BY PEJMAN GHADIMI, JUNE 14, 2016 11:00 AM
Since we introduced the Secret Academy three years ago, we’ve had the awesome privilege of witnessing many amazing students take an idea and turn it into a profitable business, with no prior experience as an entrepreneur. One such member goes by the name of Kiran Ravindra.
I remember vividly a few years back Kiran sent us an email about wanting to help contribute anyway he could since he had free time during High School. Long story short, we figured why not and gave Kiran a small task of helping us edit articles from time to time.
During this time, Kiran was simultaneously trying to create a product with no idea where to begin. Luckily, as a member of the Secret Academy, Kiran leveraged the resources, both people and course material, to not only launch his first legitimate business, but also one that earns over $40,000 per month, before he went to college.
Today, we start a new series where we feature amazing students from the Secret Academy, and Kiran is first to share his story.
Tell me a little bit about your background and what inspired you to become an entrepreneur at such a young age?
I’ve always been fascinated by business from a young age. I’ve also always been interested in making things, out of paper, cardboard, whatever when I was a kid. Basically it took a while to connect the dots between those two primary interests but that’s the simple background there.
I began my first involvement with online business my freshman year in high school, selling aquatic plants and freshwater shrimp that I raised in planted aquariums (I was really into it back then – wish I had time for it these days).
What made you come up with the idea for your current business?
It’s quite simple really, I wanted a carbon fiber case for my iPhone, but it didn’t exist in the design I had envisioned.
So I set out to design/make it, mostly for fun at first – challenging my CAD design skills I’d learned in a high school engineering class and eventually taking it all the way to multiple manufacturers, having prototypes made, and so on.
How did you validate your idea to confirm that there was a demand for it?
Validating the concept was remarkably easy, as when I started, Instagram was a totally different game – with minimal budget, and a lot of time on my high school hands, I was able to build serious hype over the months and convert that hype into sales right after launch.
Basically, as soon as I had the first products in my hands, I reached out to various photographers who would become the beginning for our Brand Ambassadors program.
We started posting photos that they took for us, with a countdown to launch date, urging people to click the link in our Instagram bio which was our email capture.
Then when we launched, we blasted the hell out of it on our social accounts and emailed all of the people who signed up with a coupon code. Orders came in immediately. That was a pretty surreal feeling.
With no experience in manufacturing, design, marketing, etc, how did you learn each aspect?
I’m a big fan of learning what you need along the way. In a world where we teach everyone everything in school, sometimes in order to become an expert in something you really want to do you have to go out and pick up bits and pieces of information yourself to develop a skillset. I’d played around a lot with programs like SketchUp as a kid, and learned how to work with AutoDesk Inventor in that high school engineering class, so I had that down pretty well.
As far as manufacturing goes, a member of the Secret Academy named Andrew Goodman helped connect me with my first potential manufacturer. I got an idea of what kind of things to look for in a manufacturer, as well as how they work. MOQs? Deposit protocol? EXW?
I had no idea what any of these things meant, but I was able to figure it out pretty quickly. Truthfully, these things aren’t so hard once you have your diagrams and designs done. Other than that, being aggressive in your negotiations and being prepared to leave a manufacturer if they’re not agreeing to your terms are key, even though you will probably not feel comfortable with it at first.
Although we didn’t end up working with them for anything more than prototypes, it did lay the groundwork and the knowledge I needed to get started.
However, that’s the beauty of the Secret Academy – a quick phone call to the founder Pejman and I was in touch with Andrew, who in turn helped me hit the ground running with a supplier.
I made a lot of mistakes early on with manufacturing that I would do differently if I could do it over again, but that’s par for the course. Marketing, again, was picked up along the way and mostly just asking for help from people in the Secret Academy already involved in similar marketing fields.
Walk us through what your first step was once you had your idea down?
There was no real first step. Everything is kind of a blur once you get moving.
The “first” step could have been sketches, 3D design, starting social accounts, finding a manufacturer… all of these things kind of developed at once. I think a lot of people try to develop a clear-cut road map and follow it religiously, which I don’t recommend.
Do what you need to as things come up.
How did you fund your business?
I had a good bit saved from my aquatic plants and shrimp business I had mentioned, and as I validated the concept I was able to convince my parents to loan me some cash.
