Hey Sohaib, very nice having you here. What experiences growing up shaped you into the entrepreneur that you are today?
The truth is, I never aspired to be an entrepreneur. My dad is a physician, and I wanted to be one too. I still do want to engage with medicine in some way in the future.
However, during my last year of undergrad., I had a phenomenal opportunity to work at a start-up in the healthcare industry. And honestly, it unveiled to me the need for entrepreneurs, and it showed me that the skills I’ve learned and was eager to apply in medicine translate well to entrepreneurship. There was definitely a lot to learn, and there always will be, but I learn via application, and the “switch” – which I hesitate to call a “switch”, because I hope to integrate healthcare into what I am doing at present in some way – felt right. I wanted to go beyond solely doing healthcare, and this seemed to be a way to take what I know across a range of fields, interweave it, and create hands-on solutions.
In terms of experiences growing up, I can’t help but emphasize the parallels between pursuing medicine and now leading a company. As you can imagine, the pre-med. curriculum at the University of Toronto really pushes your boundaries in terms of your work ethic, your ability to produce results in time-sensitive situations, your ability to take mental pressure, and your ability to control for risks. Because the margin of error to get into medicine is so slim, resourcefulness and creativity pays off, as does dedication to performing well; all of that is intrinsically applicable to entrepreneurship as well.
Who were your biggest influences?
I sometimes see this as a bit embarrassing, but I rarely read books as a kid, so I don’t really have any key historical figures that I aspired to when I was young. During my undergraduate studies, the dynamic somewhat changed and I gelled with great friends, professors, and mentors; the University of Toronto is very rich in that sense. These relationships really challenged my traditional approach to life, pushed me to explore new things, introduced me to entrepreneurship in the first place, and have been my support structure since the start.
I can’t emphasize how important friends and mentors can be to your success. In my case, for example, being challenged motivates me and brings out my A-game; that is what’s kept me going on this path, and that’s what friends and mentors do for me, in part.
What are you working on?
Currently, I’m working on 99point9, a student accelerator. You’ve obviously heard of start-up accelerators and the idea is the same, except that at 99point9, we accelerate student careers. At first glance, you might ask “Well, isn’t that a counselling and tutoring service”? The answer is yes, but it’s much more than that.
We’re geared at providing a one-stop shop for your entire student needs. It doesn’t matter whether you want to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, programmer, entrepreneur, or a researcher. We help analyze your GPA, look at your study habits, look at what’s holistically going right and wrong, and then propose a plan to get you where you want to go. Student counsellors don’t do that, and with our process, we’ve helped 7000 to 10 000 students since 2009, when we used to be a non-profit!
In addition to this kind of generalized academic advising, we also help students study for their undergraduate courses and for specific standardized tests, like the LSAT, MCAT, and GMAT; this latter market is actually our specialty. We guarantee the score of your choice, or you come back free, and once they successfully complete their tests, we help students with their applications and the interview process. So, in a way, we cover our students’ needs end-to-end. We try to do this as innovatively as possible: we include one-on-one attention in all of our courses (which other companies charge extra for), have online and in-person options, condense students’ learning into ten days rather than the typical three months (as we want students to redefine what’s possible to do in a week, and we believe that deep immersion and high intensity are keys to successful standardized test learning), and offer individuals unlimited, never-expiring access to courses, among other things!
One of the ways in which we innovate most is our pricing. What makes our job the hardest is the thing that also makes it the most satisfying: we want everyone to benefit from our services, which is why our services are usually priced at about one-third of the market price. I feel very strongly about this, because it makes no sense to charge students – who usually can’t afford much anyway – an arm and a leg to get help. For example, if you take a MCAT course – which is necessary to go to medical school – generally, companies charge around $2300, and that is just absurd, given that your scores are still not guaranteed to hit the level you want them to be on. We teach the same course with better teachers and one-on-one work for only $700 or lower (depending on the discounts offered), and guarantee that you can come back until you hit your target score, no matter what it is. Our student satisfaction is so high that we received an unsolicited, in-person testimonial from a returning student – who scored a 515 overall (94th percentile), but still wanted to improve – in the middle of one of our classes!
Finally, in terms of next steps, because we ultimately want to charge students next to nothing for our work, we’re presently in the process of developing the beta version of an application that will automate what we do, and be funded largely via ads. That way, we hope to truly deliver on our promise to unconditionally support students while still remaining financially solvent.
What was the spark of your project?
The spark was very anti-climactic. There wasn’t a moment where a new idea was formed and we said “Let’s do it!” and went all in. The need for something like 99point9 has existed for decades, and my colleagues – the co-founders of 99point9 – had been teaching students pro bono for years prior to our formation, because they like teaching. At one point, the demand got to a point where we had to monetize in order to keep dedicating our time to this project, though we still do our best to keep our core principle – helping students no matter their circumstances – at heart (as I think is evidenced by our new app. prospect).
How is your student accelerator different and unique?
Briefly, we ensure that students complete the work necessary to actually give themselves a fighting chance where scoring high on the MCAT and other such tests is concerned. No other company gives you access to one-on-one help from an extremely high-rated instructor who not only scores in the 90th+ percentile on a range of official tests and qualifiers, but also motivates you personally, gets to know your story, connects you to professionals in his or her network, and checks on you via Facebook to see if you’ve done your homework. We put the work in, and go out of our way to get students what they want. Nobody offers that to the extent we do.
Who are your ideal student? How do you attract them?
Students at the high school and undergraduate level, as well as anyone who wants to succeed (we often help established professionals enhance their careers with a new dimension, or transition to a different career). Word of mouth is pretty big for us, and word gets around when our students get into med. school or law school, or get the job they really wanted.
Value-add questions: Give the readers the best entrepreneurship advice you have.
Embrace the chaos. In entrepreneurship, anything that can go wrong may go wrong, and you have to roll with the punches. It’s very stressful at times, and you need to be able to keep a lid on it and still be able to perform effectively. Being intuitive, being perceptive, and being a planner helps you do that. I’d say that before starting your own company, work at a start-up and see how it looks before going all out by yourself. You’ll see if you’re willing to shoulder the uncertainty. That being said, a lot of uncertainty can be eliminated if you’re honest about whether or not you’re adhering to the kind of work ethic necessary to really build a product or service, so don’t give up on something just because you think there’s chaos! Try to reduce the chaos first by being the best that you can be.
Do you use any relevant online tools for your work?
I don’t. I don’t need them to do what I do. I’m a more traditional guy, and I like sticking to in-person meetings, calls, and maybe Facebook chats to interact with students. Our marketing team handles things like this, for the most part.
What’s something you like teaching to students?
Come to me when you’re going into a high-roller meeting! I’ll teach you how to exude confidence and impress.
Where do you see this initiative in a couple years?
In a few years, I hope to be sipping coffee at a café with one of my students who never thought they’d succeed, and yet there they are, sitting with a silly grin on their face because we both know they’ve made it.
What is the end goal?
Ask me again when I’m 35, and maybe I’ll have an answer (though I honestly think I’ll always be learning). Right now, I don’t know, and I’m very comfortable with that – almost grateful for it, as I feel it opens up the floor for self-discovery. What matters to me right now is that we keep meeting goals and keep helping people, and that my team and I keep trying new things inside and outside of 99point9 to develop professionally. The goal is to create opportunities, succeed as a community, and maybe make a difference in some miniscule way.