PHILADELPHIA – Have you ever sat five feet from a someone who built a company out of nothing and then sold if for $1.7 billion? I did last night.
Michael Chasen (39), founder and former CEO of Blackboard, was the key-note speaker at last night’s Start Up Grind event hosted at Benjamin’s Desk in Center City Philadelphia. Chasen sat with Start Up Grind Chapter President, Mike Maher, and told told the story of taking a company from five people in a brownstone in Washington D.C, to 3,000 employees and a value of over one billion dollars.
I arrived at the building located at 1701 Walnut Street just before 6 p.m. I navigated through the under-construction entrance and squeezed into an elevator with an assortment of young professionals, all eager to make sure we made it to the event on-time.
Check-in for the event was very simple; if you purchased a ticket prior to through “Meetup” or “Eventbrite” you just needed to show I.D. If you pre-ordered your ticket it cost just $12, if you didn’t it was $15 at the door. To entice students who are already looking to be entrepreneurs, the event was half-price.
The first hour allowed the like-mined folks of Philly to mingle whilst partaking in the complimentary pizza and beer provided by the events sponsors. There was no age restriction among the crowd last night. Fresh-faced Millennials mingled with 40-and-50 somethings, all sharing ideas and what brought them to the event.
Right around 7 p.m. the lights flickered and we were asked to moved to our seats; the event was standing-room-only. Mike Maher, MC’ed the event and sat down for a one-on-one interview with the man of the hour, Michael Chasen.
Chasen recapped his time at American University, going to work for KPMG, and told his story of how left his stable, high-paying job, to take his shot at chasing his dream of launching Blackboard. He recapped going to university after university and building wifi systems that were integrated across campuses and dorms. Chasen is still a firm believer that the trends on college campuses are a predictor for what is “coming next,” and being able to envision the capability of the systems he was installing, while at KPMG, lead him to the idea for Blackboard.
Chasen was finally able to launch Blackboard in 1997. He soon realized WebCT, who would become his biggest competitor early on, had been up and running for six months and had already enrolled 200 universities in their program. When Maher asked Chasen how he was able to purchase WebCT in 2005, Chasen said it was “Simple.”
“In the end were doing $200 million in revenue, they were doing $20 [million].”
Chasen frequently referenced the importance of execution during the hour-long interview. “There are a billions of people in the world, and I guarantee more than a hundred people have the same idea as you,” said Chasen. “The reason we were able to have success is we were able to out-execute our competitors, it’s that simple.”
Chasen is bringing the same tenacity and tireless work effort to his new project, Social Radar, a smartphone mobile application that integrates locations service and social profiles. The application will allow its users to arrive at any event or location and immediately recognize who they might already know there, or what they have in common either personally or professionally.
“Our goal is to intelligently connect people,” said Chasen. “Who wouldn’t want to show up at an event like this, and already know that there are people here you already have things in common with, just by looking at your phone.”
Chasen went on to dispel the myths that the majority of people wouldn’t want to share their location and personal information with complete strangers. “Listen, there are two billion social profiles and over six billion check-ins, it’s already happening.” Drawing from his experience with growing Blackboard, he knows that when you get nay-sayers, you are headed in the right direction.
“At the time we were going to schools and pitching something visionary,” said Chasen. “When a school’s administrator told me, ‘nah we don’t need it,’ or, ‘my teachers will never use it,’ I knew we were on the right track.”
After the formal interview with Maher, the floor was opened for questions. Enthusiastic entrepreneurs were given the opportunity to pick the brain of Chasen, and get his advice on how to navigate some of the issues that their start-ups were currently facing.
Following 20 minutes of Q&A, Maher brought the event to a close with fervent applause and gratitude for Chasen’s willingness to attend the evening’s event and speak with Start Up Grind community. Afterward, Chasen hung around to share a few beers and laughs with the folks at Benjamin’s Desk and afford a lucky few with some one-on-one face time.
Maher will soon be stepping down as the president of Start Up Grind’s Philadelphia chapter, but has high-hopes for what is to come. Start Up Grind will continue to host and organize events through local network groups, like Meetup, for the purpose of bringing young like-mined entrepreneurs together.