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Entrepreneur StartUp Questions (Part 1)

By Company Culture, Start Up San Diego, Start-Ups, Uncategorized No Comments

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.

Steven Cox San Diego Picture

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 **

Constant And Never-Ending Improvement

By Business Philosophy, Company Culture, Entrepreneur Insights No Comments

One of our core values at TakeLessons.com is CANI – Constant And Never-ending Improvement.

In addition to putting things in motion to become better at what we do, we wanted to change the company to make it a place where talented people can thrive. It’s good to see (from the pic below) we’re making progress towards that goal.

The only way to constantly get better is (1) know where you are (2) decide where you want to be, (3) commit to getting there, and (4) measure your results.

Core Values

Video: How to be an All-Star at Work. A Peek Inside TakeLessons.com.

By Business Philosophy, Company Culture, Start-Ups, TakeLessons.com, Videos 2 Comments

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past couple years, it’s how critical it is to get the right team in place. The right team is more costly, takes longer to attract, but it pays for itself in spades by a quicker velocity and overall growth.

As we shift into a faster growth mode inside of TakeLessons, I wanted to paint a picture for my team on what it takes to be hired and, more importantly, what it takes to be an all-star. The company is growing fast, and we need people that have already been at the spot we’re going to be, and/or quickly assimilate into new roles, objectives, and way of doing business.

The lessons I’m teaching my team are not just applicable to those that work for TakeLessons, but they’re relevant to everyone in the workplace that aspires to grow into new roles and expand their work horizons.

  • Earn your spot on the team. It’s not given to you.
  • Get shit done.
  • Over-perform.
  • Do more than what you’re paid for.
  • Be responsible for your own growth.

So, I hope you take something valuable from this video and apply it into your own work. A transcript follows the video.

 

 

Transcript

I want to again bring to the forefront of what we’re looking to do and how we’re looking to make changes.

In essence we’re looking at a change of mindset. This is where we were – down here – and this is where we want to be – up here.

What does that mean?

I’m glad we’re a venture-backed company – less than 5% of the people that can even apply to be a venture-backed company have what it takes to get there. We’re about to be backed again – we can’t yet make a formal announcement – but we have a very good possibility that again our venture capitalists believe in us and our vision and what we’re trying to do, to where we’re going to be able to extend out what we’re looking to accomplish this year.

But with that comes responsibility. This again is what is expected of you.

First of all: very clear strategic thinking. You have to – everyone, including myself – and everyone in here – we have to raise our game as far as how we think. We have to be able to solve customer problems and work in an efficient and in a better manner.

Second of all, we’ve talked about this: Bold ideas. No longer can we just be satisfied doing the same thing and building our company. We have built an incredible platform that can be used and we’re going to utilize it to the best of our capacity.

Third, and the most critical – this is a requirement for flawless execution. What that means is we’re going to put our best foot forward, and this means making mistakes. We will quickly learn from those mistakes and fix them – absolutely as quickly as possible.

As I pointed out before, we are not a family. In a family, you can’t choose who you get. With family, you basically have to love them no matter what.

Instead, we are a team – and what that means is every single day, every month, every year, we earn our spots to stay on this team. All of us do, including myself. We do that by making sure that we are rock stars at what we do.

Sometime’s it’s not even enough just to make the team. Everyone can make the team in this room, because you are all very, very smart, intelligent, capable, awesome people – thank you very much and take a pat on the back – but what we want is All-Stars. Think of yourself as an All-Star. It’s not even enough to play pro ball. What we want is to be able to take that to the next level.

How to be an All-Star at Work

The big question is: How can you become an All-Star? I want to just go through a few quick tips for you on how to be an All-Star here at TakeLessons.

Get Shit Done.

The top thing that you can do no matter what is: get shit done. We’re not paid to show up. We’re not paid to look busy. We’re not paid to fill out a cubicle. We are paid to get shit done.

That is in essence what drives this business. We’re not here just to goof off. We’re here to take the most important task and make sure that we’re completing them.

How do we do that? First and foremost, make sure up front that you have very clear, specific goals in what you’re trying to do.

If you don’t know your outcome, if you don’t know where you’re shooting, you’re going to have a hard time getting there.

How many of you have written goals for 2013?

It’s very, very critical to do that. Again, you’re going to have a direct path. You know what you’re supposed to be focusing on. If you don’t have written goals, I highly encourage you to do so, both personally – and it’s required – professionally.

If you do not know what your goals are here inside the company, talk to your manager today before you go home. Make sure that you have a very specific plan about what you need to accomplish.

Once you have those goals, always focus on first things first. What does that mean? If you’re like me, I have a list a mile long of stuff that I need to do. There’s always more things to do than there is time to do it.

How do you know what to do?

Make sure you’re prioritizing your list every single day. Never do a “B” or a “C” priority when there is an “A” priority to do. That’s the simple key. If you know that you can do an “A,” do it first thing in the morning.

