In 2016, San Diego-based Learning Upgrade — a team of teachers and programmers offering innovative reading, writing and math courses through songs, videos and games — entered the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE competition to develop a mobile literacy app. Learning Upgrade won a USD2.5 million prize in February 2019.
Winning the prize was one thing; moving toward growth and scalability proved to be an incredible hurdle.
Enter a group of seasoned CEOs working in partnership with early-stage XPRIZE Foundation entrepreneurs to help them grow their disruptive technologies to scale in order to positively impact millions of people all over the globe.
For Learning Upgrade CEO Vinod Lobo, the YPO/XPRIZE Impact Engine changed the course of his company. Learning Upgrade previously did not have a strategy to scale globally. It catered to U.S. schools, serving only 100,000 students each year.
Now, after the mentorship of an experienced business leader, its goal is to reach 100 million children and adults within five years.
This is the type of challenge that YPO members thrive under — high pressure to accelerate growth and scale a business, while serving the greater good.
“YPO is well suited for this,” Lobo says. “We jumped into the deep end. In three months, we have torn our whole business apart to bring it back together. We are executing a completely new strategy based on partners from all over the world.”
The window of opportunity
Mariano Gonzalez, a YPO member from New York who is a Managing Partner at Sloan Ventures, meets virtually with Lobo weekly. Gonzalez is passionate about literacy — the issue Learning Upgrade is trying to solve. Through business and work with organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago, Gonzalez has seen immigrants struggle to integrate into and belong in this country.
“I wanted to get involved,” Gonzalez says. “Literacy is a big boulder that creates a domino effect. This ‘little’ thing — seemingly pretty basic — is actually a huge stumbling block. All these kids are left behind, and not only the kids, but their parents, too.”
Lobo is grateful for the opportunity to work with Gonzalez. “Mariano has treated us like a friend and like any other portfolio company,” he says. “He just dove in and has given us the strategy. He’s gone into detail. Mariano has taught us the order that all of this happens — the beauty of complexity and time.”
By all accounts, this counseling has worked. Learning Upgrade recently signed two new contracts.
Don’t try to juggle too many things at once. Your company can evolve but pay close attention and tend to the core — the core is what pays the bills and funds growth. ”
— Mariano Gonzalez, Managing Partner, Sloan Ventures share
These include a global distribution partnership through Gooru, a nonprofit that has developed Navigator, a GPS for learning, and another distribution contract with Genashtim, a Singapore-based education reseller that plans to sell Learning Upgrade products in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines. Just those four countries alone represent a population larger than that of the United States.
Six lessons for breakthrough innovation and growth
Like many small businesses, Learning Upgrade was caught up in the day-to-day. The company didn’t need capital; it already was cashflow positive.
“We were never stepping back and looking at the whole picture,” Lobo says. “Mariano’s theme was that ‘if you’re not growing, you’re dying.’”
Here are six lessons for breakthrough innovation, scaling and growth, according to Lobo and Gonzalez:
- Look at your business model as modular. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses and focus on what you’re good at. Learning Upgrade is particularly good at creating content and lessons. It learned through this process that maintaining its own learning management system (LMS) should be less of a priority.
- Prioritize initiatives in steps. Don’t try to juggle too many things at once. Your company can evolve but pay close attention and tend to the core — the core is what pays the bills and funds growth. Set a strategy for 90 days, six months, and one year. Separate out the easy stuff — the low-hanging fruit — and tackle those steps first.
- Set high goals for growth and scale. Don’t set small goals. Think big versus just survival. To date, Learning Upgrade has reached three million students. Its previous goal was to reach 10 million in five years. It now aims to reach 100 million.
- Allow others to help you on this journey. This is among the toughest things for any entrepreneur. You’ve worked hard, and this company is your baby. But if you’re growing fast, you have to let go of some control. There are not enough hours in the day for you to tackle everything. This is where the power of the team comes in.
- Prepare two presentations: one for your partners, the other for your staff. Many companies are going through the same stages of growth, regardless of company size. Stay transparent with your staff. Allow employees time to offer feedback, give you input, and buy into your vision. Partners and employees must understand where you want to go and their role in the journey.
- Build the partnership angle. Some companies forget about this. There could be a few things that another company does better than you. Recognize that a competitor actually may be a future partner.
YPO members wanting to know more about how you can get involved in the YPO/XPRIZE Impact Engine, check out this launch video on the Source.