At this point, the background of Product Market Fit has been introduced and I’ll focus more on explaining how it has evolved here at LearningLeaders and also how I likely see our Product Market Fit evolving in the next phase of our company’s growth. I’m not the DRI for designing and building out the Product anymore, though I do think I can contribute some thoughts as to where the company will be and how that will affect our product.
I’ll try my best to share what’s in my mind specifically about the what are a few themes and challenges we’ll face in the next 18 months. Note also that while we talk about ‘products’ in today’s Memo, at LearningLeaders our ‘products’ are largely the learning experiences that we offer. To me an experience will always be more substantial than a product and thus we should rightfully refer to it as such. Please consider them interchangeable for the sake of this writing - products and experiences are what we offer to parents and students.
In a nutshell:
We’re in the messy middle of PMF. In order to navigate our way through to the growth phase, we need to Focus, Clarify, Measure, Consider, and Evolve. This means:
1) We will need more rejection than selection - this means saying ’NO’ to potentially great opportunities that don’t fit right now.
2) We will need to clarify and clarify and clarify - this means more frequent updates from me and everyone involved with the experience creation and revision processes.
3) We will need to be careful about how we measure - this means more quantification, which is hard. First because sometimes we don’t know what to measure and second because even if we do, sometimes we don’t know how to measure it.
4) We will need to consider carefully the second and third order effects of each decision we make in regards to our product and how it changes the rest of the company.
5) We will need to evolve the team to fit our new reality - this means hiring new Partners to bolster our team’s strengths. Phases in Product Market Fit
One might be able to divide the (ongoing, never-ending, impossible to perfect) quest for Product Market Fit into three phases:
1. Finding Traction (Early On)
2. Fumbling Transition (Messy Middle)
3. Free Trade (Growth)
It’s great to want to get to the point of a growth company where everything seems to be going right and all you need to do is to pour more gasoline on the fire to watch it grow. This is the phase where ‘free trade’ exists and all the customers you could ever want are helping you print money. This is the entrepreneurs’ dream, I suppose. But we’re still a long ways off from that point. Before that we need to go through the Finding Traction and the Fumbling Transition phases. I think we’re just ending the Finding Traction phase as we speak.
Phase 1 - Finding Traction (mid-2014 until late 2018)
The goal in this phase was retention of customers.
While NPS is a leading indicator of future iterations and successions of the product, retention of customers ultimately demonstrates that they are willing to trade you their money for your product. If customers aren’t happy with it, they’ll discontinue the trade. At the start or LL our focus area was always to delight customers. This was expensive in terms of time and learning - In the Finding Traction phase, the cost to acquire customers is quite high. Our team individually met with the first 100+ customers to come to LearningLeaders over coffee or lunch (or donuts or sushi). And to learn what they wanted, we would ask each one, rather than distribute large surveys.
Frustrations from the team that arose during this phase were that many projects and initiatives the team began never saw the light of day. There were many new ideas that got thrown out onto the conference room table and subsequently thrown into the rubbish bin. Major challenges in this time often came from when projects are started and stopped. This could be because we were not focused enough on the core of the business. Or because the resources in terms of people or capital or technology weren't available. Or for many other reasons.
Examples here at LearningLeaders might include our Executive Excellence program working with corporate clients. We did this seriously for about 24 months before putting the program on hold. Our ‘Find Your Voice’ speechwriting program, interview preparation courses, and even working directly with schools were also casualties of this phase of our company’s development. Realizing that these services were much harder to ‘productize’ meant that we weren’t able to accurately gauge retention:
When you perform custom work for a client who needs a ‘one-off’ service, even if they tell you they are impressed with your work, they may not need to hire you again for a long while! In the case of working directly with schools, it was administrative challenges in expectation setting and communications that lead us to discontinue those relationships for the time being. Additionally, these in-school projects were at the opportunity cost of building our own, more reliable, engine of retention.
Another set of major challenges revolved around longer payback period of cashflow. Since the beginning of LearningLeaders we’ve been fortunate to exist within an ecosystem that is accustomed to paying up front for educational services. This is not the case in all industries! And in fact, it’s not the case in most bespoke or custom-designed products either! We can’t overlook this point. When working with schools and corporate clients, because what they wanted was ‘custom made’ to their specifications, they often would not complete their payments until after the engagement was complete. What does this mean?
