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TRAILBLAZERS, Episode 5: How a Faculty Member Stumbled Upon Creating a $200 Million Business

August 31, 2017

trail·blaz·er: a person who blazes a trail for others to follow through unsettled territory

GSVlabs is dedicated to accelerating global innovation. With over 150 startups in the EdTech, Sustainability, Mobile, Big Data, and Entertainment verticals, we work with a diverse range of amazing entrepreneurs.

Above all else, we believe the “one-size-fits-all” mold is not what shapes entrepreneurs. We believe each person has his or her own path to entrepreneurship. Their own trail to blaze.


This week, we interviewed Murray Goldberg, the founder and CEO of Marine Learning Systems, to understand why he changed his entire life to start a company.

Murray Goldberg

The Transition

Murray Goldberg never imagined he would start his own company.

He completely and accidentally fell into entrepreneurship while doing research as a tenured faculty member at the University of British Columbia.

“I was happy with the idea that I was going to be a faculty member for the rest of my life. If you think about it on a scale from 0–10, most of my days were 7–9. It was not a bad place to be.”

“Then I discovered what it meant to be an entrepreneur. While a bad day might be -12, a good day would be around +20. Whether or not I meant to do it, I got bit by the bug.”

He stumbled upon the bug while researching electronic learning. As it turns out, students who take a blended approach to online and traditional learning do significantly better than students who only learn one way over the other. At the time — keep in mind this was 1994 — this was revolutionary.

“We had been using the lecture approach to higher education for such a long time, to much success, and then we had these opportunities to actually improve the outcomes.”

With this realization, Murray decided to build a tool called WebCT that enabled users to build their own courses to tailor these blended approaches. Murray and his team wanted to leverage the tool to conduct more experiments in the future.

“We took a grassroots approach to everything. Nothing was deliberate or calculated.”

But once the tool was created, it spread like wildfire.

Individual faculty members picked it up, passed it on to their department. Those departments passed it on to other departments, and then onward to university servers and statewide licenses. Within a year, Murray could no longer maintain the service on the side, but had to leave UBC to support all the users full-time.

WebCT’s platform

At the height of its success, this eLearning platform was being used by more than 4,000 universities in 80 different countries. WebCT became the world’s first commercially successful Learning Management System.

And this was all in the face of heavily funded competitors, one of which had millions of dollars of government grants in Vancouver, compared to WebCT’s two grants totaling $100 thousand. But instead of providing flexibility for faculty to adapt the tool to their teaching style, their platform reinforced a particular teaching style.

“As you could probably guess, they didn’t grow as quickly as WebCT.”

With WebCT, Murray never intended to make money. He was upfront at the very beginning about the need to monetize the platforms, but merely to cover the costs of maintaining the service. So on September 1, 1997, they were going to flip the switch.

“We had a bunch of time bombs in the code because we wanted all of the Beta versions to clear out. Some of the earliest versions of the code were preprogrammed to stop working.”

Houston, We Have A Problem

They missed one of the time bombs.

“I got a call around 10 PM from the future CTO of the company telling me that we had a problem.”

All around the world, when the clock struck midnight, the website stopped working and all the universities went offline.

Preparing for the backlash that would certainly ensue, Murray and his team fixed the software by 3AM and issued an apology email titled “We have a problem” before going to bed. Much to his dismay, Murray arrived to the office the next morning with an inbox full of “Re: We have a problem” emails.

But a funny thing happened. Rather than being disgruntled and angry, his users were extremely appreciative.

“I started clicking through them one-by-one and they were all super supportive and appreciative. Of the 70 responses only one of them was negative. And that’s when I thought to myself, ‘this is where I want to be. I want to be in a community that has this attitude.”

This initial failure taught him one very important lesson:

“Before starting a company, you need to get a job first. Get a job in a place where you want to work in a field that you want to work in. Gain experience, understand the pain points, be able to talk the language.”

The strong community that supported Murray during his first failure did not come together overnight. Until he left UBC, Murray was a faculty member, just like all the other users of the technology. His users trusted him because they knew he was not just a developer but one of them.

Just Keep Going, Going, Going

“I had been bitten. I tried something once and it worked really, really well — not because I did a lot of things right but because the environment was right.”

After WebCT was sold to Blackboard for $200 million, Murray never stopped building.

“I didn’t naively think that every company was going to turn out this way. I understood what it meant to work within one successful company and things went great.”

For his next two ventures, Silicon Chalk and AssociCom, Murray tapped into his intellectual curiosity and matched it with the needs of the community around him. Although none were as successful as WebCT, they served as Murray’s greatest learning opportunities.

Before WebCT, he was going from step to step, with no clear direction of where to go. Now, he starts with the end in mind.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that I know what I am doing now. Rather, I have learned from my mistakes. I know what to do when uncertainty arises and I know who I can go to when a problem arises.”

And the problems that arise are not always technical. Most people underestimate how huge the personal costs can be amidst the huge upswings and rapid downswings of the startup world.

“The biggest stress that I’ve experienced came when WebCT was successful because it changed our lives in a really big way. I was insanely busy and was on the road 5 days a week.”

Finding support becomes incredibly important in times like these, and this support can come from family, friends, and strangers alike.

“For one, I paid to be a member of a group where you would get together with company founders and discuss company and personal issues. Being able to discuss these hard decisions and circumstances that you are facing with people that are experiencing similar issues and pains was wonderful.”

“I would encourage every single entrepreneur to talk to other people in similar positions.”

Now, he is a founding member of the SaaS Founders Group in Vancouver, where founders in the software-as-a-service industry can talk to each other.

“Although it is hard to get together, we can talk about almost anything, as long as you’re non-competitive. I find it wonderful and would encourage everyone to do it.”

Almost Making It To Retirement

Murray started his current company almost by accident. He was mostly retired but still doing some consulting on the side when a client BC Ferries asked him to help them innovate and retool the way they trained.

As he did with WebCT, Murray focused on how he could tailor the technology for BC Ferries’ unique needs rather than cast a wide net. He focused on the ferry industry, participated in a pilot run, and created a Learning Management System that would provide ferries with the training environment they needed while out on the water.

Murray did not even have to create the content; he simply created the infrastructure that this industry desperately needed to deliver it. As part of a larger safety initiative, the training transformation helped reduce accidents and insurance claims costs by about 75%. Soon enough, other vessel operations started asking Murray for the same technology.

And so Marine Learning Systems was born.

“I hired some people, funded it myself, rewrote the software, and started selling it.”

“It’s great. It seems pretty clear to me that we have a business. And although we are very focused on maritime now, we are already planning our expansion into other safety critical industries.”

Right now, the company has over 30 employees and is growing quickly. In the maritime industry, Marine Learning Systems could top out at more than $15 to 20 million per year, but by expanding into other similar industries, the potential is many times that.

“I always thought that I would return back to being a faculty member because I loved teaching. But those days are gone.”

Murray got bit by the bug in 1994. And there’s no telling where he’ll go next.


To find out more about GSVlabs, Marine Learning System, and Murray, please connect and follow us on Medium, Twitter, and Facebook.

We’re currently in the process of interviewing founders, packaging interviews, and creating articles just like this. With enough momentum, we can make this a weekly series.

By Sunyoung Kye & Bryce Morisako

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