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Ep: 197: How this former Ex-Facebook Engineer has build an online learning platform with Ish Baid

In this episode, I speak with Ish Baid who is an Ex-Facebook Software Engineer and the founder & CEO at Virtually. 

An online school builder that brings together live conferencing, payment-processing, and student management in one place. 

Listen on to find out how Ish has been able to build an online platform that helps educate people around the world.

Listen Below:


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Transcription:

Debbie:

Hey everyone. Thank you so much for being here. I am really excited for my guess today. I’m here with Ish. 

Hey Ish, how are you? 

Ish:

Hey Debbie, I’m doing great. How are you? 

Debbie:

I’m good. So it’s been a while since we spoke to each other. But you and I, we go way back like maybe a year.

Ish:

Yeah, we worked together on a few different projects. It’s been super fun.

Debbie:

I love working with Ish and I’m really excited to be able to share your story today. So, can you tell us about you and why you live an offbeat life? 

Ish:

Yeah, totally. I’m the founder and CEO of Virtually which is a platform to help people run cowork-based live online courses powered by Zoom.

A little bit about my background: I graduated from the University of Michigan in 2016, with my master’s in 2017, ran my first venture-backed startup out of LA right out of school. I left that after about six months, worked at Facebook as a software engineer for about 2 years, but the startup world was just calling to me.

And so after about a year-and-a-half, I had to bail and try something new. And that’s when I began my journey to becoming a full-time entrepreneur and I’m fortunate enough to continue to be able to do that every single day. 

Debbie:

Well, that was a lot and we already know how smart you are, Ish,  because you’re, what, 21? Just kidding.

So the thing about you, Ish, is that you’re so young and you were able to accomplish all of these things already. And I think as we grow older and we got stuck in a nine-to-five or maybe in that mentality where we think that it’s too late for us, it gets harder and harder to try something new. 

But you, you left a job with Facebook, you bailed out on that and you started something on your own. Now, was there ever any hesitation before you did that or was just something that you knew you had to do?

Ish:

You know what, Debbie? It is one of the most terrifying decisions anybody can make; to quit a stable job, especially a job with as good of pay and as good of perks as something like Facebook. But for me, I did not even hesitate and I think a lot of it really has to do with my upbringing. 

My family and I immigrated here about 20 years ago and my mom, despite having a master’s in English, actually spent her first year bagging groceries. And my dad did telecommunications. They both work like two, three jobs and had one car that they shared.

So they really went to that immigrant experience and I saw this firsthand. And I saw how hard it was. It was only through sheer perseverance and will that both my parents worked their way up to what they’re doing now.

My mom, she’s an engineering manager at a Healthcare IT company. Again, she studied English and now she’s an engineering manager. My dad, he’s a director at a pharmaceutical company. 

And so they’ve been my biggest inspiration. Having literally lived like in somebody else’s basement when we moved here all the way up. Nothing like a four-bedroom home. I will never take that for granted.

My parents put me into such an amazing position. They gave me everything, they gave me the safety net. And so the only thing I could think is like, when I was in Facebook, “I will regret it if I don’t take advantage of this huge opportunity that  my parents gave to me,” Which is like, “I can do anything I want.”

And the worst thing that happens, truly, I don’t think people realize how protected they really are, it’s like, “If this doesn’t work out, I could go live with my parents or I could go back to Facebook.” In my head, it wasn’t that big of a risk. The bigger risk was to look back 10,15, 20 years from now and say like, “Man, I really wish I had made the leap.”

And so I just did it. I calculated out exactly how long it would take to work at Facebook until I would have enough savings to go a year without a salary. Once I could do that, then I would quit and I calculated that day to be March 8th, 2019. And that just happened to be my last day at Facebook. 

Debbie:

Wow. It’s also great to hear that you planned it out because a lot of people think that when you take a huge leap and jump from something like a corporation, a huge corporation like Facebook, it’s just a spur-of-the-moment. 

