Get Off the Couch, Build a Startup, and Control Your Own Destiny, Says Founder of TeachStreet
I had a good chat yesterday with Dave Schappell, the founder and CEO of Seattle-based TeachStreet. I’ve been hearing more and more about his website, which launched in April as an online community of teachers and students. The basic idea is if you want to learn any skill, from boxing to basket weaving, the site helps you hook up with a local expert—and conversely, if you’re looking to give lessons, it helps you find students. Funded by Madrona Venture Group and Bezos Expeditions, TeachStreet lists more than 25,000 classes in the Seattle area and is busy working on its expansion plans—more on that soon.
For now, what I found most interesting was Schappell’s take on the startup life versus working at a big company. From 1998 to 2004 he was a director of product development at Amazon, where he worked on the online marketplace that allows third parties to sell used and new products (which make up around a quarter of Amazon’s sales volume today). After that he moved on to Venice, CA-based JibJab and then the Seattle nonprofit Unitus.
By early 2007, Schappell says, “I wanted to try something startup-ish.” He got the idea for TeachStreet when he bought a scooter and needed to get certified, but didn’t want to go through the Washington Department of Motor Vehicles. Searching online for a motorcycle certification class was “awful,” he says, so he ended up finding one on a paper flyer. There has to be a better way to do it online, he thought.
An angel round and $2.25 million Series A financing later, Schappell is in charge of a TeachStreet team of 10 full-time employees in Seattle, plus a data-collection team in Asia. He has taught microfinance and poker himself. He also has a fresh perspective on the startup scene, and what it takes to get a company off the ground. “We’re not sending rockets to the moon,” he likes to say. “[TeachStreet] is as good an idea as any other.”
In other words, if you’re thinking of doing a startup, this is the time and the place—contrary to those who say the climate is risky. “If you’re competent and willing to work really, really hard, Seattle is unbelievable,” Schappell says. “There is no lack of funding, talent, energy, events, support systems. I don’t understand what the gripe sessions are about. People need to get off their ass.”
As for making the transition from a big company to a startup, he says, “Don’t work unless you’re passionate about it.” People who work at big companies for many years “get locked in,” he adds, and most don’t have the guts to try something new. But those who do, particularly the younger ones, have valuable skills to take to a startup—and they usually find working for a smaller team energizing. “Every day we control our own destiny,” he says.
Currently three of Schappell’s 10 employees are Amazon veterans, and he is about to add another one. “We think we need to hire more Amazon people,” he says. The ideal candidates are those with two to three years’ experience at Amazon who have “great attitudes and great training” and are ready to do something new.
About the other tech giant in town, Schappell had this to say: “Microsoft has a world of hurt coming. They’re bloated… I don’t use Microsoft stuff anymore. I run Google Apps, and the iPhone is incredible.” Which is not to say that there isn’t still great talent at Microsoft, but it seems to be a common sentiment that the company’s best days are behind it.
And the downside of controlling your own destiny? That would be the never-ending pressure, of course. “It’s been a wakeup call for me,” Schappell says. “I’ll be recruiting talent forever. And raising money forever.”