Be Honest. The most important trait a CEO or leader can have is honesty. People — whether they’re employees, investors, or board members — need to be able to count on what you’re saying. When you establish your credibility people will be willing to bet on you, even if you don’t have your million-dollar idea just yet.
Luke Skurman is the Founder and CEO of Niche.com. Luke is passionate about education, entrepreneurship, and leadership. Luke holds bachelors and masters degrees from Carnegie Mellon University and is a member of its Board of Trustees; Luke is the Vice Chairman of the Research Innovation and Entrepreneurship committee, he is also a member of both the Education Affairs and the Property & Facilities committees. Luke is Chairman of Ascender, a non-profit, 501 ©(3), focused on bolstering innovation and entrepreneurship in the Pittsburgh region. Luke is the Founding Curator of the Global Shapers Pittsburgh Hub, an initiative of the World Economic Forum. Luke has won national awards related to entrepreneurship from BusinessWeek, Fast Company, and Inc. Magazine and has been featured in numerous media outlets including The New York Times, CNN, and Fortune. Luke was awarded the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for the Pittsburgh region in 2016. He is a member of the Pittsburgh chapter of Young Presidents Organization (YPO), he is married to his wife, Natalia, where they live in Pittsburgh with their two young children.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Being born in New York but raised in San Francisco, I always knew I wanted to go to college on the East Coast. Not only was I determined to go to a top-rated university, I wanted one with a great business school.
This was a big life decision: I would be spending a lot of money and four years of my life at this college. It would lead to friendships, connections and hopefully my first job. That’s when I realized that a great education was available at a lot of places, but I really wanted to know where I was going to fit in, be happy and thrive.
I ended up at the right school for me, which was Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. But I understood that a lot of little things can make up an experience, like dining hall food, athletics, weather, nightlife, and campus facilities. All these things add up and matter more to a given person than simply test scores.
I knew there had to be a better way to make such an important decision, to help people get more informed and find where they belong. And Niche was born.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lessons did you learn from that?
One of the challenges I faced early on was my lack of knowledge around forecasting costs and revenue. We had raised some capital and assumed that revenues would keep scaling in the same way our costs did. Unfortunately, we were wrong and had to have some difficult conversations with employees, investors, and board members. Sometimes things cost more than you imagine they will, and not every deal is going to come through. It was a challenging time, but it taught me not only to be better at forecasting, but that that skill is crucial to any successful business.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
At Niche we are always evolving, learning, modifying, and getting better. We constantly keep our eye on the puck to see where we should be focusing our present and future efforts. By investing in our product and engineering, we are constantly striving to provide our users with a better experience.
Another thing that I grant a lot of our success to is our determination and the fact that we give ourselves time and space to succeed. A lot of entrepreneurs don’t stay in the game long enough to see their business thrive. Every business is different, but giving up is never part of the equation of success.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or an example for each.
The most important trait a CEO or leader can have is honesty. People — whether they’re employees, investors, or board members — need to be able to count on what you’re saying. When you establish your credibility people will be willing to bet on you, even if you don’t have your million-dollar idea just yet.
Separate Your Personal and Professional Life
When we were first getting started with Niche the team would go grab a beer or dinner at the end of the day, but still be focused on work. There was no time to step away and take a break. Successful entrepreneurs — and really anyone in the workforce — need sufficient time away from the office to recharge so they can be fresh and inspired to work when they return. I’ve created a much better balance in my life now.
All Entrepreneurship is Difficult
Starting a business is incredibly draining. You put so much time and energy — your blood, sweat and tears — into your work, and sometimes it takes years to see results. My advice for budding entrepreneurs is to go after the biggest possible market. Whether you’re starting a small coffee shop or looking to become the next Amazon, you are going to be working hard. So why not put that energy into something bigger?
Focus on People
It’s important to have a great product and a perfectly-designed business model, but at the end of the day, business is all about people. You need to focus on recruiting and retaining employees that are excited to put in their best work every day. Entrepreneurship isn’t just about finding a challenging problem to solve, it’s about getting the best out of people, treating them with respect and creating a company culture where people are excited to come to work every day. Success in business comes down to success in people.
Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
We’ve all read about the “unicorn companies” that spring from Silicon Valley and are making millions almost instantly. A lot of entrepreneurs get discouraged when they look at these companies and are wondering “why aren’t I there yet?”
My advice to those who are creating their own business is to tune out the noise and not compare yourself to those companies. Growth and success look different for everyone and you shouldn’t feel like a bad entrepreneur if you don’t hit five million dollars in a year. As long as you’re passionate about your work for the long term, you will succeed.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It is so important to have things outside of the office that really engage you: whether it’s your family or a hobby, you need things to balance you out. When you’re at work, be focused and present at the task at hand. But once you leave the office, make sure you are giving yourself the mental space to recharge so you can have energy for the next day. And don’t shortchange your sleep, we all need it to be the best versions of ourselves.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My parents have been extremely supportive of me throughout my journey as an entrepreneur and I am incredibly thankful to have them in my corner. They always had my best interests and the best interests of Niche at heart. Both are entrepreneurs themselves and have been great sounding boards. I come from a very entrepreneurial family in general, so that’s been a great resource for me.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Professionally speaking, I’m excited to continue building Niche as an iconic brand that’s solving a pain point in the industry. We’re the largest site in the U.S. for choosing a college or K-12 school, but not enough people realize that. We’re incredibly motivated to keep building a better product in order to help the 70 million people in the U.S. education system find the right schools for them, and for schools to find the right students to fill their classrooms. Niche is more than just a widget, it’s a meaningful tool helping people make big decisions.
Personally, I’m hoping to get in the best physical and mental shape of my life before my 40th birthday.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I want to leave the world a better place than I found it; whether that’s through Niche or mentoring the next generation of entrepreneurs, time is limited, and I want to spend it doing the things that matter.
I’ve had the privilege of being on the board of trustees at Carnegie Mellon, my alma mater, for the last 11 years, and that’s been another great way for me to give back to the community.
Personally, I just want to be the best husband and father I can be.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I really believe in the power of entrepreneurship. I’d like to find more ways to improve and accelerate entrepreneurship across the world, help create new jobs and innovate. In this tech-focused age, the possibilities are endless in what we can do.
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