Always strive for transparency with your team. Even when things seem fast-paced, articulating your message is crucial. There are always so many different moving pieces within a company. It’s your job to make sure that your team members are all on the same page. I like to have one-on-one meetings with each member of our team. However, we realized that even in a start-up, communication doesn’t always happen as freely as we’d like. We now have daily stand-up meetings, along with discussions to creatively discuss ideas. We want our team members to be on the same page, learn from each other and respect one another.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gooroo founder and CEO, Scott Lee. Scott is on a mission to reimagine education, unlock every student’s potential, and promote lifelong learning for all. Born in Seoul, South Korea, Lee relocated to the United States with his family at the age of 16. Through constant support from his parents, and with the help of tutors and mentors, he worked hard and constantly challenged himself to succeed. Before founding Gooroo, Lee worked as a Senior Treasury Analyst at JP Morgan Chase’s Chief Investment Office. Previously, he had founded Peertutor, a non-profit platform that connected underserved children with over 7,000 English tutor volunteers; and Mud Café, a niche online fashion retailer. Gooroo was ultimately established in 2015.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I came up with the idea of Gooroo, because I was actually trying to find a tutor for myself. After my sophomore year at Columbia University, I took a break to enlist in the South Korean army. It was definitely an integral time in my life, and I enjoyed serving as a Sergeant and Squad Leader. However, serving also meant that I was away from the classroom for two years.
I came back to Columbia to finish my degree, but I was having some trouble staying on top of my school work. It was a change of pace from the army, and office hours weren’t really cutting it for me. I tried to find an in-person tutor to help me with my coursework, but I wasn’t able to. Ultimately, I started Gooroo because I faced the same problem that many of our parents first had.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When we first started Gooroo, we didn’t have a product yet. So, while our developers were building out the first version, I was trying to find customers. It was difficult because I was selling a product that didn’t fully exist yet.
I’d go out with flyers and tape, trying to find anyone who needed tutoring. I even snuck into Columbia University’s bathrooms to put them up on the stalls.
While I was flyering one day, someone came up to me to ask me more about Gooroo (this rarely happened). I was honest in that we didn’t have a product yet, but I shared the vision I had for the company. He was intrigued by the idea, and said he’d be interested in getting tutoring for his daughter.
This parent ended up becoming our customer, advisor, investor, and now Director of Operations, Phil Poppinga. Meeting Phil made me realize that even through the difficulties and obstacles, you never know when an opportunity will arise. It’s important to stay determined and positive through it all.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
The person I look up to the most is my dad, and he’s the one who encourages me to work harder each day. When my dad was growing up, he was responsible for supporting his siblings. His goal was to make sure they had 3 meals each day. For him, every day was a struggle, but he was able to continue.
Knowing what my dad had to go through makes me realize that the obstacles I face don’t compare. I strive to have his determination and work ethic. That’s what drives me to work even when things get hard.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Gooroo would not be where it’s at without our amazing team members. I’m grateful because they’ve stayed committed to our vision and have been flexible through each change. They’ve been nimble through it all. Their determination is what has made us successful.
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?
When Gooroo first started, our “office” was actually a 2-bedroom apartment. We were in such a rush to secure a space, that I immediately signed the lease without even seeing it in-person. We didn’t measure anything properly, and just went off the outline the leasing office gave us to order Ikea furniture. It probably wasn’t the best idea, especially because I decided to also live in our office.
I was living out of our office for about 2.5 years, and I’d say that was probably the funniest mistake I made. The “living room” was actually used by our tech and product design team. Meanwhile, the master bedroom was for our business development team. Then, I used the second bedroom as my actual bedroom.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We stand out because we take the time to care about our students. Education often is a one-size-fits-all model. However, this lends itself to allow some kids to fall behind. So, for us, it’s not just about academic improvement. We strive to help students build confidence and take the time to look over every student’s progress.
One of my favorite stories comes from one of our students, Katie, who needed help with math. She came to us discouraged and not willing to learn. So, for Gooroo, it was important that we matched her with a tutor that understood her. Katie’s tutor, Jamie, was able to make everything click. Jamie took the time to actually get to know Katie, and not just teach her. The problems started to make sense, her homework became easier, and she would participate in class.
It was great to see Katie view Jamie as a role model. She even invited Jamie to one of her figure skating recitals. Katie was so excited to have Jamie there, and would point out to her friends that her tutor came to watch her recital.
For us, it’s more than just about tutoring, it’s about building confidence, and getting students excited to learn and take on more challenges.
*Names have been changed
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
When you’re building a business, there are so many different things going on in your head, and it can be hard to keep track. You’ll believe me if you ever see the Notes app on my iPhone. While having all of these ideas and tasks is fine, what becomes dangerous is thinking that you are alone in handling it all.
