Developing An Entrepreneurial Mindset At A Young Age with Manuj Aggarwal
My guest is a business expert who started at the age of fifteen working in a factory for twelve hours a day, six days a week, making $2 a day. He had nothing, no skills, no resources, no education, but he was willing to do whatever it took to be successful. He found the right training and slowly acquired more and more courses where he could master a skill until he finally left to start his own company. On the way, he built 51 courses for Udemy and has over 110,000 students worldwide. He’s the architect and CTO of a Canadian software consulting company called TetraNoodle. He helps founders all over the world bootstrap their dreams by bringing innovative products to market quickly, effectively and economically. Welcome, Manuj to the show.
Thank you so much. I’m so excited to be here.
Your story’s amazing. You are working at a factory for twelve hours a day as a little boy. Why did you do that? Was there no school available?
I come from a family where hard work is ingrained into you as a kid. The factory belongs to my father. Even though it was my father’s factory, I worked as a regular worker there. Worked the menial jobs, picked up weights and whatever needed to be done. I got my hands dirty and learned the whole work from the ground up. I was paid the salary of a regular worker, plus I had school, but my family was business oriented. They said, “Forget about school. It’s not that important because you need to spend time here.” That’s the story behind that. It also taught me a lot of things like the importance of hard work. All soft skills that came with it because I had to deal with many people on a daily basis, which is not usual for a fifteen-year-old to talk to other business people or talk to a bank employee and fill out application forms for various things. I got to learn how business is done at a very young age. That helped me a lot as well in the latter parts of my career.
Many of our audience have worked for our families. When I worked in my step dad’s business, he didn’t treat me well. He worked me harder than he worked everybody else and I got the least breaks of all. If it was anything like my experience, I’m sure you worked even harder and we’re expected to produce at a higher level than even the employees of the companies.
The thing is I had to do everything. In India where I was born, there’s not a lot of automation, so everything is done by hand. I had to participate in manual labor aspect of the job, as well as paperwork and all that other stuff that the regular worker did not have to worry about. I had to worry about my school even though my family was not keen on studies, I was a straight-A student. I wanted to keep my grades up and I had to devote time there as well. It was a roller coaster ride that part of my life. Too much to do, too little time.Connect with your team on a human level, understand what they actually want out of life and then try to help them. Click To Tweet
How did you end up acquiring these courses where you self-educated?
What happened was this was around ‘96, ‘97 and the computers were just coming up. There was no internet. I got fascinated with computers. I started my computing journey by taking a six-month course. I was fascinated by the programming and how we can give a command to the computer and it obeys you. It gives me this mystical power of making machines do something. I used to take all the time that I could get on computers and taught myself how to program. I started my career after that, I got a Master’s degree in IT, and I got a job as a programmer.
When I was fifteen, the technology part was almost a hobby for me. I was always trying to learn new things, so I rapidly flew my way up and became a leader in multiple companies. A few years ago, I was trying to acquire skill before a project I was looking on. I went on the Udemy and took a course, I was like, “This is awesome. I can take a course and within a few hours I can learn a skill.” I have so much to share and I have so much knowledge that I have gained many years. I should be sharing that knowledge with others, but the main problem I ran into was I did not have all the skill set.
Producing videos is not something that I had to fit in IT or software. Instead of figuring out how to do everything myself, I came across this site called Upwork where I could find freelancers and fill in the gaps in the team for the skills I didn’t have. That completed my equation by bringing in the audio editor, bringing in the video editor, graphic artists. They helped me make a decent looking course. The first one took a few months. It was a lot of back and forth, a lot of learnings, and that was the beginning of the journey. The first course took a few months and had three or four people helping me out. I believe the first enrollment I got was after a few weeks. It was such a great feeling to get your first student and then slowly started to trickle. Within a few months, I had about 1,000 students.
The thing that’s interesting to me is Udemy are a learning management platform where people can come and upload courses and then sell them on Udemy. I don’t understand the business model. Can you explain how Udemy works? How does a course creator make money on Udemy?
