Saturday, October 06, 2012

The Start-up Life: The Week of Imagination

One week into my start-up life, I feel much happier than before. Lighter, to start with, with no legacies to steer around, or no politics to deal with. Indeed, old habits die hard and I spent the whole of yesterday trying to look into a potential acquisition of a college, a just-in-case option to smooth the investment process. But, in the end, it gave me the same creepy feel: While I am flexible and an enthusiastic practitioner of the art of the possible at all times, some compromises are bigger than others, and getting mired into the wrong acquisition deal can completely scupper the dream of institution building that I intend to pursue hereafter. 

If I am honest about it, I have already been here before. This was the story of my last two-and-half-years, when I was trying to transform a college from inside with the hope that I can turn this into the platform to create the Global E-School. While I don't regret trying, as this has given me the experience, exposure and the networks that I needed to turn the plan into reality, I spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to make people see the bigger picture. The key lesson I took away from the last effort is that bigger picture isn't relevant when people are used to short cuts and they think they can get away: They may not in the end and they may get badly caught out, but they keep trying.

In a way, my efforts of buying into a college was my turn to succumb to short cuts, to make the capital raising process slightly smoother. However, in the end, it left me with a poor feeling: I knew I am better off taking the more circuitous route - try to create a high quality platform first and then gain scale through acquisitions.

In my mind, educational institutions are an 'all value' entity - in fact, there is nothing of value in an education business except what it stands for - and therefore, defining the business assets in terms of buildings, licenses and even students is a mistake. Even if it's difficult, and means, for me, living on the edge for a few more months, I am inclined to build an institution first and only work with investors who sign up to that idea, rather than putting the cart before the horse and trying to go uphill all over again.

I must also admit there is another, psychological, reason behind my temptations to buy into a college rather than doing things from scratch. While I see the huge potential of the global education market, and want to use learning technology to facilitate delivery of education, I am not trying to set up another Online college. I see Online learning technology as an enabler, not the thing we do: I am sure people shouldn't label us as a chair-and-table company if we only created a college as we know it. But most of the conversations I have these days start like, 'oh, so you are trying to set up another Online college', as this is a convenient label for the discussants to jump into. This is where the idea of buying into a college with doors-and-windows appears so attractive, even if momentarily.

And, yet, I must return to sense if we have to pull off what we set out to do: We are in the business of creating an educational institution, which will offer business and technology training globally, fusing together key values of creativity, enterprise and technology: We see technology as a key deliverable, technology as a delivery mechanism, and this is all part of the plan. But at the heart of our plan remains the values we stand for, dynamic, global, innovative and enterprising, a place of learning, a community of scholars who want to build a 'better' business training. I am aware that this isn't something new or novel, but it does not have to be either, as the global demand is so huge, almost infinitesimal from the perspective of a stand-alone entity like ourselves.

Other than this elusive hunt for an acquisition target, I spent rest of my time this week managing the transition out of my previous job, which required work throughout the week in dealing with partners, employees and students, and working on the business plan for the new one. Some of it was about writing recommendations and giving references for my ex-colleagues, but most of it were more complex discussions that come with the goings-on with the merger of the college, my ex-employers, with another one. The business planning bit was complex too, though more pleasurable, given the forward focus and the possibilities inherent in it. I am fortunate to be working alongside someone who is very focused and determined, and he indeed ensured that we keep to a timeline and completed the work as planned. I recognize one of the greatest dangers of working on our own time is to drift and lose the sense of urgency, but Mike's constant focus was the perfect anti-dote to any sort of complacence that could have crept in. 

As we enter the second week, it is time to start developing the products. We have some interesting discussions starting already, mostly in the non-accredited training space, but can lead to more accredited offering. My focus next week is to get the Online Learning platform working, and may be get at least one course designed and working. We still don't have a website, and it is on the list for next week. Regardless of the outcome, this is surely going to be an interesting journey: I am well into it.

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