I’ve tried for years to sleep less than the 8 hours a night that I seemed to need for my first 30 years of life. What I’ve found is that I can cut down to 6 hours a night if I do a 20 minute nap in the middle of the day. That gives me nearly 12 hours – just about a full workday – of extra productivity per week.
Aaron Michel has started multiple online education companies, raised capital and was accepted into the MassChallenge accelerator. In the past three years, Aaron and his companies have been featured in USA Today, ABC, TechCrunch, The Wall Street Journal and other outlets. Most recently, Aaron received the Boston Business Journal and Mass High Tech’s Innovation All-Star award. Aaron graduated from Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He’s the CEO of career discovery company PathSource. He lives with his wife Susan, with whom he is contemplating one day buying a dog, or if she gets her way, a cat.
About the company: For the past couple of years PathSource has offered career discovery tools for young adults via its web platform. In addition, we are rolling out a free mobile app targeted at 18-30 year olds. It takes young adults from “I don’t have a clue what I want to do” to “I have a job” and puts it in the palm of their hand.
Where did the idea for PathSource come from?
My co-founder Alex Li and I have different motivations for starting PathSource.
For me, the concept of PathSource arose initially in part because I wished I had it in high school or college. Until my early twenties, I was certain that I was going to become an environmental lawyer. More specifically, I was going to start working as an environmental lawyer and then I was going to sell out, work in corporate law and continue practicing pro bono environmental law on the side. It seemed like a great plan.
I did some somewhat “fluffy” environmental internships during college and had a terrific time. Then I applied to some law schools and got in. Just before I left for law school I decided that perhaps I should do an internship in corporate law before spending 3 years and $100,000+ on a legal education. It was the best decision I ever made.
Within a week I knew that I would be terrible at that job – and would be absolutely miserable if I continued down the path to becoming an attorney. So I narrowly dodged the bullet. But millions of people make education and career decisions that will lead to years of frustration and thousands of dollars of opportunity cost because they lack good guidance and information. PathSource was created to solve that problem.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
At the start of each day, I review my schedule and action items, do any reprioritization that’s necessary and dive in. Today PathSource has an extraordinarily strong product and design team and a much smaller sales and marketing team. Now that we’re rolling out our mobile app that’s starting to change and we’re looking to aggressively hire rockstar marketers.
As a result a good chunk of my day is spent interviewing potential candidates. This is, of course, one of my most important jobs – getting the right people in the right roles. These days I’m also spending large amounts of time bouncing between fundraising and negotiating partnerships. Fundraising, as every entrepreneur knows, can just suck time. And then there are a ton of other hats that I wear, ranging from marketing and sales to servicing existing accounts, which can eat away at my time.
Given that until we’re a much larger company there will always be more work to do than there are hours in the day, I have to work smart. This means setting strict parameters around the types of employees and investors who would be a good fit for us and being disciplined in that outreach. By maintaining a high level of discipline, I can ensure that each marginal minute of time spent on these activities is as productive as possible. I try to bring that mentality of smart, focused efficiency and discipline to everything I do.
How do you bring ideas to life?
We’ve been fortunate to build an extraordinary development and design team at PathSource. My co-founder Alex Li has done an amazing job hiring great people. Our products get outstanding reviews for their UX. We recognize that a good product isn’t determined by content as much as by the overall experience the user has on it – and that drives how we design and build new products.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
For obvious reasons, I’m very attuned to trends in the career discovery space and it’s an area that’s undergoing some seismic shifts. For a long time, there was an expectation that if you went to college, there would be a good job waiting for you at the end of your educational path. We now know that isn’t the case. Over the past decade, America has increasingly come to realize that there is a waterfall of problems that start in grade school and accumulate into adulthood for most Americans.
