Creating Corporate Culture – John Assaraf Interview Part 6

By Business Philosophy, Company Culture, Entrepreneur Insights, Speaking, Start-Ups,, Videos No Comments

Part 6 in the video series. Subscribe for email alerts when more videos are posted.

More from this series:

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 1

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 2

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 3

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 4

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 5

John Assaraf sat down with Steven Cox, CEO of, to discuss what it means to create and maintain a thriving corporate culture. In this interview, Cox defines corporate culture, outlines steps entrepreneurs can take to define their company’s culture and shows how a strong culture can translate into other great gains for any organization.

Assaraf: And your BHAG is?

Cox: We want to be a billion dollar company within six years.

A: With a “B”. Six years, a billion dollar company, and I’d bet my money on him achieving it, trust me.

C: And the second part of that, we want to be a billion dollar company but we also want to be one of America’s top one hundred companies to work for. So for our value system, both of these things have to produce well; the ecosystem of the way we’re making money and the way we develop people. So let’s talk a little bit about our core values and how they came about. So, we had been in business for a couple years, and core values aren’t the kind of thing that you sit down one day and say, “Steven said we need core values so let me write some things down because I think they’ll help me make money.” These are things that you actually just discover as you start working with people, again even if you’re a one man or woman operation, you’ll know these about yourself. Over time, we came up with five core values and I’ll show you how we got to those core values here in a minute. So we have five core values that we developed over time as well as a core purpose and a reason for being. We exist to make a positive lasting impact on millions of people. We specifically picked every single word of that reason for being. We exist not to make a lasting impact, but it has to be positive. We exist not just to make an impact, but it has to be lasting. So we want to be involved in business that is good, holistic by nature, that has the ability to make something that people remember long term, that has the long term impact. It’s not enough for us to make an impact on hundreds of people. That’s a good start but it doesn’t excite me. Knowing my value system, I need huge impact, millions of people.

A: So let me ask you a question. When you started six years ago, did you start off with here are my five core values and here is my core purpose and reason for being?

C: No.

A: I want everyone to understand that. This is an evolution. You’re seeing six years experience that could help you get there a lot faster, these great ideas.

C: Yes. Again, this is something that’s discovered over time and it’s things that you look at and say, how do I know that that’s my core value? It’s things you look at and say, if other people or the marketplace were to turn on me because I had these values, I would still have them. And that’s the true litmus test.

A: So if the marketplace or others would turn on you, you’d still keep those values.

C: That’s right. Even if it’s detrimental to the company; to us and our ability to make money, would we still do this?

A: That’s your core essence. That’s your nucleus, what we’re talking about. You are your nucleus no matter how many divisions there are or what happens. You are the nucleus.

C: And if you can find that, what you have is a True North. You have the ability to understand why you’re in business, as Simon Sinek says, the power of understanding why you want to do things instead of just how or when. There’s an interesting thing that happened throughout the company that I’ll share with you. The core people, we had a core group of about five or six people that were there when we started and those people again are all still with us, and these core values really resonated with us. But as we started hiring people and we started bringing them on and we started training them in core values, we would say, these are our core values and they would kind of shake their head. We found out that when we started describing them, they had different views of what they meant than we did. It really helped us understand that when you build a culture it’s not enough to say, here are my values. We have to get descriptive of what that value means. So I’d like to walk through a couple of our values and explain. My value may be different from yours. And as a company, this allows us to look at someone and say does this person coming in resonate with the value system as we have described it?

Part 6 in the video series. Subscribe for email alerts when more videos are posted.

More from this series:

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 1

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 2

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 3

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 4

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 5

Creating Corporate Culture – John Assaraf Interview – Part 5

By At Work, Business Philosophy, Company Culture, Entrepreneur Insights, Speaking, Start-Ups,, Videos No Comments

Part 5 in the video series. Subscribe for email alerts when more videos are posted.

More from this series:

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 1

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 2

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 3

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 4

John Assaraf sat down with Steven Cox, CEO of, to discuss what it means to create and maintain a thriving corporate culture. In this interview, Cox defines corporate culture, outlines steps entrepreneurs can take to define their company’s culture and shows how a strong culture can translate into other great gains for any organization.

