A Lesson On the Value of Being Semi-Disruptive
1. You co-founded a capital-intensive tech company in 2008, when funding was scarce. What got you through those early days?
First, although it's an overused word, passion; we believed we had a great idea and that we could build it. That said, if some of the members of the founding team weren't individually wealthy, we wouldn't have made it through. My current COO covered payroll twice with his own money. Third, we persuaded a great school, USC, to treat online students as completely equal to on-campus students, and that was not an obvious approach. Landing USC as our first client was pivotal.
2. Not every company survives a start like that and then raises more than $100 million in an IPO six years later. How did you translate passion into success?
Focus. As we went from 20 employees to more than 600, we had one mission: Build the world's best online degree programs. Period. One board member summed it up this way: We made good cookies, then great cookies, and now we make several flavors of great cookies. We don't make bagels.
3. What do you focus on most?
Employees and culture. As an entrepreneur, you have to know what you're good at and what you're not good at, and hire people who can make up for your deficiencies. Tell them to ignore how things have been done and find better ways. And hire people who "brighten the room." That's a quality that's hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
4. Are you concerned that 2U will be disrupted by other approaches to online education?
The notion that universities will soon disappear is silly. There was a lot of hype around massively open online courses [MOOCs], but we think the focus has to be on outcomes. A quality online experience with a great university can give students the same [career] outcomes they would have if they attended on campus.
Scott Leibs is executive editor of Inc. magazine, where he oversees the Lead and Build sections while also handling a range of other writing and editing duties for the magazine, website, and custom publishing projects. He is a former editor in chief of CFO magazine and a former senior editor for InformationWeek, and has written for many other publications, including The Economist and the San Diego Union-Tribune. He is a graduate of Emerson College, Boston University, and the University of Massachusetts.