Bharani Rajakumar of TRANSFR: “You can only manage what you measure”

You can only manage what you measure. This goes as much for creating a better learning experience as it does for building a successful business. Our singular purpose is to help people get trained and get a job — that’s the number one metric. The metric that drives the first metric is how effective the learning experience […]

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You can only manage what you measure. This goes as much for creating a better learning experience as it does for building a successful business. Our singular purpose is to help people get trained and get a job — that’s the number one metric. The metric that drives the first metric is how effective the learning experience is. We measure that by measuring how people perform against a cohort that hasn’t used the technology.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bharani Rajakumar.

Bharani Rajakumar, founder and CEO of TRANSFR, is on a mission to create alternative pathways to career success through intuitive learning methods so more people can succeed and be upwardly mobile. This is Rajakumar’s second education technology company with its sights set on transforming the way people learn and achieve. He was the co-founder of math tutoring software company LearnBop, which was acquired in 2014 by online learning company K12 Inc.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My family and I are immigrants from India. My parents moved to the US during a period when foreigners widely viewed America as the land of opportunity. In other countries around the world life was very difficult. However, the legend that was whispered into the ears of young people around the world was that in America, you can get an education and then the sky’s the limit on what you can achieve. You don’t have to suffer.

This turned out to be true for me personally. I grew up in a low income neighborhood but because I went to good public schools with great academic programs, new opportunities opened up for me regularly. However, by the time I got to high school, it became clear to me that these opportunities were not available to everyone. “Gifted and Talented” programs received more resources and better quality instruction than the “mainstream” programs.

I didn’t fully grasp the impact this could have on someone until I entered my mid-twenties with a job in operations working for a major Wall Street investment bank. Once I got the job it occurred to me that where I went to college played a huge role in getting the job interview, and that where I went to high school had a huge role in helping me get into college.

I couldn’t help but think, I wish everyone could have the opportunities that they need to live a life without financial struggle. I thought technology and education could play a big role in that. I had already learned and witnessed how technology had transformed the financial services industry for the previous 20 years.

I went to Carnegie Mellon to get my MBA and launch an education startup called LearnBop. We created an intelligent tutoring software to teach math to K-12 students. LearnBop was successful at helping students master math concepts and it was acquired by a publicly traded company. Helping people learn math was useful but I wondered what would be more impactful.

TRANSFR’s mission is to provide people the skills they needed to walk into interviews, impress employers, and get a job. Our partners are employers, workforce development agencies, higher ed schools and k-12 schools. We have been proud of our ability to help people get on a career track to get a job that pays at least a middle class wage and provides benefits.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

It’s been challenging to figure out how to train people at scale for jobs that pay well, without requiring them to take on a financial burden in the process. Most people have in mind that the model to get a job is to complete a full 4-year degree program or to take out a large loan to complete a certification. Building a career model that doesn’t require that and delivering it at scale can be very powerful and disruptive.

At the same time, people have an outdated view of what manufacturing is. They imagine smokestacks with a very Dickensian picture of how workers are treated. In fact it’s now one of the most high-tech, sophisticated, industries in the world. Roboticized, with new jobs and new skills required to work in those fields. Software programming, hardware programming for a robot, robot repair.

Without TRANSFR, a manufacturer may have a multi-week training program, with PowerPoint presentations, lectures, videos to watch. The thing is, watching a video and reading a PPT isn’t the same as actually performing the task. The first time people get in front of a machine, even after completing that program, they ask “how do I do this?”

But with TRANSFR’s hands-on simulation-based training, they learn as they make mistakes — a digital coach talks to them, they improve their skills in the simulation. This boosts their confidence and the employer’s confidence in them.

We’re changing the way people think about the path they need to take in order to get gainful employment.

And working with great organizations like Alabama Industrial Development Training (AIDT), Lockheed Martin, Mazda Toyota — integrating into their training process, has been inspirational.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early on at TRANSFR we intuitively understood the power the technology brought to learning, but most people hadn’t had that experience. We created simulations to demonstrate how easy and fun learning in this environment could be. One was a fun bartender training simulation. People got a kick out of it and learned how to make a daiquiri.

One person got so into it that he needed to be told the bar’s not real. Don’t lean on it. It feels real,but don’t lean on it! He definitely heard, but it didn’t register. At the end, he leaned on the bar as if it were there — and fell headfirst on the ground.

It was embarrassing since you don’t want people to get injured using the technology.

The lesson was to never use VR without your guardian on, so you are warned with your move away from a specific boundary in VR.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

One of the best pieces of advice came from the professional golfer, Greg Norman, “The Shark”. He is a legend and one of our first investors. In the early days when TRANSFR was just an idea, his team invited me to dinner with him. I was telling him how we could use technology to train people for jobs at scale. I said something like “I hope we can find some schools and companies that we can work with”.

He looked at me right in the eye and said “We aren’t going to ask for permission. We’re just going to do it.”

I thought to myself. “Wait a minute. What have I been doing my whole life? Waiting around for people to give me permission to succeed. No more! We ARE GOING TO DO THIS!”

