“Your life does not have to be stagnant”, With Douglas Brown and Angela Selden of ‘American Public Education’

Assemble the team that is energized by the BHAG: While at Arise Virtual Solutions, I had the good fortune of assembling a highly talented team. In six years, we grew the business from its lowest exit ARR of 15M dollars to nearly 200Mdollars. In fact, eight of those I hired have since gone on to […]

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Assemble the team that is energized by the BHAG: While at Arise Virtual Solutions, I had the good fortune of assembling a highly talented team. In six years, we grew the business from its lowest exit ARR of 15M dollars to nearly 200Mdollars. In fact, eight of those I hired have since gone on to become CEOs or COOs of businesses.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Angela Selden, Chief Executive Officer of American Public Education and has more than 30 years of experience in technology and technology-enabled services, both within private-equity and publicly traded environments. She has deep experience executing business transformation initiatives for Fortune 500 clients and was previously CEO and board member of DIGARC, a leading education technology provider to higher education institutions; CEO of Workforce Insight, a global, strategic workforce consulting, analytics and services company serving Fortune 100 clients; CEO and Executive Co-Chairman of Arise Virtual Solutions, a virtual workforce solutions outsourcer; and interim CEO of Skybridge Americas, a global contact center and provider of fulfillment solutions.

Earlier in her career, Ms. Selden spent 18 years at Accenture, including serving as Managing Partner, leading the North American Consumer and Industrial Products group to significant growth. Ms. Selden serves on the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business Strategic Board of Governors and was honored as the University’s Entrepreneur of the Year for 2012. Ms. Selden currently serves as Chairman of DinerIQ and as a board member of TalentWave.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Throughout my career, I have aspired to show women, and now in particular my five daughters, that you can continue to set ambitious career goals and achieve your professional dreams while living your best personal life. Most recently, I achieved a lifelong goal of running a public company with my appointment as CEO of American Public Education, Inc. (NASDAQ:APEI) in September 2019. Along the way, I have had the great good fortune of attaining several milestones which provided the stepping stones to this achievement. Among these I am proud to have led three private equity-backed companies as CEO and been promoted as the youngest (at the time) Managing Partner at Accenture. It was also a special honor to have been awarded Entrepreneur of the Year by my alma mater, the University of St. Thomas. I am very proud to have accomplished this all while raising three amazing daughters while married and also as a single parent, then after re-marrying, which has added two more amazing daughters to our family.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

The turnaround at our subsidiary nursing school, Hondros College of Nursing, is a particularly interesting story because the challenges there — and resulting improvement — paved the way for our decision to invest further in nursing education culminating in our pending acquisition of one of the country’s largest nursing educators, Rasmussen University.

When I started at APEI, Hondros was struggling to enroll new students due to some previous “best of intentions” decisions to improve outcomes, but that had the opposite effect, and resulted in alienating existing and prospective students. The former president had left the company, and a board member had been brought out of retirement to evaluate the future prospects of the business.

After arriving at APEI, I accompanied Hondros’s president on a tour of several of the school’s Ohio campuses. We visited with both students and faculty as well as each of the campus directors. It immediately became clear to me that the president had a clear vision for returning the college to growth, and possessed the know-how and experience to operationalize that vision. Moreover, his deep passion for helping these students become new nurses to better their families’ lives and begin filling the nation’s void for RNs and LPNs was clear and, together, we built a business transformation plan. This led to a re-thinking of how we operate: we built performance dashboards for each campus, incorporating both market insights and student success metrics to guide operational conversations with each campus director.

In the midst of the transformation, COVID-19 hit, and the college was forced to stop its on-campus teaching methods and within five weeks moved its curriculum online. Not only did Hondros persevere, but in its most recent enrollment quarter (4Q20), Hondros enrolled the most students in its history, all while meeting or exceeding our accreditor’s retention rate requirements. Seeing the student enthusiasm for pre-licensure nursing at Hondros, and the market demand for RNs in general, affirmed APEI’s decision to acquire Rasmussen University, which was announced on Oct. 28, 2020.

