The CareerExplorer Discord Community had the opportunity to speak to Spencer Thompson, the founder of Sokanu, in a live, fireside Q&A.
In high school, Spencer recognized a pattern among his classmates. They chose what to study in school and what career to pursue based on what their parents, friends, or guidance counselors told them to do. Many wound up taking a random assortment of courses in college and ended up working in unfulfilling jobs.
Spencer founded Sokanu/Career Explorer in 2012, based on the theory that most career development technology hasn’t evolved since the 1950s. He led the development of the company as CEO through 2017, and is now President and a Board Director. Spencer is also the founder of Prelude, a cybersecurity training and automated red team tool used by a variety of organizations, including intelligence agencies and large corporations. He is also an advisor to several seed/impact venture funds.
The transcript below has been modified and abridged from the original conversation.
Were there classes you took in high school that played a key part in what you do today?
Oddly, gym! My two gym teachers were my most influential teachers. One even became an investor. I learned more from them, outside of class, than from any ‘classroom’ setting. Reading was also key; I read 200-300 books the year after high school to try and self-teach.
What clubs, extracurricular activities, volunteering, or shadowing did you do in high school?
I did tons of sports. I tried to play everything I could. I had very few ‘business’ mentors, that all came from reading. But all of my teamwork principles came from playing sports.
What was your driving force to becoming an entrepreneur?
I became an entrepreneur almost by accident. In my early teens, I actually wanted to become a physicist! However, after reading a few business books, I decided that I had a certain vision that I wanted to make happen. There are many ways to do that — volunteer, write a book, speak, etc. However, for my vision to come to fruition, it required the work of a lot of people, so starting a company made the most sense.
After you decided you were going to be an entrepreneur, how did you choose what you wanted to create?
It usually works the other way — people decide what problem they want to solve, and then they realize what they have to do to solve it. I had the idea for Sokanu back in high school, and realized starting a company was the best and only way to try and solve the issue of helping people find their ideal career.
What were your parents’ reactions when you told them you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I was extremely lucky to have one unbelievably supportive parent. They encouraged me to believe in myself more than anything.
Was it hard to get people to take you seriously when you were just starting out?
Very! Who wants to listen to some random 19-year-old who knows nothing about anything? I was very lucky to find a few people that took a huge bet early on. They were right to be skeptical. But you have to just keep going, no matter what. Companies don’t die because they run out of money or ‘fail’, they die because the core people stop believing.
My biggest realization is that the degree to which you believe in something matters a lot more than what it is you believe. We are all still running the same basic brain we were 40,000 years ago. We are motivated by stories, wanting to feel inspired/included, etc. Just believe deeply in what you are doing, and others will join.
When you started your company, did you do it alone or did you have a partner?
A little bit of both. I started it solo, then had a partner which didn’t work out, so I went back to being solo. However, I had an amazing set of early employees who were more like family, so I had the best of both worlds.
How do you convince others that what you want to do is worth investing in?
That is a complicated question. You first have to ask yourself what you want to do, and then believe more in THAT thing than anyone else, otherwise why should anyone else believe you?
Einstein had to do a lot of convincing of his theory of relativity early on. Many of the things we take for granted today come from brilliant people who spend 25% of their time inventing, and the other 75% persuading.
Work & Leadership
Do you have any daily habits that keep you centered and calm through the challenges of being a young entrepreneur?
On a daily basis, I think about all of the massive issues that exist in the world today, and how privileged I am to be doing what I do. Ninety-nine percent of the world would swap days with me in a second, so I have no right to complain! Thinking this way makes the day-to-day hiccups less important, and I don’t get too flustered over things.
How many hours do you work in a typical week?
A lot! I probably work 70-90 hours every week. It is definitely a sacrifice, as it really bleeds over into what most people think of as personal time.
What is your greatest fear when it comes to running your own company, and how do you manage that fear?
I fear letting other people down — especially the employees who I consider family. That’s the only thing I fear day-to-day. The success of the business is far down the list. If you do a good job, keep believing in what you’re doing, and work hard, success will happen.
Where is Sokanu/CareerExplorer today, versus where you thought it would have been five years ago?
It’s both bigger and smaller. As an entrepreneur, you basically live in the future because that’s what you are pitching, or trying to become. So, by the time you get there, you are both way behind, but also ahead in some aspects. I’ve learned that everything takes longer than you think. Everything.
What kind of culture exists in your organization, and how did you establish it?
I hope it’s a culture of mutual respect and reciprocation. Treat others the way you want to be treated, all the time.
What kind of a leader are you?
One that tries to care deeply about the success of his people before himself. Take care of the small things and your employees, and it will bubble up.
Do you have any regrets? Anything you would do differently?
Not really. I probably should have moved to a different city sooner in order to build the kind of business I did, but I’m glad with how it’s all worked out. I’ve made many mistakes, but I don’t regret any of those things.
