Reimagining Professional Development: Nuggets of Wisdom from Reforge CEO, Brian Balfour

August 10, 2022

Brian Balfour is the CEO of Reforge - which offers a career development membership program and cohort-based courses for product, growth, engineering, and marketing leaders

Virtually Founder & CEO, Ish Baid, had a chance to sit down with Brian to learn about his journey and dig into how he approaches building high-impact professional development programs. 

Read on for nuggets of wisdom from their chat. You can also listen to this episode of the Reshaping Education podcast here. (To stay fully up to date with the podcast, subscribe here.) 

Transcript excerpts have been edited for this post.

Ish: What was the key insight that led you to thinking that something like Reforge needed to exist? Also take us back in time and help us understand the landscape of the time - what were your alternatives if Reforge didn't exist?

Brian: Yeah, I think I think oftentimes, when founders tell the origin stories of companies, it feels like this big bang moment, but when you really dig in with them, you realize that it was a lot of small things that added up over time and then created this stars aligning moment. 

And so for me, there were a lot of those little moments. Both my parents were teachers, so education was a very big part of my upbringing. I went to a great university, but I had a very unfulfilling college experience from an education perspective. 

And then I started my first company during college that didn't work out. And I got this chip on my shoulder, which launched me into tech and entrepreneurship, which I didn't know much about. But I learned on my own through self learning and that got me really into professional development. 

A few years into working at Hubspot and I had this amazing team, and every single week I would sit in these one on ones where people would be asking me about professional development. So I spent all this time researching what to recommend for them, and most of what I found at the time was either designed to help people get a job, or programs on very general topics. 

And just, it was so general that it just wasn't coming from the people. It wasn't created by the people that my team wanted to learn from. It wasn't around the topics that they wanted to learn about, it wasn't really relevant to what we were working on. It had all of these issues, and so that just motivated me to put all of these little moments from my history over time together and create this MVP on the side which we called Silicon Valley Business Review. 

We just kind of dumped out everything that we had learned over our years of working. And we had an amazing reception - a couple thousand applications right out of the gate.It was just the most insane Product Market Fit that I had experienced in my career. 

But it's definitely a culmination of a lot of these small moments and capabilities that I learned over time that really gave me the insight or enabled the ability to execute on Reforge.

Ish: I think like Steve Jobs has said in the past is you can only connect the dots looking back. And looking at all these experiences, it’s clear that you were the right person to start this business at this time.

Brian: I want to expand on that. With career development, one of the hardest things is you get these really highly motivated people, and they're trying to think through these questions of where do I want to be in five years. But trying to connect the dots forward like that is just impossible. At no point in my career, would I have predicted where I was going to be in five years, I wouldn't have been even close. 

And what’s worse is that it actually leads us to these false destinations, where people think, if I want to be here in five years, I have to gather all of these certifications on my LinkedIn profile, or I've got to go work at Facebook, and all these other things. 

And a lot of times those things don't matter. In the professional development perspective, the only thing that matters is finding a meaningful problem to work on at your company, figuring out how to solve it, and then communicating the work that you did to the world because that opens up more opportunities and helps repeat the cycle. That is what really propels you forward to create the optionality that opens doors for you. It's not the let me think where I want to be 10 years from now and work my way backwards, which is somewhat of an impossible exercise.

Ish: Where does Reforge fit into someone’s career growth? Why does someone need a program like Reforge? Why can't you just learn some of these skills and build this network on the job?

Brian: Yeah, I do think you learn quite a few things by working through the problem on your own. But where Reforge comes in is that we are trying to unlock the insights from the world's best operators that have solved these types of problems before, and codify it into a set of tools and methodologies so that others can take those things and accelerate the time that it takes for them to solve that problem the next time around. 

Why is that important? Because the most valuable thing to a company is time - the time it takes to solve these problems - because that's what creates growth. 

And if you don't go through the efforts of trying to give your team the resources to learn from those that came before them, what will your team end up doing? They reinvent the wheel over and over again. And it's one of the most inefficient things in the world. 

And part of this problem is that the quantity of information on the internet has created this false feeling that everything in anything is out there. And the more that I've built Reforge, the more I've realized that most modern business knowledge about the most problems are still trapped in the heads of a very small group of operators that are on the front lines of some of the fastest growing companies solving the most like frontier problems. 

So how do we untrap that so that the next group and the next generation can build on top of that? And that's really what Reforge is about.

So if somebody comes to us and says, “Hey, I want to be a VP of product in five years. What programs should I take?” We tell them they’re asking the wrong question. And the question we ask them instead is, “What is the business problem that you are working on right now? Or plan to work on next?” 

Approaching professional development in this way creates more impact for the business and opens up more doors for you. So it’s this hybrid of learning from the best and not reinventing the wheel, but it's tied to the thing that I'm working on at the moment, versus something that I might use 10 years from now. 

Learn more about Reforge here.

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Laura Marks

Laura Marks is Head of Customer Experience at Virtually