There are many lessons to be learned from the Hondros turnaround, but a few will be important future guideposts. First, put a growth-minded leader in place who has an ambitious but achievable vision for what the business can become. Ensure the leader also has the operational chops to build momentum and create sustainable operational improvements. Give the leader the room to run and trust — but verify — that you are achieving the goals you set out through metrics measurement. Finally, make sure the leader has the empathy for students, faculty and staff, especially during challenging times of strife, to value the hard work and the team’s commitment to the vision.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Prior to COVID, I had been commuting every week from my home in Florida to both our corporate office in Charles Town, West Virginia, and our office in Manassas, Virginia. On two different occasions, I forgot clothing in hotel closets. Once, it was a single item, and another time it was an entire bag containing a week’s worth of clothes. On both occasions, I was packing while on conference calls. My lesson learned is “I don’t do multitasking as well as I think I do!”

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

One of the best gifts my parents gave to me is a strong work ethic. While in the early days of my career at Accenture, I actually ended up assigned to two projects full-time at the same time, one during the day leading a technical architecture team and the other providing software support overnight for my previous client. Because of my exposure to these unique experiences simulatenously, my career path was accelerated and I was promoted to the next level within the first 18 months.

Two years later, I had continued to take on responsibilities above and beyond a normal workload, and expected to be evaluated based on those responsibilities and the results that I had produced. Instead, I was told that I didn’t have sufficient “time at level” to be considered for promotion to manager, primarily because my first promotion came “early.” It was a discouraging message, because I felt I was being penalized, rather than recognized, for my earlier accomplishments.

Thankfully, I had built a solid reputation within the local Minneapolis office and one of the new partners learned of my disappointment and invited me to his office. Through that conversation, I was given the confidence that my contributions were valued, that I would be “on track” for the next promotion cycle, and continued to receive assignments that were beyond my “years” of experience. I credit Mike with keeping me focused on the bigger opportunities the firm had to offer me. As a result, I spent 14 more years at Accenture, including my last three where I doubled annual revenues in the business unit I was running, from 265 million dollars to 535 million dollars, and became an integral part of Accenture’s reinvention from a time-and-materials consulting provider to a tech-enabled, recurring revenue services business.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

At Accenture, when I was a senior manager, I had decided that the industry I was most passionate about was retail, even though I had spent the bulk of my prior years in travel and hospitality. On a Minneapolis office retreat, I had the good fortune of sitting next to a more experienced executive, who was pregnant, working on an out-of-town retail assignment and was soon to stop traveling. She introduced me to Mary Tolan, then a new partner in the Chicago office, who was doing very transformational, innovative work in the retail space by putting a portion of Accenture’s consulting fees “at risk” and having clients pay instead based on the financial business results Accenture delivered.

Soon, I was given the opportunity to step in for that executive who was going on maternity leave and had to stop traveling. I spent the next 10 years benefitting from Mary’s mentorship, ranging from first taking on more expansive responsibilities for retail clients, to supporting my promotion to partner, from providing me with my first P&L opportunity to run the North American Retail practice one year after becoming partner, to then being recommended to become CEO of a private equity-backed outsourcing services business, where she served on the board. I am very grateful for her confidence in my capabilities, her inspiring leadership around value creation for businesses, and for the doors she opened for me.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” To me this embodies the key attributes that have guided my life, both professionally and personally.

  1. Focused Energy: You get out of any opportunity what you put in to it. Without investment of hard work and grit, you decrease the odds that tomorrow will be better than today.
  2. Not Fighting the Old: It is much more productive to show others the possibilities of something new than to try to explain to them why they should not be satisfied with today’s reality.
  3. Building the New: Inventiveness is required to build new things. Always approach new situations with a fresh eye by collecting input from as many different points of view as you can. Be accountable for your life’s outcomes, not a victim of what may have happened to you or around you.
  4. The Secret of Change: Your life does not have to be stagnant. There are many wonderful role models that show that no matter your age or situation, you can set your mind and your actions to fix what does not satisfy you.

Ok, super. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company.