That instead of having a certain amount of cashflow in August, we would need to wait until December (or in some cases even later) to see that cashflow hit our books. It’s really tough to pay salaries and keep the lights on when cash arrives months after it’s needed. The longer the payback period was, the more difficult it became for us to grow. This is also because we needed to balance the hiring of non-coaches with coaches. Hiring one at a time and seeking the optimize the balancing act was not easy. Hence, further optimizing the portfolio of experiences to focus on retention-heavy experiences where we also knew cash would come up front was key: we needed to be able to predict ahead of time what our cashflows would look like so we could make the proper hiring decisions. Retention of customers was critical for this.
When did we know we were on the right track to achieving Product Market Fit? While everyone in the organization might cite a different moment, I feel it was when the market was noticeably dragging us forward. This happened around late 2016 I think: we had so many parents knocking on the door that we needed to think about renting a new LearningCenter. We expanded into our third new office in three years and planned to add new space in Pudong. It gave us the confidence to set longer-term goals, which we now refer to as the LL 2020 plan. All the LL 2020 goals were set in January 2017, when we felt that we were really on to something and what we needed to do was continue to iterate the product until we could really establish a great Product Market Fit. We no longer needed to convince parents that debate and public speaking was a real thing - instead they were actively sharing with friends and peers, asking for more courses, wanting to know about Summer programs and travel trips, etc. (Note: it was also the time when two LL Partners started formalizing the idea to start their own company competing with us - That might actually be the only evidence of our Product Market Fit success you need!)
At this point I think we began to more actively think about our market segmentation. It was shortly after this time that we began a more formal placement test and interview process to join our program. We were forced to think more carefully about our category, our target customer, their problems, and motivations. Understanding the market was a challenge. At that time, our category was “Debate Education.” Our target customer was, “English-speaking International School Parents.” The problems we were solving were, “Satisfying their need for best-in-class debate coaching and training AND Satisfying their need for differentiating their daughter/son from their peers AND Satisfying their need to feel like a forward-thinking and innovative parent.” The coaching and courses satisfied the first requirement, travel trips and competition training satisfied the second, and the network of LL parents, generally known as progressive in their pedagogy, satisfied the third.
[Note: this was even different than the original LL thesis! At the start, I have to admit, I did not have a conception of how large the competitive debate ecosystem was. I never expected there to be so many debate competitions across the world that our students would attend. I was aware of Worlds and Nationals and a few others, but goodness me, what a happy accelerant to our business the competitive landscape has been!]
As our market began to become more educated about debate and public speaking, this lead us then to a slightly reimagined course trajectory, one that we are probably most familiar with now: the dual-track public speaking and debate curricula. We were already iterating and changing our offerings to best appeal to the market’s needs. It felt like a colossal undertaking at the time - rewriting course after course of curriculum to meet the needs of the students. Revising every lesson plan and learning objective. Determining a rubric of one-hundred-forty-something skills that we felt students needed to walk away from our courses with when they graduated. Formalizing the systematizing lesson plans, activities, lesson videos, and the Online Learning Center experience.
And even now we can see, just two years later, we are beginning to realize it’s no longer satisfying the market as best it can. We can do better. And that’s wonderful! Because we are adjusting to the needs of the market as best to we can to set ourselves up for future success. The other changes we made to the product were introducing Leadership Clubs to respond to parents’ desires for additional competition coaching and make-up classes. Similarly we sought to provide more travel trip opportunities for students who are interested, as we’ve found incredible support from parents, students, and coaches alike for these trips.
About 6-12 months ago, we began to see more bilingual school students enroll in our programs. Last Summer Camp was a real wake-up call: even with a large amount of deferrals, coaches noticed during the Summer Camp that many students’ level of English comprehension and speaking was lagging behind a majority of their peers. This trend has only accelerated, placing additional stress on our entire community. Of course, I think we all agree that it’s a tricky road to navigate, being ‘exclusive’ or shutting down students’ opportunities to learn never feels good.
Though if we want to create a truly world-class program, we need to have standards for participation that are similar across all participants. A further revision of the placement test ensued.
Phase 2 - Fumbling Transition (late 2018 until ??? (hopefully year-end 2020))
I’ve written a bit about the Messy Middle before: however brutal the the start of a business is, in one sense the start is actually quite easy. You have one mission: do not die. Do whatever it takes to survive. Live until tomorrow. The ‘end’ or ‘exit' of a business is also quite easy: Hire M&A advisors to sell the business or hire an investment bank to help you list the company on a stock exchange. The Messy Middle is really where many of the difficulties lie - you have options for the first time. It’s when priorities become more confusing - where at first there was only one priority because it was so obvious that was the only thing that could possibly get done, now you have choices. And with choices come disagreements! Person A thinks Priority 1 is more important than Priority 2, which Person B prefers. This creates a fun challenge for the company to work together on: What is the most important action anyone can take at a given time? And does that action support creating tighter Product Market Fit?
