Going against the grain

How Roy is building an online MBA taught by the greatest of all time

The genesis of great startup ideas often springs from a place of dissatisfaction—a gap between what is and what could be. As a student in a master's in management, Roy Wellner found himself increasingly disillusioned with a curriculum full of academic theories. Steeped in theory, the courses lacked the dynamic, real-world challenges and insights of entrepreneurship.

It was from this place of dissatisfaction that he and his co-founder, Ariel Renous, decided to launch Augment, an online MBA taught by entrepreneurs like the founders of YouTube, Wikipedia, or Shazam. But how did two first-time founders with no track record manage to convince these world-class entrepreneurs to join them in building this alternative MBA? Let’s dive in.

Building a premium brand

When it comes to building companies, founders often follow startup culture almost dogmatically. Sam Altman, the founder and CEO of OpenAI, talks about this in an interview:

“Honestly, I feel so bad about the advice I gave while I was running YC. I've been thinking about deleting my entire blog. There were a lot of things that we held dear as wise advice: you have to launch right away. You have to launch a first version you're embarrassed by. You have to raise little capital upfront. You have to immediately find product-market fit with something. Open AI raised a billion dollars before we had any product at all. It took us four and a half years to release something. When we released it, we didn't talk to users at all for a while. We just didn't do it the same way and it still worked. I think the only certain thing I can say about startups is to make something people want.”

Sam Altman, founder and CEO of Open AI

In building Augment, Roy and Ariel also went against common advice. They didn't launch a first version of the product they were embarrassed by. They didn't even record a single lesson until they raised the funds that allowed them to produce high-quality content. "This is a business where you need money upfront," explains Roy. "You have to build a premium brand and produce high-quality content to attract the greatest entrepreneurs on the planet.”

Their strategy proved to be successful when they approached Steve Chen, one of the co-founders of YouTube. Roy recalls, "He was way too expensive for us. However, he liked the content so much that he joined us at a much lower fee than anything he had done before." The key lesson here is that blindly following startup advice is not ideal. Analyze your startup and product from a first-principles approach, understand what makes sense for you, and build from there.

Roy and Ariel with Steve Chen, co-founder of Youtube

Things that don’t scale

After finding and signing their first instructors, the Augment team focused on producing content. Nevertheless, recording, producing, and publishing an entire online MBA program takes time. Instead of waiting for the program to be fully completed, Roy decided to launch it when it was robust enough to deliver value.

However, the program was still in development, and Augment was a nascent brand with no online reviews or established reputation. That's why, embracing the ethos of doing things that don't scale, Roy and Ariel personally onboarded each of the first 100 customers. "We launched lead generation ads on Meta," explains Roy. "After gathering email addresses and phone numbers, we reached out and personally onboarded students. They could feel our passion, that we are serious about this, and that we care about them.”

Understanding the skepticism that comes with buying into an incomplete program, Roy knew that another key factor to make this work was to offer an additional incentive for early adopters. He explains, "As we had no reviews, no alumni, nothing on the internet, we decided to offer a significant discount as well as lifetime access to Augment.”

This offer was designed not only as a reward for their early commitment but also as a demonstration of confidence in the value and longevity of the program. This early cohort of students, won over by Roy's passion, became the first ambassadors of the Augment brand, helping to build its reputation from the ground up.

Know your customers

Chatting with potential students was not only a good strategy to acquire the first cohorts of Augment's users. Through these conversations, the team gained invaluable insights into their diverse needs and aspirations. "It was really surprising to see the diverse backgrounds of our students," notices Roy. "We have students working at big companies like Facebook or Apple, and we have students who have never worked in tech before.”

Understanding this not only helped the Augment team improve their communication with this diverse set of users, but it also made them realize that a one-size-fits-all program was insufficient to meet their needs. As a result, they introduced specialized programs tailored to specific interests such as sales, and entrepreneurship. "We have introduced these more affordable programs," explains Roy, "to cater to individuals with different needs." As always, the key lesson here is to engage with potential customers, understand their pain points, and address their specific needs.

Sharable certificates

If you search LinkedIn for posts mentioning Augment, you will come across numerous posts of people sharing their MBA certificate from the Augment Business School. This serves as a powerful tool for organic marketing, expanding the reach and appeal of Augment.

If you don't sell online courses or issue certificates, you might assume that this strategy doesn't relate to you. However, this is not limited to online learning. It’s all about creating shareable moments within a product that customers are excited to share. For example, Spotify Wrapped allows users to share their year-in-review. This concept is applicable to B2B as well, where you can create dashboards that users can share to celebrate milestones.


Roy concludes with one last piece of advice. "It took me some time to decide to launch Augment," he recalls. "I didn't think I was capable of targeting the US market due to my lack of confidence in my English. And I believe that was a valid concern to have. However, I made a significant shift in my mindset and chose to believe that things would turn out well. As a founder, being optimistic is essential. If you're not, you should never start a business. This mindset is also crucial for your team. When things are not going as planned, you must be the one who truly believes that you will succeed”