What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

Providing inclusive access to affordable education that maximizes students’ higher education return on investment. We call that HEROITM.

The future demand for skilled workers is expected to vastly exceed the supply. By 2029, the demand for workers with an associate degree or some college could be about 800,000 higher than the supply. The shortage for workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher could be about 8.6 million. These educational and skill shortages could result in about 1.2 trillion dollars in lost economic output.

Skills development through education will be vital to a healthy economy. Unfortunately, higher education is not currently doing enough to satisfy this demand. Access is a core problem, amplified by the effects of COVID-19 on traditional on-ground programs and the inconsistency of student experiences in newly minted online programs. Further, the cost of education is out of reach for so many adult learners. Tuition and fees at public four-year colleges have grown 19 times faster than the median family income since 1980. Further, there is a lack of accountability for the return on a student’s investment. Employers are increasingly dissatisfied with the higher education system’s ability to graduate students who are adequately prepared with the skills to meet tomorrow’s workforce challenges. The sector has been ripe for disruption for some time, and we see APEI as uniquely positioned to help lead this transformation.

We believe that everyone deserves to realize their purpose — and that no one should be written out of a college education due to limitations of time, money or location. APEI’s vision is rooted in our storied history. Originally established in 1991 as American Military University (AMU) to serve the needs of a highly mobile military, to this day we are still guided by a strong sense of social responsibility, and a commitment to serving our students and the broader community.

Through the fully online APUS and blended on-ground and online Hondros College of Nursing, we now “serve those who serve.” Today more than 88,000 service-driven adult learners worldwide — nurses, veterans, civilians and active-duty military — are enrolled and we offer more than 220 degree and certificate programs at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At APUS, 72% of our over 103,000 alumni have graduated without incurring any APUS-related student debt*. We serve an extraordinary mission at APEI — to provide affordable, inclusive, high-quality higher education to under-served populations. Many are the first in their families to attend college and are professionals juggling work and home alongside their studies. This affordability and flexibility have enabled students to better focus on their next chapter without having to carry a burden of costly college debt for many years after graduating.

We are very proud of the many success stories we have at APUS, so here are a few I would like to share:

Yesli Vega, a military spouse, mother, and police officer in Virginia, obtained a bachelor of science in criminal justice from AMU, thereby expanding her knowledge and helping advance in her career. Yesli feels that education provides people with a clearer viewpoint on the world and ways to better engage and share their skills.

Chanda Chan became the first person in her family to earn a college degree. Today, Chanda is a successful entrepreneur, property manager, and small business owner who specializes in commercial real estate leasing and sales. Chanda first earned a bachelor’s of business administration at AMU and followed that up with a master’s of business administration from AMU two years later. At every step, Chanda has credited AMU with providing the support she needed to move toward her ultimate goal — graduating and pursuing her career ambitions.

*As of December 31, 2019. Includes alumni who graduated with an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree from APUS. Student loan debt is defined as student loans and private education loans used for tuition, fees, living expenses, and book costs associated with courses taken at APUS. Many APUS students receive military tuition assistance and veterans education benefits, which are not student loan debt.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’ve identified a nationwide problem — a nursing shortage — and have rolled up our sleeves to help overcome this key challenge facing our country.The shortage is becoming worse due to several factors, including COVID-19, but even before the pandemic hit, there was a significant shortage of practicing nurses. An aging population and other healthcare demands are straining the U.S. healthcare system, while at the same time, hundreds of thousands of nurses are predicted to reach retirement age over the next several years. Registered Nursing is expected to be one of the top occupations for job growth over the next nine years. Complicating this problem, U.S. nursing schools turned away over 80,000 qualified applicants from baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs in 2019 due to insufficient number of faculty, clinical sites, classroom space, and clinical preceptors, as well as budget constraints.

To help address the significant shortage of nurses in the U.S., in October we announced that APEI has entered into an agreement to purchase the 120-year old nursing-focused Rasmussen University, headquartered in Minneapolis. This acquisition will create a national powerhouse for pre-licensure nursing education, delivering high-quality student learning that is deeply connected to the needs of the employment market.

