GE 157: How Tradecraft Produces World Class Tech Talent For Growing Companies In Just 12 Weeks (podcast) With Misha Chellam

Misha Chellam Tradecraft

Hello everybody, today our guest is Misha Chellam, the founder of Tradecraft, which is a full-time, in-person, immersive training program—sales, marketing, growth marketing and design—for people who want to break into the startup community.

Today we’re talking about how what Misha learned from launching a rock band, a commercial real estate company, and a medtech startup, how they acquired their first 100 members through word of mouth, and why grads from 2 years ago are still getting value from the Tradecraft relationship.

Download podcast transcript [PDF] here: How Tradecraft Produces World Class Tech Talent For Growing Companies In Just 12 Weeks TRANSCRIPT

Episode highlights:

  • [4:16] – Misha feels his adaptability has been a great value for him and his business ventures
  • [4:39] – Tradecraft wants to partner with smart people throughout their tech careers
  • [4:59] – They want to get into the early stages of these people’s careers, but work with them for years down the line
  • [5:56] – Education is a piece of Tradecraft, but their objective is to increase the quality of their network
  • [7:11] – They help people in a very concrete way, but they want to keep the relationship open so they will want to be involved with Tradecraft at some point in the future
  • [9:42] – Growth and tactics are changing, but the underlying concepts are similar, people come to Tradecraft to orient thinking and navigate the startup world
  • [10:21] – They have had 320 grads and it costs 14K for twelve weeks, plus you have to quit your job and live in San Francisco
  • [11:03] – Grads from 2 years ago are still getting value from the Tradecraft relationship
  • [12:05] – They acquired their first 100 members by asking mentors if they would like hires to have a skillset on day one, the idea of raising the bar was appealing in the valley, so they got clients from word of mouth
  • [13:37] – Vetting quality candidates is probably what they struggle with the most
  • [14:57] – They usually bring in 12 to 13 people a month, the idea is to have a human relationship with the students
  • [16:06] – Don’t hold back, put everything on the line, if you fail it is a learning experience
  • [17:48] – Set a high bar for success and take all the help you can to get there

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Full Transcript of The Episode

Show transcript
Misha: The way that we got the business started is we went to the practitioner community, the folks who would become mentors at Tradecraft and we said, "Hey, wouldn't it be great if when you hired people it wasn't just that they were smart and motivated, but they actually had a skillset and could contribute on day 1?"

Speaker 2: Do you want to impact the world and still turn a profit? Then you're in the right place. Welcome to Growth Everywhere. This is the show where you'll find real conversations with real entrepreneurs. They'll share everything from their biggest struggle to the exact strategies they use on a daily basis. If you're ready for a value-packed interview, listen on. Here's your host Eric Siu.

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All right, everybody. Today we have Misha Chellam, who is the founder of Tradecraft, which is a full-time, in person, immersive training program for people who want to break into the startup community. Misha, how is it going?

Misha: It is going awesome. It will go even better if the Golden State Warriors managed to win game 5 tonight.

Eric : Yeah, we'll see about that. I think the last time that actually happened was, I think, when the Rockets came back against the Clippers, was that last year?

Misha: Yeah. It's been ... Anyways, I have high hopes and so I'm putting a lot of positive energy into my day to help bring that to fruition. Very excited to talk about growth.

Eric : Cool, man.

Misha: To do my part [crosstalk 00:01:44]

Eric : All right. Misha, why don't you tell us a little bit about who you are and a little bit about your background?

Misha: Sure. I'm the founder of Tradecraft. Done a fair amount of different things in my career. I started off as a musician, traveled the country and played in a band. After that, I worked in politics for a little over a year and then moved abroad and lived abroad for 5 years and did a bunch of different business stuff. Eventually started a commercial real estate company and then got involved in tech. Started a tech incubator and then started a tech company called Scanadu. Ran that for a couple of years, became an EIR at a VC firm called Blumberg Capital and then started Tradecraft.

It's funny, I'd never actually thought of this until a couple of days ago, which seems weird, but I think Tradecraft is the combination of so many career changes, which is to say that I understand that smart, motivated people go down a path sometimes and that path leads to a dead end or cul-de-sac or somewhere where they don't want to be. We

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help people make those transitions. I think it's because I've gone through so many of those transitions myself.

Eric : That's really interesting, growing up while, I guess, having Asian parents, they expect you to stay at the same place for 3, 4 years. They expect you to get all the benefits and all that. I think that's slowly going away. I think, for me personally, starting out, I jumped around a ton, I think I switched like 5 jobs in the first year of actually working. I guess, from your perspective, what are the benefits of hopping around? Why did you hop around?

