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Entrepreneurship, Purpose, And The Early Days Of The Internet, With Matt Kursh

Not everything is taught in schools, especially when it comes to certain skills needed at work. People often find themselves acquiring them when thrust into the real world. Recognizing this, Matt Kursh co-founded Oji Life Lab, a leadership learning company that helps people in business learn the essential skills that drive performance and life satisfaction that the schools just don’t cover more generally. In this episode, Matt joins J.R. Lowry to tell us all about Oji Life Lab, its origins, and how it is transforming the workplace. He dives deep into the importance of emotional intelligence and decision-making—the skills that determine the outcomes of our lives. Matt also takes us into his entrepreneurship journey, both in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, and shares the big changes between generations of entrepreneurs. Reflecting on his time at Microsoft, Matt then tells us about the early days of the Internet and how much has transformed the business. Whether you are early in your career or deep into it, this conversation offers great insights that will guide you to reconnect with the things that matter most.

Check out the full series of “Career Sessions, Career Lessons” podcasts here or visit pathwise.io/podcast/. A full written transcript of this episode is also available at https://pathwise.io/podcasts/matt-kursh/

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Entrepreneurship, Purpose, And The Early Days Of The Internet, With Matt Kursh

Co-Founder And CEO Of Oji Life Lab

My guest is Matt Kursch. Matt is the CEO of Oji Life Lab, which he cofounded in 2018 to help people in business learn the essential skills that drive performance and life satisfaction that the schools don’t cover. More generally, Matt describes himself as someone who loves innovative products that make a difference for humans. He has started running and sold companies to Apple and Microsoft.

While at Microsoft, Matt ran MSN.com, which was then one of the top three websites on the planet. He was also CEO of the Blue Planet Run Foundation, a nonprofit focused on delivering water to the developing world. Earlier in his career, he was the CEO of eShop, which was one of the very first eCommerce platform companies. Matt has served on the boards of numerous public, private, and nonprofit organizations and he lives in Northern California. Matt, welcome. Thanks for joining me on the show.

Lovely to be here.

I appreciate your time and that our mutual friend Danny Warshay introduced us. Let’s start with your work. Give our audience an overview of Oji Life Lab.

Oji is a leadership learning company. We are here to help people gain the skills that end up driving a lot of the results and the outcomes at work and also outside of work that people don’t pick up in the course of their professional training or college or what have you. Leadership stuff like how to lead, how to manage, how to manage projects, emotional intelligence, decision-making, diversity issues and how to listen, things of this ilk that are in our estimation are ignored or given short shrift. We think we are the glue that ties everything together. That’s our passion.

Was there a particular spark that led to starting Oji?

There were a couple of things that led to it for me, then eventually finding my cofounders who were on similar paths. For me, one was when I left Microsoft, I was running the main online business and there were a set of interactions where we were working across all of Microsoft’s consumer businesses to figure out a plan to go forward.

I felt like I was working with people who were incredibly smart, incredibly driven, and certainly had all the resources and market power you could ever want. They all wanted to do great work and yet, I felt we didn’t know how to play together, work together and make things happen. Not for lack of interest. We didn’t know how. You went to school and became a great coder or perhaps a great tech marketer but you didn’t learn how to do those larger things.

That stuck with me because I felt like here we were, one of the most powerful companies in the world. We could make things happen but we couldn’t make things happen. That was one thing. The other thing was after I left Microsoft and spent a lot of time with my wife raising our kids and building a house, I sat on a lot of corporate boards and I zoomed out in a lot of ways from the narrowness of execution. I touched a lot of different parts of my community and my life.

I was seeing that same Microsoft stuff but even larger, like being on boards of public companies and didn’t know how to drive strategy or building a house and trying to get things done and people talking about fairy tales, about the schedule that didn’t make sense. Over time, I felt like, “This is a bundle of stuff and you shouldn’t have to win a weird cosmic lottery to have the motivation, the access, the time, and the money to learn these things. A classic example is decision-making. We all make decisions all day. It rules our life. It determines the outcomes of our lives.

