• Tips for Entrepreneurs

Blackboard Rules: Advice from Two of the Smartest Kids in the Class

By Hope Katz Gibbs

Staying true to your passion—and focusing on the big picture—is essential for Blackboard Inc. founders Michael Chasen and Matthew Pittinsky.

Of course, the 38-year-olds weren’t thinking about this when they met as undergrads at American University in the early 1990s.

They also had no idea they’d form a company that would introduce an educational product in 1998, go public in June 2004, or generate revenue of $445 million, which is the projection for this year.

They simply combined their love for technology (Michael) and education (Matthew) and gave their company that college try.

Chalk it up to destiny

Michael says: “After I had gotten an undergraduate degree in computer science at American, I decided to get an MBA at Georgetown with a specialization in accounting and planned to follow that up with a law degree. I found the college application process tedious and thought it would be easier if people could apply electronically.”

He tried to sell a computer application that did just that to Yeshiva and Georgetown universities, U.S. News and World Report, and The Princeton Review. But none of them bit.

Matthew was helping with the project (for free) while finishing his Masters of Education at Harvard. When their application wasn’t picked up, Michael applied to law school at Boston College and Matthew went to work for KPMG.

Fate intervened when Matthew’s boss, Greg Baroni, saw the computer application and knew the young men were on to something. After Michael finished his first year at law school in 1996, Baroni hired him to join his team.

Within a year, Michael and Matthew felt they had learned enough and began building the framework for Blackboard LLC. Baroni must have agreed, because he loaned them computers to get started.

Tips for entrepreneurs from Michael Chasen

Michael says the top five big leadership lessons he’s learned in the last 15 years include:

1. Focus on the big world. “Look around and see what can be improved. For me, applying to college was a hassle, and based on the fact that I’ve loved computers since I was 10, I knew that I could solve that problem using technology. So I used that passion and understanding to build a company. My team and I are still doing that today.”

2. Network the network. “When Matthew and I started the company, my goal was to shake hands with as many people in the technology and education fields as I possibly could. That’s how we met our first investor and how we eventually managed to raise millions in venture capital. I still network like crazy, but now I get invited to different kinds of events, where the CEOs are the ones in the room. Suffice it to say, I’m still determined to shake as many hands as possible.”

3. Prove your idea. “Matthew and I created a lot of software applications and shopped them around until we landed on one that we could sell. We then built a solid foundation for the company, and that’s how we got investors to take us seriously. No one is going to invest their money in an idea if you haven’t proven that it will make money.”

4. Charge for your products and services. “During the dot-com boom, there was a lot of pressure on us to give our software away for free because that is what our competitors were doing. Matthew and I and our other partners knew, however, that if we did that, we would never be able to charge for it. Human psychology just doesn’t work that way. So we never went that route, and it paid off.”

5. Be happy. “I am happy all the time. I always have been. I think I am predisposed to enjoy life. Maybe it’s because I’ve always done what I love. As a kid, I loved computers from the day my dad, an endodontist, brought home a Radio Shack TRS Model III. He thought he’d use it to track billing, but within a few months the computer was in my room and I was writing programs that I eventually sold to local businesses in my hometown of Cheshire, Conn. They paid me $25 an hour for computer consulting. It was great. It still is.”

Tips for Entrepreneurs from Matthew Pittinsky

Dr. Matthew Pittinsky says he has learned three big lessons along his route from Blackboard exec to his new role as assistant professor of sociology at Arizona State University:

1. Have a passion for solving a problem. “It was never my goal to start a multi-million-dollar company. My heart was in solving the problem of how to help colleges and universities, and K-12 institutions, work better with their students.

“Later, I wanted to prove to the people who invested in us that we could do what we said we’d do. You need to have a fire in your belly to build a company, and solving problems is what fuels me. I always tell other entrepreneurs that to be successful, they need to find what gets them fired up.”

2. Find a natural on-ramp. “A lot of people have great ideas, but to make a product or service succeed, you need capital and people to bring it to life. Mike and I got to know the education market at KPMG, and we got to network with the players in the field.

“It’s how we met the developers from Cornell we ended up partnering with in 1998. And it’s how we instinctively knew what decisions to make, even though they weren’t trendy, and where the openings were,” he says.

“It was a gradual process, and we took one step at a time and stayed the course. My advice to others is to evolve your company in stages and keep your eyes open. Timing is critical, but if you are paying attention, you’ll figure out where the openings are so you can get what you are making out into the marketplace in a natural, consistent way.”

3. Figure out what you love, and do it. “While I didn’t necessarily have an exit strategy in mind, but my heart was not in building a company. I loved the problem-solving aspects of the business, which made me a great external evangelist. I could go out there and sell our products because I truly believed they helped students and schools.”

“After we went public and we had accomplished all of our initial goals, I started thinking about what I truly wanted for my life. Teaching and doing research makes me really happy, and now I get to do that all day long. It’s wonderful.”

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