Sandi Lin is the CEO and Co-founder of Skilljar, an online training platform for businesses. Skilljar is enabling organizations around the world to deliver video-based courses. Prior to Skilljar, Sandi was a senior manager at Amazon.com, and is a graduate of Stanford and MIT.
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John Lee Dumas: Hold on to those after burners, Fire Nation. John Lee Dumas here and I am fired up to bring you our feature guest today, Sandi Lin. Sandi, are you prepared to ignite?
Sandi Lin: Absolutely.
John Lee Dumas: Yes! Sandi is the CEO and cofounder of Skilljar, and online training platform for businesses. Skilljar is enabling organizations around the world to deliver video-based courses. Prior to Skilljar, Sandi was a senior manager at Amazon.com and is a graduate of Stanford and MIT. Sandi, I’ve given Fire Nation just a little insight. So share more about you personally and expand upon the biz.
Sandi Lin: Absolutely. Thanks, John. I’m really honored to be here and with such a great entrepreneurial community of your listeners.
John Lee Dumas: That’s us.
Sandi Lin: So I’m originally from Vienna, Virginia. And, as you mentioned, I’ve been to some very good schools. But one thing I’ve learned is that your formal education is really no preparation for entrepreneurship. Since I’ve been on the startup journey the last two years, I’ve really had a new education in entrepreneurship.
John Lee Dumas: So kinda give me a little background about what led you to your current venture right now. Kinda walk us through your time at Amazon real briefly. But then: what really prompted that break?
Sandi Lin: So I was at Amazon for about four years. And I really enjoyed my time there. I was in project management first on a team called Fulfillment by Amazon, which is in the third party seller business.
John Lee Dumas: Yeah. FBA, right?
Sandi Lin: Yes. Are you a user?
John Lee Dumas: I’m not a user. But I’ve heard a couple podcasts where some entrepreneurs have made some pretty good businesses off of that.
Sandi Lin: That’s amazing because I started in 2008 and absolutely nobody knew what it was.
John Lee Dumas: That’s so funny. There’s a recent Pat Flynn episode on Smart Passive Income, I think episode 99. Could be wrong. It was right around there, though. And there’s a couple that’s making thousands of dollars a month just going and finding good deals and doing FBA.
Sandi Lin: Yeah. It’s a really great service. So I did that for a couple years, helped launch the business. And then I went to start Amazon Local, which was our local advertising business, working with restaurants, spas, local activities, to offer deals to Amazon customers in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.
John Lee Dumas: So cool. And so: what was that moment in time that you’re just like, “You know what? I’ve been to all the right schools, East Coast, West Coast, Amazon.com, you know, the biggest of the big. I’m walking out the door. I’m doing my own thing now”?
Sandi Lin: You know, I’d always had an entrepreneurial itch. My dad was an entrepreneur and I always just wondered, “Gosh. What would it be like to try to build my own company?” So it had always been in the back of my mind. When I was at Stanford, it was in the middle of the global financial crisis. So I felt like I needed to work at a large company, pay off my debts, get established in my personal life. And really, after four years at Amazon, I felt that the time was right, personally, to take the financial risk of my own company. And so I left really without having a specific idea or team. But just knowing that I would have to jump off the deep end and see what happens.
John Lee Dumas: So there’s a great quote by Jim Rohn: “Formal education will make you a living. Self-education will make you a fortune.” And let’s be honest, Sandi: you – I mean, myself, I’ve been to law school. We’ve had our share of formal education. And we could be making a pretty good living doing what we’re doing. But the reality is: it’s self-education that will make you a fortune. And we’re not talking about a fortune just in dollars and cents. We’re talking about in time. Time that you’re taking back yourself. Enjoyment of your actual job or the work that you’re doing. All these things add to that fortune. It doesn’t always just come down to pennies, nickels, and dollars and cents.
