Max Yoder | Lessonly: Story of a Seismic Acquisition

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This is a podcast episode titled, Max Yoder | Lessonly: Story of a Seismic Acquisition. The summary for this episode is: <p><strong>We talk to Max Yoder, CEO, and co-founder of Lessonly. Founded in 2012, Lessonly has grown to almost 300 employees. Max talks about Lessonly’s origins, the people who helped along the way, and the Seismic acquisition.</strong></p>
"It doesn't have to be scary at work."
01:13 MIN

Intro: This year's startup of the year is Lessonly.

Mike Langellier: In a normal year, Indiana's tech community produces newsworthy venture capital investments, expansions, and acquisitions. But 2021 has taken that trend to an extreme with several sizable acquisitions and nearly one billion dollars invested in Indiana tech companies. In this interview series we are calling The Circuit, TechPoint serves up the human stories behind the major tech headlines in Indiana. I am your host, Mike Langellier, CEO of TechPoint, and today we talked to Max Yoder, CEO and co- founder of Lessonly. Founded in 2012, Lessonly grew to almost 300 employees and was recently acquired by Seismic. Lessonly provides software for training, enablement, and coaching of frontline teams and has long been a darling in the Indiana startup community. Max and Lessonly have been on a mission to help teams do better work, and in this episode, Max recounts Lessonly's origins and the people who made a difference along the way, shares about the winning company culture they've built, and opens up about how the acquisition happened. Well, Max. Thanks for having us into the office.

Max Yoder: You bet. Good to be here.

Mike Langellier: It's a really cool space here on-

Max Yoder: Thanks.

Mike Langellier: ...the northeast side of downtown, right?

Max Yoder: Yeah, yeah. Just off the mono on 16th.

Mike Langellier: Yeah. And I just learned the history of this building.

Max Yoder: Yeah.

Mike Langellier: What did it used to be?

Max Yoder: Yeah, not long ago stored all of our IPS' musical instruments when they were in a repair state, if we needed to get pianos tuned. So when we first walked up here and toured the place, there was a security, IPS security on the first floor, like centralized, and then rows and rows of cellos up here, rows and rows of violins and pianos. So that was a very special thing. A lot darker than it is now. We opened the place up a bit, light- wise.

Mike Langellier: That had to be pretty cool for you with your musical background, musical interest as well.

Max Yoder: Yeah. It drew me to the place and they let us keep a few pianos, and we have one right at the end of the hallway, and it is a very beautiful grand piano that we get tuned about every six months, and I like playing it. I come in on the weekends to play it.

Mike Langellier: Love it.

Max Yoder: Yeah.

Mike Langellier: Well, hey, I know that you've had a big announcement here recently in an acquisition that we'll get into here in a little bit. And congratulations, by the way.

Max Yoder: Thank you. Thank you for all your help.

Mike Langellier: That's a big milestone, and it takes a lot of years to get to what seems like a very overnight success for many from the outside.

Max Yoder: Sure. Well, hey, we walked together in the earliest of early days, Lessonly- wise. So thank you very much for being here then and now.

Mike Langellier: Well, that means a lot.

Max Yoder: Yeah, thank you.

Mike Langellier: It means a lot. It's been really cool to see your arc and the company's arc over that time. We're going to have a myriad of people that are watching this and wondering about the story of Lessonly, maybe heard of the company, but know varying amounts about the company. Why don't you just first, in a thumbnail, share what Lessonly is and what customers you serve?

Max Yoder: Yeah. Lessonly makes training software and coaching software. So, really, what we help companies do is build lessons, step- by- step lessons people can take on their phones, on their computers, and then practice scenarios. So practice scenarios are like, " Hey, I've just learned something. Now I'm going to try to do it." I might turn on my webcam and practice what I've just learned. I might just do something via chat. I might type out something. Basically, building the muscle after I've learned something. So we do this training and coaching for sales teams and customer service teams, which is a little different because a lot of times you think of training software, you might think, " Sell the human resources," and it's going to do compliance. And while we have sold the human resources and have done compliance, 80 plus percent of our business, sales and customer service teams. It's like fundamentally, " How do you do your job well in the customer service world or sales world?" Let's put that on to Lessonly. We think a lot more people swim than sink when they're guided, and a lot of companies don't do a lot of guidance.

Mike Langellier: That is true.

Max Yoder: It's very sink or swim. So we're like, " Hey, if you want people to swim, show them the way," and it works.

Mike Langellier: I did a little trip down memory lane in the lead- up to this interview and went back to 2015 when Lessonly won a Mira Award.