Some people are “ready to go fast!" while others are more focused on "achieving alignment." Some are more interested in rapid career development while others are more interested in work life balance. Some are more interested in focusing their skills in one direction while others are more interested in diversifying their skill sets. Sound familiar? Yep! We’re right in the thick of it - the Messy Middle. And the Messy Middle can wreak havoc on Product Market Fit if we’re not careful. We’re seriously in the danger zone. So it’s time to zero in our focus.
Our key metric during this period of transition needs to remain: Retention. Retention is still our lagging indicator of Product Market Fit - if we retain students, we are providing an experience that fits their needs. (Retention is also a leading indicator of Growth Rate down the line).
In order to maximize retention of our students, there will certainly be changes we’ll need to make to optimize our Product Market Fit. The ones that are directly related to the features of the experience itself I have faith and trust in our Experience Team that they will deliver those features based on our collective vision for what a perfect program looks like, the responses from surveys of our students and parents, and also peer-reviewed research. I’m looking forward to seeing all of the awesome changes our team has come up with moving forward for implementation next year!
At a more general level, though, and what we can all be aware of, are five themes at this stage related to Product Market Fit. Because we are in the Messy Middle stage with resources available, it will be tempting to want to do more, to offer more, and deliver more around our core offerings. My fear is that this diversification is exactly what is going to take our eyes off of what has made us successful in the first place: delivering learning experiences that delight and inspire. Our collective actions need to be geared around optimizing for retention.
Moving forward, at least until the end of 2020, we will need to 1) Focus, 2) Clarify, 3) Measure, 4) Consider, and 5) Evolve.
- We will need more rejection than selection - this means saying ’NO’ to potentially great opportunities that don’t fit right now.
- We will need to clarify and clarify and clarify - this means more frequent updates from me and everyone involved with the experience creation and revision processes.
- We will need to be careful about how we measure - this means more quantification, which is hard. First because sometimes we don’t know what to measure and second because even if we do, sometimes we don’t know how to measure it.
- We will need to consider carefully the second and third order effects of each decision we make in regards to our product and how it changes the rest of the company.
- We will need to evolve the team to fit our new reality - this means hiring new Partners to bolster our team’s strengths.
At the risk of sacrificing innovative ideas, I feel it’s incredibly necessary we focus on our core business activities and what has made us successful up to this point. It is tempting to ‘go big’ and launch bigger and bolder new initiatives right now. I’m still very fond of the idea of putting a ton of chips on the table for other business units. But as we shared at the Annual Planning offsite in January, until our ducks are in a row in relation to our core, other business segments including LL Digital, Scholastic Success, and Executive Excellence may prove to be costly distractions. This isn’t to say that zero activity will happen in these spaces, but that the more time and energy we place into these non-core activities, the more we are sacrificing effort that could be placed into taking our current Product Market Fit from Great to Exceptional. We will continue to dip toes in the water, but plunging will need to wait.
These other offerings will come in the future, though all else being equal, it appears the return on effort and investment in our public speaking and debate courses and experiences will continue to outpace the others. In determining where to allocate capital in time and resources then, it only makes sense to apply the resources where the return is the greatest. If you have one investment account that returns 10% per year and another that returns 4%, ceteris paribus, you’re going to put the majority of your holdings into the 10% growth account.
This focus is going to result in disagreements about priorities, for sure. When prioritizing certain project and actions, others by definition are casualties. While we intuitively understand that we may need to sacrifices, when push comes to shove, sadly it’s often the case, ‘As long as it’s not my project.’ If everyone is working on ’their own thing,’ at first glance life appears rosy because there is less tension or difference of opinion, though efforts are likely to be spread too thin to make much substantive progress in these directions. Rejection is selection and we must ruthlessly eliminate and prioritize until we reach our next milestones of Product Market Fit.
Over the next 18 months, I think this looks like focusing completely on public speaking and debate, continuing not to commit to writing courses besides off-cycle programs, continuing to say no to college consulting courses or other non-core requests that our customers might have. I also think this looks like completely removing any coding or robotics courses from our off-cycle offerings.
This will kick in fully as we set our next semiannual goals together in August.
Over the next five years, I think this focus looks remarkably similar. Within LearningLeaders Academy, continuing to focus on verbal communication skills as our core with additional offerings in off-cycle programs.