Assaraf: So let’s get into how you designed culture, because you’ve taken the time in your old offices, in your spectacular new office and I’ve seen your growth over the last year and a half two years. You did this by design. You didn’t do this by luck. You said this is who I am, this is what I stand for. You had your initial core employees who you brought on board and most of them are still with you.

Cox: That’s correct.

A: You’ve built a 300 person company now and growing at lightening speed. How did you design this?

C: First of all, I’d like to show you another chart here. This is our revenue growth. Without any numbers attached to it, you can see that that’s exactly the kind of growth that companies like to see. When I say what I am about to tell you, I do attribute our growth to culture. Good strategy, smart people, it’s a must, but how we got those people on the bus is absolutely key to what we do.

First of all, just a little background on what we do. In essence, we’re America’s largest music lesson company. We give music lessons, and these are personal one on one lessons, in a customer’s home or at a studio in 3,000 cities across the US. When we first started, we started with the idea, how do we revolutionize services on the web? We wanted to do something that was powerful. We wanted to do something that truly made a difference from a technical perspective and use technology to drive services on to the web. I wasn’t 22 anymore; I was now in my 30’s and being a student of yours and Brian Tracey and those sorts of people it was very important to me that not only do I build a company but that I make a difference along the way.

So when we first started off, it was from design, like you mentioned. We said, we are going to make sure and focus on as Jim Collins says, getting the right people on the bus. We looked and we looked and I brought a second person on board. His name is Chuck and he shared the same sort of values. That was six or seven years ago and Chuck is still with me today. I found Drew and Chris and they’re both still with me today. We talked to so many people and said, do you share the same value and core system that we have? We purposely designed a company in such a way that longterm you could take me out, you could take Chuck out, any of the cofounders, and the company would keep humming along, growing like crazy based on the value system, not necessarily based on a single individual.

A: And he will share the value system with you today so you understand this.

C: Yes.

A: Just so you know, we’re learning a ton from Steven and his team to bring these types of designs to Praxis Now also. So as Steven says he may have learned some stuff from me and Bryan and other individuals, we’re learning from him and we’re sharing back and forth all the time. One of the things that Steven does phenomenally well is personal and professional growth on a constant basis, CANI, constant and never ending improvement. He’s always willing to give and always willing to learn. So, I’ll let you keep going.

C: I’d like to show you a couple more slides to build credibility to show what the company is doing and to show our growth. These are our active paying customers that are growing. We have service providers, these are teachers, that actually give the lessons and you can see that this chart mimics the growth, which is what we want to see, even in the recession. So what I’d like to do is talk a little bit about what culture meant to us and how we went about defining our core values. Culture is a combination of the language we use within the company and the symbols, stories that we have, how we work amongst each other, how we work amongst our suppliers and our service providers as well, as well as how we make decisions as to what’s right and what’s wrong for the company.

About 5 to 6 years ago I was reading a book by Jim Collins, Good to Great, and if you haven’t read the book I highly recommend it. It’s an incredible book written by an exceptional author. Basically, he says the way that you get to a vision is you have to be very, very clear on what things you value and what is your key reason for being in business, the core purpose. And that is something that does not change. That is something that is core to what you do. Then you marry that with what we call the envisioned future and that is, you look long term. He calls it BHAG’s, if you’re familiar with that.

A: Big Hairy Audacious Goals

C: Right. These are things that if you were actually to tell them to people in the general public, this is where I want to go as a company, they’d kinda look at you like you’re crazy, like your head’s popped off. The typical response is, “you’ll never do that.” And that means you’ve got a perfect BHAG.

Part 5 in the video series. Subscribe for email alerts when more videos are posted.

More from this series:

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 1

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 2

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 3

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 4



I have $5,000 For You – Refer Me a Director of Product!

By Start Up San Diego, No Comments


$5,000 bounty – Yes, $5,000 – for anyone who refers to us the person who we hire for Director of Product at TakeLessons.

The person must be an absolute rock star. Please email Megan Liscomb ( with an intro to the person you are referring. Job description here: TakeLessons Hiring for Director of Product Management –










My Interview on the Brian Britt Show: Part 2 of 2

By At Work, Speaking, Start-Ups, No Comments

I had the opportunity to go on the Brian Britt Show and talk about music and the TakeLessons story. Check it out below:

Listen to the podcast.

The transcription is below if you'd rather read.


