Mike Alpert of Cogent Solutions: “Relationships are the most important thing”

Relationships are the most important thing. You meet a lot of people as a business owner. Customers, potential customers, employees, service providers, etc. How you treat each of those individuals really matters. I’ve heard a lot of people say that this matters because it will build brand loyalty and lead to lifelong customers. And that’s […]

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Relationships are the most important thing. You meet a lot of people as a business owner. Customers, potential customers, employees, service providers, etc. How you treat each of those individuals really matters. I’ve heard a lot of people say that this matters because it will build brand loyalty and lead to lifelong customers. And that’s important. But I think treating people well is always an end it itself, not a means to an end. I don’t want to manipulate people into liking our brand. I want to treat people with respect. If they end up liking our brand at some point, that’s great, but it’s secondary. And that goes for everyone, not just those interacting with our business. If I treat the clerk ringing up my groceries with less respect than I treat a client, than there’s something really wrong.

The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.

As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Alpert.

Mike Alpert believes in empowering educators so they can more freely empower the next generation. Mike’s previous career in corporate accounting and finance uniquely positioned him to become an award-winning public school teacher and administrator, before founding Cogent Solutions in 2019. Cogent’s mission is to support students by supporting parents, teachers, and administrators.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Sure. I’m very fortunate to come from a loving family. My mom worked from home as a seamstress and my dad worked as a technical trainer for a phone company. They’re both brilliant in their own ways. My mom was very entrepreneurial and creative, and my dad is very technically gifted. But most importantly, they also really valued everyone they met. My mom could learn your life story within 15 minutes of meeting you and my dad would give you the shirt off his back and all the money in his wallet if you needed it. Looking back, I think I learned more about running a business from their values than I did from business school.

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

Yeah. That’s easy. I’m a big fan of the book The Little Prince. There’s a line in it that says, “All grown-ups were once children — but only a few of them remember it.” As a middle school teacher, I used to read that book with sixth graders each year. When we’d get to that part in the story, I’d ask how many of them felt that way. Every hand would raise, every single time. What that tells me is that there’s something really valuable in seeing the world through the eyes of kids and teenagers. It’s easy for adults to write off both the curiosity and the problems of kids as passing things, or sort of trivial. I think we feel that kids are traveling to their adult destination and everything that happens along the way is minor. I feel like, now that I’m in my forties, there’s some real value in trying to get back to the sincerity of that age. Most kids are incredibly wise, and it’s the adults who tend to focus on the minor things. I know I’m guilty of that. And as someone who works with parents and educators, I believe talking and listening to kids and learning from them is critical to everything I do.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

That’s a great question. It’s so hard to choose. I read a ton about entrepreneurship and education and am a podcast addict, but I’ll go with something a little unusual for me. There’s a series on Netflix called Chef’s Table. I’ve only watched one episode. It’s one with a chef named Grant Achatz who works at a restaurant called Alinea in Chicago, and it’s like one of the top ten restaurants in the world.

Now, I’m not a foodie, and I’ve never been to that restaurant. I like to cook, but I don’t know much about it and it’s not a hobby of mine. The thing about that episode that’s so great is that it’s all about this guy who just absolutely loves what he does and has no problem breaking all of the conventional rules of his industry. He really pushes the envelope of what food is, how it’s prepared, and especially how it’s presented.

I watched that several years ago while I was still in the classroom every day and it really challenged me to try new things and to truly love my job. I’ve probably rewatched the episode ten times and it gives me goosebumps every time. I highly recommend it, even if you don’t care about food at all.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?

My career path has been, we’ll call it, unconventional. I went to college in Texas and studied literature, then taught English overseas in Prague for a year. I loved teaching and decided I wanted to do it full time, but I didn’t have the money for grad school. So, when I returned to the states, I got an entry-level job at a credit union to save up some money. As it happens, my plans changed. I’m naturally curious and discovered that I loved working with numbers, so that entry-level, short-term gig to save some cash turned into a 10-year stint in the private sector working for different companies in accounting and finance, which included three years of night school to get my MBA.

Still, I felt like I was missing something that I really enjoyed. I visited a friend’s classroom on a whim and spent half the day at his high school. My love for the classroom came flooding back and it really had an impact on me. I realized the bug to work with kids wasn’t going to leave, so that afternoon I penciled out a plan on a piece of scrap paper to go back to grad school for education while finishing my MBA and working full time as an analyst. It was a crazy time! There was about a six-month stint where I was enrolled in two different master’s programs. I would work all day in downtown Portland, and then go to class. One night I’d be studying mergers and acquisitions and the next night I’d be learning about child development. It was pretty surreal.

