MICHEAL COLLINS & NAGITHA KUMARASINGHE
With a clear vision of what it takes to be an entrepreneur, Micheal Collins opted for an entrepreneurial career because he wanted to succeed or fail on his own terms. He leverages on his educational background and qualifications to make a significant difference in the level and quality of professional services offered by Prep Zone.
With his key insight into the potential for growth in the Asian education industry, Nagitha is the reason Prep Zone started up in the first place. Passionate about Prep Zone's further growth, Nagitha explores other countries in Asia to internationalise the company from Singapore.
Founded in 2006, and staffed by graduates of the world's leading universities, Prep Zone soon became Singapore's largest and most acclaimed test prep and admissions consulting company, before establishing presences in Dubai, Shanghai and Mumbai. Apart from teaching all major standardised tests, and consulting clients in the admissions process, it uniquely creates its own specialised admissions test such as the original INSEAD EMBA Admissions test and Admissions Tests for the EMBA programs of Tsinghua, Jiatong, Kedge, ESMT, IPADE and the Indian School of Business, and furthermore developed a partnership with global tech giant Samsung to distribute Prep Zone's apps and content.
Prep Zone have created unique technology, content and methodologies that directly address the requirements to succeed in standardised tests, and to maximise success in the admissions process to enter the world's top universities and business schools. The company's unique teaching methodology, founded on unlimited class sessions and small group sizes, is utilised by thousands of students annually from all over the world across their Asian locations. Prep Zone has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Financial Times.
Itwas a really interesting and unexpectedly fun interview, and I can see how the dynamics between Micheal and Nagitha could work well in their business partnership. Through this interview, I learnt a lot of important, if not unconventional, lessons from the combined experience of the founders.
Q1) What is the nature of your business?
Micheal: We provide access to international education for ambitious students and professionals through test preparation and admissions consulting. We have also diversified into creating our own standardised test, which is now being used by some of the world's top executive MBA programmes and has been featured in, like, New York Times, Wall Street Times, Financial Times. And we also have a software development business which started in support of our education business but is now a full-fledged profit-making entity in its own right.
Q2) When and why did you decide to be an entrepreneur? Do your parents do business too, have you been inspired by them in any way?
Micheal: I guess we both answer this individually. So I'll start and Nagitha will tell his story. Yes, both my parents are entrepreneurs. My father was born in a pub but always wanted to be a farmer, so he ran several businesses until he could pay forhis first plot ofland, and then he became ... he bought more land, bought machinery, hired people, he became quite successful at that in his own right. My mother started a baking business out of our kitchen, which again became very successsful. And definitely, they have always told me since childhood, be your own boss. And I would watch them, like, making deals in the phone, dealing with customers, dealing with employees, and it seems to me that's how you grow up and become an adult. So throughout, I suppose, my corporate career, I was always a little bit of a disjoint between who I was, what I was doing, and what I really wanted to do with my life. And why did I become an entrepreneur? I suppose I wanted to succeed and fail on my own terms. I felt that, within corporate, there were too many both safety nets and glass ceilings, you know, you could fail and not be punished, you could succeed and . not be rewarded. And that wasn't what I wanted. So I said, I need to know who I am and what I can do, what I can achieve, that's why I want to do my own thing.
Nagitha: Ok, well, that was kind of well-said. So family background wise, I guess my father is a doctor, so not an entrepreneurial family that way. But on my mum's side, there's some entrepreneurs there who I guess I have observed over time. But I think it's something a little to do with how comfortable, a bit like Micheal I felt, in a bigger corporate environment. I think we both had the advantage of working with big corporates, be it IBM or KPMG, something like that. So having been there, and probably not feeling that it was the right environment for me to do very well, and maybe, to be honest, some boredom setting in, I think there was more excitement in terms of going out and doing something on our own. So that's probably, like, I guess, the catalyst. But I think in terms of building something ourselves, on my own, and kind of seeing it grow, it also pretty satisfying. And also, this autonomy is quite important to me personally, so... Oddly, you do work harder, in a way, but at least there is the illusion that you have the control of your time, and that's something that we both appreciate.
Q3) Are there any reasons for choosing this particular industry?
