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HRExaminer Radio

Guest: Mattan Griffel is the Co-Founder & CEO of Y Combinator-backed One Month
Episode: 168
Air Date: April 13, 2016


Mattan Griffel is the Co-Founder & CEO of Y Combinator-backed One Month, the first-ever online school for accelerated learning. He was selected as one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Education in 2015.

Mattan teaches and advises on growth hacking, online education, and learning to code. He has advised companies like Pepsico, Bloomberg, GM, NYSE, and JPMorgan, spoken at New York University, Cooper Union, The School of Visual Arts, Parsons at The New School for Design, Singularity University, The Downtown Project, First Round Capital and Social Media Week, and has been featured in The New York Times, Forbes, BusinessWeek, MIT Technology Review, Huffington Post, Mashable and The Next Web.

Mattan studied Philosophy and Finance at New York University and wrote his thesis on the metaphysics of consciousness.

Audio MP3





Begin transcript

John Sumser: Good Morning, and welcome to HR Examiner Radio. I’m your host, John Sumser and we’re coming to you today live from beautiful downtown Occidental California. Occidental is where innovation got its start in the State of California when Leland Stanford establish his first railroad laboratory here.


Today, we’re going to be talking with Mattan Griffel, who is the co-founder and CEO of One Month, and interesting New York City based training oriented startup. Mattan, how are you?


Mattan Griffel: Hey John, I actually didn’t know that about Occidental, so that’s a really interesting fact.


John Sumser: Yeah, so let me tell you the rest of the story. Do you know about Bohemian Grove? Have you heard of of Bohemian Grove? The Bohemian Club was something that Stanford started in the 1870s that featured Jack London and Mark Twain as members. It’s a rich guys, definitely underlying guy rich, white guys club, and over the intervening 150 or so years the Bohemian Club has grown to include billionaires of all types. It’s West Coast campuses on the banks of the Russian River at the bottom of the hill that we live on in Occidental. It’s about five miles down the road, and the railroad was designed to bring people from downtown San Francisco out here for the summertime. Each year, there was this incredible confab of guys with private jets – white guys with private jets. They come here to hang out in the woods and go to billionaire summer camp for the month of July. The world gets crazy around here as the secret service agents are falling all over the place and the private security guards. The local airport jams up with jets. It’s a little one runway job, it’s the Charles Schulz International Airport is what it actually is.


It’s a funny little thing, but what Stanford did here … I’m blabbering on about this. What Stanford did out here, is all of the engineering necessary to make a railroad go in crooked places.


Mattan Griffel: In order to reach Occidental?


John Sumser: Yeah. Railroads were always straight up to the point that he drove the railroad up the California coast and all hills and windy, and valleys, and not straight at all. In order to get Grand Central Station build, you had to do the engineering that was required here.


Mattan Griffel: It must be a beautiful place, though.


John Sumser: It’s right at the edges of the Red Forest, about five miles from the Ocean, so we’re bathed in the marine layer fog and the redwoods are gorgeous. The Russian River is a spectacular thing.


Anyhow, this isn’t really a show about Occidental. This is a show about your business. Why don’t you take a moment and introduce yourself to the audience.


Mattan Griffel: Sure, I love learning, so a little thing like that now gives me a whole wealth of things to then learn more about. I already have the Wikipedia page for Bohemian Grove open.


My name is Mattan Griffel, I’m kind of a learning nut. I taught myself how to code a, few years ago, when I had an idea for a company I wanted to start. I didn’t have the resources to hire a developer and I didn’t have any friends that were developers that were willing to do the work for free. It was a challenge, and where most people would think, “Okay, well, this isn’t going to happen,” because people have this mentality that you have to go and get a degree in something if actually ever want to do it. I didn’t have a degree in computer science, I studied finance and philosophy at NYU. I thought it would be a fun thing to try to learn.


This was in 2010, when the tools for online learning were just starting to become available. I don’t remember what it was, but one of those years was called the Year of the Mook. There were very few online learning resources, but there were a few out there that I discovered. I was able to successfully teach myself how to code. Not like an expert, but well enough to build a prototype of this app idea I had. It was then that I realized how life-changing it could be, online learning. For me and for a lot of the friends that I was talking to.


I dedicated myself to using online education and developing online education to help out people who maybe were in the same position that I was in. It started as an online course that put together on how to learn how to code, and how to teach yourself how to code, that was called One Month Rails, because I was teaching people a coding language called Ruby on Rails in a month. That then actually turned into a company, didn’t really ever set out with the intention of creating a learning company, but the demand was definitely there based on the first one. We had about six thousand students in that first course. Which was more than I had ever though was possible in my entire life.


Now I run a company, I’m the CEO of a company called One Month. One month developed from that idea of where I first started, I gave myself the challenge to learn enough about coding in a month that I could build this product that I wanted to build. How quickly you can actually learn something in order to get really good at it.


