Interview with Mervin Soon, Co-Founder at The Pique Lab
Mervin is the head marketer and director at The Pique Lab, a premier, private enrichment tuition centre that specializes in Primary School Science.
In 2013, he and his partner, Kenneth, founded The Pique Lab with the focus on creating an encouraging and supportive learning environment for primary school children. The centre uses unique methods (AKA their Complete Concept Integration™ Science methodology) and visually-stimulating learning materials to ensure the best learning pedagogy for students. Till date, they’ve helped over 1,300 primary school students across 40 schools attain As and A*s in PSLE Science.
Fun Fact: At the time when this interview was conducted, Mervin was still reading his degree in Singapore Management University
1. What made you decide to get into your current line of work?
Growing up, my childhood ambition was to be a teacher. I got pretty inspired by some caring teachers I met in school and tuition classes. These are the teachers who bothered to tell stories and make complex concepts easy to understand, not just forcing me to memorize information. Their patience and curiously interesting methods made learning fun.
When I progressed on to my secondary school education, I managed to ‘crack the code’ to doing well. I devised my own methods of studying that worked incredibly well for me. As a visual learner, I’ve always enjoyed the process of creating aesthetically-pleasing materials that were easy to understand because I was able (and more motivated) to retain and grasp critical information better.
At the age of 18, I was at a crossroad because I did not exactly know what I wanted to do for my career. It was only until my National Service that I had more opportunities to discover what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur and at the same time be able to impact young ones as a teacher of sorts. I decided to validate my childhood ambition as a teacher by taking on some private tuition assignments to assess if this route was right for me. Turns out, my hunch was right and I decided to dive deeper into education. It also opened my eyes to real problems faced in learning by today’s students.
The Pique Lab is a realization of the way I enjoyed learning in my youth. The approach I noticed that worked best was to change Singapore’s content based learning to a question-based learning. By asking the right questions in the right flow at the right time, students are better able to apply the concepts that they learn.
2. What would you say was your most difficult challenge transitioning from a tutor into running a tuition centre?
The greatest difficulty was picking up the right skills needed to run the business well. During my first foray into the private enrichment space, I was completely clueless on how to start acquiring students. We made numerous amateur mistakes and lost quite a bit of money. We printed and gave out flyers from door-to-door and depressed our prices for regular classes to as low as $110 a month.
The business was not going anywhere and we were in the reds after the first year. Kenneth and I sat down and we decided to focus on different roles. Kenneth handled curriculum development while I handled the business side of things.
I developed a voracious appetite for learning & began to explore different marketing strategies. I analysed what worked for other industries and adapted those strategies for the private enrichment industry. We organised seminars for parents, did consulting sessions with students and organised workshops. While some of these strategies worked, many did not. We spent a lot of time and money trying these out and eventually we discovered what worked for us.
As you go along, you’ll start to realize that being able to ‘deliver’ is not enough to run a profitable, growing business. You’ll need a balance of useful skills along with the resourcefulness to move quicker.
4. How are you marketing your business right now?
Our strategy is pretty straightforward. We reach out to our customers through pay-per-click advertisements on Facebook and Google. Parents looking for services in our niche tend to find our site and opt-in for resources. Over time, we grew a list with thousands of parents through our email marketing and content marketing campaigns through an autoresponder like ActiveCampaign. The nurturing emails we send after help to educate them and eventually convert them into customers.
Another big thing for us is collecting plenty of social proof. Over the years we’ve actively collected many written testimonials and photographs. In an industry like ours, every success story counts. Coupled with our strong track record of students getting their desired results, we leave parents very little reason to say no.
I’m a strong proponent of digital simply because it scales much faster as you go along. Once you find the right formula, you can invest in what works and automate certain parts of your system to never have to do it again manually.
5. What has been your greatest lesson so far since starting The Pique Lab?
Be purpose-driven and not money-driven. Talk to your customers
For me, starting the tuition centre is about building something valuable that can impact the lives of thousands of students. As our business continues to grow, it becomes clear that money is only a byproduct of what we can do. What matters most is the ideas that we developed over the years that allowed us to create the best learning experience that we ever can for our students.
Because of our close ties with our students and their parents, we very quickly noticed gaps in the way they were learning and came up with new ways to address them. This proved to be a profitable endeavor when we started having master classes and private consultations to boost their results. When you speak to your customers often, not only do you get more repeat business, but you can also sometimes find other untapped opportunities to help them.
