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Oct 20, 2020

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Maven News

Chris Dutton: The Founder's Story

13 min read

Oct 20, 2020

/

Maven News

Chris Dutton: The Founder's Story

13 min read

Oct 20, 2020

/

Maven News

Chris Dutton: The Founder's Story

13 min read

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Chris Dutton: The Founder's Story

I never planned to become an entrepreneur, and most days I still don't feel like one.

Maybe it's because I've never had the big “lightbulb” moment like you read about. No life-changing realizations in the shower, no pitching to investors, and no all-nighters fueled by ramen and Red Bull. Those stories make for great TV, but it’s not how the Maven story goes.

As a business, Maven Analytics came to life slowly and methodically.

Like many others, our path wasn’t defined by a single insight, but by hundreds of small ideas and seemingly inconsequential decisions. While each felt trivial at the time -- like a single step on a very long climb -- those decisions collectively shaped our brand, our principles, and ultimately our vision for the future.

In this post I’ll take you back to where it all started, and highlight five of the most important lessons I've picked up along the way.

Settle in, it's a long one.

The year was 2008, and I had just landed my first “adult” job as a Marketing Analyst at a large ad agency in Boston. It was my dream gig; good people, great client exposure, challenging work, and my very own cube in an office downtown. Life was good!

On my first day I learned that I would backfill a senior analyst who was widely known for his Excel wizardry, and inherit the reports he had built over the past 4+ years with the agency. The only catch? He would be leaving the company for business school in less than a week.

Yikes.

My first few days on the job were a trial by fire. Like most young, overconfident analysts I thought I knew my way around Excel, but that changed the moment I started digging into this guy’s reports.

There were complex nested formulas, layers of cell references and named ranges, form controls, macros, validation rules, and at least a dozen functions I’d never even heard of. But what struck me more than anything was that these reports looked absolutely nothing like spreadsheets. They were unbelievably complex under the hood, yet elegant, intuitive, and downright beautiful on the front end.

I was inspired.

For the next four days I hunkered down in my cube long after everyone else went home, studying and reverse engineering those reports until I literally couldn’t keep my eyes open. Then I’d grab the last train home, sleep for a few hours, and return to the office the next morning to do it all over again.

The more I learned, the more I realized just how little I knew.

On the dunning-kruger curve, I was careening down the peak of incompetence and into the “valley of despair” -- a path traversed by countless overconfident Excel users who realize they've only been scratching the surface for years:

Dunning Kruger v3


That’s when I learned the first lesson that would ultimately change my life and career:

1: Excel is the most underrated analytics tool on the planet

What I quickly realized is that there was simply no other platform (at least at the time) that allowed you to flex both sides of your brain the way Excel did.

With a background in quantitative economics and multimedia art, I felt uniquely qualified to push Excel to its absolute limits, and oh my did I try. To me nothing in the world was more satisfying than bringing raw data to life, and finding insight where others only saw noise. I was hooked.

It didn’t take long for me to claim the unofficial title of “Excel Guy” at the office, a designation that made me feel equal parts proud and embarrassed. My desk became a hot spot for Excel support, and I would spend hours helping colleagues fix broken formulas, design custom visuals, and automate tedious manual tasks (which earned me some serious cred).

About a year into the job, I was approached by a senior VP in the analytics group. He had seen some of my work, and asked if I’d be willing to build and deliver a series of advanced Excel classes for the entire department.

I was young. I was shy. I was -- and still am -- a huge introvert. The idea of speaking in front of a large group of smart people made me want to curl into a ball and hide under my desk.

Which is why I knew I had no choice but to say yes.

This was one of those rare moments where I could practically feel my life trajectory changing. I knew it was a huge, potentially career-changing opportunity, and I knew that the only way to seize it -- to really grow, personally and professionally -- would be to step out of the comfort zone and bear a little pain.

So I set to work building a curriculum, designing course materials, and rehearsing some “off the cuff” jokes that would help ease the tension a bit. But when the time finally came to deliver the first session, I felt surprisingly calm. My fellow analysts arrived eager to learn, and my nerves quickly turned to excitement as I realized what a massive impact these skills would have on the team’s productivity (and the company as a whole).

