Scale your consultancy: How to launch a $100,000+ online learning business

You’ve been running a successful consultancy the past several years. You have a big client base with long-running relationships and on-going projects.

To increase revenue, there are many things you can do: 
grow your client base, hire more people
increase bill rates, reduce costs

But, perhaps you don’t want to grow horizontally? You want to keep your consultancy small and nimble. You want to supplement the tried-and-tested but dinosaur bill-rate model.

What do you do? 

Digitise your business model, create an online learning offer.
Get inspired by Curve from Wolff Olins (previously called Kitchen), IDEO U, and Wisdom Labs.

IDEO U focuses on courses based on their core expertise in innovation, creativity and storytelling

IDEO U focuses on courses based on their core expertise in innovation, creativity and storytelling

Compliment in-person workshops through digital learning

Compliment in-person workshops through digital learning

So why do it? Online learning has many commercial (and obviously social) benefits. Based on my experience co-founding Curve from Wolff Olins, building the FutureLearn brand and its first MOOC, here’s what I’ve learned about what it empower business leaders to do: 

diversify your business model
Client work can be incredibly volatile; you can go through months of feast, then famine. This enables you to create an alternative, and potentially more stable revenue stream. 

monetise your most valuable intellectual property
Like Wolff Olins, perhaps you’ve built up years of incredibly valuable thought leadership, frameworks and tools. Instead of letting that IP just sit in a blog post or private deck, why don’t you transform that content into a sellable and repeatable online course to clients and the public?

share costs, grow your own people internally
At Wolff Olins, we practised what we preached. Courses, like How to Workshop, were made to train both employees and clients on leadership and facilitation.

 

This course was run internally and externally.

This course was run internally and externally.

reach hundreds, potentially even thousands, more people
Perhaps you’re responsible for facilitating in-person training and workshops for your client, the greatest number of folks you’ll get in a room is usually 30, maybe 70 if you’re lucky. Online learning enables you to reach many more people at once.

So how do you do it?


Know who you’re for and what they really need to learn
Who is your consultancy currently focused on? What are their biggest needs?
What is your core product offer? How can learning compliment and cross-sell your offer?
What are your clients’ core capability gaps and how does that intersect with what you are expert in? What’s the most expensive learning area they’re willing to pay for?

Do your homework, talk to your clients
Get deeper into their learning needs. Get their opinion on your potential online learning offer — and what they’d most like to learn from you and be most willing to pay for.

Test the appetite — advertise your new offer on the homepage and pitch decks
Test the appetite for your learning offer before you invest in any content. Create a compelling elevator pitch to see if anyone would be keen on attending. This is what I’ve done for General Assembly and Wolff Olins.

Test the appetite for content through your site

Test the appetite for content through your site


Start small — narrow it down to one learning journey
The key to the business model is repeatability. Whilst in the long-term your content needs breadth, you need to be able to repeat the same course again and again. Design a simple learning journey that addresses fundamental client needs through your core expertise.

Think communities, not classrooms
As my friend E Aboyeji, co-founder of the education startup Andela, said, “Communities are the new vehicle for learning.” We learn best with and through each other. The community will also keep your content fresh and alive, through passing on inspiring links, sharing getting advice on tough challenges, and sharing successes that relate to your content. 

Use third party providers to host your course
You don’t need to invest in an expensive, fancy LMS at the onset. At the end of the day, learning is about people, not technology. For the learning MVP of Qlue Community, we used mailchimp and Slack. I‘ve also used Wix to build a simple LMS. You can even do it over email, like this brilliant course on freelancing

It will take time, but remember your end game.

Whilst there are many commercial benefits to online learning, like any entrepreneurial endeavour there is always risk involved. You’ll need to find the right balance between your consulting and online offer, as the latter could take several months — if not over a year to yield six-figure revenue. Your business should be at a more developed stage where you can practically invest time, money and resources into extending your learning offer.

But, let’s always remember the end game, building a $100,000 — if not million dollar learning offer — that makes money while you sleep.

Melissa Andrada, @melissaandrada looks after Qlue, a learning consultancy that’s all about building amazing learning programmes to grow as many people as possible in the most meaningful way possible (or at scale as some might say). 

We try to put our money where our mouth is. We just launched our own learning community to help creative leaders live their purpose and achieve their most important goals. 

