Q&A: GetSmarter's founders on entrepreneurship and online learning

Through a "collision" of ideas, brothers Sam and Rob Paddock founded online learning platform GetSmarter in 2008.

Since then, GetSmarter had grown to employ 500 full-time staff and operates in 167 countries, partnering with world class universities to offer short online courses for professionals.

In 2017, Nasdaq-listed 2U acquired GetSmarter for $103m (R1.2bn).

Sam and Rob spoke to Fin24 about GetSmarter's journey.

What inspired the idea to create an online learning platform?

It was a collision of people and ideas over time. The original idea for our first course was very much led by our father, Graham Paddock. He is a property lawyer and was doing some part-time lecturing at UCT.

He had an opportunity to teach a short course in property law and wanted to make it available to people throughout South Africa. He also knew that I had just completed my business science degree and had built a web-based virtual campus with a group of friends for our final year project.

I gave him a hand putting together the technology for the learning and marketing systems and it was a great success. That was when we all decided to work together, and two years later GetSmarter was born, as we branched out beyond just property law subjects.

Do you consider GetSmarter to be innovative?

If we define innovation as the act of creating value for stakeholders, then yes, the work GetSmarter does is innovative. We assist our university partners to evolve their unique offering to a wider audience of students around the world, in a format which makes education more accessible for working professionals.

Importantly, we don't see the work we do as disruptive. That is to say, we’re not disrupting higher education. Rather, we’re working in close collaboration with our university partners to evolve and meet the new education needs of working professionals around the world.

Considering the many different kinds of education institutions, what led you to partner with universities? Is there room to apply the GetSmarter model to other levels of education?

We learnt the value of focus fairly early in our entrepreneurial journey. When you try to be too many things to too many people, it’s very difficult to offer an exceptional service or product.

In the early days, we experimented with extending our services to high-school students, and it failed terribly.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a big opportunity for education technology in primary and secondary education. It's only to say that at GetSmarter, we now choose to focus our energy exclusively on the working professional market, and continuously refine our offering to provide them with the best service possible. 

What sets GetSmarter apart from other online learning platforms?

The experience in a GetSmarter short course is less about the platform, and more about the pedagogy and support. This distinctive approach to digital education is based on tutor-led, intensive small group learning backed by personalised support.

Every student is allocated a faculty-appointed tutor who facilitates their learning in a small tutorial group, and provides them with personalised academic support for the full duration of their studies.

Every student is also allocated a personal coach, who provides 1:1 support to keep their learning on track. So even if hundreds of people are taking a particular course at the same time, students will learn in a smaller-group of peers with personalised support.

GetSmarter’s success depends on student outcomes. Our people-mediated approach helps drive a course completion rate of 88% from nearly 60 000 students. This is entirely atypical in the world of open-enrolment online courses.

What have some of the benefits been for people who used GetSmarter?

GetSmarter found that 60-65% of their graduates report some kind of advancement in their career within six months of completing a course.

As an observation – how does SA compare to other markets GetSmarter competes in, when it comes to adopting online learning?

Our South African market continues to grow steadily. Our experience is that South Africans have eagerly adopted online learning as it has become available. Our sense is that it’s more a question of access and affordability than it is about desire to study online.

As founders and brothers - what’s it like working together?

Our partnership as brothers and business partners has been extremely powerful, but only because we’ve worked very hard on ourselves individually, and have worked very hard on our relationship.

The immediate benefit of being brothers is that we have a deep sense of commitment and trust with each other. The challenge is that, as brothers, we have layers of additional archetypal challenges like competitiveness.

To work on these issues and ensure that we’re leveraging our relationship for the benefit of the business, we actually went to a psychologist together for many years. It’s certainly one of the most powerful things we did to set up our partnership and our business for success.

How much capital was required to set up GetSmarter?

We didn’t take any funding on our business journey. But we did have the cash flow of a small family business to help us get started. 

Was it difficult to set up partnerships with universities overseas? How do you go about establishing these partnerships?

It was difficult, but we worked our backsides off (and lived on planes for a long time) until we achieved our goals.

Of course, there was luck involved too, but thankfully the base of competence we had built in South Africa stood us in good stead, and we had a compelling value proposition which we presented to many Universities overseas until we "got lucky" with MIT.

The first two courses we offered with MIT were a raging success, and off the back of that we were able to springboard into relationships with a few other elite institutions.

What were some of the challenges you experienced while starting GetSmarter, and what were some of the lessons you learned?

The power of focus.

It’s all about the people and your culture in the medium to long term.

Collective strategic thinking is crucial to breakthrough success.

What are some of GetSmarter’s achievements you are most proud of?

Each and every day we help our students advance their careers. This has an outsized impact on their lives and we’re proud to play a role in it.

The executive team standing at the closing bell of the Nasdaq stock exchange to celebrate our acquisition by 2U was another proud moment. It felt really good to show that South Africans can both play and win on a global stage.

*This interview was edited to reflect the style of Fin24. It was updated on November 27, 2018 at 14:30 to reflect updated statistics as at November 2018 on GetSmarter's global reach and staff.

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