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How Anyone Can Learn from Entrepreneurs

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Entrepreneurial narratives are everywhere. From executive education classes to TED to General Assembly’s own enterprise programs, it’s not difficult to find the story of a successful entrepreneur in almost any industry. These stories inspire not just aspiring founders, but also innovators within Fortune 500 companies and creative agencies.

But what are we to take from those stories? How does anyone – even someone within a larger organization – draw meaningful, applicable lessons from an entrepreneur’s first-person account of success? After all, there’s a huge element of randomness in any new venture. For example, Chad Hurley and the founders of YouTube made a lot of great decisions, but they weren’t the first team of smart people to build an online video site. In the words of investor and entrepreneur Chris Dixon:

“I’d been around the web long enough to remember the dozens of companies before YouTube that tried to create crowdsourced video sites and failed. […] YouTube built a great product, but, more importantly, got the market timing just right.”

But every stock trader knows that timing markets can be impossibly hard, so taking lessons from YouTube’s success is not only difficult, it’s dangerous. Drawing the obvious but – in many cases wrong – conclusions from a entrepreneurial success story can lead to cargo cult thinking, wasted money and lost time.

Applying lessons from entrepreneurship within larger companies can be even more challenging. Innovators within large institutions and brands know that bringing new ideas to the table isn’t enough. In addition, they must overcome organizational inertia and traditional mindsets to effect change.

So how do we learn from these stories? Here are five tips from my experience:

1. Failure is a data point too. Many people focus only on entrepreneurial successes, when in fact just as much can be learned from the much-more-numerous failures. Learning from others’ failures is an efficient way to ensure you don’t repeat them. And keep in mind that even within successful companies there are always numerous products, initiatives, and hires that failed. Studying how great teams fail and react to failure is one of my favorite topics of conversation with entrepreneurs.

2. Appreciate the details. Entrepreneurship is a game of finer points, not broad strokes. Success is often the product of many small decisions on topics that can range from landing page design to company culture to early brand decisions. A deep discussion of these topics – and how entrepreneurs came to key decisions – can be far more informative and interesting than broad questions like “How did you come up with the idea?”

3. Meet the lieutenants. It’s practically a cliche to say that an entrepreneur should surround him- or herself with great people. But it’s also fundamentally true. Great entrepreneurs recruit great managers, and many of the critical decisions in a successful company’s history are made by non-founder operators, not the founders themselves. Often these operators know how to wield “soft power” in a way that is much more applicable to innovators within large organizations who don’t have a founder’s moral authority.

4. Understand persuasion. At the earliest stages, entrepreneurs need to convince others to see things their way, to ignore the obvious pitfalls and believe in a vision. Without that power of persuasion, it is impossibly difficult to find investors, recruit early hires, and close clients. Whether starting a new company or innovating within an existing organization, those abilities are universally applicable and one of the best practices to learn from successful entrepreneurs. When watching an entrepreneur speak, it can be more informative to pay attention to how they are saying something than what they are saying.

5. Metrics, metrics, metrics. Great entrepreneurs set key metrics closely tied to their success and drive their teams toward those metrics. Understanding how entrepreneurs chose the right – or wrong – metrics and incentivized their teams to pursue those metrics can paint a detailed picture of how a company’s operations, finances, and culture are all integrated. And like the other tips here, how a startup sets metrics should be very similar to how a department within a large company sets them, making the lessons very applicable across organizations. While the methodologies used to succeed may shift as a company grows, the key metrics should not.

I believe that anyone can learn from an entrepreneur’s story regardless of their role. With these pointers in mind, entrepreneurial stories can be vastly more educational and applicable.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

January 28th, 2015 at 11:51 am

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Spain Has a Tenured Faculty Problem

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By this point we all know things are bad in PIGS. But how bad, and why? Matthew O’Brien at The Atlantic included a simple graph in his argument that Spain is Beyond Doomed, charting the growth the long-term unemployed in Spain:

Spain Unemployment Chart
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Anyone who has tried to do business in continental Europe — particularly Spain — knows that firing employees is effectively impossible. This can make businesses much more skittish when it comes to hiring full-time employees in boom times, favoring instead unprotected part-time contract labor.