With increased focus also comes a need to clarify internally and externally what the progress on these matters are. Understandably, as we grow, we will all have fewer details about company initiatives than we did previously. For project and team leaders, additional responsibility is being placed on your shoulders as to how and why the decisions are being made the way they are. I’ve heard this loud and clear from many people on the team and I’m thankful for the openness in these requests! It’s great - and modeling comes from the top. So I need to do a better job at clarifying and over-communicating why decisions are made the way they are. What it also means is that there is additional responsibility for everyone to actively remain informed. As the amount of contemporaneous communication (opportunities for face-to-face communication with everyone) is reduced as the team grows, the amount of asynchronous communication (messages, emails, sharing presentations and proposals) will likely increase. That places a further emphasis on being clear in sharing for information is ’need to know,’ versus which is ’nice to know.’ (If you’re thinking right now, ‘Mike needs some help on that in these Memos too - I think you’re right! :/)
Over the next 18 months, how will our Product Market Fit become clarified? I certainly hope through the release of an improved student journey through our program, still beginning in Grade 5 and ending in Grade 12. We hope the progression will be clear for parents, students, and Partners alike. This is already in progress on the Experience Team side and will need to involve Brand Team and Community Team to communicate this to our community before the Fall 2020 launch.
Over the next five years I think it’s likely that our program will continue to become ’streamed’ to better suit the needs of the students. There will be alterations and edits made to curricula, debate topics, and coach methodologies depending on the goals of the students. Some will be more competitive in nature while others will want to focus on practical but not competitive communication skills.
We will not be able to determine the success of our Product Market Fit evolution unless we have accurate measurements. In this case, we may be referring to retention rates, student and parent responses from surveys, and feedback from our own Partners. We may not have the perfect measurements today, but if we continue to measure our outcomes and actions, we can slowly but continuously discover measurements that allow us to learn from as well as those we cannot use. With each line in the FACE having corresponding leading and lagging indicators of success, I want everyone on the team to be able to go home every single night and be able to answer the question, “Did I have a successful day at work today?” Maybe idealistic, but I think it’s something worth striving for - a clear measure of everyone’s progress and successes each day of their time working. This will continue to generate feedback loops and help us grow faster and faster.
We will only stay relevant over the next 18 months and five years if we continue to learn. Without measuring outcomes, we won’t be able to learn from them.
Over the next 18 months, our focus on measuring our successes and failures and learning will not slow down. Look for an increase in Retrospectives, continuous updates to the FACE including leading and lagging indicators, and the beginning of a process of linking the entire company’s data sets together with the increase of Systems Team capacity. Over the next five years we’ll see a transformation in the way that we operate. Building out the Systems Team and Insights Team (as I see it today, the mission of the Insights Team will be to collect all data we generate as a company and provide recommendations to individual business units) will be the most visible sign of this, though every team’s work will be linked together through a system that ensures accurate and timely communication of expectations and outcomes, for Students, Parents, and Partners. If we fail to make this happen, we’ll be left behind in the next decade of our business.
It’s really tough to predict all the second and third-order consequences of every decision. If it was easy, we’d all be doing it perfectly each time and life would have no difficulties. Unfortunately for our convenience, but fortunately for our learning journeys, unexpected consequences happen when you pursue any course of action. Some of these are easier to anticipate than others. The super challenging part here is when something worked two years ago or last year but no longer is functioning as it did before.
For example, we decided this semester our students would attend quite a number of competitions. We also decided long ago that we would offer an Open Vacation Policy. The second order consequence of these two decisions (which had been previously made) was that it became challenging to anticipate the exact amount of coverage that would be needed as a result of personal time and traveling to competitions. In a Retrospective at the end of the semester, we can think more carefully about what we didn’t expect months ago but what we realize now.
These decisions, though not necessarily obvious at the time, may directly affect our Product Market Fit! We may determine in the future that yes, we want to attend more and more competitions and have Open Vacation Policy. But therein may lie a trade-off: are we willing to have some coaches only attend 2/3rds of their regularly-scheduled classes? That is a conscious choice that will directly affect our Product Market Fit if what parents and students value is consistency of experience. On the other hand, maybe we find what families value is competition access more than consistency of experience. Or maybe we find this varies at different ages within the program.
This is just one example of how there are knock-on effects that may or may not be challenging to predict ahead of time. The way that we learn is by trying and experiencing - though the larger we become, the more time we’ll need to take in considering the consequences. Another example may be in a move to Work WeChat. I’m a big fan of this and it seems like a clear benefit to limit communications outside of standard working hours! With limited communication may come second or third-order consequences we might not expect. It’s tough to even think of them, but perhaps we might see an increase in work required from the Community Team to answer the questions of parents about certain course related or progression-related questions.
