Today, GetSmarter becomes a global company

And today, I am so proud.

Proud of the 300+ talented individuals who make up the GetSmarter Team and all of those who have come before us. We have achieved a significant milestone in the GetSmarter journey by bursting into the international education arena in collaboration the world's #1 University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Today we become a global company by launching the first module of the 12-week online MIT Fintech Certificate course: Future Commerce to over 1,000 students from 70 countries.

Location of students on the MIT Fintech Certificate course: Future Commerce

Location of students on the MIT Fintech Certificate course: Future Commerce

This milestone is achieved exactly 15 months after deciding to pursue an international expansion plan with the specific objective of working with one of the world's top Universities to reach over 1,000 students for a course presentation.

Our ability to envision the future, set proximate objectives to clearly chart our path, and then execute with discipline and agility to ultimately realise this future, bears testimony to the power of our team. And, together with our esteemed University partners, we now have the opportunity to bring high quality online education to working professionals throughout the world.

And this is just the beginning.

Together with our esteemed partners at the University of Cape Town and the University of Witwatersrand, we continue to expand our reach into the Southern African and African space. And, complementing this African focus, we will now seek to reach a global audience with our international University partners. 

Together with our solid Executive Team (pictured below) and their hyper-talented broader teams (below below), we will continue to pursue our purpose of improving lives through better education by bringing the best courses from the best Universities to the world.

From back left: Dale Williams, Ryan O'Mahoney, Chris Vella, Thelmé Janse van Rensburg, John Hill, Amy Johnson, Sam Paddock, Rob Paddock and Ant Saunders.

From back left: Dale Williams, Ryan O'Mahoney, Chris Vella, Thelmé Janse van Rensburg, John Hill, Amy Johnson, Sam Paddock, Rob Paddock and Ant Saunders.

The GetSmarter team at our last Christmas Party.

The GetSmarter team at our last Christmas Party.

Onwards and upwards!

It is my privilege...

It is my privilege to be featured, alongside my brother and business partner, Rob, on the cover of this month's Entrepreneur Magazine. 

The last 8 years of building GetSmarter have been amongst the most influential of my life. It is no coincidence that this period of time runs in parallel to my relationship with my wife, Keri.

This feature is recognition for all the people who have been a part of building GetSmarter - from my parents who gave us a base to build from, to the team members who have been so much more than their job descriptions along the way, to the Faculty members at the University of Cape Town who put their trust in us, to the giants I have had the privilege to learn from - Dan Devine, Mark Lamberti, Dale Williams and Verne Harnish and the Gazelles Team, and the 280+ people who make up the formidable team that is GetSmarter today.

We're on our way to improving 1 million lives through better education.

Onwards and upwards.

Here is the full article below. Click on the image to expand it to full screen:

Harnessing the power of video for learning

Video has so much potential for effective teaching and learning. But after reviewing how video has been used by leading online education providers - ourselves included - i'm often left wondering if we're doing the medium the justice it deserves. Until recently, that is.

Eight years ago, when we first introduced video into our online courses, we saw it as a way to replicate the in-person lecture experience. The result was hundreds of 10 to 30-minute videos of talking heads. These videos served their purpose, but they barely scratched the surface of the potential of online video for education.

Our purpose at GetSmarter is to improve lives through better education. And with recent advancements in video technology and available SaS video tools, we knew that we could do better.

This week, our Education team launched several interactive videos. As I worked through one that was produced for our UCT Advanced Human Resource Management course, I was blown away by how engaging it was. One of the key issues in online education is that of student motivation. And the experience I had while engaging with this video was one of serious concentration. I particularly like the gamified feeling, driven by a sense of being in control. Perhaps the reason it was so engaging was because I was an active participant in watching the video, rather than a passive recipient of 30 minutes of 1-way lecturing.

Click on the "Start" button below to get a sense for what we're doing with interactive video. I'd love to hear your view of this experience. I've also included Rob Paddock's (our Chief of Education) view on interactive videos below:

Rob's view on interactive videos:

Interactive video eliminates the passive and linear method of viewing a standard video, and gives the student a sense of control and curiosity that is hard to replicate in traditional video lecture format.

