CEO KEYS

In this edition of the CEO Keys blog series, Keypath Education CEO Steve Fireng shares his thoughts and lessons learned on operating a global business.

Five years ago, we set out on a mission to not only change the OPM landscape, but also to create global higher education access through online learning.  While we made lots of mistakes along the way, we are so proud to have built a company that supports 23 universities in four countries and three continents.  And in the meantime, creating the largest OPM player focusing on the global market.  There are two questions I get very often: 1) what are the critical lessons learned in starting a global company? and 2) what is the future of online learning in a global market?

Let me address the first question.

Critical Lessons

  1. Diversify.  Political, economic and cultural aspects can ebb and flow in any market.  If my business were to focus on one market, I would have concentrated exposure to that one macro environment.  This is not to say you need 10 markets, but enough to give you diversity of risk and optionality to double-down on hot markets.
  1. The world doesn’t revolve around the US.  As much as I’d like for people just to follow the way we did it in the US, distinct cultural differences exist in each market that need to be respected.  One must balance building scale through technology, processes and resources with the flexibility to cater to local host countries culture. 
  1. Understand the differences in University structures, government funding, and gaps.  As mentioned above, acknowledge and respect the similarities and subtle differences across countries and regions. 
  1. Local, Local, Local.  Most countries do not want to be a “fly by”.   A fly by is when we just fly in to the country, tell them about our wonderful service/product, and expect them to buy.  Universities want to know you are investing in the market, hiring local citizens that understand individual cultures, and operating in local time zones that allow quick response times.  Shared resources can and, often, should be utilized, but a balance is needed.
  1. Communicate often.  Working across time zones can be difficult and result in limited in-person meetings.  You must use all technology available (e.g. Skype, WhatsApp, email, etc.) to over- communicate.  Try to make the impersonal more personal through technology.
  1. Patience.  This is where most groups fail.  Each market is a 3-5-year journey.  I can’t tell you how many companies and universities have come and gone.  While I can’t speak to each business model, their patience is 1-2 years. 

Many other lessons learned exist, but the biggest takeaway for me is that being a global company is about truly investing into each market with a long-term perspective, not simply landing a contract or two. 

As it relates to long term growth with online, the opportunities are large, but complex.  While the online space is expected to grow to over $150 billion US dollars, education providers will need to navigate acceptance of online, marketing access and local market economic and political dynamics.  But, the macro trends are favorable.  Population growth in many markets will require more education opportunities than a strictly brick and mortar environment.  Acceptance to online learning is gaining steam, and as we have seen in US, adoption happens very quickly once momentum starts to build.  And just like other technology, speed of adoption will happen faster in many of these emerging countries. 

Finally, my colleagues at Keypath and I are so excited we started our journey 5 years ago and motivated to ride the amazing growth trends globally.