This may sound strange, but for small companies, not all growth is good growth. Measured growth is best. I believe that a company needs to pace itself with regard to the promises and commitments it makes both internally and externally. No amount of growth is worth breaking promises to your customers.
Chuck Amos, a proven industry executive, has more than two decades of experience in the EdTech industry and currently serves as CEO of Minnesota-based GuideK12. Amos began his career in the EdTech world with Apple, serving as the Central US Education Regional Manager. After several years at Apple, he cofounded and became the CEO of Atomic Learning. Under his leadership, Atomic Learning grew to become the world’s leading provider of web-based software training. Between his tenure at Atomic Learning and his current role as CEO of GuideK12, Amos worked with ed-tech companies in a consulting role, allowing him to support many up-and-coming technologies in the education marketplace. Chuck Amos stepped in as CEO for GuideK12, geovisual analytics for education three years ago as the company was ready to go live with its innovative technology offering. GuideK12 helps districts solve critical educational challenges by visualizing student and household details via an interactive map and Amos has been instrumental in introducing the geo-visual analytics category into the education sector.
Where did the idea for GuideK12 come from?
GuideK12 has a deep history and has really been a labor of love that spans decades and has always had its roots in education. The company began under a different name two decades ago providing hand-drawn maps to schools and districts for transportation and other administrative needs. As technology evolved, those needs evolved as well. Three years ago, we pulled in a team of experts, paired the education market knowledge, mapping knowledge with proprietary technology and created GuideK12.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Every day is different whether I am on the road traveling or in my office. Like a smoke jumper, I go where the biggest opportunity or challenges are and my involvement is needed to move something forward. Not to say I jump all over, because the balancing of activity is an art. I have to be able to balance between long-term activities that need attention and the short-term tactical events that require my time. A good leader is always scanning the horizon to see what is coming or you risk slamming into the wall. Having a vision of where you are going and knowing the reason why helps a leader more effectively choose their activities and priorities every day.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Coming up with ideas is easy, coming up with good ideas is not, but the real challenge is the execution of a good idea. Once a good idea is formulated, taking the measured action to bring it to life and sticking to it can be difficult. It can be enticing to chase dozens of new ideas and not see any of them through. It takes discipline to grind through tactical details with a clear end goal in mind. Patience, surrounding yourself with the right people and having them in the right seats on the bus is what really makes it happen.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
It might sound self-serving, but I am serious when I say the trend of analytics is very exciting. We are just scratching the surface in education of looking at data across a district with geographical context and that is where GuideK12 comes in. Analytics does have its challenges and creates concerns for people. We need to do our very best as leaders to manage the responsibility of providing, using, and protecting data in concert with educational leaders to help improve decisions and student outcomes. It is a major responsibility that we take very seriously while seeing all the possibilities ahead for the insight and smart decisions data analytics facilitates.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I love to network. I have been fortunate to have a broad range of connections from a wide variety of experiences. I glean a little piece of gold from every conversation, as well as new and different perspectives. This tapestry of knowledge is paramount for being able to make informed decisions. It is something I enjoy and has served me very well.
I pick up the phone and talk to people a lot more than I e-mail on anything that isn’t basic. I find we can discuss, make decisions and move forward so much faster and the odds of misunderstanding tone or intent is significantly less. I embrace technology when it makes me more productive, but I find talking to people an important part of getting things done effectively and efficiently.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
Several experiences come to mind. The first one is delivering newspapers starting at age 9. The bag was so heavy and big when filled with newspapers that I would put the strap across my forehead and onto my back to deliver the papers. As a Minnesota native, there were many, many very cold, dark 5 a.m. deliveries trudging through snow and ice. This job taught me a lot about the value of work ethic and people at a very young age. It is amazing how tough people can be on a 9-year-old out delivering the paper in a foot of snow when their paper is a few minutes late. I learned people expect papers to be on time.
I also bartended to pay my way through college. You learn a lot of interesting things working in a bar and being in the service industry. Bartending is part bartending/part psychologist/part therapist etc. I learned to talk to a wide variety of people in a wide variety of circumstances. Humor became an important tool. A smile and a laugh can go a long way to relax a person and get them talking.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Listen. I make sure to listen to our customers and my team. I hire good people and I trust and listen to their thoughts and ideas. I believe the best way to evolve any product is to listen to your customers and engage them in every step as you work to improve your solution. I do my very best not to discuss features still in concept stage, but still keep customers involved in the development as a partner. Thoughtful early adopters make the difference between success and failure for emerging companies. Of course, their feedback can also be difficult and challenging – leading to pressures from your customers. Pressure needn’t be seen as a negative; in fact, that same pressure pushes us to improve overall, making product/s and a company better (even if it means staying awake some nights to achieve the desired results!). Great companies manage pressure and don’t try to silence or eliminate it. Listening to those voices is an impetus to be better, and it benefit s everyone. Solicit and welcome tough feedback. I’d rather have customers who will tell me what they don’t like up front so I can fix it, rather than customers who are very polite but won’t actually buy the product.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
This may sound strange, but for small companies, not all growth is good growth. Measured growth is best. I believe that a company needs to pace itself with regard to the promises and commitments it makes both internally and externally. No amount of growth is worth breaking promises to your customers. My philosophy has always leaned toward building long-term relationships rather than seeking short-term gain, and it has served me well in my endeavors in the start-up world. As basic as it sounds, it does come down to the “Golden Rule.” When your company is just starting out, customers may feel they are taking a risk, and as a leader, it is your job to reassure and show them your company is ready and able to support them long-term. Not just as an entrepreneur, but in life, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and trust their intentions are good. It has served me well over and over and I find it keeps relationships strong. I am all about staying connected with people. I am often reminded how inter-connected and relatively small this industry is, so it pays to be nice.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Ha, I wish there was only one! Part of being an entrepreneur is you don’t get it right every time. You are smart enough to know when to cut bait, and tenacious enough to plow through issues that pop up regarding ideas worth pursuing. If you are going to fail, fail fast and move on.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
“Undaunted Courage” by Stephen Ambrose, the story of Lewis and Clark. This is a phenomenally entertaining book. The story is unbelievable. The tenacity it took for them to put one foot in front of the other through all their trials and tribulations and then to reach their destination and return is amazing. It is a great lesson in history, but also in focus and teamwork. I find the backstory in this book of who they really were fascinating. Lewis and Clark were not just the flat characters you typically read about. The book and the way Ambrose writes makes for a much richer history and deeper understanding of these people, a subtle understanding of the political climate, the connections, the funding and the context of the expedition that brings it to life in a new way.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
I have been so blessed to connect with so many great people. The first person that always comes to mind for a question like this is my mother. She has had an enormous impact on me teaching me the importance of honesty, a hard work ethic and treating people respectfully.
I have had connections with people from all walks of life and I try to learn from all of them and have been fortunate in my career to have many great mentors. The first mentor that comes to mind is Judy Boggs, from my days at Apple. She was very influential early in my career and gave me a great launch pad and foundation to work from.
Another amazing person is Dr. Terri Crane. She has been a mentor whenever I needed her advice on a variety of topics, and so generous with her time.
Another that I have to include would be Jim Marshall, CEO of Promethean. He and I have had many discussions over the years that have guided me and helped me move forward in new directions and new ideas. There is truly a huge number of people that have shaped, mentored, coached and supported me, and I am so lucky to have had or still have in them in my life.
Chuck Amos on LinkedIn:
GuideK12 on Twitter: @guidek12
Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.