Brian Britt: Fantastic. So really what you're saying is you took your ability as a techie and obviously you were involved in a lot of start up companies. you took that ability and you married it together with a need for all these people who probably weren't very techie to be able to come together and find eachother, almost like a for teachers. And I met my wife on, and we have so many friends and even family members who have met their spouses on so, that's a perfect example of people who may have never found eachother who can come into the relationship knowing something about each other, in this case the student or the parent, who's going to be very protective of who they allow to come in their home, they can know a lot about this music instructor and know that you guys stake your reputation on making sure that this person had the proper background check done. I love it. So let's go back to the story, because this is such a fascinating story to me, So you had this epiphany, how did you go from, cuz we all have these kind of great ideas in the shower or the margarita bar, how did you go from that idea to putting it into motion. What were your action steps as the successful CEO you are today. What was your first thing you did to go from, wow, wouldn't that be cool to go to hey, I'm doing it! What did you do?

Steven Cox: I think if I take a look back, our first step, well the biggest thing was, we were driven by this idea. We thought it was a solid idea. We approached it from the viewpoint of hey, this looks like a very good experiment, let's try it out. And one thing that I tell startups when I have the opportunity to talk with them is that for the first couple years, really what you're looking for is proof of concept. Can you develop something that people will pay for, that people enjoy, creates a difference and has some kind of competitive advantage. So we worked on the idea and started fleshing it out. I had personally put my own money in on it to start with and recruited an incredible group of four or five people around me, and they're all still with me today. What was cool about this, and this is the way of life of a start up specifically in technology which we were based and how we were doing this; for instance, my VP of technology Chuck Smith, he went without pay for a year and a half and literally built the system. And so what's great about that is he came in and we found people who were really passionate about the idea of bringing services to the web as well as helping artists make a living doing what they love to do.

We started building it and I'd love to say Brian from day one everything went perfect, we had no issues…

BB: We would know then that you were not telling the truth! You have to make the mistakes!

SC: But the truth of the matter is that we started working out of a local Starbucks, three or four guys, we started understanding a little bit about the value that we provide to the marketplace went through three or four different iterations of what we do as far as the value that we provide and after about a year into it, we started understanding, after listening to the consumer, getting it wrong, listening to the consumer getting it wrong again, listening to the consumer, the value that we provide and honestly, one of our core values inside the company, is called perseverance. Basically, that means certainty in the face of fear and that's really the key to our success is that we just kept going.


My Interview on the Brian Britt Show: Part 1 of 2

By At Work, Start Up San Diego, Start-Ups, No Comments

I had the opportunity to go on the Brian Britt Show and talk about music and the TakeLessons story. Check it out below:

Listen to the podcast.

The transcription is below if you'd rather read.


Brian Britt: I'm here today with Steven Cox, he is the founder and CEO of America's largest music lesson company, TakeLessons, the website is, which is an online service that matches music teachers with students in over 3,000 cities across America. I just think this is one of the neatest ideas I've ever heard! I noticed that your mission is to make a positive lasting impact on millions of people through music. How did you come up with the idea of TakeLessons?

Steven Cox: Sure, so we very specifically picked those particular words, if you look at our mission to make a positive, lasting impact. So, first of all, positive. When we first started off, it's something that I personally believe in as well, if you're going to make some kind of impact, let's make it as positive as you can on as many people as possible. I think that some folks are built to make a good impact on 5 people, on 50 people, but we personally believe we have the option to make that sort of impact on millions and millions of people all throughout the nation. I come from a very musically oriented family. My grandparents cut records, my parents cut records, all my brothers are still session players and they play, they're very very musically oriented.

BB: You had no choice did you!

SC: I'm actually the least musically oriented out of the entire group, to be honest with you. I kinda got the half music gene and the half business gene.

BB: Which means you can actually afford to buy instruments.

SC: Yeah, so what's really cool about it is I played in bands all my life and djed to pay my way through college in clubs and those sorts of thing and just been absolutely involved in music since I was probably four or five years old.

BB: Did I see a pic of you playing guitar on the website?

