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Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

Genm: Growing a $49/Month Digital Marketing Internships System

Moe Abbas
Moe Abbas
March 1, 2019
Category of startup
Country of startup
Revenue of startups
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

Genm: Growing a $49/Month Digital Marketing Internships System

Moe Abbas
Moe Abbas
March 1, 2019
Category of startup
Country of startup
Cause of failure of the startup

Moe is a Canadian entrepreneur who found a problem on the market when trying to hire a marketing intern for his company. He realized there were thousands of marketing students without any job experience, which led to a big research that made him realize it was a good idea to build a platform to provide training for students and give them job opportunities on companies. This is how Genm was born.



Hi Moe! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?

I have been an entrepreneur since my teenage years where I would go door to door selling services in my hometown of Ottawa. At 21 years old I expanded my enterprise into a construction company and hired a bunch of my friends. I grew that enterprise into the largest residential renovation company in Canada within 5 years. That was my first foray into entrepreneurship but not my last. I am 32 now and have been building teams, and businesses for over a decade. Through my experiences, I harnessed the power of wealth, relationships, and influence, but most importantly I was able to find my purpose, which led me to found GenM.

GenM is an education platform that provides courses, hands-on work experience, and certifications all for free. Our training is 10 hours a week and remote so anyone can access it even while working full time. The key innovation in our platform is digital apprenticeships where student marketers work with small business owners over a 3-month period. They do this unpaid as part of their training to gain work experience. For small business owners, they pay a 49$ month membership fee to access our marketplace tools and support. Students get feedback and guidance from the businesses and the businesses get an extra hand in growing their companies. It’s a win-win for both parties.

My job at GenM is focused on building our team to achieve our mission of creating a free education system for everyone.

GenM founder

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

The concept for GenM originated while I was struggling to find help as a small business owner. I would hire volunteer students to help me grow, and ended up employing many. These were students who were struggling to find jobs because they lacked work experience. After working with me and my businesses they became hireable and were able to launch their careers. I thought nothing of this for over 5 years as I worked with more and more students most of whom went on to launch successful careers.

Eventually, I decided to switch out of construction and into the tech industry. It was one of the toughest decisions of my life because I knew nothing of tech beforehand. I had lots of logical reasons for switching but mostly it was because I was drawn to infinite possibilities that you can design and build through technology.

A few years ago, my co-founders and I were working on a project building out a social media application.

We were hiring a marketing intern for the project and put out a job ad. We saw the same pattern where we would get 200 applicants for one internship position, almost all of whom had no work experience. My co-founder, Richard saw this as a problem and started thinking about the issue. Why was there such a high demand for work experience from students? That thought experiment turned into months of research into the education system and a realization that the system is fundamentally broken for millions of students. Post-secondary has become costly in time, money and was ineffective for many in launching their careers. With an understanding of the student’s and businesses motivations and problems, we started imagining what the future would look like if we designed an education system, from first principles.

This led us down a path that would forever change our lives and the lives of thousands of students and business owners. We imagined a world where students would get trained by industry for industry, faster than traditional schooling and free. In our world education was free, accessible and leads to jobs. This sounded like a fantasy, and thinking back it was a really big ambition. At the time we had no real product-market fit in our social media app but had a lot of experience launching products together. We decided to drop the app to focus on building an education company. We knew it would take years to build anything remotely close to what we imagined so we created a multi-phase plan in achieving our mission. This was a mission that was personal to us, and was important enough to dedicate our lives too. We started with free courses, then moved on to apprenticeships and certifications. Now we are building out a suite of collaboration tools to enable businesses and students to collaborate together. We are at the base of a very big mountain, with a mission that will make a positive impact on the lives of millions. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

How did you build GenM?