Micheal: Well, in my case, I had tried something and failed before this. So, a little bit of back story without going into too deeply. I graduated from the MBA program in INSEAD, which I finished in Singapore, started in France, and I tried my own idea of coming up with a digital media product, didn't work out, I was totally broke. And I decided that... I made a few key mistakes. Number 1is trying to start on my own. Number 2 is trying to create a product without any investment capital. So I decided that I needed a business partner and I should engage in services without investment capital. And that's when I ran into Nagitha who I have worked with many... for many years before that, and he had coincidentally, timing-wise, started his business in Singapore and he decided he wanted to get into the training and education area. And so I saw quite a good fit. For me, the motivation was, because of this, number 1, it's a service where I know I can get started straight away and I can do a good job. It's something where I can use my background and qualifications as additional leverage in making a sale, and it was something which I can do without having to risk a lot of capital. So, in many ways, it was quite an engineered decision of mine, because previous to this I thought, oh I followed my dream and do something that feels amazing and wonderful, but that doesn't mean it's gonna be a success financially. And once we started, and I started doing it, then you become very personally rewarded by what you do, because then you have clients who are happy, and you see a business which is growing. And so for me, it was less about a life-long passion for education and much more about... my goal is, as I said earlier, to escape the safety nets and glass ceilings, to survive and fail on my own terms, and to do that I need a channel which will allow me to leverage my strengths to deliver superior results to become a successful entrepreneur. So, it was really Nagitha's idea to get involved in this industry, but I saw here something which I could get strongly involved in, and success led to success.
Nagitha: I think education has been something... actually I kind of... maybe I should have been clear, my mum has been in education, she has her own kind of business around this, which I totally forgot. So there's that. But she, I mean, Prep Zone is a much larger entity now than what has. She does it more because she enjoyed education. But I think you don't have to be, I guess, a genius in Asia to figure out that education is a big industry. And I think, in a sense, our backgrounds are uniquely suited to spearhead an education business, because we ourselves have come through quite good education, at kind of at any sort of level. And I think both of us have found our experiences both positive and in some ways we've got into good institutions fairly easily. So I think we were in a unique position to help people do the same, because I think, in many ways, informally, we would get asked about the sorts of things same because of our background.
But ultimately, the drive to be an entrepreneur was really what was driving us both, but at the same time it's easy for us to do something, in many ways, that actually helps people, and I guess how many ways can we really help people unless, like Micheal says, we are creating a product? It's probably through a service. So it was either going to be an education-driven thing or maybe some sort of a consultancy driven thing. So education was a kind of a, in some ways, a natural thing to get into. Early on, I would say that it didn't seem like a very interesting or sexy thing for people to get involved with, but I think very quickly we found our niche and expanded on that, so we do now work with thousands of students a year as a company. I would say that if at the time, we were told that we would get to this size, we would probably have just jumped into it and done it, but at the time you can't really foresee the future really clearly. But, as Micheal says, we did it... there were some good times at the start, in terms of getting paid for helping people and developing a business. So, was it really a passion to be a teacher? No, because I think ifwe were passioned to teach, then we would have just gone and taught. So it was about a kind of, combine a few interests, that kind of brought us to where we are.
Q4) How did you manage to put together all the resources needed to start the business?
Micheal: You can bootstrap much more effectively than you might imagine. What we had in terms of our assets was mostly ourselves, and, ifyou like, the years of work and investment in our own education, our own experiences. That was really 95% of our assets. The remaining 5% were a location, we were very fortunate at the time that we could get a good rental location at a low price at the centre of Singapore, we had a website which made ourselves internally, and we made all of our materials ourselves. So our total outlay when we created the business, we both put in S$4,ooo each. At that's been the sum of all investment into Prep Zone Singapore. So we were able to bootstrap by doing a lot of things ourselves, and by doing things in the most cost effective manner possible. And because we are providing a service which is built on the assets of our experience and our profiles, we didn't really need a Jot of further experience in developing any kind of product. So the resources were us. Being 2 people, it's much more effective than being one person trying to do a lot of things. As cash flow was generated, we were then able to save and start hiring other people.
Also, we were able to start hiring people on a part-time basis initially, so by using them as variable cost, we're able to spend only when there were sales, which is a good way also of managing your expenses in the beginning. We are fortunate also just to be good at what we were doing, so we put together course materials based on our own success in tests and admission consulting, and we're able to put together our own marketing materials because we just had that expertise and ability. What would you say, Nagitha?
Nagitha: I would just add to what Micheal without repeating. I think a few things I would add in terms of how we got started and so on. We also focused a lot on creating course on offering that was relevant to kind of a more Asian student, because a lot of our competitors at the time in Singapore - to give a couple of names, like Princeton Review and so on - they had an exclusively US-centric course, which, for example, may focus more on certain skills than others. So our angle was to very much focus on a more local product, but it's still relevant to people in Asia. The other thing that we did was also, you know, we started off with products that both me and Micheal were comfortable delivering and knowing everything about, but as we hired more people, we identified people who would understand products that were a little bit outside our own comfort zone, and they helped develop a product around that. So we didn't just rely on our knowledge, we got other people to work on things, that's how we expanded. And lastly, we've always had a very good customer service track record. As you get bigger it becomes tougher, but at the start, all of our clients were really happy with the service, to the point that we had staff, our first few clients actually ended up working for us. So I think that's kind of the best testimony to that.
Q5) What is your company'svision and mission? How do you convey these to your staff and team members?
