Shaan Patel, founder of Prep Expert, took his side hustle to seven figures in less than a decade. His tips on choosing and pursuing a side gig may help take your side hustle to seven figures too.

Here’s what you need to know.

Who is Shaan Patel?

Patel is a 28-year-old medical doctor, who has been operating test-preparation classes as a side hustle since 2011. He took his side hustle to seven figures. But it wasn’t his first choice. He wanted to be an author.

“I got into it out of rejection,” Patel says. “Initially, I wanted to write an SAT-prep book, but I pitched it out to 100 agents. It got rejected by every single one.”

Why test prep?

You should always do what you know, Patel says. And by the time Patel started his side hustle, test prep was what he knew best.

A short explanation is in order. Patel grew up in Las Vegas, in an inexpensive motel that his immigrant parents operated. His high school was one of the worst in the country, with about a 40% drop-out rate, he says. Although he was a good student, his score on the SAT practice test was decidedly average. It was certainly not good enough to get him into a great college with a scholarship, which is what he needed.

So he hit the library, studying the SAT test, the questions, and analyzing where he went wrong. Because the test questions change all the time, you can’ ace the test by simply memorizing facts. It’s all about logic and strategy. He created a program to drill himself on the strategies that would allow him to excell. When he took the SAT the following year, he got a perfect 2,400 score.

Book idea

Naturally, he thought other students could benefit from his strategy — and he could benefit from earning book royalties. He put his SAT-prep strategy into manuscript form and approached publishers. To say they weren’t interested is an understatement.

While Patel’s personal experience was impressive, SAT prep publishing is a competitive field dominated by big companies, such as Kaplan and Princeton Review. These companies have trained thousands of students and have track records that speak to the effectiveness of their SAT-prep programs. Patel had no proof that his test prep methods would work for anyone but himself.

Tip #1: Listen to your critics

While almost every entrepreneur has a story about how they ignored critics before proving them wrong, Patel recognized that his critics were right. That summer, he launched an SAT prep class to put his system to a test.

His first class improved their average test scores by more than 300 points — about 3 times the average with other prep courses.  Patel’s students recommended him to their friends. Low and behold, Patel had a budding business.

#2: Start in a small pond

The toughest part of starting a new business is finding the first few customers. Patel tried everything — newspaper advertisements, fliers, social media. But nothing was effective until he hired an expert in Search Engine Optimization.

SEO experts attempt to boost your ranking in Google search. If you rank highly enough, when someone searches for your topic, they’ll find you. However, it’s easier to rank highly when you have a very specific niche in a small market.

Patel offered only SAT test-preparation only in Las Vegas. In that small niche, he also was uniquely qualified.  After all, he’d graduated from local schools. He knew what they taught and what they lacked. And he’d personally managed to get a perfect score on the SAT, something that just 0.02% of all the students who take the test achieve.

“People want to go after the whole world,” he says “But in a smaller area, it’s easier to take a stronghold position. I was very specialized. We were only doing SAT preparation. We were only in Las Vegas. I was the only person offering test prep that could say he’d gotten a perfect score.”

#3: Market with empathy

Patel also hit up newspapers and local broadcast stations, hoping to generate some media exposure. However, he knew that no one was interested in hearing about a company launch. Instead, he approached local reporters about how kids could do better on the SAT — a topic of great interest during test season.

He gave the reporters actionable tips for students, which helped them prepare valuable stories. To be sure, some of the information he was sharing for free were topics he’d cover in his paid classes. However, by providing what the journalists needed to produce a great story, he established good relationships with the press. And that helped him establish himself as a go-to expert in the field.

#4: Know your customer (vs. your client)

If you sell music or clothing, your customer (the buyer) and client (the end user) are likely to be one in the same. But when you’re selling SAT Prep courses, engagement rings, and, say, construction supplies, the person who makes the purchase is unlikely to be the final user.

You want to make your product attractive to the end user. But you need to focus your marketing efforts on the person who will be writing your check.

Had Patel been marketing to the student/clients, his marketing money would have been best spent on social media. But since his customer was the parent, he focused on the traditional media outlets — newspapers and television — that parents are more likely to consume.

#5: Choose your side hustle wisely

If you want to earn good profits, however, you need to be careful about what you’re selling.

Patel is an advocate of selling services, rather than physical products. The reason why is simple. There are a lot of costs associated with creating, storing and shipping physical products. When you’re selling a service, you eliminate all of those costs.

Moreover, unless your product is completely unique and can’t be copied, you’ll have legions of competitors when you’re selling things like books, t-shirts and coffee mugs. That frequently forces you to compete on price, which eats away your profit margin.

With a service, you’re selling the person who provides it. That makes it easy to differentiate your service from someone else’s.

“When you sell products, you are competing with Amazon,” Patel says. “Services are higher margin and easier to sell.”

#6: Put in 10,000 hours

The idea that you need to put in 10,000 hours to become an expert in your field was popularized by author Malcom Gladwell. Though Gladwell’s take on the idea is controversial, Patel is a huge advocate of putting in the copious hours necessary to become an ace.

“One of the big lessons I have learned over the years is do what you know,” Patel says. “People look at the hot topic of the day and think they should start a side business [to capitalize on that]. But they don’t want to spend the 10,000 hours to become a master in that field.”

“You can’t just start a business out of thin air. You’ve got to put in the time and effort,” he adds.

#7: Take your side hustle to seven figures

Several years after Patel launched his test prep company, he decided that he wanted to grow beyond the confines of his home town. After all, he couldn’t go from side hustle to seven figures mining just one small geographic area.

So, he created an online course, originally using Udemy to market it. But Udemy took far too much of the revenue for far too little return. (Among online teaching platforms, Udemy receives the lowest rating on Competitors Thinkific and Teachable charge less and give you more control over your pricing.)

Patel had to come up with a better way to market his course on a nationwide basis. And while his media outreach efforts were able to land him stories in USA Today, the New York Times and Forbes, keeping the company’s growth trajectory on the right track required more.

Pitching Shark Tank

How could he get national exposure without spending a fortune on advertising? Patel decided to try to get on Shark Tank, the popular ABC reality show that allows budding entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas to a group of seasoned investors.

If successful, this would give him three important things: Cash for growth, national exposure, and a mentor/investor, who could help guide him as the company grew. Even if he failed, appearing on Shark Tank would get Prep Expert’s name and business model in front of millions of TV viewers.

Patel approached getting on the show like he approached the SAT. He studied the show; got to know the “sharks” interests and their predilections. He then prepared, practiced and tested himself endlessly. By the time he was standing in line with some 500 other hopefuls to get his chance to present, he was well prepared.

That got him to the second round, which invited a longer video presentation. He spent more than 50 hours putting it together; summarizing his story; detailing his student success rates; getting testimonials from former students and editing it all down. When he finally presented his pitch in person, he had spent hundreds of hours preparing and practicing answers to any question he thought the sharks could conceivably ask.

Cashing in

In the end, Cuban agreed to invest $250,000 for 20% of the company, which valued Patel’s then five-year-old business at $1.25 million. Patel used the cash to hire more teachers and online marketers, boosting sales of the online class and adding cities where students could learn in person. In the four years since Shark Tank, Patel estimates that his business has grown more than 10-fold.

“We had been planning for the growth for more than a year,” says Patel.

Today, Patel’s business pulls in $20 million in annual revenue and trains thousands of students. He also got the book deal he had originally wanted.

His final words of advice: “Put in the time to become a master at whatever you do,” he says. “Becoming a master in your field is the key to being a successful entrepreneur.”

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