We all make decisions all day. It rules our life. Literally, it determines the outcomes of our lives. Click To Tweet

I’ve been teaching decision-making in various forms for over five years. I don’t know anybody who’s been formally trained in it. It’s crazy. It’s incredibly central to our life outcomes. Those things together got me to feel like, “This is a huge missing piece.” I then met my Cofounder, Andrea Hoban, and my two cofounders from Yale University, Marc Brackett and Robin Stern. They were all working on similar paths and we decided to do it together.

Who are your typical customers? What does a typical Oji program entail for them?

We’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of different kinds of organizations. It’s usually either a leader in the business or somebody in the HR or learning department who is buying the program on behalf of some group of people. One of our best customers is Biosense Webster, which is part of Johnson & Johnson.

For instance, all of their field personnel get trained with our emotional intelligence program. If you want to be out in the field working with doctors and patients, then you need to have emotional intelligence. They all go through our program and that is now expanded beyond the field personnel. We were working with Amazon and California State Parks. It’s all kinds of different situations. If you go through some of the things I’ve mentioned, people often say, “Interesting decision-making. Who exactly would need decision-making?” You’re like, “Anybody who’s not incarcerated.”

Who doesn’t need decision-making skills? Emotional intelligence. What’s the market there for that? People who aren’t sociopaths are in the market for that because we’re all ruled by emotions. It depends. Organizations have different ways they want to apply it. Our newest product is for first-time managers. We call it Oji Foundations. It’s for anybody who’s in the first five years of their management journey. Everybody needs to get the basic skillset and mostly, they don’t get it.

What’s the shape and size of the business now in terms of the number of people and things like that?

The team’s pretty small. When you include our software development team and everybody, it’s about twenty people in the company. We’re a 21st-century company in terms of this and all the readers know this. It’s amazing how much you can get done with a small team now. It’s fun for us. We’re working with the clients. We’re working with Amazon. It’s one of the biggest employers in the world, so from the biggest companies to the smallest organizations. There’s a lot of range and it’s fun.

Do you get a lot of people approaching you as individuals or is it all through companies?

We do have people come in as individuals. You can go to our website, put in a credit card and buy one of our programs. There are folks who are so passionate and self-starters. They know they want it. They’re always great to have in the program because they bring a lot of enthusiasm. It does happen. Our dream is over time, as we’re better at establishing in people’s minds the importance of this learning that it will become something that’s more appealing to consumers.

You think about it. You and I were talking before we started recording about sending kids to college, the cost, and the complications of doing that. My daughter graduated from college with dual degrees in Psychology and Philosophy. It turns out as close as you can get in college to the stuff we’re talking about. Four years at a private school and she didn’t get trained on how to make a decision. Over time, we hope that people will say, “I need to learn how to make a decision. I’ll do an Oji program and I can master those skills.”

What are your goals for the next few years for the company?

We launched our Oji Foundations product for first-time managers. We’re going to ship a product for more experienced leaders. Our goal is to get those in as many people’s hands as possible. That equates to sales and that’s good for the business but as I’m sure, you appreciate fully. It’s about more than how much can we sell. For all of us, it’s so incredibly rewarding to get it into people’s hands. We are eager to have many thousands of people going through the program. We’ve seen it with our existing programs. It changes people’s lives.

I sold my company to Microsoft. We were one of the first eCommerce platform companies. I sometimes say, “We made the world safe for online shopping.” It was nice. People built some nice businesses and it was a wealth creator but selling stuff on the internet wasn’t personally rewarding. It was a good business. You know how it is from your work, I’m sure too. It’s like when somebody goes through a program and says, “I can’t believe the changes I’m experiencing.” That’s rewarding. We want to do that at scale.

That’s a good aspiration. You mentioned this isn’t your first go-around as an entrepreneur. You jumped into it right at the beginning of your career. When you were back in school, did you see yourself becoming an entrepreneur or how did that emerge for you?

