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Hackernoon logoHow To Create Personal Breakthroughs By Mastering EI: Interview With Matt Kursh by@viceasytiger

How To Create Personal Breakthroughs By Mastering EI: Interview With Matt Kursh

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@viceasytigerVik Bogdanov

Tech storyteller

A recent nationwide survey aiming to better understand the “before and after” of emotions in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic has found that people’s #1 emotion now is anxiety, and before the outbreak, the #1 emotion was calm.

Now when people all over the world are facing challenges that the Coronavirus has brought to their health, wealth, business, and relationships, how can they push back the chaos and build resilience? 

“By using Emotional Intelligence skills,” says Matt Kursh, a tech industry veteran who loves building innovative products that make a difference for humans. 

Matt Kursh, CEO and Founder, Oji Life Lab. (Image Source: twitter.com/mattkursh)

The better we regulate feelings that are driving us, the better we can match our mood to our mission and the better we can reach our goals, both personal and professional. Decades of research show that as we improve our emotional intelligence (EI), we can boost our decision-making, attention, memory, creativity and relationships.

With that knowledge in mind, Matt Kursh and his business partners started Oji Life Lab, a digital platform combining micro-learning and live video coaching into a powerful system for lasting habit formation and emotional intelligence development. Their goal was to help people in business learn the essential skills that drive performance and life satisfaction – skills that schools and universities don’t cover.  

Before embarking on a journey to build a one-of-a-kind digital learning system for teams, organizations and individuals, Matt launched, ran and sold companies to Apple and Microsoft, was responsible for MSN.com when it was one of the top 3 websites on the planet, led the Blue Planet Run Foundation 2006-2008, a non-profit organization focused on delivering water to the developing world, and served on the boards of numerous public, private and non-profit organizations.

I just couldn’t miss the opportunity to interview Matt and share his story and entrepreneur tips and inspiration with fellow Hackernooners. Enjoy the reading!

Matt, I've read that you started your very first business when you were a teenager, and it was a croissant bakery offering door-to-door delivery. Where do you think you got that entrepreneural touch? What's your key driver as an entrepreneur? 

There are different types of entrepreneurs. Some entrepreneurs just love doing business as a fascinating activity. Some like the intellectual challenge that comes with it. Others just want to make a bunch of money. And there’s another kind of entrepreneur that loves the creative process and its outcome. While you may have a mix of all types, for me, being an entrepreneur has always been about that creative component. 

With croissants, I literally just wanted to eat croissants, because in the 1980s you could not buy them in Ohio. So I wanted to make some, and that’s how I came up with the idea to start business.

Over the years, I’ve become very interested in personal skills that help us perform and help us live a rich life. Soft skills development gave me an excellent opportunity to create something new. For me, it’s about a creative process: creative not in the sense of coming up with novel ideas but in the sense of making things.

Like a carpenter likes going to the workshop and constructing things, I like making things.

In your fantastic career spanning over 30 years, you’ve had a chance to work both at large companies and small startups. What most important lesson(s) have you learned from working in each company type?

That’s an interesting question. Some things that come to mind – and they may not be the most important things – are as follows.

When you work in a startup, you get accustomed to working on things that make a difference in a context where there’s not a lot of room for waste or error. That was a great way for me to learn how to be ruthless about prioritization and focus. On the other hand, my experience of working at large and established companies like Microsoft has helped me learn how to deal with diverse resources and really big teams, as well as how to tackle issues related to achieving goal alignment across a lot of people. At the same time, when you work in those big companies, it’s not always clear how what you’re doing necessarily ties to business success.

Do you personally feel more comfortable working in large or small organizations?

As for me, I enjoyed working at Microsoft, and I also enjoy working in small companies. I think every person on the planet has their own style of thinking, own values and customs and it’s hard to join a big organization that has its own customs and values because you have to adapt to their way of doing things. That’s difficult for me.

But when I worked at Microsoft, I worked there long enough, so my team and I sort of converged on the same values - and it was incredible fun.

There is a saying that teams form, storm, norm and perform. You know, that storming phase in a big company is really long and cumbersome. It takes a long time to get that many people to converge. That part I didn’t love. But once you get through that storming, it doesn’t matter to me if the company is big or small.

Oji Life Lab has been a brainchild you and your business partners have been working on in the past two years. Let’s talk about the project. For starters, what does the word Oji mean? 

It comes from an Italian word oggi, which means today. That’s a common word in Italian. I was thinking of a word that would symbolize the present and focus, and I liked the Italian word for today. In English, if you have o-g-g-i, no one could spell that, so we changed the spelling to something we could pronounce more easily. That’s how Oji was coined.

How did you get involved in this project?

