Meet Nick Standlea, Founder of Test Prep Gurus

by Jerome Knyszewski
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Nick Standlea, founder & president of Test Prep Gurus, talks about how to take a company from good to great.

Nick Standlea is the Head Guru, president, and founder of Test Prep Gurus, a test preparation company based in Southern California. The company uses a unique methodology, born out of Nick’s extensive research at Claremont Graduate University’s Quality of Life Research Center, which helps students get excellent scores on the SAT and ACT, as well as other standardized tests, without putting them under extreme pressure to do well.

At Test Prep Gurus, Nick Standlea trains all of his instructors in his unique method. For over 15 years, he has “helped students improve their standardized test scores.” He has also delivered several presentations on “various aspects of standardized testing and their role in college admissions” at institutions such as the Western Association for College Admission Counseling (WACAC), U.C. Berkeley, Loyola Marymount University, Sage Hill School, The Webb Schools, and A Better Chance Foundation.

Thanks to his success, Nick Standlea has become a highly sought-after speaker and resource person. He has spoken to people at high schools, middle schools, PTAs, NCLs, and community organizations to tell them “about how to lower anxiety in the college admissions and standardized testing process.”

Nick Standlea has seen success with his method for over a decade. His method is based on “positive psychology, personal development, growth mindset, and achieving success however the student defines it.” This success includes helping his students improve their SAT scores by an average of 200+ points; helping his students improve their ACT scores by an average of 5+ points; helping the Webb Schools to rank in the top 10 boarding schools in the country; and helping students from their “Ivy Aspirations” program to score in the top 1% nationally.

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Jerome Knyszewski: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Nick Standlea: We stand out because once a family hires us, we will do anything in our power to help their student reach their goals.

Here is a story — one of our Directors once received a call at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning from a student that had forgotten to bring her ID to her official SAT exam. She was a foreign exchange student, so her parents were on another continent, and she had no one else to call. The test officials said her scores would be canceled if she left the test center to get the ID herself.

The Director drove an hour to the test center, picked up the girl’s keys, drove to the hotel where the student was staying, found her ID, and delivered it to her at the test center. She scored in the top one percent of the nation on the exam that day.

The best part of the story from my perspective? There wasn’t a supervisor that told the Director to do this. It was the right thing to do for the student, so he did it.

Jerome Knyszewski: Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Nick Standlea: When it comes to teaching the SAT, or teaching someone anything, there are two roles — the hero and the mentor.

Most teachers think that they are the hero. They have it backward. Teachers who get burnt out are stressed because they think their job is to teach. It’s not. Their job is to inspire students to learn.

If you remember that the student is the hero, you will remain focused on the only thing that matters — the student’s success.

Jerome Knyszewski: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Nick Standlea: I’ve had so many wonderful people help me along the way! I’m especially grateful for the help and mentorship that Mihalyi (Mike) Csikszentmihalyi provided to me in the years just before I launched Test Prep Gurus.

I was a research associate at his Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University for five years and that was the best job I’ve ever had. It was an incredible place to work. Mike taught me the importance of pushing myself and constantly encouraged me to be curious. I was doing my graduate work at the time in business management, but I always said that my years working alongside Mike was my real education. The people and ideas I was exposed to, the organization’s commitment to excellence, and seeing Mike’s quiet, stoic leadership style — the whole experience amounted to what felt like a Ph.D. in Education, Psychology, and Management rolled into one.

Most importantly, Mike taught me something that I carry with me every day in my work — keep doing what feels like fun to you, but work to others, and you can’t lose.

Jerome Knyszewski: What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

Nick Standlea: I would start by asking some basic questions — What are your goals for the firm? How big is your firm? What is the ideal size? Is that smaller or bigger than you are now?

Successful entrepreneurs know that bigger isn’t always better. Oftentimes bigger is less meaningful and less profitable.

The idea that bigger is always better only applies to public companies that are traded on the stock market — and even then, that philosophy is just a ruse to lure in more people to buy the stock. If you think it through, never-ending growth is impossible. Even Amazon, Apple, and Google have their limits.

It is much more sustainable to think about a business in terms of why does it exist, what is its larger purpose, and then what is the ideal size to achieve its goals and purpose.

Jerome Knyszewski: Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

Nick Standlea: My experience tells me that the only times a business ever faces are turbulent — it is just a matter of degree. There will always be challenges. The real question is do the major stakeholders have the will and the tools to overcome those challenges?

When any project hits a rough patch, it can be useful to hold a meeting of the major stakeholders to ask that question — do you have the will and the tools to overcome the challenges before us?

If the answer is no, then it is best to move those people on, or close up shop entirely.

If the answer is yes, it is best to end the meeting and get back to doing the necessary things to overcome the challenges at hand.

Jerome Knyszewski: In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Nick Standlea: The most underestimated aspect of running a company is the more it grows, the easier it is to forget to talk directly to your clients. It is amazing how much any business can learn from their clients and yet how rarely most businesses utilize this rich source of information.

Is something wrong with the business but you aren’t sure what it is? Ask your clients.

Are revenues falling below expectations? Your clients can tell you why.

Not sure how to reach more potential customers? The clients will know how.

And this goes for businesses of any size —

If you only have one customer, talk to that person.

If you have millions of customers, talk to them one at a time.

If you have zero customers, you don’t have a business.

Jerome Knyszewski: Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

Nick Standlea: One of the most boring things on earth is writing company policies.

But if you put your heart and soul into writing those policies it can change your business, especially if you take the time to emphasize the why behind every policy. If you do that, every person in your organization will be inspired to live up to the ideals that you outline. This will inevitably lead to endless wow! customer experiences and a brand that people can trust.

Jerome Knyszewski: What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Nick Standlea: Social media is a blessing and a curse for society, so it seems only natural that it would be the same for businesses.

But in the end, social media will be what you make of it.

At Test Prep Gurus, we embrace social media as an opportunity to reach more families. This allows us to help more students improve their SAT and ACT scores, reach the colleges of their dreams, earn more scholarships, and alter their perceptions of what they can achieve in the future.

Jerome Knyszewski: What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Nick Standlea: Every business decision is based on who you are as a person, who you want to become, and what your goals are for the future. So start with that. If you don’t know who you are, or who you aspire to become, it is impossible to make the correct decisions.

To paraphrase Lewis Carrol in Alice in Wonderland

Alice: “Which way should I go?”

Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

Alice: “I don’t know.”

Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Nick Standlea: I would like to imagine a future in which every person on earth owns their own small purpose-driven business. It wouldn’t have to be each person’s main source of income or generate income at all. People could work at it just one day a week, or even one hour per week. The point is that everyone would have an ownership stake in something that they believe could improve society and serve a larger purpose than themselves. This would change for the better how we each see ourselves, how we each define our purpose, and how we each view our unique place in the universe.

Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?

Nick Standlea: You can find me on the Test Prep Gurus website.

Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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