It’s so funny. Our friend in common is Danny Warshay. We’ve known each other since 4th grade. He’s one of my oldest and best friends. We did go to college together. When I was in college, my dad is a retired surgeon and he had asked me to help him select a system to manage his office billing. This was the early ‘80s. That was Wild Wild West, but even a sixteen-year-old knew more than the grownups then about these crazy computers. I got into it and that got me interested in what became our first company. I was frankly tired of looking at crappy medical office software for my dad. I said, “Why don’t me and my buddies at college write you some software?”

That was the starting point. Danny was part of that business. There was no support for entrepreneurship in college. The extent the university supported us, was that they gave us a basement concrete room to set up our tables and put our computers on. It was a nasty little place. Now, Brown has a center for entrepreneurship, a gleaming building on Main Street with their own facilities. Danny’s been teaching entrepreneurship there for many years.

There’s a long way of saying like, I didn’t know what an entrepreneur was. I wasn’t thinking about being an entrepreneur. It wasn’t a concept. There was a problem, which my dad was looking at a lot of crappy software. I was excited to invent something that would be a cool solution to that problem. Overall, that continues to be what motivates me. There’s some creative opportunity of making things and loving to do it with other people. Now people go to college and say, “I want to be an entrepreneur,” which blows my mind because that wasn’t a thing.

How else do you think it’s changed over the years, the world of entrepreneurship relative to when you started that first company at Brown?

This may sound like the crotchety old man in me but it goes to the point I was making, which is because we were doing it organically as a creative response to a situation we saw. That was our focus. How could we make the thing? How could we make the thing good? How could we sell the thing? How do we sell more of the thing? We didn’t have this larger picture.

There was no stable of people building fortunes and recording stories about amazing successes. You could count those stories on a hand. It’s Apple, Microsoft, VisiCalc, and Lotus. There were very few successes and we didn’t have no any notion of, “We could be like that.” Now, people who are into entrepreneurship, it’s, “I can think of 500 people who’ve made significant fortunes. I want to do that. I want to build a big fortune.”

This is what the old man’s talk sounds like. To me, the effort is often missing a creative soul and spark that I felt like we had in the old days. We didn’t have this notion of, “We’re going to make a ton of money.” You meet a lot of people who are in the game and you can tell they don’t care that much about the creative problem, about the customer and pushing the ball forward. It’s more like they’re looking for gaps and how they can exploit them to cash in. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s perfectly ethical. It’s just not as fun to me. That’s the big change I see.

People have been starting companies long ago. Certainly, long before the era in which you started yours. There’s certainly a much more established venture capital community. The schools are teaching it. It is an easier thing to get into than it was a generation ago. You see the people who come into it with the expectation that everybody else is making millions of dollars and selling their business within eighteen months. That’s my expectation.

That leads to a certain amount of people who are creating a business to sell a business. Not necessarily to solve a real problem and to have a passion for what they’re doing. It’s a little sad in the scheme of things. It’s a different form of selling your soul in the same way that people say working for a big bank or a big consulting firm is selling your soul.

You see these stories and we don’t have to list them all the kind of Sam Bankman-Fried stories and these other stories about people who defraud and do it at a great scale. At some level, that’s motivated by simply a belief that other people are cashing in massively. It feels like what you have to do. It’s working. The goal is to make money. It seems like if you hype it enough, that’ll work and you can get some exit. No one will be the worst for it.

The thing is when I sold that first company that Danny and I worked on together, we sold it to a division of Apple for under $1 million. We were overjoyed. This is 1989. We were happy. I was 24 years old at the time. Now, you’d be like, “What loser you sold out for that money?” We had a real product. We had real customers. They were buying it. They liked it. It was all compelling.

The numbers that we see now simply weren’t possible. They did not ever occur. I’m not a big follower of pro sports but there’s a difference between pursuing a love for a sport and the fact that you could pursue the sport and get a $40 million-a-year contract. That changes the sport. It doesn’t mean the people aren’t hugely talented. It doesn’t mean they’re not passionate about it. It doesn’t mean a lot of them are doing it because they love the game.

CSCL 68 | Oji Life Lab

Matt Kursh: There is a difference between pursuing a love for a sport and the fact that you could pursue the sport and get a 40 million-a-year contract. That just changes the sport.