Our well-established Hondros College of Nursing trains and educates LPNs and RNs in the Midwest, and Rasmussen University serves students in six states in the Midwest and Florida, with a seventh one, Texas, planned for the future. Collectively, Rasmussen and Hondros will serve over 10,000 nursing students, and we’re very excited that we will become the №1 educator of pre-licensure nurses (ADNs/PNs) in a fast-growing market. In a field where students are being turned away due to capacity limitations of many institutions, we have created education at scale to serve students who have what it takes to become a nurse.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Some of the same problems that plague our nation’s adult learners are, ironically, those that also limit advancement of women in tech. These include accessibility and inclusiveness. It is part of our mission to assist in the advancement of women in tech. At APUS, we strive to assist women to excel in STEM and at Hondros we are providing pre-licensure nursing opportunities with a significant emphasis on science.

At APUS, over 15% of our students are in the STEM school pursuing in-demand degrees such as cybersecurity, environmental science, and space studies. What’s more, our student body is diverse in composition — over 15% are African-American and an additional 15% are Hispanic/Latino.

We believe it is important for us to provide greater access to higher education — across all races, nationalities and genders. STEM is our fastest-growing school across APUS, and we’re committed to accelerating the growth of that program. We have numerous strong female leaders across our diverse faculty, including dedicated and driven program directors within our STEM school, like Dr. Elizabeth Pearsall, who can act as role models to inspire students even in our online modality.

To change the status quo, we at APEI are providing accessible education, regardless of time, place or a student’s background. We believe inclusitivity is key to success.

To that end, one student success story I’m proud of us Jessica Hillman, an ADN student at Hondros College of Nursing who took classes at the same time as her mother, Nikki. Both women are working in nursing careers today.

“I felt like I owed it to myself to go back to school and accomplish my goals,” Jessica Hillman said. “I made excuses for years, but I finally came to HCN. And I brought my mom with me! Hondros offered a flexible schedule with day and night classes. I pursued Hondros for my ADN (RN) because of the good experience I had with the (L)PN program and the relationships I have with my instructors.”

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I was very fortunate to grow up in a household where my parents, both of whom worked outside the home, shared household duties. Thanks to my father, I didn’t even realize until I went to college that it was unconventional for husbands to scrub floors, wash dishes and fold laundry alongside wives.

Despite today’s important advancements in the balance of family responsibilities in couples with two working parents, many women, either because of their own high expectations or the expectations placed on them by their spouses or their families, still shoulder much of the “thinking and planning” of household and childcare responsibilities even if they aren’t necessarily executing the “doing.” Between societal and social media pressure for “perfect” homes and “perfect” children, many women have established standards that add significant additional stress and mindshare. Today, with the additional pressures imposed by many elementary school-aged children being homeschooled due to COVID, those parenting imbalances are re-emerging with more of the burden being shouldered by the woman of the household.

Looking back on my years of balancing work and family, I have three pieces of advice to women. First is to have frank conversations with your spouse or significant other to establish shared expectations about the upbringing of children and the household priorities. Without this shared meaning, much tension and discord can exist. Next, together set goals and prioritize the important things and let the small day-to-day things go. Believe me, this is hard, but it is the only way to make room in your brain for your work. Revisit those goals periodically, because they can change as children grow or with unforeseen circumstances, like COVID-19. Third, delegate, delegate, delegate. Build a team of people you trust (sitter, housekeeper, nanny, spouse, etc.) to ensure you can give all of your attention to your work when you are working. By doing those things, you can be more present in the moment, whether with your children or with your team.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a stand still. From your experience, do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

First, “let the data do the talking.” Have a very clear-eyed view of the results being produced from each line of business. Immerse yourself in the numbers to make sure you aren’t overlooking opportunities masked by assumptions.

Next, armed with that data, have conversations with your key customers, or, in APEI’s case, students and alumni. Personally. Don’t delegate this to someone else. Ask what is working — and what is not. From those conversations you will hear the hard truths about your gaps in products or services and you will know the validity of that commentary based on your awareness of the data. You will also discover which of your customers are your true brand ambassadors. Assemble those brand ambassadors into an advisory group.