So, Sandi, what I wanna do now is really go back to a time in your journey, your entrepreneurial journey specifically, that you just look at as the worst moment in your entrepreneurial journey. I want you to really take us there to that moment and tell us that story, Sandi, and break it down for us.
Sandi Lin: Yes. I can tell you the specific date, actually, because –
John Lee Dumas: I love that.
Sandi Lin: – it was my birthday, August 14th. So, as I mentioned, I left Amazon without really knowing what I was doing. And it was a trial by fire. I later applied and got into a startup accelerator called Tech Stars. And August 14th was about two weeks into the program. And that date was a retreat for all the companies that were participating.
So in the first two weeks what had happened was I had just concluded that my original business idea was not going to work. So I’d been working on it for six months. It was the idea I’d applied to with this program. And it was really hard to let go and also feel like I’d wasted a lot of time. I didn’t know what I would do next. On top of that, as a result of changing the idea, I had to fire one of my team members.
John Lee Dumas: Oof.
Sandi Lin: And this is all happening hours before leaving for this retreat. So I have to say that the worst I’ve felt during my entire entrepreneurial journey was showing up to this retreat, no business idea, no team, and with some of the best startup founders in the Seattle area, and really nationwide.
John Lee Dumas: Can we talk about this for a second? I really wanna do a deep dive into how us, as entrepreneurs, we get so married to our ideas. We fall in love, so to speak, with whatever that first thing is that came along into our mind and that we kinda grasp onto, often to our detriment. I mean, there’s a lot that goes into knowing and saying, “Hey, sometimes you just need to persevere. You know, you’re gonna go through that dip. You gotta get through it to the other side.” But then there’s the other side of the coin, this: you’re sometimes gonna be in a hole. And the only way to get out of that hole is to stop digging. And obviously, Sandi, you came to that realization that you needed to stop digging.
But talk to me a little about my beginning part of this conversation when I was talking about just: entrepreneurs falling in love with their idea, with their projects. Can you speak to that?
Sandi Lin: Yes. This is a really tricky subject. And, honestly, it’s still one that I struggle with. Because I like to say that all great companies looked pretty dumb in the beginning. And, at the same time, dumb companies also looked dumb in the beginning, so.
John Lee Dumas: I mean, Amazon looked really dumb to a lot of people for a very long time.
Sandi Lin: Yeah. So it’s hard when you’re the founder, often, to figure out: “Well, is what I’m doing as dumb as it looks or am I believing in the vision of where it should go?” And so the original idea that I was working on was a search engine for online classes. So think like a kayak.com or an expedia.com type interface on top of thousands of online classes you could take around the web. And I started doing that because it came out of a personal need. You know, I was taking a lot of online classes at the time. This was a couple years ago. Online education was really exploding. So I was really passionate about this idea about bringing online classes to the web and helping people find the right ones for them.
But, you know, six months into it, there were two things that happened. One is we had actually launched – I’ll call it a prototype product. And although there were a lot of learners using the site, we weren’t making almost any money. And the other thing that happened was, as part of the Tech Stars program, they really encouraged you to talk directly to as many of your users as possible.
John Lee Dumas: So big.
Sandi Lin: Yeah. And so we, in the course of a week, had talked to a couple hundred people that were trying to take online classes. And just concluded that the problem wasn’t big enough and that people ultimately wouldn’t pay for kind of like a search engine type model. So, unfortunately, even though I thought there was a problem out there with a product solving it, and there are still a lot of companies trying to do this, ultimately I thought, “This isn’t the right business for me or for my team.”
John Lee Dumas: So, Sandi, I love this. And one thing that I really pull out of this is the importance of engaging directly with your end user. And the sooner you can do that, the more often you can do that, the sooner you can flesh out whether this is a viable business or not. And the phrase that I love here is, “Do you have a starving audience?”
