Sung Rhee wanted to make money. He’d been a general manager at Microsoft for nearly a decade, and in the early 2000s he wanted to capitalize on the burgeoning internet boom. So he built more than 100 websites in a wide variety of sectors to see what would stick.
The venture that took off was a site focused on connecting students with opportunities in higher education. In 2004, he launched Kirkland, Wash.-based SR Education Group, now called Optimal.
The business did well, providing a marketing platform for for-profit schools in particular and the growing numbers of online programs. But over time, increasing student complaints and concerns from government regulators troubled Rhee. He realized the profit-university side of the sector had some serious problems, and that there was “a lot of bad marketing and bad promises being made to these students.”
He did a gut check and and knew that he needed to change his model. About a decade ago, the company shifted its primary goal from marketing to serving students. The site shared critical student reviews and dug up and posted information on tuition costs.
Some of Rhee’s customers were not happy with what they were reading about themselves on the platform. The universities threatened to pull their business.
“That was our come-to-Jesus crisis for us,” he said. “It was like, ‘Who are we and what do we stand for?’”
Rhee decided to put students first — costing the company some of the university accounts. The site now focuses on providing data-driven advice, ranking institutions to help students match their career and financial aspirations with higher education options. Education is an investment, he said, and he wants to make sure students get a good ROI.
Just as Rhee has shifted his company’s priorities, his personal goals have evolved as well. While he’d been “go, go, go” and focused on achievements and success in his earlier days, he’s now mindful of taking care of himself with sleep, yoga and exercise. He places a high value on the relationships. It’s made him a better, calmer leader — which has been essential during the pandemic.
“If you’re rattled, it’s hard to be the rock and support for other people,” Rhee said. Responding to COVID-19 has been a leadership challenge, he said, but he has worked to reassure employees that their jobs are secure. He gave everyone an extra week off for spring break. He bought them Fitbits, in large part to help them track their sleep and make sure they’re getting needed rest.
“I encourage everyone to balance their work and their private lives and not get too stressed,” Rhee said. “My job is part strategist, part decision maker, part cheerleader, part therapist.”
We caught up with Rhee for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
Mobile devices: iPhone X but will upgrade to iPhone 12 Max. Whatever has the biggest screen.
Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? My office is in downtown Kirkland, on the shores of Lake Washington. It is spacious and calming and fun. It has a full kitchen so I can make food when I want. It is in a quaint downtown that has a beach vibe. Nearby restaurants know me, so I don’t even have to order my food. They just make something that will work with my dietary restrictions and that I will enjoy.
Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Always make time for yourself. Set realistic expectations of yourself and others. Stress is a function of how you see the world and is often caused by fears of falling short of expectations — whether it’s internal or external. We spend so much of our lives working, and it’s a shame that most people don’t get to enjoy the journey. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? Facebook. Because I’m old. But I actually like TikTok the most. It’s hip and fun. I feel like I use Facebook begrudgingly because all my family and friends are on it.
Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? Zero. It’s almost always zero. Earlier in my career, it used to be like 100 unread messages a day. Then I realized I only need to pay attention to a very few things in life for me to achieve what I want to achieve.
Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? 12 including my haircut, my facial and leisurely lunch.
How do you run meetings? I try to focus on making decisions at meetings and actively problem solve, rather than going through status or updates. All of that should be done before the meeting. Also, I like to allocate some time to chit chat about random fun stuff so we can relax and just connect with others at a human level.
Everyday work uniform? Hoodie shirt, jeans and Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 35. I have 12 identical hoodie shirts (but with different colors) and six pairs of Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 35s.
How do you make time for family? What kind of a question is that? How do you *not* make time for your family? I have dinner at home every night, and I pick up my kids at the airport when they are in town. And I try to do TikTok dances with my teenage daughter. I want to do more, but she won’t let me.
Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Sleep, meditate and exercise. I make sure to get quality sleep every night. I meditate every day for 15 minutes at least. And I exercise every day (cardio and strength training). I do not compromise on any of these.
What are you listening to? ’80s New Wave, ’70s rock anthems and K-pop. Jimin is my favorite BTS member.
Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? Ask Amy on Seattle Times. Business Insider. Otherwise, I don’t follow the news. News these days has a very low signal to noise ratio.
Night owl or early riser? Not a night owl, but a late riser. I don’t ever set an alarm to wake up. I sleep ’til I don’t want to sleep any more. I get very good sleep. My Fitbit has been great at helping me optimize my sleep.
Where do you get your best ideas? During conversations. Ideas pop into my head when I’m interacting with others.
Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? I like the principle-based approach to work and concepts like radical candor that are promoted by Ray Dalio, the American billionaire hedge fund manager and philanthropist. We try to integrate those ideas into our company’s guiding principles. We have five guiding principles for our company that we expect everyone to embrace.
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News – How Optimal’s CEO shifted his company and personal priorities — and is now a better leader