“Eventually, disruption is going to apply to you.” – PrecisionHawk CEO Michael Chasen

RALEIGH – Michael Chasen, CEO of Raleigh-based drone company, PrecisionHawk, previously founded, built the e-learning company Blackboard into a nearly $2 billion enterprise. He shared five pieces of “unconventional wisdom” he discovered along the way with the CED Tech Venture Conference on Wednesday.

Chasen started Blackboard in 1997 at the beginning of the first Internet boom, taking the first online learning company to market. The company expanded organically and also acquired many of its competitors such as WebCT, AngelLearning, and Moodle. Since then, Chasen said, “100 million people have used or touched Blackboard technology. It grew to 3,000 employees and 20 offices. It went public in 2004 and sold for $1.7 billion a few years later.”

But the company started with two people in a rundown brownstone in downtown DC. In the process of taking the company through it’s growth process, Chasen experienced unexpected things that occurred over and over. “You don’t read about them in books,” he said.

“The number one thing: be passionate,” he said. “You’re going to be spending all your time doing it. So you need to be passionate about it.”

I’m in the wrong room

Next, he said, “Focus on the business, not the office.” Fancy chairs and desks and office space do not win customers.

Third, he said, “Share the vision but sell the execution.” Talk to everyone and take input wherever possible, he added. Then take action.

One of Blackboard’s B round investors, the Carlyle Group, invited him to a CEO conference. Carlyle is big in the military-industrial complex. At the event, “I was the youngest person there by about 40 years,” Chasen said.

CEOs around the room introduced themselves. One said his company made casings for the bombs used in the Iraq war. Another made cameras for the bomb guidance systems, while yet another made the guidance systems. Chasen said, “We’re an e-learning company and I think I’m in the wrong room.”

Still, “I talked to everyone,” Chasen said. One noted that the military could use e-learning for soldiers in the field. Another said it could help company training for employees. “I realized there was a huge opportunity in the corporate space.”

That led to Blackboard creating a division that brought in $50 million in revenue. “A conference I though had nothing to do with Blackboard ended up creating a huge and profitable line of business for the company,” Chasen said.

Fourth, “Seek advice, but be the expert,” he said. He related how one venture capital firm told him being a product company in DC wouldn’t work, he needed to be a services company. So, at a second VC’s office, he pitched Blackboard as a services firm. “That will never work,” they said.

“Either you know enough to execute on the idea you have or you don’t,” Chasen said. “Stand behind it.”

Finally, he said, “I realized disruption changes everything. Then it changes everything again.”

Look at the music industry, he suggested. “It went from Tower Records, to Napster, to being able to access any music on your smartphone. Movies went from theaters to cable to your phone. Eventually, disruption is going to apply to you.”