In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that
have shaped their business philosophy.



Founder and CEO, Varsity Tutors


Background:  

Varsity Tutors is an online learning platform that connects students and professionals with tutors who provide live, personalized instruction. Users have accessed more than 1 million hours of live instruction on the platform. The St. Louis-based company also offers free online learning tools including diagnostic tests, practice exams, flashcards and questions of the day in more than 200 subjects.

The Mistake:

Not devoting myself full time to my business earlier on.

When I started Varsity Tutors, I was a college student. After graduation, I went to work in investment banking, then in venture capital. So I worked four years full time while running Varsity Tutors on nights and weekends. I was putting in 10, 20, 30 hours a week and I waited for a long time to quit my day job out of concern over making the leap.

Eventually, I made the plunge. Then, I realized how many more things needed to improve. I wasn’t aware of them because I was running Varsity Tutors only a handful of hours a day and leaving a lot to my staff. I wasn’t conscious of all the different levers I could pull to grow the business. I really wish I had given it my full attention much, much earlier on and believed in myself to a greater extent and just quit my job.

From my perspective, if I had done so, we would have grown much faster. A lot of issues had to do with the technology. Because I wasn’t devoting my full attention to it, I didn’t have a good appreciation for all the problems customers and tutors were experiencing.

As a result of really immersing myself in the business after quitting my other job, I realized all the changes we had to make to the technological infrastructure to ensure we could do a better job and keep our customers and tutors happy. When we fixed these issues and invested in a system and platform that made our users happy, the net result was a substantially better growth rate because people were more likely to reward us with their business.

In my heart of hearts, I wanted to be an entrepreneur.

The Lesson:

Now, as a company, when we have an important problem that needs to be solved, we have people totally devoted to that problem. For example, when we’re designing a product, we have a leader who is designated with building a solution because, when everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.

Personally, when an opportunity presents itself, I put far more energy into understanding the opportunity and risks than I did in the past. And my overall risk tolerance has gone up considerably because I have a better understanding of how to solve problems. To a large extent, I believe in myself and I believe in the analytical process as a way to mitigate risks. Early on, despite all the data I had that the business was going well, I didn’t really believe in my own abilities. As I developed better analytical powers, it’s kind of made me believe in data and analysis as a way to prove out different strategies.

Part of my hesitation was the fact I had a really good job that paid well where I got to do cool work. I knew it was a hard job to get and felt bad about the idea of giving it up, despite the fact that, in my heart of hearts, I wanted to be an entrepreneur. You’ll always do a better job when you’re focused on something you’re passionate about than on something you’re not, and I was much more passionate about being an entrepreneur than I was being an investor.

The real learning was that, if you don’t give something 100 percent, you’re going to get a markedly different outcome than if you wade into the water. If you give something your full attention and dedication and brain power, you’re going to get a dramatically better result.

Chuck Cohn is on Twitter at @ChuckCohn and Varsity Tutors is at @varsitytutors.

Photo courtesy of Varsity Tutors.

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