Max Yoder: Oh, yes. I remember.

Mike Langellier: You were up on stage and you were describing 2014 in the growth, and I think it was from five to 15 employees at the time.

Max Yoder: Yes, that's inaudible.

Mike Langellier: That's right. So a little bit has changed since then. The growth has been quite a bit more significant.

Max Yoder: Yeah, when we sold the business to Seismic and joined that team, we were about 260, 270 full- time. So yeah, it was a wild nine years from inception to selling the business. It's actually really impossible for me to think about how many people we had to hire to get there and just how that all got done. I don't really know.

Mike Langellier: And the teams or the primary roles that you have across the team now?

Max Yoder: Yeah. Sales, customer service. Is that what you mean?

Mike Langellier: Yeah.

Max Yoder: Yeah. Marketing, sales, customer service. Think pre- sales, post- sales, think G& A, and we think of of that as our legal. We have a full- time legal team, which I never thought that would happen. Finance, talent, recruiting, all that good stuff. I'm missing plenty.

Mike Langellier: In addition to your product.

Max Yoder: Yeah, product. Here we go. That's an important one.

Mike Langellier: Yeah.

Max Yoder: Yeah. Product and engineering services. I mean, solutions and consulting. It really was cool to go from a lot of people doing a lot of things to this specialization. It took a long time for me to get used to that of highly specialized roles as opposed to generalists.

Mike Langellier: So you referenced Seismic.

Max Yoder: Yeah.

Mike Langellier: Major milestone of going through an acquisition process. To many, it's this mystical, mysterious process. But when you've lived through it, it's oftentimes crazy just how serendipitous it is.

Max Yoder: Yes.

Mike Langellier: What was the story? How did this all happen in your scenario?

Max Yoder: Yeah. 2018, Conner Burt and I are... Conner Burt, the president of Lessonly, helped me start the business. We're on the phone with Doug Winter, the CEO of Seismic, and we're like, " We really like this guy." At that point, another company that was a competitor of Seismic had bought training software, had acquired a training software company. So we were like, " Hey, this might be a trend. It's only happened once, but it might be a trend." It turned out to be a trend. Happened again and again and again. The market pushed it that way. So we're talking to Doug in 2018, saying, " If you ever make a move like that, we would love to be considered, but we just would like to be a great partner of yours." And we weren't too forward like biased today, but" Hey, let's build businesses together, make sure we know one another so if it ever comes to the time where one of us wants to make a move here, we're already well established." That worked out really well. 2019, we started formalizing our go- to- market sales process together. So we knew one another in that way. We had sold deals together, had an integration already, so when it came down to them to say, "Hey, we do want to do this. The competitive landscape is changing. We want to have both training and what Seismic does, which is really content, we want to have them both," they looked at all their partners and said, " Who do we work best with?" They talked to every one of them, but ultimately they heard really positive feedback from their product org of, " We really like working with Lessonly," and the sales org said, " We really like working with Lessonly." And that, I think, was a huge, huge benefit. I don't know how these deals ever get done, having seen one get done. Like you said, it has to have so many things fall into place at the right time. But I think the fact that they could trust that we could work well together out of the gate made a big difference.

Mike Langellier: So why Seismic for you?

Max Yoder: Yeah.

Mike Langellier: Your baby, you and Conner's baby and the whole team have brought it to this point, and then you had to make a decision about" Who's the right partner for the business?" Why Seismic?

Max Yoder: Yeah. I mean, to me, there's no other path than joining forces of that company. It was to me, " This is where the market is heading." We saw the sales teams and customer service teams, and we are seeing everybody else who does what we do, either creating their own content offering or joining forces with somebody who has one. And for us, it was like we only have domain expertise in what we do, training and coaching. We do not have domain expertise in what Seismic does, and I'm not going to pretend like I do. I'm not going to go raise a bunch of money, act like I can just build anything because we built one thing.

Mike Langellier: Yep, yep.

Max Yoder: And Seismic is really good. We were like, " Hey, this makes a ton of sense." They had the urgency, right? We weren't going to come to them and be like, " We have to do this." They had to want to do it. And so the timing was right. I just felt like the motion of the ocean was going that direction. It was impossible for me to look at them and say, " This does not make sense."

Mike Langellier: Yeah. That's awesome. You've also talked about what you envision will be the impact on the community, company, the tech community here.

Max Yoder: Yeah.

Mike Langellier: Speak some more about that. What do you think the potential is?