At first, GenM was not obvious. We were very skeptical and cautious in our approach. We had been burned in the past by investing way too much into ideas that did not pan out and wanted to follow a methodological process in testing and proving out our idea. We actually started with just a landing page that had no real product and funneled traffic to the page to see if the idea we had would convert. It did. We then put a paywall to see how motivated students would be if money was involved. Many paid. That gave us more conviction, but we were still caution and decided to roll out an MVP for courses. This would provide a one player mode for students and help us build one side of the marketplace, a key requirement for attracting business clients. Originally, we planned on spending only a few months on courses but we ended up iterating for 9 months. At first, we tried to invent a method for learning that we thought was effective, but this turned out to be a waste of time and we decided to learn from the best education apps. With that strategy, we were able to accelerate our product development and we had a solid road map. We knew our key innovation was not in course work but in apprenticeships so we wanted to focus our energies on innovating there.

We ran into a ton of obstacles along the way including not having the right people, running out of money, not generating revenue, not being confident that we are building the right thing. All the classic startup foibles. However, our vision was strong, and we had some very promising data, along with our own experience so we persevered and kept learning/iterating. The lesson we knew was to trust the process. When building a company, you may not see results right away, or at least not until you hit “product-market fit” However if you follow the right process, this is usually a matter of time. Much like going to the gym. You don’t see gains right away but if you trust the process you will realize your gains. As a team, we were very disciplined in our approach to building a product and business. For a long time, it was just us co-founders toiling away in our offices all day and night. Eventually, we launched our apprenticeship marketplace. and that was when everything changed. We started generating revenues. We started growing. We had invented something novel and unique and had so much experience and a clear vision into what we were building that we started to see product-market fit. We did not want to get distracted with press so we kept quiet and no one knew about us. The only thing that mattered to us was building a business that has a clear product-market fit and can scale to achieve the mission we set. Our clients were the only external people we focused on.

Genm plant

Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

Early on our growth strategies were straight hustling. I would post in Facebook groups and created a simple funnel for getting small businesses on the phone. Once I had them on the phone I knew our value prop was too good to pass and I closed the first 200 businesses doing this. The first few calls were awkward but soon I built a script and my confidence grew. I managed to close ⅓ of my calls in the first interaction. That led me to hire a salesperson while I focused on other growth channels. I knew this hack would not last us forever. As we grew we started building out our marketing machine with a heavy focus on referrals. Our product was novel enough that businesses would share it, so we created a high-quality referral program that just blew up. This felt great because referrals are highly scalable and a great indication that you have something valuable. We then layered in a marketing mix to support our referral channel and have been growing steadily since then.

On the student side, we did much the same thing by finding communities of marketers that we pitched on getting work experience. When building a two-sided marketplace you have two distinct clients with different needs that you have to service. This requires a different approach for each and to add you have to grow both sides at the same pace. This added complexity was hard and required us to have to growth team for each side. We ended up following a lot of what worked on the business side for our student side along with some key partnerships that helped us grow.

What are your goals for the future? What does success look like?

Our goal is to create a free education system for everyone that leads to jobs.

We are one of the fastest growing startups in Canada and doubling our team right now.  We want to become the place where students come to launch their careers and small businesses come to grow.

In our future students can come and test almost any career path they want. They will be able to explore what they want without committing to a 4-year program. This will significantly reduce uncertainties and wasted time and money because they will have a greater degree of certainty into what career they want, having done on the job training for it. In our future, a student will be able to learn on the job under different skilled business owners. They will be able to build this resume, gain work experience, a professional network, skills, and confidence. They will have access to course work from top course providers that we will partner with so anything they want to learn, they can, before, during and after their job training. They will be able to showcase their work on their profiles which dub as a portfolio. They will be ranked based on their performance on the job, and will be head hunted by employers looking for talent directly on our platform. They will be able to meet up with a cohort of other students at a different physical location around the globe. They will be able to attend yearly events held by GenM as a right of passage. Success for our students means they gained either employment, confidence, or relationships that positively impacted their lives. Our students will be able to launch their careers, with no debt, faster, and more effectively than they can today.

