John Edelson of Time4Learning: Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup
Originally published by Medium.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup. I had the pleasure of interviewing John Edelson.
John Edelson has a long history in Silicon Valley and London with various cutting edge technology companies working in computer graphics and entertainment, primarily in video games and computer animation for films. A long-time advocate of education, Edelson saw a need for more sophisticated video and animation skills in the ed tech industry and discovered a passion for effecting meaningful change in the delivery of homeschooling curriculum.
Edelson founded Time4Learning, an online homeschooling platform that provides a high-quality, effective online learning curriculum for students as well as time-saving tools and useful resources for parents. The comprehensive platform combines Edelson’s expertise in creating engaging and dynamic multimedia with his commitment to providing learning activities that are accessible on a variety of mobile devices, with features such as an estimated completion time for each task and age-appropriate videos in an ad-free environment.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Inmy 20s and 30s, I worked for high-tech companies that were all high growth. I was mainly shaped by my years in Silicon Valley at SGI. A race-to-market marked my years in the video game industry — we had to be the first to use a new idea of technological capability. Once a new product was shipped to market, our mission became to replace the product with something much better as soon as possible.
Once I became a father, I was in a position to observe my kids’ schooling closely. My kids went to classrooms that operated much like the ones that I had attended 40 years ago, and it astonished me to see that the educational system was so tradition-bound. It felt as if learning was out of touch with modern students, the modern world’s educational needs, and too slow to adopt possible technological improvements.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
There were two aha moments. The first occurred when I decided to enroll my children in a tutoring center for supplemental work. Despite the mediocre curriculum and learning experience, the center had a waiting list. At that moment, I was convinced that parents were searching for better education options for their kids.
The second moment happened when I began to research available educational software options in 2003. I was sure that I could develop better software than what was currently in the market. From that moment on, my mission has been clear: to empower kids and their families through better educational technology.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
My parents were big on education and not conventional or interested in the standard measures of grades. My mom used to say that “grades were a distraction — they don’t help you focus on your learning and your interests.” Instead, my dad would use our dinner discussions to ask each of us what we had learned that day. Those conversations considerably deepened our understanding of the lessons, often revealing that what we had covered in school only scratched the surface. It helped us understand how all the subjects fit into the world around us.
Those simple dinner conversations laid a foundation for lifelong curiosity and a drive to learn. It’s only natural that I would find an opportunity to parlay this interest into a professional direction.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I focus our company’s goals on doing quality work, individually, and as a team. I avoid measuring our successes on bookings and profits since those are lagging indicators for me as they only show off what we’ve done in previous years.
I empower my people to be the managers of their work and concentrate on how they will affect our customers’ experience. I also urge them to speak up and do the right thing when our rules don’t make sense. There are tons of stories that I’ve heard from our support people who have gone to all sorts of extremes to help our customers through a specific problem.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I think working in education is an optimistic and wonderful mission. Helping students understand their world and develop the skills and knowledge to operate successfully inherently brings goodness to the world.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Here are my most important character traits:
- I care about people. I truly care about my staff and about the families we serve. It is the driving factor in what I do every day. As a conscious point of principle — and because of limited resources as a startup — I was customer support. I answered emails and phone calls, and actively participated in social media (back then it was Yahoo groups, forums, and blogs). My goal was to get a deep firsthand understanding of homeschoolers; what they liked and needed, what confused them, what they believed in, and so on. To this day, I still find ways to interact with our customers and understand their current needs so I can offer them a solution that best fits their lives.
- I care about results and success for the business and people. — I’ve made a concerted effort to hire people who are experts in their respective fields and lean on their skills to complement my own. For example, when my support staff said we needed more customer service representatives to handle the influx of worried parents during this pandemic, I listened, and we immediately expanded our staff.
