Mattan Griffel – Co-founder and CEO of One Month

Hold monthly one-on-ones with all of your direct reports. Without setting aside time to talk to people about what’s exciting them, what they’re concerned about, and what they think I should do differently, I’d never learn about most of the things that are happening at One Month. It also lets you hear exactly what people want, what makes them happy, and what you can do to support them, which is often different from what you thought.

Mattan Griffel is the co-founder and CEO of Y Combinator-backed One Month, the first online school for accelerated learning. Mattan created One Month Rails, the bestselling online Ruby on Rails course for beginners to learn how to build web applications. He’s also the NYC Ambassador to the Thousand Network, a collection of young leaders around the world, and was selected as one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Education this year.

Mattan teaches and advises on growth hacking, online education, and coding. He has advised companies such as PepsiCo, Bloomberg, General Motors, the New York Stock Exchange, and JP Morgan Chase. He has spoken at New York University, Cooper Union, the School of Visual Arts, Parsons School of Design, Singularity University, the Downtown Project, First Round Capital, and Social Media Week. Mattan has also been featured in Forbes, Businessweek, MIT Technology Review, Huffington Post, Mashable, and The Next Web.

Mattan studied philosophy and finance at New York University and wrote his thesis on the metaphysics of consciousness.

What motivated you to start One Month?

I wanted to start a company, so I needed to build a product and find an amazing developer to help me build it. But I couldn’t find an amazing developer, so I learned how to code in order to build the thing on my own.

While learning how to code with no degree in computer science or any technical background, I realized it was actually really easy, though most of the guides and resources I found made it unnecessarily complicated and frustrating. So I set out to make the process easier for other newbie developers. I thought, “What if you could learn anything in one month?”

One Month is completely online. It isn’t about college or fancy degrees. It’s true applied learning — the kind of skills that have an immediate impact on your career, company, abilities, and life.

What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?

I use many little productivity hacks throughout the day. I think it’s important to become a morning person and develop a routine that works for you. I wrote a little bit about how to do this for Inc. entrepreneur-council/how-to-become-a-morning-person.html) My morning routine includes daily stretches, meditation, and writing.

I’m also a huge fan of the book Getting Things Done by David Allen, so I keep “next up” tasks in Asana. Each task is tagged by context time, level of challenge, and priority level. The first thing I do each day is look through Asana and pick my three most important tasks; I don’t check emails until later in the day. I also use the Pomodoro Technique by setting a timer for 25 minutes, working on one task uninterrupted, taking a five-minute break to recharge, and repeating. This technique lets me focus for much longer than I normally could and leaves me feeling refreshed at the end of the day, not drained.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I’m obsessed with action, so I’m always thinking about little steps I can take to bring big ideas to life. For example, I set a New Year’s resolution to build a table. I broke the task down into tiny steps. I bought some cool table legs that my friend recommended and ordered a slab of wood from IKEA (which I had a TaskRabbit pick up). Now, I just need to drill the two together. Tada! Table. Ideas start small — with just one person — and build up.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

Technology that allows people to build things really excites me, especially as it becomes easier to use. If you wanted to create something new and original 20 years ago, you had to specialize in a field. For all practical purposes, it was impossible to create something significant as an individual. You had to bring together a team of people with unique skills sets, and that was expensive, time-consuming, and hard.
When startups first sprouted up in the late ’90s, it took a team of 10 people to build a website. Today, all you need is one person and a computer.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive?

My Asana task list helps me ramp up productivity. That way, I can put anything I want in the system. And when I’m in a specific situation — if I have a meeting in 20 minutes, if I’m near a computer, or if I’m feeling low energy — I can take a look at the subset of tasks that apply to that situation.

What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?

I once interned at a large financial institution, and the work was pretty boring. The other interns and I were responsible for tending to clients’ needs, and we generated reports every once in a while. I used to get yelled at for singing. “Is someone singing?” my boss once said. “We don’t sing here.” That shut me up real quick.

But I did learn one good tip: “Don’t ever talk in elevators; you never know who’s listening.” My boss heard two people involved in a case against his lawyer talk about the terms they would settle under. He immediately called his lawyer and told him everything.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I would do it all the same — except I would jump into some things faster. There were moments when I was afraid to make the right decision, so I procrastinated or convinced myself that it wasn’t straightforward. It almost always was.

There were so many moments in my life when I could’ve saved myself time by realizing I knew what I needed to do and focusing on executing it.