I was talking to one of you last week, who said, “Yeah, I’m trying to get more time efficient. How do I get more done?” One thing that this person was doing was coming in, reading emails, and catching up on the news the very first thing in the morning. It is related to the company? Yes, it’s important to do, but it’s not absolute top priority.

What we did is switch that around: what they’re doing is they’re taking the biggest thing that would make the highest impact on the company and making sure that they do it first.

Brian Tracy calls it eating that frog. It’s a metaphor: no one wants to eat a frog anytime, but you specifically don’t want to eat it in the morning when you get up. It’s the toughest thing to do.

If you can take that highest task, the ugliest thing to do (like a frog), that makes the biggest impact on the company, do it when you’re the freshest: first in the morning. That’s how you accomplish things.

Put up the Numbers.

If you do those things, you are going to put up incredible numbers. I don’t necessarily just mean sales numbers, but whatever you’re measured up against: you’re going to put up incredible, incredible numbers.

You guys know who this is?

[“Miguel Cabrera.”]

Anybody know what he did?

[“Triple Crown.” “He lost the world Series.”]

The Triple Crown. He got on base, basically with the highest batting average, the most home runs, throughout the most people of anyone in his league.

Does this guy ever have to worry about a job?

[“No.”]

Why? Because he’s an All-Star.

This is what I’m talking about. This is not the rules of TakeLessons. These are rules of life.

I was at a conference and someone said, “I’m afraid to work for a startup because I need job security.”

It doesn’t matter if you work for a big company or a small company. Job security is not in the job, it is in being an All-Star. It is putting up incredible numbers. That is what gets you to where you need to go. What’s great about that is you are the one in control of it. By deciding that that’s what you want to do, you’re going to knock it out of the park.

Master Your Role

Next, take a look at your role – focus on mastering and becoming awesome at that one role. Muhammad Ali was great at one thing: dancing, too,but he was an incredible boxer. He worked his ass off to make sure that he was the absolute best at his role.

Take your role and master it. Be the absolute best that you can possibly be and be an all-star in that particular role.

Help Your Teammates Win

It’s very important that you help your teammates win. Dwyane Wade could’ve taken the shot, but instead he passed the ball to LeBron.

This is a very important key. It’s not enough if one department wins. It’s not enough if you win and your department loses. We are all in this together. This company only works by all of us pulling together in the same direction.

Make sure that you’re an All-Star and then help someone else be an All-Star. if you know something that can help them, teach them. Share knowledge. Make sure that we’re collaborating back and forth.

Stay Flexible

Next, There’s a good possibility that whatever you’re doing today – by the end of the year – you’re not going to be doing that. It’s important to always stay flexible and know that things are going to change.

Did we have a year of 2012 that things change? Those of you who have been here a couple years, did things change?

[“Yes.”]

Hey, I can guarantee you one thing: if you look at today and where we’re going to be at the end of the year, things will fundamentally change in our business. Don’t get too hung up on exactly whow things are going to change. Roll with it, because I can guarantee you that no matter what, we’re going to look fundamentally different at the end of the year.

You are Responsible for Your Growth

Also, it is up to you to grow. The company can only do so much – we have restricted budgets, we don’t have systems in place yet for productive growth in a methodical manner for every single employee. We’re just not mature enough to get there. That is no excuse not to grow.

I’m reading 2-3 times a week at home. Why? Because I’m afraid that the company will pass me by. That’s something that I encourage each and every one of you to do. It’s up to you to have your own personal development program.

Like I pointed out in the last meeting: when things grow, you leave your comfort zone – and when you leave your comfort zone, that’s when the magic happens. That’s when you can continue to grow past where you are today and be able to take on – and it’s not just about production but it’s about how your capacity to produce increases. And this is how you become that All-Star.

Do More Than You’re Paid For

Finally, I was studying Napoleon Hill’s 17 Laws of Success and he said the number one way that you can make sure that you stay with the company that you want, or that you are always promotable is to do more than what you’re paid for.

What does that mean?

That means that if you are worth “X” – down here – and you are doing work at a level up here, it is impossible for you not to get noticed. Think about our customers – if we give them more value than what they’re paying for, they love us.

That’s the thing: if you want to continue to grow, if you want to be an all-star, do more than what you think you’re capable of. That’s how you grow into this role.

They said Cabrera is the last guy standing when it comes to batting practice. Over and over again. He’s the All-Star. He’s the king of the team, yet he’s the guy who’s in there first taking batting practice and he’s the last guy standing. He knows the rules. He knows that this is what it takes.

When you do that, what happens is your work naturally stands out. You can’t help but to get noticed.

These are very simple rules of life. These are not TakeLessons rules. You can apply them to anything that you do.

By doing that, what happens – that comfort zone of what you’re capable of doing continues to grow. While you used to be a hot Corvette – now, you’re a burning, flaming fire! This is where you want to go. This is where we need to drive the company.

I know we have what it takes in here to build a world-class company. It is going to be up to each and every one of us to make sure that happens.

We’re off to a really good start, it’s 10 days into the first month, we are going to have an incredible year.