Now we have this whole library of one month courses. Everything from coding to starting a business to online marketing. We’re constantly trying to discover new things that people could want to learn in a month. We have ten people, we’re based out here in New York City. We work with a lot of entrepreneurs and a lot of other industry experts who bring a really interesting perspective to whatever topic it is they’re teaching.


John Sumser: Help me dig a little bit into this idea. Your core notion is that you can teach people how to do something in a month. How deep can you get in a month? How do you tell what the right amount know-how is at the end of an investment of a month so that you standardize the … I don’t know how to think about this, but I guess standardize the quantity of learning that you do inside of a month, and go “Oh right that’s enough.”


Mattan Griffel: I should be more specific, which is the idea is not that you can learn anything in a month. I know a lot of people are skeptical of that. A lot of that comes from the idea popularized by Malcolm Gladwell that it takes ten thousand hours to become a master at something. People assume you need ten thousand hours of hard work to really learn something.


First of all, that’s definitely wrong. He’s talking about people who are in the top 1% in their field. It certainly takes way less time to become good at something. There’s a guy who wrote a book called, The First 20 Hours, Josh Kaufman. It talks about how in 20 hours of really focused, dedicated work, you can become astoundingly good at something. Very few people put in a solid 20 hours of work. He actually does a great TED talk on this topic, he taught himself to play guitar using only 20 hours. He gives a lot of tricks and short cuts for … If you only have 20 hours, how can you get as much out of it as possible? Then he actually performs based on only 20 hours of work, live on stage in front of people, and he’s really good. People can make way more progress than they were thought was possible within a month.


The other side of it, which I think is more important is to me, is if you’re going to learn something, anyone who becomes really good at something has a first month of that experience. It’s kind of like, when I think of habit development, or something like quitting smoking. The first 30 days are the really hard part. That’s the part that either, depending on how you do it, depending on what behaviors you take, you set yourself up for success or failure. I think about it more as, if you wanted to learn this skill, how could you construct a 30 days for yourself so that you are as likely successful as possible. Unfortunately, in a lot of education, we turn people off so quickly from whatever topic it is that they are actually naturally interested in learning. We see this happen school all the time, that people will give up on things like math and science in the first few years of their education because they had a bad teacher, or because they had a bad learning experience.


If I can help construct that ideal 30 where someone can actually build a real project. Something that they feel proud of, that they can show off. Where it’s not just not just abstract concepts with tests and exercises that it’s impossible to think of how they apply to the real world. Then I can change the way people think of education.


John Sumser: You’re really talking about something like, “what’s my minimum viable education chunk?” What I wonder about is if I go to learn something, and get curious enough to make the basic investment in learning about it, which 20 hours seems a little light, but I bet 40 hours is a good place to start. What I find often after taking a chunk like that, is that I am overwhelmed by the potential to learn. It’s like, you take the hike up the mountain, and then you get a view of what’s actually possible. Figuring out how to convert that sense of seeing the vista into a sense of accomplishment is something that I know I have some challenge with, I imagine other people have some challenge with it too. How do you roll that into your view of this thing?


Mattan Griffel: It’s a good question, and it’s especially relevant because of the internet and the accessibility of information these days. The internet, it’s a force for information and we talked about how maybe has the right to be spread, or people have the right to be able to access information. We don’t think about the challenge that happens there, which is when you have unlimited information at your fingertips, people often get overwhelmed by what’s available. The analogy that I think of is, we pay a lot of money to go to college. A lot of people pay a lot of money to get a degree. A lot of times, and I don’t want to undervalue what a teacher does, a lot of the things they’re teaching are available in textbooks. There’s so many books on any topic. If I threw you into a library, you could get the equivalent of a college degree just by reading all the books on the subject. [inaudible 00:13:19]. It’s totally overwhelming, and if you throw a beginner into a library and say go learn about World War II, they have no idea where to start.


That’s exactly what they value of a teacher is, someone who is aware of what all the information is that’s available how that and has synthesized it, and created a learning path for you. To a certain degree, personalizes it to you, or at least identifies when you have a challenge understanding a certain concept and helps you overcome that.  It also makes it interesting, and helps you apply it in a certain way.


With the internet, it’s a great tool for autodidacts, self learners. There are skills to self-learning that are required above and beyond just knowing about the skill you’re learning about. Are you good at surveying the entire landscape of all the information available, constructing a learning curriculum for yourself, identify what’s not worth learning, and even continuing to motivate yourself throughout the entire process, and identify a project for yourself. All of these things … It’s easier for some people, and it’s easier in some areas than it is in other areas.


