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Brad Hargreaves

Founder, Common; Cofounder, General Assembly

Brad Hargreaves is the kind of guy you want to hate. Just 30-years-old, he cofounded coding bootcamp General Assembly (GA) back in 2010. And now he’s the CEO of his latest venture, a co-living startup called Common.

“I caught the entrepreneurship bug in 2004,” Hargreaves (shown below with his GA cofounders) remembers. “Yale’s endowment was returning 30% a year, so, the school was updating their buildings. They were practically giving all this beautiful old furniture away.”

Yale’s most useless—and therefore cheapest—antique? Card catalogs, which had helped the school’s libraries organize books according to the defunct Dewey Decimal System.

“[Future GA cofounder] Mark Brimer and I realized while the school was selling card catalogs for $50, collectors would pay $1,000-$2,000 for them online,” he continues. “So, we started buying truckloads of the things.”

As you can imagine, it was a lucrative (albeit niche) business—one Hargreaves remembers as undeniably fun.

“I had a better time skipping school, renting trucks and dragging card catalogs to our New Haven warehouse than I had at any class or any party… If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.”

Brad Hargreaves Is Better Than You (But You'll Love Him Anyway)

If you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong.”

Common, General Assembly, Yale—sounds like a pretty fancy background?
“What a lot of people don’t know is that I actually grew up in rural South Arkansas—90 miles from the nearest mall or movie theater… It’s safe to say there weren’t a lot of entrepreneurs around to teach me; I just wanted to learn.”

So, how did you keep your mind stimulated?
“I participated in anything I could get my hands on: academic competitions, clubs, whatever… And I did not go to a very good school. Everything was self-directed and I worked really, really hard. I taught myself enough to qualify for trips, which were the only way I got out and saw a little bit more of the world.”

And one of those trips brought you to Yale, right?
“I first visited Yale when I was 14 and from that moment forward, I was on a mission… Fortunately, I had wonderful parents who told me there were things beyond the town I grew up in—something I think a lot of people in that part of the country are lacking.”

A Rural Childhood

I actually grew up... 90 miles from the nearest mall.”
I did not go to a very good school. Everything was very self-directed.”

And you chose molecular biology when you got there. Would you say that degree has been helpful to you?
“Honestly, it’s been an impediment because I’ve had to rewire the way my brain works. I wouldn’t actually recommend hard science majors to entrepreneurs unless they want to start a company in that specific discipline.”

Really? Why?
“Because science teaches you to seek certainty and starting a company is uncertain by nature. Scientists look for a 95% confidence threshold; you should be wrong only one out of every 20 times. But in business, they should name a school after you if you’re wrong one out of every three times. It’s a completely different metric.”

So, what you’re saying is entrepreneurs should get comfortable with uncertainty?
“Exactly. Science trains you to wait for certainty before you decide anything or tell the world your ideas. Most startups, especially the disruptive ones, are exactly the opposite… Which isn’t to mean you shouldn’t do market research, but that the threshold is lower.”

Studying At Yale

I wouldn't actually recommend hard science majors to entrepreneurs.”
“Science teaches you seek certainty and starting a company is uncertain by nature.”

I’m going to be honest: We’re kind of starting to hate you (in a totally jealous way).
“[Laughs] Well, if it makes you feel any better my second venture was an ill-fated game development studio. I’d always built games for fun, so, after our furniture business I thought, ‘Why not do this professionally?’ At one point we had a couple hundred thousand players.”

Why did it go belly up?
“I didn’t know what I was doing. Which was fine in 2006, when I had no employees and was still in college, but wasn’t in 2009 when I ran out of money, had a team to look after and the country was in the middle of a recession. Shutting that company was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

But surely it taught you something?
“It taught me to be rigorous about business fundamentals. I was so focused on the number of users that I didn’t have a clear strategy for making money. If I had spent more time on monetization, creating an actual business, we might have been successful.”

Monetization? Is that where young entrepreneurs should focus?
“I think part of the reason GA and Common have been successful is because we considered business basics: What are our unit economics? Are we making money on everything we sell? Do we have strong financial fundamentals? And it’s tough, because you have to separate monetization from profitability. Your startup might not be profitable from the start, but you need a plan for how to make money and you need it on Day One.”

So, have you ever failed?

You need a plan for how to make money and you need it on Day One.”


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