Name: Mat Jacobson
Mat Jacobson isn’t your typical businessman. He’s established three businesses in the tertiary education space, two property investment companies in Australia and the United States and a technology incubator in Melbourne. He’s worked as a lawyer in Australia, the US and the United Kingdom and he’s established a foundation to improve education in Africa.
Jacobson’s latest business venture, Dūcere, sees him combine his business and philanthropic skills, creating an online education provider which gives people practical business knowledge and a foundation, funded through the business’s profits, which helps develop the education systems in the third world and developing nations.
“It’s self-funding philanthropy. We have dozens of staff working across Africa, but it’s all funded through our own activities,” he says.
Prior to starting Dūcere, Jacobson sold his last business Origin Human Resources for $20 million. The company was the leading online provider of business and financial services training programs and boasted clients such as KPMG and most major government agencies.
Dūcere’s program is developed by a faculty of global leaders such as former prime minister John Howard, ex-Qantas chief executive Margaret Jackson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The students are given access to targeted interviews with each of the world leaders, focused specifically around their course topics. Seek founder Andrew Basset tells students about how to create a digital brand, while the interview with Lindsay Fox is about how to get the outcomes you want out of a negotiation.
“If you do a course with Dūcere, every element is delivered by a real world leader,” Jacobson says.
In its first year of business, Dūcere is predicted to turnover $1.5 million.
Jacobson spoke to SmartCompany about building a publishing house in Zambia, finding the right staff, and how he sold Origin Human Resources for $20 million.
Being an “unstructured” person, Jacobson says his days are relatively undisciplined.
“The days are quite fluid and random… The first thing I do, because I have kids who are eight and 11, is spend time with them and organise their breakfast, school lunches and drop off,” he says.
“Then I have breakfast on my own or with my wife, that’s usually casual and relaxed. I don’t eat breakfast in the office because it’s too hectic, there’s always 100 things happening.”
Jacobson says in the office there’s no time for breaks, so he balances his busy schedule with structured holidays.
“Even when I travel, it can be difficult because it’s in a work environment, it’s tedious and not a lot of fun, but I’m going to incredible places in America, remote locations in the Kalahari Desert and I was having seven meetings there and then leaving.
“Now I make sure if I’m there for two days of work, I take three or four days so I can explore as well.”
Jacobson’s days are filled with appointments, as he balances his time between staff, customer and partner meetings.
“The meetings are important to drive the business forward, but I also believe to be entrepreneurial, you can’t do that while in the office with 16 appointments back to back. It’s not somewhere where you can sit back and think about untapped opportunities,” he says.
“I work one day a week from home and I take time off to spend with the kids because they’re young, so I’m flexible with my time. I’ll often be home around 5:30pm, but because Dūcere is in multiple countries I’ll be on the phone to the UK or on email later in the night.”
Dūcere launched on the market seven months ago and Jacobson says his biggest challenge was finding good talent.
“People tend to interview well, but then you’re on your toes and trying to think of the best things to say. It’s not until they’re working that you know if they’ll be dedicated.”
Not a believer in the rhetoric around “corporate culture”, Jacobson prefers to put an emphasis on ethics and motivation within the business.
“I’d rather have someone with 70% competency who is passionate about what they’re doing and sees a long term future with the business, than someone who is 100% competent but only 50% motivated. You can teach skills, but if you have a mentality of doing the minimum to get by, that’s not what we want,” he says.
Within the business side of Dūcere there are 15 staff members, but Jacobson’s foundation has 35 staff.
One of the foundation’s current projects is building a publishing house in Zambia, allowing local school kids to read books from their own culture. Jacobson’s main goal from the initiative is to improve the quality of education systems in Africa. He’s partnered with various African governments and is working collaboratively with locals to achieve the Dūcere Foundation’s goals.
“With the publishing program, we wanted to capture the story telling and the rich old traditions of the local cultures. We’ve created a literacy program easy for teachers to use with levels one to 70 in sequential order. The system can be embedded easily – if someone finishes a book, then they move onto the next level and each one builds slightly on the last,” he says.
One of Jacobson’s greatest learning curves came when he started working in Zambia.
“We wanted to improve the quality of teaching in schools, but we didn’t set out to start a publishing house. We went to some schools and found there was often only one text book for a whole class, so we thought we’d just buy libraries for the schools,” he says.
“But there were no book shops. We were shown the main mall and we were taken to a newsagent. There were a few shelves of books and there was only one section of kids’ books. We had to build a publishing house with all the printing and distribution facilities because there was no other way to do it.”
Jacobson says it’s having both a philanthropic and entrepreneurial mindset which has allowed his latest venture to succeed thus far.
“Some organisations get books and ship them to Africa, that’s great, but there are a lot of problems. The cost of the shipping and logistics is more than the books… You need a system which works. We now print and deliver a book into an African school for 1/25th of what it costs to buy a reader and ship it to Africa.”
While Jacobson has achieved great things in his career to date, it hasn’t always been easy.
“I’ve had to mortgage my own house to get the funding to start businesses in the early days… but you need to be prepared to do that for the business concept.
“Today I don’t see huge challenges in this way because it’s a process of adaptation. I’m happy to be entrepreneurial and trial things and I’m very confident that we will succeed and get there, but it’s not a straight path.”
A challenge Jacobson encountered when starting Dūcere was getting big name world leaders to come on board.
“It was very difficult at first… being an entrepreneur you’re talking about a vision which doesn’t exist. But we did it successfully and once the process started it became a lot easier. When we got presidents and prime ministers of multiple countries on board, it became something people saw as valuable to be a part of.
“They feel they can be part of assisting the next generation of leaders.”
When Jacobson sold his previous business it wasn’t a planned move, instead he took advantage of an opportunity which presented itself.
“Being entrepreneurial, it’s about seeing opportunities as they arise and responding quickly to them. We didn’t set it up to be sold and didn’t have brokers; it was just doing great work.
“It worked very well for me because I was bored. I’d been in it for about six years and it was the longest time I’d ever done anything. I’m not motivated by purely dollars. I can’t turn up every day and work all day. It’s always what’s the next opportunity and innovation.”
Jacobson’s life is focused on work and family, but his hobbies include skiing and reading.
“There are no short cuts with family. You can’t spend 20 minutes of quality time with kids and think that’ll cut it,” he says.
“You need to be there, be around and do things together. It’s really critical. I spend all my time on family and work, but I’m very fortunate. One of the secrets of having a positive environment you enjoy is working in something you’re passionate about.”
When Jacobson founded Dūcere he did so knowing he wanted it to be a global organisation.
“I never expected to create a business with just academic programs in Australia. Next year we’re going to be launching in New York, we have partnerships in the United Kingdom and we’re going to be in Singapore too,” he says.
“By Christmas this year we’ll be running a tertiary base in Africa. That’s been the model from the beginning. We have a global vision. We also want our foundation work to be expanded in many countries across Africa too.”
Dūcere is also going to be launching programs up to the post-graduate MBA level.
Jacobson says one of his best pieces of advice is to find a mentor.
“I’ve never used the word mentor, but I have built relationships with people in an older generation who have been successful. In my early career having older generation people who didn’t need to impress me and just told me the way it is, that was invaluable.”