But for someone like you who’s analytical like you think things through first like it doesn’t have to be like that, you can do that and also do something that’s riskier. You can take a lot of that risk out if you just plan it. 

I want to go back to when you decided to leave and you told your parents, what was their reaction like? 

Ish:

Leaving Facebook? 

Debbie:

Yes.

Ish:

Honestly, I think they knew it coming. I had been kind of dropping hands left and right and they’ve always known that I’ve been entrepreneurial like right before I actually joined Facebook, I was working at a venture-backed startup – my first one that I founded. 

If things had gone better there, I don’t think I would have gone to Facebook and I think that would have made them a little bit uneasy, especially when you’re immigrants. Having a stable income, it’s the dream. It’s what you work your entire life towards.

And for their son to give that up, especially at a company as prestigious as Facebook, definitely made them a little bit uneasy. But I think they understood that it’s just like for me, there was nothing more fulfilling than going out on my own and building something from scratch. 

So yes, they were definitely a little bit uneasy but I’m sure it helped them to know that  I had a plan. I knew that if things didn’t work out immediately, Facebook has this policy that if you come back within six months to a year, no harm done. They won’t even interview you anymore, you can just come back and return to your old position. 

And the other thing was I had this plan in terms of like, “Hey, I have no money saved in the bank. I’m not going to need a salary and if I do make enough progress, I can raise some venture funding,” which is exactly what I did.

Nine months in, we had enough progress in the product that we can go to venture capitalists, and fortunately, we found one that was a really good fit. They gave us about $300,000 and that was enough to get us started. And since then we raised a few more ventures and that sustained the business.

Debbie:

Let’s talk more about that and how you actually went from leaving, saving up your money, and actually getting a company to invest in your idea and your business. Because this is what a lot of entrepreneurs want but it looks really hard. 

That’s a lot of money to get and you were able to do that within a few months of going off on your own. What do you think you did in order to make this happen? 

Ish:

Yeah, of course. So venture funding is something that’s very interesting. I don’t think it’s the path that everybody should pursue. To basically get venture funding, you need to sell this big vision to investors and say like, “Hey, this is going to be massive. This is going to be a billion-dollar outcome.”

You need to have a really compelling story of why this market is huge, why you are the right person to help build this product, and lastly show traction. Not that this is hypothetical, show that you put in the work and you’ve discovered something that nobody else knows. If you have these three elements, you won’t have a problem. You can go out and raise a venture capital.

And so that’s exactly what I did. I think somebody with my background I do have the ability to get in contact with some of these PCs a little bit easier having worked at a big tech company. But I didn’t immediately go out and try to raise venture capital.

Instead, what I’ve decided was like, “Hey, I just don’t want to raise money for the sake of raising money. I want to be very sure that I have clarity in terms of the direction that I’m going.” And so I spent the first nine months of starting Virtually just heads down. Just iterating on different ideas. 

I knew that I was drawn to education, specifically online education, but the exact format of that and the exact space I was going to innovate in wasn’t entirely clear. So I was heads down for 9 months trying a lot of different things. 

And only when we had finally found a little bit of traction where things started to work did I pull my head out of the sand. I was like, “Hey. This is interesting. I think there’s a big opportunity here. Let’s see if investors are interested.” 

And I booked a flight down to San Francisco and I got as many friends of mine in the startup world as possible to make some introductions to some PCs. I went around town early in the morning. I would get up and take meetings all day long. I did this for about a week or week and a half.

And eventually, we got a bite and the rest is history.

Debbie:

It’s always interesting to speak to someone like you, Ish, who just does it, right? You are an action taker, you definitely had the vision to make your company become a reality. But it’s another thing to actually take that action.

And I’m really interested in what you do to prepare, especially with your mindset, because there’s so much that happens behind the scenes and I’m sure you have a ton of stories for us, but there’s always going to be setbacks and failures that you experience and it kind of sometimes will push you down.

How do you manage that and still keep going and really push through even when things like that happen? 