Interactive video is fun and engaging for students, and provides them the opportunity to make decisions in real-time as to how they progress with the video content. Combining the rich instructional capabilities of video lectures, with the user-driven decision making of an interactive experience, this new technology lends itself perfectly to GetSmarter’s constructivist model of online education.

Our early statistics indicate that student engagement with interactive video content is significantly higher than traditional video lectures. Students are more likely to initiate the interactive experience, they engage with the experience for longer, and they come back to complete the experience more times than they would a traditional video lecture.

This is one of the many advancements in online teaching and learning practice that we're pursuing with vigour at GetSmarter, and we're confident that these learnings have the potential to positively impact existing teaching practices at the Universities we partner with.

Our business strategy, through the lens of our office tour

Your company strategy should be top secret, jealously guarded by your top management and only spoken about behind closed doors, right? 

I don't buy it.

A company strategy should guide an entire team of people. After all, the word company means "a group of people". A strategy should unite a team around a common purpose, help them make difficult decisions and give them direction for their planning and execution.

Everyone in a company should know their business's strategy. And thanks to one of our advisors, Dan Devine, 12 months ago we adopted the One-page strategic plan, from Gazelles Inc. This document helps a leadership team define and communicate their company strategy in a meaningful way, on just one page, to each and every person in the company. It has fundamentally changed our business, and off the base of our 150-strong team, I believe it has set us up for disciplined, aligned, accountable execution well into the future.

And we've gone one step further.

Not only does every team member receive an updated One-page strategic plan each quarter, but to really ensure our strategy lives at GetSmarter, we've baked it right into our new office space.

Queue office tour, which is is also a lens into GetSmarter's strategic plan: 

Our reception area includes a black glass plate that defines our purpose. At GetSmarter, our purpose is to improve lives through better education. It answers the question "Why do we come to work every morning?" And while each and every person at GetSmarter has multiple purposes in their lives, this purpose - to improve lives through better education - unites us each and every day. It is important that we're reminded of our purpose each morning.

Our purpose is to improve lives through better education, which is just legible on the black glass in the image above. I can get out of bed each morning to pursue that purpose!

Our purpose is to improve lives through better education, which is just legible on the black glass in the image above. I can get out of bed each morning to pursue that purpose!

Underpinning our purpose is a set of five values. These values help our team make decisions, and they answer the question "what should/shouldn't we do, always". They are a statement of what we value at GetSmarter, and they give rise to a set of behaviours we hire for, fire for, and reward.

Our five values are:

1. Honour Learning

We  honour learning . Not only for our students because we're an education company, but also for ourselves because we are growing so quickly. If we don't grow, we can't grow with the company. It's crucial that we dedicate ourselves to learning. Our growth, and our company's growth, depends on it. This themed meeting room has wooden school desks, wooden school chairs and a glass plate above them, together with a blackboard that reminds us of how we used to learn at school.

We honour learning. Not only for our students because we're an education company, but also for ourselves because we are growing so quickly. If we don't grow, we can't grow with the company. It's crucial that we dedicate ourselves to learning. Our growth, and our company's growth, depends on it. This themed meeting room has wooden school desks, wooden school chairs and a glass plate above them, together with a blackboard that reminds us of how we used to learn at school.

2. Attention to the right detail

We pay attention to the right detail. Those are magnifying glasses and a statement of this value's associated behaviours on the back wall. This is our strategic value. We take time to think about what detail to pay attention to, and once we have made a decision, we act with purpose. 

We pay attention to the right detail. Those are magnifying glasses and a statement of this value's associated behaviours on the back wall. This is our strategic value. We take time to think about what detail to pay attention to, and once we have made a decision, we act with purpose. 

3. Rude to poor process

We are rude to poor process. That's a scoreboard in the form of a soccer field in the background, with poor processes on the left, and improved processes on the right. In a growing company, processes that worked 12 months ago may no longer be relevant. We are exceptionally rude to poor processes until they become great processes. Anyone can stick up a red or green card with a poor or improved process.

We are rude to poor process. That's a scoreboard in the form of a soccer field in the background, with poor processes on the left, and improved processes on the right. In a growing company, processes that worked 12 months ago may no longer be relevant. We are exceptionally rude to poor processes until they become great processes. Anyone can stick up a red or green card with a poor or improved process.

4. Honest and straightforward

We are honest and straightforward. Always. The mural lists this value's associated behaviours.