Micheal: To enable access to global education for everyone, everywhere. We began thinking that we were serving the Singapore market, but we realised that no product or no opportunity should be considered to be kind of uniquely local, particularly when it comes to education. Your options should be everywhere, and your customers can theoretically be everyone. We're really surprised when within one year, and we started giving online classes, we started getting clients from as far away as Kazakhstan, or Japan, even Europe and the US, to our office in Singapore. And so we realised that what we are doing is that we are being part of the global search for the best educational opportunities. Everybody from around the world is looking everywhere in the world for the best fit for their career development.
How do we communicate this to our staff and to the world at large? Well, first of all, there's our slogan, which is enabling access to global education for everyone and everywhere. Also, through the opening of new offices, new franchise offices, new locations, by emphasising the diversity of our clientele, as I say, everyone from Kazakhstan to South Africa to Argentina, Mexico, Japan, there are really a lot of flags in the map, when you look at where all of our clients come from. And so by emphasising the number of international partners that we have. So for example, we participate in global education conferences around the world, we are members of the prestigious executive MBA council, we hire our staff from all over the world to come and work here in Singapore, and then they travel to our other offices overseas. We realised pretty much early on that what we are doing is applicable to people of certain age groups everywhere in the world, and people no longer feel restricted in terms of geography. They feel more motivated by opportunity. So it's our job to be there for them to happen to get that opportunity.
Nagitha: I think, yeah, I don't have much to add to that. The only thing I would say is specifically to our clients, we're in a sense a one-stop shop in a way, in terms of enabling them to upgrade themselves or achieve their dreams. So, be it graduate students or undergraduate students, we provide these opportunities for them. In terms of the staff, as Micheal says, in terms of our growth plan and how we have been expanding, that is in itself a communication to them. But ultimately, we are here to add value to our clients, and if we keep doing that, then we will naturally grow in this industry.
Q6) What were some challenges you faced when starting this business, and how did you eventually solve the challenges? If possible, give some examples.
Micheal: You see, we've had different levels of growth in our business and in each level we came across new challenges. So I'll kind of start with some and Nagitha would talk maybe more when it comes to expansion, because they should be considered as kind of a new start, you know every time when move to a bigger office or a new country, kind of wipe the slate clean as far as your expertise is concerned, and you start dealing with a whole lot of new issues. First challenges included marketing - how would people find out about us. And how we addressed that was... we considered a lot of different opportunities but we also talked to people about how to effectively market and this was kind of the beginning of the year of search engine marketing, and so we were able to leverage that very effectively to get our service in front of an audience and we began to understand very fast that our audience had people who were actively searching for this product, and we actually became experts in search engine marketing and search engine optimisation through this. The next challenge was recruitment. You can do anything when it's just yourself, you can juggle as many balls as you can, you can work 7 days a week. But once you start bringing another person into your organisation, your challenge is to identify, is this the right person? Can we motivate them? Are they going to represent us faithfully? Will they do a good job? So we, as Nagitha says, actually ystarted recruiting from within people whom we have gotten to know through delivering the course. They knew us, we knew them, we saw that they were very smart and credible people, as ambassadors of our training programme you couldn't ask for better people to represent us later. And another challenge before I hand over could be diversification, knowing when we had to start adding products. So we started off just with one course, you know we initially thought, let's just offer a GMAT course and make some money out of that. But we realised that that's not going to be enough on its own, because the market size in Singapore, unless you do something that everybody in the country buys, it's usually pretty small on a product niche basis. So we had to decide that is the next product that we go into, and it can't be too different from what we were doing. So that's when we got into SAT preparation. So we looked at what we were doing and said, let's not try to be too different, let's do something that's very similar. And the next product was kind of an extension of GMAT, which was MBA admissions consulting. And then the next product was an extension of SAT training, which is undergraduate college admissions. So we grew by taking small steps that were kind of logical extensions of what we were doing already. So those are 3 challenges.
Nagitha: I think as we got bigger, I guess some of the challenges have been the understanding of different markets. So we have expanded, we have offices now in Shanghai and in Mumbai, we even have a satellite backend office in Sri Lanka. So it appears as if we have just been expanding, and successfully so. But we have started and since ceased operations in places like KL, which would be a very natural place for us to go, because of its proximity and so on. So we got started in KL, and we had some good initial success, and we even had a good person on the ground initially. But then came 2008 or 2009 where there was this financial crisis, and we had a sudden drop in inquiries and clients. Essentially, in Malaysia, the international education market is very dependent on sponsorship, so if government and corporate sponsorship goes down for potential students to go overseas, then our potential clientele also get affected. So as much as in Singapore, our business has proved recession-proof. Even in the downturn we were growing, we were doubling our revenue. But in certain other locations, that may not be the case. On the ground issues affect you and us, but somehow in Singapore you are somewhat immune to that, because people are always keen on education. So, being able to manage that and then decide when to pull out from a market or when to go in, those are kind of challenging moments for us as well.
