As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Grant Aldrich. Grant founded OnlineDegree.com with a purpose-driven mission: make higher education more accessible and affordable for everyone. After graduating college with an overwhelming amount of debt, he was determined to change how students embark on their college education. Grant has spent his entire career working in startups with nearly 15 years of experience. He has been a board member and donor to a number of non-profits, an advisor to many publicly traded companies, and a guest speaker at seminars and graduate school courses. He graduated with honors from University of California Irvine in Economics.
Thank you so much for joining us, Grant! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
About 4 years ago, I had a life changing event. While swimming off the coast of Northern California, I almost drowned. Although I should have known better, I was out in the water during a surf advisory and quickly became overwhelmed by the storm. I painfully saw my wife and mother-in-law on the beach in the distance as I struggled to survive, and assumed my life was over. Luckily for me, that didn’t happen. I was able to make it to shore and was given another chance at life (along with an ambulance ride and short stay in the hospital).
Up to that point, I was on a very different path. I had started and exited two prior startup companies, and had the idea that I was destined to go even bigger. More success, more money, and an even bigger company. In hindsight, I feel my financial pursuits had led me to a very selfish existence and left me relatively unhappy in my daily life.
That would all change though. After a 6 month period of introspection, I realized I didn’t want any of that. I just wanted to be happy, spend time with my family, and to tackle a huge problem that would help people around the world.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I would eventually set my sights on a massive problem that I felt passionate about: making college affordable and accessible for everyone. Education was always very important in my family, and was a common topic of conversation at the dinner table. It’s so critical to an individual’s success, and the success of a society as a whole. However, I saw that millions of people who are wanting to make their lives better and get the education they need, are unable to take the first step. Student debt and the lack of accessibility to higher education have become far too high.
I created OnlineDegree.com to solve that. Now, anyone can register in 60 seconds, take as many college-level courses as they’d like, and receive credits toward their degree…for Free.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
For the longest time, I didn’t know “how” or “what” I would create. I was simply armed with the purpose of affordable and accessible college. My true moment of genesis though came from a conversation I was having with my then-pregnant wife. As we were discussing the problem of access to education, she lamented how difficult it was for stay-at-home mothers in particular to go back to school. Given the cost, scheduling issues with raising children, fear, and an overall lack of information with the college process, it seemed impossible.
It was the “aha” moment.
I realized that wasn’t just a problem for moms, it was the issue for every working adult. The psychological, physical, and financial barriers she identified are preventing everyone from taking the first step, and I knew that I could solve that problem. So, that’s what we did. We created a platform that solved those impediments, and in doing so, made the college dream a reality for millions of people.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
The funniest thing was getting early partners and vendors to understand we were dispensing with the traditional tuition-model, and instead making it free. It was actually challenging for people to fathom an alternative because of how synonymous tuition had become with education. I remember hilarious conversations where they’d ask me about our tuition (in trying to figure out how they’d charge us as a percentage of said tuition), and me continually repeating, “No, you don’t get it…it’s free.” After 3 or 4 rounds of that, it would eventually sink in and they’d be left scratching their heads.
The takeaway is that often the best and most obvious solutions to our problems will often come with disbelief and confusion. One must take that in stride and be prepared.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I began the company with just the vision. I really didn’t know how I would accomplish it at first. I was determined though since I knew how big of a problem access to education was for millions of people, and how an effective solution could positively impact so many lives. I could personally relate as well…I left college with a huge amount of debt, and experienced how crippling that was. I’m one of the fortunate ones though since I was still able to get the education I needed and improve my livelihood. But, what about the estimated 35 million adults who aren’t able to get that education despite the demand to go back to school? I knew this was the problem I wanted to solve.
Some of the best innovations and businesses in the world started with simple dream on the back of a napkin. Having that guiding light was crucial in achieving that dream. We don’t always have to initially answer “how” we’ll do something…and that’s ok.
It’s the dream that means everything. A dream big enough, and important enough, to change the world. That’s what drives you. It keeps you motivated to fulfill that purpose and make a positive impact on everyone’s life.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
The key is to make sure your mission and methodology are intertwined throughout every aspect of your organization. It should permeate through each line of code, customer interaction, and idea, and become inseparable from your brand. Those values will not only implicitly guide your team, it will serve as a beacon for everyone to rally behind you. In our specific case, whether someone is a student, professor, or simply an admirer, the mission is what brings all of us together, motivates us, and guides our decisions. I can definitively say that the key factor of our success has been the adoption from higher education professionals who are equally moved by our purpose. The majority of people who work in higher education, in addition to the greater populace, know there’s an accessibility issue with higher ed and truly want to solve the problem. The professors, administrators, and other insiders are dedicated to the student’s best interests. As a result, because we’re boldly representing that mission in everything we do, they love the organization and have supported our fresh approach to achieving the common goal of college accessibility.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
A startup is an emotional rollercoaster. Building anything from scratch is fraught with adversity, and one will battle personal rejection and self-doubt every single day. Unfortunately, the lows will weigh more heavily on your mental well-being than the highs. It’s a sad, and often neglected reality of the startup experience. As a result, founders and entrepreneurs definitely need a strategy or philosophy to mentally cope with those inevitable ups and downs. For me personally, I take these moments in stride by remembering the following sentence: “I’m living my dream.” My dream is being an entrepreneur, enjoying the challenge, helping people, being creative, changing the world, and spending my free time with my family. If I encounter a setback or I’m dealing with a lack of confidence, I take the time to reflect and remember that sentence. It’s my way of reminding myself of the positive aspects in my life, and insulating me from the emotional stress of the hardship. It’s kept me happy through the entire journey.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
In the beginning, I would question giving up every single day. Especially before the first version of our platform was up and live. Up to that point, there’s no validation on whether or not your idea has the potential to succeed. It’s all based on faith. The faith that others will share your vision, that your business plan is sound, and that you actually have the ability to execute on that vision.
