At some point along the way, I learned that to grow big and grow fast, you can’t allow your desire for perfection to interfere with your momentum and progress. Hire great people, train them well, and trust them.
As part of my series about accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharon Naim Ourian, the founder and CEO of CyberActive, California’s first online traffic school. If you haven’t heard of Sharon yet, chances are you’ve used her company’s technology and taken at least one of her courses. Headquartered in Beverly Hills with offices in Austin, Tucson, Denver, and Indianapolis, CyberActive offers an array of online traffic safety courses including traffic school for ticket dismissal and insurance premium reduction, driver education for pre-licensed teens, adults, and mature drivers, and fleet training for commercial vehicle drivers. The company offers courses and products in more than 30 states direct to consumers and via contractual relationships with public and private entities.
Thank you so much for joining us Sharon! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I graduated from USC with a creative writing degree and as a published author of fiction. My initial plan was to continue writing as a profession, but in my last year of college I became more interested in pursuing a law degree, believing it would put me on a more stable career path. I did well on the LSAT and got accepted to the UCLA School of Law. I found the study of law fascinating because every case read like a story to me. I had long been accustomed to reading, analyzing, and writing stories, so it didn’t feel like I was in school.
During my final year of law school, while most of my peers were interviewing on campus to work at large law firms, I decided to take a less traditional route. I had been working part time for a test preparation company called TestMasters and I watched the company grow rapidly into the largest LSAT preparation provider in California. This was what initially attracted me to the business world. Upon graduating, I accepted a full-time position as TestMasters’ in-house counsel but soon became more involved in the operational and marketing side of the company, spearheading its expansion into all fifty states and several foreign countries, and expanding its preparation course offerings from the LSAT to the GMAT, GRE, and SAT. Most importantly, I collaborated with Robin Singh, the CEO of TestMasters, to build a digitized learning and content management system to deliver our courses online.
One day my mom got a traffic ticket and asked me what she needed to do to prevent her car insurance premium from increasing. I told her she needed to take traffic school so that the ticket would not appear on her driving record. She wasn’t thrilled with the idea of spending an entire Saturday in a classroom and asked if there was any other option. I thought it was possible for her to take the class online and told her I would investigate it. I did some research and was surprised that I could not find any such class.
That’s when a light bulb went off in my head: I could create an online traffic school course that would turn what most people viewed as a punitive experience into one that was educational, convenient, and fun. I already had experience building an online learning platform, and I knew some highly skilled software developers with whom I had worked at TestMasters. I was excited because I had realized in law school that online was where everything was headed, and I viewed this as my opportunity to build the first business of its kind. At that moment my company was born.
Yours is a story of Grit and Success. Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When you start a business from scratch, especially one that breaks new ground and for which there is no blueprint, every day you face new and unforeseen challenges. There’s no way to be sure that what you’re doing is right or to compare it to other companies that have done something similar in the past. E-commerce had just emerged and online education was barely on the radar.
After writing my traffic school course and creating the first iteration of the software, my next challenge was to convince judges and lawmakers to allow ticketed drivers to take traffic school online. Anyone who has dealt with judges, lawmakers, and high-ranked officials will tell you that they are usually circumspect and tend to be conservative in adopting any new law without sound empirical data and proof-of-concept. Of course, these were two things I didn’t have. Whenever I had the opportunity to introduce my online traffic school idea, they were typically quick to dismiss it as dubious and far-fetched, but eventually they did come to see the benefits to their courts and municipalities.
Raising money was my biggest challenge because most people had no interest in my idea. They wondered why I wanted to venture into the traffic school business when I had just earned a law degree. Consequently, I started slowly with my own savings and the money I was earning from TestMasters.
Robin Singh gave me a ton of support during this entire process. He allowed me to convert a small room at TestMasters into the official traffic school office, where I developed and ran my company. He let me use his computers, robust phone system, and other office equipment and supplies. Most importantly, his employees provided me with assistance until I began hiring my own six months later.
For several years I wore every hat in the company. I took calls from customers, dealt with court clerks, did the online marketing, performed all the accounting tasks, and designed every aspect of the website and the ever-evolving software to host my courses and facilitate back office processes.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I saw failure as a possibility in the beginning and the middle, but I never entertained it as the end. This came from my father, a self-made immigrant who taught me that passion, creativity, and resilience were the most important skills for any business.
After moving from a small town in Iran to Tehran at 18, my father would go on to own a dozen movie theatres all over Iran, including the first to show Western movies. When the revolution happened, he moved our family to the United States but stayed back to sell his business. Unfortunately, he was shot and wounded by fanatics of the new regime who burned down his theatre and went after him next. Flown to Cedars Sinai in a precarious health condition, he spent six months there and then recovered and went on to work in various businesses unrelated to his experience to support our family. All the different work he did led him to own a chain of boutiques in major malls, build a real estate portfolio, and start a fur importing business. It was this grit and fortitude that I grew up admiring and ultimately emulating.
