Soon after my friend Tod Sacerdoti sold his startup BrightRoll to Yahoo for $640 million (it's awesome when great things happen to great people), he shared that a major contributor to his company's success was its lack of resources. “Since it was difficult for us to raise venture capital in our early days, we were forced to stay laser focused,” he explained. “We were only able to build the features we knew users had to have, versus competitors who took a much broader approach. That focus was a key reason we were able to out-execute and outperform.” While a lack of resources sounds counterintuitive to success, it's well known in the Valley that lean, focused, and fast is what differentiates many of the most successful startups, including several I’ve been fortunate enough to work for or lead.
Interestingly, now that my challenge is to disrupt the learning management system industry, I've seen that there are strong similarities between the successful Valley entrepreneurs I've known for years and some of the most innovative employees within the larger companies we serve. I'm talking about corporate trainers. I’ve seen exceptional creativity and innovation from individuals tasked to train global work forces, sometimes as large as tens of thousands of employees, for pennies per person.
There are three similarities that really stand out:
1) Vision: The most successful entrepreneurs (and trainers) begin with the end in mind. Founders notice problems day to day, create an innovative solution, and bring it to life. Most important, they are able to persuade investors, employees, and customers to see the vision and innovate with them. Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp's Uber disrupts the inefficiency of taxis. Aaron Levie's Box streamlines clumsy file sharing.
Similarly, innovative trainers seek out the pain points in their organization, visualize, and marshal the resources needed to move the organization to a better way of doing things. I've seen a recent trainer identify the problem of rapidly increasing customer support costs, and then tackle it by persuading product, operations, and HR colleagues to contribute their time to creating the course materials and the delivery mechanisms needed to reduce those costs--while increasing customer satisfaction.
2) Resourcefulness: The most successful entrepreneurs (and trainers) don't let limited resources constrain them. HBS professor Howard Stevenson brilliantly defines entrepreneurship as "the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled."
Airbnb is a great example. In 2007, two guys living in high-priced San Francisco had the then-crazy idea that, as expensive as their apartment was, renting a nearby hotel room was even pricier, and that travelers and tourists might just love the chance to split their rent. They spent the next three years trying (and failing) to persuade investors to fund their dream but also stayed focused on improving their service. At one point, they were personally going door to door to photograph NYC Airbnb-listed apartments. It wasn't until 2010 that the founders secured their first A round of funding. And by that point, they were well on their way to becoming the $10 billion valuation company they are today. My point: Airbnb's founders didn't let constraints hold them back--instead they were relentlessly resourceful.
People charged with training face similar constraints: significant business challenges to solve with limited dollars or time. Creative trainers look for opportunities to decrease expense and increase the volume, frequency, and appeal of training through the use of technology. They use tools that shift from live training to e-learning or blended courses like YouTube and Mindflash, and they are not afraid to beta test multiple approaches. Elizabeth Pierce, director of training at Zenefits (the fastest-growing software as a service company ever) leverages TED talks to deliver effective business skills training, and innovatively hacks technology such as conference apps, typically a tool for conference attendees, to help new recruits navigate their content-packed first week on the job. Trainers at a leading ride sharing company are educating thousands of drivers a week, for roughly pennies a course.
3) Adaptability: The most successful entrepreneurs (and trainers) embrace the pivot. Speed and early value are key in competitive situations, so these entrepreneurs don't wait for perfection. Instead, they launch early, listening, learning, and taking action on the basis of user feedback, because they know it's more valuable than insular, in-house thinking.
Originally, Slack was a game--and it failed. One very smart pivot later, the founders launched the team collaboration tool that is now worth $1 billion. They didn't launch a perfect product, either. After using the tool just long enough internally, Stewart Butterfield and his "Slack Squad" begged companies of different sizes to give it a try. They found out quickly that Slack didn't work well for larger teams, so they created a feedback loop by sharing Slack with progressively larger groups and iterating improvements with each new group of users.
Creative trainers are also willing to launch courses that invite honest feedback. At one of the premier health care companies, trainers rolled out their first courses by just using PDFs hosted online. It was a quick first step to reduce the expense of training onsite at their incubator lab facilities. One iteration later, they rolled out more user-friendly, PowerPoint-based courses, with embedded quizzes to assess trainee comprehension and collect more feedback. Now, they are rolling out proprietary training videos, expertly edited down to the most relevant content.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised by the similarities between startup CEOs or founders and some of the most successful internal entrepreneurs I've met who are leading corporate training efforts. I've always said that the two hardest things to do are to create something new and to change human behavior. And darned if those aren't the two major job requirements of both startup CEOs and corporate trainers.