(Photo by April Joyner)
Brad Hargreaves knows about the downside of tying one’s personal identity to a career.
For six months after shutting down his failed college startup, a venture-backed online game called GoCrossCampus that he founded at Yale, he felt depressed and aimless.
“I had no direction, no purpose, no career at all,” said the General Assembly cofounder. “My only identification was as an entrepreneur.”
Hargreaves, who’s now running venture-backed coliving company Common, proved willing to dive into thorny personal topics during his talk at TechBreakfast’s Startup Spectacular event featuring workshops on building, growing and funding a business. It’s not that much of a surprise — we’ve mentioned Hargreaves’ thoughtful nature before.
Drawing upon his experience at General Assembly, Hargreaves spoke about realizing when your company has outgrown you.
“We hired an amazing executive team,” he said. “Unless you’re the CEO, and you’re holding the vision, there’s always someone who can do your job better.”
That realization helped Hargreaves find what he believes to be a huge market opportunity, which he’s now pursuing with Common. The residential real estate company seeks to improve the rental experience for city-dwellers by applying the operational and branding model used in the hotel industry.
Hargreaves also spoke of his initiation into starting companies as a student at Yale, liquidating antique furniture the university sought to sell off. After that, he founded GoCrossCampus, his first bona fide company. The product was an online game, similar to Risk, based upon college rivalries. The company raised $2 million but went bust, Hargreaves said, because it had no clear path to revenue. That’s how he learned his first business lesson.
“We never thought about how to make money, and we didn’t have the scale of Facebook or Twitter, where we could kick the can down the road,” he said.
His next company, General Assembly, was much more successful. The technology and design school now has 15 campuses and boasts more than 25,000 alumni, and according to Hargreaves, is now the largest trade school in the U.S. As General Assembly grew to hundreds of employees, Hargreaves got a crash course in scaling up: namely, not letting emotions take over decision-making.
One of his advisors gave him an exercise in management that he still uses today.
“Imagine being fired by your board tomorrow,” he said. “What would they do with the business next? And why aren’t you making those decisions?”
Though the specifics of his new industry are quite different from that of education, Hargreaves says his time at General Assembly has prepared him well for the challenge.
“Both industries have a lot of financial and regulatory complications,” he said. “I think the big opportunities now are in complicated industries. You can’t just go and start a company by building an app anymore.”-30-
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