What is the one thing in business you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Hold monthly one-on-ones with all of your direct reports. Without setting aside time to talk to people about what’s exciting them, what they’re concerned about, and what they think I should do differently, I’d never learn about most of the things that are happening at One Month. It also lets you hear exactly what people want, what makes them happy, and what you can do to support them, which is often different from what you thought.

I recommend using the “Rose, Bud, Thorn” framework, in which you ask the following three questions:

• What’s your rose — the thing that’s most amazing to you or that you’re the most proud of right now?

• What’s your bud — the thing that you’re most excited about or that you think has the most potential in the future?

• What’s your thorn — the thing that’s annoying or worrying you the most right now?

Listen to what they say, ask follow-up questions, and take notes so you can refer to them next time you talk.

What is one strategy that has helped One Month grow?

Engaging with our students on and off our site. We noticed early on that students who had completed their projects were sharing them online because they were so excited. So at certain moments in the class, we let our students know how excited we are for them and ask if they want to share their excitement with others.

We’ve sent care packages to our students, written them letters, invited them to parties, and had photo shoots with them. One time, we even delivered lemonade to a student’s house. They appreciate it, and we’ve built really strong connections with some of our students as a result.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I’ve had so many failures as an entrepreneur, but each one serves as a really valuable lesson and has made me a better entrepreneur. I don’t think learning can exist without failure. For example, an employee once told me he had to go to jail a week after we hired him. I felt good about him during the hiring process, and we really needed someone, so I probably moved too fast through the interviews. If I had done a background check or talked to a few references, I could have avoided the situation entirely.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I keep a list of business ideas in Evernote, but one idea I’d love to see is a simple way to run online surveys. Twice now, I’ve run an online survey among people in One Month’s target demographic to gauge our brand awareness — what percentage of people have heard of us — so we could more objectively measure the success of our marketing efforts.

Today, companies pay thousands of dollars for a properly run study or survey. If anyone built a business around this, he or she could optimize the ads to get survey participants at a low cost standardize questions to make sure the survey is properly conducted, and analyze the results. It could be done for a fraction of the current cost.

What is the best $100 you recently spent?

We took the One Month team to visit the Boros Collection in an old war bunker in Berlin. It’s a giant concrete block in the middle of downtown Berlin that was built during the war and designed to live on afterward (see Hitler’s obsession with ruin value).

After the war, the bunker served as a fruit and textile warehouse for shipping, then a bondage club, then a nightclub — until a private family bought it and turned it into one of the greatest contemporary art exhibits in the world. The whole tour took an hour and a half, and it was one of the best things we’ve done in Berlin so far.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

750 Words: I write 750 words every morning. It keeps track of stats, such as how long it takes and what I write about, and gives me badges for things like writing 10 days in a row without distractions.

Asana: Asana keeps a running list of literally everything I have to do. If it’s not in Asana, there’s no guarantee it’s getting done. It’s the first thing I check every morning once I’ve finished my morning routine.

Slack: This has basically replaced email for the entire One Month team. It’s an instant messaging service that’s super easy and fun to use. It has public rooms, private groups, and direct messaging, and the integrations with other services are amazing. We have channels with notifications for things like when new customers sign up or when we get new support tickets.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

For business, I’d recommend “Turn the Ship Around!” a book about building and managing an organization of empowered leaders rather than followers. Author L. David Marquet, a retired U.S. Navy captain of a nuclear-powered submarine, writes about how he took one of the worst-performing ships in the fleet and turned it into one of the best by giving the members more autonomy and control. Then, he applies these lessons brilliantly to business. It’s totally changed the way I think about managing my team.

For pleasure, I’d go for The Martian. It’s a fantastic piece of science fiction about a man who gets stranded on Mars and has to use science to figure out how to survive. It’s being turned into a movie starring Matt Damon.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Derek Sivers: He’s an amazing blogger, businessman, and individual. I read most of his posts and have borrowed a lot of lessons from him.

Tony Robbins: He’s incredibly inspirational and empowering. I channel Tony a lot when working with my students online because it’s mostly about the power that people’s choices have to change their lives — I’m just there to help them realize that.

Susan Kish: Susan is an incredibly inspirational personal mentor and friend. She founded her own company after over 20 years in finance. Then, while she was a senior executive at Bloomberg, she learned how to code and spoke at TED about her experience.

Other influencers I’d recommend following include Sean Ellis, Andrew Chen, Tim Ferriss and Ben Horowitz.