Confidence is the feeling or belief that one can rely on someone or something. When that thing is an early stage startup, confidence becomes crucial to everything you do. How can you convince staff, investors or customers to be part of your crazy journey if you can’t exude confidence in what you’re doing?
An issue faced by many Australian founders is the confusion between confidence and arrogance. Culturally Australians are hardwired against arrogance. The tall poppy syndrome may be a byproduct of our egalitarian values as a society. This confusion leads many founders to talk down their vision and achievements in fear of being labeled as arrogant.
This week marked the start of the EduGrowth US tour. We spent 4 days in San Francisco and had the pleasure of meeting founders of some amazing EdTech companies. One common theme that came out of these meeting was the extreme confidence that they all exuded.
Who we met (what we learned)
Over the four days, we had the chance to meet a range of founders in the EdTech industry in personal group settings. Everyone that we met shared their story of growing from ground-zero to where they are today. These stories were incredibly valuable as all the EduGrowth teams could relate to the struggles they faced and learn from how they overcame them.
SmartSparrow creates adaptive learning software for higher education. The founder, Dror developed the concept doing his Ph.D. at UNSW and commercialised the product to create SmartSparrow.
Dror has a captivating style of speaking. He manages to balance humor with seriousness, to deliver completely engaging yet valuable meetings. He spoke a lot about his management philosophy, which has been heavily influenced by military strategy. In particular, Winston Churchill, whose poster is hanging in his office. It wasn’t surprising to learn that Dror spent 4 years serving in the Israeli army when he was younger.
Dror ran through a series of his most important lessons learned during the last 5 years at SmartSparrow, here were the most valuable:
- You can’t hire yourself out of a training problem; when growing a team you can’t wait for the perfect, ready-made employee to find you because they don’t exist. As a founder you need to accept the responsibility of training your new staff to be effective within your team, it’s the only way to growth properly.
- Negotiating with investors it’s all an information game; the art of negotiation is to understand the other side as best as you can. If you can gain an accurate understanding of what they’re looking to get out of the deal, you can push towards the ideal situation for you.
- Early on, traditional sales/ marketing tactics rarely work; Dror explained how the process for landing the first paying customers for SmartSparrow came through unorthodox approaches. The point is that sales/ marketing become easier as your brand recognition grows. However, early on you need to be creative to get a deal across the line.
- You can’t gain an advantage following the crowd; this isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact. You literally cannot gain an advantage if you’re doing what everyone else is already doing so as a founder you need to get comfortable standing out on a limb.
(Dror from Smart Sparrow talking about their history)
Quizlet is bringing flash cards into the 21st century, with a database of flashcards and adaptive sequencing to help students focus on the right questions. The software was developed by the founder, Andrew five years ago to help him study for his French class.
That intense student first approach has been the core of the company ever since. Now with more than 28 million users and a team of nearly 60 staff and venture funding, Quizlet is looking to take on international markets.
Quizlet demonstrates the value in taking a customer-centric approach to developing new products, with most of their 28 million users finding them organically.
Udemy shows the value of constructing a marketplace with clear rules and expectations from day 1. By focusing on a model that maximised returns for instructors, Udemy was able to attract industry experts to create content on its platform. Some of these experts were able to earn more than $100,000 per year in course sales.
Remind is a text messaging system that allows teachers to update students on their class schedules. Founded by two brothers (David and Brett) five years ago, the startup now has nearly 70 employees.
The journey of Remind is one of persistence and focus. The two brothers both left their jobs to work on the startup. David spent 16 hours a day locked in a room learning to code, whilst Brett would speak with teachers to understand how they could make their lives easier.
After scraping along for many years the company is now looking to secure its market dominance and focus on monetisation. The founders talked about how their roles have now developed to be focused more on culture and hiring than product development. Whilst their roles have changed, the challenges still remain. They spoke about the importance of defining company values early because they can act as a framework for decision making and how waiting too long to address issues with employees creates ‘people debt’ that can have a detrimental effect on the entire workforce.
(The Remind office in San Fransisco)
Of all the founders we met, Naguib from Yup personified a confident leader. Yup is a marketplace connecting students with tutors for on-demand assistance. With a team of 15 and some seed funding, Yup has a lot of growth left to go and an ambitious team to get there.
Minerva certainly has the most ambitious goal of all the startups that we met, that is to reinvent the entire higher-ed industry. Minerva is 5 years old now and 2 years away from graduating their first class in 2019.
Ben, their founder walked us through the mission for creating a University to train the next wave of world leaders with a curriculum focus on soft-skills and student interaction over the traditional lecture style classes. The result will be graduates that are prepared with that are adaptable to a whole range of different careers in an ever-changing workforce.
What’s changed for us?
The key takeaways from the time spent in San Fran for us was to be more confident in everything that we’re doing. None of the founders we met would claim to possess super-human talents and most would admit that they really didn’t know what they were doing in the early days. The key ingredients to their success were the confidence to back themselves and the persistence to keep working hard.
On Sunday afternoon we hopped on a plane bound for Salt Lake City to attend the ASU GSV conference. This conference is the largest educational technology conference in the world, with more than 3500 people from around the world gathering to discuss the future of education around the world.