Let’s start with the one-liner – what is your company? What do you sell?
Shirag Shemmassian: Shemmassian Academic Consulting
For over 15 years, my team and I have helped high-achieving students get into top colleges, medical schools, and other graduate programs.
Tell us your origin story.
Shirag Shemmassian: I grew up in Los Angeles and went to a high school with very little college advising. Therefore, I had to teach myself how to get into an Ivy League school. Friends and family started recognizing my success with admissions and scholarships and asked for my help. Over time, the number of requests grew and I decided to officially found Shemmassian Consulting in 2013.
Did you need a lot of capital to start your business? How did you finance your business in the beginning?
Shirag Shemmassian: My startup costs were small. In the beginning, my only expense was my Squarespace (website hosting platform) subscription.
Was this an area for which you had passion before you started the business, or did you see a need and move to serve it?
Shirag Shemmassian: I helped friends and family for free for many years before I decided to found my business. I’ve long enjoyed helping students achieve their educational and professional goals and quickly realized there was a strong demand for high-level 1:1 support in this arena, so it was a no-brainer for me to start the company.
How has the business evolved over time?
Shirag Shemmassian: In more ways than I could count. The business used to employ just me, and I used to write every guide on the site, edit every essay, and take every phone call. When the demand grew to the point where I could no longer do everything, I hired a second consultant, then a third, and so on so that we could serve all of our interested students. We also have a team of writers that help with content production, we offer test prep in addition to application support, etc. During this time, I’ve been learning how to trust and lead a team of exceptionally bright people, a skill no one taught me in school 🙂
How did you grow? Tell us about a moment, or moments, in the early days that were “big moments” for the business. What moved the needle substantially?
Shirag Shemmassian: When I first started supporting students, I wanted to send them admissions resources to read in their spare time. For example, if a student was struggling to write their medical school personal statement, I wanted to send them a guide that outlined step-by-step on how to approach it. However, I was unable to find sufficiently high-quality admissions guides online, so I wrote them myself and published them on my website. Soon after, I started to receive inquiries from total strangers, who told me they discovered my business while researching admissions topics on Google. That’s when I learned about the power of search engine optimization (SEO). We’ve since pursued SEO very deliberately.
As you’ve grown, you’ve undoubtedly had to delegate. How did you tackle that challenge?
Shirag Shemmassian: Learning how to trust others to care about your business as much as you do is a hugely important first step. I’ve slowly learned to let things go and have aimed to provide the direction people need to be successful. Often, when a team member completes a task differently than I want them to, it’s because I did not provide the clear instructions they needed. Therefore, it’s important to not assume team members know what you want or what to do, let alone that you trust them.
Do you/did you have a co-founder or did you go at it alone? Tell us about that decision, and how that affected you as a leader.
Shirag Shemmassian: I went at it alone. I don’t think I ever considered having a co-founder given the way the business started and organically grew. That said, I lean on my team to counsel me on every aspect of the business–where to focus, how to grow, how to handle personal and customer issues, maintain support quality, and so on. Therefore, I don’t feel that I’m “doing it alone.” The business would not be where it is without our team.
Tell us about some of your sacrifices along your small business journey.
Shirag Shemmassian: Time has been my #1 sacrifice. I’ve had lots of late nights, less time than I would’ve liked with my family–and that my family would have liked with me–missed social opportunities, and so on. I think about this often and have taken steps to hire more support to help free up my time.
What is the most gratifying thing about what you do?
Shirag Shemmassian: At the end of every admissions cycle, I receive messages from thrilled students and parents notifying me of acceptance to their top-choice programs. Admissions can be an incredibly stressful and challenging process. We love seeing students reap the benefits of their hard work with our support.
Who is a leader or someone that you admire? Why?
Shirag Shemmassian: My business mentor, Ramit Sethi, is someone I admire. I purchased one of his courses, Zero to Launch (the same lessons are now taught through his Earnable program), when I first started on my journey as an entrepreneur and it played an instrumental role in propelling my business’s growth early on. Ramit’s work has inspired me to be very intentional when approaching strategic decisions.
Finish this sentence: “I would not be standing here today if not for ____”*
Shirag Shemmassian: My wife and her continued support. She has sacrificed a lot to help me and the business grow. During our greatest growth season, she gave birth to our son and is definitely the MVP of our household, all while working herself. I love you, Willa!
What’s one piece of advice that you would give your 18-year-old self?
Shirag Shemmassian: Identify mentors you want to emulate. This isn’t just about business. I have mentors when it comes to parenting, being a great husband, spiritual life, and other areas of life. Before I discovered the need for mentors, I just figured I’d go to school, get a good job, and the family and life details would just “work out.” However, success in every arena requires deliberate effort.