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Melanie Jones moderates a discussion with Aaron Skonnard, co-founder and CEO of Pluralsight, at Utah Business's Founder Friday Series at Kiln SLC in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 19, 2024. | Photo by Marielle Scott, Deseret News

5 business lessons from Pluralsight co-founder Aaron Skonnard

This story appears in the May issue of Utah Business. Subscribe

Once a month, Utah Business hosts Founder Friday, a free event sponsored by BONCO, Kiln and KaJae that showcases the wisdom of Utah-based founders. In April, Kiln hosted the conversation between Utah Business Editor-in-Chief Melanie Jones and Pluralsight co-founder Aaron Skonnard. Here’s what you missed.

1. Evaluate trade-offs.

Leading a company will inevitably produce some trade-offs, and it’s important to have honest conversations with the people you care about most.

“I had a super supportive partner in [my wife] Monica, and super supportive children who understood what I was doing. … They were able to deal with the stress, pressure, travel, the intensity, and they valued the experience that was created for our family. It wasn’t seen as a huge negative. It meant I couldn’t be at as many soccer games when I was away, but there was still enough value coming from it that we all valued it together. Make sure those things are aligned. If they’re not — if you can’t give both the business and the personal side everything that they need — something’s got to change.”Skonnard says. “I remember thinking we had to build a ‘purple cow’ of technology learning.” 

2. The thing you’re building today may end up financing your big idea.

In the early days, Skonnard and his co-founders traveled worldwide, teaching training courses focused on quality technical content. While on a plane between trainings, he had an epiphany for “Pluralsight On-Demand” — a way of offering trainings online through web and mobile experiences at a much lower price. The team leveraged the classroom business to finance and build this new offering.

“That’s a case study for bootstrapping,” he continues. “You find an income stream that allows you to invest in the other thing you really want to build. The thing you’re building today may not actually be the bigger thing that will have the most impact.”

Aaron Skonnard, co-founder and CEO of Pluralsight, speaks at Utah Business's Founder Friday Series at Kiln SLC in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 19, 2024. | Photo by Marielle Scott, Deseret News
Aaron Skonnard, co-founder and CEO of Pluralsight, speaks at Utah Business's Founder Friday Series at Kiln SLC in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 19, 2024. | Photo by Marielle Scott, Deseret News

3. Fuel key decisions with data and outside counsel.

“Any successful business is the result of a series of key decisions,” Skonnard says. “As a founder, knowing what you don’t know — and surrounding yourself with people who know what you don’t know and will tell you the truth — is really important. … You’ve also got to look at the data. The more data-driven your decisions are, the better and more consistently good they’ll be.”

4. Always put the best interests of the business ahead of your own.

Pluralsight implemented a culture guide that consisted of two rules: 1) Don’t be a jerk, and 2) Put the best interests of the business first. “That guidance was sort of an initial DNA that has stayed with the company all the way through,” Skonnard says.

The latter credo helped the Pluralsight co-founders — including Skonnard — identify the right time to depart from the company. In early April, he announced his departure from the role of CEO. He will remain a special advisor to the board and the newly appointed CEO, Chris Walters.

“As the founder and CEO, there is a huge responsibility,” Skonnard says. “If you’re not up to whatever that task requires, you’ve gotta give the seat to someone else.”

5. Balance the health of the company with the need to give back.

In order to give back, a company needs to remain healthy and viable. Most large tech companies have a nonprofit social enterprise that sits to the side of the core business, and philanthropic efforts are channeled through that entity.

“You have to think about, ‘OK, I can’t be too altruistic because if I can’t feed the beast, the beast is going to die,’” Skonnard says. “You want the beast to live and produce fruit that can be used elsewhere.” 

Mekenna is the editor of Utah Business magazine and a graduate of the print journalism program at Utah State University. She has written about business, music and culture for publications like Business Insider, Time Out, SLUG Magazine, Visit Salt Lake and the Standard-Examiner. She loves hiking, thrifting, reading and going on camping trips with her partner in their 1986 Land Cruiser.