And when I saw that chart, I was reminded of another:

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Academic Faculty Chart
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This one isn’t as dramatic, but the underlying problem is the same: a regime that protects a group of established individuals creates a “permanent underclass” of those on the outside looking in. In Spain, permanent workers are almost impossible to fire or downsize, just like tenured faculty in the US higher education system. The result in Spain is an underclass of indignados chronically under- and unemployed; the result in higher education is an underclass of poorly paid adjunct faculty with few prospects of advancement.

Neither system is sustainable. Both discourage effort and innovation, driving talent away. In academia, many of the best students flee research and end up in industry. Leaving a country isn’t as easy.

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April 28th, 2013 at 4:23 pm

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A Few Notes on Learning Rails

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In the spirit of eating your own dog food, I took General Assembly’s Intro to Rails this past fall. The whole process of learning Rails by trying out pretty much every online tool available led me to a few thoughts:

0) Prior knowledge is rarely clear-cut. I’ve done some combination of front-end development, game development and transactional SQL in the past. Most of which didn’t help and possibly hurt my efforts to learn Rails. Many people I meet have similar quasi-technical backgrounds and are never sure where to start learning. It’s important not to skip things just because you think you’ve seen it before.

1) You have to be passionate about what you’re building. I don’t think anyone can learn to code in the abstract, bouncing from one generic example to another. But…

2) You can be too passionate. Your first, second, third and twentieth attempt to build something will all suck. It may be easier to get started if you’re not building the end-all-be-all personal project to end all projects. Instead, build something to solve a really simple personal problem without any (obvious) commercial potential.

3) Embrace de-leveraging. You can’t walk in with a mindset that you’re just going to learn enough to know how to hire someone to do the hard work. While you may end up doing that, for the moment, you’re de-leveraging and writing the code yourself.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

January 28th, 2013 at 2:10 pm

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Occupy Wall Street is about student debt

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Up to this point I hadn’t thought much about the macro reasons behind Occupy Wall Street, assuming it was driven by a general disaffection with economic inequality. But when I checked out We Are the 99 Percent this weekend, I saw a clear common thread among the protesters: the presence of overwhelming student debt.

Student loans are a unique kind of financial instrument. They are the only kind of debt that can’t be forgiven through bankruptcy, even when the loans come from private sources rather than government-affiliated institutions (like Sallie Mae). These loans have been a pretty standard part of the American education system for the past decade, especially among private, for-profit universities, where 96% of students graduate with an average of $33,000 in debt [PDF].

Protestor at Occupy Wall Street

Indeed.

The past 70 years of American education have been built around a simple social contract: go through four years of liberal arts education, and there will be jobs waiting for you on the other side. You can even take on an otherwise unconscionable amount of debt to do it — after all, education is an investment, not just an ordinary expenditure.

Over the past three years, that social contract has been broken. The jobs that used to be available to young people with passion and drive but no appreciable skills are gone, and the graduates who would have taken those jobs are unemployed. But they still bought into the social contract, accepting suffocating amounts of student debt to get the education that didn’t give them the skills they actually needed to get a job. And just when these young people should be at the height of productivity — working hard, inventing things and starting companies — they are left deep in debt with no marketable talent.

So they’re angry, although without the channels or eloquence to express that anger in a meaningful way. So they lash out at the faceless financial-industrial complex — the people who ostensibly have created and maintained this destructive environment from behind the curtain.

But reality is much more complicated. While the folks on Wall Street have managed to hack the system, manipulating a need for liquidity and market inefficiencies to drive incredible financial returns, they’re hardly the only group at fault for a badly broken educational framework.

As a first stop, the frustrated graduates should take a look at the for-profit university administrators who adopted shady, over-promising marketing practices or the government officials who allowed often well-intended laws to be hijacked to saddle students with unforgivable debt. Or perhaps they should take a look at the state education heads and politicians who have resisted a move toward more practical, vocational education for some segments of Americans.

I maintain that unemployment is not high due to a lack of jobs — General Assembly, for one, has plenty of open positions. Rather, it is high due to a colossal mismatch of skills and market needs resulting from a dated and broken educational system.

The protestors at Occupy Wall Street are right to be angry. But articulating the problem is the first step in fixing it.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

October 9th, 2011 at 2:02 pm

Why General Assembly

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General Assembly is an urban campus for technology, design and entrepreneurship. I founded it last year along with Adam Pritzker, Jake Schwartz and Matthew Brimer.