SC: Probably, yeah, guitar and bass and a little bit of keyboard and all of those things. In between I had done internet startups. That's my true, real business and I had been doing that for about 15 years. After the second one I had done I had taken a little bit of time off and was able to do something I was passionate about as well as internet companies, and while I was doing that, all along this time I had been in bands. I remember this very specific band I was in, we were a two piece band at the time. It was me and my buddy Enrique and we were here in San Diego and he was really, really awesome at music, he had a masters degree in music performance, incredible musician as well as an awesome, awesome person, and here I was, I was kind of okay, pretty good, but not quite as good as him. And after a gig in Encinitas we went to drink margaritas which is what we did after gigs and he said hey, I have to quit the band. And I'm thinking, you're the only one who's any good!

If you quit the band, this is really bad for me! So I got to talking with him and he had just got married. He and his wife were trying to buy a house in Encinitas, which on a musician's salary.. well, on anyone's salary quite honestly is tough to do. He goes, "I just found out I have a little baby on the way and I can't make a living as a musician, so I'm going to go take a job at Chili's as a busboy to pay my bills." And here I am thinking, here's this incredible person who has a passion, 6 years of experience in school trying to make a living doing this and that's horrible!

BB: Kind of an epiphany for you. You saw the lightbulb, like this is not right.

SC: That's exactly the case. I was doing it more for fun, he was doing it for a carreer. I said are you trying teaching? He said, I've got my poster it's hanging up at the local drug store and nobody's calling me. I said, why don't you use the internet for that? He said I don't know how. I said, well, I've done a couple start ups, that's kind of my gig, so why don't I help you. And the more we got into it and this was 2006 at the time, it happens to be a three billion dollar industry completely ignored by technology per say.

BB: So music lessons is a 3 billion dollar industry? I would have never guessed that in a million years and I'm a money guy. I would have been way off on that.

SC: It's giant, there are so many of these, they call them niche markets, that happen to be multi-billion dollar industries. We took a look at this and in essence there was a theorum that we had that I had along the way that we had seen product move to the web in a big way. We had seen Amazon, Zappos was selling shoes; people said no one's gonna buy shoes on line but here it is. And so we had a general thesis that at some point in the future services were going to move to the web in a big way, similar to the way product had moved to the web and we thought, wow what a great idea to test. First of all, it helps Enrique stay out of Chili's and make a living doing what he loves to do

BB: He could actually afford to go eat at Chili's instead of having to be a busboy!

SC: You got it. And the second thing was, that it's very very difficult to try to find a great instructor. And when I was doing some research I had a good friend who had a nine year old daughter and she was a single mom and I said, hey, how would you go about finding an instructor? And she said, well, I guess I would just ask my mom groups, that's about all I could do.

BB: Or maybe from the schools or what have you?

SC: You got it. And i said you could do that online, you could go to maybe, perhaps Craigslist. And she looked at me like my head had popped off. She's like, are you crazy? There's no way I'm going to go to Craigslist and find some long haired dude with tattoos to invite him in to my house to spend time with my kids.

BB: Wow, isn't that true. So there's a safety issue here in people's minds.

SC: Exactly. She goes you know, it's very very creepy.

BB: Because any serial murderer could advertise on Craigslist and say hey, I'm a music teacher!

SC: It's not just with music teachers, it's with all services in general, it's a very… not to knock Craigslist, they don't control necessarily the content, but there's a lot of shady things that happen.

BB: It's just like a community bulletin board online, no background checking, no nothing.

SC: Exactly. So that's really the problem that we look to solve. Number one is how you make it drop dead easy to find a safe certified instructor that is background checked that has references, and that's what we do with all our instructors. The second thing is, how do you help artists make a living doing what they love to do and keep them out of Chili's. The whole premise of the idea was that we want to empower people to make a living doing what they love to do and music has personally affected my life, it's affected your life, it's probably affected the lives of nine out of ten of your listeners in a positive way. That's something that we wanted to do, kind of as a life mission, is to make that positive lasting impact on people.

The Digital Frontier – A Showcase of San Diego’s Entrepreneurial Innovation (Clip 4 of 8)

By At Work, Start Up San Diego, Start-Ups,, Videos, Web and Tech No Comments

On Wednesday, 4/18, a few local tech entrepreneurs spoke at the 6Degrees Breakfast Speakers series on digital startups and innovation here in San Diego.

Topic: The Digital Frontier – A Showcase of San Diego's Entrepreneurial Innovation. In this segment, the panelists discuss what makes San Diego a great place to do business.