In our future, a small business owner will be able to get the affordable talent they need to grow. We will become part of a business’s daily workflow supplying both tools and talent to help them. A business will be able within 48 hours to find a match that is ideal for them. With very little effort they will be able to onboard and get productive work from a student in a structured and professional way, consistently. They will be able to work with one or a team of students using the collaboration tools we build. Because of GenM and employer will have an accurate measure of performance of a candidate before they hire them because our students will be rated and reviewed consistently throughout their training by businesses in the field.  Once trained students can get hired by businesses who are looking for trained talent supplying the workforce with trained talent.

Genm team

What were the biggest challenges you faced and the obstacles you overcame?

When I was in construction I was top of my industry. I was making more money than I could spend and had a comfortable position with strong growth prospects. I was not satisfied with being comfortable and made the hardest decision of my life to leave all that behind and start in a new industry.  When I was leading my construction organization we were winning and growing. When I left, two of my companies failed. It was hard. When I pivoted into tech I was a nobody with no experience, network or status. I spent two years before GenM launching product after product and failing every time. I was no stranger to failing, but this was different. I was failing on all fronts, for a long time and that had never happened to me before. Being ignorant in tech I grew my team without knowing if I had product-market fit. That forced me to sell real estate I owned to fund the company because it was pre-revenue and we did not have a clear product-market fit to raise capital. The product failed, and I was left with no more real estate and over a million dollars in losses. To add during this time my personal life was going downhill. Me and my wife separated and my father was in a coma from a heart attack. So here I was at the bottom of a new industry, failing for years, with 1+ million in losses, and alone. I wanted to quit and go back to construction. My wife at the time told me I would not succeed. My best friend and business partner in the construction organization told me I would not succeed. My family told me I would not succeed. If I quit now I would cede failure. To me failing is quitting. Until you quit, you have not truly failed, you are only losing.

I grew up poor, fat, and ignorant. My family came to this country with nothing. I changed my life before and became a self-made millionaire, married the women of my dreams and was super fit I knew I could do it again. I was down, but not dead. As long as I could move, I would. With every step, I learned. With every step, I became stronger. I emptied my cup totally and cleaned my slate. I became a student again with unlimited potential. My forays into tech before GenM failed but they did teach me a lot and they did allow me to meet my future co-founders in GenM.

This time things were different. This time we would follow the right process every step of the way. I would assume nothing and trust only what I knew deeply and what could be proven with data. Slowly we started winning again. One-win lead to another. Momentum shifted. My personal life became significantly better, my fitness increased, my business was doing better. Every day I come to work I guard my state of mind. I never want to feel or be in a position like I was again. That fear helps give me drive, but ultimately it was the knowledge that we could help millions that made me look beyond myself through all the pain and suffering it was finding my purpose that lifted me out of darkness

Which are your greatest disadvantages? What were your worst mistakes?

My greatest disadvantage for starting a tech company is being located in Ottawa Ontario. Proximity is power. I am far away from the tech mekka in the Bay area. That means less talent, funding, and scale. We found ways to overcome this and turn it into an advantage however if we build GenM in the Bay area first we likely have scaled sooner.

My worst mistakes were not following the right process early on and hiring the wrong people. We managed to learn from this, but at a great cost.

If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?

If I could do things differently I would have started into tech the same way we started GenM. With a small team of talented co-founders who had complementary skills and mindsets and the same drive. I would have followed the right process from day 1 and started with an MVP, business hypothesis and data points to prove product-market fit.

I have no regrets and would change nothing about starting GenM. We learned from our previous mistakes and did things right.

What are some sources for learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?

I am a believer in just in time information. This means don’t waste your brain cycles on information that has no relevance. I use Twitter to learn from industry experts. This involves curating who you follow. I use audio books to learn while driving. I can get through a book every 1-2 weeks passively. I use podcasts the same way as audio books. I have email digests about things that are relevant to my industry. I follow aggregators and tech publications to stay on top of what’s happening. Ultimately, I spend a lot of upfront time deciphering noise to signal to ensure that I am getting the best quality information on the subjects that matter to me. Not all teachers are the same. Find the absolute best in the subject you wish to master and the best format for you.

Where can we go to learn more?

Follow me on Instagram @realmoeabbas to see live streams of our offices and what we do. Or check out Genm's website!


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