So, I’ve learned that delegation is one of the most important skills for leadership. “Burning out” happens because of the burden that comes with stressing over every single responsibility through micromanagement. Be confident in your team, and have a clear understanding of each member’s responsibilities and skill sets. That also means understanding what you, the CEO’s, responsibilities are.
I’ve determined that my role is to share Gooroo’s vision and goals to the rest of the team in order to ensure that we’re all on the same page. I strive to keep my 5 key areas of responsibility into alignment: Product, Software, Community, Revenue, and Finance.
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?
I’ve been fortunate enough to meet so many influential advisors and investors. However, like any start-up, I started off with none. When I was raising our first round, I got countless “no”s. I got very discouraged and worried that we wouldn’t receive any investment, and that we’d end up having to shut down the business.
That’s when I got the advice to raise first from friends and family, not VCs. So, I reached out to one of my closests friends, Jiaeh, who I met while working at JP Morgan. She was the first person who accepted my proposal, and was our very first investor.
From there, everything started to connect. She introduced me to Leonardo Han, who then introduced us to 7 Angels investors. Now, we’ve been fortunate enough to have these investors connect us to other investors around the world. Jiaeh has been one of our biggest supporters through the ups and downs, and she was there to help facilitate our first round. Thanks, Jiaeh!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Gooroo strives to make education accessible to everyone. However, this can’t be done overnight. Fortunately, we’ve been able to take the steps towards our goal through our partnerships.
We work locally as a vendor of the New York City Department of Education to level the playing field in public education. So, our pilot program began 3 summers ago when we began providing after-school programs to students in underserved areas of the city. We helped students in the Bronx and Brooklyn get tutoring for the SHSAT exams. We also work globally with Books for Africa to donate a book for every session that occurs through Gooroo.
We’re just beginning, but hope that we’ll continue to grow to help make a difference to the world.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1.Grow your team thoughtfully, and be mindful of hiring.
Last year, we made the decision to create a completely new product. During this time, we rebuilt our tech team once our CTO, Ramon, joined us. I was eager to move quickly and add as many team members in order to meet our deadlines. However, I learned from Ramon how important it is to make the right hiring decisions, especially when it comes to software craftsmanship. You may feel the urgency to grow rapidly, but it’s important to carefully consider who you bring on. From there, you can grow together as a team and learn from the mistakes you make along the way.
2. Be humble and patient when building out a product.
As a CEO, you become so close to the product, and you think you always know best. It’s hard to take criticism, but it’s important to realize that the product should always be user-driven.
For us to have our current Gooroo membership service, we tested several models and pricing structures. It took so many different team meetings and discussions to get to what we have now. It makes things much easier when you have team members who are nimble and acceptable to the fast-paced environment.
In the end, remember that it takes small steps. Your users will guide you towards the right direction. You WILL pivot. In the end, patience and persistence will bring you to where you want to be.
3. Fundraising will always take longer than you think.
Building relationships with investors takes time. So, always keep in touch with each potential investor, even if they said no the first time. It can take time for people to believe in you, your team and vision. We ended up raising our last seed round from 34 awesome Gooroo investors.
4. Always strive for transparency with your team.
Even when things seem fast-paced, articulating your message is crucial. There are always so many different moving pieces within a company. It’s your job to make sure that your team members are all on the same page.
I like to have one-on-one meetings with each member of our team. However, we realized that even in a start-up, communication doesn’t always happen as freely as we’d like. We now have daily stand-up meetings, along with discussions to creatively discuss ideas. We want our team members to be on the same page, learn from each other and respect one another.
5. Enjoy the small moments.
Things move quickly, but take the time to slow down and celebrate each gain. It’s a never-ending process. There will always be next metrics, goals, timelines, fundraising, and other things to reach. It can be overwhelming. Each step in this process is meaningful.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
There are a lot of people who are struggling, but I’d love to start with New York City. In a city of 8.5 million people, nearly 1 in every 121 New Yorkers is currently homeless.
People don’t always have someone to go to, and it can be difficult to ask for help. Everyone has something that their struggling with and going through. So, I want to work on building a community support system so that people can always reach out for help.
Currently, our team has a weekly brainstorm session to figure out how we can take the steps to show compassion for others. I want to start with the people near us- our neighbors, friends, and coworkers. I want to have a community to reach out to those who need help- one by one. I want to provide support and create friendships so that no one feels alone.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
They can follow me on Instagram, @scott_gooroo, or add me on LinkedIn! Always looking for new connections, and happy to chat more with anyone who is interested.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!