Third, have conversations with your high-potential team members. On the front lines of customer support or product development, they will have often peeked around the corner and can see what the future potential of the business can be, and what is standing in the way of its success. You will also be able to determine if they understand the data and results as you see it. The high potentials need to share your one clear voice on how to measure success.

Next, bring in fresh ideas from the outside, preferably from another industry. You can accomplish that through a consultant, a newly hired executive or a networking group of like-minded executives from different industries. In the past, I have used a “scavenger hunt” exercise to open the eyes of the entire company to competitors and their strengths.

Look for winning companies both inside and outside your industry. Dissect the essential ingredients that have allowed them to win. What similarities can you find in your own company that are not being exploited? What market gaps have you uncovered that could be new growth space?

Finally, the hardest step is to evaluate your sales, services and product leadership. “What got you here today, may not get you there tomorrow.” Take a clear-eyed look at whether the leadership talent you have in place can address the customer gaps and can get after those new market opportunities. If not, have the courage to bring in the expertise necessary to get you to the next level.

When I joined APEI just over a year ago, we began by evaluating every aspect of each business unit, applying all of the principles outlined above. We built new dashboards, spoke with key stakeholders and team members, brought in fresh ideas and fresh talent to evaluate winning business models from outside our traditional industry. Overall it has been a year of transformation and acceleration. Thanks to this hard work across all our business units, we have reported year-over-year increases in several areas for several quarters, including net course registrations.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

I have had the good fortune of working with some very talented sales leaders, in particular while running private equity-backed B2B businesses, where ambitious growth targets were standard and customary. High performing sales teams exist when you have a sales leader who is committed to establishing a sales strategy that is wholly aligned with prospective customers’ value expectations while also aligned with the company’s brand promise. The sales leader should be maniacally focused on building the pipeline, managing results, and continuously innovating and improving on every aspect of the sales experience. The sales leader ideally would have operated within the attributes of what your company is selling (e.g. one-time product purchase vs. recurring revenue software vs. multi-year solution contracts.) Finally, the sales leader should “lead from the front” and show her team what great selling looks like. Of note, today, at APEI, we primarily grow through direct marketing B2C, which is quite different from B2B selling.

Overall, no two sales situations are identical, but thereare both some common threads for high performance and some important differences.

What’s the same:

Establishing a Sales Strategy: Stand in the shoes of your customer to create the value proposition. Whether you are selling to the largest company in the world or to a single prospective student soon leaving active duty, each will choose you if:

1) You first seek to understand how THEY measure value and what they are willing to pay for that value to be delivered

2) You clearly articulate the value YOUR product or service will create FOR THEM, the results you can deliver FOR THEM in their current needs and that they can see a clear path to how it can also meet their future needs,

3) The product or service is offered at a price point they consider affordable.

4) The product or service is available when they need it.

Align with your Brand Promise: Once you have established your ability to deliver on their value requirements, they next have to have confidence that you will deliver on your brand promise. This includes building their confidence in your commitment to continuous improvement in product, service, support, community, etc.

To build high-performing sales teams, the sales leader, along with any sales executive, needs to be able to determine any client’s value requirements, establish how your company’s value proposition meets those value requirements and be able to confidently describe your brand promise.

Let the Data Do the Talking: Sales leaders need to be maniacally focused on what the pipeline reveals as compared with results expected: how many leads are being generated, how many marketing leads are converting to sales leads, how many sales leads are converting to revenue. Which person or team, product or service is outperforming or underperforming and what actions are we going to take to amplify or correct.

Be an Inspirational Coach and Lead from the Front. The best sales leaders roll up their sleeves, show vs. tell, and are willing to reward great results.