Micheal: We've done our best to minimise the impact of such challenges by actually also being very prudent and cautious, like not spending money that we don't have and I would say not jumping in head-first into anything new. So for example, even for our setup in Shanghai, it was a year in the making before we finally put boots in the ground there. We made sure all the regulatory approval was done, we had made several visits, and we sent over our most experienced person to have the start off. So we're very prudent, we try to avoid failure wherever possible.
Q7) What are some of your proudest business achievements to date, and why were they so important and meaningful to you?
Nagitha: I guess different times, different proud moments. So I think one of our proudest moments was definitely collecting our first cheque from a client. Itis kind of a momentous day to kind of actually have someone paying you. So I think I'll list a few milestones, so that's one. That's because it kind of proves that we have a business, when you start delivering a service and you get paid. Next one would be something as simple as hiring first full-time employee. Again, when it's just you and your business partner, it's still very much something that you're not involving another person into it, but if someone's being a good, fresh grad, coming in and joining you as a company, they're putting their hopes and dreams in this company, so again it makes us go to the next level in terms of being a real outfit. In terms of bigger achievements, I definitely think of starting our branches internationally, that kind of really added a different dimension to us as a company and in terms of credibility with our partners and clients and so on and so forth. So I think becoming a fully-fledged international company was, I think, a proud moment, because at that point, then, how you're perceived and what sort of investment you might be potentially be able to get in, you are sort of playing at a different level to, maybe, just a local company, in that sense. So we were quite happy to become a local company that expanded overseas.
Micheal: At a different level, seems very small, but we had a client who was really not very well off, but who decided to bet really a lot of money on us. She was working in a, I would say, very unglamorous administrative role in Singapore, and from her likes of family background, educational background, all very humble, she wouldn't really get much of a second glance when it comes to promotion in Singapore, but she has tons of ambition and she really believed in herself a lot. And I remember one day, we charged her a certain sum of money, I won't say how much, but it was a good sized sum of money for anybody to spend on services with us. And she said, some people would spend this many thousand dollars on a handbag, but I'm just gonna spend it on myself. And I know she didn't have that much money. So through us, she managed to get into an education program overseas, which led her to become a private banker in Europe, which was as far a cry as you can imagine from being somebody who was just did the accounts in a small business located in an industrial park in Singapore. Itwas seeing how this can happen to what we do, I thought it was a very great moment.
Next, we did what some people would say to be the impossible, we created an alternative test to the test that we built our business off, we created an alternative to the GMAT. And our first client was INSEAD, and since then we have had Indian School of Business as a client, other very important schools as clients, we've translated it into Chinese, into French and into Spanish, and it was quite amazing to see that, from just an idea developed here, against a lot of prevailing wisdom and commentary, that we kind ofleapt on to the world stage, and became profiled in the most prestigious financial and education magazines through what we did. And it's still an ongoing process, and we found that we're suddenly competing against giants, names I won't mention but they've taken a lot of notice of us. So it's been very gratifying to see that, with just an idea and going for it, you can actually achieve what most people would want you against or tell you is impossible.
Q8) How do you promote learning within your company?
Micheal: What we have learnt form the very beginning is that, cause it's a service industry, because it's very people-driven, when people leave the company, they don't just leave a USB you can stick into another person's head and they can take over the role afterwards. One of the first rules to be defined in the company was senior trainer, because that is the person who begins to take care of quality standards and training of other trainers. Every trainer is tasked with... well, first of all, when they join, they have to go through a training process. They have to understand how we deliver our products, to understand the ethos in what we do, and if they are to be promoted, their next stage is to become senior trainer, which immediately involves training new hires. Naturally, we use all the multimedia tools at our disposal, which include video recording of how to give sessions to all the materials by our best trainers. And we renew these on a very regular basis. We also promote learning in a way by giving people more responsibility. So, for example, one guy, a fresh graduate, came over from the US, within a year he was asked to start marketing our courses. So, not just be a trainer, but please do something totally different. Learn how to market. And he, I would say, almost doubled the number of people who were coming to our sample sessions just by understanding how Facebook marketing worked and adding it to our portfolio. And then we asked him, now, that's very good, please go to China and set up our office there. So, learning is not just, we don't just promote learning by giving people information in a structured way, but we throw them in the deep end when we sense that these people have more to offer, and are perhaps better at doing things than they might even realise themselves. Nobody came to us saying I want to be a country manager in China, I wanna be a marketer, I wanna be the head of your grad department; they came to us to do one thing, once we realise that these are multi talented people who would succeed in any sphere, we put them into different and challenging environments.