You are never going to know if you have a starving audience unless you actually are on the line with one of them and they’re saying, “My Goodness, when are you gonna launch this next version you’re talking about? This is exactly what I need. Here, take my credit card. Take my down payment. I want in on this. I need this.” That’s a starving audience. And, unfortunately, you found that there just wasn’t a starving / large enough audience for that at that time. So you obviously had to pivot.
And that’s really my big takeaway, Sandi. But I want you to break it down. What’s the one takeaway for Fire Nation that you wanna share with us from that moment?
Sandi Lin: Get someone to pay for what you’re offering. In addition to the starving audience, I would say: a starving audience that can pay for food.
John Lee Dumas: Yes. I always say, “People vote with their wallets.” Do you believe that?
Sandi Lin: Yes. You know, now – and we can get to it. We’ve gone B to B. And we still get a lot of interest in our product and people that look at it and are super excited. But with another year of experience under my belt, I also know that, until somebody hands you the check or puts in your credit card, anything can happen.
John Lee Dumas: Anything can happen. I love that. Now, Sandi, let’s shift. And let’s tell another story. And this story you may have already brushed upon a little bit as we were going through your journey here. But take us to a specific moment: and ‘aha’ moment, a lightbulb that went on at some point in your journey. I mean, there have been many. But I want you to choose one to take us there and to tell us that story.
Sandi Lin: This fits perfectly with what we’ve been talking about. You know, when I was searching for the next business idea, and what would eventually turn into Skilljar now, I really wanted to stay involved in online training in some way. And I did not have an idea. But what I did have was a database of thousands of online instructors and corporate trainers. So literally I started interviewing them and just calling down the list.
Again, I think we did about 100 interviews in two weeks. And at the end of that time, there were a few different ideas that had emerged. But I really wasn’t sure which to pursue. And I felt a ton of time pressure because of this program that we were in. So what I did was I took the top three ideas and I went back and I asked everyone we talked to to stack rank these ideas and comment on why. And, John, I honestly thought it would be an even split between all of these and I would end up with nothing and still just stuck at square 1. So I was absolutely astounded that actually, very clearly, the winner was an easy-to-use technology platform for creating, delivering, tracking online courses.
And when I was seeing these results come in, I just couldn’t believe it because I had prepared myself to have to continue to search or move out of online education entirely. So when I saw this was very clearly the need that was expressed, it was clear that that was what we should start building. And many of those early interviewees actually became our first customers.
John Lee Dumas: You’ve gotten now to the point that you have the first customers. Now this is where I think we can take a second to kind of share with Fire Nation: what is that next step? Now that you have a proven concept, how did you and how do you go about building out a team and building out an actual business to support this?
Sandi Lin: So the challenge of being a founder is you have to work on multiple fronts on different times. And so especially when you’re the first person, you’re thinking about team-building, you’re thinking about getting more customers, you’re thinking about financing; just a lot of logistical overhead it takes to run a company. And so I think team is most important. That was actually something I was working on in parallel with doing the interviews.
You know, at the time I was fortunately able to pull in a few really great people that I’d previously worked with at Amazon and that were excited about the startup journey. I think getting into the Tech Stars program was a kind of public endorsement. At that point in time we’d also raised a little bit of money. So the people I was bringing in, they didn’t have to – I was able to pay them a little bit, which made a difference as well.
But, you know, in the beginning, it was all hands on deck; everybody doing a little bit of everything at once to try to get the business going.
John Lee Dumas: Can we talk just really briefly about the name, Skilljar? What was the birth of that?
Sandi Lin: So this is a very interesting story.
John Lee Dumas: I love that when that happens. A lot of times, people like, “Oh, it was pretty lame. I just was looking at a jar one day.”
Sandi Lin: So we actually crowdsourced our name.
John Lee Dumas: Oh, cool.