Thank you for reading. If you found this post valuable, we would be so grateful if you could recommend and share.

How to find the perfect platform

Learning should fit around employee lives -- whether they're at their desk on the go 

Learning should fit around employee lives -- whether they're at their desk on the go 

There's no such thing as the perfect learning platform. Each one has advantages and disadvantages, but not all are created equally. 

Creating the right employee learning experience for your company is one of the most important strategic decisions you’ll ever make.

An online platform — Learning Management System (LMS) or Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) — can be a powerful tool for helping your people grow to reach your organisation’s full potential.

Earlier this year I spent three months searching for the right platform provider for Wolff Olins — to grow their people and clients. It wasn’t easy; it’s an opaque industry whose business model largely relies on privacy — closed demos and paid trials.

This is what I wish I had when I was getting started.
 

Quick overview of the marketplace

Getting an industry overview is difficult — and often expensive. I consulted with three learning technology experts to focus my search. Here’s a sketch of the industry with examples.

Established players
Saba. Trusted provider. Focused on talent and leadership development.

MOOCs
FutureLearn. Simple, clean. Set up by the Open University, focused on higher ed, now open to companies. Full disclosure: I helped create the initial brand and their first MOOC on the Secret Power of Brands.

OpenedX may also be a good free option if you want to re-purpose an open source MOOC.

Open marketplaces
Skillshare. Public, democratic, affordable, anyone can set up or take a class. Focused on tech, entrepreneurship and creativity.

Beautiful eReaders
Inkling. A beautiful designed eReader turned learning platform. Ex Apple leadership.

Social tools
Yammer. Private social network. Incorporate online classes into existing systems. While at Wolff Olins, we used Yammer to support in-person workshops by adding online discussion and resources.

Progressive hybrids
Fuse Universal — YouTube for business, a social platform for learning. Strong social functionality for scalable peer learning.

And remember
Think outside the box. In many ways, an LMS is no different from a CMS. You may find a private blog via Tumblr may be just as impactful — and more affordable. Or, employee communication tools like Slack may serve similar purposes.

If you’re looking for a more in-depth audit of platforms and best practices, get in touch hello@qluelearning.com.
 

Questions to inform your platform brief

1. Who is your core audience? What do they need to know to be successful on their jobs? For example, this is for everyone in the company to up-skill in digital — strategy, project management, design and development.

2. How will this platform support continued learning and progress? What learning outcomes are you seeking through the platform? What are your core functionality needs?

For example, this platform is to help the entire company:
Share new ideas, tools and ways of working with each other more frequently
Functionality: A community where anyone can upload content

Solve key business challenges instantly
Functionality: A q + a functionality, email notifications when there’s a new question or response

Connect people to the right mentors and thought partners
Functionality: Ability to search for people based on disciplines, areas of expertise and interests.

3. What are your existing programmes and tools for learning and communication (in person and online)? What’s working? What could be better? Collect user feedback through small workshops, interviews and surveys.

4. What is your budget and timeline? Why now?
For example, a new company strategy or leadership programme. This is may determine whether you go for a third-party or in-house solution.

5. Who can champion this platform? Who are the key decision makers? Do you have the right team in place? It’s important you have senior leadership buy-in, but also people on the ground who can make it happen. Check in with IT to make sure you know what technical and security requirements are.
 

Questions for the platform provider

1. Why should you work with them over everyone else? What things make them special?

2. What does their customer success programme look like? What are their most successful case studies, and why?

3. What was their role in creating change in these organisations? Can you have a conversation with one of their existing clients?

4. What is their point of view on measurement? How can they help you understand your progress?

5. What’s their product vision and roadmap? What features will they be building in the next three to six months?

6. Can you trial the platform with a select user group?

Process

You’ll need a small core team — representative of HR/L+D and technology/IT — to get to the right strategic solution for your company. You’ll also need to involve stakeholders across your organisation, such as senior leadership, finance, content and internal communications. Remember scheduling meetings with the right people is hard so much to get those in the calendar as quickly as possible.

