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Uncommon Conversations: An Interview with Sandi Lin, Skilljar CEO and Co-Founder

  • Rebecca Marshburn

    September 20th, 2021

Sandi Lin, co-founder and CEO at Skilljar, talked with Uncommon about the importance of customer education. In her words, investing in customer education is a triple win: a win for customers who just started with a product, a win for businesses that have more successful customers who drive more revenue, and a win for society to help close the income and skills gaps. On the business side, education is critical to drive the successful usage of digital products and services, "If you don't use the product [or know how to use it], you're going to churn," she says.

In our interview, Sandi discussed today's learning preferences (bite-size, flexible video content with interactive quizzes), where to start (with the basics!), and when to offer education (at whatever points your learner is apt to be most engaged). Our conversation, lightly edited and condensed, follows.

Uncommon: Tell us a bit about Skilljar, and what inspired you to found it more than eight years ago.

Sandi: Skilljar is a customer education platform. Companies use our software to launch online academies for their external constituents—typically customers and partners. The goal is to drive the successful usage of those products and services so that their customers are successful and companies can retain and grow their customer base.

[It] came about when I left Amazon in 2013, so over eight years ago, which is a scary thought because the biggest problem I see in the world today is growing inequality and this increasing skills gap in this country, especially as we move more and more towards a knowledge workforce and continuous learning and continuous re-skilling in your career. I think it's pretty clear that the formal, say, K-12 or K-16 education system is great for foundational knowledge, but it's not keeping pace with the demands of the modern economy and the modern workforce. And at the same time, it is critical for businesses to drive the successful usage of their digital products and services, especially in a subscription world where if you don't use the product, you are going to churn.

So this problem of customer education, it's a triple win. It's a win for customers that can actually use this amazing product they've just purchased; it's a win for the businesses that have more successful customers that ultimately drive revenue; and it's a win for society as a way to help close the income gap and the skills gap, which is getting wider and wider.

How would you describe the Skilljar community?

So I have to say, I absolutely love our customers, and that is something which, as a founder, I highly recommend for anybody that wants to start a company: Pick customers and customer personas that you just love working with and love serving every day. Our customers are educators, so they have the soul of teachers. At our annual conference, we have a wonderful education expo and the energy's just unbelievable when several hundred educators get in the same room and swap stories. It's just a really, really great collaborative community.

And it's honestly, for me, as a software person that does not have a traditional learning or teaching background, a real honor to be able to provide awesome software that helps these educators so that they can do their best work. And this is particularly in an industry where there's just a lot of really old technology and broken promises from other vendors.

How do you think about the different audiences of learners that you serve? Do you augment your approach when you're building training and certification or training programs for different groups?

At Skilljar, we really focus on product education and external education, so largely it's customers and partners. But you're absolutely right that in a lot of cases, our customers sit in services and success teams, and they're also responsible for delivering that product education to their internal go-to-market teams and employees. And so what I think is really unique about this type of training is that it's usually completely voluntary. And this is unlike compliance training where you have to sit through it no matter what. When I was at Amazon, it was like, you kind of get nag emails to complete your annual training, you're at lunch, you've got to click seven clicks on Internet Explorer and bring up this thing. And then you're just sitting there suffering through it, right?

The product education and customer education role is totally different because it is voluntary. There's actually a lot of parallels, I think, with marketing, because you've got to continually earn that permission and that tension from the learners to stay engaged. So things like user experience, technical deliverability, discoverability of content, and the way you market, promote, and nurture that through drip campaigns is really important to achieve the goals of the program. So that being said, what I found is that when it comes to voluntary learning, there's actually remarkable similarity between different industries, from retail to software to financial services, and company sizes from a 50-person to a 50,000-person company. So for prerecorded or on-demand learning, learners want to take what they call "bite-sized content" or "micro-learning" these days, preferably video, although video is actually quite controversial in the learning world.

It can be consumed in chunks. And in Skilljar, we have an interactive quiz builder to test understanding. So it's very common, especially for software companies, to intersperse a set of videos and quizzes for interactivity, but also to get the data about whether the person actually was where they were supposed to be. In learning theory, we think about ‘absorb’ and ‘apply’. So as opposed to just reading an FAQ, you want to absorb information, but also show that you can apply it successfully to demonstrate the skill that was the objective of the module. And when it comes to live training or instructor-led training what we see is that people want flexibility. They want it to be offered at different times zones. They want to have access to a quality instructor and also have interactive components.

And so it's a very different learning mindset than the compliance training, where at the end of the day, the person consuming it is essentially captive. I think the other thing which is often underweighted when it comes to product and external training is that ‘customers’ is not one universal amorphous blog. Typically, a customer base is going to include administrators, users, developers, analysts, people at beginning, intermediate, advanced level proficiencies, maybe different products or versions of a product, and then also different learning preferences. And so any customer education program at scale needs to think about the different tracks and modalities for all of these different audiences, versus if you're just delivering compliance training, it's just like, well, here's this hour-long thing, and it's good for everybody.


You've worked with so many different groups. Is there any particular industry that you think benefits the most from trading and certification courses?

We have about 400 customers now. So in the first, I don't know, 100, even 200, I used to have all these theories and I would say, oh, it's software more than hardware, or it's complex products more than less complex products, or enterprise or SMB, or white versus blue collar, or technical versus non-technical users. But all of those hypotheses have ultimately been debunked. What I found is that if you sell any type of product, which is pretty much any company in the world, then you should offer training. And the more users you have and the more sophisticated your product or service becomes, I think the more valuable that skill training will be to the company and the customers. We have plenty of blue collar sort of low value type products, but training is [still] extremely critical.

