Only hire people you’d want to work for. Hiring excellent people and building the best team is really what matters in the end. This is not only the best way to achieve the mission of the organization but also just to enjoy the ride.
Jonathan Cornelissen is an entrepreneur and angel investor. In the past decade, Jonathan has been focused on education and data science.
Jonathan holds a Ph.D. in financial econometrics. During his Ph.D., he published several academic papers in peer-reviewed journals and developed an R package for quantitative finance.
As a student, he started a non-profit educational organization focused on matching students with good and affordable tutors. In his hometown Leuven (Belgium), this non-profit helped over 1,000 students to date.
As a co-founder of DataCamp and its CEO, he helped the company grow to over 4 million students, 100k+ subscribers and from $0 to $30,000,000 in ARR (Annualized Recurring Revenue). He more than doubled the team and revenue every year (5 years in a row). During his tenure as CEO, employee engagement and satisfaction was in the top 10-15% percentile. He was also the author of an introduction to R course taken by over 1.2 million students.
Jonathan started angel investing in 2018. He has invested in multiple early-stage startups, including: Kyso.io, Clever Girl Finance, FlyThere, perch.fit. As an angel investor, he is curious about many sectors but particularly knowledgeable and excited about data science, education, and blockchain.
Where did the idea for DataCamp come from?
After studying economics and business, I started a PhD in financial econometrics and initially struggled to teach myself the statistical programming language R. By the end of the PhD, I was a teaching assistant for several statistics courses that used R. At the time, I was looking for a fun interactive learning platform to help the students, who often had a non-technical background. Very much to my surprise, I did not find what I was looking for. While you had a few interactive learning platforms for web development (e.g. CodeSchool and Codecademy), no one seemed to be focused on teaching people statistical programming (or what we now call “data science”) in a fun and engaging way.
That’s why we started DataCamp. We realized that there are many people who use data on a daily or weekly basis as part of their job. Spreadsheets are often no longer the best way to get insights from that data, and many would benefit from learning Python or SQL for example. Furthermore, companies in every industry are struggling not just to find data scientists and data engineers, but also to hire people with a basic level of data fluency. DataCamp was to create an engaging and affordable solution to that problem. I’ve written more about this in a blog post: why we started DataCamp.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
One of the things I enjoyed the most as CEO of DataCamp was that there really wasn’t a “typical day”. Leading a company through hyper-growth brought new challenges every day.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I’m an introvert, so I tend to overthink things. At the same time, as an INTP, I have a tendency to share undeveloped thoughts in a debate against myself. Often underdeveloped ideas start to flourish through feedback from people around me.
What’s one trend that excites you?
Blockchain and cryptocurrencies. It always surprised me that central banks have so much power and influence, while not being democratically elected. Cryptocurrencies can provide significant benefits to many consumers and help to finally disrupt major parts of the financial sector. Furthermore, I’m cautiously optimistic that blockchain will turn out to be a counterbalance against centralization of the internet and the increased censorship.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Listening to audiobooks. As an entrepreneur, you have to keep learning but you tend to lose your time for deep work and reading. Audiobooks are a solution for me. It allows me to “read” multiple books a month.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Only hire people you’d want to work for. Hiring excellent people and building the best team is really what matters in the end. This is not only the best way to achieve the mission of the organization but also just to enjoy the ride. Almost all of the costly mistakes I’ve made, were always related to bad hires.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
While growing up in Belgium, a country with some of the highest taxes in the world, there was often no one who agreed with me on the extent to which Belgium would benefit from more economic freedom. The most right-wing party in Belgium is left of Bernie Sanders on economic matters. It’s fascinating how different people can think about politics in different countries.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
First principle thinking. It’s tempting to get distracted by hypes, groupthink and think through associations. I always try to start by understanding what’s true at the most fundamental level. What are the key and most fundamental assumptions? What is the data telling you about these key assumptions? What can be derived from them? I learned the importance of first principle thinking by observing some of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time (Bezos, Musk, ..), and by analyzing how they think and communicate.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Partnerships. We bootstrapped DataCamp for more than 2 years initially, so we had to find customer acquisition strategies that were basically free. One of the most successful growth hacks we did in the early days was to build interactive complements for courses on bigger education platforms like Coursera and EdX. We created value for professors and companies who had courses on these platforms and gained a ton of visibility for DataCamp in return.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I’ll give you two ideas. Right now, there’s tremendous innovation in the blockchain and cryptocurrency world, and in a goldrush, selling the spades is always a good strategy. Similar to data science 10 years ago, many people are starting to learn about these technologies. However, there hasn’t been that much effort yet to build engaging and interactive learning experiences for blockchain technology (with one exception). I think we’ll see tremendous growth in that area in the next few years.
Secondly, I believe there’s tremendous opportunity to apply data science to improve HR practices. One obvious area that feels broken is recruiting and applicant tracking systems. I think there’s an opportunity to create a platform that uses video, adaptive testing, tagging, etc. more formally in recruiting processes. This can help objectify recruiting processes, decrease bias, and enable companies to recruit the right people for the job.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Coddling of the American Mind. As someone who’s interested in education and immigrated to the US only a few years ago, I was curious to understand what was going on at American universities. This book offers a compelling perspective.
What is your favorite quote?
“The most valuable businesses of coming decades will be built by entrepreneurs who seek to empower people rather than try to make them obsolete.”
― Peter Thiel