Understand
Understand vision and business strategy
Conduct learnings needs analysis
Form learning and development strategy and platform brief
Research learning platform market
Create engagement and impact strategy

See
Create a long list of potential platforms
Send out a Request for Information with your brief to 5–7 platform providers
Invite 5–7 platforms in for an initial demo

Remember unless you’re based in one of the major business cities (e.g. New York, London, San Francisco) it may be difficult getting a demo in person

Focus
Create shortlist
Invite 3–4 platforms for second demo with wider team
Create content for pilot

Test
Pilot 1–2 platforms with small group of 5–10 users for 2–4 weeks
Gather feedback, refine content for bigger pilot

Buy
Negotiate contract for preferred provider
Pilot platform with bigger group of 10–15 users for 2–4 weeks
Gather feedback, refine content for launch

You may decide at this point it’s worth the return on investment to build your own platform.

Launch
Launch to whole company
Set up programme to implement regular changes as if you were a product team
 

Learn from these common mistakes, shift behaviour

Functions + Courses -> People + Needs
Remember only 10% of learning happens through formal training; the other 70% happens on the job and the other 20% through mentoring. You have to start with people and what they need.

Action: Map out learner journey to see where platform would fit into work

Vanity metrics -> Meaningful progress
It’s not enough to look at the number of log ins, time spent and completion rates, you need to understand how your online platform contributes to learner outcomes and your business objectives.

Action: Define key learner outcomes and meaningful evidence of progress

One company announcement -> Thorough engagement strategy
You can’t just expect people to sign up and continue using your platform. Like any good product lead, you have to think about the engagement strategy across the learner journey.

Action: Co-create a engagement strategy with your internal marketing team and a learner

With a thoughtful strategy, you’ll create an online learning experience that helps your people grow.

I dream of learning a new language

I spent most of October paying intimate attention to the most basic of phrases. I haven’t done this in over 10 years. Not since my year as an estudiante de intercambio in Panama. Three weeks in Chile — with a brief stop in the magical Machu Picchu — made me pause. I was in South America, but brought back to my days teaching young Koreans English in Seoul. And back to the many questions that kept me up at night whilst composing my master’s dissertation on the branding of education

What is the most powerful way for people to learn languages? And what role can technology play in development?

Duolingo is one of the usual suspects. It is cited as one of the most innovative examples of online learning. It’s a great taster for beginners — light language entertainment, bite-sized and sticky. Good for picking up basic words, pronunciation, grammar. You feel instantly satiated.

But to what extent does it meaningfully help you communicate?
 


I’ve dabbled with three languages on the app — Swedish, Portuguese and Spanish. The latter I know well enough to order vegetarian, fix a flat tire and empathize with a cabbie’s life story. The first two I could get by ordering a beer at the bar, just don’t ask me what size.

If you’re an immediate or advanced learner, Duolingo can be a catalyst for motivating you to re-start your language learning, but you soon hit a wall. I quickly advanced through most of the levels in Spanish, but didn’t feel that my skills were actually improving. Without real and practical application, you won’t get far.

 

Even if you’re a beginner, there are many ways in which it could be more powerful. I found even after reaching level 6 in Portuguese, it was difficult to apply my learnings to everyday contexts in Lisbon, a city I know and love. One of the first Portuguese phrases I learned on Duolingo was “I am a girl.” Helpful vocabulary, but not as useful as “Uma cerveja, por favor” — one beer, please.”

Where does one move on from Duolingo? How could language learning online be more impactful?

Personally resonant
Imagine a language app focused on the things that matter most to you. Imagine if the app started with a set of questions that probed:

What do you need to know in this language?
For example,
order gluten-free at restaurants
tell a cabbie an address with confidence
know enough words to not make a fool of yourself at yoga

What are you most passionate about right now?
For example,
poetry and words
business innovation
social change

What are you already learning about?
For example,
storytelling
robotics and raspberry pis

Then based on the questions, it would curate fresh content every day based on your individual needs and interests — words of the day, news, articles, images, blogs, books, classes, events.
 

12032946_10104578690215008_7689327314824632560_n.jpg

My last three days in Chile I stumbled upon Pablo Neruda. Reading his poems is like getting to know a new friend you’ve known your whole life. I’ve been starting my days by reading a poem in Spanish and English. It would be a dream to wake up the morning with a beautiful new poem composed by a different author shared in Spanish and my mother tongue.

Resources I’m inspired by
Amanda — Great example of vocabulary learning in context. Introduces a new Chinese word through trending news articles in English.
Floqq — Skillshare in español, up your Spanish, as you pick up new skills.