Max Yoder: Well, my hope is that all the folks who got to work at Lessonly learned that they enjoyed certain ways of working. This is my heart's hope, that they were like, " I really liked how we did certain things at Lessonly," and maybe they didn't see them at other places, maybe they did, but either way, I hope they were inspired by certain ways that we approached work. And all those people are going to go work somewhere else. They're either going to start their own businesses, or they're going to be early employees at new businesses, or they're going to join other companies. And I hope they bring some of whatever it was that we had here there, whether they're managing a team or leading a company, whatever it is. I think that is where the biggest ripple and impact is going to be. It doesn't have to be scary at work was a big message of ours. People don't have to be scared at work. They're going to bring scary. They're going to bring their own fear to work because we want to do well, right? We all push ourselves, want to do well. But top- down pressure doesn't have to be the way of the CEO opening pressure on the other executive team who pushes pressure down. It's just not. What we wanted operate at was, " Hey Mike, we believe in you. Let us know how we can be helpful." You're going to put the pressure on yourself, and that's the best kind of pressure. It's coming from you, not from me. You just wanting to win.

Mike Langellier: Let's talk more about that. We talked about that in the lead- up to this discussion as well, this philosophical difference that when you think about the traditional role of a business, it feels different. It can feel different to many, and there are some that could hear that and say, " That sounds like marketing fluffiness," right? So two questions. First, how have you found to make that tangible? How have you taken that ideology and then actually made it tangible in the workplace?

Max Yoder: Yeah. My teammates gave me space to write a book called Do Better Work. And it was really an encapsulation of" What are the values that when we're doing them here, things just accelerate? And then when we're not doing those same things, things slow down." And it became pretty evident that these are just core relationship behaviors. As I'm writing the book, as I'm scanning the room, talking to people, it's like, " These are just healthy relationship behaviors." An example being having difficult conversations. If people in a relationship avoid difficult conversations or argue, avoidance and argument being the two extremes, instead of having a difficult conversation, argument I do not consider a conversation. I think that's trying to win, both people trying to win. If we can have difficult conversations, we can have healthy relationships. But that is not common. A lot of times it's avoidance or it's argument. So it's like, " Let's figure out a way, methodically, to have those difficult conversations." That's chapter seven in the book, have difficult conversations, a method for doing so. We have to also highlight what's working. So go to the other side of things. What's going well? Ultimately, we got these things documented and we gave them words so people knew what" Highlight what's working" meant, they know what" Have difficult conversations" means, they know what" Share before you're ready," means. These are all chapters in the book, and we gave 10 to 15- minute overviews on all of them in the book. So if you're joining the company, you know what you're getting into.

Mike Langellier: Did you build it into the software?

Max Yoder: Oh, yeah. Totally. Oh, yeah. I mean, all the chapters are in the software, and our customers use them, which is so cool. The big idea here is these things build clarity, they build camaraderie, okay? But they're not the easy thing to do. The easy thing to do is avoid having a difficult conversation. The easy thing to do is not share something that's working, right? They're simple, but they're hard. So we were like, " Let's identify the simple and hard stuff that brings people together, and let's not only put them on the wall, but give them words, and let's make them real by living them," right? The executive team has to live them. You get the idea.

Mike Langellier: So flip it to one of the other. The second part of the question is accountability. That comes up as well. This soft, supportive type of culture.

Max Yoder: Yeah.

Mike Langellier: Then how do you, in your case, when you're a venture- backed organization or one with ambitious goals, how have you found that you've been able to live that culture while also delivering the results with accountability you need?

Max Yoder: Yeah. I mean, I think about a marriage, which a marriage is a loving place that has a tremendous amount of accountability built into it, right? Love and accountability go hand in hand. I think a pseudo version of love, what people might call love that isn't love is this fluffy thing where we don't hold one another accountable. That's not love to me. Love to me is my wife looking at me in the eye and saying, " I'm frustrated and we need to talk about it, because I love you." And I want to talk about it. I don't want to avoid that. So accountability and a supportive environment, to me, they are one thing. And when I'm frustrated with somebody, it is my job to sit down with them and say, " I'm frustrated." They might not agree with my frustration, and that's a teammate, that's my wife, that's anybody you have a real relationship with. That's how I proved to you that I value their relationship, is I sit down and do the difficult stuff. Accountability, I think, is hand in hand. And we have metrics that we measure. We have operational metrics that we measure. We have relational things we care about, and the blend of the two is where it becomes a really cool yin- yang. Can't just be relational where we don't think about the operations, and it can't just be operations where we don't think about the relationship.

Mike Langellier: Yeah, totally makes sense. Very cool. You tipped open the door to the personal side. Let's go there. We've talked about your baby of Lessonly.

