Roy Steiner
Senior Director, Learning & Impact

You’re Not at Your Best Yet | Sidharth Kakkar, CEO and Co-Founder, Front Row

November 15, 2016

It’s been a busy couple of years for Sidharth Kakkar. His company Front Row Education, where he’s the CEO and co-founder, is changing the way teachers use technology in the classroom. Front Row makes adaptive, gamified, and data-driven education programs for classrooms that K-8 students use to learn at their own pace. Their product is used by hundreds of thousands of teachers and more than 3 million students across the U.S.

Through leading his team at Front Row, Sidharth has come to realize that for most people, you’re not at your personal best yet, so it’s important to constantly be listening to feedback, adapting and growing. Recognizing this has shaped his approach to business, to hiring and how he looks at personal growth and nurturing talent at Front Row Education.

An excerpt of the full interview with Sidharth is below, and you can listen to the full interview on SoundCloud or by subscribing to the Founder's Corner podcast on iTunes or Google Play.

Get out of the building regularly to talk to your users and do rapid prototyping

“When we got started, we had a teacher who let us come to his classroom in Baltimore. Spending time in the school meant that we could actually focus on making things that would help students succeed. We spent a lot of time working with the kids and then going home and programming the first version of the product every night — a process we call rapid prototyping. As the kids were learning, we found the areas where they were getting stuck. Then we’d go home and try to find ways to help them get past the things that they were struggling with.

One of the things that’s been really cool about the way that we started is that we continue building everything that way. We continue to build software for use in the classroom while spending time in the classroom. We’ve done a lot in terms of just looking around at schools, talking to teachers, figuring out what is it they need and then doing a good job of making products that work for them.”

The CEO and leadership team should set the example of listening to customers

“Since the beginning, I’ve been pretty obsessive about doing customer support. We don’t have a support person. If there’s a support person, it’s in large part me. The way we view this is that the most influential or most senior people on the team should be doing the most support because they need to know most of what’s going on. If you email Front Row, you’ll probably get an answer from me and 90% of the time, I will answer within two hours. It’s a really good way for me to figure out what’s working, what isn’t working, what do we need to do better, what do we need to double down on, what do they love and not love. I can’t think of a better way to spend my time, to be honest. This is probably the highest value activity I engage in, in my opinion. Ultimately we, as a business, exist to serve teachers and their students. If the product isn’t serving their needs, then nothing else matters.”

Don’t dwell on your problems, focus on how you’re going to solve them

“I feel like every few weeks, I end up in this state where it feels like everything is totally broken, nothing is going to work, and this whole thing is a terrible idea. I have thoughts that ‘The product doesn’t make sense. This team doesn’t make sense. Nothing here makes sense. We’re doing it all wrong.’ Of course that’s not what’s going on, but sometimes your mind can hyper focus on all the things that are aren’t right. If you only focus on your problems, it will seem like nothing is right. However, realize that every entrepreneur has feelings of self-doubt. When I talk to other entrepreneurs, they share these same feelings. The biggest thing for me has been, one, knowing that most other people seem to go through this. Two, remembering that feeling of doubt does go away and everything is not broken. It’s a mirage. It just feels like that sometimes.

I’ve found a procedure that works for me is to dive into my notebook and use it to problem solve. I fill a couple of pages of thoughts of what isn’t working and how I think we can fix it. It helps provide clarity on how we’re going to do things better. It helps me focus on solving problems rather than just dwell on the problems.”

Over time, your role will move from doing everything to influencing your organization

“Going from a small team of 10 to where we are today with 24 people is hard. That’s a totally different way of thinking and probably the hardest change that I’ve had to make over the last three years, going from the ‘I’m just going to do everything, fix everything, and make it happen,’ to the ‘There’s this organization who together has to do everything, make everything, and I’m just trying to influence it.’”

Build timely feedback into your culture and DNA

“We decided pretty early on that was going to be really important to our success. There’s weekly one‑on‑ones. A lot of startups take the approach of, ‘We don’t have time for that.’

The approach that we’ve taken is you get to pick a couple of things that you do have time for, and this is the one we’re picking. We’re going to have time for feedback, and that means weekly one‑on‑ones for every single person on the team.

We also try to give feedback as timely as possible. We don’t just wait for that weekly 1:1 meeting to give feedback because we actually think that weekly feedback might be too infrequent. A lot of times, I’ll just ping people on Slack and say, ‘That was awesome’ or ‘I don’t know if that was the right way to approach this’. I’ll do that randomly for things I notice throughout the day.

We also have this anonymous feedback system which is built on Slack. It’s just a way to send people anonymous notes. Every two weeks, we have an all hands, and we do what we call an ‘I like, I wish’ where each person says what do they like about what’s going on and what do they wish were different about it. It’s feedback to the organization and to me in a lot of ways. We make time for it in the meeting, so every single person does it. Then we think about how are we going to make some of those ‘I wishes’ happen.”

The ability of somebody to receive feedback and act on it is strongly correlated with performance

“Our general view is that when you start at Front Row, the assumption is that you’re not at your lifetime best yet. You’re not the best you that you will be. The hope is that the organization, the people around you, and your manager will be a positive force to help you be better. Even when you leave the company, you’re not going to be at the best you’ll ever be in your life, but hopefully you’re the best you’ve been so far in life.

The best people know there’s a lot of adjusting they’re going to do especially in the beginning where they’re learning a new culture, new team, a new manager and a new product. That mindset of being open to feedback helps open you to new experiences, and then you’re open to getting better, you’re open to trying. We’ve found that having that mindset is strongly correlated to how successful someone will be at Front Row.”

Managing your emotional state will help you get through the peaks and valleys of building a company

“The business of managing your own psychology and managing your own emotional state is difficult because building a startup is a total roller coaster experience. It can wear you out. In a regular day job, you’re not going to make your whole company fail nor are you realistically going to make your whole company worth a thousand times more than it is now. As an entrepreneur, however, the smallest thing you do can destroy your company or it can also help it be worth a thousand times as much. Building a startup can be very emotionally taxing. One of the things that’s really worth investing in is figuring out how to manage your emotional state so that you’re not going through those extreme waves. It’s important to see the bigger picture.”

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