I think 3 things keeps you going despite the fear of the unknown: the unwavering belief in the purpose, the confidence in yourself to help manifest that dream, and the encouragement from friends and family. If any one of those three is missing, I think it significantly lowers the chances of someone persevering through those hard times.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
It’s been nothing short of incredible. Since our launch just over 18 months ago, we’re now seeing thousands of students registering every month, universities partnering with us from across the country, great student outcomes, and great media reception.
To see the positive response from all of the various stakeholders in the industry has brought me so much joy and validation. It’s proven that we were on the right track, and that we’re doing the right thing.
The dream of affordable and accessible college is now a reality.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Know Thyself
Prior to starting a business, I think every entrepreneur needs to address a 3000 year old maxim from Ancient Greece…”Know Thyself”. It was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo, which was the temple of wisdom. The belief was how could you obtain true wisdom or happiness if you didn’t know yourself. It’s the one thing you should be able to know better than anything else. Why is this important? An entrepreneur comes up with many business ideas before choosing that “best one”. They make that choice based on a handful of traditional criteria (the business plan, market opportunity, etc.) but often miss the key factor of happiness. Will this business enhance my happiness, and is it conducive to my personality? For example, if you don’t like managing, you probably shouldn’t choose a business that requires a large amount of employees. If you don’t like selling, you shouldn’t choose an idea that necessitates being in an office all day on the phone. Finally, make sure to ask yourself how many hours a day you need for family or friends. These types of personal considerations are crucial when determined that right business, and often missed if you don’t know yourself.
2. Stay Passionate.
Many entrepreneurs don’t realize how long a business commitment is…this will be your life for many years. All day, and every day. It’s a long road, and they need to be certain they’re doing something that they care about. If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, or enjoy the actual work, you’ll never be truly fulfilled. The longer the business continues, the more you’ll desire other outside opportunities to seek happiness. Avoid this problem completely by doing something you’ll love.
3. Stay Lean
I have a philosophy I call “KELP”: Keep Expenses as Low as Possible. The main result of failure I always see with so many fellow entrepreneurs is running out of money. Founders often misjudge how long it will take to gain traction in the marketplace to fund their salary or cover business expenses. It’s a marathon, not a sprint! Entrepreneurs must do everything they can to limit expenses on both the business side and their personal lives to ensure they give the business long enough to take off. Be lean!
4. Stay Positive
As I mentioned before, you’ll need to be ready for the inevitable ups and downs. Always believe in yourself, and surround yourself with loved ones who encourage you as well. One thing I’d suggest before you begin your journey, is to write yourself a letter. Prior to beginning OnlineDegree.com I wrote myself a comforting letter in the hopes it would provide me solace in the chaotic times that were sure to come. With a clear and optimistic mind, I spoke to my future self and shared the dreams, motivations, and encouragement I felt prior to getting started. It’s hanging on my wall in my office. In difficult moments, I look up at the letter as a source of positive reinforcement. I’d suggest others do it as well.
5. Stay Authentic
Authenticity is magnetic. So much of growing a business is getting real support and backing from not only customers, but partners, clients, media, and other people in the industry. If you’re authentic, your mission will resonate and transmit clearly to the people who should listen, and bring them closer to you. In other words, make sure you choose a business that allows you to be “you”. If you’re more comfortable in flip flops and board shorts all day, then don’t do something that requires you to appear comfortable in a suit. Be real, and personally embody the change your mission is trying to achieve.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My wife. It would have been impossible for me to accomplish anything without her encouragement and support. Any entrepreneurial journey is scary. Not only because of the inherent difficulty in terms of the daily commitment and struggle, but the overall risk it places on your family’s livelihood given the investment of so much time and money.
Two things that have a profound impact on your spouse and family.
I’m fortunate that she not only believed in me and the mission of what we’re trying to solve, but made it a point to encourage me on a daily basis. Had I not had that, I would have most certainly failed.
People can accomplish extraordinary things if they feel loved ones will still love and respect them despite the outcome.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
It seems obvious, but happiness is that critical thing that tragically eludes people. As most of us know, it’s hard to be happy. Why is that? What’s more important for a healthy and fulfilled life than happiness? I’ve found that it’s often neglected or not prioritized. It’s easy to forget about being happy during one’s daily grind, or in the midst of the multitude of responsibilities we place on ourselves. It requires introspection and constant vigilance. People can go a lifetime without understanding the sources of their true happiness, and dedicating time to make it a priority in their lives. It’s heartbreaking and tragic. For those that do though, the effect is profound. Whatever that respective source of happiness is for someone, once realized, results in a transformative existence of fulfillment and purpose.
Definitely deserving of it’s own movement to make each individual, and thus the world, a better place!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
People can follow our journey on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/onlinedegreecom/ or Linkedin https://www.linkedin.com/company/onlinedegree/ , and me personally on linkedin as well at https://www.linkedin.com/in/grant-aldrich-56721b31/