What is different:

Sales execution. B2B enterprise sales execution is very different than B2C. For successful sales execution, it is very important that you hire a leader who is familiar with the attributes of the sales environment (e.g. one-time product sales vs. recurring revenue services sales; targeted digital marketing to sell easy-to-understand products vs. complex, multi-year recurring revenue solutions). Seasoned sales executives can learn the value proposition of your unique offering, but it is more difficult for them for example to lead a subscription-based product company if they have only sold services contracts in their past.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

Since I’ve become CEO of APEI, I’ve focused on finding ways to unlock organic growth by executing on the key customer strategies we already discussed, including:

  1. Stand in the shoes of your customer to understand their value statement and how you deliver against the brand
  2. Make sure that what the target customer (in our case student) wants is aligned with your Brand Promise
  3. Let the Data do the Talking: at APEI, we needed to look differently at how information was being analyzed, which allowed us to unlock some important new insights about consumer segments which are poised for growth
  4. Lead from the Front: I personally have been involved in analyzing the data, understanding the student value proposition, and collaborating with our business leaders to focus our offerings on the student populations where we have the best opportunity to help them achieve their dreams. “Purpose Made Possible”.

When I arrived, enrollment had been flat or declining for some years. At Hondros, the business was underperforming due to some unfortunate past decisions that negatively impacted enrollment. With the support of the Board of Directors, we set out to turn around the business units and reposition the entire company for growth, all while we continued to put the success of our students at the center of what we’re doing. Since then, we’ve had four straight quarters of improvement. We think we’re more focused than ever on delivering favorable student outcomes today.

The Board and our senior management team all rolled up our sleeves and started thinking big about the opportunities and addressing a need for change head-on. IT transformation is something that has helped us immensely, for example. To help support and expand our horizons, there have been several new hires and board members that are helping lead the change as well.

In an era when college costs are soaring, APEI is committed to delivering affordable, high-quality education opportunities for all. We are proud to be a change leader. The Freedom Grant®, fully funded by APUS, our flagship university system, empowers military members to start the next chapter of their lives without the burden of college debt. The grant provides eligible students the opportunity to complete their undergraduate or master’s-level education for zero out-of-pocket tuition (this applies to active-duty U.S. military, National Guard members, and Reservists using military tuition assistance). Thanks to APUS’s Freedom Grant, eligible students can obtain a high-quality online education within the confines of challenging schedules, work and their service commitments. This newly expanded grant program is delivering significant benefits — we awarded over 17.6 million dollars to approximately 49,000 students in just the first six months of 2020.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

We put our customer, the student, at the center of everything we do. And we have several sound strategies in place that ensure we deliver the most comprehensive higher education experience possible to better position graduates for their next chapter.

First is “availability on-demand.” For example, at APUS our academic faculty pride themselves on being accessible and highly responsive to student needs around the clock. That means spanning several times zones, both internationally and in the United States. Our academic advisors know that one size doesn’t fit all, since the average age of our students is 32 and about 88 percent are working professionals, with many also having families.

Second is “personalization.” Our learning management platform is able to adapt to the way we teach and the way our students learn. In certain programs, course delivery has been tailored to individual student learning styles and to encourage ongoing engagement. We are using automated methods to personalize learning and keep them on track — so that students will be able to learn as effectively as possible.

Third is “eye on the prize.” We offer extensive and personalized career coaching with student success at top of mind. Helping APUS students achieve the outcome they had in mind. We recently launched a custom networking and online employment resource called CareerLink, which is designed specifically for our students and 103,000-plus alumni. This innovative, custom-built online resource features a range of enriching and rewarding job openings nationwide across several different experience levels and industries.

Also of note, at Hondros College of Nursing, we are proud of our community partnerships with hospitals and numerous like-minded organizations in the Ohio area. This includes a long list of hospitals, rehabilation centers, assisted living and urgent care facilities where we partner to place students upon graduation.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

“Churn” in a traditional academic setting is very different from most recurring revenue business models. Success in fulfilling your mission is to actually have a student “churn.” It’s called graduation. So, there exists, by historical definition, a finite life to that “customer” relationship.

