How Sam and Rob Paddock Sold GetSmarter for R1,4 Billion
What growth path did GetSmarter founders, Sam Paddock and Rob Paddock follow that allowed them to sell their business for R1,4 billion, and what can you learn from their journey?
- Players: Sam Paddock and Rob Paddock
- Company: GetSmarter
- Launched: 2008
- The Deal: Sold to NASDAQ-listed company 2U for R1,4 billion
- Visit: www.getsmarter.com
How do you build a business that is not only the leader in its sector locally, but attracts the attention of an international, listed company, concluding in a R1,4 billion deal? Brothers Sam and Rob Paddock believe there’s a lot of luck involved in building a great business – but you need a clear strategy, great people and strong partnerships as well.
Here’s the fascinating thing about truly successful businesses: Speak to founders that have secured investments, sold their businesses or built high-growth organisations, and you’ll notice they have two things in common. First, they have a strong purpose other than money motivating them. Second, their focus is on building a robust, high-impact business, and not on how they’re going to find a funder or sell their company. Interestingly, by not focusing on these factors and working on the business instead, funders, buyers and success are often the end result anyway.
GetSmarter is a perfect example of these laws in action. Co-founders Sam and Rob Paddock’s purpose is to improve one million lives through online education by 2030, and even though they’ve just concluded an incredible deal (believed to be the biggest in the South African edtech landscape to date), they actually had no intention of selling until Christopher ‘Chip’ Paucek, CEO and co-founder of 2U, contacted them in 2016.
“We’ve been approached by interested parties over the years, but we’ve never seriously considered selling the business,” says Sam, CEO of GetSmarter. “It’s flattering, but we were focused on achieving our internal goals, and didn’t see the value in selling some or all of the company.”
So why was 2U’s offer different? In a nutshell, because the deal will actually help the brothers accelerate their objective of improving one million lives by 2030. In other words, it directly taps into their purpose — and it’s that purpose that made the business attractive to 2U in the first place.
“It was a chance meeting,” says Sam. “Chip was surfing Facebook and came across an advert for an MIT course we were running. It was our first international programme, and since 2U is in the online education space, he immediately wanted to know who we were. He called me, and when we realised how aligned our businesses and philosophies were, it kicked off a series of face-to-face conversations around what we could acheive together.”
“Both of our target markets are working professionals, but while we offer non-accredited short courses, 2U offers fully-fledged degrees,” says Rob. “So, while in many ways the businesses are almost identical, they are also not competing with each other. 2U offers degrees from highly ranked institutions such as Yale, the University of California Berkley and New York University. We offer short courses from UCT, Wits, Stellenbosch, MIT, Harvard, UChicago, Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics. We realised that if we worked together we could service both ends of the market, and our combined reach would be incredible.”
Sam and Rob have built a solid, sustainable business that has enjoyed incredible growth over the past few years, but what really attracted 2U was a shared sense of purpose. “There’s real cultural alignment between our two businesses,” says Rob. “Culture has given us a real competitive edge, and it’s the guiding force behind the principle and values we’ve built the business on.”
The lesson is a simple one. If your values and purpose are clear, you’ll naturally attract like-minded people to your organisation, from employees to investors and even potential partners and buyers.
A shared sense of purpose gets the conversation started, but it doesn’t secure the deal. 2U is an international company that’s listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NASDAQ), and has a fiduciary duty to its shareholders to purchase businesses on more than an emotional whim.
GetSmarter had to go through a rigorous due diligence process before the deal was concluded. The foundations that Sam and Rob have put in place over the last decade have ensured that they’ve created more than just a vision: They’ve built an asset of value that isn’t dependent on its founders, and offers a strong value proposition to a listed business.
That value proposition began in 2008 when the brothers got their first partners on board: The University of Stellenbosch and UCT. The partnership with UCT started with Rob and Sam’s dad, Graham Paddock, one of South Africa’s top sectional title lawyers. Graham had collaborated with UCT’s Law Faculty to build an online course that could be accessed across the country, with a final in-person workshop component. The course was one of the most profitable activities that Paddocks, Graham’s law firm, was involved in.
Sam had designed a virtual campus while completing his degree in business science, and the success of Graham’s online course cemented the impression that there was a real business opportunity in online education that could also add real value to the South African market place.
“I love tech and marketing, Rob is passionate about education, and has a background teaching music, and Paddocks already had a great partnership with UCT’s Law Faculty,” says Sam. From the beginning, both he and Rob clearly recognised that the success of any online education venture lay with the partnerships they could secure.
“Our courses have been successful because they combine affordability with an attractive institutional brand that adds value to people’s skills and CVs,” says Rob. “We built partnerships with UCT, the University of Stellenbosch and Wits based on this ideal.