Max Yoder: Yeah, yeah.

Mike Langellier: And now handing that off. But you fairly recently brought a new baby into the world, in a very literal sense.

Max Yoder: Yes.

Mike Langellier: How has that experience of becoming a father influenced your worldview or even your leadership style?

Max Yoder: Oh, yeah. In a big way. For the first 30 years of my life, I think I was achievement oriented. How do I figure out what muscles I have? Well, I'll go out there and I'll try to do something, and I'll figure out what my strengths are. The next 30 years of my life, my daughter Marni, she's 14 years old, 14 months old, excuse me. She is going to help me develop a sense of slowing down, not being oriented around achievements, being more oriented around being present. If I'm going to achieve something, it's not going to be for anybody else but my own soul. It's not going to be to make somebody else applaud. It's just bringing a different energy to my life, and Marni brings that energy. She does not care what Dad's achieving. She just wants Dad to be present.

Mike Langellier: Yeah, yeah. It's a grounding experience, isn't it?

Max Yoder: Yes, yes. She just wants dad to play. And that's what I want. That's what I want to be doing. So my daughter came at the perfect time because I don't want to be living this high- pitched overstimulated life anymore.

Mike Langellier: Which is so easy.

Max Yoder: Oh, the software world is built for it, right? 12 months out of the year, all the dang time, right? High- pitch stimulation. And my body needs rest, and I'm 33, and my body needs rest differently than it did when I was 23.

Mike Langellier: We grew up in a culture where even sleep was a weakness.

Max Yoder: Amen. It's insane.

Mike Langellier: Yeah.

Max Yoder: It's insane.

Mike Langellier: Yeah.

Max Yoder: The fuel in the tank we're calling a weakness. It's like, no, that's the fuel in the tank.

Mike Langellier: Yeah. That's a fairly recent shift.

Max Yoder: It is. Yeah. I've been napping every day for six years, man.

Mike Langellier: Really?

Max Yoder: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. And you want to know why? Fuel in my tank.

Mike Langellier: Yeah.

Max Yoder: I'm a much kinder, more thoughtful person post- nap.

Mike Langellier: So is this a 20- minute power nap at a particular time of the day? What's this look like?

Max Yoder: Today, it was like a 35 minute, I fell asleep. But some days I don't fall asleep. Some days are just body buzz for 20 minutes.

Mike Langellier: Oh, yeah?

Max Yoder: It's almost like a level one sleep where I am in a different place, but I'm not full asleep. But it's still rejuvenates me. It still charges the batteries.

Mike Langellier: Yeah, yeah.

Max Yoder: Yeah. And I just find it to be that I'm cooler.

Mike Langellier: And by the way, just to make it clear, we're at 1: 30 in the afternoon, so you're not even at the 2: 30 feeling yet?

Max Yoder: No. No, I usually start to feel that around noon, where I'm like, " Oh, I'm not my best self anymore." And if I really want to have an afternoon that is one where I'm getting things done and I'm not just fussy, I'm just a whole different person when I'm tired. And that's not the person I want to show up to at work. I handle stress better, all that stuff with that daily nap.

Mike Langellier: That's good self awareness. Let's go back in time.

Max Yoder: Yeah.

Mike Langellier: Formation of Lessonly time. So you, Conner-

Max Yoder: Yep.

Mike Langellier: What was the situation? What was the scenario and what was the driving problem or opportunity that catalyzed the formation of this company?

Max Yoder: Yeah. So Mike Fitzgerald, Christian Anderson, Dustin Sapp, and I had started at a company before Lessonly they called Quipple. So these are gentlemen who have a lot more experience than me, have a lot less time than me. I've got time. They have experience, and I'm like, " Hey, can you help?" And I was an intern for Christian prior to that, so I was like, " Hey, I know you know how to do this. I've seen you build business with other people. Can you help?" So Quipple doesn't work out, we can talk about that. But a year and nine months, I don't sell a deal. Then it's like, " I want to do this again." And Christian really encouraged me. He's like, " You just learned the hard way. Double down. You just learned some skills, right?"

Mike Langellier: Don't shy away.

Max Yoder: Lean in and you've just learned something, right? By having it not work, to walk away right now might be to not use the muscles you've just built. And that was great advice. And that was also not my mom telling me that, right? If my mom tells me she loves me-

Mike Langellier: Which is big of him too, because he was probably financially invested in that whole-

Max Yoder: Oh yeah.

Mike Langellier: That whole period of time as well.