Nagitha: I think one thing I'll add to that is we, since our experience over the last year, we're also doing two things quite deliberately. We have created what we would term like a management training program, which is essentially what large companies do, but we do take it quite seriously, in the sense that we bring people in and we communicate like a two year program for them. Obviously we want everyone who comes in to get involved in the delivery side of what we do, so we would never hire someone directly for marketing, for example. So we have to hire good people, and those good people first have to either teach or do admissions consulting, because that's what everyone in a senior position here has done or would have done in the past. So first, they need to understand what it is that we deliver and actually show that they are good at doing that first. Then after a year they can move into a marketing position, or business development position, or a content-development position. And then they can expand upon their interest areas, in those areas, be it leadership positions or more creative, intellectual positions. So, that's the way we keep good people engaged, and that's the only way we actually start filling in the higher positions within the company.
Q9) What do you see for your business in the next 5 years?
Micheal: Well, what we've learnt is, first we've diversified through extensions of products and, for example, along a particular customer segment, we started adding parts, for say, if you do test prep, you do admissions consulting, then you do things like personality training, many other things, we've then extended the breadth of our products by looking at different age groups and extending that way. Then we extended to business-to-business products, which are not only our new tests, but also acting as a marketing partner for leading business schools. The next there will have to be, we have to look at how we can get our name globally. And that means we have to involve technology. And it's no coincidence that we've been building a technology team for the last 5 years in Sri Lanka in support of our business here. So we've been developing our internal IT infrastructure in waves, first to help us with marketing through websites, then to build a more efficient operations and CRM platform, and now we're building one which will allow people who are not even our physical customers and in any of our offices to start using our services, and in some cases for free, because we need people to know about us even before we show up in town. And if you look for a, quite a horizontal, globally available platform, it's hard to beat mobile applications and the internet. So we are building a content technology platform which we believe is applicable to anybody who is engaging in the standardised test prep and admissions consulting for global education, anywhere in the world. This we do expect to be releasing by the end of this year. That's one area where we see our vision.
Nagitha: I think another thing would be definitely, so right now we are partnering up with the education institutions in the marketing sense. So we're looking at growth markets like China, India, and for that we might look at potentially strategic partnerships with much larger entities, whereas we bring a very high value premium product which a lot of the larger entities do not have. So we're potentially looking at some strategic partnerships in these key markets.
Q10) In your opinion, what is a good and ethical business? How do you think this helps you in your company?
Micheal: A business that offers good refund policy is a business that's always kept in line. And we've always had a strong ethos of, ifyou don't like what we do, we give you your money back. So cause, money kind of talks at the end of the day, you know? So you can say you're doing a great job, you can sort of do your best, but ultimately, if you're asking somebody to give up their hard earned cash for you for something, how do you know that you have delivered on your promise? You've delivered on your promise if you'll offer them the opportunity to take it back. So we've always had a very open and very well structured refund policy for people. That's one. So, hold yourself to account, and in the best way that matters. I don't think it's a bad thing to say that ifyou want to prove the value of your work, you have to put your money where your mouth is. So that's one.
Second, sounds more like lip service, but that's why I want to put the cash thing first. Cause pretty much we can say anything, but what really matters is at the end of the day, what we do with a person's money. The second thing is to be as open and transparent with your clients and your staff on everything, all of the time. Because once mistrust leaks into the relationship with anybody, I feel that that would just kind of drive people apart and will lead to bad practices within the firm. There shouldn't be secrets between people. You should keep an open door to all of your staff and all of your employees at any time. We've always been open to receive calls, answer emails and meet customers, and that should never end.
Nagitha: Yeah, I think another thing, we talk about ethics, especially in education, it's very important. In a sense, telling people the truth about what their prospects are, and giving them a very realistic plan, and so that's something that we've always done. Because when we started, we didn't really have a big company to hide behind, whereas maybe today someone in Shanghai could promise something and there's this idea of a big company that they could kind of go back and say, well, this is what I thought we could do. But at the start, it was just us and our word, so we obviously had to be very clear and straightforward with people. But I'd say, by virtue of the fact that we give people a very clear understanding of the reality of the situation without promising anything beyond that what we can do, we also gain the trust of a lot of our clients. Cause usually, people promise a lot to get business, whereas actually we don't promise a lot at all, and by doing that, we actually get a lot of people coming back to us because they feel, well if this is their track record, but they're not promising me a lot, chances are I'm going to get a really good service here, because they're not, they're kind of under promising and over delivering. So, ironically, if you look at our track record, we have actually an amazing track record that would rival any company out there. But when we meet people we're quite humble about it. We don't really pretend that everyone's going to get into any school, for example, that we've worked on.
Q11) Where or who do you get your business ideas from?
Micheal: I would argue that it was a very good experience in business school, because they teach you to, say, if you have an idea, how do you make sure it's gonna be commercialised, and ifyou wanna create a product, how do you know it's gonna fit into the market place. So, a good example would be our new test, the business admissions test that we created. We used what's called a Blue Ocean methodology to say, how can we create something that would be modern but relevant, how can we create something which will be useful but practical at the same time. And the way that we were taught to create products and to look at that them is very, very useful that way.