I finished both programs and got a job teaching middle school humanities and some extracurricular classes in entrepreneurship. Around that time, I also worked with three of my best friends to start the world’s first non-profit brewery in Portland, which has since grown from one location to three in multiple states and distribution across the western United States. Another hectic season, but I really enjoy that sort of pace.

After seven years in the classroom, I became a building administrator. Teaching and leading in a public school building are two of the most challenging jobs you’ll ever find. I really enjoyed working with teachers and parents toward a common goal of equipping kids for success. I truly developed a passion for those three groups — teachers, administrators, and parents. I think being fully supported in those roles is so important because we’re entrusted with these amazing, growing humans.

So, after some time in building leadership, I decided to start my own company, Cogent Solutions, supporting educators. We develop training programs for administrators to use with teachers. We also consult with schools individually in the areas of staff support, teacher self-care, and adult social-emotional learning.

What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?

A lot of my friends know that I work with educators. I was at a (socially distanced) barbecue over the summer and everyone was talking about school for the coming year. Most of their kids are in elementary or middle school and most schools in our area had declared that they would not be offering in-person school, at least for the first semester.

I had a few different conversations that day where folks asked me if I had any materials or suggestions for parents — mainly around how they could support their students at home. There were also a lot of concerns about too much unstructured time. Parents had realized the previous spring that their kids tended to finish their schoolwork in just a couple of hours and had the rest of the day to be filled. I think there was a real concern around binging on screen time or being bored.

In response to the growing need for at-home content, I created a program called The Curiosity Blueprint that allows students to identify topics of interest — like space exploration or their favorite YouTuber — and supports them in researching these topics in an academic way. They learn how to do real research, how to make connections to other topics of interest, and — the real valuable part — how to make connections to other important disciplines and to build skills in areas like math, science, and writing. Finally, they get to design and build a final project of their choice that exemplifies their new knowledge and displays their developing skills. It’s also a very flexible program that can be used to support students in their school-assigned work at home.

Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?

At that summer barbecue, as I was talking with multiple parents about their concerns, I also got a text from my brother on the other side of the country. He was talking with someone who had the same problem. Driving home that evening, I told my wife, “You know, project-based research and learning is all I did as a teacher. It was very empowering for students and taught them to be very self-directed in their learning. It sounds like there might be a need for some training and resources in this area this year.”

How are things going with this new initiative?

It’s been pretty exciting to see things take off. It started out as a word-of-mouth thing amongst friends as I was building it, and I was blown away at the response once we launched. I’ve had the opportunity to appear on a few parenting podcasts, and it’s been great to help unleash the power of curiosity in so many people. The thing that’s really satisfying is to think that some students — much like my former students — are spending their free time researching things that naturally interest them. Curiosity is a powerful thing and The Curiosity Blueprint simply channels and directs it.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Definitely my wife. I know a lot of people say their family, but I think it’s true on multiple levels in my circumstance. When I just threw out the idea to start a business, which meant leaving a very reliable paycheck and good benefits at the school district, she immediately got excited. And this was while she was pregnant!

It was, of course, a joint decision and there’s no way I would’ve had the guts to do it without her help. And I don’t just mean her encouragement. She’s brilliant … definitely smarter than me. She comes from a family of successful entrepreneurs and was a vice president of finance at her job before we had kids. She has an enormous amount of knowledge and skill and is my strategic partner in every big decision made for the business. My work life is so much more fun and satisfying because she’s a big piece of it.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