Max Yoder: Yeah, he knows how it works, right? That this is a risk and this one didn't work out. Maybe the next one will. The next one comes up, Eric Tobias. Dustin Sapp is really busy, at TinderBox that becomes Octiv. Eric Tobias comes in and says, " Training software is something I've never bought. We should look into that space." And Mike Fitzgerald also said, " Hey, training software is something I'm interested in, too." But he was thinking on the business consumer side. Eric is thinking the business- to- business side. I'm like, " I'll look at both. I'll look at both." So I just go explore both and get really lucky. A venture firm called Union Square Ventures open sources all of its information on the business to consumer training side. And it's like, " Don't go there." Basically like, " Hey, we're going to have to raise a lot more money than we can raise around here. It's going to be a consumer business. It's going to be a big money burner. It's not my DNA to do that." We go B2B and start building Lessonly. Conner is my roommate at the time. He goes and tries it at Salesforce without asking. He goes to Australia and uses Lessonly, early, early version of Lessonly to train these Australian sales reps. And it works. And he's like, " Dude, I can go sell this. I've just done it. I've just used it and it works." And everything changed when Conner joined the company. And I know we want to talk about some really important moments in the business, but the dynamics of the people that I got to surround myself with that were very different than me, Conner is my best friend. Him and I are very different. We do not share a bunch of interests. That's actually what makes it really special. And he brought a yin- yang to me, and then Corey Kime comes in, brings another, and it's almost like this ensemble where we all have different flashlights on the globe, and we can never see the whole globe because it's a globe. But our flashlights are all different and they're all in different spots, and together we can illuminate more of the globe. And the globe is the business, right? And it's hard to navigate business. So the more different flashlights we've got on that globe, the clearer things are. And I just really appreciate having all these different people around me who are so fundamentally wired differently than I am. That is the difference maker in the business.

Mike Langellier: So let's go there. If the Lessonly journey were a book and you had the chapters that were the real inflection points, and you now look back and you say, " Okay, there were those moments where the little thing mattered so much," whether it was a introduction and a connection, whether it was a key hire or just an event that tipped in your direction, what were some of those inflection points when you look back on them now?

Max Yoder: Yeah, getting an internship with Christian, I was at Indian University and he gave me an internship. I didn't know him, didn't know anybody in Indianapolis, and I got an internship for design and strategy and I did not know what strategy was, and I was not a designer. I had to look up strategy on Wikipedia. I was like, " What is this? How is this different than..." I just didn't know. I was not a business student. I just didn't know a lot. So he lets me in. He tells me I should apply for the Orr Fellowship, and that's the big inflection point is being a part of the Orr Fellowship, because Conner was in the Orr Fellowship, inaudible was in the Orr Fellowship, Mitch Kazi. These are the first three people that come full- time on the team, all people I met in the Orr Fellowship. I don't become roommates with Conner without it. You get the idea, right? That's a gigantic change in my life.

Mike Langellier: So build upon that. You and I have both had the good fortune of being part of the Orr Fellowship, but what brought us both to Indianapolis, brought us to this tech community was really the entree to both startups and that journey. Talk more about outside of those initial connections, you've also had... The early relationships like Christian and Mike and Eric institutionalized as High Alpha now.

Max Yoder: Oh, yeah.

Mike Langellier: What has the High Alpha set of relationships meant for the business? Then build upon the Orr Fellowship story as well.

Max Yoder: Yeah, for anybody who doesn't know about the Orr Fellowship, if you're coming out of college, you can apply for the Orr Fellowship, and they will help you get placed with a high- tech company in Indianapolis. It doesn't have to be a new one, but it's a tech company in Indianapolis. So Lessonly is 260 people We still at this point do not have the capacity to go to all the career fairs. So the Orr Fellowship goes out to all these career fairs and finds people like me who want to join startups. I want to join tech companies, but don't really know how to. And then they place them. And right now I think they're placing 80 kids a year. When I was in it, when you were in it, I think it was 10 for you and 20 for me. I was really nervous I wasn't going to get in. Then I got in and I was like, " Yes!" And I got placed with Chris Baggot. And so Chris Baggott is the guy who starts ExactTarget with Scott Dorsey in town. This is the biggest success story we have. And he's the first guy I get to learn from out of school.

Mike Langellier: Talk about good fortune.