Partly when I first started, the reason I did one month Rails was because even though I knew all the resources existed out there, I recognized that I ran into a lot dead ends. There were a lot of resources out there that weren’t all that good. I had a lot of problems that it would have been so much easier for me to overcome had someone warned me about it, or told me about it. That’s kind of the paradox to learning. It’s a bit like … I don’t know if you’re familiar with Nino’s Paradox in philosophy, which is like, “how can you look for something if you don’t know where it is.” If you don’t know what you’re looking for. With learning it’s something similar, how can you learn something if you don’t know what it is you’re learning to begin with. There is still definitely an art to creating that path. Some people can do it for themselves, and with One Month we’re helping creating those learning paths for people, but at a much lower cost because we’re taking advantage of the internet to distribute it, and the video.


John Sumser: Do you have a One Month class in how to become a self learner?


Mattan Griffel: I would love to do that, and it’s definitely on the horizon, but no we don’t have one right now. I’m interested in … Josh Kaufman talked about this in 20 Hours. Tim Ferriss even has an entire section of his book, The 4-Hour Chef, where he spends the first few chapters talking about how to dissect a topic, and meta-learning is what he calls it. It’s definitely an area that I’m deeply interested in.


John Sumser: The moment that you get it, I’d love to see it because that seems like a gateway to so much. If you can figure out how to have a path that’s useful to a fair slice of people, to take the edge out of wanting and believing that you can learn, that would be an extraordinary thing. Who’s your target customer for all this stuff?


Mattan Griffel: A lot of people have used One Month courses, because we started out with the technical courses, teaching beginners how to code, we had everyone from entrepreneurs who wanted to start their own business to people who were fed up with their careers and they wanted a change, and they wanted to do something that was more interesting or more aligned with their lifestyle that they wanted or to get paid more.


As we focused on one particular group of people, or one kind of person, we decided to go after entrepreneurs or people who wanted to become entrepreneurs. For me, that’s the group of people that I can most sympathize or empathize with. It’s also the group that I think is probably the least addressed in the education market. I honestly think that with technology and with all the information that’s available now, there could be a lot of people who are able to be entrepreneurial. Maybe that doesn’t mean starting their own business, but maybe it’s a non-profit, or maybe it’s pushing some sort of initiative inside of their current company.


There are people who I feel like they have it in them to create, and it’s been trained out of them for whatever reason. They don’t feel like they have what it takes, so they don’t feel like they’re smart enough, or they don’t feel like it’s the right moment for them. I’ve met so many people like that, and I think it’s such a shame that I’ve taken it on myself as hopefully being someone that can inspire other people, or at least point them in the right direction to help put them on a path that they may never have been able to follow.


I don’t necessarily want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, but I hope that I can change people’s lives so that the next Mark Zuckerberg or Drew Houston, or the next world-changing company maybe can be somewhat inspired by something that I’ve put out there, or a class that we’ve released out there, or an online resource that we put out there. Someone who wouldn’t have gotten on and do it otherwise.


I’ve personally been touched by people who have emailed me saying things like … We had an entrepreneurial woman in Iran who emailed me saying that she’s always to start her own local business. She can’t even leave her house at night, so she could never go to the local university to actually study, and yet inside of her own house, at night with her laptop she can take these courses that are actually teaching her how to start her business. The impact of that change … That kind of change that this could bring, socioeconomically, all over the world, is incredible.


John Sumser: That’s interesting. You end up with this classic entrepreneurial problem of reaching people who don’t know that they don’t know what you have to tell them. That may be the basic marketing problem, now that I say it I’m sure that it is. How do you figure on breaching that particular thing?


Mattan Griffel: It’s a basic marketing problem, it’s been solved in various ways. In marketing, you have both branding and direct response marketing, which fall on both ends of the marketing spectrum. The direct response is the marketing with the hard sell, it’s like, sign up right now get this promotion. That’s where you’re really targeting people who know that they have a problem, and they already know that they’re looking for products to solve their problem. As opposed to the branding, or the higher-level stuff in which you have to educate people about the fact that they have problem and what the products are that are out there that can solve the problem. Then to convince them that yours is the tool that they need to use, that they want to use.


When you’re a start-up you don’t have a ton of marketing resources available, you have to focus somewhere. You end up focusing on the people who are already out there looking for something. In our case, it’s the specific courses that we have available. There’s already people out there who have decided, “I want to make a change in my life. I want to switch careers and learn how to code.” They’re looking either at One Month or a coding boot camp, or a free online resource, or whatever it is. They’re already thinking about what are the different possible products out there that they could use.


There’s a good amount of people already out there for various topics, like the different topics we teach from online marketing to people who know they want to start a business, they just don’t know where to start. Then, once you’ve generally effective at getting that audience, you then have to grow that audience. You have to get more people there. That’s where the educational side comes in.