This was the exact moment I learned my second important lesson:

2: Teaching is my flow state

Flow state is about finding a perfect balance between challenge and skill, where you feel like you’re doing exactly what you’ve been set on this earth to do.

The definition typically reads something like this:

The mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process.

After delivering those training sessions, I realized that I had found my flow.

There’s a certain art to translating complex technical topics into clear and simple language, and I found the process deeply fulfilling. Being able to witness the exact moment a complex concept finally “clicks” in a student’s mind is a beautiful thing, and something I still cherish to this day.

Fast forward to 2014.

After 6 years at the agency, the time came for me to spread my wings and pave my own path as an analytics consultant (after a brief hiatus to explore New Zealand first). My goal was to offer traditional project-based support, while dedicating a chunk of time to teaching.

Like most people at the time, I still thought of training as something you do live and in-person. The concept of online learning was still a somewhat novel idea, and it hadn’t even crossed my mind as a potential growth channel for my business. To me, success meant booking "X" live corporate training sessions per month, and that’s the goal I pursued during my first year or so as a consultant.

That all changed the moment I needed to brush up on my VBA skills.

For those who aren’t familiar, VBA -- Visual Basic for Applications -- is essentially the underlying code that makes Excel run. You can record macros to automate simple tasks, or write your code from scratch to accomplish some pretty amazing things (if that sounds exciting to you, make sure to check out Leila Gharani’s course).

In any case, I needed to learn some specific VBA code for a client project I was working on, and turned to Google to assess my options. The first search result was an online, self-paced VBA course hosted by a platform called Udemy. With a decent rating and 10,000+ students enrolled, I was impressed. So I gave it a click, enrolled in the course, and dove right in.

To put it kindly, it was a complete disaster.

I won’t share the course title or instructor’s name, but man, it was just objectively bad. The delivery felt sloppy and unprepared, there was no flow or sequencing between lessons, and the demos were random, impractical, and riddled with errors.

That’s when I learned lesson #3:

3: In the online learning world, quality is king

While that course may not have helped me learn the VBA code I needed, it did lead to some key takeaways that would ultimately prove invaluable to my career:

  1. Online learning could provide massive reach, and efficiency at scale

  2. There was a distinct lack of quality content, particularly in the analytics space

The more I compared the pros and cons of self-paced courses vs. live training, the more it became clear that online learning was the play.

No more traveling to clients. No more cramming insane amounts of content into half-day sessions. No more struggling to find the exact pace that keeps advanced users engaged without leaving beginners in the dust. The list went on...

So with that, I set to work building my very first online course -- Excel Formulas & Functions.

Now let me be clear, I made a LOT of mistakes. In fact, I still wince a bit (ok, a lot) whenever I go back and rewatch that course, knowing what I know today. But what I lacked in experience, I made up for in sheer stubbornness and will power.

To give you some context, I was the 5-year-old who held his breath so long at swim lessons that the instructor thought I passed out (I was fine, and I absolutely CRUSHED the record). As an adult, I've run 50km races in handmade sandals and competed in multiple 24-hour endurance races in the middle of winter, all in the name of testing the limits.

Now while it might not sound quite as extreme, building an entire course from scratch does require an uncommon level of self-motivation and drive. Investing ~400 hours into a project with virtually no guaranteed ROI is a gamble, but I made the decision to do it, and to do it right.

To drive that point home, here’s an actual photo of the “recording studio” I built to produce that first course:

Recording Booth


Yes, that’s a fleece blanket draped over two lamps in the corner of my apartment bedroom. And yes, I would climb into that tiny, miserable cave for hours at a time (in peak summer, no less), all for the sake of improving the audio quality of my recordings.

If you’re reading this post, it should come as no surprise that the hard work paid off. I launched that course on Udemy and began teaching with Lynda.com (now LinkedIn Learning) around the same time. Students were responding well to the content, royalties were beginning to flow, and all signs were pointing towards building more courses.