Ish:

That’s a great question. One thing I tell Founders is that when you start working on a company when you get on your own, there are two types runways. Do you have your monetary run-rate? Eventually, you’re going to run out of money and so you won’t be able to keep doing this. 

The other one is your emotional runway. That is basically how long do you have to tolerate failure before you give up? And so it’s really important to create momentum as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, humans don’t have an infinite emotional runway. Like, you can only get beat up so many times. And so you need to find a way to make something work. It’s not about failing, it’s about systematically failing, right? 

It’s when you fail you should know what you learned and then iterating adapt to that. I think a lot of people, especially in Silicon Valley, have kind of glorified failure. And it’s not done in a very systematic way, It’s not useful, right? 

So starting a company, I think, is like being a research scientist: you have to find a fundamental truth that nobody else knows. And to do that, you have to have hypotheses. You have to run experiments and then once you have results, you have to evaluate and you have to come up with what’s your next plan of attack.

And if you’re able to do this very quickly then you can create momentum. And once you have momentum, once you have customers, when you have people paying you, then guess what, it’s not hard to get up in the morning and work because, “Hey, people are depending on you.” 

And especially when you have employees, right? It’s like, “You have to take care of these people.” Now we have people, we’re a team of 5, and we have full full-time salaries and health insurance that work provides. If I’m not delivering every single day It affects those people. So creating momentum, I think, is really important. 

And then the other thing I’ll add is just like it starts with the fundamentals. Unless your mental and physical health isn’t in a good place, you’re not going to be able to tolerate failure and overcome hurdles. 

And so I’m more than anything, I found a way to really not give up sleep, exercise, and nutrition. Once you have these three things everything else falls into place. So no matter what, even if I had really strict deadlines or something was coming up that I needed to get done, I always make room for sleep, nutrition, and exercise. 

Debbie:

It’s really interesting that you mentioned that, Ish, because for high performers like you those three things are super important to be able to accomplish as much as you do.

And I think I’ve spoken to people and they’re like, “Yeah, when you start a business you’re not going to have time for any of that.” But, like you said, if you systemize things you’re going to have time for all of that.

And it helps you actually through your day because it starts it well whether you’re doing it in the morning, you have a morning routine, or all of that. But it’s so good to hear that, that you don’t have to be unhealthy in order to succeed. 

Ish:

That’s a really good point and I honestly don’t believe the idea of I don’t have enough time. You do have enough time. It’s just about your priorities and you’re choosing to not make these things your priority which by the way is detrimental. 

Because starting any sort of bench or whether it’s a lifestyle business, whether it’s a restaurant or whether it’s a venture-backed startup – it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. And what good are you doing if you burn out, right? 

So it’s important to realize that Innovation really happens over a long period of time. Like, if you actually look at some of the best companies to date, something like Airbnb, they spent three years but no traction. They were barely making money, barely getting by and then they just blew up. And so being able to persist over a long period of time is where most people lack.  

One of my favorite books, it’s a really short book and it’s one of Seth Godin’s most famous books –  The Dip. The idea is that so many people will see these early benefits and that’s what motivates them. And then over time, they’ll enter this like an extended period of, basically, failure. And for most people, this is where they quit.

So he says this is the most ridiculous thing ever. If you’re going to start something it’s really important to see it through or don’t start it at all and focus your energy elsewhere. So yeah, that’s what i have to say.

Debbie:

And I think it’s really easy to quit when that happens but it’s actually even harder to keep going and I think that’s why most people, like you said, they just go off once they hit that dip and that’s a good point. 

But do you know what? It actually also narrows down the people that it’s really for because entrepreneurship is not for everybody. Not everyone is going to be able to do this and having a nine-to-five is not a bad thing if it’s what you want to do, right? 

So we’re not saying you should do this. But if you do want to do this, don’t give up when it gets hard. 

Ish:

Absolutely.