Max Yoder: And he looks at me and he says, " Save your money. You can do whatever you want if you can leave a job." The ability to leave a job and have a little money in the bank is the lifeline to doing what you want. So he's like" Save, save, save." And I had student loans, so I was like, " I've got to pay these off, and then I'll save, save, save." But great advice from Chris. I meet all these people. I am one of the luckiest guys in the world mentor- wise. I wish everybody had mentors. I see the guidance, I see the gifts it gives me, and I get sad knowing that so many folks are just hungry for one and I've got eight. And I don't say that with boasting. It's amazing, and I just wish more people did because they've helped me in so many ways. And Scott Dorsey, as you mentioned, from High Alpha, he's one of them. He joins the board at Lessonly, I'd say five years ago, four or five years ago. I was thrilled because he was like, " Hey, I'd be interested in joining the board." I was like, " I would love to have you join the board." Wouldn't have even thought to ask. I don't even think he's going to go there, and he's like, " I'd like to join," and I was like, " Dude, that'd be amazing." So Conner and I have this person we can call who has not only done it, but done it exceptionally well and done it in a way that we really relate to. His style is one we really relate to. He likes-

Mike Langellier: Work culture was core for ExactTarget as well, right?

Max Yoder: Right. And they had their own, and we have our own, but relationships mattered. They were big in relationships. We're big on relationships. So we really jived. But he also brought this perspective of, " Hey, you can think bigger than you are right now." He was very consistently that way. " You're onto something. You can think bigger and you'll get there."

Mike Langellier: So delve into that, because you've talked about how the frugality was critical at the beginning in order to-

Max Yoder: Oh yeah.

Mike Langellier: allow you freedom. But then you had to flip the switch at some point.

Max Yoder: Yeah.

Mike Langellier: How did you do that?

Max Yoder: Yeah. People like Scott, hires we made like Kyle Lacey and Brian Montminy comes in as our CFO, and they help us see that we can think differently about how we spend in the business and how it can be really wise to think differently. Going to Dreamforce, Salesforce's conference, the first time we did that was a big expense for us.

Mike Langellier: Big ticket item.

Max Yoder: Yeah, big expense. But we had encouragement from folks who know what they're doing. They're like, " Give it a try. Life will go on." Buying lessonly. com. That was a big ticket item for us. We didn't own lessonly. com when things started.

Mike Langellier: What was the first URL?

Max Yoder: lesson. ly.

Mike Langellier: Oh, that's right. Yeah.

Max Yoder: So a Libyan top country code, which has-

Mike Langellier: Problematic.

Max Yoder: Yeah, yeah, because you can't talk about a few things on Libyan country codes, and we had some customers who talked about those things. We were like, " Oh, we might want to get off of this." But yeah, those expenses. And wasn't just expenses, it was just pushing ourselves. Scott's like, " Hey, Max. You can write a book." Kyle says, " You can write a book." Scott says I can write a book. I'm like, " Well, I can probably go do that." It's just really good to have that encouragement.

Mike Langellier: And the idea of a startup CEO allowing his or herself to think that it was okay to step away from the business to do something like that.

Max Yoder: Yeah, I was terrified.

Mike Langellier: You have to be liberated to do it.

Max Yoder: I was terrified. Yeah, because everybody's going to be taking on things that I otherwise would've been doing. All the exec team now has more work as I go focus on this because I'm not around to that stuff. So I'm sitting here thinking I'm burdening people. We don't actually know what this book is going to be about because it was not clear. I had to write my way to it.

Mike Langellier: So it better work.

Max Yoder: And it might not. And fortunately, I got an alignment and a vision. A gentleman named Pete Cole, another mentor of mine was like, " Figure out the one person you want to write to and write to them and write it like letters." And I had one person in mind who I was like, " If I want pass on some information, here's a person who might really benefit from it." And I just wrote to them.

Mike Langellier: A specific person or a persona of a person?

Max Yoder: No, a real person. Yeah, yeah. Luke, the CEO at Encamp. He was my person. I was like, " Hey." He, at the time, asked me a lot of questions. And I was like, " Well, I'll just maybe answer a bunch of them about how I think work should work," and" Dear Luke," and then start the chapter, " Sincerely, Max," but then cut those out at the end, and that's how the book was written.

Mike Langellier: How long did that process take?

Max Yoder: Nine months to write 100 pages.

Mike Langellier: Yeah.

Max Yoder: Not a very big book.

Mike Langellier: Yeah.

Max Yoder: But it was tough. I cried many times. No joke. Many times I was like, " What am I doing? This isn't going to work." When I didn't get a lot of sleep, I said, " This is terrible." Then I'd get sleep and I'd come back and be like, "I'm not so bad." Totally different approach.

Mike Langellier: Yep. Let's shift to just what you're seeing. You're naturally in a space. You're helping companies train and onboard their teammates, their employees, a lot of times new teammates and employees. Then we enter COVID where, en masse, companies are going remote and people are having to hire people in a non- physical environment. What are you seeing change about employee onboarding and training in this new environment that we're entering into?