Sandi Lin: Our previous name was Everpath. And that name really spoke to the search engine concept of trying different paths to your career and finding new skills. We were never able to get the .com domain extension unfortunately. So, earlier this year, maybe January or February – I personally believe that having a .com is important for B to B products. But I also didn’t want to spend months trying to find a new name where I could get the Twitter and the Facebook handles and I could also get the .com. Because most entrepreneurs have probably spent a lot of time trying different names, seeing if they’re available.
John Lee Dumas: Of course.
Sandi Lin: And, in the meantime, I had to do all the different things that we just talked about in terms of actually trying to move the business forward. So I went on a site. I can’t remember the name right now. But you can basically submit a project brief and a contest prize. So I think I set it for $100.00 or something. And you describe your business, put some parameters. Like, in our case I said, “I don’t want anything with the word ‘school’ in it or ‘online’ or that kind of thing.” And really the crowd goes and does all the work for you. They generate lots of different ideas. They all have to be publicly available. And I picked the best one.
John Lee Dumas: That is so cool. If you do come up with that name of that website, definitely let me know. And, Fire Nation, I’ll put it in the show notes if Sandi comes through. No pressure, Sandi.
Sandi Lin: I will. I’ll look it up after.
John Lee Dumas: Awesome.
So we’re gonna move into what I like to call the 60 second questions. There are five of them and you have about 60 seconds. And yes, I will cut you off if you blather on. But I don’t think that’s gonna be a problem with you. But, ideally, Sandi, what are your first 60 minutes of your day look like?
Sandi Lin: I’m a morning person. I like having a nice breakfast and checking up on the news. But practically speaking, I scan my email for any urgent issues that may have happened overnight. We are a global business for both students and instructors. And otherwise I definitely try to get a workout in first thing. Exercise helps clear my head and focus for the rest of the day.
John Lee Dumas: What is your biggest strength as an entrepreneur?
Sandi Lin: You know, I think I’m like a Swiss Army Knife. I can do a little bit of everything pretty well. I learn very quickly. And I’m not afraid to get into the weeds, experiment with things. I can build websites. I can talk to customers. I can do the logistical HR stuff. So I’m really able to take in a lot of different inputs, draw conclusions, and move on.
John Lee Dumas: What is your biggest weakness as an entrepreneur?
Sandi Lin: Definitely anxiety. I worry too much about what ifs in the future. When it comes to startups, there are so many unknowns and it’s easy to get caught up in worrying about the future when really you should be thinking about today.
John Lee Dumas: What is a habit that you wish you had?
Sandi Lin: I would have to say meditation. You know, I have a lot of friends who swear by it, startup founders who swear by it. But I just never had the discipline to do it regularly. I think it would probably benefit me health-wise.
John Lee Dumas: Give Headspace a try. It’s just ten days, ten minutes a day. And put it into your morning routine. And it’s an easy way to kinda ease into meditation to see if it works for you.
So, Sandi, let’s take a step back now. What is the one thing that has you most fired up right now?
Sandi Lin: It’s the New Year. We’re getting a ton of customer inbound questions and we’re about to launch some really big ones. And I’m absolutely stoked to finally launch and see it be successful.
John Lee Dumas: Awesome. That’s what I love about the iterations of startups. You continue to have these launches that bring in different customers and different ideas and different pivot opportunities. And, Fire Nation, always be looking for that consistent feedback coming in to see what’s that next iteration coming down the line?
And, Sandi, we’re not letting you off the hook yet, girl. We are about to enter the lightning round. But before we do even that, let’s take a minute to thank our sponsors.
Sandi, welcome to the lightning round, where you get to share incredible resources and mind-blowing answers. Sound like a plan?
Sandi Lin: Absolutely.
John Lee Dumas: What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur?
Sandi Lin: Fear. So many fears. Fear of not having a salary. Fear of how failure could be perceived by myself and by others. Fear of wasting my career. Fear of the unknowns.
But you know what I ultimately realized was: these are all outweighed by the fear of not trying. And a quote that I really love from Wayne Gretzky is: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”
John Lee Dumas: So true, Fire Nation. And what is the best advice, Sandi, you’ve ever received?
