Stanford MBA Grows His Amazing Tech Startup [Episode 369]
What’s it like growing a startup during business school? [Show summary]
Stephen Cognetta had already co-founded his tech startup, Exponent, by the time he entered the Stanford GSB class of 2020. Today, he shares how his MBA experience shaped his approach to growing Exponent and what the business is doing to help job applicants land their next tech position.
Combining a Stanford MBA with a tech startup career [Show notes]
Are you thinking you’d like your next job to be in software engineering, product management, data analysis, or a host of other high-tech fields? Interested in learning about the Stanford MBA experience? This Admissions Straight Talk episode is going to discuss both how Exponent can help you land that next high-tech job, as well as how Stanford helped our guest run his startup, Exponent.
Stephen Cognetta earned his bachelor’s at Princeton in computer science before taking a position at Google in product management, where he did work on Google search features and then Android. In 2017, he founded Exponent and joined the Stanford MBA class of 2020 a little while later. Let’s hear about his business, his MBA experience, and where he’s headed.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background, where you grew up, and what you like to do for fun (when you can leave your house)? [2:07]
I grew up in the Bay Area; my life always keeps pulling me back here, to the San Francisco Bay Area. I worked at Google, as you mentioned, for a couple of years. Then when I was founding Exponent, I took a big cross-country road trip where I went to 44 different states over a year and a half. I was doing a little bit of the digital nomad life, sort of starting a company, traveling, trying to explore and get out of the Bay Area. But of course, it took me back. My life took me back there, and I came back to Stanford for a great opportunity. So I’m back in the Bay Area.
Some things I like to do for fun: Obviously, I love road trips, exploring and seeing things. I’m a huge fan of puzzles and riddles and things like that. I go crazy for twisting plots of TV shows and movies and stuff like that, which is probably what got me to be a computer science major in the first place.
What was the most interesting place you visited when you took that 44-state road trip? [3:11]
I really loved the natural beauty of West Virginia. It was just super beautiful. I was staying in a town called Lewisburg, and it was near a bunch of natural beauty. I also felt like there was a lot of an appreciation for the land there that felt really special. It was on my list because it was one of those places that I didn’t know much about or had much of an expectation about, but I was just blown away by the forest and the natural beauty and all the local types of flowers and plants that were there in the region. I think we in California have this idea that we’re the most beautiful place in the US. California is certainly beautiful, but there’s just so much beauty in other parts of the US also that I was not exposed to or knew about.
Why did you decide you wanted an MBA? [4:58]
My story is actually a little different. I applied to a deferred admin program. Actually, while I was at Princeton, I applied to get into Stanford. The deferred admit program, for those that don’t know, is where you get admitted, and then you can choose to go to the MBA school two to four years after your graduation date from undergrad. At the time, I knew I really valued higher education. I knew that there would be a path for me where I could potentially get an MBA and it was an option that I thought was really helpful, especially as a STEM major, since I was majoring in computer science. And I thought that it would really balance out my skillset of having both the technical background and then also, the business acumen to help me succeed in that entrepreneurial world that I was hoping to get into.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rgzr3D1xTVM
You already knew in college you wanted to be an entrepreneur? [5:45]
In college, I had an inkling for sure. I had already been doing entrepreneurial stuff. I think in college, I didn’t know that I absorbed that term “entrepreneur” the way I do now. Then in college, I was like, yeah. I like making things. I don’t know if I’m an entrepreneur, though, but I sort of knew that an MBA would help me get in the general compass direction of where I want to go.
Did you question that interest after your stint at Google or the road trip? [6:10]
Totally. In tech especially, there’s a long history of rejecting the MBA program, seeing it as a negative sign in your resume, which was really funny. I come out to tech and then all of a sudden, I’m a believer of that too. “Oh, MBAs are not worth it. They’re totally a waste of time. You could just take that money and go invest it in a company that you started and you learn way more.” Those are all prevailing ideologies in Silicon Valley that definitely had me swung in one direction. I think it wasn’t until I took my road trip and I sort of experienced a little bit more of the real world that I came to appreciate the experience that an MBA can provide in terms of the community and support system.