Debbie:

So, Ish, you talked about immigrating with your family. How was that like? Do you still go abroad with your family and friends? How is this balancing this life? Because you are the CEO of your company before covid-19, obviously after covid. How are you managing to do this and still have a personal life? 

Ish:

One thing that helps a  ton is that I’m back on the East Coast now. My dad’s in Boston, my mom’s in DC so it’s a lot easier to get to them without actually having to take a plane. So yeah just using rental cars and public transportation to get up and down the East Coast for the most part. 

But again, I think we’re in a time where the world is more connected than it’s ever been. Through FaceTime and Zoom calls, it’s been a good way to stay in touch. 

Debbie:

Yeah. Thank God.

Can you imagine a hundred years ago when they had their own pandemic and they couldn’t do anything? On my God, that was worse. That’s why we’re so lucky that if we had to go through this at least it’s 2020.

Ish:

Absolutely.

Debbie:

Can you tell me some favorite places that you have been to? Where is your family from? Where did you guys immigrate from? 

Ish:

We migrated from India. I was born in India. I spent about five years there then ultimately moved here to North America. I spent some time in Canada and then moved to the States.

Debbie:

Have you ever gone back to India? 

Ish:

Yeah, I went back four years ago, 2016, and visited my extended family. 

Debbie:

Do you have a lot of family in the US as well or most of them are in India? 

Ish:

Actually, most of my family is in India. It’s just like my immediate family: my mom, my dad, my sister that are here in the States. 

Debbie:

That’s crazy. But I’m sure when you went back there it was like a huge party. Does that usually happen?.

Ish:

Yeah. We were doing a lot of traveling, running around everywhere to make sure we see everyone. It was super fun.

Debbie:

I love when I go back to the Philippines. It’s like a party every single day and it’s like a parade of food. It’s amazing. 

Ish:

Yeah. It was a really good time and I am definitely hoping to be able to see them all real soon. This was supposed to be the year of lots of international travel. I had a trip to Italy booked, I  was supposed to spend a month living in Thailand and then visit extended family after that but never came to be. 

Debbie:

Yeah. Covid was like, “Nope. Not going to happen this year. Try again next time.”

Ish:

Exactly.

Debbie:

So, Ish, with you, because you do own a company but it is remote, you can literally work from anywhere. You can even live abroad like you said you wanted to spend some time maybe in Thailand or anywhere really. When you travel, what type of International Insurance do you typically use?

Ish:

That’s a good question, Debbie. 

For my Italy trip, I was looking for some sort of International Insurance because I know how important that is but I ultimately didn’t really find anything, and eventually, the trip got canceled. So I think in the past international trips, I don’t think I’ve used any international insurance. 

But yeah, I definitely plan to, next time I go abroad.

Debbie:

I hear that a lot from digital nomads. After covid, they’re like, “I’m definitely getting an insurance because you don’t know what’s going to happen.” And it has a remote worker, it can also be a real headache. 

And then to find out the different requirements of what you need because it’s a little different when it comes to health insurance. And that’s why I’m really excited that I found Integra Global because they have super comprehensive plans. 

They don’t ask their members to build a plan because how would we know what we even need, right? So their insurance covers everything and it is built-in – things that you didn’t even think that you need. 

So if you guys want to know more check out IntegraGlobal.com and see how they can give you the coverage you’ll need and something that you may not have even thought of. Because who knew that covid was gonna happen.

And I do have to say Integra actually covered people during covid-19 and when they were all trying to come home. I’ve heard so many horror stories, Ish, of people and their insurance didn’t cover it or they got sick and they just wouldn’t do it. And they had to spend thousands of dollars. 

So I can’t even imagine being stranded in a different country and you have no insurance and you’re already scared. That is a horrible feeling. So I’m like, “Oh my God, that’s crazy.” 

Ish:

Yeah. That would be terrifying.

Debbie:

That’s why we love Integra Global just because of that alone and with many more things.

