First of all, how are you and your Family doing in these COVID-19 Times?
Harish Venkatesan : I’m in New York City, and it’s been surreal & challenging to see the tides of change over the past few months that have hit this great city. That said, we’re fortunate to be doing well, in good spirits & health, and with work to keep us engaged and motivated—thanks for asking!
Tell us about you, your Career, how you Founded or Joined Designlab
Harish Venkatesan : I started my early career working close to product development at early stage startups like Venmo and Grubwithus (now Goat, the sneaker marketplace). This was after graduating college with an engineering degree and a lot of student loan debt.
I found myself thinking a lot about education and the challenges of access & affordability to gain career-relevant skills in the tech economy. My co-founder Daniel and I teamed up with the goal of building side projects to explore this space. In the process, I was working on improving my own design skills, and found a real lack of options! We decided to tackle this problem and quickly found that this was a pain point many others shared.
How does Designlab Innovate?
Harish Venkatesan : Education historically has been a world of 2 extremes: on one hand, offline education (4-year schools, graduate programs, etc.) offered rigor, outcomes, and strong instructional design, while in many cases being unaffordable and hard to access if you weren’t in a target city.
On the other hand, traditional online education options have historically had challenges on the rigor side: in many cases, the hands-off, video-based streaming just wouldn’t cut it if you were looking for rigorous skills-based training. We’re offering a solution that is the best of both worlds in many ways: an online platform that is flexible and accessible for anyone in the world, but with the rigor and outcomes of offline training because of our approach that is about project-based learning and 1-on-1 mentorship.
On Designlab, students who want to learn design get paired with world-class designers that are rigorously vetted, many from top companies like Google, Facebook, Airbnb, and more. Learners go through an online curriculum on our custom-built learning platform, submit tons of hands-on projects, and get feedback and direct coaching from their mentors, and interact in-depth with a community of their peers. We’re building a cutting-edge educational experience that has seen incredible student outcomes over the years, with tens of thousands having completed our online courses, and hundreds of graduates from our intensive UX Academy program launching new career trajectories.
How the Coronavirus Pandemic affects your Business and how are you Coping?
Harish Venkatesan : What we’ve observed is that many learners have decided to invest in their education and skills development in this challenging period. At the same time, individuals that were considering offline education solutions decided to go with the web-native learning experience that Designlab offers. With the combination of those factors, we’ve been fortunate to have grown very quickly over the past few months as many students have placed their trust in the programs we offer.
Did you have to make Difficult Choices and what are the Lessons Learned?
Harish Venkatesan : We’ve always operated as a remote-first, distributed team with team members all over the world, so workflows for our team of ~20 didn’t change at all.
We’ve been extremely lucky to have been able to avoid many of the tough decisions facing businesses over the past few months.
Our biggest focus has been ensuring that our students & mentors have felt supported. We made some decisions to allow students & mentors to pause their coursework indefinitely, to offer extra mentorship and coaching sessions for students who were in the midst of their job search, and to invest more heavily in our curriculum and product design to continue to improve the resources we have for our learners. One of the biggest lessons learned was to act decisively in policy changes and communicate quickly to the community—we’re all in this together, and it’s important to communicate that.
How do you Deal with Stress and Anxiety, how do you Project yourself and Designlab in the Future ?
Harish Venkatesan : We are a mission-driven company, and our goal is simple: to empower creators to do the work they love. The stress and uncertainty that arises when building startups often comes from wanting to reach certain financial/growth goals or targets, in many cases due to external expectations. While those are certainly in mind for us when we think about planning and our path ahead, at the end of the day it’s helpful to refocus on what we’re really here for, which is to help our students reach their career goals and to overcome their own fears and challenges. Remembering that it’s not about us is such a powerful tool to motivate ourselves and decrease the stress/anxiety of building a company—we’re definitely lucky to get to do what we love.
Who are your Competitors? And how do you Plan to Stay in the Game?
Harish Venkatesan : There are a lot of options in the education space for students interested in UX/UI design. We pride ourselves on being the most student-obsessed, with a heavy attention to detail on our overall experience: our platform design, our curriculum, our mentorship, and our community. We will continue to maintain a strong focus on the UX/UI space with the goal of being the go-to option for anyone looking for rigorous education in the space. This includes connecting more actively with hiring partners and building hiring pipelines for new industry talent; developing more learning features to enable community-driven learning; increasing the rigor of our coursework; working with universities to offer learning options for their students; and much more. It’s an exciting time to be in this space because we’re solving a real pain point for people who want to gain real skills and advance their careers in a challenging market.
Your Final Thoughts
Harish Venkatesan : These past few months have been a tremendous perilous of upending our routines, but the silver lining has been the time and space that many of us have had to think about what truly matters for us. We’ve seen many students decide to dive into a career change that they had long been contemplating / putting off because they finally had a forcing function. So that would be my parting thought: try to use this period to think freely, without constraints, about what life looks like after all of this is over. Who knows, you may surprise yourself!
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