So, a really short version is – several years ago, I started working in the space of soft skills development, and I first started working with teenagers. That didn’t work very well. Then I met my co-founder [Andrea Hoban, Chief Learning Officer], and we decided to work together to build a digital program for a workplace. So, we were working on that concept together. By that time I’d already had a great working relationship with Robin Stern, PhD and Marc Brackett, PhD, from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

Once, when Marc was in town for a conference, he explained to me that when he talked about emotional intelligence around the world, people would often approach him and say something like: “This is wonderful, I’d like to teach EI in my school district.” He had a solution for them – his RULER program that was successfully launched in more than 2,000 American schools.

But when entrepreneurs approached him saying they wanted to train their employees on emotional intelligence, he just didn’t have anything to offer other than a Powerpoint presentation. He asked me if I was interested in working with him and Robin Stern to do something for the business market. It was a perfect time because Andrea and I were already thinking about something similar. So we came together around that and spent a lot of time on product concepts that changed a lot over time. Now, we've spent over two years building that product with our tech partners in Ukraine, fulfilling and refining that vision.

Is your product being developed entirely in Ukraine or do you have a core product team in the United States and using an outsourced team as an auxiliary unit to build some functionality?

We’re building a whole thing with my old friend Matt Brown (CEO of Waverley) and his team in Ukraine. I worked with him in my first company, so I trust him a lot. It was very exciting when we started, and we have pretty much the same team now, two years in. We don’t have any technical people anywhere else.

What’s your product status now? Are you still in the MVP stage or have you moved to a full-fledged product release?

I hope we’re no longer in the MVP stage! It’s been 15 months or so since the release, and it’s quite a robust product now. Customers feel like our product has better content and more compelling features than other products. We started with an MVP and then had our team fix the bugs and fine-tune and polish it. It took six months of hard work. When we got through it, the customers were delighted with the outcome.

Are you making it more robust now? What are your product scaling plans?

Now we’re thinking of building additional Life Labs. When we first started working with the development team, they named the project something like “Emotions” for internal reference. I told them I didn’t want them to think they’re building the emotions product. I wanted them to think they’re building a platform that will be used for a lot of products in the future. They, of course, understood it completely and built a software system from the ground up to be good at delivering programs to develop soft skills. We internally call it MESH. We call it that because it re-imagines monolithic workshops as a sequence of bite-sized learning steps experienced on a user’s phone. 

So, in a nutshell, we’re going to make the Emotional Life Lab better while also building and scaling new labs on different subjects.

Do you already know what topics will be added to the platform next?

There are several topics in the soft skills space that we’re already working with some experts on. I can’t say yet what they are, but what I can say for sure is that they all will help develop soft skills.

When a lot of people hear the words “soft skills”, they believe the skills are not important. Like if you’re an engineer, you need to write great code. And soft skills are viewed as extra skills that may not necessarily be needed to write the code. 

“Our belief is that soft skills are just as important or may be even more important.” 

If you think about, let’s say, learning a new programming language, that’s what’s called declarative learning, i.e. you learn what the syntax is, what the programming paradigm is – you get the facts and the more facts you know the better you can program in that language. Soft skills are skills that are basically habits. They require practice, new ways of habit formation, and personal knowledge. So if you’re looking to learn how to lead a better conversation with your colleagues regardless of whether you’re a software engineer or anything else, you need to learn how to manage your personal emotional state and know how to manage other people’s emotional state.

You need to know how to respond when people act aggressively, calmly or anxiously. You need to learn all those things, and you can’t read that in a programming manual. You need to do work. You need to explore that.

So we’ve built from the ground up a learning system to help people do that. And it’s really different from other learning systems because we have different goals from other learning systems. We’re not teaching you how to use Photoshop or Excel. We’re not teaching you machine learning skills. We’ve built a different learning system to teach you how to use emotions and develop better soft skills to have a better life.

So you don’t see any major rival in the market right now, do you?

There’re many people today offering soft skills training programs. They are doing it in two modes: in-person workshops or in-person workshops done virtually. This is basically a traditional classroom model. This model implies that, for instance, I shoot a video and tell you about emotional intelligence or leadership or whatever. As such, this model suffers from several issues. The work to be done is not to transfer knowledge from the experts to the students. The work to be done has a lot to do with the students learning about their own personal behavior and ideas. You can’t read it in a book. You have to go out and do it. So that’s one issue. And then another issue is that for decades, people have known that learning in small bursts spaced over time is the best solution for retention and comprehension of information. When you go to a 4-hour workshop, any scientist will tell you that 90 days later, your retention of that information will be almost zero, because you need repetition for retention. 

So, we’ve built a new kind of program that takes all that learning, breaks it into little 5 to 10 minute chunks and spaces it over several months, and includes many different types of experiences and also includes live learning.

When put together, all of these elements will lead to people gaining lasting skills so that one, two or three years later they’re still using those ideas and getting benefits out of it as opposed to the feeling many people have days and weeks after attending a workshop and remembering nothing about it.

