billionaire Mark Cuban on ABC’s Shark Tank. He raised his own SAT score from average to perfect using 100 strategies that are now taught in Prep Expert’s SAT and ACT courses.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit of the backstory about how you grew up?
My name is Shaan Patel and I am the CEO and Founder of Prep Expert — an online education company that specializes in test preparation. My parents immigrated to the United States from India in the late 1980s and eventually bought a budget motel in Las Vegas. That’s where I grew up. Because my parents didn’t go to school in America, I didn’t have the first clue about college admissions, test prep, or scholarships. However, my family made education a priority and stressed the importance of hard work from an early age. I believe this was crucial to my success later in life both educationally and entrepreneurially.
Can you share with us the story of the “aha moment” that gave you the idea to start your company?
On my first SAT in high school, I barely scored above average. I then spent hundreds of hours in the library studying for the exam and developed my own techniques to ace the test. Eventually, I earned a perfect score on the SAT (a feat only .02% of all students achieve). This completely changed my life — I was accepted into top universities, won 500,000 dollars in college scholarships, and even got to meet the President of the United States!
I wanted to help other students change their test scores to change their lives. My “aha moment” was in college when I realized there was no test prep created by a perfect-score student. So I set out to create an SAT course that would help students improve their SAT scores the way that I did in high school. In the very first course I taught, the average SAT score improvement to students’ scores was 376 points in just 6 weeks. This was equivalent to improving a student’s score in the 50th percentile to the 90th percentile. Needless to say, I had parents knocking down the door for more courses. So I began training other instructors to teach my curriculum, and Prep Expert was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Perhaps the most interesting story that has happened is that I predicted that I would be business partners with Mark Cuban long before I ever got on Shark Tank. In early 2015, I wrote the following on my vision board:
“By the end of 2017, two major accomplishments for me are being selected as Forbes 30 Under 30 and having Mark Cuban as a business partner.”
Of note, I didn’t air on Shark Tank until 2016. Although I was never selected as a Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient, I was selected as an INC Magazine 30 Under 30 recipient. Close enough!
Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
Perhaps the biggest mistake I made when I first started the company was trying to start the company in a big city: Los Angeles. I thought that I should start a business in a big city because there are more people, more wealth, and therefore, I would have a higher chance at success. The truth is big cities are extremely hard to compete in for first-time business owners because of the amount of competition. When I was first starting out, I couldn’t get a single parent to enroll their student in my SAT course in Los Angeles. One day, I received an email from a student from my former high school who had seen my website and said that if I started an SAT course in our hometown of Las Vegas, he would enroll right away. So I switched the location of my pilot SAT course from Los Angeles to Las Vegas — a much smaller city. Because there was less competition in Las Vegas, I had many parents enrolling their students into my courses. Prep Expert eventually became the largest test preparation provider in Las Vegas in just a few years. From this experience, I learned it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, we are launching a number of new initiatives for K-12 academic subjects including private tutoring, courses, and academic mentorship coaching. Prep Expert is finally expanding beyond the SAT and ACT into subjects such as math, science, and English for high school, middle school, and elementary school students. I think this is more needed than ever given the lack of successful school re-openings with COVID-19. Prep Expert has been a leader in online education for a decade, and we are excited to expand our expertise into the K-12 education space beyond test prep.
Ok, thank you for all that. Let’s now move to the main part of our interview. Many of us have no idea about the backend process of how to apply and get accepted to be on the Shark Tank. Can you tell us the story about how you applied and got accepted. What “hoops” did you have to go through to get there? How did it feel to be accepted?
Like many people, I was just a fan of Shark Tank. One day while I was watching the show, it hit me that I have a small business in Las Vegas that could use funding to scale into a national test prep company, and it would be perfect for the show. So I looked up when and where they were having auditions. I went to New York City and stood in line with 500 other hopeful entrepreneurs for nine hours to give a 1-minute pitch to a casting call producer. A couple of weeks after the initial audition, the producer notified me that I had advanced to the next round to put together a video audition. A few weeks after submitting my video audition, I was told they were flying me out to Los Angeles to pitch on Shark Tank! The feeling was amazing. I couldn’t believe that I would soon be standing in front of the Sharks to pitch my business!
I’m sure the actual presentation was pretty nerve-wracking. What did you do to calm and steel yourself to do such a great job on the show?
I remember the morning of my pitch listening to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” It got me pretty pumped and reminded me that this was my big shot!
So what was the outcome of your Shark Tank pitch. Were you pleased with the outcome?
Mark Cuban invested 250,000 dollars in my business in exchange for 20% equity in Prep Expert. I was definitely pleased with the outcome because he was the one Shark that I wanted to make a deal with, and the person that I had written on my vision board that I would eventually be business partners with.
What are your “5 Important Business Lessons I Learned While Being On The Shark Tank”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
(1) Use The Art of Storytelling — Make sure that when you are giving a business pitch, you use the art of storytelling — it helps investors know who you are and what you’re all about. I remember at the beginning of my business pitch, Mark Cuban was not impressed. But after I shared some stories about my father’s background and work ethic, Mark Cuban began sharing stories about his father’s background and work ethic. Connect with people through stories.
(2) Know Your Numbers — Any founder or entrepreneur should know their numbers inside and out. I remember when I was asked for my Customer Acquisition Cost by the Sharks and didn’t know it. Many of them were not interested after I didn’t know my numbers.
(3) Believe In Yourself — While many of the Sharks did like my business, they didn’t like the fact that I was still in medical school planning to become a physician. They wanted me to choose between being a physician or an entrepreneur. That’s why many didn’t invest. But I knew that I could do both. I’m happy to report that since being on Shark Tank, I have successfully grown Prep Expert as well as graduated from medical school and finished dermatology residency.
(4) Successful People Are Smart — I was really impressed at how smart the Sharks were. They knew a lot about the education space, and when Kevin O’Leary began giving me industry numbers about test preparation that I didn’t even know, I realized they are successful for a reason: they are incredibly smart.
(5) Luck Is Where Preparation Meets Opportunity — A lot of people may think that the entrepreneurs who end up on Shark Tank are lucky. But I don’t think many realize the many hours that go into getting on Shark Tank. It’s not just a business idea. Entrepreneurs like myself have often spent hundreds of hours preparing for their open call audition, video audition, and actual Shark Tank pitch, not to mention the thousands of hours spent building their businesses. Everyone looks like an overnight success until you peel back the curtain and see all of the late nights, long hours, and hard work.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive and avoid burnout?
To avoid burnout, break down large projects into smaller task deliverables with weekly deadlines. By chipping away weekly at a large project, your team will feel much more motivated and accomplished that a small piece of the project is getting done every week.
You are a person of great influence. 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. 🙂
Education is power. However, there is almost no formal education about entrepreneurship. We need to teach our kids earlier that “Entrepreneur” is a career path they should consider. If we do this, we will inspire a generation of innovation and create a better quality of life for everyone in society. This is why I co-authored Kid Start-Up with Mark Cuban and Ian McCue to inspire kids to become entrepreneurs.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The secret to success is to treat everyday like it’s day one. You need to wake up everyday and act like you just started and are still hungry no matter how much you have already accomplished. This has helped me continue to push to new heights — never be complacent.
We are very blessed that 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 🙂
Ray Dalio — I think he shares so much good advice in his book Principles, but I’d love to have a conversation with him about how I should combine my skills as both an entrepreneur and a physician.