Max Yoder: Yeah, so we work with a lot of contact centers. One really cool thing that probably most people are not aware of is a lot of folks who work in contact centers used to have to go into the office, and that was a mandate. There was maybe a lack of trust there in a lot of cases, like, " You have to be in here to do this." COVID hits and all of them have to... We had a customer who had 30, 000 people in contact centers every day. They had to shift those 30,000 people to be able to work from home. What a gift for a lot of those 30, 000 people who really enjoy working from home and never would've had the opportunity. And Lessonly is there to make it so they don't have to be in the training facility to get trained. We have a really cool, important part in helping these folks now have more flexibility in their lives. You don't have to drive in every day to do that job. Basically, our business, it was a headwind and a tailwind for us because what we sold was really important in the COVID world, right? Ability to disseminate information to people on the same page no matter where they are. You don't have to be in the same room. A lot of training happens in conference rooms with PowerPoints, and that was no longer a possibility. So we really could step in and help a lot of companies at that time who were like, " What do we do now?" We could also steward a bunch who were already customers who were shifting from, everybody was always in the office to not everybody's in the office. They were like, " How do you all do that?" Because we've had a hybrid approach, not as hybrid as we are now, but we've had remote people for a very long time. And we were like, " Hey, we do it well in some way areas and not in others." But it was just a fun place to be. Certainly, if we're going to have something happen with COVID, it definitely was not a negative impact to our business. I felt badly for a lot of businesses who that directly negatively impacted. For us, it was like, " Hey, there's new people out there who might buy." Also, unfortunately, a bunch of businesses went out of business. That was a headwind for us and them.

Mike Langellier: There are a lot of people that talk about now the challenges of trying to onboard new, particularly early in career individuals into a workplace that maybe they've never experienced before, going into a job where they don't have the skills yet to be able to do it. What's your forecast for what the world is going to need to look like in order for these are linker individuals to come in? Can they do it completely in a virtual environment, or do you think that it needs a hybrid or in- person type of setup?

Max Yoder: I would really, really encourage any company who's onboarding new teammates to make sure that they get the team together once a quarter in the same place. I don't think there's any substitute for sitting in a room with somebody and being physically present and seeing the office. Even if you're not going to work in the office, being in the office gives... There's something about it. It's something I cannot put words to, but it gives a sense of place. I think the way everybody's doing it with Zoom and with Lessonly and all these different tools matters, but not to forget how important it is to breathe in the same space with somebody. We treat one another differently, I think, when we've had that. Then one thing that I recommend that we've done now at Seismic that has really helped is just doing the high- low exercise with new teammates, which is just like, " Tell me about a high light. Tell me about a low light," and going around the room.

Mike Langellier: How frequently are you doing that?

Max Yoder: I don't think that's a frequent exercise. I think that's like, hey, when the team feels like it's fresh, it needs a reset, like, " Let's go around the room and really dedicate hours to just doing timelines and just learning about folks and what they care about," because you're going to get some low lights in there that help, in my experience, help the other person make more sense. " Hey, I lost my dad at an early age. We didn't talk about it, and I never really learned how to open up." And then it's like, " Well, they might not be as communicative, and I might have noticed that, and that might be why." Right?

Mike Langellier: Yeah.

Max Yoder: It's not that this person doesn't want to be communicative. It's just they never learned. Right? And we can learn those from stories, and we can be more graceful and, I think, gentle with one another as a result.

Mike Langellier: Speaking of some of those lessons, you referenced Quipple as part of the journey. When you then dove into Lessonly, what lessons did you take from the Quipple experience that you applied or that you wished you would've done differently?