It’s a marketplace. What you do is sign up for the marketplace and you create content, much like an Apple iTunes Store or Google Play Store where you can upload your apps and then they will sell it on their platform. It’s similar. You create a core course and then you upload the content into their marketplace. They do some reviews and make sure the quality standards are met. Once they approve the course, they sell it in their marketplace. There are some rules to this because as a course creator or a teacher, you don’t have to worry about sales or marketing, but the cons are Udemy tends to set the prices. They generally undersell it and they take anywhere from 50% to 75% revenue share on the sales. They take a huge chunk of the sales and keep it for themselves, but at the end of the day, they also do a lot of sales and marketing, which is arguably the toughest part of any business venture.People appreciate autonomy and being able to spread their wings and do what they want to do. Click To Tweet
When somebody decides that they’re going to make a living by building courses and putting them on Udemy, even though you may not get more than 40% or 50% of the revenue. If you have enough courses, you probably can make a nice living. Would you agree?
That’s true. It has the potential to make a decent amount of living. I’ve interacted with many Udemy instructors. There is maybe 5% to 10% of the instructor community, which have gone full-time. They are making enough that they can sustain their living just on Udemy income, but the rest is like any of the fields, they make good money. It’s a lot of competition. Udemy undersells the courses. The revenue has a limit. If somebody is passionate about sharing their knowledge, it’s a good platform because I even give away many courses for free. I don’t charge for them. It’s a matter of sharing the knowledge and making sure people know how to do things properly and they can come up with innovative projects at their jobs or on their side hustles, so sharing that knowledge is good enough.
You were a young man in India, and you were thirsting for knowledge and skills, particularly around the computer. As you worked for your dad and as you grew up to be a man and pursued that, the thing you said that interested me most is that, “It wasn’t work, it was fun.” I find that that’s a common trait among most of us as entrepreneurs. We find that the work we do is as enjoyable as almost anything else we can think of. Is that the case for you as well?
Yes. Particularly if you get into a creative field like programming, software, arts or anything like that, it becomes an obsession to create even better art. Programming becomes art and you want to create better art than the previous one. You learn new techniques, ways to do things. It’s exciting and it’s dynamic that when every few months there is something new to learn. If you’re implying to learn new things, experiment with things, tinker with things, it’s a fascinating field as are many other fields. The common thread as you put it, “If you find something that you enjoy doing, life becomes easy,” because you’re not slaving away, you’re just having fun. That’s a fascinating feeling.
Once you have identified that thing that you love that lights you up, it gives you that joy. Most people decide that that’s going to be their business. Once we have discovered whatever that might be, whether it’s programming, graphic design or even management. There are art and craft to management and managing people. Something that I myself have enjoyed over the years. You then go on, found a company and grow it. This show is all about how to do that. Tell us how you made that transition from being working for others and working at nights and weekends on your courses and then owning your own company and running it. What was that transition for you and how did you pick up those skills?
This started early in my career. I come from a family of multi-generation entrepreneurs. I’ve always had that in my DNA. When I started my career, I was working for a company, this was back in 2000 when dot-com booms and bust happened. I had to change a couple of jobs because the economy was not doing good. I realized even though people go after this mythical job security, there’s no job security anywhere. What I found was if I went on my own and started consulting, I get paid more and I have more freedom. I can control my own destiny rather than putting it in the hands of other external factors.You don't need millions of dollars to solve somebody's problem. Click To Tweet
Within a few years, I stopped working full-time. I went as an independent consultant. That was a good experience right from the beginning to be on my own and be responsible for my own living. As far as managing other people is concerned. I went through transition and started rising in my career, I had to start managing two or three-people team initially. From a junior programmer, I went to a senior programmer and a team leader. As a team leader, I had to think about three or four people I needed to manage. I was shy and not knowing what to do and intimidated by that role, but then slowly grew into it. I realize people who we are managing, they have the same aspiration, same hopes and same dreams as we do.