So, Ish, what are some of the best resources can you share with us? I know you shared one book with us. But is there anything else that you think we can really use to help start a business online or maybe just have?

 ‘Cause I feel like a lot of it is our mental roadblock, right? I don’t know if you like to read something, listen to something that would be super helpful for us. 

Ish:

Yeah, totally. I think specifically the resource that is the best out there for Founders looking to start companies is probably Y Combinator Startup School. Debbie, are you familiar with Y Combinator?

Debbie:

No, tell us more.

Ish:

Yeah. So Y Combinator is a startup accelerator. And essentially they have this amazing 3-month program. Where in exchange for about 7% of your company you get about $125,000 of funding and it has had some really amazing reputable programs through it including Airbnb, Dropbox, Reddit, Instacart, DoorDash.

 Again, this is when these companies were literally just one and two people and they were just getting off the ground. The mentorship is absolutely incredible. 

Anyway, they’ve got this program and for people who are even earlier in their journey, people who are just getting off the ground, they have something called Startup School. It’s an online course, it’s completely free, and you basically get to the network with other Founders. Then you get access to all their mentorship and advice. It’s basically everything minus the funding.

And then once you’ve actually made enough progress on your company, you can apply to their core program and apply for that funding over time. The hope is that you can get in. For me, I actually went through startup school three separate times. 

I’ve been really excited about entrepreneurship and they really know the fundamentals that it takes to build and scale a venture-backed startup. The advice and knowledge in why see startup schools resource library is just invaluable. And again, the resources are completely free. You can go and access their entire library today.

So yeah, I recommend going to the program. I think that where we got our start and then ultimately when we applied to the core program, this year we finally got in, we actually did receive the $125,000.

The funding and then ultimately that leads up to demo day which is their big investor event where you get to pitch to 2,000 investors live and ultimately have the chance to raise multimillion-dollar seed is just absolutely exhilarating.

And in terms of, I guess maybe the other books that I think could be good resources,  I’m a big fan of Seth Godin’s other work: This is Marketing, stories,  marketers’ how. Shoe Dog is probably one of my favorite all-time books and that’s just a memoir by the founder of Nike and just talks about his journey to building Nike over a few different decades.

It’s a memoir but it really reads like a novel. It’s just really powerful and goes to show you how difficult entrepreneurship can be but also how fulfilling it is.

Debbie:

Yeah. And also I love the startup accelerator you talked about because the mentorship that you got is something that most likely you can’t get on your own, right? You can’t really get access on that. I mean, it will take you a really long time to find that especially if you don’t have people in your circle that are doing this.

And most of the time a lot of people really don’t, we don’t have families that do this. Usually, you’re like a sore thumb you stick out. So having a group of people behind you that actually give you some valuable information that you need is so crucial to all of this. 

Ish:

Yeah, absolutely. It’s one of the hardest things that anybody can do. You need community and you need mentorship and I think this is a great place to find like-minded people who are going through similar challenges. 

Debbie:

Let’s fast forward to about 50 years from now, Ish, and you’re looking back at your life, what legacy would you like to leave and what do you want to be remembered for?

Ish

Absolutely. Debbie, I really think that there’s a fundamental shift happening right now in education specifically this move to online remote education. And I would love to be remembered as somebody who helped. – be a champion for the space. Somebody who really helped accelerate the Innovation that’s going on here. 

I think pre-internet colleges were an excellent place to go and learn really relevant skills that you could go and turn around and land a job. But post-internet, information has spread so quickly. Industries are evolving faster than ever before.

And now, college professors, they’re great academics and they’re great researchers, but they’re no longer the people to best deliver the job training that we really need because most of them haven’t been in this industry or if they have, it’s been so long ago that those skills aren’t even relevant anymore. 

And so one thing we’ve really come to learn at Virtually is that the best people who should be teaching your new world skills, things like podcasting and how to start a podcast, how to build a YouTube following, how to break into software engineering, or how to become a product manager at Google, they’re not people at colleges or universities. These are regular people. A lot of them are great teachers.

