In March this year, I was just shy of completing my first year as CEO at edtech company Education Perfect, and the first lockdowns started rolling out in China. It wasn’t long before this was a global pandemic, requiring school lockdowns across the world.
As a parent and an edtech practitioner, the past few months have been an intense learning experience for me, capping off an intensive immersion into the industry.
While the business was started some 12 years ago by two New Zealand brothers, the platform has come a long way since then, and is now used for online learning and assessments by more than 1.2 million students around the world, up from 650,000 only 12 months earlier.
Schools using the platform has also risen dramatically, from 1,600 in May 2019, to 2,600 a year later.
We went from a reach of 17 countries to 58 in that same year, and saw our staff numbers go from 125 to 166.
Our offices around the globe rose from one to eight.
There is nothing quite like a baptism by fire to see how your technology and team functions when demand unexpectedly skyrockets.
There were steps we took to achieve this success, which are reflected in the three recommendations I’d offer any CEO looking to achieve a similar level of success, no matter what industry they work in.
1. Focus on culture and ensure there’s a documented mission and set of values
The business lacked a clear company mission and set of values committed to paper when I started. This was a big gap.
Considering so many business activities and people behaviours are based on a mission and values, I devoted a lot of time to make sure we got this right.
I started by asking the team how they felt about the business and the platform, as I wanted to determine what had contributed to the business’ growth up until that point.
What was the ‘special sauce’? What values were important to them? Which ones were important to our customers?
We then had a foundation on which to refresh the broader workplace culture.
We initiated a survey to get individual perspectives, and then crafted what we felt was ‘the EP way’. In short, it’s a set of values to underpin everything we do.
We rebranded with a clean, modern, contemporary logo with global appeal and a new colour palette. The positive impact of this has been felt from customers as well as our employees.
I moved our 100-strong Dunedin team in New Zealand to a larger, open-plan office. Being co-located enabled relationship-building to happen quickly and for innovation to begin to flourish.
I also hired a dedicated team for the international side of the business, which was rapidly growing.
So, with a significant portion of our teams located in other offices or wholly remote, we also focused on how we communicated using digital channels and tools.
We established a weekly communications program, focused on building and maintaining our culture, and sharing expertise from across the company.
We made our monthly team communications simpler, more regular, and more transparent. They’re a mix of business and celebrating the team’s work. I am especially enjoying using video to communicate and connect with our global teams.
Investing in our people is key for me, and I have always found that promoting from within is an excellent way to create mutual value for an employee and the company, ultimately creating positive customer experiences.
I worked with my leadership team and an external trainer to create a leadership course. This is not just for the executive team, but something we offer to all our people. We believe that all our employees are leaders or leaders-in-training in some way.
As a big believer in wellbeing, I introduced a weekly, company-funded fitness session, and upped the quality and healthiness of the refreshments at our offices.
I also introduced an annual allowance for each employee to spend on something that makes them happy and contributes to their wellbeing.
So far, it’s being used for activities such as art supplies, yoga, book subscriptions, massages, and even activewear for the company’s weekly bootcamps.
The changes enabled us to connect with our employees by showing them we were interested in their input, and that the input could make an impact on the organisation as a whole, moving forward.
By focusing on bolstering company culture, we were able to build from within, and establish foundations for success.
2. Enable agility so your team can respond to change and pursue growth opportunities
I had been CEO for less than a year when, in early-February, COVID-19 struck the Chinese market, before disrupting school education and closing schools across the world.
With the technology and process changes we have consistently made on the platform, we were able to respond efficiently and effectively to the rapidly changing circumstances.
Companies like us — that had developed solid strategies around people, technology and processes — were able to better support their customers and, from a business perspective, take full advantage of the situation, unlike less agile-thinking companies.
Most of our users had been using the edtech platform to augment their classroom learning, enabling teachers to manage their classroom workloads and curriculum, and provide a way for their students to undertake assessments that collected smart data insights.
We had always known it was a platform that could be used exclusively for remote learning situations, but we couldn’t imagine how rapidly its use would expand in the event of school shutdowns.
We first offered a free trial to 50 schools in China, until May 1, then opened the offer up to the rest of the world as the pandemic took hold.
After eight weeks, our platform had an additional 500,000 student users.
Our business model is that the platform is free for teachers to use for content, but schools pay for use for each student that uses it.
So, importantly for the future and development of the platform, we have been able to convert a significant percentage of trial users to paying customers.
With rolling school closures still taking place, we are solving a key problem for schools.
Plus, the uncertainty that we are living in has strengthened the team’s ‘resilience muscle’ as they practise the agility skills.
3. Customer feedback is gold if you feed it back into your product
An interesting consequence of exponential user growth over a short period of time is the exponential growth of user feedback and customer service queries that you can turn into insights.
We saw positives, but more importantly, our product and process pinch-points were exposed.
From a product management perspective, we had customer feedback loops that already helped us make decisions on features or the product overall.
With the increase in users, we could quickly ascertain when a pinch-point was affecting only a small number of people, where we may decide not to make any changes, or if it was significant enough to require refinement or a pivot.
Our product and development teams already had this built into their build-measure-learn process, but they had never had so many new data points to consider. It was exciting for the teams and created renewed momentum to refine the product and its features.
While the user data was analysed and contributed to decisions, qualitative feedback from customer service and customer success teams played an important part of the feedback loop. Having experienced product and technology teams that can bring together both quantitative and qualitative feedback is essential.
Being aware of our strengths and pinch-points enabled us to adapt and learn. And gaining insights from our own people has expanded our options for effective product development.
Reflecting on a year as CEO
When coming into any new leadership role, it’s important to carefully balance the introduction of new ways of thinking and working with those that have existed before.
Come in too quickly with too much change and your first year will likely be very rocky.
For a new CEO, there is even more pressure, as you don’t just have to lead an area of the business, you are there to uplift the entire company.
The culture you cultivate and the foundations on which you build the business and product are often not given the importance they deserve.
Get this right early in your first year so you can be the lead evangelist for your people.
This will allow the business to be able to respond to change with velocity.
In your first two weeks, set a target of speaking with customers and, if possible, visit them in their own environment so you can better understand how people engage with your product.
In your first year, you should have undertaken dozens of customer visits in person or online, as it is truly one of the best ways to immerse yourself in a business and allow you to make effective decisions.
There are many activities a CEO must focus on, but concentrating on business foundations of mission, value and culture, along with enabling agility and customer feedback loops, is a sure way to have a successful first year.
You can help us (and help yourself)
Small and medium businesses and startups have never needed credible, independent journalism and information more than now.
That’s our job at SmartCompany: to keep you informed with the news, interviews and analysis you need to manage your way through this unprecedented crisis.
Now, there’s a way you can help us keep doing this: by becoming a SmartCompany supporter.
Even a small contribution will help us to keep doing the journalism that keeps Australia’s entrepreneurs informed.