Confidence building
One of the toughest things about learning a language is not being afraid of appearing stupid. Even when you live in a country where they don’t speak your language for many years, you might not ever get past asking for the bill at a restaurant. Fear and pride get in the way.

Language learning should start with people and love. The world needs a community feature that helps you connect with native speakers and learners. Folks who encourage you, who might laugh with but not at you when you make mistakes, who inspire you to learn more. Over email, over Skype, over snail mail, over coffee.

Resources I’ve used to meet folks
Meetup — Great resource for finding a language group in your city.
Tinder — Great for meeting locals when you travel, not just for dates or hook ups.

This was recommended to me by a friend who recently read my post — Busuu, the largest social network for language learning.

Meaningful reinforcement
I’d love to get more personal notes of encouragement and progress. Instead of just updating me on my points as Duolingo does in its daily reminders, it would be amazing to get reminders, questions and recommendations on things like:

You learned the Portuguese word mulher last week. Do you remember what it means? Have you used it in sentence? Hint: It’s the opposite of man.

You know Spanish, but you now are learning Portuguese. What are you finding most challenging?

Have you heard of the Swedish poet and psychologist Tomas Tranströmer? You might like his work if you like Pablo Neruda.


Real life empathy. These are the types of content that would be much more powerful to get in an email reminder or mobile notification to reinforce the learning.

Resources who keep me going
My lovely partner, my friend in Buenos Aires, my host family in Panama

This is just food for thought to build a new language learning experience online.

Duolingo is still a great learning tool, but there is so much room to develop more powerful language development resources online, particularly for immediate and advanced learners. I’ll be one of the first people to try it 

MVLP: Minimum Viable Learning Programme

“What does an MVP for learning look like?” a work friend posed a few weeks ago. A Minimum Viable Product is a product with sufficient features to meet the needs of your initial core audience. It is a technique for focusing and gathering learnings to build on your development in a smart and efficent way. How can you apply the principles of agile product development to learning for your company?

Whether you’re an organisation of 10 or 100,000 — or even just a freelancer or independent consultant, everyone needs a focused programme for learning and growing. This is especially important for organisations on the verge of fast and major scale.

But where does one begin? What does a Minimum Viable Product for Learning look like?

The natural starting place would be classes, but it should start with people — and what their specific needs are. I see this focused on three major areas based on the employee development journey: understand and focus, reflect and nurture; and share and collaborate. The framework I’ve developed below is a guide for curating your organisation’s learning and development programme, but should be tailored to your specific needs.
 

Understand and focus
to guide how employees will grow

Individualised on-boarding
Personal roadmap
Personal reflection

Feedback and nurture
to turbocharge growth

Continuous feedback
Peer mentorship programme

Share and collaborate
to build a culture of learning

Q + A forum
Weekly company share
External resource library

Read the full post on Medium.

Build amazing online courses 

The 70–20–10 model is widely known in the world of learning and development. It claims that 70% of learning happens on the job, 20% through interactions with others and 10% through formal training. But even if most of our learning happens on the job, it doesn’t mean we should stop putting investment in classes — particularly learning online. Formal online learning provides a foundation to learn with greater awareness, flexibility and intention all the time. 

Workshops and away days can only reach so many people. For global organisations, technology can play an integral role in reaching the most possible people, to move from a class of 10 to a community of 10,000. And to move beyond dry powerpoints and worksheets no ever looks at to interactive videos and forums that people can access on their own time.

Structured online courses should support all learning 

We need to think more rigorously and imaginatively about how we design formal experiences that help employees adopt the mindsets, ideas and skills to make your strategy a reality. Curated learning experiences can be a powerful way to create deep transformational change at scale.

But it can’t start with technology, it has to start with people and what they really need. We need to build experiences that are integrated with and turbo charge on-the-job learning and mentoring — to inject moments into work life that inspire people to reflect, get feedback and grow with greater focus and impact. 

To that end, I’ve put together a simple, actionable guide based on my experience developing online courses and content to make strategy real for Wolff Olins and FutureLearn

We’re going to take a look at how to:
1. Start with a clear strategy
2. Wireframe an outcome-led content map
3. Curate content people keep coming back to
4. Design a learning experience, not just a course
5. Make a marketing strategy that excites people
6. Understand your impact on individuals and the business
7. Refine your programmes for future growth 

Read the full version on Medium.