There are some people for whom it’s about, “How do I get that payday?” That changes it. The same thing happened in the entrepreneurial space. That being said, there’s tons of amazing stuff, great products, exciting technologies, and people working hard. As you were talking about the venture capital community. When I moved to California many years ago, you could list the venture capital firms. It wasn’t some unknowable universe of names. They were all on Sandhill Road. You could go from building to building to the end. There are probably 100 times more venture firms now. Two orders of magnitude. It’s exploded, which is exciting but it’s hard to take it in.

You’ve done a lot of other things during the years. At one point, you were running a nonprofit, the Blue Planet Run Foundation. Talk a little bit about that.

That was a hugely rewarding experience. My friend and neighbor, Jin Zidell, a guy who’s my father’s age, had this vision of having runners run around the world relay style to promote the cause of safe drinking water. He had managed to get Dow Chemical to contribute $10 million to put on this event, which was an act of complete magic that he managed to do. Jin and I were going for a walk one day and he was telling me about his status with all that.

At that point, he had raised the money. He had gone to the UN and had the Deputy Secretary General at the UN announce to the CEO of Dow that this run was going to occur. It was going to happen. At the time, Jin had a couple of people working on it and a production firm. I said, “Jin, this is a huge enterprise. What’s bigger than a running relay that goes around the world? You need like all this infrastructure and marketing.” Jin would’ve told you he wasn’t a business operations guy. He’s like, “I don’t know how to do any of that stuff. I didn’t even know that was stuff.”

I volunteered to come in and run it for a little while with the hope of finding a CEO but there wasn’t time to find a CEO. I ran it for a year and a half. We had 21 runners run for 95 days. They ran 10-mile relays. It didn’t stop for 95 days around the world. You had runners meeting in the middle of Siberia, Mongolia, and all across the US. A runner would stop and another runner would take the baton and run another 10 miles.

It was an inspiring event. It raised money and awareness. It was great fun for me to work with Jin and the whole team. That became a software platform that helped organize and fund small-scale drinking water projects. It was an amazing experience. We also did a book that was about the water issue and the run. That was pretty well received. That was 16 years ago.

A long time and we still have drinking water issues now.

Drinking water is this crazy thing. In America, unfortunately, we’re beginning to learn what it means. At least the time we did the run, half of the hospital beds in the world were filled by people who were suffering from a waterborne illness. It’s a massive problem. When you have water, you don’t think about it, when you’re in the developing world, particularly in rural settings where it’s very hard for the government to solve the problem, there are hundreds of millions of people who don’t have water and also sanitation.

People who don’t have toilets and those are linked to problems. If you don’t have toilets, your water source isn’t going to be cleaned. Not to make a tortured comparison. That attracted me because it felt like the biggest humanitarian issue. What if we could move the needle on that? Similarly, for me, with Oji, I feel like this is the biggest human issue that I could work on in terms of elevating people’s lives. I sometimes say we don’t need better cell phones. We need better people. What I want is to make big moves that help my life be better. Buying some tchotchkes on Amazon, it’s nice and I enjoy my tchotchkes. I get some pleasure out of it.

If I can learn to manage my emotions, that’s going to change my whole life. If I can learn to make better decisions, it’s going to change my whole life. We work with this amazing professor at Hebrew University, Avi Kluger, who’s an expert on listening. Now, I’m not going to put you on the spot but I’m guessing you’ve never had formal training in listening. That’s what this guy studies and that’s what we’re teaching as part of our new manager training program. That’s a profound change in your life. That’s the parallel between the Blue Planet work and this work.

You’ve referenced the time you spent at Microsoft. This was back in the late 1990s, in the very early days of the web as we know it now. You were running MSN. What was it like to be at Microsoft in that era?

The comparison I sometimes make and with all these years past, hopefully, it doesn’t smurp. MSN was, at the time, the number 3 or number 4 web destination in the world. It got a lot of traffic. I used to say it would be like if one guy owned a World Series-winning baseball team and then a laggard basketball team. This analogy’s richer now because Steve Ballmer does own a basketball team. What kept happening, the internet guys were like the basketball team and they kept sending all these World Series-winning baseball players over to say, “Help us with basketball.”

