How I turned a side hustle into a business that's made $20 million and got Mark Cuban to invest

Shaan Patel, founder and CEO of Prep Expert, shares strategies that helped him turn his side hustle into a business that has brought in $20 million and got Mark Cuban to invest.

Shaan Patel
Shaan Patel is the founder and CEO of Prep Expert.
Courtesy Shaan Patel

Monday through Friday, I work as a physician. But for nearly a decade, I have dedicated my nights, weekends, and summers to my side hustle, and it has paid off.

In 2010, I started an SAT and ACT preparation company called Prep Expert. As I have grown my business, we've been able to help more than 50,000 students improve their test scores and generate over $20 million in revenue. I even pitched Prep Expert on "Shark Tank" in 2016 and closed a $250,000 deal with Mark Cuban

I have been able to run my company all while attending college, medical school, business school, and completing a dermatology residency. I'm often asked how I've been able to spend all that time working on my side hustle. Did I not go to class? Did I not sleep? Did I not have a social life? I promise, I did. I've developed strategies over the years that have helped me make the most of my time, and make Prep Expert as strong as it can be. 

If you are looking to turn your business idea into a reality right now, here are some of the biggest lessons I have learned about how to start a seven-figure side hustle.

Work to become an expert in your field 

If you want to diversify your income and start a side hustle but aren't exactly sure where to start, do some personal inventory. Ask yourself, what is the thing that I would happily spend hours on end exploring and investing my time and energy in? It doesn't have to be something you find easy. The best ideas come from solving problems that matter to you.

In high school, I spent hundreds of hours studying on my own for the SAT, developing study tools that worked for me, which resulted in improving my own SAT score from average to perfect. Thanks to that experience, I realized that I could help other people do the same. And I constantly challenged myself to do bigger and more comprehensive projects with the skills I had acquired — writing an SAT prep book in college, creating a curriculum in medical school, and then building and scaling my business throughout business school and my residency. 

I'm a big believer in putting in your 10,000 hours to become an expert in your field. Your expertise can create a solid foundation for your business, and later even generate another stream of income from consulting on other projects and companies in your space. 

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Build a schedule that maximizes your time 

I currently work in a clinic Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. I work on Prep Expert for two to four hours on weeknights, and anywhere from five to 20 hours on weekends. This may seem like a lot, but I've learned how to maximize my time and schedule

For example, the summer before I started med school, I created the pilot SAT course for Prep Expert and trained our instructors. But I dedicated the following summer to building an online video SAT prep course so that we could offer an on-demand version of me teaching our 100 SAT strategies, since I knew I wouldn't have the time to teach courses in person anymore. It was supposed to be a time saver for me, but the video course ended up being another effective way that we could reach our students. 

During business school, instead of spending the summer interning for someone else's company, I spent it getting ready to pitch mine on "Shark Tank." That next semester, I decided to take my courses online so I would have the time to get our SAT prep books up to date, and prepare the company and our website to hit the ground running after our "Shark Tank" episode aired.

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Develop habits that help you stay productive 

Just because you have maximized your time doesn't always mean that you will use it wisely. I've implemented some methods over the years that I believe have helped me be twice as efficient. 

  • I start with a morning power hour. The start of the day is when my mind is freshest. So I spend it doing the most difficult task on my agenda. For me, that usually means writing SAT prep material, which is often mentally taxing. But by completing the hardest task first, I find I feel more accomplished throughout the rest of your day. Even if you aren't a morning person, find the time where your mind is the sharpest and organize your day around that period of time. 
  • I use the 50/10 rule. Even though I might try, I simply can't work for two, three, four hours straight. So I've found what works best for me is to break up each hour of work using the 50/10 rule: 50 minutes of focused work, then 10 minutes for a break to scroll through my feed or grab a snack. That way, I can go back to work refreshed instead of feeling like I must run a draining sprint to the end of the day.  
  • I turn off my tech. I am just as distracted by social media as the next person. I sometimes find myself wasting time scrolling Instagram for 20 minutes or more. That's why when I am working on my side hustle, I keep my phone in a separate room and do not connect notifications to my laptop. If I don't need the Internet to do the task at hand, then I will also turn the Wi-Fi off on my computer so that I don't start surfing the web. It's simple, but I've been amazed at how much more productive I am without distractions like social media and texts. 
  • I reply to my emails last. If you are immediately responding to emails all day long, chances are you are prioritizing other people's requests and not getting your own productive work done. And even though those nonurgent emails don't require a lot of mental energy, it does eat up a lot of time. So I wind down my day with email responses so I don't feel like I have to immediately tackle them first thing.
During business school, instead of spending the summer interning for someone else's company, I spent it getting ready to pitch mine on 'Shark Tank.'
Shaan Patel
CEO and Founder of Prep Expert

Collaborate with people who share your vision

There is no way I could have built a successful side hustle without an amazing team. My full-time employees are really the superstars who run the day-to-day operations of Prep Expert — everything from sales, customer service, operations, website development, digital marketing, as well as our incredible Prep Expert instructors.

I've found that the most important thing to keep in mind when you hire new employees, is to seek out people who are talented and reliable self-starters. People who can not only execute your vision, but contribute in a meaningful way with ideas you might not have ever considered. 

When you lead by example, and clearly communicate your mission and your values, you will find people whose work ethic matches yours. That is the last piece of the puzzle to expand your side hustle beyond just yourself.

Shaan Patel MD, MBA, is the CEO and founder of Prep Expert SAT & ACT Preparation, winner of a "Shark Tank" deal with billionaire Mark Cuban, and a bestselling author.

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The headline has been changed to reflect that Prep Expert has generated $20 million in total revenue.