Five Entrepreneurial Lessons from 2011

by mikekarnj on January 17, 2012

Last year,  I wrote an article on “Five Entrepreneurial Lessons from 2010” which was a very monumental year for me as an entrepreneur.

There’s a natural progression that entrepreneurs make over time. For me, if 2009 was a year for exploration, 2010 was the year to make a commitment, and 2011 was the year to make shit happen.

At the beginning of 2011, we closed our seed round for Skillshare from Founder Collective. Me and Malcolm shared a desk  and worked non-stop designing and developing the first version of Skillshare. In April, we launched Skillshare, which was picked up by Daily Candy (our first major article)!  By August, we closed another round of financing from Spark Capital and Union Square Ventures. And by the end of the year, our small team of two (2) grew to twelve (12) and our community grew to the size of a major university. It was a roller-coaster year beyond our expectations and I learned more in those 12 months than the past 12 years about becoming a leader. Here are some lessons that I hope you can apply to your own journey as an entrepreneur.

1. Building a product is hard. Building the machine that builds the product is harder. Disrupting an industry is the hardest. I came across a TechCrunch article quoting Dennis Crowley at Foursquare where he says that “the hard part is building the machine that builds the product.” I agree 200%.

This is the biggest lesson I’ve learned in 2011. In the early days, I was so focused on building the product. Over time, I realized that we couldn’t reach any of our goals without building a great team so I shifted my role from building the product to building the “machine.” My role shifted to recruiting, culture, process, strategy, management, communicating our vision, and becoming a leader.

Looking towards the future, I’m convinced that disrupting an industry will be the hardest endeavor at all. It would not be possible without a great product, community, and team working together to transform an industry. I believe these are the three major stages/bets that a company will make in it’s lifetime: 1) what to build; 2) who to hire; 3) how to innovate. This will be my next blog post so saving all the juicy bits for a latter post.

2. A great team is 100x than a good team. After reading “Tribal Leadership“, I realized that a great team is not just better than an average/good team; it’s exponentially greater. This is when I shifted my focus from recruiting individuals to building out a cohesive team (much like the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls).

Since time is finite, success can only happen from teams that can create magic and distort reality, which is notable in the first Macintosh team. From picking our investors (Founder Collective, USV, Spark) to our advisors and employees; every decision was made to build a 100x team to help Skillshare achieve it’s vision.

3. People -> Culture -> Process ->Accountability. While I was reading Eric Ries’ latest book on Lean Startups, I came across a diagram he called “The Startup Way” which I found fascinating:

When I started to build out our team, I realized that talented people thrive in a culture with just enough process/structure to hold them accountable to each other. Without it, a lot of time is wasted, things aren’t clearly communicated, and everyone ends up rowing in opposite directions.

“The success of a company depends on its tribes, the strength of its tribes is determined by the tribal culture, and a thriving corporate culture can be established by an effective tribal leader.” – Tribal Leadership

We started by writing the values of our culture (to attract the right talent to our team), implemented MORPH’s as our process so that everyone would be held accountable to each other. Today, everything is aligned from the top to the bottom and back up to the top. It’s aligned on the company, team, and individual level as well as across all projects. Accountability to the team is the foundation of any great company.

4. Meetings are O.K. We used to have an anti-meeting rule at Skillshare. We adopted the PayPal Mafia policy of cracking down on all meetings. One day, I walked into the office, and it was eerily quiet because everyone was working on their computers with headphones. At that moment, I realized that what worked for other companies and cultures wouldn’t necessarily work for Skillshare.

We believed that innovation comes from creativity and collaboration from our team. So, we designed a meeting space that fosters collaboration. We educated everyone on the power of efficient meetings (coupled with the power of being action-oriented/shipping/executing). A lot of the recent and future innovations from Skillshare were seeded in these “meetings” which I believe will be the key ingredient to our success in the future and transforming the education industry. Our competitive advantage will always be our team, community, creativity, speed and innovation.

5. Work/Life Balance. This year, I really embraced the balance between working and enjoying life to prevent myself from getting burned out. I took one day off a week (Saturday), ran a couple of half-marathons, practiced yoga weekly, and made sure to spend time with family and friends. In 2011, I spent the last week in upstate Maine as part of my “think week” which cleared my mind to make higher-level decisions for Skillshare. I made a conscious effort to not let work overpower my life which is something I see happening a lot with first-time entrepreneurs (me included).

Today, it’s easier than ever to start a company, but building a company will always be as hard as it’s ever been. Wherever you are in your journey, understand that you will always make mistakes. But as long as you learn from them, improve, and stay focused to your mission; great things will almost always happen.

Michael Karnjanaprakorn is the CEO/Co-Founder of Skillshare, which is a community marketplace to learn anything from anyone, anywhere. You can follow him on Twitter.

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