Building a Business isn’t Magic: Lesson.ly’s Max Yoder on Discovering Success the Hard Way
Max Yoder knows what it’s like to fail all too well. But he also knows that sometimes failing – and accepting those failures – is the key to success. As the CEO of Lesson.ly, an Indianapolis-based learning automation software company, Yoder has learned that while success doesn’t come easy, when it does come, it’s well worth the wait. And often times, that success isn’t attributed to any one individual or activity but a series of events and mentors that pave a path to real, long-lasting success.
The Importance of Mentors
As a student at Indiana University, Yoder was, in a word, lost. Unsure of what to study, let alone what to do upon graduation, he decided to chart his own course. He enrolled in IU’s Individualized Major Program and graduated as the school’s first-ever branding and advertising major. Through his studies at IU, Yoder earned an internship at a design and branding firm with Kristian Andersen, now a Partner at High Alpha and an investor in Lesson.ly.
“Kristian showed me that building a business isn’t magic,” Yoder says. “Magicians are not very helpful. They make magic and the audience says, ‘That’s pretty cool, but I can’t do it myself.’ Working with Kristian was the opposite. By breaking up what once seemed like magic and revealing it as a process, I slowly began to decipher the language of business.”
After his time at Andersen’s firm, Yoder was accepted into a post-grad program called the Orr Fellowship, which places recent college grads with high-tech, high-growth startups. Yoder spent the next two years working for Chris Baggott’s Compendium, a company later acquired by Oracle. (Chris Baggott also happens to be a co-founder and former CMO of ExactTarget, another legendary Indianapolis-based tech company and is now an investor in Lesson.ly).
“Chris took me under his wing, just as Kristian had,” Yoder says. “And they’re both still really strong mentors to me. They are patient with me and they continually bring me opportunities to grow. It might not be magic, but it’s definitely magical when you find someone willing to show you the ropes.”
Failing Fast and Learning the Hard Way
While Yoder has been fortunate enough to have strong, experienced mentors, the root of his current success comes from learning through his own failures. While at Compendium, Yoder took on a side project call Quipol, a quick polling service.
“The thought was to reimagine polling not as a sidebar or widget but as a service directly embedded in the content where the readers’ eyes are,” Yoder explains. “I had no business model. I was just trying to attract eyeballs to something that I hoped I could monetize later – very much in vogue at the time.”
Yoder also admits to designing Quipol in a vacuum. “That was the first mistake I made. I really believed I had all the information in my head to make the product perfect, but nine months later, after I’d spent a lot of money and time, I found out that that obviously wasn’t the case.”
“On the day Quipol launched, I received an email from a user asking why it didn’t have certain functionality. And that functionality was a killer idea that I hadn’t even considered! Quipol was pretty much dead on arrival from that point on,” Yoder says. “I failed to build empathy into the product because I had not talked to the people who were ultimately going to use the product. I thought I knew best.”
“I spent the next nine months trying to clean up the mess,” Yoder continues. “I didn’t have the right capital reserves. I tried to make changes to the product, but it ultimately didn’t get traction. We ended up signing up 3,000 people to build ‘Quipols’ and saw some success with customers as big as Forbes, but I just didn’t have a business.”
In the end, Yoder couldn’t make Quipol work. “I had to face everyone who had been supporting me from day one and tell them that we were shutting down. That was a really tough time,” he says. “But the really amazing thing was that everyone still believed in me. I had people telling me ‘We still think you can build a great company, you’ve just got to get back up and try again.’”
And that’s exactly what he did.
Finding Success After Failure
Yoder put everything he’d learned from his experience with Quipol to good use in his next venture, Lesson.ly. And it helped that he had the support of his mentors and the Indianapolis tech community.
Yoder ended up co-founding Lesson.ly with Mike Fitzgerald, Eric Tobias and his mentor, Kristian Anderson. “The three came to me with an idea. They didn’t know what direction they wanted to take it, all they knew was that it’d be something in the learning and training space. They had faith in me. They said, ‘We think you can go out there and figure it out.’”
Yoder and his team spent the next several months conducting in-depth research, not building another product in a vacuum. “We did a ton of homework on the real problem in the market before we wrote a single line of code, before we designed a single screen,” Yoder says. “I was able to learn, learn, learn and ask a lot of questions and make sure we really understood the problem before we built anything.”
Even after intensive research and after the team finally felt like they understood the market and the problem, they chose to officially launch Lesson.ly as a bare-bones product. “I called it ‘refined’ because that was a way better descriptor than ‘pared down,’ but it didn’t do much,” Yoder admits. “You could build and assign lessons in a really singular way – one lesson to one person. It was very minimally functional, but I was able to go to people and help them solve a problem. So few applications out there existed that allowed people to solve this problem without putting a ton of effort and money behind it. It was really gratifying to see that we helped even from that early stage.”
Despite the minimally viable product Yoder and the team launched with, customers were still willing to bet on Lesson.ly’s success. “Our earliest users said, ‘We’ll pay for it. It’s going to really help,’” Yoder says. It turns out that that first iteration really did help, and he and the team kept selling. They had 10 customers after a few short months, hired their first full-time salesperson and went full steam ahead.
Now hundreds of businesses across the country use Lesson.ly’s feature-rich product to ensure that their employees are prepared, trained and above all, confident. “The reason most sales and support reps – and new employees for that matter – don’t do their best work,” Yoder says, “is because they’ve never had easy access to the so-called tribal knowledge that is embedded deep within a business. Lesson.ly is making it seamless to capture this information and repurpose it in a way that allows every employee, no matter how long they’ve been with the company, to access, learn from, and utilize it. We’ve democratized employee learning.”
While Yoder and Lesson.ly are surely on a path to success, his past failures have helped propel him to where he is today. “You get put into situations where you don’t know the answer and you try something and maybe you make a mistake and maybe it hurts, but you come out from it more durable than you were before you went in.”
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