As a company, we’re constantly moving and developing new products and ideas. I often find that offering a new product reveals more opportunities and needs. And I think that’s what we enjoy doing … meeting the needs of teachers, administrators, and parents in the education space. Whatever that may look like. So, right now we’re developing products to help teachers manage stress and add skills during a very difficult and unpredictable season in education. It’s very focused on building what’s called adult social and emotional skills, as well as giving teachers the opportunity and framework to reflect on their professional practice and how to deal with all of these very difficult external forces that cause stress and burnout. Being former educators ourselves, we just think that teachers are so critical to our communities. And it’s easy to take them for granted. We simply want to show them some love and support them in very tangible ways.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Understand how you work. When I was a school administrator, I worked 50–70 hours per week, depending on the time of year. I associated success and hard work with working long hours. The first year of my own business, I tried to mimic my routine in the school building. I’d get up early, work out, grab a quick breakfast and go work for ten hours. After about a year (and I’m embarrassed to admit it took me that long), I realized that I wasn’t optimizing my own creativity. I was living life based on the constraints of my former situation. I spent a lot of time trying different approaches to see how I could be most creative and efficient. So now, I still get up early, but I pretty much get to work immediately (after some stretching and coffee). I work from about 5:30 AM to 1:00 PM, I work out in the middle of the day and then I spend time with my son in the afternoon. Being a morning person, it makes much more sense for me to get to work as soon as possible after waking up. I’m so much more efficient and clear-minded. I used to read all about the time management hacks of other leaders and try to mimic those, but once I accepted that everyone is wired differently and I needed to find out how I worked best, it was very freeing.
  2. Quantity has very little correlation with quality. This is a continuation of the previous idea, but I think it stands alone. My assumption previously was that a large quantity of hours worked would lead to high-quality work, but I found that I was just patting myself on the back for working long hours. My output was decent, but I struggled with focus. Now, by focusing on one thing at a time during the hours that I’m most mentally active, the quality of my decisions and my work has really grown, while my hours worked has actually gone down considerably. I suppose you could just say, “Work smarter, not harder.” I think it’s really become “Work smarter and harder,” just focus on what you’re doing, and it’ll take you less time.
  3. Find the right people. When you’re starting a business, there’s a natural tendency to want to do everything yourself, and I don’t think that is a bad instinct. When I started, I was doing a lot of the research, product development, marketing, etc., and only delegating the really technical things that I simply couldn’t do. After building our first round of products, I realized I could’ve hired the right people to do things I could do — but were better at it — and everything would have improved. These days, I spend more time planning and thinking strategically, and then I try to find the best person to execute those ideas. It’s a much more efficient and value-added way to work.
  4. Optimism has limited value. I like to think that I’m a pretty positive person. I definitely want to remain positive and hopeful no matter what, but I think there’s some confusion around what’s required for entrepreneurs to be successful. I get the sense — based on what I read and see from a lot of entrepreneurial types — that the most important thing is a belief in yourself and your product. You hear a lot of stories from successful business owners that, “Things were hard and cashflow was tight, but I just had to keep believing in our mission and I knew we’d make it through — and we did!” The thing is, no one interviews the people that crashed and burned. You only read about the small percentage that made it, and what worked for them seems to be a universally applied principle. This is called survivorship bias … and I think it’s a pretty scary thing. I think it’s important to be optimistic, but I think it’s far more important to be well-researched, smart, prepared, and also humble enough to abandon an idea that’s not working. Never tether yourself to a sinking ship believing that the holes will patch themselves. Patch the holes or find a new boat.
  5. Relationships are the most important thing. You meet a lot of people as a business owner. Customers, potential customers, employees, service providers, etc. How you treat each of those individuals really matters. I’ve heard a lot of people say that this matters because it will build brand loyalty and lead to lifelong customers. And that’s important. But I think treating people well is always an end it itself, not a means to an end. I don’t want to manipulate people into liking our brand. I want to treat people with respect. If they end up liking our brand at some point, that’s great, but it’s secondary. And that goes for everyone, not just those interacting with our business. If I treat the clerk ringing up my groceries with less respect than I treat a client than there’s something really wrong.

So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?

It can be really difficult to cut through the noise. I don’t do this perfectly, but I’ve found that starting the day stretching is really important. It’s very calming and gets you in touch with what’s going on in your body. And it only takes about ten minutes. As a family, we also try to limit the time watching TV to one or two nights a week and we avoid social media except for work. We try to end the day reading something that’s thought-provoking or puts life in context. I read a lot of non-fiction in the evenings, but I’ve discovered reading novels is also helpful to unwind. Finally, and probably most importantly, I find that prayer is very integral to my own health and perspective on life. I really can’t imagine not being able to pray for guidance or about the things that make me anxious. It’s so comforting to admit I don’t have all the answers, and that’s okay.

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?

I’m very fortunate to feel like I’m on that path. For me, it’s really all about taking care of kids. They’re such amazing little humans and I think we can learn a lot from them. And since it’s their role to be kids and our role to protect and provide for them, I think doing the best job we can at that is worthy of a life’s ambition. As a company, that means doing the best that we can working with teachers and administrators, since they’re on the front lines with kids every day. And it’s our honor to work really hard to make life a little easier for them.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

I’d love to have lunch with Jim Collins. I love his books and have heard some interviews with him. He asks the best questions. But since he’s kind of a hermit, I won’t hold out too much hope!

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m on Twitter and Instagram (occasionally☺) at @heymikealpert. That’s probably the best way to stay up-to-speed on my latest projects. For some of our products, educators can visit us at heycogent.com and parents should check out thecuriosityblueprint.com.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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