In middle school and high school, class content seems utterly disconnected to the real world. Students don’t know why they’re learning what they’re learning and so they tune out and drop out – 20% of US students don’t graduate high school and only about half of all US students go to college. Once they’re in college, they don’t know what they want to do and as a result, half of all US college students change majors 2-3x on average, driving up their debt and making them drop out. In fact, only 56% of US college students graduate within 6 years! Is it any surprise that young adults have double the national average unemployment rate?
The good news is that the public, colleges and government have recognized that this is a problem and real action is starting to be taken. Over 90% of high school students now take at least one career-related course. The federal government is giving huge grants to colleges to put together more thoughtful programs to guide students to better career choices. Together, these changes and others like them form a hopeful and widespread trend in the right direction.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
My sleeping habits. I’ve tried for years to sleep less than the 8 hours a night that I seemed to need for my first 30 years of life. What I’ve found is that I can cut down to 6 hours a night if I do a 20 minute nap in the middle of the day. That gives me nearly 12 hours – just about a full workday – of extra productivity per week.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
After business school I took a job with a green materials company. I loved what we were doing on a conceptual level but within months of signing on I started to deeply disagree with the direction in which the senior management was taking the company. They were making decisions that seemed fundamentally unsound and I wasn’t sufficiently senior to be able to impact the company’s direction. I barely stayed a year. The company eventually went out of business a couple of years later and I realized that I wanted to work in a more entrepreneurial environment where I could have a greater impact on decision-making processes.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I would have tried to fail faster. In entrepreneurship, you try a lot of things and many of them don’t work. The trick is to learn what does and doesn’t work as quickly as possible before you run out of runway. I think in the early going I could have done better at that; today, at PathSource we are relentlessly focused on learning what works and killing off everything else as quickly as possible.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do.
Listen to your customer.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Networking consistently pays off. The entrepreneurs who are bright engineers and sit in a room creating something without ever talking to actual people are not set up for success. While every once in a while you come across a Mark Zuckerberg type of person who just knows what to build at a gut level, that is not the norm. Getting out there and pursuing a targeted network-building effort is helpful regardless of whether you utilize that effort to drive B2B sales or to find investors and advisors.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
At PathSource we initially pursued direct sales into college career service centers, back when our product was at the MVP stage. We had two major surprises. First, they wanted to buy because they desperately needed good tools and our barely functional MVP was better than anything else that they had. Second, they had almost no budget.
Today, those insights have enabled us to utilize career services as a partner instead of as a customer. As we roll out our mobile app to young adults, career service teams in colleges are thrilled to help us get it into their hands because it’s an order of magnitude better than anything they have access to right now. At the same time, since we aren’t charging them we make their decision easy.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
A peanut butter and jelly foodtruck on college campuses. Very small number of SKUs, low operating costs, very high margins and an opportunity to make college students very happy. I would have eaten there every other day if I had access to one of those during college.
Tell us something about you that very few people know?
My hero is Teddy Roosevelt, an extraordinary man who overcame terrible personal challenges and exhibited both political and physical courage. Did you know that after losing his bid for a 3rd term as president (it was still allowed back then) he led an expedition to explore a huge unchartered Amazonian river to get over it? It would be like Barack Obama deciding to fly to Mars after his presidency ended.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
One app that I particularly love is Paper by Facebook. It’s by far the best app for socially curated news that I’ve found. The user experience on it is unparalleled when it comes to great apps. The only app I’ve come across with an equally awesome UX is PathSource!
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Whenever you think you’re having a bad day, just read a few pages about what Louis Zamperini had to endure during WWII.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
I really try to listen to perspectives from across the tech and political spectrum. There’s not one influencer that I’d recommend to your readers. Rather than recommending individual thought leaders, I’d recommend a process.
Find someone whose opinions you tend to agree strongly and read that person’s views. Then find the most cogent person on the other end of the spectrum, who holds diametrically opposed viewpoints, and find out why they’re on the other side of the debate. Even if that doesn’t change your mind, you’re always better off understanding how the person on the other side of the table thinks.