We are honest and straightforward. Always. The mural lists this value's associated behaviours.

5. Relationships Matter

Relationships matter to us. We were born from a family business, involving my Dad (Graham), Mom (Mandy), brother (Rob) and myself. Relationships are the key bottom line in our family, and this value shines through to today. We also depend on key relationships with our partners Universities, earning this value a strong place in our list of key values.

Relationships matter to us. We were born from a family business, involving my Dad (Graham), Mom (Mandy), brother (Rob) and myself. Relationships are the key bottom line in our family, and this value shines through to today. We also depend on key relationships with our partners Universities, earning this value a strong place in our list of key values.

So those are our five values, and each one of them has a themed meeting room at our HQ in Cape Town, South Africa.

So far this office tour has revealed that our purpose is to improve lives through better education, and that we have five values:

  • Honour learning
  • Attention to the right detail
  • Rude to poor process
  • Honest and straightforward
  • Relationships matter

Next on our One-page strategic plan is our 10-year big hairy audacious goal, or BHAG for short. This is the long-term goal, way off in the distance, that guides us. It's like a flag on top of a mountain that helps hikers orientate themselves on their journey to the top.

Our BHAG is to have more impact than UNISA by 2024. UNISA stands for University of South Africa, and it is the dominant distance learning institution in Africa with over 300,000 students each year. It's a competitive BHAG, and it really gets our competitive juices flowing.

The Big Hairy meeting room describes our big hairy audacious goal, which is to have more impact than UNISA by 2024. The room has the big, angry GetSmarter monster chasing after a jumbled up UNISA running away in the right of the image.

The Big Hairy meeting room describes our big hairy audacious goal, which is to have more impact than UNISA by 2024. The room has the big, angry GetSmarter monster chasing after a jumbled up UNISA running away in the right of the image.

On to our 3-5 year goals:

Our Sandbox is the place we play. It describes the area of the market we wish to dominate in the next 3-5 years, defined by the products we offer, the customers we serve and the geography we play in. This is a key element of our strategy, and i'm going to limit what I say on this public platform. We've recently had a local company copy us (we're flattered) and this was partly because we were so open in describing our Sandbox.

Our Sandbox is the place we play. That's a table with a sandbox and spades in the middle.

Our Sandbox is the place we play. That's a table with a sandbox and spades in the middle.

And if our Sandbox is the place we play, our Brand Promise is how we win in that Sandbox. It is the promise we make to our customers when they put their faith in us by buying our online education products. And the strong promise we make is that we're going to do everything we can to bring career advancement closer for our students.

Our brand promise is to bring career advancement closer. That's a snakes and ladders board in the background, with pink ladders that represent us helping people advance their careers. There are many ways we do this, with the primary one being partnering with the best University brands and making their high-quality online programmes available in online mode to people who could previously never have dreamed of studying with a prestigious institution. We also add a unique student coaching service to our courses, which helps students achieve a 90% graduation rate. We're very pleased with this result!

Our brand promise is to bring career advancement closer. That's a snakes and ladders board in the background, with pink ladders that represent us helping people advance their careers. There are many ways we do this, with the primary one being partnering with the best University brands and making their high-quality online programmes available in online mode to people who could previously never have dreamed of studying with a prestigious institution. We also add a unique student coaching service to our courses, which helps students achieve a 90% graduation rate. We're very pleased with this result!

At this point in the tour, you should have a good idea of our business strategy. You know our purpose, what we value, our 10-year goal, the sandbox we play in (sort of, because i'm being deliberately vague - see www.getsmarter.co.za for more), and how we win (brand promise).

Each quarter we set a company-wide theme to unite everyone in pursuit of the most important objective that will move the company forward. Our theme for the current quarter is to "Get Set". It includes a scoreboard (pictured below) and six specific projects that need to be completed in order for the team to be ready for our next financial year.

Our Q4 theme is to "Get Set" for our new financial year.

Our Q4 theme is to "Get Set" for our new financial year.

Our Executive Team meets every morning in our Mission Control room. It's themed like a control room, as you can see below. Every Executive Team member checks in with their team's daily metrics, and in this way we get a snapshot of the company's performance each and every day. It's a great discipline to maintain, and keeps us on top of and accountable to our performance.

