Focus is a difficult state to achieve and even more difficult to sustain over time, even for longtime entrepreneurs like Chip Paucek, CEO and co-founder of 2U.
If you read Paucek‘s resume, you might think, “Nothing but success!” He founded Cerebellum, which created the “Standard Deviants” educational program. CEO of Hooked on Phonics, which those of a certain age can remember be ubiquitous in advertising. All that before 2U, which had its initial public offering this year and has real revenue.
And there is success in those first two companies, with each finding success and becoming cultural touchstones for a generation of children. But according to Paucek, who spoke recently at a Startup Grind DC event, he feels he’s finally hit it big with 2U, which helps universities offer degree programs online through cloud-based software-as-a-service solutions.
Cerebellum and Hooked on Phonics weren’t failure, Paucek said, but each had shortcomings — broadly, in how the idea transitioned to a long-lasting business model.
“I look back on both my Standard Deviants phase and my Hooked on Phonics phase as a real lesson in focus. I think entrepreneurs … you’re constantly looking for the angle, and any sort of bright shiny new object is super-attractive to entrepreneurs. And so you can easily convince yourself that that new idea is better, or something you should pursue. And you can do it at risk of really, potentially, harming the idea that might actually be working.”
Focus is what Paucek is focused on, as he has a great team at 2U to help him execute; Paucek’s job is to ensure the company goal remains being the world’s best at building online degree programs. And that focus requires time, effort and a consistent re-evaluation of what’s working and what isn’t.
“Once you’ve got a business model that you have some real traction, treasure it and make it work. Because they are fleeting, and they are difficult to find, and the business model, I think, is often why great ideas don’t make it out of the ‘great idea’ phase.”
Focus goes beyond hard work, and it doesn’t end
First, there is simply being focused. If you believe in your idea, as Paucek noted several times, don’t dilute your attention and energy with other endeavors.
But, of course, focus alone is not enough. One must ask, does my focus have quality, appropriateness and wisdom — is the idea the right thing to devote myself to? That question can be difficult to answer, and often must be answered again and again as a company grows and develops.
When Paucek left Hooked on Phonics to be a founder of what became 2U, his first question of focus was: Is this a good idea, considering the early negative reaction from many would-be investors and university partners. Another obstacle was a likely misconception about the company — that 2U was actually teaching students, that it was among the online-learning institutions attempting to replace the traditional educational experience. This was most apparent in the company’s original name: 2Tor.
“Over time, it implied to people that we were doing the tutoring or the teaching. And 2U provides a great technology platform … but we don’t ever do the instruction. This is a Berkeley degree, a Georgetown degree, a Chapel Hill degree, a GW degree, not a 2U degree. So by definition, we felt the name was misleading, and also difficult to spell.”
Another early question for 2U: What is the focus of the product itself? “[O]ne of the earliest discussions among the founding team was, ‘Was this a business focused on the discipline of educating teachers or was this a business focused on sort of a broader purview,’ and that’s clearly where we went,” Paucek said, with focuses on business and nursing, as well as areas still untapped, such as engineering.
With that focus comes another level — getting customers to buy into the focus and what it can generate. Universities were skeptical of the need for an outsider, of the need to treat online students equally, and that online students could have outcomes as good as those of on-campus students, Paucek says. “Yeah, the platform’s great, we’ve done some nice technology. The key insight behind 2U was to convince a really high-quality school to end the segregation of the online students, to make them equal to the campus students, to give them the same rights — and therefore same responsibilities — as a campus student,” he says. “That sounds like a small thing. It’s a massive thing.”
Now that 2U has revenue, an IPO and years of planning out, the challenge to focus now is: How fast to expand? Each 2U program involves millions of upfront cash made back over time, in no small part due to the years it takes for students to complete and pay for a degree program. That’s a question 2U will be taking no longer as a startup, but as a public company.
Paucek’s full talk for Startup Grind DC: