hands on laptop keyboard
From word-of-mouth marketing to offering value to attract customers, Prep Expert founder and CEO Shaan Patel offers his top tips for entrepreneurs. — Getty Images/insjoy

This article was contributed to CO— by Shaan Patel, founder and CEO of Prep Expert, a test preparation company that offers online SAT and ACT prep courses.

I am the founder and CEO of Prep Expert, a test preparation company that offers online SAT and ACT prep courses to high school students. I started the company eight years ago out of my dorm room with $900 that I had left over from my college scholarships.

Today, my SAT and ACT prep courses, books and licensed products have generated over $20 million in sales. I also pitched Prep Expert on ABC’s “Shark Tank” in 2016 and closed an investment deal with billionaire Mark Cuban.

I have learned a lot along the way from taking an idea and turning it into a multimillion-dollar business. Here are some tips on how you can do the same.

Utilize word-of-mouth marketing

I did not spend any money on marketing during the first five years of running Prep Expert. Yet, the company continued to double in revenue every year. Why? Because we provided SAT prep courses that would improve students’ scores by hundreds of points. Therefore, parents would refer us to other parents, allowing us to grow rapidly at no cost.

When starting or running a business, you should always be focused on word of mouth — it can be more powerful than any other form of marketing. If you provide a product or service that is truly incredible, then the initial users will tell others about it organically.

Chances are, the best products or services you use came from word of mouth. If you own a business, you should focus on how to improve your product or service so that customers tell others about it.

When starting or running a business, you should always be focused on word of mouth — it can be more powerful than any other form of marketing.

Shaan Patel, founder and CEO, Prep Expert

Word of mouth

Shaan Patel credits much of his business's early-on success to word-of-mouth marketing. Read on for another way your business can benefit from word of mouth: through influencers.



Get creative with your initial exposure

While word of mouth is great, you can’t generate positive buzz unless you have a few initial customers. If you don’t have customers yet, and you don’t have the money to spend on professional marketing, getting your business featured in media outlets is a great way to gain free marketing exposure.

When I first started Prep Expert, I pitched the local news station, asking to do a segment about SAT preparation tips for parents and students. After the television interview aired, I went from zero customers to several.

Most companies pitch the media in the wrong way. Instead of simply pitching your business, think of some ways you can provide value to their audience, either by offering tips or an interesting story. While your business might not be the focal point of the article or interview, it will get mentioned — and that’s a huge help to both acquiring customers and establishing credibility.

Stop relying on others to determine your success

When I was first starting out, I wanted to publish an SAT prep book. Because I had raised my SAT score from average to perfect, I wanted to help other students do the same. I thought that an SAT prep book written by a perfect-score SAT student would be revolutionary for the test preparation industry.

However, when I pitched my book proposal to over 100 literary agents and publishers, every single one rejected me, stating that the SAT prep market is too competitive and that I didn’t have a platform to write such a book.

I sat around hoping for a book deal for six months, wishing that someone would give me a chance. It wasn’t until I decided to take the material I had written and turn it into an SAT prep course that my luck changed. The students in my pilot class had an average SAT score improvement of 376 points. Shortly after, I was offered a publishing deal.

 Shaan Patel headshot
Shaan Patel, founder and CEO of Prep Expert. — Prep Expert

The secret to entrepreneurial success lies within yourself

I am often asked about the secret to my success. The answer to that question is simple: self-control. Self-control is the most accurate predictor of success, not only in business, but also in all aspects of life. If you want to be successful, practice self-control.

Entrepreneurship requires a tremendous amount of self-control. You don’t have a boss telling you what to do and when to work. You have to be your own boss. Practice self-control to avoid all of the distractions of life if you want to be an ultra-successful entrepreneur.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published January 22, 2020