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Interview - Steven Cox | San Diego, CA

Creating Corporate Culture: Interview with John Assaraf Part 9 and 10

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

John Assaraf sat down with Steven Cox, CEO of TakeLessons.com, 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.

Part 9 in the video series. Subscribe for email alerts when more videos are posted.

Part 10 in the video series. Subscribe for email alerts when more videos are posted.

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 – Part 6

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 7

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 8

Cox: Because of the belief system that we have, we do not treat people that way. Nor will we be treated that way. It’s just the value system that we had that was correct for us and it was the best thing that we’ve ever done for the culture of the company. It wasn’t planned. These sorts of serendipitous things will happen in your own organization as you grow and you find out that when push comes to shove, you’re not going to deviate from this.

Assaraf: This is what I stand for.

C: This is what I stand for. People still tell that story today in the company about how we do things. The third value we have is Build Stuff You’re Proud Of. And the story on this is, being a tech company, we had been involved, not as owners, but as workers at other tech companies where what they tried to do throughout the nineties is do just enough to make it look like they had a product to get some sucker to buy them and sell their company to another company. We decided early on that we didn’t want to be one of those sorts of companies. We wanted to do something that we could look back on and we wanted to build a site that we’re very, very proud of. That has resonated with us and kept us very, very true to what we do.

If given the choice between building things right and building things quick, we choose building it right. In the tech world, that means we move a little bit slower than others. We’ve been round and round with investors about that but at the same time, we want to build things the right way. That has expanded out from technology into every area of the company. So if you’re in Customer Support, have calls you’re proud of. If you’re in Marketing or Sales, sell things that you’re proud of, cut deals that you’re proud of. Write code that you’re proud of. All this means is contributing in such a way that it makes a positive, lasting difference in millions of people. See how now it ties in with our core purpose.

A: It ties in with your purpose. You get that?

C: So the values systems stack up and start resonating together.

A: I love this stuff.

C: This next one, this is my own personal litmus test. The way I describe it is, I want to build stuff I’m proud of. What am I proud of? This is my grandfather, he’s 92 and I want to build things that my grandfather would use and be proud of using. For me, he’s the best guy I know, the most honest guy and he’s my personal litmus test. If you can find this sort of thing for you, then you know. You’re always faced in business with so much opportunity. The big key is being able to decide what to say no to. You’ll have lots and lots of opportunities to say yes, lots of people pulling you in different directions. If you can learn to say no based on a value system, it makes the world a lot easier.

A: Make your default “no” and then move to “yes” is what I always tell people because we’re all so wanting to help everyone else. We have this opportunity and this opportunity and we need to start saying no to everything and moving towards yes and having reasons for moving towards yes, then that gives you a much easier framework to deal with. Love that.

C: Absolutely.

A: CANI!

C: CANI! You’re very familiar with that. This one is borrowed from Anthony Robbins…

A: Who borrowed it from the Japanese Kai Zen.

C: Right, it’s all borrowed and that’s okay. You don’t have to come up with these yourself but what’s important is that it’s true. And this is one of my own personal beliefs and it ties in with the innovation of the company. As a company, growth isn’t serendipitous, growth isn’t okay; it’s required. It’s a big difference. You can feel the difference even as I say that. We are expected when we’re hiring someone in they know today is great, tomorrow’s got to be better. Tomorrow after that has to be better. Not only as a company but we actually want you as a person to grow. Because we believe if we can get you to grow and to learn these life lessons and set goals, we teach people to set goals within the company, accomplish those goals, you can apply that to your personal life, apply that to your business life. In general, that makes you a happier person. Happier people are just cooler to work with.

Part 10 in the video series. Subscribe for email alerts when more videos are posted.

Assaraf: Let me ask you a question. When you say, today is okay, tomorrow’s gonna be better, the next day is gonna be even better than that, I want to make sure people get this distinction. It’s not that you’re not or we’re not good enough today, right? What I hear and what I know of you is, we’re capable of growing individually, professionally, personally and as a business if we have this focus on just getting better. Not from a scarcity or negative perspective; it’s from a human growth and fulfill our potential perspective. That’s the message that you share with your employees.

Cox: Exactly. If you go back to the prior value of Respect for yourself, I have no problem telling my team and them telling me and everyone in the company going, wow, we are really awesome. In fact, I expect that. We want awesome people. We want them to be able to look and say, I absolutely rock. And, that’s good enough for today. Tomorrow I am going to rock even harder. That’s just what we do as a company. We are totally accepting that we are awesome as we are, and I say that actually in a very humble way, it’s not in a bragging way. No matter how awesome we are today, what we do know is the world keeps moving. Things keep going on and part of the joy is keeping up and getting ahead.

