The Blackboard of Life

Funny.  I have Blackboard open while I am writing this blog.  Mod 1 grades are up…

When Michael Chasen came to speak in class on Tuesday, I knew he was the co-founder of Blackboard, the web platform I used both in undergrad and now in graduate school to view class slides, check my grades and even remind myself of the prompts for this blog.  What I did not know was the path he took to get where he is today.

Blackboard is much more expansive than I ever knew with products from the regular Blackboard we all know to Blackboard Transact™, the technology behind a student’s campus ID being a way to pay for everything he or she might need, to Blackboard Collaborate™, an online platform to facilitate mobile learning, and much more.

It all started back at the height of the dot com bubble (1999) when technology was just starting to permeate every touch point in life.  Michael and his co-founder, Matthew Pittinsky, who has a Master’s in Education from Harvard, worked at KPMG Peat Marwick as higher education consultants.  As consultants, Michael and Matthew were able to observe first hand what areas in the higher education space could be disrupted and drastically improved.  This leads me to my first life lesson gleaned not just from Michael, but also from the panelists: Gain experience or knowledge in the industry you want to disrupt.

You want to disrupt the zoo business?  Go work at a zoo.  You want to disrupt the fitness industry? Go be a spin instructor.  Don’t know what industry you want to disrupt? Look around at work.  Experience is imperative to understand where a problem exists and how to solve it.  Uber was created out of the sole experience of it being so difficult to get a cab in Paris.  If you find yourself thinking, isn’t there a better way to do this?….You may be on a path to disrupt something.

I said this in an earlier post….it is by no means easy.  Michael detailed the amount of man hours to keep everything going.  It requires dedication and persistence.  A new entrepreneur cannot be shy about tackling large problems.  It is a matter of breaking it down.  James Clear (writer, entrepreneur and behavior science expert) wrote an interesting article for Entrepreneur ( describing an easier process for tackling large, complex problems: “start with a smaller version of the larger problem.”  This can be applied not just to personal problems (exercise more, eat healthier, etc.), but it can also be applied to creating a product to disrupt an industry.

Michael was asked in class how he was able to survive, even grow, during the dot com bust.  He said it all went back to not overextending his product.  He started small, and when that worked, the business grew.  Then he took on another problem, and when that worked, the business grew.  He developed a fundamental client base that still liked his product regardless of the craziness happening in the tech world.  Now he has moved on to trying to tackle the consumer’s constant need for more information through his Social Radar app.

This approach is so straight forward and simple, and yet so many business fail trying to get too big, too fast.  A business can be complex and disruptive, but solve a very simple problem.  This is sage advice from someone who sold his company for $1.7 billion dollars.  I think I’ll take that advice.

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