Sandi Lin: Well, my mom likes to say that, “Every day is a new day.” And so, for startups, that really helps with being resilient. Because often it’s not that easy to tell the difference between success and failure, especially very early when it could be a win to even get the meetings that you want. So every day is an opportunity to start over, make something great happen. You never know when the next great thing might happen.
John Lee Dumas: Share one of your personal habits that you believe contributes to your success.
Sandi Lin: My No. 1 thing is regular exercise. It really helps keep me both physically and mentally healthy. And I’ve gone through periods of a few months at a time when I really haven’t had time or I haven’t made the time. And it’s really hurt my performance both at work and in my personal life. So that’s definitely my No. 1 habit that I maintain now, almost religiously.
John Lee Dumas: What are some of your go-to exercises?
Sandi Lin: So I really love this new exercise concept called Orangetheory. It is actually, I think, a national franchise at this point. But it’s one hour. It’s half cardio-based, half weight training-based. And I really love it because it’s a very difficult workout. You’re wearing a heartrate monitor and so you can monitor your heartrate at every given time and just see exactly how hard you’re working.
John Lee Dumas: Wow. Impressive. Orangetheory. Sandi, do you have an internet resource like Evernote that you can share with our listeners?
Sandi Lin: The lifesaving service for me has been something called Zapier. So it lets you connect different systems from all around the web including Skilljar, actually. For example, you could send your Skilljar course registrations directly to mailchimp or to salesforce.com or you could send yourself an email if somebody completes your surveymonkey survey. So it’s a very easy way to automate repetitive tasks and to connect different things that you wouldn’t think would fit together.
John Lee Dumas: If you could recommend one book for our listeners, what would it be and why?
Sandi Lin: I really liked a book called Predictable Revenue by Aaron Ross. It talks about the sales process at salesforce.com and really demystifies the different steps. It is geared towards larger companies. But entrepreneurs can learn a lot, especially if they’re like my background and never really had to sell on a day to day basis.
John Lee Dumas: Well, Fire Nation, I know that you love audio. So I teamed up with audible. And if you haven’t already, you can get an amazing audio book for free at eofirebook.com. And Predictable Revenue is Sandi’s recommendation.
Sandi, this next question’s the last of the lightning round. But it’s a doozy. Imagine you woke up tomorrow morning in a brand new world identical to earth, but you knew no one. You still have all the experience and knowledge you currently have. Your food and shelter’s taken care of. But all you have is a laptop and $500.00. What would you do in the next seven days?
Sandi Lin: You know, honestly, I think the research has shown that happiness comes from having a strong network of friends and family. So I would sign up for events and meet-ups as quickly as possible to start building my network. And I think, from that, that would lead to business opportunities and entrepreneurial ideas.
You know, these events sometimes have registration fees. So my $500.00 would go towards that.
John Lee Dumas: Well, Sandi, I’ve really enjoyed chatting today, learning about Skilljar. And yes, Fire Nation, we are gonna get to that website name to you for sure. But I wanna end on fire. We started on fire and let’s end on fire by you sharing one parting piece of guidance, the best way that we can connect with you, and then we’ll say goodbye.
Sandi Lin: Yeah. So you can reach me by email. It’s email@example.com. And I spell my name with an ‘i’ actually, so it’s firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Lee Dumas: And your parting piece of guidance?
Sandi Lin: My parting piece of guidance is to talk to your customers and get their feedback as quickly as possible about whatever your idea may be.
John Lee Dumas: Fire Nation, you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. And you have been hanging out with Sandi and JLD today. So keep up the heat and head over to eofire.com. Type “Sandi” in the search bar. Her show notes page will pop right up. And, Sandi, thank you for sharing your journey with Fire Nation today. And for that, we salute you. And we’ll catch you on the flipside.
Sandi Lin: Thanks. It was so much fun.
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