Scott Cook and Rick Levin: The Power of Experimentation

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Intuit founder Scott Cook and Richard Levin, President Emeritus of Yale and CEO of online education company Coursera, discussed how businesses are innovating and how Yale students can get involved in a talk held Monday, October 13 at Yale. The talk was organized by the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (YEI), a university department that helps entrepreneurs and innovators at Yale start scalable new ventures and HackYale, which provides student-run lectures in web development, programming and design.

“In college, I studied economics,” Cook told the standing-room-only audience gathered in the President’s Room above Woolsey Hall. “I thought I might want to be a lawyer. I now believe there are lots of ways to change the world.”

Cook shared his rise to success and lessons he’s learned about when to take the traditional path, and when to embrace unconventional approaches.

Intuit launched with the personal finance software Quicken—conceived by Cook as a way to automate bill paying. Intuit cofounder Tom Proulx coded the software. Cook admits there were several years of struggle before Quicken rose to the top-selling consumer software product in 1988. He also emphasized that his traditional work experience (as a marketing manager at Procter & Gamble) helped him problem-solve and ultimately succeed.

“Go to a place that will teach you the thing that you want to be great in,” he told the audience. “All of us do better when we have coaching.”

Intuit now has more than $4B in annual revenue and counts among its products TurboTax, Quickbooks and Mint.com.

Levin, who has made his own transition into the fast-paced world of Silicon Valley tech startups said “the difference in tenor and tone” compared to Yale, where he served as president for 20 years, “is profound.” But, he added, “The median age of the employees is about the same.”

Levin addressed the hallmark of Intuit’s success: experimentation. Cook says in the company’s early years they would make top-down decisions that were highly vetted, but often flopped. He later adopted the Lean Startup approach—a method of quickly testing and validating ideas with customers. The lean startup method has been embraced by universities, startup accelerators and businesses and is taught in various programs to Yale students and faculty at YEI. Now Cook has teams throughout his company working on new features, new products and even new businesses. “Companies should create a fertile hothouse for the best new ideas to grow,” he says.

Levin has found experimentation to be a critical feature at Coursera as well, where they rely on feedback to shape the length and look of videos and to determine how they might present on phones and other devices. Despite the excitement around startups, Levin said he still believes strongly in the grounding of a liberal arts education adding that when it’s time to take these companies to the next level, Yale students will be prepared.

Brita Belli

Brita Belli is the Communications Officer for the Office of Cooperative Research and the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute. Prior to joining OCR, Brita was an editor and freelance writer whose work has appeared on the websites of the New York Times, National Geographic, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Environmental Health News, MSN.com, Alternet.com, as well as in many print publications. She is the author of The Autism Puzzle: Connecting the Dots Between Environmental Toxins and Rising Autism Rates (Seven Stories Press).

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