They kept saying, “Don’t tell me what you guys think makes sense. I won the World Series three times. I can tell you how to play this sport.” We kept saying, “We’re playing basketball. It’s not like baseball.” There aren’t bases and you don’t run. It kept being like, “You keep telling me it’s different but it’s not different. It’s the same. I won a World Series, so listen to me.”

It was difficult to be there then because the Internet business is radically different from the operating system and from the applications business. The only thing they have in common is they use software. I remember a senior guy at an offsite once saying to me, “Why do we want to be in the ads business? The ads business is a niche marketplace or industry.” I don’t remember the exact numbers but I looked at him. I said, “The niche you’re referring to globally is ten times bigger than the operating system business.”

We can argue about whether that should be called a niche or not, but it’s a lot bigger than what we do now. There was no appreciation of that. It was considered a dirty stupid business. Why would you want to be in that business? That was the business I was in charge of. They were great people and I learned a lot. I still have lots of relationships. Some of my best friends are folks from that time but it was fish out of water.

In fairness, you think about everything that was market-leading back in that era in the late 1990s. There was iteration after iteration of tools and search engines. Google wasn’t the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd. It was a generation or two after a lot of those other players and the business models themselves. Your point about advertising, who would’ve thought that this whole thing would revolve so much around advertising? It’s become a huge business. It fueled a lot of the success of the Googles and the Facebooks. People had a hard time imagining that world. The world we now are deeply in the middle of would’ve been very difficult for almost anybody to imagine how it would turn out back many years ago.

There are a lot of failures we see politically and in other places and businesses that are failures of imagination. What’s hard about it is there are usually some folks who do predict accurately where they think these are going and who stand on top of soapboxes. They, in hindsight, say, “Years ago, I was standing up and saying it would go this way and I was right.” The thing they forget is there were 100 people on other soapboxes telling their version of what was going to happen. They were all wrong.

It’s hard to know which of the hundred people on the soapbox are right. When I was at Microsoft, it was crystal clear that advertising was going to be huge. That commerce was going to be huge but that didn’t mean we knew how it would work and where the value would lie. Satya Nadella, who’s running Microsoft now and who I got to work with quite a bit back there, has been great in the case of the cloud. Embracing that reality, which is totally at odds with Microsoft’s traditional business, of selling people bits to put on servers.

Here, all of a sudden, Microsoft’s running its own servers and data centers. He embraced that reality and built something powerful. They’ve done great. I remember one time in particular when Steve Ballmer, who was at the time either President or CEO of Microsoft. He was quoted in a prominent Wall Street Journal article saying, “We’re not a media company.” I would see him between meetings. He’d say, “I know, but we’re not. Our soul isn’t media. I know you’re going to give me a hard time.” I’d say, “This entire building is a media business. What do you mean we’re not in the media?” He goes, “It’s not our soul.”

It’s like, “I don’t understand this existential hand-wringing you’re doing here.” The bottom line is if you’re committed to the internet business, it is a media business. That’s what it is. Use that baseball and basketball analogy. It’s like, “We’re a baseball team. I’m just not comfortable. There’s nothing wrong with basketball but it’s not who we are.” The truth was, at the time, they weren’t. Anyways, it was a huge learning experience. I had a great time there. In the end, my wife got pregnant with our first kid. It was a very easy decision to say, “Now’s the time for me to check out and do something else.”

If you're committed to the Internet business, it is a media business. Click To Tweet

Was it that time at Microsoft when purpose started to creep into the way you thought about how you wanted to make your career choices?

Coincidentally, I was talking to our friend Danny’s daughter, who’s in town. She’s done a lot of entrepreneurial work herself and we were talking about this. I don’t know if this resonates for you but what I noticed that early in your career, it’s fun to do stuff. It’s fun to start something. You’re like, “I’m writing a business plan. I’m getting my website up and running.”

