How A South African Startup Went Global In 8 Years

4 minutes   |  CAREER ADVICE

Stand on the shoulders of giants.

That’s the sentiment GetSmarter CEO, Sam Paddock believes contributed to the online education provider’s recent successful step into the global online education arena.

From humble beginnings as a small startup in a single room with only six employees in 2008, with an ambitious determination to improve lives through better education, GetSmarter has been fortunate with consistent growth in the South African market.  The company now powers over 70 engaging online short courses in collaboration with some of the world’s most renowned higher education institutions.

And recently the Cape Town-based business earned the accolade of being the largest acquisition of a South African edtech company when they were bought by American edtech giant 2U for $103 million.

$103 million. That’s what your startup could be worth.

Here are the 4 steps the C-suite executives behind GetSmarter’s success believe you should take to make your startup a success:

getsmarter startup success
1. Navigate a steep growth curve

When the team increased from 6 people to 80, Sam knew a strategy would need to be implemented that would accommodate the growth in the team and ensured the company still delivered top results. Their execution methodology was adopted from Verne Harnish’s book, Mastering the Rockefeller Habits.

“We stood on the shoulders of management consulting giants”, says Paddock, “and implemented quarterly priorities, a one-page strategic plan, weekly meetings, daily stand ups, as well as a focus on data and metrics throughout the organisation.”

Along with these changes to process and structure, there was also a need to maintain the infectious culture GetSmarter had developed.

Both Sam Paddock and Chief Marketing Officer, Ryan O’Mahoney, attribute the strength of the company to the strength of the team. They believe the first step in approaching a growth spurt is ensuring you have excellent team members and are empowering them to perform to their potential. Engaged employees, and retention of those employees, is key to success in an ambiguous space.

By placing importance on team-building activities, encouraging healthy living, celebrating personal wins and fostering an environment that focused on making the team feel motivated, leadership ensured the employees felt engaged in the company every day they came to work.

But, as they launched more short courses and collaborated with more universities, continuing to navigate their steep growth curve brought with it challenges that went beyond the culture.

Ryan says, “In many ways, business can be defined as dealing with a series of problems in a way that allows you to survive and thrive. What we look for at GetSmarter is to deal with more of the right challenges and less of the wrong challenges. The right challenges are the ones that make your business stronger.

building startup teams

2. Embrace ambiguity

Between 2015 and 2016, GetSmarter dealt with the right challenge, by making the bold decision to take on an international portfolio of work, collaborating with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Goldsmiths, University of London.

Now, with a 350-person strong team, there is a requirement to deliver online short courses to thousands of global students. Collaborating with a host of new institutions, including HarvardX, the University of Cambridge, the University of Chicago, Oxford University and the London School of Economics and Political Science meant there was more pressure on leadership to make the right decisions, while ensuring the team felt safe and supported in the midst of increased ambiguity.

Ryan approached the overwhelming times with one mantra for his team:

“Understand what problem you solve for the customer, and focus all your attention on how you solve that problem better than anyone else. Don’t get distracted by trying to be everything to everyone.

The company’s recent launch of a multitude of new international and local online short courses has pushed the team to implement specific processes and procedures which enable them to work at a higher capacity, and serve a bigger market:

Technology systems that accommodate over 1000 students logging into their Online Campus at the same time; sales teams having to work night shifts to accommodate various time zones; and a marketing department who needed to produce content in a voice that communicated to a multitude of cultures.
managing change for startups

3. Manage resources

Ryan found one of the biggest obstacles for the marketing department during this time was deciding which channels to distribute financial resources to, and how much to allocate.

“When going into a new space in the market, forecasting demand is hard, and so you don’t really know what to expect.” says O’Mahoney. “This challenge becomes easier when you bootstrap your growth, rather than have it funded externally, as your cash constraints force you to innovate and work hard.

Sam believes smart, strategic choices like this are what put the business in a stronger position when stepping into unknown territory. “It is this increased strength, through a strategy that helps us better deal with the ambiguity that comes.”

managing resources and budget in a startup

4. Reflect often

That ambiguity isn’t going away anytime soon. GetSmarter is steamrolling ahead with their short courses towards what they call a “big, hairy, audacious goal” or “BHAG”: to improve the lives of 1,000 000 people by the year 2030. It’s a big commitment, and will require the team to constantly upskill, question the way they operate, and regularly review their strategy.

The recent partnership with 2U has supplied GetSmarter with an injection of capital and a wealth of knowledge about the edtech industry that is helping them work towards this goal.

In order to approach the future with confidence, Sam Paddock has learnt to reflect on where the company has come from and what they have learnt. His advice to other entrepreneurs who aspire to move from local to global?

  1. Start by taking an experimental approach. Don’t hold ideas too tightly. Put immense effort into iterative experimentation.
  2. Learn to recognise the right problems from the wrong problems, and put your best people on the right problems.
  3. Seek mentorship, read widely, and never lose your hunger to learn.

“I know that success can’t happen without an ever deepening understanding of self. My main piece of advice would be to dedicate yourself to a deeper understanding of who you are, every day. As we gain a deeper understanding of the world within, so too do we gain an understanding of the world without.”

improving yourself to help your business


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