Moderator: You all are running really dynamic and exciting business is right here in San Diego. You could be doing this anywhere in the world, the work you're doing you can do from anywhere. Why are you here in San Diego, and none of you are allowed to answer the question because of the weather, okay? So, Scot, obviously, you wanna talk about that.

Scot Chisolm: Well, we were working at local firms. So, it was just part we were already here and we have a phenomenal team that came out of San Diego and I think, you know, moving forward I think everyday gets more exciting to have a firm, especially in the technology and Internet space, in San Diego communities growing, so that makes it really exciting for us and to see other companies have successes around us and to have more of these type of events that we were just talking to Steven about don't have any event in their office to watch the Padres and tech community together at least to our understanding that's the type of stuff that didn't really happen two or three years ago and it's really awesome for our staff to be excited about being part of this community. So, that's part of the thing that wants, you know, that has kept us here and we are going to have a lot of fun and moving

And the second piece is we go out to San Francisco along for partnerships and investments and certainly the capitalism there for most part at least for our space, but it's very noisy out there and it's distracting and one thing down here is that we can just move forward and focus and we don't have to worry about 18 different competitors starting in the same space and then you know turning out three months later working the same.

We need to do it right and move forward and have the community support us, which is awesome. And I don't think you can find that in San Francisco.

Moderator: Good point.

Mitch Thrower: You know, what a great place San Diego. And I found myself in San Diego following the sport of triathlon in 1993 and was in the entrepreneurship space. How many folks have tried to recruit a developer? Raise your hand. So it's a tough deal. Now I would encourage try recruiting developer in the bay area and it's even more challenging.

So what I've found is that there are so many great things about San Diego and you have to really focus on providing lifestyle dollars that pay off to the people that you're working with which is create great companies with a great environment, because what makes you happy is three things: where you're working, what you're working on, and who you're working with, and that means San Diego gives you the capacity to have all three.

Steven Cox: Well this is home so I'm not going anywhere. Ok. And even when we were raising money a couple venture firms asked us, well, would we consider moving, and the answer was point-blank no. It's not in the cards, not what we're looking to do, and in essence we make the argument, the case that it's 40% cheaper to live in San Diago than it is in the bay area so that's one thing going for it.

There is less competition for instance for developers so you can find good people down here for sure. And the biggest thing is I'm committed to building an ecosystem, as all of these gentlemen and lots of folks here in the audience are. We have an opportunity here in San Diego, by pooling together and start developing something that we can all grow from. If, you know, Mitch's company grows and Jimmy's company grows, all it does is feeds everybody.

And so that's really what my personal passion is about is helping develop an ecosystem where we can all grow and develop something and put San Diego on the map for start-ups.

Jimmy Hendricks: You know, I think people just put it backwards. They say you move to San Diego to start a business. I think you move to San Diago and then start a business, it's not move to start a business.

It's like your relationship; it just starts and you grow and you don't leave. It's all who you work with. So, once you have a team and you have five or six people that believe in you and you start having ten and then, you know, hopefully get up to like ninety, like you have so many relationships.

I mean why would you just pull up your roots? I mean, it's great place to live and have a personal life. I think it's one of them places you can be really balanced because running a business probably takes the most stress on you happen in your life, most of all, and you know, quality of life outside of work makes you able to work those long hours at different times, so that's why it's fun.

Lars Helgeson: So, I moved to San Diego and started a business. I'm a liar. No, actually I grew up here. When I was in the military I was stationed in New Mexico and I wanted to come back here because my mom was here. That's family. I wanted to start a business and as it turned out, the really cool thing is as you get to know more people you realize the business community in San Diego really isn't that big.

For as large of a city as it is, I mean it was funny because I got the pamphlet about this event and I knew everybody, and I look around the room and I know a lot of people and I think if you're in a larger environment if you're in LA or San Francisco or New York that doesn't happen. Here you and a sense of impactual fluidity, like Steven was talking about.

It's a sense of we know who we are, we know who the people that make a difference are, and we want to help each other because the community is small enough that it's not this anonymous see of faces and people and businesses that are coming and going. We're all here because we want to be here and we're trying make it work for the long term.

And I don't think that I haven't run into that many people or you know, the kinds of people that start businesses and then disappear or the kinds of people that just kind of drift in and out. Because it seems like people come here because they want to be part of the community for a long time I think that's what makes this San Diego and events like this really special.