Was there anything that you found difficult in the application process? [7:16]
What I appreciated about the application process, especially for Stanford, was that they asked the question, “What matters most to you and why?” I remember that the challenging part of that application was just sitting there and thinking about what that was for me. I appreciated that challenge. It’s funny that it’s evolved so much since I wrote that, as well. I would probably write a totally different essay now, but with some of the same themes and ideas of the first one. But I think that was the best part, honestly, of the whole MBA application process, just the opportunity to really sit there and think about what my story is and think about what matters most to me. It’s also very vulnerable too. You don’t just go up someone on the street and ask them, “What matters most to you and why?” I think there’s something about that question that pulls out the inside of who you are.
What did you like most about Stanford? [8:43]
There are a lot of things I loved about Stanford. I think the community of people that I’m close to is something that I’m just super thankful for, the friendships I’ve formed at this stage of my life. I’d say the part of Stanford’s curriculum and learning experience that I really loved was this program called Arbuckle Fellowship and it’s sort of tied into this longer track. You take a class called “Touchy Feely,” which is a really well-known class at Stanford. You learn a lot about interpersonal dynamics and how to work with people, how to handle emotions that you have with working with some people, or talking to people, as a human being. It’s so hard to explain because it’s an experiential class where you’re sitting in a room of 12 people talking about feelings for several hours a day, or something like seven hours a week, basically. But that kind of stuff was so powerful and so helpful for me as a human being.
Translating that into the next year, I did a little bit of leadership coaching. I was learning how to become a leadership coach and how to work with MBA ones and twos. That was also fundamentally helpful for the business, which we’ll talk about later too. But for me, the business that I started, Exponent, is ultimately coaching. It was a cool merging of all my interests, really emotionally rich. It was really about coaching and helping people, and it felt like I was working with some very intimate, powerful, vulnerable concepts that were really helpful for me to grow as a person.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9UAe8Y9rQYU
What could have been improved? [10:41]
Definitely post-COVID, I could tell you a lot about what probably could be improved. I think the online learning experience is not on par with the experience that I would have loved to get out of the MBA program. We’re obviously in crazy times, so it’s hard to really criticize that element of the institution. For me, that last quarter was affected. It was kind of a light quarter for me in general. I was hoping to spend this quarter connecting with people, forming community, saying goodbye to the people in the community, which definitely is tough now, in this time. I think proper goodbyes are really important to me, actually, so it’s sad to have that stripped away, but we’ll see. There’s an attempt to do virtual graduation, and there’s some hope that maybe in a couple of months, we’ll be able to revisit each other actually in person. I would say that’s probably one of the biggest areas that comes to mind concerning my experience at Stanford.
Otherwise, I wish that the classes that were taught were a little more tied to the real world. It would be awesome to come out of Stanford with more hard skills that are applicable to things like running the business. For example, email marketing principles would have been really helpful to know, even though it’s, I know, not the most high-level, case-based thing to learn. There are a lot of practical things that would help almost every business leader.
How did you handle the transition to online learning, social distancing, and sheltering in place? [12:27]
Online learning, social distancing, and sheltering in place all took away one of the main benefits of an MBA program, which is what was so tough about it. MBA programs are inherently very community-oriented, very socially oriented. So when you take away the one thing that we’ve all bought into and are really excited about, especially in our last quarter at Stanford, it felt like a really big disappointment. A lot of it was emotional management, feeling really disappointed and feeling a lot of the uncertainty. Some responses that have been helpful for me have been doubling-down on my roommates and the community that I live in, like the actual shelter that I’m in with the people here and really investing in that community, planning events, even if it’s just four of us watching a movie or something like that. It still feels like I’m getting the benefit of the GSB experience by being close to these few people that I’m close with. Then we’ve also been doing some Zoom-based Hangouts and things like that.
It feels a little bit like a halfway point for me in terms of connecting with people, and I’m hopeful that we can find ways to also invest in future activities and events. A lot of us will be living in San Francisco after we graduate, so there’s an opportunity to revisit that and to try to reinvest in the people after we graduate too.