It doesn’t matter that much what it is. Certainly, now I would not be interested in doing software to manage medical practices but when I was 21 when I started my first company, that was good enough for me. As you get older more and more, you’re like, “I’ve done the thing.” I’m a little more discriminating now. Some people are looking for bigger challenges or different challenges.

For me, it became more of what is most rewarding to do something that is positive for the world. There are all kinds of versions of that and people have to find their own path. I felt I want to do that thing. When Jin had Blue Planet, I viewed it… to me, it was an opportunity, like, “I get to drop into this thing. You’ve already raised all this money and have it had it launched in the UN. That’s a great chance.” It wasn’t too many years later that I started thinking about this mission.

I’ve often felt like this business is not a business that a 22-year-old would think of. You need some mileage on the chassis before you start noticing the things and have these things become emotionally powerful to you. Being married, one of my first experiences was my wife and I did couples counseling. This is over many years ago. It was foundational. It’s like, “I don’t know how to be married. I don’t have any chops to be a good husband.”

My parents have a strong marriage but me and my wife are not like my parents. I can’t replay that set of moves to the same effect. It’s like there’s something here to learn and I don’t know how I’m going to learn it. We learned some of it in counseling and that started expanding. As you suggested, I feel there’s real purpose here. I’m seeing something that’s important to me and I’m excited to go see what I can do about it.

For someone who gets the advice to follow your passion and find your purpose, it plays a strong role for you. What’s your take on those catchphrases as career guidance?

I find them generally corrosive. I think of it as the Disney version of Western culture. I love Disney. Don’t get me wrong. I’m the first guy in line to go to Disneyland at any time. It puts a lot of pressure on people. It also sets some expectations that are unfair. I’m a big tennis player and tennis fan. I was reading a quote from Novak Djokovic saying, “My success is all about showing that you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it.”

Everyone can’t be Novak Djokovic. It’s like the gap between him and me is not that he wants it more. It’s not a character failing of mine or would not have been to say at 22, “Tennis sounds great but I’m not going to choose that as a career because I don’t think that’s going to work for me.” When you say, “Follow your passion and it’ll all work out,” then people feel like losers when they don’t do it. That’s the corrective.

All that being said, in the yin and yang of this duality, I do think it is about finding the thing that lights you up. I’ve done quite a bit of teaching around purpose and the intersection between understanding your spark. The thing that lights you up and your values. The things that matter. A good synonym for values is importance. I love tennis but it doesn’t intersect with my values. There’s like nothing important about tennis to me. It’s fun. It’s good exercise but it’s a hobby.

A good synonym for values is important. Click To Tweet

When push comes to shove, I’ll always work on my business instead of going to play tennis. My business, I feel, is important because I have value in trying to do something positive to help my fellow human being. This almost fluoride in the water of follow your bliss or you can do anything. In one way, I agree with it completely. In one way, it’s a little dangerous and people have to find their path forward.

I hate it when you see people who feel like they failed because they’re doing a job that’s deeply meaningful to them. They have a lovely family life but they always wanted to be a mountain climber, and they didn’t do it. That’s a failure because they keep getting told, “You should just follow your bliss.” In the end, you realize mountain climbing isn’t aligned with your values.

For most people, it should stay a hobby.

It’s no failure. I was telling Danny’s daughter. I was a Music major. I didn’t finish college but I was studying Music. It turns out my freshman advisor was the Chairman of the Music Department. I remember once I was at the piano in his office and he said to me, “Why don’t you just do this computer thing? It seems like you’re so passionate about it. You can always play music but is that what you want to do?” It was insulting to me because I felt like what he was saying was, “You don’t have the talent to be a musician.” It probably would’ve been true but I’m not sure that’s what he was saying.

It took me a good 40 years to realize he was right. I spent my whole childhood playing music. You could see my piano. I love music but it isn’t important to me. I would not choose to spend time at my piano instead of being with my family or doing something that’s important to other people. People who are committed musicians would. It’s important to their soul and I love that. I get the pleasure of learning from them, listening to them, and playing with them. That’s fantastic but this guy was right. It wasn’t important. I felt bad for decades, like, “I didn’t do it.” Fortunately, as I got older, I got to the point I was like, “Thank God, I didn’t do that.”