Mission Control is where our executive team meets every morning to keep the company executing towards achievement of our strategic plan.

Mission Control is where our executive team meets every morning to keep the company executing towards achievement of our strategic plan.

We're a very visual bunch, and so we have scoreboards up throughout the office indicating progress towards important strategic goals. Our last quarter's theme was to achieve 400 students on our postgraduate degree programmes, which we're well on the way to achieving.

This scoreboard is used to show the team our progress towards our important strategic goal of 400 postgraduate students.

This scoreboard is used to show the team our progress towards our important strategic goal of 400 postgraduate students.

Each and every team member has a set of 90-day priorities that describes the most important objective they have for that quarter (one quarter = 13 weeks = 90 days). Team members check in with their line managers each week with a colour status indicating their progress towards their goal achievement. Our Content Team got creative and created a scoreboard above their desk area indicating their priority status from the previous week.

The Content Team got creative with their 90-day priorities. This is their scoreboard about their desks.

The Content Team got creative with their 90-day priorities. This is their scoreboard about their desks.

Oh, and we have a gym. Healthy bodies, healthy minds. Anyone can sign up for free personal training sessions during office hours. It's a wonderful way to integrate exercise into the working day, and a great perk for all GetSmarter team members. Our biokineticist Sheana, who is affectionately known as Ma-sheana, works us hard! The gym helps us live our value of relationships matter with our team members.

We have a gym. It's an awesome perk.

We have a gym. It's an awesome perk.

And that's the end of our office tour, which also happens to describe our business strategy. 

I can't think of a more important objective for a leader of a company than to ensure that everyone has clear direction, and is in alignment with the company's strategic plan. This will lead to serious commitment from all team members, and the best chance of business success.

Towards greatness.

P.S. Here's a link to a video tour of our office, if you'd like a closer look.

P.P.S. I need to acknowledge the great work our exceptionally talented Services Manager, Amy Grewe, did in putting our awesome office space together. 

Lessons from business: how to make new year's resolutions stick

If you're like me, every other year you set a few new year's resolutions. Fast forward a few weeks and most of them haven't stuck. Any by most, I mean none.

Right? I'm right. 

If i'm wrong and you regularly achieve your new year's resolutions, please leave a comment below on how you do it. I'd love to learn.

So, the start of a new year is such a great opportunity for reflection and planning. And I always have the best of intentions for using a few choice resolutions to make a positive change in my life. But judging by my track record, I haven't been doing it right.

It goes something like this:

Me: Keri (my wife), howzit? I've decided i'm going to get super fit by running every 2nd day this year. *Fist pump*, as I think to myself how awesome I am for making a commitment to positive change.

Keri: Awesome, that sounds great. *Rolls eyes*. When will you start?

Me: Right now. See you later.

And so I kick off a few trail runs at the beginning of the year. Now, you need to know, trail running in Cape Town is really easy to get into. Table Mountain is basically a trail runners dream, with its myriad of trails weaving up to and along its many contour paths. And I live really close to the mountain, which makes kicking off this new year's resolution particularly easy. It's a quick win.

On reflection, my default to immediate action is hardly surprising to me.  My top strength, as per Clifton Strength's Finder, is Activator. And while this strength benefits me greatly in some areas of my life, i've realised that my quick default to action is one of the reasons my new year's resolutions don't stick. More about that later in this post.

So, a few weeks into the year I find myself skipping runs. And a month or two in, i'm back to last year's rhythm of two runs a week. Nothing has changed, including Keri's expectation that the same process will repeat come the next new year's resolution frenzy. Surprise!

This year is going to be different, and here's why.

A new year's resolution is just a fancy phrase for a goal that we set ourselves at the beginning of a year. It's usually a personal goal, and in execution it is not materially different from the goals we may set ourselves at work. It needs to be specific and clear - to us and others - so we can hold ourselves accountable to it. It needs to have a time period, otherwise we won't know when it is done or for how long it is relevant. It needs to be attainable - can I really make the time to achieve it? Is it important enough for me to dedicate time and effort to? These questions follow the classic SMART goal setting format that managers have grown to know and love: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. 

At this point I can hear some of my friends saying "Sam, that goal setting stuff is all great in a business, but don't you be bringing all that management sh*t over here. You hear me?"

