3 Important Lessons for Founders

I recently had the opportunity to speak the founders of CoachUp, an online marketplace where athletes can connect with private coaches across a variety of sports. The site, which launched just three years ago, has started to see some significant growth in its user base and has attracted some big name professional coaches including Julian Edelman, a wide receiver on the New England Patriots and Steph Curry, the 2015 NBA MVP and NBA Champion. But before CoachUp got to where it is today, the founding team had to take an idea and prove it could be a viable company. Below are three lessons that any entrepreneur should know when pursuing his/her own endeavor.

  1. Be scrappy. In speaking with the guys from CoachUp, it was apparent that part of their success was due in part to their scrappiness. When the company was looking to grow its user base, they didn’t spend a ton of money on advertising but instead used many free resources available to them to reach their customers. They were able to identify watering holes where they could find the right people to fill their database; they went on LinkedIn, Facebook and other social sites and joined the relevant groups to get the word out and this free and scrappy method turned out to be extremely successful.
  1. Experiment to see what works and be nimble when you find out what does. For any innovation driven startup (meaning not a family-owned small business), the company is creating something that likely hasn’t existed before and as such, the only way to find out what really works is to experiment. For CoachUp, this lean method was utilized when trying to attract athletes to the site; initially they believed SEO and online methods would work as they had for attracting coaches, but after trying alternatives such as seeking partnerships with summer camps, the team quickly switched to a more effective method.  
  1. Know your customer and build your product for them. In the early days, CoachUp was able to attract an initial user base of coaches who were willing to sign up to the site without any pressure from the company. This genuine interest demonstrated that there was indeed an opportunity for a business, at least on the coaches’ side of the marketplace. As for the athletes, CoachUp did not offer any freemium type discounts because they wanted to see if the business model was viable from day one, and they found out it was. Once they had customers on both sides of the marketplace, they worked closely with them to build out the product and as such, were able to create a product that customers would like and use. To this day, they continue to request and receive feedback from customers and enhance the site to fulfill their requests.

The Common Core – Childhood Education

I serve on the Advisory Board of Our Lady Queen of Angels Elementary school (K-8), a member school of The Partnership of Inner-City Education. The school has spent a significant amount of time and money transitioning its curriculum as the Common Core State Standards Initiative comes into effect. If you’re unfamiliar, the Common Core is an educational initiative in the United States to establish educational standards across the country and to better prepare students for both college and the workforce. There is a significant amount of literature including this Business Insider article that supports the fact the United States’ education system is rapidly falling behind. The Common Core is one step that will hopefully curb this decline and help improve the quality of education and outcomes for children across the country.

The Common Core seeks to establish standards across math and English that will prepare students to become contributing citizens of the world. There are no specific reading requirements but students are expected to read a range of materials and subjects in order to acquire new insights and consider varying perspectives. General writing standards are given to support the development of logical claims and sound reasoning based on relevant evidence. In addition, students are required to write opinion pieces and focused research projects, aimed at developing research and written analytical skills. There is an emphasis on discussion-based learning, utilizing group projects and class presentations followed by collaborative discussions. Basically, what this says is that rather than being focused on reading and having teachers present facts, the education will be focused on understanding and reasoning; a shift that I am confident will promote the notion of knowledge but more importantly, intelligence and cognition. Another interesting change that I believe makes sense, is a shift away from teaching cursive handwriting and instead, focusing on modern forms of media including basic typing. In math, the focus has moved away from regurgitation of formulas and towards strategic thinking and reasonable problem solving. I recall much of my early mathematical education being focused on repetition and numerical problems. The Common Core is focused on application so, in a basic example, rather than teaching students that 2×2=4, teachers will utilize real life examples – if you have two apples and you double that amount, you will have four apples. This is not to say the multiplication tables will be eliminated but there is a stronger focus on application and comprehension. The Common Core provides high-level parameters that determine the specific level of knowledge students should attain in each grade. It allows schools and teachers to be creative in designing unique or shared curriculums that will lead to this now standard level of knowledge base.

I believe the adoption of the Common Core will help improve the quality of the education offered in this country and it will help produce valued individuals that will contribute to society. I recently listened to a podcast on Freakonomics Radio,Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem,” which raises another important question about the quality of our teachers. While the Common Core attempts to create standards of the level of education students should attain throughout his or her schooling, it does not effectively address the way in which we teach our youth. These teachers go through a Master’s program, studying theorems and principles of teaching with minimal application. Perhaps there should be a more immersive environment for teachers to receive his or her necessary post-secondary education – an environment that promotes more direct involvement with students. As the Common Core attempts to better prepare students for the “real world,” maybe there should be a system to better prepare teachers. This obviously does not apply to everyone, but I can say from experience, that there are many unqualified teachers in our public education system. Childhood education is a global investment, and one that will have major implications for our future. We should be doing everything in our power to prepare students and teachers alike with the best resources available.

Your Perceived Ideal: Setting Goals

A friend of mine recently said to me:

“My personality changes constantly; I have no idea who I’m going to be three years from now” 

Having had a similar realization recently, I knew exactly what he meant. Three years ago, I was sitting at my college graduation envisioning a lavish lifestyle in the ‘real world.’ I had a great job lined up as an investment banking analyst, I signed an apartment lease with two of my best friends (and one of their friends) and I was moving to the city where my female interest (Christina) resided. What more could I have asked for? With a college degree and a bright future ahead, it all seemed downhill from there – I anticipated I would get promoted, move into an extravagant apartment and eventually settle down.

During my college’s commencement address, Conan O’Brian said,

“It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique”  

At the time, I remember thinking to myself “Why don’t I just become my perceived ideal?” and I’ve only begun to understand the answer to that. The first reason is simple – Life doesn’t go the way you plan it. After working 364 days as an analyst I watched my peers happily get called into our manager’s office to receive their year-end compensation. After he called my name, I eagerly rushed into his office with a preconceived notion on how to allocate this lump sum, however, rather than a bonus, I was offered severance. Beyond the huge blow to my ego, this threw a troublesome wrench in my idealized plans. After the initial shock and anguish, I picked myself up and began aggressively applying to jobs, fortunately receiving two offers, ultimately landing a role at a middle-market investment bank. Having now worked here for almost two years, I can understand the second reason we don’t become our perceived ideals – Our ideals change over time. As time goes by, we become more comfortable in our own skin; our old relationships begin to fade, while new ones blossom; our principles become more coherent; and our desires begin to mature. My job experience has been invaluable in countless ways, yet, I’ve come to realize that investment banking is not my ideal. So while I couldn’t be happier with Christina, contrary to my original vision, I live in a dungeonesque pigsty and am rather discontent with my job; my experiences have taught me that I can hardly foresee my own future, and even if I could make a prediction, life likely has something else in store for me.

One thing I can say with confidence is that throughout all of the changes that transpire in my life, my family has stood by my side. My sister has been a particularly supportive mentor throughout the years, most recently encouraging me to write down my long-term goals. In addition to my 2- and 5-year goals, I have begun writing down my weekly and daily goals, and to be clear these are more minuscule goals such as ‘workout 3x’, ‘apply to 20 jobs’, ‘read 5 chapters’ etc. (not to be confused with my to-do list at work). There is plenty of literature that talks about the benefits of writing down goals including this Forbes article, however, for me, setting goals has given me a greater sense of purpose outside of my job, and more importantly, accomplishing them offers a unique sense of achievement. So while you may not know where your life will take you, set goals for yourself and envision your own future because it is through both the successes and failures you face in which you will define yourself.

P.S. My goal today was to start a blog.