Take time to improve yourself. There are many second, third order gains that you’ll get from becoming a better execution machine…For me, it means impacting everyone around you in the most positive way that you can, and trust that it’ll come back to you one day.
Anant Jain is a Co-Founder of CommonLounge.com, an educational platform with wiki-based short courses on topics like Deep Learning, Web Development, UX/UI Design etc. Before CommonLounge, Anant co-founded EagerPanda which raised over $4M in venture funding and prior to that, he had a short stint at Microsoft Research as part of his undergrad. He strongly believes that higher computer science education should be democratized and CommonLounge is an effort in that direction.
Where did the idea for your company come from?
Every couple of months, I try to pick a new topic I’m interested in and dive deep into it. In fact, both my co-founders are also big into online learning as well. However, whenever we looked at how we actually learned something, we saw that the bulk of learning happened through bite-sized tutorials usually in the form of how-to guides or interesting blog posts on Medium, personal blogs, etc.
We almost never learned anything from video-based courses like Coursera, eDX, etc. — they all seemed to require a huge upfront commitment, sometimes up to 25+ hours to sit through the lectures. So, we talked to a lot of our friends and observed that this sentiment was pretty common across the board. People get excited about learning a new thing and enroll in online courses, but they almost never end up finishing them since it’s just too much of a time commitment. So, we started working on a better, faster and more intuitive home for learners based on text-based tutorials — CommonLounge.com.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Typically, I’m up by 6 am and try to get bulk of my product design or coding work completed before 10 am. This is pretty much my #1 “productivity hack” if you could call it that. Start your day as early as possible and create a 3-4 hour long, distraction-free work window early in the morning—no emails, no calls/meetings, no social media, no phone.
After a quick stand-up at 11 am, the schedule for the day changes from day to day, but usually consists of planned internal discussions, calls with customers and users, and more design/development work. My co-founders and I are also big into fitness — so, we take run/gym breaks during the middle of the work day to build up the productivity reserves.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I’d say the first and most important step is to talk to others about your idea in as much detail as possible. As an entrepreneur, getting feedback from your potential users should be second nature. This advice is probably the most repeated one, but is still mostly ignored.
At a more granular level, this is how it works for me: talk to existing users/target future users and understand their needs — what’s the biggest pain point they face? Try to view the world from their eyes and wear their shoes. Think of yourself diagnosing a problem they have and figuring out what you can do to make their lives better. Once you can see a problem worth solving, prototype the solution, take it back to the users, get their feedback, and iterate. The tighter and more efficient this cycle is, the more likely it is that you’ll end up building something that they want and are willing to pay for.
What’s one trend that excites you?
If I have to pick one, I’d say it’d be Deep Neural Networks, especially their use in Computer Vision related tasks. For the first time, neural networks can pretty much “see” and “understand” what’s going on in the pictures. Not just that, the tools to do industry-level Deep Learning are becoming democratized with TensorFlow, etc. I’m still excited about all the developments over the past decade or so and I’m sure there are multiple exciting opportunities that are opening up here — the “Camera” has now become the most interesting platform.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Ruthlessly prioritizing is key to getting things done. I used to be bad at saying “no” to things, but over time I realized that when you say “yes” to the next fancy/shiny thing that comes up, you’re saying “no” to something else that is probably more critical to steering your ship in the forward direction.
At any point in time, having a singular focus and disciplined about aligning all of your efforts to that focus is the key to staying productive. And if that means saying “no” a lot, that’s okay.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Startups are not what they’re made out to be, and everything takes a lot longer than you initially estimate. If founders knew exactly what they were getting themselves into, there would be very few startups around 🙂
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I believe that professionally-produced videos where an expert spends hours in front of a camera are not the future of online education. Not only are they more expensive to produce, they also go out-of-date very quickly as technologies being taught evolve. With animations, quizzes, hands-on projects, interactive exercises and so on, the web as a medium has a lot more to offer than just videos. For example, one of my favorite sites is Explorable Explanations (https://explorabl.es) which is a collection of what’s possible when you try to use the real power of web to teach something. At CommonLounge, we want to become the place to create this type of content.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Take time to improve yourself. There are many second, third order gains that you’ll get from becoming a better execution machine. This could take place in the form of reading books, talking to mentors, or whatever works best for you. Another thing that I learned from Paul Graham’s essays, and that I try to bring to life every day is to be “relentlessly resourceful”. For me, it means impacting everyone around you in the most positive way that you can, and trust that it’ll come back to you one day.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
When we think about growth, it’s always good to separate non-scalable strategies from scalable ones. When you begin, most things you do will be non-scalable—getting your friends to sign up, launching on Product Hunt or Hacker News, seeking interest from the press, and so on. These are great for putting your product out and getting that initial set of users, but these are never enough to make you successful at scale.
The few strategies that work at scale are — virality, SEO and paid marketing. These are better levers to pull when you want that “leap”. Of course, every product/startup is different — so think hard if things like paid marketing or paid referrals make sense on a unit economics basis for your product/business.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
My co-founders and I started another company earlier that ultimately didn’t work out despite being well funded. To be a successful business, you have to make sure you’re solving a real pain point for your users. There has to be a reason for someone to start using your product today — even if, in theory, it’ll be great for the world if everyone used what you want to build.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
This is a simple one—Create a tool for developers to take their existing websites and convert them to Sketch/Figma mockups for visual designers. Here’s why—as a developer, if I want feedback on my existing side project’s visual design from a friend, it’s much better to give them a Sketch/Figma file that they can quickly edit or record a screencast of them working on. This seems much better than commenting on each individual bit, or for them to start over with a blank file. Also, by looking at what the diff is between what I, as a developer, created and what a professional designer ended up with, you can actually learn simple visual design concepts.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I’m into long distance running. I recently switched to Nike Zoom Flyknit Running Shoes. I believe they were a bit more than $100, but definitely worth every penny. I think any investment made on health or sports/fitness gear is right on top in terms of value for money. If getting a pair of fancy sneakers makes you more excited and thus a little more likely to stick to your running schedule, it’s totally worth it!
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I like default apps that are usually snappy and load quickly. That makes the default Notes app on my iPhone one of my favorites. I also use other apps like EverNote, Bear, Dropbox Paper and so on for various contexts and use cases — but the Notes app is the first app I open to collect any thoughts that bubble up. Once a week, I sit down and process these notes and file them into relevant actionable places so that they are taken care of.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
If I had to recommend just one book, I’d say read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. It’s a deep dive into behavioral science and human psychology. It’s shocking, entertaining, and probably more educational than any college course I’ve ever taken. It introduces you to the fallibility of your own brain in quite a delightful way.
I like to document my learnings from all the books I’ve ever read. It’s an easy way to access what you’ve learned in the future. You can see my reviews from every book I read last year here: https://index.anantja.in — there are about 50 of them 🙂
What is your favorite quote?
“Formal education will make you a living. Self-education will make you a fortune” by Jim Rohn. This is a quote I try to live by every day. If you boil it down to its essentials, it just means that you should have a growth mindset and be willing to teach yourself throughout your life to be able to do anything worth your while here.
- Start your day as early as possible and create a 3-4 hour long distraction-free work window first thing in the morning.
- As an entrepreneur, getting feedback from your potential users should be second nature.
- Becoming disciplined to focus on what you set out to do, “right amount” of persistence, and knowing when to say “no” are keys to staying productive.
- When you think about growth, it’s always good to separate non-scalable tactics from scalable ones.
- Have a growth mindset and be willing to teach yourself throughout your life.