- Willingness to put in the time and hone my skills to address people issues. I am passionate about building a company full of people who love what they are doing and to get there, I am willing to give my time to develop our team properly. Spending time with employees to understand their perspectives and discover their hopes and interests are often very useful. I love to invite individual staff members for one-on-one interviews to learn about their goals, and then follow up to help them pursue their particular interests. I’m often surprised to find that a support person dreams about working in Quality Assurance (QA), or that a QA person wants to be a product designer. It has been very valuable to have broad interview-style discussions with existing staff.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
I think much of the business management truisms are confusing to people. “Find great people and get out of their way” is completely irrelevant to the small start-up where, usually, the business is quickly evolving and the team needs to know about the changes of direction. Also, with limited capital and ability to recruit, the founder is usually required to find talented but inexperienced people and help bring them along. I’ve watched many founders make the mistake of leaving a new employee alone simply because they showed potential or possessed a strong skill set. Junior staff really need time, attention and feedback so that they benefit from the experience of their mentors.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
The first few years were tough because the technology was tricky and my engineering team was not yet the robust department it is today (we were small, but mighty!). We had a persistent challenge: I insisted on having a high-end multimedia system, but we could never get it to work properly on a dialup connection. Fortunately, the country switched to high-speed internet and we were saved. I bet that technology would catch up to us and luckily, the future came along in the nick of time.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
I’ve created a mental Rolodex of people who I can use as examples during challenging times. Those who were excellent negotiators or the most patient leaders, for example, and I access their knowledge when I need it. When I am faced with a work challenge, I think through my previous colleagues and mentors and I identify someone who would be better at solving the problem at hand than me. For instance, when I’m meeting with a company partner, I’ll envisage it as a sales challenge and then I’ll start thinking about the best salesperson I know and use their playbook.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
While my journey was long and often full of hard work, there were never any setbacks during the first two years when I had doubts about our success. Once I figured out that the business model worked and could scale, it became merely a question of not messing up execution! I also built a very conservative growth strategy, always being careful not to embark on too many projects at once so that they could be carefully completed.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks for your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
Mainstream culture often highlights start-up and venture-backing as the only way to be innovative. In my case, I was an innovator for the first decade of my career within the companies I served. At Time4Learning, I encourage our team to look for opportunities to lead on innovation, often inside the jobs that they have right now. This model worked well for me and I’d encourage people to consider this route.
When I help at incubators, speak to start-ups, or work with VCs, I see that experience is often highly prized and is often considered a key success factor. While some of the highest profile start-ups, Microsoft and Facebook, were started by 20-year-olds, I think that is the exception, not the rule. In my case, I launched my company — Time4Learning — when I was in my mid 40s so I had more than two decades of business and technology experience under my belt. I was sophisticated enough to carefully pick a real market need — a quality digital experiential curriculum for homeschoolers — and to address it as a bootstrapped company which allowed me to skip the VC experience entirely, something I highly recommend.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- #1: There are no rules. Each business is unique. Don’t try to repeat Time4Learning’s, or any other company’s formula for success. Times change, so what worked before might not work again. Most importantly, the founders have different skills and motivations, so there is no single formula for success. Each company must find its own route.
- #2: Pick something you’re interested in. Have deep, sustainable motivation. Starting a company is a long, hard struggle, and it takes years of not-so-glamorous work. I think way too many people start companies they think will be lucrative, but are annoyed by the harsh reality of years of hard work. For me, this is the heart of picking something that you love doing. In my case, I loved K-12 education and the chance to reinvent it in homeschooling. I loved what I was doing in that first decade — those 10 years of building the company were, for me, great fun.
- #3: Expect to be a player-coach. You will do a lot of work, including design, art direction, outlining architectures, HR, sales, marketing, strategy, organization, filing, cleaning, and customer service. You don’t get to start as a white shoe executive.
- #4: Expect to make a lot of changes. Humility is important here. You may not get it right the first time and it may not all be smooth sailing, so expect to make lots of changes and mid-course corrections as you adjust your business plan.
- #5: Build a business around your personal financial situation. When going the route of securing funds, much of the job becomes focused on preparing the perfect deck, going to pitch competitions and worrying about your brand with investors. This sometimes diminishes the fundamentals of creating a business. In my case, I bootstrapped Time4Learning with some of my savings, wrote a short 3-page plan for myself and got started. It’s difficult to raise funds, run a business, and do all the things that are required of you as a solo entrepreneur. Pick what you want to focus on and make sure you have enough of the attributes to make it work.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I often urge people to develop professional skills inside established companies. I’ve seen way too many start-ups by people who, while they have desire, they lack basic professional skills or industry knowledge. Entrepreneurial skills, such as having a growth innovation mentality and a pension for leadership, can be refined and developed within existing companies.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
In my case, it really helps that I totally love what I’m doing. I think about education and what it should, and could, be all the time. I basically believe that people want to be inspired by their job and want to move forward. To be honest, it’s not that stressful to me, even when we fall short, but I do believe strongly in work-life balance. I have family, hobbies, and sports that keep me level and provide an outlet for any energy I need to expend.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
This is easy — I would try to reform our concept of education and get people to stop thinking that today’s kids should be educated like previous generations. The kids are different, the world of work is different, and it’s time to rethink education to meet today’s needs and tomorrow’s possibilities.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I think it would be interesting to spend time with any of the great tech entrepreneurs. We have lived through and pioneered so many changes that there’s a real ability to imagine the world changing.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Follow me on LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/johnedelson/
Follow Time4Learning — https://www.time4learning.com/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!