One thing I do, for example, is a weekly series called Founder Fridays where I talk about the problems and the challenges that founders have starting companies. Everything from setting up your first payroll system to what happens when you have an employee who comes to you that has a problem, or two of your employees aren’t getting along. How do you avoid burn out, when you’re working really hard. How do you maintain relationships. These are topics that not only are current entrepreneurs interested in, but also people who maybe thinking of starting a company. They’re still sort of mulling around with an idea at their current job or something like that. You start to build up an audience and resources that cater to those people, and then take them through the process of how they should start thinking about starting their own thing. Also, there’s a bit of motivation there as well. There’s a bit of teaching them about the fact that maybe you don’t think you can do it, but here are some other people’s stories, and they have been able to do it; and inspiring them to go out and to actually take the plunge.


John Sumser: That’s pretty interesting. It sounds like there’s room for a second course in the how to become a self-learner thing sequence, that’s how do I figure out what I want.


Mattan Griffel: Yeah, absolutely. Do you mean “What I want” like what I want to b [crosstalk 00:24:00]


John Sumser: I think I just mean in general, knowing what you want appears to be a significant human challenge.


Mattan Griffel: It’s interesting to go back to your point on the meta-learning and a course on how to learn. I’m about to attend the ASU GSV Summit, which I was lucky enough to go to last years because one of our investors has an extra ticket. This year, we’re presenting as part of the growth demos for startups. I just remember how much of a deal it was least year to hear from the presidents of some of these major universities or institutions. ASU, for example, they’re doing a lot of online learning.


There’s a problem because some of the people that are going through the program have never really learned before, especially online. They found that rather than improving the quality of the courses or the teachers that they have, that doesn’t end up making a huge difference in terms of completion rates, which is really important for them. Putting them through these pre-college courses. Some of these people have never learned in an academic setting before, so they’re starting to prepare courses for them that teach them, “Here’s how you should be learning. Here’s how you set up habits for success. Here’s what studying looks like. Here’s how you set yourself up to be able to actually focus and complete this stuff.” These are the meta skills that not everybody has, but will be really necessary in the next few years if online learning is to takeoff at all.


John Sumser: Those sound like foundational questions for learning in general. How do you learn, and what does it feel like? Somehow I got through a whole bunch of school and nobody bothered to tell me that.


Mattan Griffel: Yeah, and they just sort of assume it’s there because … We assume that it’s the parents or the teachers that are teaching those skills.


John Sumser: My guess is that if you can figured out how to get your arms around these questions, that’s revolutionary. Teaching people how to learn, and making that approachable conversation that has some level of concrete, measurable aspect to it, that’s a very interesting bit of terrain you’d think would have been covered.


Mattan Griffel: Yeah, then your point about teaching people what they want. One course I’ve always wanted to make was something called One Month Happiness, because a lot of people they get what they think they want and they’re still unhappy in that. Me, personally, I’ve always been guided … I’ve always gone after things that I would think will make me happy in the long run. To look at people who have been doing something for their entire lifetime and to see, are they truly happy.


I studied finance, and when I was freshman in college I would talk to all of these managing directors at investment banks, and very few of them were really truly fulfilled. Very few of them actually enjoyed what they’re doing. They would all mention that if they could start over they would do something totally different, or they would pursue some other thing. I thought to myself, “Why am I doing this? Why do I want to do this thing, where even if I am successful, it’s very unlikely that I’ll be happy doing it.” A lot of people find themselves in this reckoning moment in their life, and they want to turn things around and sometimes starting your own business can be that thing, but I don’t think that’s the only thing. There must exist some sort of one month track out there that could make someone significantly happier in a fairly short amount of time, and help them figure out what they actually want.


John Sumser: What a great idea. This has been a great conversation. We’re coming to the close. Is there anything that I should have asked you?


Mattan Griffel: Is there anything you should have asked. No, I didn’t really have a specific idea going into this for anything that I wanted to cover. Is there anything that you think the listeners would be really interested in hearing about?


John Sumser: I think we covered a bunch, but I think we opened the door to a much larger conversation, so maybe we can cloudless that and do it. Thanks for taking the time to stop by and have a great conversation about learning.


Mattan Griffel: Thank you very much I enjoyed it.


John Sumser: Would you take a moment to reintroduce yourself and let people know how to get ahold of you?


Mattan Griffel: Absolutely. My name is Mattan Griffel, I’m the co-founder and CEO of One Month. You can reach me on Twitter @mattangriffel or stop at my website, you can actually email me through my website, it’s, I’m generally available. If you do a quick Google search, you should be able to figure it out.


John Sumser: Thanks very much, we’ve been talking with Mattan Griffel who is the CEO and founder of One Month. Thank so much for taking the time to be here, Mattan. You’ve been listening to HR Examiner Radio. This is your host, John Sumser. I hope you have an amazing day with rest of your day. Thanks very much. Bye bye.

End transcript

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