That might in turn increase the work on the Brand and Experience Team for writing clearer guides to give to the Community Team to give to parents. Or it might increase the amount of feedback and guidance coaches need to provide after every class for students so that the Community Team can share with each parent the progress of students when asked. It’s possible that limiting communication between coaches and parents results in the need for after-class reports for every student. It’s challenging to think about what the follow-on effects are, though we can try!
Over the next 18 months, I anticipate we’ll see an uptick in the amount of Retrospectives we host. Retrospectives often bring to light these second or third-order consequences that we had difficulty seeing when we planned the original event or initiative. They also help train us to think with the end goal in mind and work backwards to the beginning to discover the next action to take.
Over the next five years… this is super tricky. It’s so hard because an action that we’ve already taken two years ago can rear its head two years from now. I think a general rule of thumb here to prevent too much complexity of follow-on effects from entering the system is to keep guidelines, rules, and policies as simple as they can possibly be. Remove complexity and opaqueness wherever possible so that each of us can think ahead as far as possible.
Our Partnership is going to change in size, composition, and membership in the next 18 months. We’ll likely see the most rapid pace of change in the team since LearningLeaders’ founding. It will be simultaneously sad, exciting, and healthy for our team. We’ll need to say goodbye to some longtime friends, we’ll welcome some new Partners, and also see some of our current team in vastly different roles than they are today.
Over the next 18 months, I anticipate we will see a growth in the team from the low 40s where we are today to 70-80 full-time Partners. Many new Partners will be focused in helping us continue to grow our Coaching Team and focusing on areas where we see demand has increased considerably in the last two years, younger middle school-aged public speaking and debate courses. We will also bolster the People, Brand, Systems, and Community teams with Partners who have the skills and attitude necessary to support the learning and development of each team - these may be a mix of more experienced and less experienced Partners. Over the next five years, it’s really difficult for me to say - depending on where we see the greatest return on investment and time. I anticipate that a large portion of the team’s hiring is going to gravitate towards a Virtual Reality coaching business, but that still remains to be seen.
If we are successful at thinking ahead and evolving our team to keep on pace with market demands, I hope we’ll eventually reach Phase 3.
Phase 3 - Free Trade
At this point, the goal is to really turn up what growth levers we know to exist. The key metric at this point is in fact growth rate. (Lest I remind you the leading indicator for this is Retention - so Retention is in fact still vital). Product Market Fit here is not assumed to be perfect, but assumed to be excellent to the point where an additional quantity of customers results in similar retention rates.
Typically during the growth period, the payback period can be artificially lengthened through taking on investment, expanding the sales team, and ’stepping on the gas.’ The payback period lengthening is more of a function of optionality than anything else. At this juncture of the business, we could continue to grow and subsist on our own retained earnings, or we can look elsewhere for capital.
The fixes that we’d be searching for here are more micro in nature. We’re looking for tweaks and edits in our Product Market Fit rather than necessarily implementing so many new products or projects. The focus is more on optimizing than inventing. This doesn’t mean never doing new things, but it means leveraging the formula that works and replicating it across customers and users that are interested in it.
The team would start to expand ever-more-rapidly. Likely we will bring in channel specific talent, for example a former Admissions Director of an International School in Shanghai. They would already know the sales channel very well and would be able to optimize our process of placement testing, communicating with families pre-enrollment, and market surveying and communication. The forms of growth the business would take on now are more programmatic and process-driven in nature. This is when we’d start hearing phrases like, “Let’s move the customer from acquisition to activation,” around the LearningCenter. There are more proven tactics at this stage like A/B testing and channel testing to determine the most cost-effective way to reach a new customer.
In the status quo, we aren’t here yet. We still have so much work to do internally to get the Product Market Fit right, to get the culture right, to get the people right, and to get the processes right. While I’d like to think that simply by having viral word-of-mouth growth, we’ve hit perfectly on Product Market Fit, I still think there’s so much more work we can do here.
Moving through the Messy Middle right now, we’re going to be battered by efforts to dislodge our focus. Some will be internal and some will be external. I truly hope we are able to weather this storm and incredibly trying period for any organization.
I’m reminded of a study from Startup Genome that states (to paraphrase): Companies need on average 2-3 times longer than founders expect to validate their product market fit. 70% of companies scale to growth mode prematurely because they feel pressure to to so. It might go a long way to describe why 90% of companies fail in the first few years.
If we want to be lucky enough to make it to the Growth Phase of the company (we’re not even there yet!), then doubling down on placing effort on Product Market Fit will be huge for us.
Let’s not underestimate listening to our customers.
Let’s not underestimate the power of patient passion.