Eren Bali is the co-founder of Udemy, a collection of online courses utilized by more than two million students in more than 190 countries. Originally from Turkey and now located in San Francisco, Bali and co-founder Oktay Caglar were rejected 50 times before finding investors. This week on Sam’s Dream Blog, Eren shares about being obsessed, feeling like an outsider and how to keep going.
Sam's Dream Blog: What’s your professional dream? How did your dream originate?
Eren Bali: My professional dream was to be an entrepreneur. I was inspired to start Udemy based on my own personal experience using the Internet to teach myself mathematics. I came from a small village in Turkey where I went to a one-room schoolhouse and eventually found myself learning math via the Internet. My early experiences online led to a successful academic career in mathematics and opened up many doors. Without that early exposure to the Internet, I couldn't have dreamed of becoming a technology entrepreneur.
SDB: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Eren Bali: I am most proud of Udemy's role in helping students learn new skills and enabling instructors to teach millions of students. Our team gets such amazing feedback every day from people all over the world who are learning new skills and instructors who are so passionate about teaching and from connecting with students. It's exciting to be part of connecting people to their own dreams and aspirations.
SDB: What have been the biggest obstacles or challenges to realizing your dream? What advice do you have for others in pursuit of their dreams?
Eren Bali: Being an entrepreneur is tough almost all of the time. If we weren't obsessed, we would have given up long ago. Most start-ups fail, so the odds of success are really low in the early days. There are so many obstacles and challenges; it's hard to even name them. We made a promise never to quit, so we focused all our efforts on succeeding.
In addition to being totally committed to making Udemy succeed, we also needed to get creative and do unscalable things. We got some great advice about this early on from a successful entrepreneur. If you're focused on building systems and processes for a bigger organization, there's no way you'll understand what customers want and be able to build a company. The systems and processes need to come later. For example, a creative and unscalable tactic we employed in the early days was producing our own courses. We realized that the production process (i.e. filming & editing video content) was a big friction point for instructors. We produced a few of our own courses in the beginning and focused all our marketing capabilities on promoting them. This wasn’t scalable, but it did allow us to build powerful social proof points, which were critical to our long-term success.
SDB: I read that you were rejected by investors over 50 times. How do you overcome that rejection and keep going?
Eren Bali: When my co-founder, Oktay Caglar, and I first set out to raise money, the online education space wasn’t as super-hot as it is today. Many investors had difficulty believing that people would pay for online courses. We couldn't really point to other successful companies in the space. We didn’t have enough traction or market proof to validate the business. It also didn't help that we were outsiders in the technology world.
What really kept us going was that we believed in what we were doing. To show the world that this could be a real business, we worked hard to bring 10,000 users onto the platform. We worked nights and weekends (we still had our day jobs) to build the first version of the site to get users. We launched officially May 2010. By July 2010, we were at over 2,000 courses and 10,000 registered users on Udemy. Less than a year after universal rejection, we raised a $1 million seed round, led by influential investors, including Yelp's CEO Jeremy Stoppelman and Square COO Keith Rabois. That was a turning point for us. We were able to go full time with Udemy, and our idea had been validated by respected technology executives.