And we’re trying to empower these individuals to basically build their own online micro institutions. And I think that there’s something really dramatic that we can do if we remove geography as a barrier to learning. We can make education ten times more accessible and a hundred times more affordable.

So that’s exactly what we’re doing at Virtually. Essentially what we’re building is the Shopify for online schools. We make it easy for anybody to run cohort-based, live classes fast powered by Zoom and we bring together all the essentials that anybody needs to set up their own online school. 

Things like payment processing, hosting live classes on Zoom, student management and sending out assignments, grading and outcomes, and things like that. And we hope that as more people begin to start these kinds of micro institutions, they become real alternatives to college.

And it opens up accessibility to education and makes some more affordable and it’s just positive for the world. 

Debbie:

I love it and I love your company.  As long as you can have internet, it doesn’t matter where you are, right? Your company could technically go into a lot of remote places and educate people, right? And there’s a lot of places around the world that don’t have access to a really good education. 

And as long as they have internet they can really find that on your company site or really anywhere on the internet too. I love that. I love educating ourselves and educating ourselves outside of, like you said, that University and really gaining that experience as well first hand which is so valuable.

And you could create a lot of income from learning so many of these things 

Ish:

Yeah, totally. And like I said,  this is not like the online education we’re used to, like, the traditional format. These online courses can be valuable for learning lightweight skills, but when it comes to meaningful job training and re-skilling, it’s really hard to do that on your own and you really need mentorship.

You really need to be in a live environment: be able to talk to your instructor, ask them questions, engage with the other students. So this community cohort-based learning we found is just really powerful. There are some programs that are running this kind of format now and they’re doing spectacular. 

A couple of my favorites are Write of Passage which is an online writing class led by David Perell and then there’s also Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte. And these programs are hosting something like upwards of a thousand students per cohort and earning over $1000000 per cohort as well. 

It really is jarring with what these types of new programs can do for people and also how profitable they can be for the instructors as well. 

Debbie:

Yeah. It’s such a great idea what you have with Virtually.

Now, Ish, is there anything that you’re working on currently that is really exciting to you? 

Ish:

Oh, wow. Yeah. I mean honestly, I think our kind of six months roadmap is how do we build a next-generation learning management system? And so if you’ve been in college recently, you’re probably familiar with Blackboard or Canvas which are these clunky Learning Management Systems that help universities deliver curriculum,

But now, what we’re realizing is that there’s a new era of Educators coming up into the playing field. These are people who aren’t college professors, they’re YouTubers, they’re Instagram influencers, they’re people who established themselves and industry and now just want to teach – they love teaching.

And for them, these platforms like Blackboard and Canvas, they’re just not a good fit for what they’re trying to do. And so we’re really thinking about how do you reimagine Learning Management Systems and student records for these remote-first programs run by small teams 

For the next 6 months, this is what our team focuses on. Really figuring out: how do we create a really powerful product that solves a business problem for these folks? 

Debbie:

That sounds really exciting and we can’t wait to see more of what you’re going to be doing with that. 

So, Ish, if our listeners want to know more about you, where can I find you? 

Ish:

Absolutely. So I would definitely recommend checking out our website TryVirtually.com if you’re interested in starting one of these cohort-based live online courses. If you’re interested in keeping up with me on Twitter or LinkedIn, you can just follow me @IshIsDeep and our Twitter handle is @tryvirtually and that’s also our LinkedIn handle.

So yeah, give us a follow, I would love to connect. 

Debbie:

Perfect. Thank you so much, Ish, for sharing with us your incredible story, and thank you again for creating this incredible platform for new forms of Educators. We really appreciate it. 

Ish:

Absolutely, Debbie. Thanks for having me out.

GET THE EXTENDED INTERVIEW WITH ISH WHERE HE SHARES HOW TO BUILD AND SCALE ONLINE PLATFORM.


Show Credits:

Audio Engineer: Ben Smith


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