Connecting with them on a human level and understanding what they want out of life and trying to help them by sharing my own experiences. That has worked well in terms of managing people and also my style that I have developed over the years, which is not deliberately, but it happened. When I manage, I’m hands-on and collaborative, trying to understand how they think. Once we align our thought processes, I let go and let them do their thing and focus on the results. That has worked well because people appreciate autonomy and being able to spread their wings and do what they want to do. That has been my philosophy, at least.
One of the things I found interesting about working with other entrepreneurs when I was running a company was I felt threatened by the thought that they would take the skills they developed by working with my company and go out on their own until I had a complete reversal. I decided that I would help them instead. What we did is set up in our own company a little bit of a lab where we would be able to help people make the transition from working for a company to starting their own business. In one or two cases, even help fund them. This turned into a lifelong passion. This was my passion for helping entrepreneurs and that’s how I spend my days almost every day. I have a feeling that many of the people who you help are in that process of transitioning from a work environment to maybe even being their own boss and having their own company. Is that what TetraNoodle is all about?
Yes and no. I help people who are in a professional career like a software engineer because I had no resources or contacts and I had to figure things out my own. I see a lot of fellow engineers and professional struggling in their career not knowing how to break through some glassing that they have encountered. I help them with their career development. I help people who want to transition from a professional career into entrepreneurship. I also have mature entrepreneurs. Everybody does not know everything. Entrepreneurs who are good at sales and marketing may not be very good at technology or they may not be good at the product or another aspect of a startup. I’ve worked with very accomplished entrepreneurs as well. Solve some problems that they ran into. My goal is to share my knowledge and experience and help people in any way I can, whether it’s making progress in their career or getting their startup on track and getting traction for their business.
Let’s figure out exactly how we might assist an individual who is in a position where they would like to start their own company. You have a very compelling free gift available for my audience, which is actually a MasterClass with several formative downloads for tech entrepreneurs trying to get started. Tell us a little bit about how you would work with an individual or what you would advise somebody to move things forward?
The tech startup scene has become so blown out of proportion that there’s so much misinformation out there. One of the key misinformation that people have is that they need to raise millions and millions of dollars to float a company. That’s totally not true. Most of the biggest successful company, they were not built with VC funding. You can talk about Apple, Microsoft or Facebook. Name any large company with a few exceptions, they were built from the ground up. When they started to gain traction, only then they raised capital and gave away equity. What I teach entrepreneur is, “Figure out exactly who your customer is. What is the problem they are facing? How can we solve it most efficiently and cost-effectively?” Once you have that equation, the rest is easy.Not everybody knows everything Click To Tweet
You don’t need millions of dollars to solve somebody’s problem. You can solve it in a one-hour conversation, or you can solve it if you want to build an app. An app does not take $1 million to build. It could be built for $10,000 to $50,000. These numbers are very much in the realm of personal savings that can be invested and bootstrap your company and retain 100% of your equities. Rather than going through a VP and say, “Here’s my pitch that I haven’t done anything, but here’s my idea. Take away 50% of my company. I worked for you now and you will give me $100,000 and keep tabs on me and interfere in my business.” I don’t want to criticize any VCs, but that’s how I have experienced how things go down when people raise too much money and give away too much equity.
That makes perfect sense. I started my company with $5,000 but I had a technology partner as my business partner. It made it fairly easy. We had a simple org chart back then basically, “Neil, you do the programming and Mitch does everything else.” It was simple, but for many people, you don’t have the beauty of a high-quality programmer as a partner. They’re going to need to figure this stuff out. Where would you send people to, first of all, get the foundational knowledge of building and running a business? Is that something that you had to learn from scratch, or did you learn it first by learning it online or books?