So I built.

After Formulas & Functions came my Excel Charts & Graphs course, followed by PivotTables, Power Query, DAX and Power BI, along with a variety of project-based courses for Lynda. With each new course I aimed to raise the quality bar just a bit higher, and incorporate feedback from previous courses to create the best student experience I possibly could.

Within a year, my online course “experiment” became a bigger priority than my consulting work, and within 2 years it was clear that this would become my new full-time focus. I had refined the course creation process, built a large global audience, and earned a reputation for practical, high-quality analytics courses.

The only problem? I was running out of topics to teach.

Which brings me to lesson #4:

4: It takes a village

After deciding to go full-time, I had a choice to make: I could either build a brand around myself as an individual, or create something bigger.

I chose the latter, for a few important reasons:

  1. My philosophy is that instructors should be legitimate, expert practitioners of their craft, and the idea of learning something purely for the sake of teaching it always felt disingenuous to me

  2. I saw a massive and time-sensitive opportunity to teach core analytics and BI skills, using tools like SQL, Power BI, Tableau, and of course Excel

  3. Being a "solopreneur" is lonely and exhausting work

So with that, Maven Analytics was born.

My first move was to hire Jason Russo -- long-time mentor, coach, and all-around great dude -- as Partner and CEO. From there Aaron Parry came on board as our lead Power BI instructor, John Pauler joined as Partner and lead SQL instructor, Dustin Cabral became our resident Tableau expert, and Enrique Ruiz started adapting our Excel courses for the Spanish market.

We hired UX and web dev rockstars to design a world-class learning platform, recruited a team of teaching assistants to help with student support, and found some office space in downtown Boston to call home.

Now things were starting to get REALLY fun.

In a time when most online learning platforms were competing in volume and scope, we chose to go deep. We would focus on the business intelligence niche, continue to honor our commitment to quality, and build every course from scratch to serve a distinct and purposeful role within our library. This strategy allowed us to build our flagship BI Analyst path, while maintaining a 97% student satisfaction rate and collecting more than 50,000 perfect 5-star reviews.

As a team, we spent much of 2019 building the Maven platform and expanding our course library, but realized that quality content alone wouldn’t cut it. The online learning world was evolving in front of our eyes, and we would need to evolve our student experience in turn to stay ahead of the curve.

Which brings us to lesson #5:

5: Guided learning is the future

From a student perspective, the online learning landscape can feel like a jungle. With so many platforms and paths to choose from, even figuring out where to start can feel like an uphill battle.

To make matters worse, the landscape is only becoming more crowded in the modern COVID era, with social distancing and stay-at-home orders leaving employers scrambling to keep staff productive and sharp while working remotely. New platforms are popping up like weeds, most with cookie-cutter platforms and huge libraries of random, low-quality courses (great for those who want to explore basket weaving and theoretical physics in the same afternoon, but useless for the rest of us).

At Maven, we decided to build a better online learning experience, by pioneering a model we call guided learning.

As an instructor-led company, we're uniquely positioned to offer a level of support that other learning platforms simply can't compete with. We have real, human conversations with our students to understand their goals and aspirations, and offer 1-on-1 support for everything from course recommendations to career coaching.

Our mission at Maven Analytics is to empower everyday people to change the world with data, and it gives me an immense feeling of pride to see that mission become a reality.

Looking Ahead

We've come a long way in the past few years, but the Maven story is just getting started.

In the immediate term, we're focused on product evolution and content expansion, with plans to expand our team training and enterprise products, offer certification prep (i.e. MOS-201, DA-100) and launch new courses to introduce core data science and machine learning topics.

Longer term, we hope to build the most effective learning platform on the market, and help thousands of students around the world kickstart, upgrade, or transition their analytics careers.

Ultimately the most important thing is that we grow without compromising our values. As long as we continue to produce exceptionally high-quality content, deliver a world-class learning experience, and empower our students for real world success, we’ll be in great shape.

Happy learning!

-Chris (Founder, Maven Analytics)

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