In February 2014 Christy Wang, a student at MIT Sloan School of Management, interviewed Steven Cox, CEO and Founder of TakeLessons.com for her Entrepreneurship class. Here is the transcript of the interview.
1. How did you come up with the idea about TakeLessons? What made you set your mind to go into this business?
I’ve done start-ups for a little over ten years now. A few years ago, in addition to working at a startup, I was playing in rock bands. My drummer, Enrique Platas, was an incredible musician as well as an incredible person. Enrique was playing music to make a living, whereas I was playing music to kind of have fun. This was his livelihood and everything that he had studied. He had gotten a master’s degree in music performance, and everything he had built his life on was around music.
He had just gotten married very recently, and he and his wife were trying to buy their first house in San Diego, which was really expensive. He was talking to me and after a show one night, he said, “Hey, listen, I think I have to quit the band and go try to find another job.” I asked him why, and he replied, “I can’t make enough money playing music to support my life, and I just found out that my wife and I are going to have our first baby. What I’ve decided to do is give up my dream and give up playing music. Instead, I’m going to just find a job.”
That, for me, really hit home. It felt horrible that here’s a guy who had struggled all of his life to do something he wanted to do and couldn’t make a living doing it. So, we really set out from there to help him not take that job and see if he could make more money teaching. We built out the site and contacted other instructors in the area and found out that they had the same problems that Enrique had. “How do I find enough students? How do I market myself? How do I manage my business in such a way that allows me to make a living?” That’s kind of how the idea was started. We really based it on helping instructors and service providers find income so they could keep doing what they loved. In fact, Enrique never took that day job and still teaches for us today.
2. What are the vision and core values of your start-up?
I believe both values and visions are shaped over time. We didn’t sit down one day, and say “Oh, I read a book, and it said we need our core values, so let’s create some!” I think it was probably a year or year and a half after we had started the business before we had sat down as a group and asked ourselves, “How and what do we value as a company?” Our values really came from the way we acted on a day by day basis. They were congruent with the way the founders thought about the business. We have five core values in the company.
The first one is an ownership mentality, and what that means for us is that owners are self-motivated, self-aware, self-disciplined, and self-improving people. We look to hire those people first because that’s the way they treat the business. They’re the type of people who never feel “It’s not my job.” They’re the ones who take out the trash when the bag is full without being asked. They do what is in the best interest of the company without being asked and without their own self-interest. They make decisions in a way that even if it’s painful, those decisions are made based on what is best for the company.
Our second core value is respecting yourself and others. What that means for us is that we have a positive view of ourselves, and we feel like we can succeed. We hire people that we feel have levels of mutual respect to where we can acknowledge and listen to our teammates’ thoughts and opinions—even if we disagree with them. The truth is that we are looking for the right answer instead of the answer that we might have particularly came up with. It’s truly a collaborative environment.
The third core value is called building stuff we’re proud of. Basically, that means that when we are getting involved in new products or when we’re looking at new business opportunities, we want to be able to be involved with products, services, and partnerships that we can look back on with a sense of pride and integrity. We can wake up each morning and go to bed each night with a clear conscious that we’re honest and fair in our actions and that we do our job with integrity, humility, and transparency.
The fourth core value that we have is called constant and never-ending improvement, or CANI for short. For us, that simply means that first and foremost, we’re good today, but we can be much, much better tomorrow. Because we believe we can be better tomorrow, we feel responsible for our own personal growth and believe in having a plan to constantly grow and get better. We open ourselves up to curiosity and making mistakes because we know that’s part of getting better at what we do.
The final core value is persistence, and basically, that means that we believe that we can win. We will persist even when there are rocks in the road and walls in our paths. It doesn’t mean we’re fearless because we have fear every day, but it means that we have certainty that we can win, even in the face of those obstacles.
3. What is the most difficult part of growing your business? How do you choose the right partners in the beginning, and what makes a good business partner?
Start-ups go through different phases within their lifetime, and each phase will be riddled with different sorts of difficulties. Very early on, we’re trying to find the right set of co-founders as well as the product market fit, which means answering the question, “Is there something the product solves in the mind of the customer that the customer will end up paying for?”
Once you accomplish those things, it shifts to a different phase of the business and keeps shifting to different sets of problems. The problems never go away. For me, I focus on is “PCP,” and that stands for people, capital, and process. I want to make sure I find the right people to not only accomplish the job today but to be able to lead tomorrow. Second is capital. I have to make sure we have enough capital and money in the bank to exercise properly against the plan we have in place. Third is process which means that we keep building systems in such a way that we can duplicate the systems and replicate the systems so that way the business scales. That’s a very important third part of the business once you’ve started getting traction.
** More of the interview will be posted next week **