If I had to do it all over again, I would actually go to school and study anthropology, politics, and economics. I would try to go deep on a bunch of macro ‘human’ issues, become more rounded as a person, and then dive into something. And perhaps focus more on financial stability up front.
What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur?
Humility. Persistence. Self-balance.
Has the pandemic revealed anything to you about owning and operating a business?
How fragile it is. And how fragile we all are. People talk about needing to be adaptive — now they have to prove it.
How did you migrate into cybersecurity?
Like many things in life, with a lot of luck. I originally set out to start a training company that would continue the mission of Sokanu, and stumbled onto cybersecurity by accident. It is an amazing industry — there is a shortage of 1.5 million jobs (that pay an average of $80k), and no training available to solve that problem. So it just started from there.
Is there a certain type of person that does well in cybersecurity?
Yes. It’s probably not what people think. You need to have amazing attention to detail, good communication skills, and persistence. Knowledge of technology is probably a distant fourth. Also, curiosity helps a ton.
Is there much to be done in the US around cybersecurity?
Absolutely. I now focus almost entirely on helping organizations get the best cybersecurity tools in order to protect themselves, and to provide training for that very reason.
What is one job title in cybersecurity that you think will pay over $100K after a few years of experience?
SOC Analyst. The base salary for that position is $80k, and after two or three years, it jumps to $100-120k. There is a crazy shortage, and only three to six months of training is needed.
Recommendations & Advice
What advice would you give to someone thinking that university may not be the right path for them?
I would say you’re literally living through the best time in modern history to not go to university. That entire system is being changed in real time. There are so many other proxies for success and learning now. If you want to be a lawyer or a doctor, etc. then yes, for sure go. But most ‘modern’ careers (including entrepreneurship) don’t require going to school. I didn’t!
I agree that entrepreneurship doesn’t require a college degree, but education also includes a broader scope — such as becoming an engaged citizen in the world, learning to analyze critically, solve problems, communicate, etc.
I agree 100%. The problem is a lot of the serendipity of in-person learning isn’t there because of COVID-19 at the moment. So now is the time to go off the beaten path. My advice for those who want to go to university for entrepreneurship is actually not to study entrepreneurship.
I’d go one of three directions instead:
- Hard sciences: electrical engineering, computer science, etc.
- Humanistic sciences: sociology, anthropology, economics etc.
- Delve deep in one area that you want to become an expert in, and build a business around that.
I just want to make clear that I am not anti-university. I’m against spending $40k/yr for a program that is a derivative of what Harvard produces without the brand. Go to a school that makes sense for you. Have clear goals, and learn what you need to in order to take advantage of all of the social serendipity.
Career choice is also backwards in my opinion. We go to school for 2/4/6+ years, and in the last year we go to career services and say “now what?” I think we should choose a career before going to school, and then be able to adjust as necessary.
What’s a good book to read for those who want to go off the beaten path?
The best business book is Shoe Dog by Phil Knight — a totally different path was taken to build Nike. There are tons of other books, but that one is easy to read and motivational. If you want to be inspired, read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.
What advice would you give to someone that wants to change their major?
The best thing to do is to reach out to three to five people that have made a switch that is similar. Go see what worked, or did not work, for them, and what they would do differently. Gain confidence. Read. Then go for it!
I’m currently a 19-year-old in the process of teaching myself front-end web development. How do I change my mindset if I start doubting that I can do it?
Start small. Start on Khan Academy, and do the IDE lessons. Then Codecademy. Then start copying websites and modifying them. Then start building your own websites. That’s how we all started. You have to hack around until it becomes easier.
Which programming languages do most employers want you to have?
What employers want depends on the type of job.
For front-end programming: HTML,CSS/JS/React
For back-end programming: Python/Ruby
For cybersecurity: Linux/Shell Scripting/Bash/Regex
I’d start with Python and some front-end programming to get going.
What is the best advice you can give to someone interested in starting a business? How do you prepare for the failures along the way?
I’d say that ignorance certainly helps. If you knew what was coming you wouldn’t do it. Failures are really the ‘default state’ — you only have successes from time-to-time. Having humility is also important. The second you stop tying your success/feelings to that of your company, you’ll be okay. It’s all a mental exercise.
Inspiration & Motivation
Who is your biggest inspiration?
My family. The more people I meet who I used to look up to, the more I realize there are very few true role models. Family is always the most important and inspires me more than any famous person.
How do you deal with procrastination and demotivation?
I actually procrastinate by nature. In school, I would do homework the morning of, etc. But business forces you out of that. There are too many things to do, and too many external social pressures.
What keeps you motivated and believing in what you are doing?
I have goals that I’d like to achieve long term, and I try to work backwards from there. Also not wanting to let the company and employees down. And wanting to continue to solve problems!
I also think the idea of creating something from nothing is incredible. It’s arguably where ‘wealth’ comes from. Being able to do that is a privilege, and I’d rather be doing nothing else.
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