Like many skills, teaching is a craft that is easy to learn but difficult to master. Every insight we gather from our students and parent community helps us refine the way we deliver our materials and lessons to enhance the experience for every subsequent batch. You could say we run our business like building a product, the improvements or ‘updates’ need to come at regular intervals to stay relevant and useful.
6. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Hire Slow & Fire Fast.
Be extremely selective of the people you select to be part of your team. Ask the right questions during the interview to seek out their motivations and communicate your expectations to them before they start. If hiring is done right, there will be lesser need for monitoring and the propensity to shirk will be lower as well. This is one of the best ways to create self-managed teams. We’ve had to learn this the hard way when growing out team.
If there is anyone in the team who exhibited signs of misfit (i.e. culture misfit), it is best to nip it in the bud immediately. Clarify with them what is going on and see if there are any avenues for change. As a fast-growing company, we cannot afford to have self-centered rockstars, with little or no regard for other team members. You also start to realize that the only real way to grow fast is to build a strong team.
7. If you had to offer a piece of advice to someone that had zero experience or connections getting into the business, what would you say?
Sales is the lifeline of every business. As much as it is hard to do. That’s the distinction between successful businesses and those that fizzle out quickly.
Being well-versed in sales and marketing can help your business grow at a much faster rate. If you’re starting out, you should read up widely on topics such as consumer psychology, copywriting, digital marketing, content marketing and creating sales funnels. Ideally, you should know how to set up and optimise pay-per-click campaigns, optimise your website on search (SEO) and email marketing. It might seem a little daunting, but these skills are the ones that will serve you the most in the long-run, even if you start another business. The ability to generate leads and convert sales is the most valuable in any business because it contributes directly to your bottom-line.
Also, I would implore newbies to validate their industry before spending money to start their business. Doing some simple projections to see if the business can be lucrative for you in the short and long-run will do wonders in saving you from going into something that you can’t see turning a positive ROI.
8. What have you started trying this year that has been working well for your business?
This year, we’re focusing more on strategic partnerships with other like-minded specialist education centres that share the same education philosophy as us. In a book titled “Progressive Partnerships” written by my mentor, Callum Laing, he shared that there are actionable steps that every business person can take to be a small giant in their space of expertise by leveraging on other people’s resources.
Recently, we’ve established a partnership with Learning Out Of The Box, a private enrichment centre that focuses on primary school Math. We have been working out models to enhance cross-sells across our organisations and we believe that the synergy generated from our collaboration will help to bring greater value to the parent community together. As with building teams, there will be instances where strategic collaboration can help accelerate growth much quicker.
9. What is one book you would recommend that every new business owner or freelancer be reading?
Key Person of Influence by Daniel Priestley.
The book offers a systematic approach towards thinking how you should develop your company. Typically in every industry, there are certain public figures that come up in conversation. These are the people that attract opportunities.
Many people tend to think that being one of these public figures often take decades of hard work and academic accolades to achieve. However, there is a proven strategy to fast-tracking one’s way to become one of these people. Your ability to succeed in any industry depends on your ability to influence. In this book, you will learn the 5P approach towards developing your own human capital:
10. What have you just learned that changed how you intend to run your business?
As we grew from a 6-figure company to a 7-figure company, we recognised the importance of having strong systems in the company to ensure that the operations scale properly. This involves having training manuals, sales scripts, well thought-out processes to help to manage the day-to-day activities. It’s not the most ‘sexy’ side of business, but it’s required.
Systems need to be in place to make sure everything runs like clockwork – accounting, training, ‘A’ team members, performance-based systems. All of these often require documentation, which can be a laborious affair. However, all of these will be part of your organisation’s assets & this will help to reduce the workload in the long run and scale quicker.
We have also looked at hiring virtual assistants to help us with our daily tasks. These talents can do everything under the sun. Of course, like any employee, it is important for you to communicate your tasks properly (use apps like Telegram/ Slack for communication), have SOPs for them to follow down to the T, and always ask them for suggestions on improvements.
11. What are 3-4 tools (digital or offline) that you feel everyone should know about?
ActiveCampaign → We use this to automate our lead generation & customer nurturing processes.
Boomtrain → We use this to serve prospects who are browsing our websites.
Franz → A real-time saver, esp. for remote working opportunities
12. How can people connect with you?
This interview is part of our Expert Interview series where we endeavor to interview entrepreneurs or successful freelancers with interesting and useful stories/lessons on starting and running a business.