You know, ideas are one thing but you know, Thomas Edison said, it's just that 1%. The inspiration is 1% and it's what you do with it afterwards that really matters. So our kind of approach, I would say, to creating new products, is been one that has been shaped by getting a good business education.
And another... we're getting... not so much ideas, cause I personally like to downplay the word idea, partly from having been burnt by trying to come up with an idea myself once and realising that it wasn't going to work out. We get our inspiration for getting into certain business areas just by listening to people, and when people start complaining about something, that's when we realise something's not being provided for these people. So we leverage the education that we've received and relationships and the conversations that we have in order to find out what it is that people want and how it is that we can effectively deliver it to them. That's sort of my perspective, what would you say, Nagitha?
Nagitha: I think that's right. I think we do listen to our clients, so I guess the ideas in a way many times come from them. Cause I mean obviously they are looking for something. So well, then, coming up with something that no one's really thought of, we focus a lot on what people are looking for but may not be provided that well today. What we realised is that there is no... people will pay more for better service. Ultimately, that's what it kind of comes down to. So, even if something's available out there in the market or they could learn it themselves, or buy a book on it, or do something along those lines, nothing really replaces this idea of, okay, someone's providing me a very professional service around this thing that I need. So, what we've really done is focus on what people are looking for and try to provide a very professional service around that.
Micheal: I would also say, you got to listen to your staff. Cause they come up with great ideas. Because they are at the frontline and they are listening and are dealing with them, they are delivering, and they should an extension of your sort of sensory apparatus into the market to see where people are complaining, where people are happy. You should never feel that, if you are the director, you are the one who makes decisions, comes up with the ideas. You're the one who evaluates opportunities that are being presented to you by people who see the reality underground. One point I want to make is, one that often somehow is gonna fit into your questionnaire is, I mentioned business school, and there's a phrase which is 'you can't teach entrepreneurship' in business school. And some people will say you can, and some people will say you can't. I'm one of the people who says you can. I think that you can teach an entrepreneurial method, you can develop an entrepreneurial mindset, you can show people how to be successful. Like I look at this picture here of Michael Ma and here it says passion and all that and, you ask me also why did I get into this industry, and usually the sort of stereotype is that a person is really passionate about a certain thing. Being a great restauranteur, or being a great educator, or being a great software developer. But I would argue that success in entrepreneurship comes not from the thing that gets you into entrepreneurship. It's how you deal with the opportunity afterwards. And that is definitely something which can be taught in business school. There are ways, there are methods, of turning opportunities into success. And I hope at some stage, like... I think it's a bad idea to tell people to follow your dream, I think it's a really bad idea. Ifyou want, if you dream of being an entrepreneur, you're being a successful business person, not so much the world's best restauranteur, or the world's best this or the world's best that. Cause like Nagitha said earlier, if teaching is what our lives are all about, we'd have become teachers. Because we'd been rewarded by that. But ifyou want to be like Michael Ma there, at some stage you get to a stage where 95% of your day job is looking at HR issues and infrastructure issues and financial issues, so that's where you have to be excited. You have to look at products dispassionately in order for them to succeed, cause otherwise you may not necessarily be very objective. You can speak passionately about it, because you've got to be your best ambassador, but to ensure your own success, you've got to be objective, and I think that you can teach people objective ways of evaluating opportunities, and that is the way to teach entrepreneurship. Not sure if that's question 12, or question 13. I suppose a lot of what you're seeking to achieve is what are our motivations and how did we get to where we are and how can that inspire other people, I think you can waste other people by telling them, encouraging them to do something where they're kind of set up to fail, whereas you can set people up to succeed. And I think one way to set people up to succeed is by helping them to make decisions about what can be a worthwhile opportunity. You know, chase dream is one thing, realise opportunity is another. I think the best entrepreneurs are those who survive by realising opportunities, wherever they come from.
Qt2) How do you think you business has made a positive impact on the community?
Micheal: Let's start with our customers. They come to us to get ahead, and look behind you, college zone fall 2014 US and UK university acceptances.
Nagitha: Yeah, I think I mean, if you want to get a sound bite around it, it's an easy one for us to answer. We sent 30 doctors last year to medical school. So, doctors-to be. So those guys are gonna come back to Singapore, and I'm not saying we're the only reason why hey got into medical school, but we were a big part of their admissions process. So we're definitely helping a lot of people in terms of their career and ambition. So that's definitely our biggest footprint when it comes to having an impact on society. So whether people always get into their dream school or not with us, we do have a lot of people who really come back and praise us for the work we've done.
