In order to be a successful business owner, it is important to be skilled in sales and marketing. The ability to know how to get your message out and compete by giving value first is a skill every business leader should have. I didn’t learn marketing in college, as I was an accounting major. I had to learn it in the ‘real world’ to grow my business, and it has served me very well.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Nathan Liao.
Nathan Liao is the founder of CMA Exam Academy, a top Certified Management Accountant exam review program. As a CMA and CMA coach, Nathan mentors accounting and finance professionals in over 80 countries to earn their CMA certification in as little as 8 months. The unique review framework in CMA Exam Academy has proven to be the key to his students’ outstanding success in attaining their dream of earning the Certified Management Accountant certification. https://cmaexamacademy.com/
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
“I began working as an accounting clerk in college and slowly moved up the ladder. When it was time to choose my major in college, I chose accounting because I had gained years of experience in the field so it was the path of least resistance. Years later, I earned my CMA certification and propelled my career further.
After passing my Certified Management Accountant exam, I created a blog as a hobby that discussed the CMA test and provided tips and strategies to pass it. As my audience grew, requests to launch an exam review program kept coming in from my audience. People wanted me to teach them the subject matter, so I launched CMA Exam Academy.
As a CMA and CMA coach, I mentor accounting and finance professionals in over 80 countries to earn their CMA certification in as little as eight months. The unique review framework in CMA Exam Academy has proven to be the key to our students’ outstanding success in attaining their dream of earning the Certified Management Accountant certification.”
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
“The CMA exam pass rate was an abysmal 35% on average at the time when I took my exams. I passed both exam parts on my first attempt and thought I could help others do the same. This is when I decided to launch a website and provide guidance and exam coaching as a hobby. As the website visitors grew, requests to teach them the exam content grew with it. So I launched a complete CMA review program for both exam parts. Our unique framework helps our students pass at a 90% rate on average.”
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
“When I launched the business, I relied on a third-party company to supply the study material to my students. After my company grew quickly, they cut us off because we had become a direct competitor. This was my first HUGE challenge. The R&D costs to develop our study material were the biggest challenge in terms of investment, team effort, and time. However, because we had new students enrolling each month, there was no choice but to press forward and not look back. Trust is one of my core values and I didn’t want to break the trust my students had vested in me. That fueled my team and I to not give up even if it meant we had to develop our study material from scratch.”
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
“Things are going great today. CMA Exam Academy continues to grow every single year while keeping our exam pass rate at 90% on average. Our team of CMAs plus support staff make all the difference in the growth of the business and in the success of our students.”
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
“When I launched CMA Exam Academy, it stood out because of the program’s features. At the time, all CMA test prep providers did not have video lectures, coaching support, or a structured study framework. These were the features I wanted when I was studying for the exam. So I took what was missing in the industry and included it in my program. I was solving the pain points I had and knew others felt the same. Today, our 16-week study framework, unparalleled customer experience, and 90% exam pass rate set us apart by far.
CMA Exam Academy rises above the competition by putting a face to an otherwise ‘faceless’ industry. Buying test prep programs from big corporations is an outdated strategy. People want to do business with people they know, like, and trust. By putting myself front and center, my customers know whom they are doing business with. They get to know me and by extension my brand/business before they decide to study in my program.”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
“My funniest mistake was wearing the wrong type of clothes for video presentations. I learned a lot about video production in this business. Wearing the wrong colors or shirt patterns made me look like a magician at times. Thus, I learned to pay more attention to aesthetics for the videos we created.”
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
“The advice that you need to have a ‘hustle mentality’, which often circulates in entrepreneurship circles. It’s the mentality that you have to work nonstop to achieve success. Although consistent hard work over a long period of time is a key ingredient to build a business, working nonstop is a recipe for burnout. Looking back, I wish I had not followed that advice.”
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
“In order to be a successful business owner, it is important to be skilled in sales and marketing. The ability to know how to get your message out and compete by giving value first is a skill every business leader should have. I didn’t learn marketing in college, as I was an accounting major. I had to learn it in the ‘real world’ to grow my business, and it has served me very well.
Having strong financial literacy is also very important to run a successful business and maximize the bottom line. It’s practically impossible to stir a ship in the right direction without knowing where it is and where it’s going. Financial data provides this information to business leaders.
On top of this, you must have the ability to stomach risk. Going into business requires a lot of calculated risk-taking. Being able to assess risk and staying resilient in tough times are key.”
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
“Although it can be difficult at times, having a hard stop at work AND not taking work home will do wonders for your mental health and overall well being.”
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?
“One big mistake is not hiring fast enough. As a start-up, I was slow at making my first hire. I ran everything myself for too long. If I had hired someone to help sooner, I would’ve been able to grow the company at a faster rate. The lesson I learned in terms of hiring is to not wait until it feels like you’re burning out. Instead, hire preemptively for key positions. The business will grow faster.
I’ve also seen entrepreneurs start a company without having discussed their business and tax structure with their CPA. It becomes messy later on and a big headache. A better approach is to sit down with a CPA and discuss how to track all of the company’s revenue and expenses, and how to set it all up at the start of the business. It’ll save a lot of headaches down the road.”
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
“Time. We live in the ‘instant gratification’ world. We want results today and this mindset makes entrepreneurs quickly feel defeated, as they don’t give their businesses time to flourish. Everything worthwhile takes time, a lot of time. Therefore, don’t underestimate the amount of time it’ll take to build a successful company. Have a long-view approach in business.”
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
“I wish someone had told me:
- Don’t launch a new website and domain for the test prep company. If I had to do it all over again, I would have launched it using my existing domain and website. I thought I had to have a different name for my test prep program, but I really didn’t in retrospect. The cost of running two separate domains/operations could’ve been avoided.
- Don’t rely on a supplier for my study material. I partnered with one of the biggest companies in my space to provide study material to my students. However, when my business took off, I was cut off because I had become a direct competitor of theirs. The lesson learned is that self-reliance is important in business, and the ability to provide your customers with in-house products is a better play in the long run.
- Hire help faster! As a new start-up, I was slow at making my first hire. I ran everything myself for too long. If I had hired someone to help sooner, I would’ve been able to grow CMA Exam Academy much quicker.
- Building a profitable enterprise takes years. Based on what people at business conferences were saying, I thought it would take me just one year to build a successful business. It took much longer
- .Begin to network with successful entrepreneurs even before launching a business. The conversations and support from people who’ve been where you are (about to launch a company) can be such a great support system and motivator. I met two successful entrepreneurs at a business conference a year into my company. We formed a business mastermind group and helped each other grow our companies. After seven years, we continue to have our weekly mastermind calls. It’s made all the difference! As the saying goes, ‘your network is net worth.’”
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. 🙂
“I’d love to see a world were every single human has access to high-quality education from kinder garden to higher education. It can be the one factor that changes the trajectory of someone’s life for the better.”
How can our readers further follow you online?
“You can follow me at cmaexamacademy.com and at the below social media channels:
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!