Traditional higher education is facing a black swan moment, not caused by COVID-19 but amplified by it. The return on student educational investment was already out of balance. Costs are rising and outcomes are dropping. Student debt is at an all-time high. For today’s students, there is a cavernous disconnect between what traditional colleges consider as the outcome — a degree — versus what most students consider as the outcome — a job. In fact, a Gallup survey of recent college graduates finds that only 31% strongly agree they gained “important job-related skills.”

This is why APEI is laser-focused on HEROITM — the return on investment each student gets from their education with us. That equation starts with affordability, which should include not just the cost per credit hour, but also the cost of books and materials, and the number of past courses from other instituions for which a student can get credit.

A bachelor’s degree at APUS will cost approximately 32,000 dollars, which is 30% below average published in-state four-year public college costs. And this is still 20% below the price point for a large, not-for-profit like Southern New Hampshire University. Over the last 19 years, we’ve only increased undergraduate tuition by 35 dollars per credit hour. We also recently dropped tuition on our graduate degrees for active-duty military through the initiation of APUS’s Freedom Grant. In addition, for the last 19 years, we have provided books and materials at no cost for most every undergraduate, and now military graduate students, saving students over 142 million dollars. We have accepted 3.2 million transferred courses for credit.

The outcome can also be measured based on the pace at which you can complete your goal. At APUS, you can take as few or as many courses as your schedule and your financial means allow. We offer course starts each month and don’t require a minimum number of courses to be taken simultaneously.

Lifelong learning has been emerging as an important education industry theme. As we move forward, the importance of lifelong learning is going to continue to grow as graduates and workers will need to continue to learn new skills. We have the opportunity to continue to serve them and help them advance by providing relevant, continued learning opportunities.

Simply put, to limit customer churn, align the “right product” at the “right price” in the “right quantity” to create the “right outcome” at the “right time” for the customer.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful technology enabled services company. Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Define a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) and

2. Go Big After New Markets while Preserving your Core: While taking over Accenture’s Consumer and Industrial Practice in 2002, I defined a “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal” of 500 million dollars by ’05. At the time, we were 265M dollars in revenue, 90% of which was one-time consulting revenue versus recurring outsourcing revenue. My leadership team and I reinvented every aspect of our business, from the product offerings (more outsourcing) to the mix of people (more outsourcing sales skills) on the team. We assessed our talent, aligned them with our strategic focus, armed them with new skills and created a drumbeat around our BHAG. Three years later, in fiscal year 2005, we delivered 535M dollars in revenue by adding 270M dollars of new, recurring outsourcing revenue to the P&L, all while preserving the consulting revenue of 265M dollars.

3. Assemble the team that is energized by the BHAG: While at Arise Virtual Solutions, I had the good fortune of assembling a highly talented team. In six years, we grew the business from its lowest exit ARR of 15M dollars to nearly 200M dollars. In fact, eight of those I hired have since gone on to become CEOs or COOs of businesses.

4. Use Branding to Broaden the Vision: At APEI, we have introduced HEROITM as a unifying theme of “higher education return on investment” to connect our current institutions (APUS and Hondros) and inform the thesis for acquisitions, including Rasmussen University. At EdTech software company, DIGARC, we used new brand messaging, “Connected Curriculum” to create a more expansive product platform and inform the tuck-in acquisition thesis.

5. Maniacally focus on measuring progress and results: At each company, I have had the good fortune of leading, I have established a dashboard to measure results. For example, at Hondros College of Nursing, we built a one-page dashboard (fondly called the “placemat”) for each of the campus directors, rather than simply show the results for the college overall. Each month they now review local market demand for our nursing students, the placement rates, exam results and other important metrics that indicate both the vibrancy along with any issues that the campus, its students or its faculty may be experiencing.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The best part of my role today is that I am actually at the center of the “movement” I am most passionate about, which we call HEROITM. We strive to provide affordable access to high quality education that American adults need to help get them jobs or advance in their careers.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Since both access to affordable education and addressing the nation’s nursing shortage are top of mind with the incoming administration, I would love to have the opportunity to discuss our ideas on how to assist President-elect Joe Biden and the nation in formulating innovative ways to tackle these problems cost-effectively and equitably for all.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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