Micheal: I'd say we've raised standards very highly in an industry that is traditionally quite fragmented and is sold on a hard-sell basis. So we've created a brand that is leveraging Singapore as its origin, because Singapore is seen to be a land of high standards, we've got demanding clients and demanding regulations. We've created a brand which inspires other people to be as good as us and we're beginning to see that now, recently. I argue we've raised standards very highly in this industry in Singapore. We have led the way in ethical practices, such as offering refunds, offering free introductions, and offering essentially, I mean, one of our staff has a 24/7 hotline for anybody who wants to contact. We've never taken people's money promising stuff that we can't deliver. We've emphasised it's all about delivering on our promise. And I think for this industry, that's really important. Clearly we've hired dozens of people, maybe over the years, hundreds of people, clearly these people themselves gone on to greater things. Like, they're now working very prestigious jobs because of what they have learnt through us. Because we pay people pretty high salaries, because we're that kind of company in that kind of industry, we certainly contributed a lot to the economy of Singapore. But for me, the best thing is I think we've created... we have raised service and quality levels in the industry here, which is encouraging other people to try and catch up with us.
Nagitha: I think also, I guess on a slightly broader note, we are now an international entity that based its headquarter in Singapore, and I would say there really aren't any other Asian companies that are trying to match the big US ones when it comes to test preparation and in terms of international reach. So I think we, in a way, try and put Singapore on the map as well. Because Asia does respect Singapore a lot, and especially in this education industry and in the niche that we're in, we really only have American competitors as international brand that compete with us, which is proven by the fact that a lot of top business schools choose to partner with us when it comes to marketing and so on. So I think in terms of, as Micheal says, raising standards and establishing some sort of culture around home-grown companies becoming international, I think we're kind of on that track, which is what we're really trying to push on.
Micheal: There's no Asian test prep companies broken into the western market, and we clearly aim to - actually, you asked about our vision earlier - we wanna lead the way in becoming an Asian-originated company to enter the home of this industry, which is in the western world, particularly in the United States. No other Asian company has even managed, I would argue, to internationalise within Asia.
Nagitha: That's actually, that's our first step: internationalising in Asia. There are a lot of big players in China and India, but they're very much just focused on those markets. So this is kind of really what we want to do as a first step.
Q13) What are some entrepreneurship qualities you think you have that has helped you in your career?
Micheal: The buck stops with you, you know? Something is broken or something needs fixing, you just go in and you make sure that it's not somebody else's job. This isn't the same as micro-managing, this is, if something needs attention you just get on it and make sure that it's taken care of. Because if you got a corporate mindset you can always compartmentalise your problems, but ifyou're an entrepreneur you feel responsible. You develop the skills to delegate, but you never let somebody else bear responsibility. Responsibility, it always has to be yours. That's one, I think we can go back and forth.
Nagitha: Yeah. I guess being able to deal well with people, be it customers, staff, whoever it may be. That's kind of something that's important, because as Micheal says the buck just stops with you, so ifyou can't deal with people well, then you start facing problems very quickly. I guess also, some sort of understand of being able to project business, being able to foresee problems, and deal with these things in advance, it is kind of important as well.
Micheal: Couple more at the top of my head: communication skills, you must be able to communicate. You can't communicate, you can't sell, you can't motivate, can't convince. And all entrepreneurs need to be able to convince other people. Especially at the beginning when there is no brand, there's no track record, you have to be able to do the convincing. And next is humility. You can't expect to succeed ever. Everyday you get out of bed, you have to realise the challenge starts anew everyday, so you can never become complacent or suffer from any kind of hubris. Because then you stop understanding what has kept you going to date, which is mainly focus on what matters, the customer, the market, staff, all of those things. In a sense, as Nagitha says, you become an entrepreneur, you actually are working harder than if you were an employee. And another fallacy of entrepreneurship is being your own boss. Actually, everyone owns you once you start a business. You answer to your staff, you answer to your customers, you answer to your banks, to your business partners; you actually have more bosses than you'll ever have when you become an entrepreneur, so knowing that, and being ok with that, knowing that you're actually the bottom of the pyramid, rather than at the top, is something which help you to succeed. Obviously another one is self-confidence. Separate from delusion, self-confidence is the knowledge of where your skills lie and your ability to carry out your promises. It's very important. It all sounds very generic, what we're saying, but truly this is the essence of entrepreneurship. Ifyou can put all these things together, if you're a person who has got all of these dimensions of them, this is the professional career in which they will succeed. You should consider entrepreneurship to be a professional career. It shouldn't be a dream, it shouldn't be a passion, it shouldn't be these things. My view, my personal view, but if you think about entrepreneurship very professionally, and you consider yourself as a match for that, then you can succeed in it.
Q14) Who or what motivates and inspires you?
