Brandeis International Business School

033: Find Out Where Your Compass is Pointing

Norman Tran is the Head of Design at Tradecraft, where he helps smart people going through professional inflection points figure out what's next while avoiding potential failures. Norman created emotional intelligence training at Mission U, a tuition-free college alternative that helps underrepresented adults get roles at companies like Spotify, Survey Monkey and Accenture. He has facilitated Stanford Graduate School of Business’ flagship course on emotional intelligence. And he's helped Facebook bring accessible vocational skills to millions of professionals around the world through online micro courses.

After a two-year tour of duty in Silicon Valley as a product designer, Norman realized that the real bugs weren't in software, but they were in people. Since then, he has shifted from designing screens to designing learning experiences.

From the Dorm Room

Norman went to college at UC Irvine where he studied Business Information Management, which was essentially a hybrid business and computer science degree. He was trying to follow in the footsteps of his parents, both of whom studied computer science. But he realized that though he appreciated that kind of computational thinking, his real interest was always in reactivity and working with people.

After dabbling in a lot of different internships in consulting and advertising, he realized, "Oh, these actually aren't for me." He had to figure out what he actually enjoyed. And it wasn't until something called Startup Weekend, which was a 36 hour startup creation challenge, that he realized how much fun it was to think of how to create things from scratch.

So through several other experiences after that, Norman realized that he wanted to be a product designer. He wanted to create things. After winning a competition in college to build a business plan and product demo, like any naive college student would, he decided that should be his first real startup. It was also his first failed startup, but at least it confirmed that he enjoyed it.

After college, Norman dabbled in a few things, but he wasn't ready to be a product designer. He didn’t yet have a portfolio or body of work. So he joined Tradecraft as the very first cohort and taught himself as much as he could in design, but he still needed someone to show him the ropes and help him avoid those avoidable failures. 

To the Boardroom

Going back to that first failed startup idea, Norman and his friends were aspiring to create an app called Group Munch, which would help you and your friends figure out where to eat in a minute or less because figuring out what to eat in a group is such an annoying process, and one that they had dealt with personally.

It seemed like a really fun challenge, but the biggest reason why it didn't work out is because, surprise, they couldn't find a feasible way to actually make money. It was a cool idea, but it was not so painful of a problem that people would throw money at it.

After that, Norman took a few months trying to figure out his next steps. This was when he went to the first program of Tradecraft, where he was for 3 months. Several months after that, he got his first job working at a startup known as Declara as a product designer.

That was the whole Silicon Valley experience compressed into one year. He came in thinking he would be building one thing, and then two months later, they completely changed course. He had to design an entire mobile app in two days. There was a premature expansion across the world — they had $30 million in funding, but they didn't have a product that made money.

Eventually, the company got acquired. Even though the experience was quite shocking in some ways, it was also one of the most beautiful experiences for Norman because he learned so much from his teammates, and he grew so much in that time. 

The Entrepreneurial Edge

Every week, we highlight one piece of advice for aspiring, struggling, and successful-but-want-to-be-even-more-successful entrepreneurs:

The biggest lesson for Norman when it came to entrepreneurship is to build things that actually solve real problems that people have. You can build apps for fun, but if you're trying to make a business out of it, you need to be really clear about how you're going to make money. Otherwise, it's not going to work out.

“The greatest thing I've given to myself is a compass. And the compass came from self-discovery, came from sitting with these hard questions, like what does success mean to me? What makes me feel alive?”


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