Independent Software’s Entrepreneur Profiles celebrate local entrepreneurs who are changing the world every day through their ventures. We ask each entrepreneur a few questions to give us a little insight into their vision of the future and their take on building a company. This week we feature Mark Lassoff, Founder and President of LearnToProgram, a Vernon-based technical publishing startup that produces online courses designed to teach programming concepts. Its courses are distributed through multiple channels, with a current enrollment of over 8,000 students. Mark previously contributed a guest post on the value of solopreneurship. You can follow Mark on Twitter at @mlassoff.
What does your company do?
LearnToProgram trains web, mobile, and game developers worldwide. We use a technical publishing model in which we create and distribute dynamic video-based courses that can be purchased online from multiple venues. We serve over 1,000 new students every month. Currently we have students from every state, and from 56 countries.
Why did you start LearnToProgram?
Several unrelated factors led me to found LearnToProgram. The first was the future and power I saw in online education. The idea that students around the world can come together to learn — I find that empowering. Secondly, there is a strong disconnect between the STEM subjects students are learning and the STEM jobs that will be available over the next 15 years. Seventy-two percent of STEM jobs will be in computing, while less than 225 students took the AP Computer Science exam last year in Connecticut. The third factor that led me to start LearnToProgram was my desire to help others learn programming. I believe few skills are as empowering as computer programming — and the subject is easier to learn than many believe.
What are your biggest challenges as an entrepreneur?
Without a doubt it’s managing my time. I’m hyperfocused on growing LearnToProgram into a major force within technical publishing, and on doing it quickly. At any given time, there are several areas that require my focus, including employee recruiting, business development, and further penetrating current partnerships and accounts. I’m constantly reevaluating how I spend my time to ensure that I’m doing the right things to grow my company.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned from a mentor?
My business mentor is Pierre Kerbage. Pierre founded Total Systems in Kansas City, and Network Logistic in Austin, Texas. Both companies had successful exists and left Pierre well off. The main thing I learned from Pierre is the importance of growing your business through its own profitability. Too many startups today focus on users instead of profitability, but it’s a risky proposition to build an audience that you hope to monetize later. Even if you’re able to build the audience, monetization may not be possible. Pierre taught me that if you build a profitable model from the beginning, your company will have value immediately and continue to add value.
What are your funding sources?
I have followed Pierre’s model myself and am not seeking financing at this time. We built a profitable model and have been profitable all but two of the 20-plus months that we’ve existed. I know that angel funding and VC seem very “sexy” to new entrepreneurs, but in the end, you might be better off owning 100% of a smaller company than 25% of a high-risk venture that is likely to fail. That’s not to say we’re a “Main Street” business. We’re very much about rapid growth, but I think the methodology that I employ — that I learned from Pierre — is much more likely to end in a successful exit.
What is your advice for an entrepreneur just starting out?
Don’t listen to the common wisdom. Much of it is nonsense. And don’t get caught up in the scene. If you’re doing entrepreneurship right, it’ll be the hardest job you’ve ever had. You’ll work many hours, brainstorm in the shower, and obsess over your venture. If you’re spending all your time at entrepreneurial groups, reading entrepreneurial blogs, learning to pitch, and learning to program — you’re not working on your venture. You’re avoiding it.
What do you think needs to change to encourage more innovation in CT?
Right now Connecticut’s burgeoning entrepreneurial movement seems to have a lot of feeders and not enough leaders. In other words, there are too many people who want to sell to entrepreneurs, fund entrepreneurs, train entrepreneurs, or represent entrepreneurs — and not enough entrepreneurs. Connecticut truly needs to put entrepreneurs at the center of the ecosystem, instead of just giving lip service to the need to do so.