"To be successful, confidence goes a long way in leading a team. People naturally gravitate towards someone who is sure of themselves and look to them for guidance. The other quality you need equally is perseverance. At CFI, I found myself continuously chipping away at optimizing the website, improving courses and being relentless in the pursuit of success. In the early stages of companies, it’s less about being smart or talented and more about being tenacious. Many VC firms say, for example, if they have to choose between a brilliant founder or a tenacious one, they would choose the latter (or course both would be ideal!)."
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your "backstory"?
I built my first website in high school circa 1998 using HTML and Notepad. Having zero foresight and thinking the internet wasn't a good career path, I abandoned the hobby and worked in investment banking after graduating from Dartmouth College. I worked in several areas of finance starting with investment banking, then wealth management, and finally corporate development at a public mining company and corporate finance at a private e-commerce company.
We launched the Corporate Finance Institute® (CFI) in 2016 as a joint venture between myself and MDA Training, a company with 20 years of experience providing classroom training for many of world's largest banks. The opportunity to take MDA’s entire library of Wall Street training, create a designation around it, and develop a massive distribution channel to market it directly to consumers was too exciting to pass up. CFI perfectly combined the experience from every job I'd ever had, including my 1998 website hobby.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There was one passionate student in India who would send non-stop emails to dig deeper into one of our courses. He emailed us so much that he even started providing suggestions on how to improve the website, courses, etc. Naturally, the back and forth between us created a sort of friendship. One day, I happened to travel to the same town he lived in and I decided to reach out and let him know. My wife and I ended up meeting him for dinner and we shared some laughs over great food from his favorite local restaurant. It’s interesting to see the realities of e-learning play out - Instead of isolating students and teachers, it can actually forge connections between them across the globe.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We deliver the right mix of job-based skills, engaging content, and affordable pricing. The success of our students around the world shows that our courses have a direct impact on their lives. Our students have written back to say things like the courses helped them gain the knowledge to excel in a competitive interview or become a business analyst for a billion-dollar shipping company. Another thanked us for the skills he developed which led to an endorsement from his boss and a promotion.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
When you hire people, this concept of "don't work for me, work for the mission" is absolutely critical. I try to find people who are excited about what the business is doing, more so than just the functional role itself. In the early days you need generalists, people who can wear multiple hats to support growth. Specialists come later on when the lines are clearer and there are more resources available to hire them. Generalists especially need to me motivated by the mission or vision of the business to thrive.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
There’s no chance I’d be where I am if it weren’t for my wife, Barbara. When I was feeling stuck in my career, she encouraged me to go back to school and do my MBA. That reset landed me in the strategy and corporate development group at one of Canada’s largest public companies (Goldcorp). But the real support came when I went out on my own to start CFI, with zero capital raised and no salary for about 18 months while working around the clock.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
CFI is a means for students across the world to have access to education. We make sure, through our extensive financial aid for low-income students, that people in developing countries have a chance to take courses that normally couldn’t be accessible to them. We also provide scholarships for university students along with plenty of free courses and tutorials. Being web-based allows us to be more cost efficient in the delivery of these courses and we believe that income shouldn’t be a barrier to education, so we do whatever we can fulfill that vision
What are your "5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO" and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
You will also be the receptionist and the janitor, if it’s a startup
In the workplace, people take for granted that they have someone to take care of the little things and general office management. When I started CFI, I found myself taking on many different duties to ensure the success of our growing company. Cleaning up the office after work was a regular occurrence and as our only customer support person in early days, I’d even find myself taking calls at 3:00am to answer questions and concerns from some of our students from the other side of the world. At times I’ve been a customer service agent, janitor and founder all at once.
Your team expects you to have all the answers… and you usually won’t!
As the CEO of a company, you’re expected to have the answers when employees hit a wall, and you can sometimes feel imposter syndrome creeping in. In a startup environment, the procedures and answers employees are looking for are constantly in development or might not even exist yet. Sometimes you have to give an answer, and have both the confidence to lead a team with that approach and the flexibility to pivot and constantly look for a better way to do things.
Success is mostly a game of confidence and perseverance
To be successful, confidence goes a long way in leading a team. People naturally gravitate towards someone who is sure of themselves and look to them for guidance. The other quality you need equally is perseverance. At CFI, I found myself continuously chipping away at optimizing the website, improving courses and being relentless in the pursuit of success. In the early stages of companies, it’s less about being smart or talented and more about being tenacious. Many VC firms say, for example, if they have to choose between a brilliant founder or a tenacious one, they would choose the latter (or course both would be ideal!).
Your team watches your every move and looks at you learn what’s appropriate and what’s important to the company… it matters more that you do than what you say
Be aware of how you present yourself to the team because your behavior can be imitated. Generally, I noticed that the more I joked or laughed off when something went wrong, the more others would take real issues less seriously. When I changed to a slightly sterner, but kind demeanor, the teams reflected that mentality. The behavior of the leader dictates how the rest of the team should act.
You get to trade the fear of being fired for the fear of remaining solvent
As an employee, there’s a constant push to work hard so that in the event of a major corporate shift or layoffs, there’s a higher chance of keeping your job. While you eliminate this risk as an owner or founder, you’re faced with a new set of challenges and responsibilities related to maintaining profitability, operations and supporting the career development of your employees.
Can you please give us your favorite "Life Lesson Quote"?
“Imagine that in order to have a great life you have to cross a dangerous jungle. You can stay safe where you are and have an ordinary life, or you can risk crossing the jungle to have a terrific life. How would you approach that choice? Take a moment to think about it because it is the sort of choice that, in one form or another, we all have to make.”
― Ray Dalio, Principles: Life and Work
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
For sure I would want to have lunch with Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn co-founder and Greylock Partner) to thank him for putting all his Blitz Scaling lectures from Stanford on YouTube and for creating the Masters of Scale podcast series. I'd also welcome his advice on our business, since he has one of the greatest minds when it comes to consumer internet businesses and distribution channels.