The basic idea behind the business is you give something of value to somebody and then they pay you in return. Whatever they pay you, ideally it needs to be more than what you had to invest in producing that value, which is your profit. At the fundamental level, you’re providing some value to your customers and then getting paid for it. In the process of making a profit out of it. The key thing is finding that opportunity, finding that niche, which hasn’t been solved yet. Contrary to many beliefs there are millions and millions of problems that people still face. Not everything has been solved. Once you’ve figured that out, it’s about refining that value that you’re creating. I go through a process of prototyping and getting feedback. Once you’ve dialed it down and you know this is a very high probability product or service that we can bring to the market, and then it becomes a question of execution.
To your point, not everybody knows everything. For example, I’m a technical guy. I’m still learning marketing, I’m still learning sales. I partner with people who are very good at those aspects. I mentioned I hired freelancers for video editing and things of that nature. The idea is all of these tools are available. If you need a technical guy, you can seek a mentor like me, or you can go hire somebody who is a freelancer, or even hire a full-time employee if you can afford it. If you want to bootstrap, you can hire a freelancer. There are tons of very talented freelancers available in the global talent pool. As long as you know what you’re doing and you’re ready to make some mistakes along the way, anybody can do it. Anybody can bootstrap the company and bring it to the market and make very decent money.
That was helpful. Thank you very much, Manuj. Let’s say you’ve got your bootstrap company. You’re spending your eight hours a day working at the job, you come home, you’re working on your future which is your company, and you are ready to begin the process of either marketing or selling your products. Where do you start? You started with Udemy and they already have all of the pieces in place to create the distribution for you. What happens if you’re not building the course and you have to start marketing from scratch? What do you do?
It’s like anything in life. When a kid starts to walk, they take small baby steps and fall. Eventually, they learn and they start running. If somebody wants to kick off their business and they’re not comfortable with sales and marketing, they can partner with somebody like Udemy or some other platforms. If it’s a physical product, you can go to the Amazon marketplace or eBay. If it’s a software, you can partner with marketplaces like Apple’s iTunes Store or Google Play Store. The thing is to find the path of least resistance to kick things off. Once you find that path, you may not make millions of dollars on your first year or whatever, but the point is to get started and take those baby steps. Once you say, “I have validated my products, I signed up for Udemy or another marketplace or a partner, a joint venture with somebody.”As long as you know what you're doing and you're ready to make some mistakes along the way, you can do anything. Click To Tweet
It did not bring in a lot of revenue, but it’s validated my idea that it has a demand out there. I can take the next step of learning these things and going on my own or hiring somebody who knows how to do things. Take it from the marketplace or a partner or joint venture, which I did to an independent product. You can leave the joint venture product as it is and start working on a related better product on your own. These are all the dials you can tweak. There is no rule book around it. Once you get into the game and you start getting some success, all these ideas will start to bubble up. If you have an entrepreneurial mindset, you will know that our minds are never like that. Once we find success in one area, you immediately start to think about, “How I can apply this in another area? How I can leverage this knowledge that I have learned and exponentially grow it?” These things automatically happen. If you’re enterprising, you’re hardworking, you’re smart, and you’re willing to ask for help or get the right help. Those are the important things that you need to put in place, and things start to happen.
We’re with Manuj Aggarwal. He is the CTO of a company called TetraNoodle. Manuj, I wanted to ask you a little bit about this giveaway that you have. This is a MasterClass. Explain what that means. Is that a recording?
Yes. It’s a summarized version of the mentorship program that I have for tech entrepreneurs, but it has a lot of value. I have assembled all the knowledge that I’ve gained about tech startups in my twenty-year career and put it in one-hour MasterClass. That’s free. People can sign up. Once you sign up, I also send a series of videos which catch up on specific points that tech entrepreneurs need to understand. Even if they don’t implement it themselves, they need to make sure that their team understands how to do things properly. All of this material is available for free. They can go ahead and consume it and use it in their startup and hopefully, it will help the people to be successful at what they’re trying to do.
That’s generous of you. Thank you for offering that. This would be for tech entrepreneurs who are getting started with a business.
