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CEO Talk: How to run a successful worldwide company in the education market

Graham Glass, the CEO of CYPHER LEARNING, has recently been a guest to an online event, a CEO talk on how to run a successful worldwide company in the education market.

CYPHER LEARNING is a global company that provides three different learning platforms for three different markets:

  • NEO — an LMS for Schools and Universities
  • MATRIX — an LMS that focuses on Businesses and
  • INDIE — an LMS for e-learning Entrepreneurs

Graham has many years of experience working in the education, corporate training and computer technology fields and shared his experiences on running a worldwide company and being a successful CEO.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Alexia Sanchez: Are there any useful tips that you can share with us on what it takes to run a company and what is your idea of success, Graham?

Graham Glass: Well, I founded CYPHER LEARNING because I had a background in both higher education and in business. I was really interested in creating a product that would address both of those markets. But it's not easy. If you're going to have different products and different market segments, you really need to figure out how to create a single code base that addresses all the markets. Because you don't want to have three engineering teams, three marketing teams, three sales teams, that would be very difficult. So quite early on we figured out a way to create a single product that could address those markets — and later that of e-learning entrepreneurs — with various configurations. It's not easy, but we've achieved it. We're getting awards and recognition in both of the market segments for the two of our more established products and I’m sure that will happen to our third product as well; it’s just a matter of time, as we only launched it a few months ago. But it was definitely not easy.

As far as definition of success, I think there's more than one. There's obviously financial success. You want the company to keep on growing, to keep on becoming more profitable. But there's also personal satisfaction, and I'm definitely passionate about education. This is a labor of love for me, just as much as it is a business.

AS: How are you being able to see and to take these advantages and opportunities in the market?

Graham Glass: Well, partly it's based on my experiences as an educator, as I've got a feel for what someone running a course, or wanting to educate people would like. I also read a lot, so I've always got a good idea of what's going on in the industry. And another thing is that I've got a pretty good instinct for where things are going, regardless whether people agree with me or not. So I think that combining all of these things together, holistically, allows me to have a good idea of what's going to happen. And then the tricky part is to always get the right blend between the futuristic and the practical side of the business.

AS: Many people are intrigued on a CEO’s daily routine. Any tips on doing something that could lead anyone into a successful career?

Graham Glass: Well, there are different kinds of CEOs. There are some CEOs that come from a sales background, so they will offload most of engineering to somebody else and they will run the sales department and think about sales strategies. There are also marketing CEOs, which is somewhat similar, but with a focus on marketing. I am definitely a product CEO. What that means is that my background is in technology, so a lot of my time is spent on the evolution of the product. I found really good Sales and Marketing heads to take care of those parts of the business.

As far as my routine is concerned, I would say at least 80% of my day is focused on the product itself. The other 20% I spend sitting down in the coffee shop, relaxing with a piece of paper, sketching out, detailing on the next business quarter, evaluating industry trends, planning the future. There's always a short-term, medium-term and long-term road map for the business in my mind.

AS: I do believe that, as a leader, one should be really open to listen from suggestions from the clients. So tell me, what do you value the most about the culture and vision as a company?

Graham Glass: That's actually a great point, because a lot of our best features are ones that have happened because of a customer saying, "Well, we would like X." Talking with our customers daily really helps to open our eyes to new things. As far as company culture goes, it's not something which has a master plan. But I do like to hire friendly people, people easy to get along with; because when people are friendly, open and happy, they just tend to talk more, and they’re not afraid to share ideas. And that also creates a certain tone of voice for our customers. We have a lot of open dialogue in our support forums and our suggestions area. Anytime somebody has a suggestion for a feature, they just click in a box and type in their suggestion. We always look at these suggestions, every quarter. We also publish our road map so our customers can see exactly what we're working on, when they're released, when they're in testing. And it's not uncommon for us to have a constructive dialogue almost on a daily basis with a few customers about certain directions they want to see the platform.

AS: What is motivating for you, or what makes you get up and just love going into your office and start working?

Graham Glass: I absolutely love the CYPHER LEARNING platform — the actual platform itself is a great project. I like building the company. So I've never had any problem whatsoever going to work. I just absolutely love doing what I'm doing. And I think that the people who work in CYPHER LEARNING have a very similar kind of sense.

AS: Working in this industry, why did you like e-learning? How come you chose this industry?

Graham Glass: Well, when I was a kid, I loved education. I had some very good teachers and they kind of gave me an idea of what was possible. And then I became a teacher. I taught Computer Science at the University of Dallas and I really liked it. But back in those days LMSs did not exist yet. So I remember, as an instructor, thinking, "Why can't I package my instruction materials up in a scalable way and make it available to millions of people?”. In time, I founded and grown a couple of technology companies where I learned a lot about how to build advanced software. But ultimately, I was drawn back to my educational roots, because I do think there is a better way to teach and learn. So a lot of it is really about having a bigger impact on the way that people learn.

AS: What threats or opportunities are you seeing — or foreseeing — for this business?

Graham Glass: I tend to concentrate much more on opportunities than threats. It's actually a common entrepreneur error, to focus too much on what the competition has done. As long as your product just keeps on getting better and better, you are just naturally going to grow, regardless of what your competitors are doing. So I don't really worry too much about threats.

In terms of opportunities, I'm really glad that CYPHER LEARNING went global early on. Because there's so much opportunity in places outside of the U.S. or western Europe. A lot of our revenue already comes outside of those regions. Recognizing the growth opportunities around the world is actually one of the most exciting things.

AS: What other CEOs do you look up to?

Graham Glass: I’ll start with Richard Branson. I think that he's really smart and fun loving. He seems like he's figured out a way to grow businesses, help the world, and have fun, which is not really an easy thing to do. Then, I need to mention Steve Jobs. He cared so much about elegance and the user experience. He was a very hard task master and created beautiful products. Finally, Elon Musk. I think he has an unbelievable level of intelligence and he's blowing the roof off the space industry, and the car industry, and everything else.

AS: What was your biggest CEO challenge and how did you adverse that challenge?

Graham Glass: I would say the biggest challenge in the early days was funding. I had very ambitious plans, with three products on a single platform, going global, supporting 40 languages and a million more things I wanted to do. But when I talked with venture capitalists they were not that enthusiastic and they didn’t believe my plan was going to work out. So in the early days I ended up funding the company out of my own pocket, which just makes life a little bit harder personally. But now we've basically proven the strategy works. We are now a global company, we have three successful products, they've grown very quickly. The company got to a point where we don't actually need venture capital anymore. But at that time though, that was probably the hardest thing to deal with.

AS: Thank you very much for joining us today.