Did you regret dropping out of school?

No, I’m super lucky with that. I started the company with my buddies in my sophomore year. I did the company and worked for one year, then I went on leave. They say some people take a semester off. I’ve taken 74 semesters off. I’m still on leave of absence.

Do you think they’re going to let you come back?

I’m told that I can, but I’m not certain that I’m going to find time for it. I loved going to college. It was not an anti-college move. It was just I was busy doing this other stuff. I’m fortunate because working in tech and being a dropout is kind of a credential. My sister used to tease me. She worked back in the day at Andersen before it became Accenture. She’s like, “They would never hire you there. There was no way they’d ever look at your resume because you didn’t finish college.” What she likes saying because she did finish college, but she was probably right. They wouldn’t ever hire me back then. In the software industry, it’s like, “This guy’s for real. He’s a dropout.”

Certainly, working at Microsoft, where Gates himself was part of that crowd, there was going to be no way that you could hold it against somebody.

One of the first-round investors of that company that I sold to Microsoft. They were the only venture capital investor in Microsoft. I remember when they were deciding to invest. They said, “We did some due diligence on you. One guy pointed out that you had dropped out of college.” We said, “We’ve done okay investing in firms run by college dropouts.” It was okay.

It’s a lot different now. A lot more openness to hiring people from different backgrounds. Where I work, we don’t even look at educational background unless somebody’s straight out of a school program and we’re looking for them as a new grad hire. Once you’re a fuse in your career, who cares?

That was a lazy shorthand to know who was smart and it’s not a very good way to figure it out. It’s amazing when you think over the years how limited our view was. You had to go to a good school and it was going to be somebody who was in your city and that was going to come into the office every day. Now, our whole software team is in Ukraine. They’re unbelievably great people. We’ve worked with them the whole life of the company. I’m not interested in their educational background. If I looked at their resumes for the schools in Ukraine that they went to, it wouldn’t mean anything to me. Are they great engineers? They’re fantastic.

How are you thinking about the next few years of your career and Oji and all of that?

For me, it’s the greatest luxury I could ever have. It’s to keep working on this business. I’m excited to grow it and see where it goes. For all the reasons you and I talked about earlier, it’s incredibly rewarding to bring the impact that we do. There’s nothing categorically that I do now that I didn’t do decades ago, managing people, writing strategies, designing software, and negotiating contracts. They’re all the same things but I’m glad to say that I’m constantly surprised by how bad I was and I’m better now.

It’s that whole thing where you write a paragraph and you come back and read it. An hour later, you go, “That was awful. How did I put that paragraph down an hour ago and think that was good?” That, to me, that sense of like, “I’m improving. I’m putting energy in and getting something out,” is what drives me. It is a reflection of this concept of self-efficacy, which the psychologist Albert Bandura came up with in the ‘70s.

It’s this whole feeling of when you expend effort and see a positive result then gives you further incentive to keep working at it step by step to oversimplify self-efficacy. For me, I’m a little self-efficacy machine. It’s so great. I want to keep learning and do it in the context of this mission. I can’t imagine anything better.

CSCL 68 | Oji Life Lab

Matt Kursh: When you expend effort and see a positive result, that gives you further incentive to keep working at it step-by-step to oversimplify self-efficacy.

That’s a good place to be.

I’m incredibly fortunate. No doubt about it.

Last question for somebody reading or watching who’s earlier in their career. What’s one bit of advice you would give them?

There are so many things I could say. I’ll pick this out because it’s provocative. Some of the most important things you can do is know when to walk away. Along the lines of your earlier questions about following your bliss and you can do anything. As a society, we sometimes have communicated that there’s this universal value that you should always keep going and that becomes pathological in a lot of cases.

In the small sense, I’m sure you’ve seen this a thousand times. You’re selling to an account. It’s never going to close. These people are interested in talking but they’re never going to buy. It’s not a virtue to keep selling. Put it to bed, walk away, and focus your energies elsewhere. It’s true on small things like making a sale and on big things with the business. I did another version of this business, Oji Life Lab, targeting high school students.