Business and personal context is different. And we can't just translate theory from one context to another without some degree of sensitivity for the new context. But I believe strongly that we can borrow from our learnings in the workplace and apply these lessons in our personal lives.

In 2014, I learnt a lot about goal setting at GetSmarter. We adopted a strategic planning tool by Gazelles Inc that had every one of our 150 team members setting up to five priorities for each and every quarter. We call them 90-day priorities because they last for 90 days at a time, and they are written in SMART format.

Since we first started setting 90-day priorities, I have completed three sets of priorities. In addition to formatting one's goals to be SMART (I highly recommend this), here's what I learnt about setting great goals:

Choose goals that really matter to you

There's a good reason why most new year's resolutions don't last. It isn't easy to effect change in our lives. Yet, when achieving a goal that really matters to us, our belief in the importance of that goal allows us to push through times of fatigue and self doubt that would ordinarily cause us to give up. It's the goals that truly mattered to GetSmarter, and that I knew deep down inside mattered to me too, that got my attention first each morning. And I achieved those goals. The goals that matter less, fail more.

What matters most to you right now? Give yourself permission to think about the changes that would have the most impact in your life this year. It takes time to identify and buy into the goals that matter most to us.

My default to quick action I mentioned earlier in this post is one of the reasons my past resolutions haven't stuck. I need to spend time buying into truly important goals, otherwise I won't have the motivation to achieve them.

Invest in the process, not the outcome

I borrow this line from Srikumar Rao, who explains in his TED talk "Plug into your hardwired happiness" why many people fail at achieving happiness in their lives. He says that our generally accepted mental model of "if this, then that" drives such views as "if we have this car, then we'll be happy" or "when I get to this position in my career, then i'll be happy". And this drives immense unhappiness because we control so little of what allows us to get from where we are today to where we want to be. If we set goals that are way outside of our control and invest all our energy in the outcome, then only a few people will be lucky enough to achieve them and feel the satisfaction at the very end. He proposes a new approach to setting goals: invest your emotional energy in the process of achieving the goal. Get your wins from each step along the road towards achieving your goal, rather than only at the end once you've achieved it. His philosophy has struck a chord with the 500,000+ people who have viewed his TED talk and where he teaches at Columbia Business School.

There's nothing wrong with setting big goals, but once we've set those goals, break the goal down into smaller more manageable goals. Then focus all your energy on achieving the smallest goal closest to you. Once you've achieved that, bank it as a win and decide on the next incremental goal you wish to achieve along the way to achieving your bigger goal. Repeat this process a few times, and all your emotional energy will go into each incremental step along the road towards achieving your big goal. You'll be far more likely to achieve the big goal, and even if you don't - you would have banked so many wins along the way that the loss will be minor when compared with the number of smaller goals you've achieved up till that point. The primary point is that if you can invest your emotional energy in each step towards the goal, you will feel more successful as you achieve each incremental step. Small point, big mind shift.

I find that weekly check ins on my goals helps me hold myself accountable and course correct. At GetSmarter, we check in on our 90-day priorities every week with a simple four-colour metric. Green is on track, yellow is behind, red is far behind and super green is way ahead. This helps me hold myself accountable every week to achieving the goal in the 90-day period, and it gives me the opportunity to celebrate wins and recover from losses along the way. The colour scheme metrics is probably too formal for personal goals, but the discipline of regular check ins, in whatever format is appropriate, on our goal progress drives accountability. This could be via a daily journal you write, or some time you spend with yourself each weekend.

You will fail along the way

If your goal really matters to you, it's going to be hard work to achieve it. There is so much in our lives that we don't control. Some people believe that we control as little as 40% of our lives - ouch! And that means that you may experience set backs that are beyond your control. Some days, you may not have the willpower to progress towards your goal.  Other days, life will happen to you.

Judge yourself not by the number of failures you experience in pursuing your goal, but by the number of recoveries you achieve after failing. Easy to say, hard to do. But recovering from a set back can be seen as a win in it's own right.

So, this year I am going to apply the lessons i've learned to set personal new year's resolutions that will stick. What are they? I'm not sure yet. I'm giving myself time to consider what is really important to me. Then i'll spend time wording them so they are SMART, share them with a few close people around me, and then go out there and make them stick - one week at a time.

Happy new year, and all the best for using new year's resolutions to affect change in your life.