Micheal: Ok, I think Nagitha said earlier, our challenges evolve over the years and they are different at different times, our inspirations evolve over the years and they are different at different times. Before we had anything, clearly we had nothing of our own to inspire us, so we looked to other entrepreneurs who had done it themselves, to get us to cross the rubicon, to take that leap of faith to do something for which there is no good rational reason as to why you should do on the balance of probability that you will succeed. So you look at people who have taken risks, who've gone out and done it themselves, so that kind of gets you started. Once you started, there's a phrase, you know, being an entrepreneur is like riding on a wild lion. You're on the lion's back, and some people look at you and go, wow, look at the guy, he's riding a wild lion. The guy on the wild lion is going, oh my god, how did I get here, if I fall off he'd eat me. Once you start in entrepreneurship you realise all the challenges out there, and you stop sort oflooking towards for inspiration, you start looking to things a bit closer to you for inspiration. So it always include, naturally, your successes in getting clients, your successes in having people whom you admire want to work for you in your team, you know, that is quite inspiring.
Nagitha: I think you're right, I think it's more, we are a little myopic, in a way, in terms of how we view the world, because we're quite consumed by all the challenges we face as a business. So it's not, we're not really in the situation where we will sit down and attend a lecture and get inspired by a particular speaker. I think we've kind of passed that phase, if that makes sense. So right now, I definitely think that what we have achieved inspires us ourselves to do more. So ifwe that, or if we really believe that, for example, with the new test that we created, that it can be as big as the GMAT, we genuinely dream about that, and the fact that everyday that goes by, every school and every new person that takes that test brings us that inch closer to that, is definitely a big inspiration to me right now, than kind of anything that anyone else has achieved. Because I personally view that it's ok, that's them, and we're currently in the situation and they haven't got this opportunity that we're riding right now. I guess what we are doing ourselves is really our inspiration. It's... maybe it seems a bit weird, I guess, ifyou were to look at it from -
Micheal: Who inspires you? Well, I do.
Nagitha: Yeah, exactly! The height of narcissism, right? I just look in the mirror!
Micheal: But I'm going to say, a lot of these things that aren't repeated broadly in the media because they're not taken to be the kind of accepted norms of, accepted narratives. I look at people who repeat the narratives and say, come on, that's not really true, you know. People... Let's go back to the point I said, in the beginning when you have nothing you need somebody else to inspire you, you need a big story and a great idea, because otherwise, for every 10 reasons you come up against to start something, there are clearly 100 reasons not to do it. So you need something to convince you to stop looking at reality and to take that leap. Once you've taken that leap, tliat's when you need to flip the thing around a bit and start being inspired by yourself and your own achievements. Forget about other people, because other people can actually end up kind of distracting you from what you want, and shouldn't try to be like other people, you should try and be more and more yourself. Somebody once said you should make of your life a work of art. And I also think about the analogy of Michelangelo. His pupil say, so where do you get your inspiration from, how do you create a statue? And he says, well, I get a big block of stone, and then I chip away everything that is not the thing that I'm looking for. So you know, he doesn't need to look outside for inspiration, he basically says I'm just going to keep working and focusing on what I'm doing until it's perfect. And that is an example of an inspiration that will lead you to success. Attending an Anthony Robbins lecture is not an inspiration that will lead you to success, it's an inspiration that will lead you to pay him thousands of dollars. You know, or go to currency trading seminar, you go "whoo!"
Q15) What are some business values that you would like to pass on to others, particularly the younger generation?
Nagitha: I guess like maybe not over-analysing things. Because a lot of people do work off spreadsheets nowadays, especially the new, someone starting a new business. So in a sense, a lot of the business is done in the head, rather than through activities. So I think, I mean we're not really ones to talk, we probably did something very similar, but I think a lot of successful entrepreneurs out there, they really, back 30, 40 years ago there weren't any spreadsheets, so obviously they did it without. So I think being more practical in approach, I think it's something that I think is something that I'll tell someone who is starting out.
Micheal: Some business values for me would be, number 1, always be honest. I would say that's actually a very expedient policy, because you never have try to remember what you told somebody as long as you told him the truth. To me, it's like the Occam's razor approach, it's the simplest approach, and the simplest approach is usually the best. I say this trying to dissociate whatever my personal values may be, but I'm just saying when you're in business, just be honest. Don't try to, as Nagitha says, don't over-analyse, don't try to overthink about what you're doing, just be as objective and as clear, as honest and as straightforward as you can about things and you're right off the storm better that way. Another one is kind of repeating what I said earlier, it's look to yourself for inspiration. That's good because you are your best asset when you're the entrepreneur, because as we said earlier, the buck does stop with you. If, the more you outsource responsibility, leadership, inspiration, to other objects or people, I would say the more you kind of weaken your position. More business values, clearly, see the value in others. You, there can be people who you might cross the street to avoid, but only for superficial reasons, you've got to realise that these people can have tremendous value in many different ways. They don't have to be your best friends or your cousins or anything like that, you just need people radically different from you, and in Asia you always meet people radically different from you, especially in Singapore, cause Asia is a very diverse place, as they say there's no such place as Asia. I find it hard to imagine cultures as distinct as Japanese and Indian kind of being in one city, and there are tens of thousands, and these people are going to have to work with each other and see the value in each other, and kind of all the cultures in between. So I think that's a very important value to learn.