It was exactly what I needed to hear at the perfect moment in my life. It made total sense to me. From that moment forward, anytime someone tells me we can’t do something I start to twitch, like an allergic reaction. Then I go figure out who else I can work with to get the job done.

Other important mentors have been our board members, Jeff Wald, Sid Krommenhoek, Firework VC. They have been instrumental at pulling me out of the weeds. As passionate as I am about our mission and our product, I have to run a business. Their guidance on what it takes to scale the business, in order to help as many people as possible, has been invaluable.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

The COVID-19 pandemic has really shed a light on this. COVID-19 has disrupted everyone’s life, and many people have moved online to continue their education. Online learning was viewed as highly disruptive years ago. But we’re finding that many people might say they don’t want to be learning online all the time.

It really depends on the outcomes. Disruption for disruption’s sake isn’t what’s important. The important question to ask is “Are we getting the correct outcome?”

We don’t consider ourselves disruptive. Our goal is to come up with a more effective and enjoyable way to get people jobs that pay well. What we’re disrupting is the idea that there’s only one way to get there. If we can work with schools to help people find their best career path so they are better trained and have a higher earnings potential while helping employers get the high caliber teammates they need then everyone wins, and THAT would be really disruptive.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

You can only manage what you measure. This goes as much for creating a better learning experience as it does for building a successful business. Our singular purpose is to help people get trained and get a job — that’s the number one metric. The metric that drives the first metric is how effective the learning experience is. We measure that by measuring how people perform against a cohort that hasn’t used the technology.

Within two months, our first cohort showed a 10–15% increase in performance, and our second cohort showed a 26% increase in performance. By the third cohort, people were performing 46% better than those who hadn’t undergone our training experience. In traditional training, one mentor with 20 students cannot help everyone to get to that level. This is a demonstration of how our solution scales.

People invest in people. Investors had already lost billions of dollars investing in VR technology between 2010 and 2018, but if an investor feels good about you as an individual and that you’ll be a good steward of their money they’ll trust you with it, provided the other pieces add up such as having positive market conditions and a high functioning team. Our first investors were people that did not play video games growing up. They were closer to retirement than to starting their careers so they were not the target user at all but were compelled by the idea that if it works, it will be a game changer for the future of learning. They invested even though they didn’t understand the technology.

The best way to predict your future is to create it. — Abraham Lincoln — We started TRANSFR pre-COVID because it was the right thing to do, and once COVID happened we found ourselves in super-high demand due to rising unemployment and the need for remote hands-on learning.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

What we’ve done to date has been really powerful and works well at a local level. The next step is to take it nationwide and then global. Many people have an old-fashioned view of what manufacturing is like. The truth is that manufacturing jobs are among the most high-tech opportunities available.

We’ve developed Career Exploration modules that allow students as young as middle school students to explore different careers that they might enjoy. Students can then enroll in career tracks that align with their interests and ultimately acquire the skills needed for a job. We call this the “classroom to career pipeline.” For employers this will create motivated candidates who can acquire the training they need to be productive and start successful careers right out of high school, or get on an “earn and learn” track where they get a job and enroll in higher education.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

As a freshman in high school, I read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. The book transformed my entire understanding of how the world works. Prior to reading it, I thought everything happens based on the family you’re born into, or simply through fate and that you have no control. This book said the opposite — that you can have a ton of control over your future and what happens to you.

Every time I feel that something is out of my control I’m reminded of that period of my life where I felt I had no control and stepped over the line — I have a ton of control. Being proactive, and beginning with the end in mind is critical.

For example, I had a stable career in finance in NYC but I left to start LearnBop, not because I came from a business family or had a business background but because I wanted to help people succeed academically. I started TRANSFR despite not knowing every detail of how we would succeed. However, we know the end goal is to develop a system that enables everyone to learn the things that matter to them so they could get a job that pays well.

If I had tried to map out every detail of how to get to my end goal, I would have never left my job because I would have realized the probability of success is closer to 0% than 50%. What I was willing to do was think about the end goal — a system that would allow everyone to find success. Then add a few milestones — start the company, build a product and prove that it works, raise money to hire a team that I am excited about working with.

When starting something new, figuring out the details is a journey with lots of twists and turns, but if you have the right north star it won’t matter if you fail — it just means your journey is only half complete.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Einstein.

That’s important — if you recall during the financial crisis, a common explanation was “it’s too complicated for you to understand.” CDOs, mortgages, debt capital. Part of the reason it happened was that the experts didn’t understand it well enough either.

Really smart people will answer your questions simply — so you can understand the concept even without the technical details. You can differentiate people who know what they’re talking about from those who don’t by how they respond to your questions.

The people who invested in TRANSFR didn’t focus on the technology. They asked about the outcomes — learning outcomes and financial outcomes. On the other hand, the people who chose not to invest focused on the technology.

For us at TRANSFR the technology is just a means to an end. The thing that matters to people is the outcome. And that’s a very simple story to tell.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

That’s exactly what we’re doing today at TRANSFR!

How can our readers follow you online?

The best place to find me is on LinkedIn, under Bharanidharan Rajakumar

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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