Blended with traditional classroom models for hard skills acquisition, your soft skills learning product can boost significantly how people learn and develop. Are you considering any future collaborations with traditional learning product makers?

We’re always eager to find points of collaboration. For instance, we have customers who take the Emotional Life Lab and incorporate it into their leadership training programs or their mentoring programs. In this case, we love that! If it’s useful, it’s great! We just try to focus on what’s good for the learners and believe the business model will follow behind it. We are always happy to combine our program with something else. As you spend time working in this space, you realize that all of the soft skills are interconnected. If you become more emotionally intelligent in general, you’ll automatically become a better communicator and performer. And we’re always looking for those relationships to build better user experiences.

How many coaches do you have now, and how is their work structured?

I don’t know the exact number but we have a small group in the Bay area, and we’re also starting to train people around the world to be better situated to help customers outside of the U.S. We have a group of talented people supporting users as they go through their learning process. That’s a responsibility of my co-founder Andrea to grow that pool of coaches and train and coordinate them.

So you have special training for coaches and not every EI specialist can be accepted?

Absolutely. We onboard them so they work for us. Many businesses use an open model in which anyone can apply and contribute. That’s not how we work, as we’re very selective in whom we hire. We’re looking for people who have the personality, who understand the material. Andrea is really good at picking and training the right coaches. 

Do you think the product can be a good fit for the consumer market as well?

It’s open to the consumer market: any user can go to our website and buy the product. And we know that people do have great experiences of working with it. As the Coronavirus is becoming more of an issue, we see a real increase in app downloads by individual users, and we’re delighted they can make use of our solution.

However, our focus on the corporate market reflects that a lot of people focus on their learning and performance development to achieve professional goals, so the workplace seems like a great place to promote our product and make the best use of it. It’s just perfectly suited for the corporate world.

As you get more user data and can observe particular trends, are you thinking of generating some kind of intelligence reports in the future to help build new knowledge and share trends on how soft skills help people perform and reach professional goals better? Are you considering becoming a Think Tank for EI data collection and sharing?

We do have data aggregation analysis capabilities. However,

the most important thing for us is to provide as great an experience for the individual as we can, and it has to be totally private.

We’re very careful about not doing anything to cause the user to feel like their data is somehow used and shared.

So there may be opportunities like that later, but we need first to figure out how to do it in a way that would provide 100% confidence to users that their data is safe with us. 

One of the taglines we use to describe what we’re doing is we deliver personal breakthroughs at digital scale. And that first part – personal breakthroughs – requires a real focus on our part on that one person, before the company.

If we can do it a 1,000 times for the company then it’s great for the company, but it’s so important that the individual will get that personal breakthrough and that’s what we focus on. 

And then we can do it at digital scale in terms of costs and efficiency of rolling it out and managing it. It’s a great combination. 

For instance, many HR technology companies today are focused on testing a group of employees to see what their engagement is. That’s not about the individuals, that’s about gaining data about the company. And it’s a great business model; it’s just not ours.

Let’s look into a crystal ball. How will COVID-19 change this world? What’s your gut feeling about the future of technology and business models?

In my lifetime, this is certainly the biggest disruption in the status quo and I hope that it’s the last disruption like this I’ll ever see. I think it won’t get back to where it was. I’ve no idea how it’ll change further, but every sector and every part of society has already changed. 

I think the workplace will never be the same again. I know that many people have got a chance to work remotely for the first time and they like it! They aren’t going to go back to 250 days in the office again. They may cut it to 150 days in the office a year. I believe there will be a lot of employees that will refuse to go back to work in the office. I don’t know what the new equilibrium will look like, but it’ll be different. It’s worth pointing out that our product model fits very well in this “new normal”. 

If 50% of training in the workplace continued to be delivered with a teacher in front of a classroom, a lot of things would just not be possible in the future, for a variety of reasons. It turns out our product will be an even better fit in a changing workplace reality.

What is your advise to startups and entrepreneurs that have been hit badly by the pandemic and are frustrated about the future?

Tenacity can be the best asset.

When you’re holding on tight for a great idea, tenacity is what will drive you forward.

But it can be disastrous to be tenacious about a bad idea. Maybe the idea is bad because you can’t fund it right now or because the market isn’t ready for it. This is a time when a lot of us have to be careful and focused on things that are going to work. There’s so much mythology in the startup world. Tenacity is a key ingredient that applies to all success stories but it’s also a part of many failures. So good luck!

Matt and his business partners believe that in the turbulent and uncertain times like we’re having now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone can use the EI skills to take better care of themselves, their teams and family. Check out Corona Care Toolkit developed by Oji Life Lab.

Are you a tech entrepreneur or innovator with a great inspirational story that's worth sharing with the rest of the world? Let me know and I'll be happy to interview you for my next article!

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