This article was published in the Spring 2021 issue
by Mike Soldan, CXO, Shmoop
There are dozens of articles, blogs, and thought-leadership pieces floating around that claim the ultimate accelerator to getting a business moving is having real passion for what you’re building. I never fully understood how true that was until the last 12 months.
I had the great privilege of spending 4 amazing years at Pluralsight, from 2015 through their IPO, during which time I couldn’t have imagined a deeper connection to the value that they bring their users. After all, I would have a serious struggle in today’s reality if there wasn’t such a need for people that can balance technical skills with communication. What Pluralsight teaches people is invaluable; their work is also the reason I’m able to put a roof over my family’s heads. It’s a product-origin story that’s hard to beat.
When I decided it was time for a new journey in 2019, one of my first calls was to a former peer, Andy Rahden, who was on his way to run Shmoop, an edtech company focused on the K-12 market. I knew that helping students would be one of the only things that could top the meaningfulness I felt at Pluralsight. Shortly after connecting with Andy, my journey with Shmoop began.
Shmoop is a small startup that has made a serious impact on students for years, but its founders wanted a new leadership team to take it to the next level. What I didn’t realize at the time is how MUCH help our students need in our nation’s education system. The core offering that existed at Shmoop before my arrival was strong on its own terms, but I immediately knew our users needed more.
Within three months, I set the company on a journey to focus a product build on the non-academic aspects of learning and student life. The result was a vision for the Shmoop Heartbeat: A product that would capture and communicate the life experiences, cognitive abilities, and emotional factors that impact student learning. While we conducted dozens of teacher and student interviews and--like all good product-decisions--based the plan on user feedback, what we were really making a bet on was my gut and a deep passion for the impact we could make. I’ll never forget the first board meeting, where I presented the concept and showed clips of teachers asking for help. We quickly turned away from the discussion of TAM and hard numbers and knew we had to move forward.
The next 12 months were amazing. As the product came to life--alongside the messaging, product marketing, and team enablement--the love for our work continued to grow. It became immediately clear that our passion for what we were doing had a direct causal effect on (not just a correlation with) the emergent strength of our product/market fit. We had more than 10 paid pilots sold before we had our first low-fidelity prototype to show to our prospects.
Not only did we complete the fastest and most impressive go-to-market motion pivot and product build I’ve ever seen, but the team did it with no complaints. The companywide passion we were able to rally for this product was--and remains--the most priceless accelerator I could imagine.
As the tool came to market in October of last year, and commitments for implementations began, the passion for the Shmoop Heartbeat continued to pay dividends. Not only were our customers making bets based on our love for the product, but the industry at large was responding as well. We quickly won several awards and acknowledgments from third parties. Our first large-scale rollout took place mid-February. The day after we trained teachers on the product, a group of 2 classrooms in an advisory period answered more than 13,000 interactions in a single day. Finally--our students were showing the same passion that we felt all along. There’s nothing more meaningful than a direct translation of your initial goal to your end-user with zero depreciation.
I’d encourage all founders, executives trying to make a turn, or leaders making a jump, to make sure that you can get yourself behind the mission of the product/company you’re going after. While it is possible to be successful without a deep sense of mission--and not all missions can be equal to saving students--I can assure you with 100% confidence that your journey will be easier if you care and you can get your team to passionately care about what you’re building.
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