“In our sales and marketing collateral, the academic institution’s branding is front and centre, not GetSmarter’s. Our job is to give students the confidence and competence to advance their careers. We do this through high-touch courses that support them throughout the learning process. Those courses are designed with career advancement in mind in collaboration with our partners.”
“The real success has come in the value proposition we offer the universities we work with,” adds Rob. “Essentially, we take on the vast majority of the commercial risk. We take on all marketing and sales activities, course administration, learning technology, student support, technical support, but the courses are very much led by the university in terms of IP, and they have full quality control over the course at all times. The commercial model is that the university receives a percentage of revenue share.
“The biggest lesson we’ve learnt since launching this business is that you need to understand who you are partnering with and what their objectives are. The relationships we have with the universities we work with is at the heart of our business model. How we serve our university partners, students and employees is the foundation of our success — and pulling all three together is what creates an offering that the market both wants and needs.”
Success is the greatest precursor to further success
Building up trust doesn’t happen overnight. For Sam and Rob, it’s been a ten-year journey focusing on delivering exceptional online courses that add value to learners and their university partners. This dedication to creating the right formula for online courses has had two distinct results. It’s built solid relationships with the local academic world (and a valuable network that the brothers could tap into when they started investigating international partners), and it’s resulted in an 88% completion rate, which is exceptionally high in the world of online learning.
“We’ve very carefully structured and developed the high-touch style that differentiates GetSmarter courses,” explains Rob. “We focus on the holistic needs of our learners. They need to put in ten hours a week and to help them do that, and get the most from the course, we have success managers who guide them through the process, a 24-hour tech support team, and everyone is placed in small tutorial groups, which creates an intimate and personal learning environment, even if there are 1 000 students taking that particular course. Our learners constantly get the sense that their learning is being nurtured and facilitated. We believe it’s this level of support that has resulted in such a high completion rate.”
Compare this to the extremely low completion rates of MOOCs, often in the range of 3% to 15%. The New York Times named 2012 the Year of the MOOC. The world believed these Massive Open Online Courses would democratise learning, and render higher education institutions obsolete. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon, and some of the most revered names in the higher education space added their courses to the mix of content that anyone in the world could access for free.
And then two things happened. First, although the idea was to find a business model that could monetise MOOCs, while still allowing people free access to the content, this has not yet happened. And second, the completion rate of courses is incredibly low. People sign up for MOOCs, but they don’t finish them.
“We absolutely support the idea of free open content for the world to access,” says Sam. “But we don’t see MOOCs as fundamentally disrupting higher education. A vast majority of the people accessing MOOCs are already highly qualified individuals in the US and the UK.
“More importantly though, making content available gives people access to it, but there’s a big difference between starting a course and completing it. This has been a huge focus for us — how do we get people to complete online courses? These are working professionals with a lot of responsibilities, and our courses typically require an additional ten hours a week. We’ve found that a high-touch framework supports our learners in their journey, guiding them through the content, and resulting in our 88% completion rate.”
This was the value proposition that Sam and Rob were able to present to international universities when they started focusing on international growth in 2015. “Our local growth drives were to increase courses within the verticals we focused on, so that learners could keep increasing their skills, and to build on the number of courses we offer. The greater our portfolio, the bigger the market we can appeal to, across industries and professions,” says Sam. The next step was to go international.
“When we started the process, we had a seven-year track record of success in partnering with the top three institutions in South Africa and a high completion rate. We also offer our university partners significant financial returns,” says Sam. “We believed that our proven capability to deliver high quality courses as well as financial returns was a value proposition that international partners would respond to.”
The brothers knew it wouldn’t be a simple process however. “There are a lot of start-ups in the edtech space. Harvard is approached weekly by companies claiming to be the future of education. We needed an additional ‘in’, and that came from the partnerships we had built in South Africa,” says Rob.
“We sweated our networks hard. Luckily, the world of higher education is small and connected. Our networks were able to introduce us to the right people in the UK and the US, and then we worked harder than we ever have in our lives. We did a roadshow in 2015 where we had five meetings a day for three weeks in a row. I checked my passport recently — I travelled to Boston 19 times in 18 months. It takes time and energy to establish the right relationships. The introductions were just a foot in the door. We needed to take that gap and really make it work.”
In February 2016 GetSmarter’s first international course launched in collaboration with MIT. This was followed by courses with Harvard, Oxford, the London School of Economics and Cambridge. Today, GetSmarter’s team of 400 service a pool of learners in 140+ countries from their offices in Cape Town and London.