That’s how I wanted to do it at first. I worked with a wonderful group of talented people and we opened an in-person learning center here in Northern California. It didn’t work. I was pretty proud that A) We made a great effort. We tried. B) We were able to make the call and say, “It didn’t work. Maybe at another time, it would work. Maybe with a ton of more money, it would work,” but we don’t know how to make it work.

That became the little seed that became the business we have now, working with businesses that are thriving. I’d say people early in your career, be willing to take a business idea and treat it like a Kleenex. You use it once and you throw it out. Live to fight another day. That’s a random idea that comes to mind. Have you seen that in your career?

CSCL 68 | Oji Life Lab

Matt Kursh: People who are early in their career should be willing to take a business idea and treat it like a Kleenex—you use it once and you throw it out to fight another day.

As you were saying that, the first thing that leap to mind for me is people who stay in their jobs too long. Funnily enough, I was writing a little blog for a newsletter that we’ll send out that talks about the fact that you got to not overstay. Some of my biggest mistakes career-wise were staying in places that had gone past their prime.

Feeling like I could make this work or, for whatever reason, didn’t want to walk away and didn’t want to feel like I was quitting. You can do that about a job, a business idea, a relationship, and a lot of things. As you say, there is a time when the right answer is to walk away, make peace with it, and move on with your life.

Don’t confuse choosing for quitting. You have a job. It’s played out. When I left Microsoft, I told my boss at the time I was leaving and he got angry with me. You’re quitting and all this stuff. I understand. From your perspective, I’m letting you down. You thought you had a job filled and now you don’t. I get it. There was never any doubt that it was making the right decision. Hopefully, people can feel the freedom of saying, “That was good.”

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There’s one entrepreneur I worked with, a great guy up in Seattle who has worked on a business for years. I looked it up once. The number of inventions Thomas Edison walked away from. He had talking doll products and all kinds of crazy stuff that were unbelievable failures. I’m no expert on the history of Edison, but my sense is part of his magic was he could work hard on something. Maybe not launch it at all or maybe launch it and it wouldn’t succeed. He’d go on the next thing.

If he’s stuck on the first one for twelve years, we never would’ve gotten all the other stuff. Make a choice. Anyways, a lot to think for sure about how to grow, change and move things forward. More people can have a sense of freedom to think, “Whatever logic tells me and my gut tells me, it’s okay to follow it.”

It was very good getting some time together. I’m glad Danny introduced us, Matt. You can hear your passion for what you’re doing now, which is great. It’s certainly what motivates me. For me, this is a side project but one that I put a fair amount of spare moments into with a lot of the same intent to help people figure out how to be better versions of themselves and have greater career fulfillment than they’re otherwise going to have. I appreciate the time that you gave, and all of your insights and stories about what you’ve done over the years.

It’s great fun. I know that we are, as I like to say, fellow travelers. Trying to find a way to help people have a richer life and career. It’s exciting to see what you’re doing. I’m glad it could be a small part of it.

I appreciate it. I want to thank Matt for joining me to discuss Oji Life Lab, his broader entrepreneurial journey, and what he’s learned along the way. If you’re ready to take control of your career, you can visit PathWise.io. If you’d like more regular career insights, you can become a PathWise member. Basic membership is free. You can also sign up on the website or the PathWise newsletter and follow PathWise on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Thanks. Have a great day.

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About Matt Kursh

CSCL 68 | Oji Life LabMatt Kursh is the CEO of Oji Life Lab, which he co-founded in 2018 to help people in business learn the essential skills that drive performance and life satisfaction that schools don’t cover. More generally, Matt describes himself as someone who loves innovative products that make a difference for humans. He has started, run, and sold companies to Apple and Microsoft.

While at Microsoft, Matt ran MSN.com, then one of the top 3 websites on the planet. He was also CEO of the Blue Planet Run Foundation, a non-profit focused on delivering water to the developing world. Early in his career, he was the CEO of eShop, one of the very first e-commerce platform companies. Matt has served on the boards of numerous public, private and non-profit organizations. He lives in Northern California.

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