Max Yoder: Yeah. I wrote about in Do Better Work chapter two is called Share Before You're Ready, and basically is What I Did Wrong With Quipple is maybe an alternative title. What I did with Quipple is I perfected it in a vacuum. I tried to build the software without talking to the people who ultimately were going to benefit from it, who I wanted to benefit from it. I thought I knew what they needed. A bit of hubris in there, a bit of naivety of just like, " I'm going to build this, and I know how to build it, and when I'm done, I'm going to show them and they're going to be pumped." What ended up actually happening is I built it with Dustin Sapp, with Mike and Christian, and I had 300 people would sign up for early access. So the day that it's go- live time, I send a note to those 300 people. Within three minutes, I get one response that says, " Hey Max, congratulations. Why doesn't Quibble do X?" And I can't remember exactly what X was, but it was this really neat idea that I'd never once thought of in all these nine months of development. And this is three minutes in, this person sees it within three minutes. This was a moment of clarity for me of" I do not see all the angles." That was an important angle to that I just missed, and there's probably going to be more, and there were many more. Ultimately, I couldn't sell the product because it wasn't built for anybody but me, right? I'd built it. I thought it needed to be built, and it didn't meet the market's needs. So the best lesson I took from it is that's the perfectionist approach, and sharing before you're ready is an anti- perfectionist approach, which is, " I don't have all the angles. I have a general sketch where I think X or Y or Z project should go, whether it's Quipple or anything else. I'm going to get in front of the people who I ultimately depend on the success of the project and ask them some clarifying questions. What do you like about this? What do you not like about this? What am I missing?" And that requires humility. It requires being open to doing something that maybe wasn't my first choice, but more than anything it's just about hearing. So with Lessonly, we went out and heard and we built slower and we showed people screenshots and said, " This doesn't exist yet. Tell us what makes sense." Whereas I didn't do that with Quipple. So a great lesson of just being slower and not being-

Mike Langellier: It totally is.

Max Yoder: Yeah, not being so sure.

Mike Langellier: Yeah. You built a company here in the indie tech scene, in the indie tech community. Talk about that experience. What did that mean to the business? What was it like to build a business here in Indiana? What were some of the benefits of that?

Max Yoder: Yeah, I like that we could take it at our own speed. There weren't so many other companies around that had set a precedent for how a company in Indianapolis should be ran, tech- wise. I felt like we can pioneer our own way. It wasn't that everybody who was joining us was coming from other tech companies and they had all these expectations of what we should have here, which I think if you're living out in New York or Silicon Valley, you see a lot of... There's a sameness because people are just trying to keep up with one another. " Oh, they have a in- house chef. We'll get an in- house chef," and that stuff can really spiral. We didn't have a lot of those pressures, so we got to think our own way through things, which I'm sure had pros and cons, but we got to set our own pace and we weren't pushed by any new hires to do something wild. I think that nice. We had a ton of great schools here, and we still do, that we were able to hire talented people from, and it was really nice to have somebody like Salesforce. They can move people here, and sometimes they move people here, and those people work at Salesforce for five years, and then at the end of the five years, are like, " Maybe the sixth year I'll do something different," and they might come here. So the ecosystem was there. The ecosystem was definitely there to make this work, but it wasn't so well established that our creativity was hampered. We had to do it our own way.

Mike Langellier: Yeah. I referenced the Mira Awards moment where Lessonly won Startup of the Year, and you cited how you were so grateful for so many people that took time out of their day to say, " How can I help?" and to help you. You're now in a position where you can pay it forward.

Max Yoder: Oh, yeah.

Mike Langellier: How do you plan to do that?

Max Yoder: Yeah, I hope I already have been. I mean, get a lot of notes from a lot of folks saying, " Can we just spend some time?" My goal was never to wait till this was done to spend time with folks. And I think that's the best way that I can, is just whatever degree of mentorship I can offer. Mentorship, I think, requires a relationship that is long term, but if I can sit there with somebody and really listen for an hour about what they're going through and just share with them what I believe, not saying it's right or wrong, just my perspective, I think that is a really important way for me to be helpful. And it's also very life- giving to me. Whenever I have my last day at Lessonly, I plan to do some teaching, and I'd like to teach, generally, my perspective on life, which has a lot to do with entrepreneurship, but also just is bigger than that. And there's some groups in town, like Elevate Indy that I'm really interested in being a part of that go into high schools and help high school students who are hungry to learn, but might not have access to the folks who can share what they've learned. When I do that right now, when I spend time with those groups, that's like 12 out of 10 energy for me. Jess can tell when I walk downstairs that I am energized.

Mike Langellier: Jess is your wife?

Max Yoder: Yeah, sorry. Jess is my wife. Yeah. It's just evident that that is very life- giving for me. So I just plan to keep doing that and maybe have more time to do it in the future.

Mike Langellier: Yeah. That is awesome. Max, this has been a pleasure.

Max Yoder: It has. Thank you.

Mike Langellier: Congratulations again to you and the team on a successful journey and outcome for the business, and we look forward to great things with Lessonly and Seismic in the future, and also with you, personally.

Max Yoder: Thanks.

Mike Langellier: Thanks for taking the time.

Max Yoder: It was my pleasure, man. Thank you.


We talk to Max Yoder, CEO, and co-founder of Lessonly. Founded in 2012, Lessonly has grown to almost 300 employees. Max talks about Lessonly’s origins, the people who helped along the way, and the Seismic acquisition.