Do you think that Stanford could have done anything differently, given the circumstances, the suddenness, etc.? [14:12]
I don’t know. I have a lot of empathy for Stanford’s position in terms of being as blindsided as all of us were. They definitely have picked up on Zoom and all the virtual learning stuff pretty quickly, which has been impressive. I think what I would really look to Stanford to do isn’t necessarily the moment that we’re in now, but it would be the moments that follow the pandemic and what opportunities Stanford might be able to provide us in terms of community building and things like that, things that might happen in the next few months, as opposed to right now. To be honest, my heart goes out more to the MBA ones who now may be doing their fall semester online. I’d really be curious how they handle that.
Are you glad you did the MBA? If you knew that there was a possibility that some portion of your MBA was going to be online, would you still do it? [15:48]
I think what this question boils down to in my mind is, what were my goals coming into the MBA experience? My goals coming in were more about community building, were more about emotional development, coaching, becoming better at that and growing my business, and learning tools to help me grow my business, and I haven’t felt a loss of those pieces. Maybe the community building would be the only one, but to be honest, by the time that COVID happened, I had already formed enough of a community that I felt happy with. I didn’t necessarily need more of a community. If I had known that the experience would be like this going into Stanford, I think I would have still come to the MBA program. However, if it had been completely online, I think that that wouldn’t have suited my needs in terms of community building and emotional development because I’m not so confident in the ability to translate those classes that are in-person into online formats.
Let’s move on to Exponent. What is Exponent? How does it work? [17:16]
Exponent is an online learning platform to help people advance their careers in tech. What that looks like is right now, we focus a lot on interview prep, so helping people ease into their interviews for careers like product management, product marketing management, data science, technical program management, and a few others as well. A lot of the popular roles in tech. We do this in three ways. We have online videos and example interview questions and answers. We have a coaching platform, so people can book sessions with our expert coaches from Google, Facebook, etc. Then we also have a vibrant community of people that do mock interview practice with each other, or they submit practice questions to our forum and we can review the questions and answers that they submit.
How did you manage running a business and being an MBA student? [18:28]
It was hard. I grew a lot throughout Stanford. Before coming to Stanford, I had been coaching clients myself. We had maybe a team of three coaches at the time. Now, we have a team of about 30 coaches. So it’s a lot different. But back then, I had a team of about two other coaches and me. So I was doing coaching sessions during my MBA. That means that I was going to classes and then taking time between classes to do calls with clients to help them with interview prep, and then going back to my classes and trying to be social and trying to meet people the first quarter, and trying to maintain relationships with friends outside of the GSB. As you can imagine, it was a really, really challenging juggle for me.
I think I ended up having to prioritize, “What is the most important thing for me to do this week? Is it to meet people? Is it going to classes?” I ended up not focusing on classes as much in the first quarter because I wanted to run this business. It was really important to me. I ended up realizing that coaching was just too much in terms of being able to run a business and be in school at the same time. So I ended up deciding to stop coaching completely. That’s been helpful a lot in growing the business.
What are some differences, let’s say, between a data analyst interview and a product marketing interview, or between a Google interview and an Apple interview? [20:11]
We try to craft our courses and our experience to be as tailored to the actual interview process that you have. If you have a product marketing management interview at Google, we show you different sets of lessons and questions and things like that, so that you can easily browse through our course and get to those. It turns out that differences between those interviews vary a lot. So there’s no clear signal on some of them. We do have general trends between marketing and product management, for example, where part of the marketing focuses a lot more on campaigns and marketing-oriented concepts and principles like brand. Whereas product management may focus more on technical knowledge and being able to work with engineers. So there are some differences in the role that emerge in the interview process. We try to do mock interviews with people from those different jobs, so you can get a sense of how they think and the questions they ask.
Then, when you look within the company, it’s even harder to distinguish what’s really the difference between a Google PM interview and a Facebook PM interview. It’s surprising. There are subtle differences between them in terms of what you need to know and prepare for. It’s really tough for the interviewee because you have to now prepare for all of these different types of companies and roles. That’s what we try to do a lot with Exponent: demystify that process. It’s a lot of scraping Glassdoor or looking through long lists of possible interview questions to find that piece of information (that should be a lot easier to surface and to view).
You can either book online courses, or you can go to the one-on-one coaching sessions. We also have a community, a Slack channel where they can all talk to each other.