A: And by the way, what I want to make sure that you’re all in agreement and accordance with is that these are Steven’s and his team’s values, alright? They’re not yours. If they happen to be yours, that’s great, but this isn’t about taking Steven’s and his company’s values and making them yours. This is really about identifying your own and living that truth, that purpose, that value system, so that you’re living your life for your purpose and what you stand for and what you stand against as well. Some people might say, oh my God, that’s too much pressure, I don’t want that kind of pressure. Well, he thrives in it and so do I. Other people say, oh my God, if tomorrow’s got to be better than yesterday and the day before, I’m in chaos, I don’t like that, that’s cool. But you find people in your team that that’s cool with as well so that you make your growth and your day to day life easier to handle and manage.

C: Right. Someone’s value system could be, I don’t live to work, I work to live, or something, which means I am going to limit my time to 30 hours a week. That could be someone’s value system and that’s just as relevant for them as our value systems are for us. So again, back to Lady Gaga, there is no right or wrong culture. It’s finding what’s true for you.

A: That’s the key.

C: Our final value is Perseverance. We’ve defined that as certainty in the face of obstacles. This really came from a story and I’m sure this will resonate with you guys as well. We were trying out different models and again, we were self-funded, and we were basically down to a couple paychecks left. We weren’t making a lot of money to start with. All the guys were taking a discount on what they should be earning. It was basically down to the wire and I said, guys, we either have to do something this month and make this happen or we’re not going to be around next month. So, what do you want to do? It was quiet in the room and they were all kind of sitting there and they said, well, we better work hard then. We better get back to work. It was the perseverance of not even accepting the idea that we would quit. Quitting is not an option. It’s easy to say, it’s harder to do when you’re down to the last dime, knowing that, hey, if we don’t make something happen it’s going to be a difficult situation here in just a couple weeks. And it was those sorts of things that we’ve applied in different areas of the company as well. It’s perseverance when we’ve kicked off several versions of the website and we thought it was awesome and we did testing and it completely bombed. What we did is we simply back-tracked and we tried it again. So now we have a culture of innovation where trying things is cool and the expectation of failure is okay. In other words, the idea of not trying something because it might fail, is just completely not within our value system at all.

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 – Part 6

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 7

Creating Corporate Culture – Part 8

 

Creating Corporate Culture – John Assaraf Interview – Part IV

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

 

Part 4 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

John Assaraf sat down with Steven Cox, CEO of TakeLessons.com, 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: As Steven was talking, I was thinking of Barbra Streisand’s song, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”

Cox: John’s been taking voice lessons with us.

A: No I  have not! I’m just trying to make you laugh a little bit. So let me ask you all a question so we can get a little feedback loop going. Do you all agree that it’s all about people, it’s all about making a difference? Making a profit is good, but the number one focus is creating a culture and company with people who love and value what you value as well.
Kristen, what’s some feedback from our group here?

Kristen: They’re all agreeing with what you said. Business should be more about the people. We don’t have any questions as of yet. I assume we’ll get some.
Great, let’s keep going.

C: Sometimes I’m asked, this seems like a lot of soft, feel-good stuff, how do you balance the necessity to produce profit with focusing on people and producing a culture that people want to be a part of. I’m a finance guy by trade and that’s what I studied in school so I want to give you some data, not from me, it’s actually from people a lot smarter than me, that backs up what we’re talking about and what we’re saying here.

Two professors from a little university called Harvard, which you’ve probably heard of, have completed an 11 year study on the effects of how people are using culture within public companies. These aren’t private companies; you can actually get results and know what the financials and what the revenue growth of these corporations are. They divided companies into a weak culture group, where the value of culture has not been emphasized whatsoever, it’s kind of just roughshod, do whatever you want. Then there’s a strong culture, and there’s four main divisions along the way. So they took a look at the bottom percentage with a weak culture and then they looked at companies with a strong emphasis on culture. They were completely blown away by the differences between those types of corporations. The companies with a strong emphasis on culture had expanded their workforce by fivefold of the people with weak culture. More important, or just as important, the revenue growth was exponential and the stock price was 900%. It’s unbelievable. And yes, there are other factors probably associated with this, but this is a data point that without a doubt makes a huge, huge difference.

The bottom line is that if you can get the alignment of your people with your mission and your vision and your values, you create a force, a force that’s unstoppable because you’re all marching in the same direction. Whether that is two people, four people, 400, 4,000, the rules are still consistent. Culture helps everyone get on the same page and march in the same direction.