Misha: I hopped around, I think, because of external forces. Very concretely, it's like I fell in love with a girl, she got a job with a foreign service and so we moved to D.C. and then to Vietnam and then to Belgium based on her career. I had to reinvent myself at each of those ports. I combined what I had, my assets with what the marker realities were. When we moved to D.C. I wasn't really going to keep being ... I've been a musician L.A. and it didn't really make sense to keep doing that given the circumstances. I got into politics and then the same thing in Vietnam, it didn't make sense to be in politics or in music and so I got into general business because that's what was going on there at the time.

I had to adapt to the marker realities that I was faced with. Luckily today tech is on the present, and so I think today that you could build a tech career anywhere. Of course, unbiased and things, Silicon Valley is maybe the best place to build it. Yeah, I think the benefit was being building that soft skillset of adaptability. I think that that has turned out to be very valuable for me, at least, down the road.

Eric : Great. I think that's a key word, adaptability. For me, switching around just whatever opportunities I saw, wherever growth opportunities I saw, I'd just take it. I think those go hand in hand. Tradecraft. What do you guys teach today and what are some success stories you can talk about?

Misha: The idea of Tradecraft is to partner with smart, motivated people throughout their entire tech careers. The piece that is the most visible, the most concrete, which is this training program. We train people for roles in sales, marketing, growth marketing and design. The idea is that we want to get in at the earliest stage of your career and build a trusted relationship with you, but the hope is that we'll actually get to work together for 5 or 10 or 15 years down the line.

When I think of success stories, some of them are people going into ... We've got grads at Uber and Metamark and Discord and New Demand, a bunch of other top Silicon Valley companies. Those are victory stories or those are wins. Then we've also got folks who ... they went, worked at a company for a while, realized that they were ready to start a company. We've had a couple of Tradecraft grads start YC Back companies and 500 Back companies. Those are also wins because it is like a preview of what we think our network will be doing in 5 years when people have matured in their careers and gotten further along and potentially start the companies.

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Eric : Awesome. There's a lot of different schools out there. There's the, I think ... General Assembly would be one that comes to mind. How does Tradecraft differ from General Assembly?

Misha: Like I said, we don't think about ourselves as ... For us, the product that we're selling is not the education. Education is a piece of what we're doing, but let's say that ... or one metric that matters is not growing top line students so that we're serving more and more students. It's increasing the quality of our network. For us, we're on the school, basically, to break even. Our goal is to make money on education, but in a very long term sense. We read the stat and we're just starting out a Tradecraft that if you look at the revenue of companies started by Stanford grads, in 2012 the revenue of companies started by Stanford grads was 2.7 trillion dollars.

If you begin to think like, "Oh, man. If Stanford had had a slightly different model, instead of charging upfront and if they had figured out a way to partner with these people throughout their careers, they would have made a lot more money." I know that Stanford is not for-profit. There was a lot more economic value being generated by both what people had learned at Stanford and the connections and network that had been built at Stanford.

The way that we think about our business is let's meet really great people, let's help them in a very concrete way. Let's train them in sales and marketing or design. Help them get a role at a tech company, where they can optimize for learning, but then keep that relationship and in 3 years or 5 years when they're ready to start the company or when they're looking to go take a senior leadership role at a company, it will likely be at least, they will consider something in our network of companies where we've made investments or where we're advisors or whatever.

I think that in that way on the surface it looks similar to GA, but the underlying business model is totally different. We have no interest in going to dirty locations around the world and pumping out students. I think that they play a role in the ecosystem. We just play a totally different role.

Eric : Got it. Okay. Let's say I come through Tradecraft as a student. Am I required to sign anything or is it just a leap of faith?

Misha: It's all relational. Yeah, you're not like indentured servant. You're not promising us a piece of some future action or whatever, but it is true that our organizational goal is to be like the perfect mentor to somebody. We are constantly, when we're improving things, at Tradecraft internally, it's not just answering questions of what would somebody need to know in a relatively junior growth marketing role? It's like what are all the ways that we're going to be able to help this person over time? Hopefully, you'll continue to come back to us for more mentorship and advice along the way in your career because we've become that go-to person for you.

Eric : Right. Okay. In terms of teaching a subject like growth, this is changing all the time. How do you stay on top of it?

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Misha: The number one thing is just really, really great relationships with people in industry. It's even funny to say an industry. That's a thing that I've heard other people say and it sounds sophisticated. Now, we have growth grads at a hundred top companies all over the Valley. Before that and alongside of that, we have a bunch of people who are hiring managers that are part of Tradecraft. They come in and speak regularly, they help us think through curriculum, they help us keep things relevant. Then, students are doing project work with companies. Through that project work we're exposed to ... oh shoot, like I didn't realize there's so many people we're looking at Pinterest as a new channel. We probably need to begin to think about helping people with that. That's one piece of it. The other thing, I would say, is the tactics are always changing, but the core underlying approach and process and mindset is pretty similar.