Truthfully, not much was needed (a few thousand) after accounting for pre-orders, which we took in full. We ended up taking in over five figures worth of pre-orders in a little over a month, which I wasn’t really prepared to ship considering that the product didn’t technically exist yet in production form.
But that forced me to learn how to work with suppliers with regards to expediting orders and dealing with the logistics of fulfillment once the product was in my hands.
Tell us a little bit about some of the tools and software you use to operate your business?
At first, for design, AutoDesk Inventor was the first staple. It’s free for students, which worked out nicely.
For the site, I built a WordPress site myself using WooCommerce, which is a great ecommerce solution. I’ve heard great things about Shopify too, although it may be a little less customizable.
The site, from the start, cost less than $100 – the real cost was in time spent working on it. A lot of people focus on trying to have an absolutely perfect website right from the start, which just doesn’t happen.
Instead, focus on getting a minimum viable product and seeing what works once you have traffic and sales. Other miscellaneous software and resources include hosting, which can be pretty much anything to start. I’ve used everything from GoDaddy to Digital Ocean over the years – but just pick something to started with and evolve as time goes on.
You don’t need a dedicated server with CDN, etc from the get-go, so you can get away with cheap $10 a month hosting. Run with it until your site crashes and then upgrade.
And of course, plenty of the tools we still use are totally free, like Google Analytics.
Tell us a little bit about marketing strategies that has worked well for you?
Social has always been a strong point for us since day one. Engaging with our customers and showing off how they live what we call the “#carbontrimlife” is basically how we grew our social to what it is today (combined over 120k), which is not bad for a company our size.
As for paid channels, the typical AdWords/Facebook/Instagram ads play a consistent role in generating conversions for us.
With Google AdWords, I constantly analyze our most common search terms that lead to sales and develop bidding strategies. To me, AdWords is by far the most complicated channel to work with simply because of the sheer number of possibilities. Of course, this also makes it one of the most versatile platforms to advertise on, so it goes both ways.
Facebook and Instagram have been very useful for us when it comes to sales. Since we’re usually showing our products to people for the first time (except for when it comes to retargeting), we’re basically betting on laser targeted, impulse buys.
It’s all about using sales and promotions to incentivize not only clicks, but actual orders – so keeping new customers engaged the entire way through the process is key.
Flexing our media features is a great way to build trust and hype right off the bat – there’s just something magical about “As seen in Business Insider”.
We also run retargeting campaigns through AdRoll, Google & Facebook to bring back lost and repeat customers. We’re running a little bit of everything there. ROI on retargeting puts a smile on my face every time I look at it.
At what point did you realize you were on to something big?
I first realized the potential when I was still in High School grossing over $10k a month… that felt much more significant than our first $40k month, because it’s like, wow, I’m making more than 99% of kids my age make in a year, in a single month.
But aside from the money, the first validation of growth and overall significance was when we started getting picked up in the media, like when we were included in a Business Insider Holiday Gift Guide, that was a completely surreal feeling.
How do you stay so grounded for a kid when you’re making all this money?
I didn’t at first. Ask any kid from my high school, it definitely got to my head and I acted like a fool showing off when I was around 17.
To be fair, I was brutally bullied all through my lower education, so it’s like, okay, I’m making money, now it’s my turn to be the jerk.
Not a good mentality to have. 10/10 would not recommend and that is one thing I would absolutely do differently if I had a do-over.
You mention ripoffs so how do you deal with competitors or just the mass number of similar vendors?
I knew this question would come up, and it’s a good one. There’s no set answer here – it’s all about staying ahead of the game, releasing new products first, and making sure people know that we were the first. That means hammering our new releases into our customers’, and potential customers’, heads through blitzing them with ads and newsletters.
Apart from that, our marketing budgets are undoubtedly larger, and focusing on more competitive bidding strategies, limited sales, and a greater sense of an actual brand than ripoffs all play a role in setting ourselves apart.
We never engage in petty communication or confrontation with these companies as we just let them run their course and continue moving forward with what we already have planned.
Remember, people can only copy what you have done, not what you will do… yet.
How do you balance work and school these days?
I’ve switched to a part time student at the University of South Carolina. I’ve managed to get all of my classes cornered into certain days, like Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday, which leaves plenty of time for work.