These principles are universal, but my background is technology, so I will be more comfortable saying that it is for tech entrepreneurs, but any other entrepreneur can utilize it. I’m sure videos are not relevant to generate businesses, but most of the content is.
Before we move on to the next phase of the interview, one of the things that I have done successfully, which is a little bit different than what you described. I have created products on paper and in my mind, I attempted to sell them first to see if there was a market for it before I committed time and dollars into creating it. Do you advise your clients to do that as well?Get started and take those baby steps. Click To Tweet
Yes. Once you find the problem and your proposed solution, you have to go through a series of prototyping and validation so that you don’t end up spending tens of thousands of dollars and in some cases tens of millions of dollars on a product that nobody wants. You go through that validation, you go through that prototyping phase and then once you have a good amount of confidence that this is what people want, then you can go ahead and build it. What you’re referring to are my Udemy courses where I don’t practice that. The reason for that is since I’m entrenched in many startups, I know exactly what engineers need and what is prevalent out there. I do all that research on my day job anyway, but I know this is what people want, and whenever I come up with some new innovative way of doing things, I can work into a course so that I can share that with the students. The other thing is it’s not a huge project. The way that I have figured out how to build courses. It’s a cost-effective and efficient way of doing it. I can build a course within a week or so and then publish it. It’s not a huge investment. Even if one course does not do good, at least I’m able to share that knowledge.
We get to the point in the interview where we’re going to start asking you questions not about your business, but about you. This question is something that we ask every single guest. The purpose of the question is simple. It helps us understand who you are and maybe even who your mentors were and who motivated you to be the person you are. Who in all of space and time would you like to have one-hour to enjoy a walk in the park, a quick lunch or an intense conversation with?
This is a teacher from my seventh grade who was influential in my life and helpful in turning my life around. As a kid, I was bullied. I had a rough childhood at school. This teacher was always encouraging me and she made me look at the brighter side of things. I was not good at sports. I was not good at several other things, but I was good at academics. She was trying to focus me on my silver lining, which is academics. That was a good way for me to realize my self-worth at a very young age. That built a very strong foundation for me. I cannot forget what she has done for me in my life. Her name was Ms. Ondu and she was amazing.
Some of us have the gift of a person who enters our life at the moment in time and completely changes the direction. In some cases, they never even know that they did that. I had that same person into my life and changed the direction for me. I’m glad to know that. I’m also glad to know that you recognize the gift that you received as a little boy from that teacher. Here’s the grand finale question. This is the question called the change the world question. We ask this question to find out what your real passion is. It might even be everything you’re doing, we’ll discover together what that is. What is it that you were doing or would like to do that truly has the potential to change the world literally?
I found my passion and I found a lot of joy and peace. Over the years I’ve become spiritual and started finding peace inside myself. I’d like to share that with the world. A lot of people suffer because of the world that they create in their head or the circumstances that they think are controlling their life. It’s the opposite. We have the power to control our circumstances. All I want to do is share with everyone to look inside themselves, find their passion and then follow it, be happy, be joyful and enjoy this beautiful life that we have. Once everybody gets to that point, I hope that there will not be any reason for war or any animosity because everybody will be content. That’s my dream.
How are you participating in and helping others do that?We have the power to control our circumstances. Click To Tweet
I’ve become spiritual, so I have adopted a meditation practice. One of the passions that I have found is travel and adventure, especially with my family. I used to take a yearly vacation, but then I used to get burned out after a few months. What I’ve done is I’ve started taking mini vacations every month over the long weekend, a quick getaway to any nearby town or a naturally beautiful place. That has given me that joy that I used to wait for a whole year. I can get it at any instant. That has given me this real excitement in my life. Once you find that passion that you’d enjoy doing, go for it and try to immerse yourself in that activity as long as possible, as frequently as possible.
Manuj Aggarwal, you have been a great help, a mentor to entrepreneurs and we thank you for the time you spent with us. I can’t wait until the time we get to speak again.
Thank you so much for having me. It’s so much fun. It’s an honor to speak to you as well.
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