Another study, there’s a group called Dennison Consulting, they’re based out of Canada as well as in Switzerland, and they’ve also completed many many studies on this and they look at financial data. Companies that have focused more on their culture and developing out with clear indicators of what we stand for versus companies that have no indications of these, and this isn’t just something they hang on a wall and say “these are our corporate values”. Enron had those. This is something where they went in and studied and queried the employees and said, does this corporation live the value system that they say? For those that do, the return on assets is unbelievable compared to the bottom group. The sales growth, again, is unbelievable. These are absolute key factors in what drives a company. It’s undeniable. We’ve experienced that just in our own business as well.

More from this series:

Creating Corporate Culture – Praxis Now Interview Part 1

Creating Corporate Culture – Praxis Now Interview Part 2

Creating Corporate Culture – Praxis Now Interview Part 3

Creating Corporate Culture – John Assaraf Interview – Part 2

By Business Philosophy, Company Culture, Speaking, Videos No Comments

 

Part II in the video series:

More from this series: Creating Corporate Culture – Praxis Now Interview Part 1

John Assaraf sat down with Steven Cox, CEO of TakeLessons.com, 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 me ask you a question. When you talk about values that “I” have or values that “we” have, as the CEO of a one person company or five or ten, and I know you started off small, bootstrapping your business and I want to talk about that as well today, this is a great entrepreneur to listen to, when you talk about your values, you’re really not talking about what you think your client’s values are or what kind of values you should have in order to appeal to people. You’re really talking about what do you believe at the core of your being. Is that accurate?

Cox: Absolutely. So many people, I’ve talked to other entrepreneurs and they think, well, I’ve got to design my company based on what values my customer has. We actually take the opposite approach to that. The values that you have as a person, they’re you. That’s who you are; they’re the core. Those values should be authentic, absolutely authentic to who you are and they should be what drives the company. What’s right in my company may not be what’s right in your company. What’s most important is that there is no one right culture. We’ll get into that a little bit more. But the whole idea is that culture is about authenticity. Some people value “the customer is always right”, and if you honestly believe that, you have got to live that day in and day out. One of our values is Constant and Never-ending Improvement and we’ll walk through examples of some of these from our own corporate culture and how we came up with these. That simply means for us, in all situations, where we are today cannot be where we are tomorrow. It’s a personal belief that I’ve held since listening to Brian Tracey when I was 18 growing up, driving in my little Mazda, but those sorts of things are what really carry us. It’s the things that do not change. There are so many things that happen in business, so many ups, so many downs, so many pitfalls, and you have to have a belief system and a value system so no matter what happens, even if it’s to the detriment of the company, you will not change. One of the questions that we ask in an interview, for anyone in the company, is what are values within the company that if the company does not exemplify them, you would not want to be a part of it? That gives a really good insight. We were interviewing a candidate yesterday for a VP position and he said they have to have absolute respect, up and down, for all people within the organization. That was critical to him. Knowing those values for yourself allows you to see if that person is vibing with you and would vibe within the organization, and if you’re seeking a job it allows you to know if that company would vibe with you as well.

A: So this is the core. Who are you? What do you stand for? What don’t you stand for or won’t stand for? That’s really how you develop the nucleus of what you stand for in yourself and that’s how you build from you to the next employee to the next employee to the next employee.

C: Something that I say, and this goes back to being authentic, I’m sure we’ve all heard of Lady Gaga and Adele. They have two very different types of modes of communication. Which one is right? The answer is both. And they’re right because they’re being authentic to who they are. It’s the same thing in culture. As long as you’re authentic, you will go farther than anything made up based on what the customer wants to hear or based on what you think is hot in the industry. So many people, especially back in the internet days, they made those mistakes and they tried to build companies based on a fleeting level of success. They tried to base companies on what could be done to gain funding, kind of massage these sites, with no true basis for why they want to be in business. I think that was to the detriment of a lot of companies back then.

A: I would agree with you. And you know what’s interesting? Adele just won a whole slew of awards recently at the Grammys. Her career is taking off and she stayed true to her culture and if  you don’t know Lady Gaga, she’s making $30 million a year just off of her Twitter account. I think last year she made upwards of $80 million in revenue. That’s a perfect example of individuals who are true to their values that are making a ton of impact and making a ton of money as well.

More from this series:

Creating Corporate Culture – Praxis Now Interview Part 1

Creating Corporate Culture – John Assaraf Interview – Part 1

By Business Philosophy, Company Culture, Speaking, Videos 2 Comments

 

Part I of the series. Subscribe now for updates when the other videos are posted.