As you go deeper into the technology community, it gets harder to remind yourself that the global economy is struggling. Every startup in New York and the Valley has open positions that go unfilled for months. Salaries for developers and designers continue to rise, and entrepreneurs are creating real businesses with real revenue.

It’s all too easy to forget that our nation still has the highest unemployment rate many of us have ever seen, especially among young adults. Over 15% of people aged 20-24 are without a job, the highest in more than a generation. Students graduate from college and often times spend their days fruitlessly emailing their resumés to deaf corporations. Clearly, there is a mismatch between what we are teaching our newest citizens and what they need to succeed.

Critical courses are absent from the state curriculum and given only token acknowledgment in higher education. Design and software development, two of the most relevant 21st century skills, are glossed over throughout our educational system. It’s in this context that we’re launching General Assembly, a new kind of campus to educate designers, engineers and entrepreneurs.

That said, an education is only meaningful in the context of an environment that reinforces its message and provides a community to stimulate ideas and growth. This is why we built General Assembly on the model of a campus. We’re crafting a curriculum and have created a physical space in the heart of Manhattan for hackers and designers to work, collaborate and learn. We’re trying to tackle a big problem, and we certainly can’t solve it alone. But we have to try, and I hope you can join us.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

February 5th, 2011 at 1:13 pm

An Agile Approach to Science Education

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As an entrepreneur, a big part of my job is figuring out what people want and building products that meet those needs. Even if I think a product is really cool, I’m not going to invest time and money making it better if the market doesn’t seem to care. There’s a slim chance that I’ll fiddle around with the product long enough that I can get people to understand what they didn’t know they needed, but such is a fool’s errand unless there’s a clear path to success.

Unsurprisingly, people with backgrounds in iterative software development aren’t running education in America. It’s a shame, really, because I think consumer web startups could provide some good lessons to improving K-12 science education. Let me start with one premise: Our nation’s cultural values, especially in middle and high school environments, are strongly aligned against science and technology. And most distressingly — and has Dean Kamen has recognized — this is contagious. When a student’s most respected peer is the football captain, they are likely to realign their interests away from science and education and towards things that are less productive to society.

Yet like an entrepreneur without a good grasp of the audience, we continue to focus on shifting the product — fiddling around with different ways to present information — rather than the market. While there’s certainly value in iteration and superior presentation, I can’t really envision a secular change in performance and output taking place without a fundamental change in the market’s attitude toward science. We have to make science sexy to high-potential K-12 kids. All the product iteration in the world is for moot unless we can figure out a way to make smart students actually care about science, math and engineering.

Logically, there are two ways to make this happen:

Change the attitudes of society as a whole. This is Dean Kamen’s strategy with FIRST — turn science into a sport, engaging larger segments of the populace by framing science students in the same verbiage as football players.

Change the attitude of a subset of society, and immerse qualified science students in that subset. This is a controversial one, and — other than a few specialty schools such as TJHSST — isn’t commonly employed in a meaningful way.

While I love what FIRST is doing, I’m not convinced that the former is feasible. Getting hundreds of thousands of high school students engaged in competitive science — as FIRST has done — is awesome. But it’s not changing our culture’s attitude toward science as an unpopular, unsexy, geeky, male-dominated field. And there’s a decent argument to be made that such stereotypes are hard to dispel because they’re true. Fixing that problem — well, that’s another debate. Regardless, I don’t see brilliant science students gaining the fame, notoriety and sexiness of their peer athletes in my lifetime. And if you rely on the societal change model, this is a massive problem: science and engineering students have been promised a reward in exchange for their work that they’re not going to get. In other words, FIRST could be selling a lie.

Disturbingly, our best bet to stay competitive as a nation may be to ghettoize high-performing students, placing those with real potential to be our nation’s next generation of scientists and engineers in environments where their interests won’t be misaligned by the skewed perspectives of a nation fascinated by D1 college football and Justin Bieber. There are a lot of downsides to this proposition — namely, the fact that a majority of students are stuck in downward-spiraling groups of non-qualifying kids. But is this significantly different than our nation’s current private school structure, except with academic performance as opposed to financial means as the selector?

Regardless of the method used, I’d love to see our nation’s policymakers and educators focus a bit more on the market they’re trying to reach.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

April 25th, 2010 at 7:35 am