Friday, June 20, 2014

Recalibrating My Life: 1

I am at that "all change please" point of my life. Everything that I have been doing must now change. 

The plan I embarked upon to set up a Global College must now be commuted for something less ambitious : We never raised the capital we needed and without creating significant infrastructure, it is unlikely that we would be able to attract the right kind of partners globally. The current model of depending on partners who themselves lack strategic depth means that we are spending a lot of time advising and helping, but not getting reciprocal commitments in return. 

Indeed, this is not a sudden realisation. We were aware that this business can not be built without scale, and therefore, the initial plans were to build this alongside an existing institution. In that sense, this has not been an eighteen month long endeavour, but one of four years. At the first attempt, I wanted to transform a London-based Private Institution into a global delivery organisation. That plan didn't work, because eventually our ideas and that of the owner of the college diverged. We made a second attempt to build this as a start-up, but were acutely aware of the need for scale from the very beginning.

Though we bootstrapped through the period, the months of hustle was still immensely instructive. In the initial phase, we worked towards getting a minimum viable product together, getting a minimal delivery infrastructure, some content, and the necessary accreditation and certifications. Then, we made a few visits to India, China and Middle East, engaging with universities and training organisations. This is when the limitations that we were facing became apparent. While we signed MoUs and ended up giving advice to many institutions, it was clear that they wanted to wait and watch how we transcend the start-up phase. We needed one or two partners who were willing to take the risks with us.

Faced with this, we made two decisions at the end of last year. We recognised the need for scale and decided to explore the opportunities of merging with larger operations, as long as we maintain our operating independence. And, second, we decided to stop looking for new partners, and instead, give all our efforts behind one or two key ones, which, we hoped, would take the risks along with us and we might be able to reward them through a more strategic relationship. We decided to give it six months, which is about now.

The essential bottleneck of scale and commitment is not new to any start-up, but we had to learn our lessons first hand. The problem with the second element of the strategy was that the partners we worked with lacked strategic depth, and were moving from opportunity to opportunity, rather than trying to build the business strategically. This meant, essentially, that we were spending a lot of time giving out strategic advise, but payoffs for us were quite limited. We just did not have the bandwidth to pursue this mode of operation for a long time while we were living bootstrap lives ourselves.

This brings me to the point of pivot where I am: A point where the whole proposition must be revisited. The learning we have had so far links scale and ambitions to be a delivery organisation intimately, and since we don't have the capital to scale, we are better served by abandoning the ambitions to be a delivery organisation. But, as always at the pivot points like this, I see other things that we could be doing which has value: For example, we organised a moderately successful (by the yardstick of making money) education conference last year and we made some money advising people on education strategies. It is those elements that we intend to focus upon, though this means a very different kind of organisation (which does not matter, because we only have a skeletal structure at this time), one more focused on research and consultancy rather than delivery of education as we initially intended. 

And, it is not just at work I am discovering hidden value: There are lots of things I did in my life of hustle, which, perhaps unbeknown to me, has added new skills and expertise. Right now, I have kept myself afloat by doing various things - teaching part time, writing courses, writing reports - and this was an immensely enriching experience. My days of teaching gave me insights not just into the dynamics of the classroom, but also the life and challenges of an adjunct tutor, ideas about institutional excellence and institutional failures, and indeed, a first hand view of the whole industrial paradigm that impede, rather than sustain, good education. My various research and writing experiences, something that I intend to continue whatever happens next in my life, were great opportunities to take a studied view of things that were important to us. Writing courses, and I have done so many in the last few years, was the best hands-on experience in instructional design I could get, particularly as I was having to teach them at the same time.

So, as my life pivots, nothing is really wasted, just that all of it needs to take a different form and find a different context. I surely want to get out of the bootstrap mode, and start doing things that impact, rather than doing many things that really didn't matter. I pride myself being the king of new beginnings, and this is one of the moments that I need to discover the spirit. During the last four years, during my journeys, trials and tribulations, I have seen the future of global education: I have been part of the conversations that I wanted to have, but was never invited to the top table because of the smallness of the scope of what I was doing. Now, I want to reformat my life and get those conversations to fruition. 

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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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