Combining Company & Product Growth
Michael Karnjanaprakorn, Founder & CEO, Skillshare | Season 1, Episode 1
By Rob Veres, Venture Partner at Omidyar Network
Part of what makes an entrepreneur successful isn’t just her or his vision, but also the day-to-day approach to productivity, motivating others and communicating both regular activity and major changes.
Michael Karnjanaprakorn founded Skillshare with the belief that everyone has a skill that they can teach or share with the rest of the world. With more than 2 million students and nearly 10,000 classes online, Skillshare is a global learning community for creators. We sat down with Michael to get his thoughts on getting to product-market fit in the early years of Skillshare, how he thinks about building an enduring mission-driven, for-profit company and how his role as a leader has evolved over time.
An excerpt of the full interview with Michael is below:
Be relentlessly user-focused. Don’t build anything unless you know it serves a real customer problem
“We started the company with less than $5,000, and that was actually out of constraint. This was all the pre‑lean startup movement. When we first started, we set criteria for how we would approach starting the company. We said we’re going to focus and be very user-centric. With those constraints, we spent a lot of the early days just talking to a lot of users. We felt that if we had a superpower, it was just going to be on product, and hence listening to our customers was going to be critical to building the right product and customer experience.”
The culture fit test: Hire based on your core values
“At Skillshare we design the culture like we design the product. I would describe our culture as threefold. One, it’s very mission‑driven. We attract people that want to work in that environment. Second, it’s a very collaborative environment. Third, it’s very decentralized. We design the culture to push as many decisions down to the team and empower them.
We realized throughout the years that we had to recruit a certain type of person that would thrive in our culture. To maintain our culture, we set what we called our core values that we vet all hiring and essentially performance against. It’s around humility, adaptability, resourcefulness and passion for excellence.
In the early days, when we didn’t set the core values, the culture fit test was, ‘Can you grab a beer with this person?’ Then we updated it to, ‘Would you be able to sit on a flight with them from New York to SF?’ We realized that there were people who would pass these tests but weren’t a culture fit. We then decided to shift over to our core values. We said if people value these values, then no matter who they are, where they came from, how they grew up, it didn’t matter because we would all value the same things. That is what would create a really strong culture. Over the years, we updated interview questions, we trained around these values, performance awards are given around the culture — it’s really ingrained within the company.
We have an interview dedicated to culture fit. That is the #1 interview that a lot people don’t pass. We say culture fit over skills fit. If people are great at their job, but not a culture fit, we would pass on them 100% of the time. They may be great hires elsewhere, but they may not be great for us.”
Set a clear and shared vision with the team
“One thing I’ve learned being an entrepreneur and a leader is that one has to articulate a very clear and shared vision with the team and align everyone around a clear strategy to achieve that vision. It’s really important because: One, it allows the team to set very ambitious goals. Two, it provides a lot of context for a lot of the people to make strategic decisions. Three, it creates alignment. It allows everyone to row together in the same direction.”
To be a great leader, become a better listener
“One of the things I do is get a lot of feedback from the team, the community, from what’s happening in the industry. Over the years, I spend a lot more time just listening. I try to synthesize all the information I’m gathering.
In the early days, when the company was smaller, I would talk a lot. Today, I speak a lot less. I think another reason is because there are lot of other leaders who have emerged in the company. I want to give those leaders the opportunity to be the voice of the company and allow them to lead their teams.”
Writing as a communication tool can be very impactful
“I write at least once a week. It’s going through something, either vision or mission‑related, culture‑related. Sometimes if I have a lot of people ask me the same questions, I might write about it. We have an internal blog that I update. I find that writing things down and communicating that to the team has been really helpful.
I’ve written about ‘Being frugal.’ After raising our Series B, I was getting so many requests for things. I lifted the hood and wrote about where all the expenses were going — it was mostly people’s salaries — , and why curbing expenses mattered. After I wrote about this, all the requests ended up disappearing. Throwing money at a problem is easy, but it’s not always the right answer.
I’ve written about the ideal product vision and experience. I wrote a post around celebrating milestones. In the next post, I’ll be writing about goal setting — how we should set goals, why is it important, why does your work matter and how does it ladder up to impact.”
No morning meetings to increase productivity
“We have no meetings in the morning, so everything from the time you come into the office to lunch is meeting free. I believe that everyone’s brain and energy level is like a gas tank, throughout the day it just depletes. In the morning, we as a company focus everyone on just solving and working on the hardest thing you have to work on.”
Be patient and spend more time listening
“If I had to give myself advice in 2010, I’d theme it around being very patient and spending more time listening. Everything takes a lot longer than you expect it to. The younger version of myself was like, ‘Let’s go. Let’s make this happen as quickly as possible.’ You realize however that if you’re running a marathon, running the first mile to pace at sub‑five minutes might not be the best idea. If you get into a really nice rhythm, you end up getting there much faster than sprinting so quickly.
The second piece of advice I’d give is to just listen. When I was much younger, especially when everything was so gut and intuition‑based around product market fit, you have a very clear vision. But if you’re not listening, you might miss cues that can help you to maybe change the course of the direction that puts you a lot closer to what you want to accomplish.”