Not to mention, I tend to work more at night anyways, so as long as my classes don’t involve heavy loads of homework, it’s not a problem at all. After learning to juggle various tasks within the business, balancing other things like school are child’s play.
Everyone has failures and setbacks. What have you experienced?
Too many to count, mostly small ones that add up. One that comes to mind was our second round of pre-orders in 2014. With the release of the iPhone 6, I couldn’t get my hands on one fast enough, so I basically spent two days rendering a photorealistic mockup of the soon-to-be Carbon Trim Solutions case the for iPhone 6 (our best selling product, by the way) and opened pre-orders for them, weeks before the actual phone was released.
In a short matter of time we took 6 figures in pre-orders without even the first prototypes in my hands, which was incredibly stressful, knowing that if something goes wrong, I’m going to lose all of this money and basically destroy the entire brand’s image and reliability.
I ended up being able to rush production by pushing our manufacturers, and we delivered every single order before the end of the holiday season.
If I could do that again, though, I would have segmented it into several distinct batches that I knew for a fact I could fulfill. We had plenty of irate emails of people wanting their products immediately.
Another mistake was trying to handle all customer service myself during one of the busiest times of 2014. I refused to bring on interns under the excuse that it would take more work to train them than the value they would provide.
Fortunately, I bit the bullet and hired some just before the sudden passing of a close friend, and they were able to essentially handle all customer service for about a week. That was a narrowly-dodged bullet.
Apart from that, dealing with procrastination is something I have always struggled with. It’s only normal, but we must all make a constant, conscious effort to avoid it – it’s lead to things like using our old shitty packaging for years until finally getting around to revamping it, definitely would have created a more professional appearance for our customers if it had been handled much sooner.
How do you plan to scale this company and break the $100k per month barrier?
This is all part of our product expansion into other luxury goods like wallets, keychains, and a number of other new products coming out. We’ve got new ripoffs coming out every week, so it’s really engaging to stay ahead and constantly work on releasing new products that our customers want.
Taking care of our existing customers as well as taking on new ones has definitely paid off in this regard as well.
Expanding into new market spaces like Amazon is also an important part of growing. Often times, even if we don’t make the sale on Amazon or a similar platform, a customer will run across us, say on our own site, and then we actually make more off that sale.
Looking back at your 17 year old self from day one, what would you tell yourself knowing what you know now?
I would have scaled quicker. Things like building our revamped website sooner, gotten into more advanced advertising like AdWords and Facebook ads, and done more promotional/press outreach sooner.
Have you splurged on anything since you’ve turned a profit?
Early on I would buy stupid shit like Gucci shoes, designer belts, LV everything… it loses its appeal quite quickly though.
I bought a Mercedes which I enjoy and picked up a Panerai Luminor Marina fairly recently too.
For any young entrepreneur (under 21) what is your best advice for them?
Yeah, good news is it’s not hard to set yourself apart from our idiot generation. Set goals, develop a plan to achieve them and stop at nothing to do so.
That means, as cliché as it may sound, staying in while your friends are out partying or studying for finals.
Remember that if everybody your age has a college degree, is a member of six clubs and a fraternity and has done five internships, you’re going to have to do things differently to set yourself apart in the long run.
So when I say to get a plan together, I mean more than just saying “I’ll start a company and own a Lambo in two years.” Get in touch with people in fields you are interested in, get to know the inner workings of them, and provide value that you can consistently provide (sell) to individuals or companies in that space.
Having a mentor or experienced person to bounce ideas off of is key, and with the internet at your fingertips, it’s okay if you can’t find anyone in person – resources like the Secret Academy do an incredible job in bridging this gap and putting people in touch with each other.
The Secret Academy was launched after I started Carbon Trim Solutions, but I wish it had been around before.
Since becoming a member of the Secret Academy, what has been the biggest takeaway?
Definitely constant access to like-minded individuals. It’s hard to find people who share the same interests as you and have similar goals to you in an environment like college.
Not only do I get to work with and keep in touch with these people online, but I love meeting up at the Secret Academy meet-ups, which by the way, are a great excuse to write off a little travel to some neat cities.
I want to thank Kiran for not just sharing his incredible story at such a young age, but also for proving that you do not have to settle for an average retail job or even wait until you get your degree to forge your own path. His incredible story is one of many to come.
We have created a very special limited offer. Try out the Secret Academy for just $1 by clicking here: SecretAcademics.com