So, how are things going today? How did Grit lead to your eventual success?
Today, CyberActive is thriving. Because I convinced various state legislatures and lawmakers to allow drivers to take traffic safety courses online, I was also able to get the California DMV and various education boards to allow teenagers to take their driver-education courses online. Before long, we became the first to offer online traffic school and driver education programs for both adults and pre-licensed teens. Furthermore, CyberActive has become known for its vast contribution and lobbying efforts in this space. I personally crafted many of the protocols and laws that would govern online traffic school and driver education courses, like measures to deter cheating, course timers, and various mechanisms to ensure the course ran similarly to a classroom.
The accomplishment that really speaks to the quality of our program and software is that over the years we have consistently been chosen by government agencies, such as the Indiana BMV, the Baton Rouge city government, Iron County Municipality just to name a few, to offer our programs to their constituents. Many of these government bodies chose us after issuing official Request for Proposals (RFP) to which numerous companies responded. I even appeared before the Indiana legislature over ten years ago and convinced them to use our program, as had been selected by the RFP evaluators, even though there were many local Indiana businesses that protested this because we were headquartered in California.
We have also been chosen by school boards of large counties such as Palm Beach County and St. John County to offer online driver education courses as part of their school curriculum. Most recently, we signed a contract with a large education institution that provides content to most districts across the U.S. I regard this as a milestone because it attests to the excellent quality of our courses and the customer satisfaction of our company.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I only recall one story which was not funny at the time but is funny now. In the early days of my business, it would take me a great deal of effort to get in front of a judge to convince him or her to allow their constituents to use my online traffic school program. There was only one judge in Colorado who, at the time, was a big supporter of the traffic school idea on the internet. He would often call me in the middle of a busy day to have long conversations about the program and to share his ideas about how I could market to other judges and lawmakers or ways to make the program better. He once e-mailed me to tell me how he believed I could ascertain that users of the program were reading the material and asked me to call him back. So, I forwarded his email to my programmer and wrote something along the lines of: can you please call this judge and talk to him about this idea he has so I don’t have to call him, because when I call him, he keeps me on the phone forever, and I doubt his technical advice will be useful since he barely knows how to use the internet.
Instead of forwarding the email to my programmer, I hit reply and sent the email to the judge instead! The judge replied, saying that he believed I meant to send that email to someone else. At the time I was devastated. I thought this judge would turn every judge in Colorado against my program. To the contrary, he helped me get various Colorado counties to use my program, one court after another. The lesson I learned from that was to be very careful when sending e-mails and to also take the time to talk to people because you can either learn from them or they can help you somehow.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We offer traffic school and driver education courses both online and via an app. We have focused on offering top-tier courses enabled by a bug-free software that’s been tested for nearly 20 years by more than 6 million customers. We have not tried to expand into offering other types of courses and diversifying our portfolio. We do one thing and we do it very well, which is why over the years we have continuously been the chosen company to offer online traffic school and driver education courses on a large scale to government agencies, school districts, companies with fleets, brick and mortar driving schools, insurance companies and other companies with affinity programs.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
When I started my company, I worked long hours, from dawn until midnight, Monday through Sunday. I used to do a lot of the tasks myself that could have been delegated because I was such a perfectionist and wanted to have control over every little thing. At some point along the way, however, I learned that to grow big and grow fast, you can’t allow your desire for perfection to interfere with your momentum and progress. You need to stick to the motto I have come to adopt: release early, release often. Hire great people, train them well, and trust them — if they make a mistake, move on and make sure everyone learns from it.
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?
Robin Singh trusted me to help build and run TestMasters into the empire it is today. When it came time to start my own business, he let me use the TestMasters infrastructure and resources to build CyberActive.
The great part was that I was able to build my own company while still working at TestMasters, which helped me fund my business. It was a fun and challenging part of my life. I learned how to run a business and I learned to seek excellence at every turn because of Robin and his dedication to perfection in any product he produced. Working with him so closely turned me into a perfectionist and though it was an obstacle at times, it became the ingredient for my own success as I learned to balance it.
Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit?
- Do something you are passionate about, not just because you see an opportunity to make money.
- Find something that will make people’s lives better or easier, or find an existing business you believe you can do better. Once you do that, Grit will come naturally.
- Don’t give up because things don’t go your way in the beginning. Most things take a long time to cultivate.
- Shoot for the moon. If you want something to happen in your business, go for it and don’t let naysayers or haters deter you. Haters will always be doing worse than you, so remember that, and use their hate as your fuel to do even better.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
We have nothing if we don’t have our health. First, I would make regular health checkups free and mandatory, as well as tests for early disease-detection, such as cancer. I lost my best friend — my mom — to cancer due to lack of early detection. Such checkups should be mandatory.
Second, I would make work experience an essential part of any college curriculum — that helps people decide what they want to do in the future as opposed to guessing as students.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
People can follow me on Instagram @shenaim for an everyday look into my business and life!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!