John Assaraf sat down with Steven Cox, CEO of TakeLessons.com, 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: Hi everyone, this is John Assaraf, CEO of Praxis Now and with me is a very dear friend of mine Steven Cox and Steven is part of my mastermind group and I’m part of his mastermind group. He’s the CEO of TakeLessons.com which is a company that is serving tens of thousands of idividuals who want to take guitar lessons and really want to find the right teacher online. Prior to this venture, he worked with CollegeClub.com which was a 1990’s company, a very very early social network, before social networks even existed, so if you want to know where social networks may have started, College Club is one of the companys. Steven has got an amazing company that’s venture capital funded. He has got an amazing culture with the people that he has hired, with the people that he works with as far as vendors and the way that they do things. He’s an amazing entrepreneur that’s had some great successes and he’s masterful at creating cultures and teams that drive insane revenues and amazing, fanatical client experiences. What I’d like to do today is really get into Steven’s head on your behalf. It doesn’t matter if  you have an idea or if you have ten or twenty or fifty employees, what you’re about to learn is why it is imperative for you to understand the vital importance of creating a culture that starts with you and continues with every single employee you’ve got. I’m also going to ask Steven a whole bunch of questions about raising money and his entreprenuer skills, but we’re going to focus specifically on building a culture and then we’ll take it from there. We’ve got 90 minutes together. We’re also going to give you a chance about every 15 to 20 minutes to ask questions and Steven might even ask you questions as well, like, do you play a musical instrument? Do your kids play? Steven, thank you so much.

Cox: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Assaraf: So let’s get right into it. Is there anything I missed about your bio or the things that our friends all over the world need to know about that I may have missed?

Cox: No, I think you pretty much hit it dead on. I’ve just been an internet geek so that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing since 1996. It’s all I know. A lot of people are good at many things; I’m good at one thing.

A: The other thing that I failed to mention is that Steven just did an amazing deal with Best Buy so now Best Buy is offering not only to sell people guitars, but when they do, they offer Steven’s company’s lessons to the person who buys a guitar. It’s a major, major, major deal. So Steven, let’s talk about, what is culture and let’s get into why it’s so important. What I ask each one of you to do by the way is don’t write all of this stuff down because you’re going to have access to these slides. Listen to Steven and write your own notes down and then come back to these slides later on if you want to have the actual slides themselves. That’s one of the benefits of being a client of mine. So what is culture?

C: A lot of folks when we first start talking about culture, it seems like this feel-good type thing that’s permeated over the last couple of years, and a lot of folks don’t understand what it is or how it engenders across the whole organization. So I liken it to a very simple concept. The culture of your company is really the personality traits of your company. It’s really based on the values that you have as an individual and as a collective group of people, the beliefs that they have and the behaviors that we do. All of those beliefs we have and behaviors we do end up driving the actions within the company and that really makes up the company, how decisions are made based on the beliefs that we form. All that comes back to the values that we have; that’s the key to this whole thing: setting up the values and making sure they permeate the whole organization.

Mistakes Entrepreneurs Make – Hire Right

By At Work, Entrepreneur Insights, Leadership, Start-Ups No Comments

Here's a good article from Neil Patel (co-founder of KISSMetrics). He interviewed a few successful entrepreneurs that had built businesses worth at least $50 million to learn what some of their biggest mistakes were.

By far, the reply that kept coming up is hiring the wrong people. It seems that just about everything else falls secondary to "getting the right people on the bus", as Jim Collins would say.

I agree with the general consensus. Your ideas will change, your direction will change, and the skills you need will change. What is critical is that you can find smart, hungry, driven, flexible people with raw talent. Just about everything else can be learned over time. However, just a couple wrong hires can kill a company's culture and make it extremely difficult to grow because you end up spending more time fixing internal staff problems and less time solving the customers' problems.

We've developed a pretty good system of weeding through candidates effectively. We have seperate interviews where a team of two interviewers' job is to specifically focus on one of three aspects: skills, work/school history, and culture fit. By spending a lot of time on each one, the interview teams can get a really good idea of the candidate, and we're not asking the same question to the candidate over and over.

If you've made a bad hire, believe me – your team knows it. Once you become convinced the person is the wrong hire, it's critical to cut bait early. You are doing yourself, your company, and the new hire a disservice by keeping them around. Let them go find something more suitable for their comfort level. If you don't cut bait, I believe it is hard for the new hire to overcome the psychological downward spiral of 'losers slime'. This is where the internal team is not impressed with the hire and thus becomes just a bit less likely to spend the extra time with them. This, in turn, creates an uphill battle for the hire to get up to speed, and eventually everyone ends up frustrated. 

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