‘Getting Attention Is Much More Complex Than It Used To Be’: Will Lucas, On Building Classana
Will Lucas dropped out of school five or six times before he graduated. It wasn’t that he performed poorly. He was doing professional work outside the classroom while he was still in high school. When he started college, he didn’t see how any of the coursework related to the experiences he was having in the real world. He was not alone.
Classana is Lucas’ solution to that problem.
An online educational resource discovery engine, Classana makes recommendations for users on the next steps in their education, career, and interests. The goal of Classana is to organize the world’s learning resources — from books you should read, classes you need to take, organizations you should join, and even events you should attend that will help advance your education in the real world. The recommendations are based on a proprietary matching algorithm.
The mastermind behind Toledo, Ohio-based Classana, Lucas is the founder and CEO at A William Lucas Company. Under this umbrella, Lucas founded several tech and media-related businesses. One of his creations is Creadio, a brand-marketing tech company servicing nationally recognized brands since 2007.
Lucas is also one of the few young Black TEDx organizers in the U.S. He curates TEDxToledo. In 2016, he was named to the Ohio Casino Control Commission. The tech industry has taken notice. TechCrunch named him on its 40 Diverse People In Tech Who Made Big Moves In 2015. Business Insider listed him as one of the 46 Most Important African-Americans In Technology in 2014 and NBC’s “The Grio” ranked Lucas as one of the Top 10 Blacks in tech to look out for in 2013.
But Lucas devotes energy to drawing attention to other achievers in tech. He launched and plays host on the Of10podcast, highlighting prominent personalities and tech startups including founders, engineers, and managers from Pinterest, Dropbox, and Snapchat.
Lucas talked to Moguldom about how he comes up with ideas, how he follows through, and one of his biggest challenges as a tech entrepreneur — getting attention.
Moguldom: Would you consider yourself a serial entrepreneur?
Will Lucas: I haven’t really thought about it, but I suppose the definition of an entrepreneur who has interest in several companies fits my profile. I have a variety of interests and I want to pursue them, so I do when it makes sense.
Moguldom: What do you enjoy about being an entrepreneur?
Will Lucas: I enjoy the freedom and responsibility of living and dying by my own decisions. The future of my companies, my employment for that matter, is in my hands. Whether or not there’s food on my table depends on how good I am at selling and delivering quality products and services.
I get to build the type of company I want to work in. I get to set the tone. I have a vision for the life I want to lead. Thankfully, I’ve been somewhat accomplished at building a company that allows me to live on my own terms.
At the end of the day, passing or failing is up to me. There’s a tremendous freedom and liberty in that.
Moguldom: What are the major challenges of being a tech entrepreneur?
Will Lucas: Getting attention is much more complex than it used to be. There are so many things to try, so many messages being delivered to consumers, and so many next hot apps out there, that breaking through and getting a real shot with a customer or user is a challenge that requires a different approach tomorrow than it does today, and another the next day.
Attention is the most expensive thing there is. And, it takes more than financial resources to get it. It also requires a high level of creativity.
Moguldom: What led you to start Creadio?
Will Lucas: I had a career in radio that started before I graduated from high school. And I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I thought it was going to be in the music business. But, having this entrepreneurial bent caused my radar for opportunity to be well developed at a young age.
I was working as a radio personality at the time, and one day I was walking through a clothing store. They were playing the local urban radio station as their background music in the store — airing over speaker system — and inevitably the commercial break happens. So, I’m in the store and I hear one of their competitor’s commercials air over the sound system in their store. I think to myself, ‘this doesn’t make any sense’ that they’re playing ads for another store in their store. So, at that moment, I thought how cool it would be if they had their own radio station that had all the same music, but in between the songs, messages about their store and their promotions would play. So, I got on the road to building it.
Moguldom: What does Creadio do?
Will Lucas: Today, we’ve grown the services we provide to include not only custom brand radio, which is designed for restaurants and retail environments to replace traditional background music, but also website design, video production and communication strategy. We’re a full-stack marketing agency today.
Moguldom: What led you to start Classana?
Will Lucas: I was a non-traditional student in college. I probably dropped out of school five or six times before ultimately graduating. It wasn’t that I performed poorly, but remember, I was doing professional work outside the classroom before I graduated high school. So, when I began college, I didn’t see how any of the coursework I was doing related to the experiences I was having in the real world. I figured that I couldn’t be the only person having this experience, but I would still take classes here and there.
One day, a mentor of mine told me, ‘Will, you’re a bright young man. However, people would respect you more if you had at least your baccalaureate’. So, at this stage I had about three years worth of credit hours under my belt. I then registered for 17 credit hours that summer semester because I just wanted the whole thing over with. During this time, I had coffee with another one of my mentors, and he asked why I was in school. I told him what mentor No. 1 said — that people would respect me more if I had my degree, and he asked ‘But you run your own business, right?’ (Creadio was up and running at this stage.) I replied ‘yes’. He then asked, ‘And you want to continue running your own business, right?’. I replied, ‘yes’. Then he said, ‘I’m not trying to tell you to not go to school, but if you’re going to go and you want to continue running your business, take classes that specifically help you get better at your business.’
I realized then after taking that advice and attempting to organize my own fall semester classes outside of a degree track, that college isn’t really designed for you to curate your own experience. Knowing that I wasn’t the only person less concerned about the degree and more about the specific tools I needed, I decided to create a platform that helps you organize a learning plan specifically based on your unique journey. That was the beginning of Classana.
Moguldom: How did you fund the startup?
Will Lucas: I’ve funded the development of Classana all from my own pocket. I’ve also found some success in convincing some talented engineers to work with me on building this company as well.
Moguldom: Why was a company like Classana needed?
Will Lucas: We as a society have challenged the ROI (return on investment) of a college degree for at least the last several years. I believe college is extremely valuable — however, the way we’ve historically done higher ed may no longer work for today’s information and knowledge economies. So, we need more learning experiences customized for the individual based on their goals, learning modes, and interests. Classana provides that.
Moguldom: Why did you launch your podcast?
Will Lucas: Of10Podcast started because an advisor of mine who sits on my Classana advisory board, a white man, asked me what would it take to get more African American youth interested in coding. I said in response that, ultimately, they needed to see a Black Mark Zuckerberg. After that conversation, I immediately kicked myself because I realized after thinking about it that we had some super-successful Black people in tech — we just didn’t know their names. Having the radio background, I knew I could produce a great audio product, so I did.
Because I have the startup, Classana, and still run Creadio, I only planned the podcast for one season. That’s why it’s called the Of10podcast. It was to mean 1 of 10, 2 of 10, 3 of 10, and so on. The response, however, has been so great, that we’re still here — now going into Season 5.
Moguldom: Are you still the commissioner of the Ohio Control Commission?
Will Lucas: Yes. I was appointed originally in 2013, and was most recently re-appointed in April of 2017.
Moguldom: What does that entail?
Will Lucas: I’m one of seven commissioners there, and we’re a regulatory body where our charge is to put measures in place that ensure the integrity of casino gaming in Ohio.
Moguldom: How do you juggle everything?
Will Lucas: Some people golf, some play video games. I love to work.
Moguldom: What’s next for you?
Will Lucas: World domination. Short of that, continue building these companies to where they’ve fulfilled their potential — a place where they’re positively impacting people all around the world.
Moguldom: What has been your biggest lesson as an entrepreneur?
Will Lucas: By all means, find a partner. Never go at a business venture alone. If you can’t win someone over to join your team, you have to consider whether you’re prepared to win a customer too.