How did Stanford play a role in the building of Exponent? [22:27]
It was really helpful being an MBA student while growing Exponent, especially because a lot of the target customers of the platform are MBA students. A lot of my peers could be user testers, beta testers, or they could be advisors, or some of them could be coaches, or some of them could help me make videos. Really, being in Stanford was super, super helpful for growing the company and for making what it is today to the point where we now also actually sell to MBA schools. We provide our courses to MBA, students and Stanford was our first customer. It was a really beautiful turnaround there in terms of being a part of the school as a student, but then also finding a way to help the school itself, provide some of these useful resources and tools. I’ve done several workshops just for Stanford to help MBA ones and MBA twos get into product management and other careers.
A lot of the entrepreneurial support was also really helpful for us. There are people and mentors in the faculty department that were really helpful in terms of figuring out how we wanted to grow. One big problem or question that Exponent has is that we’re a bootstrap company, which means that we don’t actually take outside investment. It was really helpful to talk to some mentors at the school because it’s a very unconventional path. Creating a bootstrap company is not popular in the Valley. It’s actually like the opposite. So it was interesting to talk to people about that, to ask, “Is this the right path? Is this reasonable? What do we need to watch out for? How do we manage our business differently?” Some of those pieces and principles were really helpful for us, for our accounting structure and our business incorporation structure.
Why did you decide to go the bootstrap route? [24:40]
We decided to be bootstrapped because we believe that the ability to grow our company slowly and the way that we want to, will ultimately make a better business for the people that use it. Oftentimes, we see VC money kind of explode companies. VCs don’t necessarily care whether or not a company succeeds as much as whether or not the risk ratio is very high so that there could be a possible benefit to the investors. We believe in creating a sustainable business that can help people that also has a lot more control on the part of the owners and the co-founders of the company, as opposed to the investors, which are a little bit misaligned with incentives sometimes in terms of financial profit.
What are your plans for the future? [25:47]
It’s hard to think about the future at a time like this because who knows what anything will look like. My co-founder, Jacob, and I will be planning on continuing to work on the business. So that’s a certainty at least. We’re going to be continuing to work on the business. We have a lot of really exciting goals with our product. We’ve created this vibrant community. We’ve created a lot of value services. Jacob and I are both tech people. We’re both product-oriented people. So we do want to think about how we can take some of this stuff and turn it into a product experience.
We did that a little bit with our interview question forum. We were noticing a lot of people sharing interview questions in our community. We could pull that out into a separate product that’s like, “Hey, here. This’ll be more evergreen. You can always revisit it. You can comment on each other’s answers.” Things like that, which really help people more than they would through an informal community. We’re invested in creating more of a product experience for our users to turn Exponent into this online space where you can come in, train, get ready, and prep for your upcoming interviews and your career advancement goals.
Are you thinking of expanding to other fields outside tech, or are you thinking more of a longitudinal approach? [26:54]
We’re thinking of staying in tech right now just because there are so many other consulting tools. There are so many other tools in other industries, and we feel like our competitive advantage is really in tech. So it’s more the longitudinal answer. We’re hoping to invest a little bit in helping people. Once we’ve helped people ace their PM interview, let’s say, we want to help you continue to advance your career and learn product management fundamentals and skills. So hopefully, we can stay with our users and develop more of a relationship with them over time.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [27:37]
One thing we could talk about is the emotional aspect of the company. Our company had a lot of ups and downs and turns and turnarounds throughout the course of the MBA program. I think there’s a lot of challenge with being a student and telling a co-founder, “Hey, I’m a student still, and I have to manage that.” I think we took it all in stride, which is really awesome. But I always think businesses have a lot of emotional pieces that never get heard. There’s this picture that we paint that everything is fine and dandy. It’s all for the business. It was all planned before. But there’s actually tons of loops and turns throughout the process.
Sometimes businesses will say, “Oh, we made this decision because this is the strategic decision for the company,” but if you look behind the hood, it’s because there was a big breakup or because there was a co-founder conflict or something like that. All these emotional things underneath bubble up.
Where can listeners learn more about Exponent, acing their tech interviews, and landing that fantastic position that you’re preparing them for? [32:05]
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