Eric : True.

Misha: Luckily, the internet is filled with great material. You can learn anything on your own. The reason why you come to Tradecraft isn't because we have some secret stored knowledge that nobody else has. It's because we can help you orient your general thinking and then help curate the stuff that is out there. I don't think it's on us in a vacuum to find all that material. It's just about helping students navigate it.

Eric : Got it. Okay. We talked about this a little bit before going live. How many students have actually gone through and how much does it cost to go through one of your typical programs?

Misha: Sure. We've had 320 grads go through or folks go through the program. It costs 14K, so 14,000 dollars for 12 weeks, which is a good deal of money. It turns out that that's actually only a fraction of the money that it takes to come here because you have to quit your full-time job and you have to live in San Francisco, which is a painfully expensive place. We help people through that with financing and all kinds of arrangements to help people be able to do it.

For us, it's like we hope to create not only that people are going to boost [their salary 00:10:53] in their next job or whatever, but we still ... I think if you talk to a Tradecraft graduate who graduated 2 years ago, it's still driving value from the Tradecraft network. We now have grads who are coming back and actually having current students do project work on their new companies. We've had company, like I say, Tradecraft grads who have started companies where we've helped them build their business again through having students help explore channels in growth or think about new customer segments through product design. Yeah, that's how it works.

Eric : Got it. I think one of the things is when I look at Tradecraft, people might think $14,000 is super expensive. If you think of the value that you get in return, you talk about people going to Uber or [You to me 00:11:38], just great companies. I think to me it's a no brainer. I think it's something for people, especially people listening to this, that are not happy with their jobs right now. I think it's something to look into certainly. There's a lot of different options out there. Tradecraft is just one of them. I think it's certainly great.

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Just some food for a thought. Misha, in terms of acquiring, let's just say, your first 100 customers. How did you go about doing that?

Misha: Of course, our first 100 customers is ... One, we don't think of them as customers, but yes, technically they are customers. We think of them as like members of a community. The first 100 customers are a third of our total customers. The way that we got the business started is we went to the practitioner community, the folks who would become mentors at Tradecraft and we said, "Hey, wouldn't it be great if when you hired people it wasn't just that they were smart and motivated, but they actually had a skillset and could contribute on day 1?" Everyone said, "Yeah, that would be amazing, to have a higher bar set." Because we set an extremely high bar for technical talent. You would never hire an engineer and say, "Well, they're smart and hard working and hopefully they'll be able to figure out how to code." Yet, we do that with marketers all the time. This idea of raising the bar and setting higher expectations was very appealing to people in the Valley.

Through that, the initial class and the initial classes have really come from word of mouth and referrals. Hopefully, you're talking to someone that you trust, somebody that you want to be in their shoes in a year or 2 and that person says, "If you're trying to learn growth marketing here is a bunch of resources that you can read about online, but if you want to really get serious and ramp and speed up your progress, why don't you look at Tradecraft?" That's how we filled the initial classes. To this day, 60% of the students that end up at Tradecraft are through a referral, from another Tradecraft alum or a mentor. It's still by far the dominant channel for us.

Eric : Awesome. All right. Switching gears a little bit. What's one big struggle you faced while growing Tradecraft?

Misha: I think something that we continue to struggle with is to figure out how to vet for quality candidates. I think this is hard for hiring managers too. We do a couple of hours of interviews and some practice work and project work, but in the end, that still doesn't reveal your character and grit and sticktoitiveness and how late you're going to work at night and how much you're going to hassle and all of these things.

I think as our application volume increases, we sometimes fall back on did they go to an Ivy League school? Did they work at some name brand company? I don't actually think that's been the biggest proxy for people who have succeeded in the program. I think calibrating that, because we're making this lifetime commitment to somebody and so doing that on a few hours of diligence is scary. It's turned out right a vast majority of the time, but that's something that we're still struggling with, to get even better at.

Eric : I see. Just to go back. When you have new students coming in, they're coming in as part of a cohort, right?

Misha: Uh-huh (affirmative)

Eric : How many people is that?

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Misha: It's about a dozen people. Somewhere between 12 and 15 people per a month. That's split between sales, marketing and design.

Eric : Right. What's the overall objective of having these smaller classes?

Misha: It's 100% this idea of having a human relationship with each of the students. Sometimes I'll meet somebody and I'll say like, "Oh, yeah, one of my friends went through the program." It's like, "Well, tell me which friend, because I definitely know them well." We know all of the folks who have been through Tradecraft. It's roughly the down bar number. The down bar number is that you can have 150 relationships in your life. We have relationships with 150 people per a year and we just did some math and figured that we'd be able to sustain that with some ... we use some tech to make sure that we're still keeping in contact with everyone that's been out for a couple of years. I think one day that could scale, but it's hard to imagine it scaling 10x, just because of the human relationship factor.