Using your differentiators to make a difference
Over and above the trifecta of systems, operational support and pedagogy that has made GetSmarter courses so popular in the market, is the strong sales and marketing focus that has been integral to the brand’s growth strategy since inception.
“We have a hybrid sales and marketing strategy that uses Facebook, LinkedIn and Google AdWords to generate inbound leads,” explains Sam. “Our target audience is in their mid to late 30s, midway through their career and upwardly mobile, and we reach them via their digital network. Our inhouse digital marketing agency uses analytics, maths and stats to understand who is likely to sign up for our courses, and what conversations we need to be having with them to make that happen.
“Once a potential learner has shown an interest, they are signed over to the sales team, who begin high quality conversations around whether the course is right for them or not. The process is high touch and very people focused.”
This same high-touch sales and marketing process has also helped GetSmarter to successfully enter international markets. “We’ve learnt a lot from marketing in Southern Africa,” says Sam. “Working professionals in South Africa, while culturally distinct, are similar to working professionals in the EU and US. Local guidelines are also working in those markets.”
The business’s acquisition by 2U will increase this reach even further. “We can now apply 2U’s advanced marketing analytic capabilities to understand how to reach a larger audience. The big markets for us are the US, the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Middle East and of course South Africa, which is still currently our biggest market base, although this will shift in the future.” Interestingly, while the inclusion of international courses to GetSmarter’s portfolio has triggered international growth and the deal with 2U, South Africa’s growing appetite for international programmes is driving local growth.
“In a recent Cambridge business sustainability management course that we ran, 10% of the students were from South Africa,” confirms Rob.
Building on great foundations
The key factor behind the international growth and the acquisition, is the team Sam and Rob have built around them over the past five years.
“Culture has always been a competitive advantage for us,” says Sam. “Our people are GetSmarter’s life-blood. Four years ago, the business’s strategy lived in corridor conversations with ‘Sam and Rob’. We were the funnel that everything in the company ran through. If we wanted to achieve next level growth, that needed to change.
“One of the lenses we view business through is that human performance precedes operational performance, which precedes financial performance. That means in order to achieve any success, you need to first build a higher human capital base. We started by expanding our executive team, bringing people on board who were better than us in their respective portfolios.
By the time we were prospecting with international institutions they were running their divisions without our daily input. We were able to focus on international growth and strategies because we had the right team in place.”
“Without that foundation, none of this would have been possible,” Rob agrees. “We could focus on travelling and building international relationships — and even on the 2U deal and due diligence, because of our executive team.”
Over and above the executive team are 400 highly capable people based in Cape Town, serving students from around the world. “We work with awesome people,” says Sam, “and that’s helped us build this business and work towards achieving our purpose. You can’t impact one million lives by yourself. It takes a strong, cohesive team. We’ve built a company around that, and now we’ve joined an international industry leader based on the same principles.”
Choosing to Sell
How do you know it’s the right time, and what should you do if you’re considering the sale of your business? Sam and Rob offer the following advice:
- Make sure you like and respect the acquirer. Everything starts here. It’s a long, slow, complex process. You need to like each other.
- During the acquisition process, you need to rapidly develop a new set of skills, and that’s not always possible. You need a team of professionals to help you navigate the deal. This includes deal advisors and attorneys. Deals of this nature are complex, and you want to set everything up for potential success in the future.
- Make sure there’s real synergy between the businesses. What do you offer each other, and how will the acquisition help both businesses grow? If you can’t answer this, you probably shouldn’t be doing the deal.
The Evolution of a business
If an organisation’s strategy is focused on high-impact growth, it’s important to get the right people on board. Here’s how GetSmarter grew its executive team.
- 2008: Sam Paddock (CEO and co-founder)
- Rob Paddock (Chief of Strategic Partnerships and co-founder)
- 2012: Thelmé Janse van Rensburg (Chief of Talent) John Hill (CIO)
- Amy Johnson (Chief of Education)
- 2014: Chris Vella (Chief Communications Officer, Integrated Planning)
- Ryan O’Mahoney (Chief Marketing Officer)
- Anthony Saunders (CFO)
- 2015: Scott Lowry (Chief of Programme Management)
- 2017: Dale Williams (COO); joined the business in a coaching role in 2011).
Listen to the podcast
Matt Brown interviews Sam and Rob and discusses the strategies that have supported GetSmarter’s international growth and sale to 2U for R1,4 billion.
To listen to the podcast, go to mattbrownmedia.co.za/matt-brown-show or find the Matt Brown Show on iTunes or Stitcher.
The Matt Brown Show is a podcast with a listenership in over 100 countries and is designed to empower entrepreneurs around the world through information sharing.