Eric : Okay. What's one piece of advice you'd give to your 25-year-old self?

Misha: I really like this question, mainly because I really like my answer to it. If you could take away one thing from listening to these podcasts, smart, young, listeners of Growth Everywhere, maybe not young. I think when I was 20 or 25 ... This goes back to a concept about growth versus fixed mindset. I had a very fixed mindset growing up. I was told ... and I'm sure that they meant it with all the love and good intentions, but I was told by my parents all the time like, "Hey, you're really smart. You're really special." I think I built up a feeling that if I didn't succeed at something that I was a failure as opposed to just that it was a learning process and I needed to keep learning.

When I was 20 or 25, the things that I worked on, I didn't put 100% of my effort and energy into. I always left myself a little out. Basically, I said, "Well, I went pretty far on natural ability, but I didn't overextend myself," and basically I left myself excuses. It sounds like crazy to me now because my mindset has totally changed. I meet a lot of people who do this. Actually, I have this discussion sometimes with really talented Tradecraft grads where they hold something back so that if they fail they don't feel like they really failed, because, well, I didn't do this one thing. It's like that's not a good way to go about living life. You should put everything on the line. That's why, for me, when people are talking about ... Sometimes I talk to candidates and I'm talking about whether they should come to Tradecraft or not, it's like, "I think I could probably do it on my own."

Of course, you could do it on your own. Everyone who comes through here could do it on their own. The idea is that life is hard. If you set a high bar for yourself for a success, reaching that success is hard, you should take every available help, opportunity, advantage that you can take to get to where you want to go. I don't think I thought about the world like that when I was 25 and I definitely think about it like that now.

Eric : I totally agree with that. Are there any articles or books around having that growth or

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abundant mindset?

Misha: There's the classic Carol Dweck Growth Mindset book, which I think is helpful. I don't know that I've read other books that touch on that point. It is, basically, the point from mindset, from Carol Dweck's work. It's one of these things that I think once you get it, you get it and it feels like it's funny to even talk about it. Man, it is just not how I thought when I was 20 years old.

Now I look back, I had this band and we toured the country and we did pretty well, but we didn't really ever put in the work that we could have put in to see how far we could have taken it. Now, it's just a small regret of I wonder how big we could have gotten. There's a couple of projects in my early life that I did that with. Now, whether it's Tradecraft or something else, it's like I never let myself have that ... I'll never put myself in a position to have that doubt, I'll do everything that I could have done to make it succeed.

Eric : Right. Love it. Okay. Just building off the last question I had, I guess, what's one must read-book you'd recommend to everyone?

Misha: I'm excited about this one too. It's a really cool book. It's a little bit of a slog, so it's definitely not for everyone. The book is called Reinventing Organizations and it's by a Belgium guy named Frederic Laloux. It's a little bit academic, but it basically talks about different organizational structures and particularly, it's about holacracy, but holacracy is just a subset of this more general way of approaching building a business. I think it's really interesting and it feels like a competitive advantage. We haven't yet figured out a way to implement it at Tradecraft, though we do talk about it. I think that if I was an entrepreneur starting out today, I think I would read that book and then think how can I use this organizational structure as a competitive advantage for my business?

Eric : A funny story. When you recommended that book to me I was like, "Okay, I'm going to get it." Then, I ended up buying the wrong book. I ended up buying this book called Exponential Organizations, which is also a great read by Singularity University. I think if you combine that one with the book that you just talked about, which I also bought, I think you're going to be in a good spot, especially you're considering starting a business.

Misha: Yeah. Yeah. I'm glad that I recommended ... Yeah, it's been a consistent recommend for me for a while now. I really think it's like it's one of those books that's filled with ideas where you're like, ""Wow, I've never considered that before." You don't really see that that much.

Eric : Love it. Great. We'll drop both of these into the show notes. Misha, this has been fantastic. What's the best way for people to find you online?

Misha: You can find me on Twitter. I'm always vainly stockpiling my Twitter followers. @MishaChellam, it is 90% business and 10% warriors. You could also find me at ... If you have more questions about Tradecraft, I'm happy to answer at Misha, M-I-S-H-A @ Tradecrafted, which is why it's confusing, .com and then our website is

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Eric : All right, everyone. Make sure you check out, especially if you feel like you're stuck in a rut right now. To me, 14K is pennies compared to the value that you get in return. Thanks again for doing this, Misha.

Misha: Yeah. Thanks, Eric.

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