And even now with the rise of PLG or product-led growth, we've had some companies say they want every free trial user to have or to be in training because they've shown how it increases conversion. So there's really nothing that doesn't benefit from having your target users learn how to use your product more effectively at any point in the lifecycle. There are a few sub-verticals that I've observed tend to embrace training more than others, and so I think it's because these are sub industries that have more of a training DNA in them. So IT is one, security. We actually have a lot of HR tech customers or people who sell into HR. We've got a ton of project management software companies, because that's also a discipline where training and certification are more established and respected as a credential.


When you're looking at online communities, do you see a pattern of the best place or the best time in which to deliver that early education?

I have found that it really depends on the company's strategy around training. And so it's hard to say universally because even to companies that might be the same size and industry, it might take very different business model approaches. So for example, we have two direct competitors in a particular vertical I won't mention, and one of them takes the charge for training as a service's P&L. And so all of their training is essentially mapped to their direct sales team, it costs a certain amount of money—both the online and instructor-led programs. Their competitor has taken a different approach where they give training away for free. And so it's available to the public, anyone can sign up, their certifications are paid. So they're taking a very scaled, low touch, low cost to the customer approach.

So even in the same industry with companies doing the same thing, we see customers using different business models. My personal opinion is there's no point in the journey that doesn't benefit from education. We have a very strong correlation with our prospects that engage in Skilljar Academy, but then later become paying customers and then go through our own onboarding process. And we actually had our midyear sales kickoff today and our guest customer who comes from a multi-billion dollar evaluation company said, "I took your implementation charter and took it to my boss, the CCO, and said, this is what we need to do at our company."

If we think about some physical products, hardware companies, they actually don't even know who their end users or community are because they sell to the purchasing departments of labs or warehouses. And so for them to be able to get their end users certified in products, they're actually building a whole digital community that they did not have that intimacy with the customer before Skilljar existed.

I would think more about when is your target learner most engaged? I would say that in general, we find the most successful programs do use it as a brand building exercise, as well as that key onboarding moment when you have everybody's attention. That onboarding moment for an account might happen once, but for users, it happens all the time.

In my anecdotal understanding of it, more companies are building educational training and certification courses earlier [and it’s being seen more as a differentiator and brand pillar]. Have you seen investment in education changing over the past eight years?

Yeah, absolutely. In fact, about a quarter of our customers actually hold this function inside marketing. And that is how important education has become as part of the brand-building process. And so there's a few interesting things about it. So education is simultaneously a very personalized and scalable experience because you can deliver it to one person or to five people, and you can deliver the same thing over and over, especially if you use Skilljar. But to that one person, it feels like a high quality, personalized experience that's very relevant to them. And so we tend to see this, I mean, across the board, but two industries in particular stand out. So one is kind of the open-source developer space, because if you've got a hot new open-source technology, what better way to learn about that than from the company that's been helping develop it and maybe has a services model on top of that?

And a lot of these companies actually drive a lot of their revenue and their business from that training arm. The other area that stands out to me is regulated industry. We talked about project management, but the same is also true for tax or construction or real estate. There are a lot of companies that sell into licensed professions, and all those professionals need to get continuing education hours, professional development hours, every year. And so a lot of these companies have actually incorporated education into that kind of brand-building exercise, because if you've got to take two hours of continuing education, well it would be great to learn from a cutting edge vendor in the space.

I've also talked about PLG and the free trial, and training is super effective in terms of improving conversion. And again, your customer is very, very engaged at that point, so I think it's incredibly effective as a marketing tip. And these days...customers are looking to understand the why and how of a new feature workflow. So let's say you're a data reporting software, so maybe you have a new chart, or you might have some button changes, but that doesn't teach you about data science and data analysis and/or the open-source case. Like you're not going to become a Hadoop administrator by clicking buy-ins in a product, right?

Those are some of the things that our customers are trying to drive—not just mastery of "how do you accomplish this task", but what's the higher level ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind this product? People are really motivated by that. We have about a 50% voluntary course completion rate on our platform across the board. And I can tell you, if it were my choice, I would not complete some of the compliance training I've been subjected to. And so people are really motivated when they can develop mastery of a particular skill or subject that's relevant to their careers or their personal lives. And I think usability tips alone will *NOT* get you there.

Do you have any advice for an organization that's just getting started with providing education?

The right answer here is to take the most repetitive and time-consuming training, which is usually your basic 101, and put it in an on-demand format. And at the same time, it is important to establish a data foundation early, so you know which customers are taking [training] and when, as well as how you tie that back to your CRM. This is where Skilljar tends to come in as the software platform of choice, because you want to take it one step beyond just some random videos and text assets being put on the web, but actually structure it into a course with some quizzing and assessments, and then tie that back with data to the rest of your customer journey.

Another place to start in terms of topics is asking customer success, support, and implementation teams, “What are the most frequent, basic questions you receive or training we can offload?” [Those frequent questions] can be a real sign of a learning gap.

What's something innovative that you're seeing in the world of training and certification?

I recently spoke with Dana Calleja at Tableau, and as a preview to what I'll be talking about at our in-person conference in November at Skilljar Connect is what Tableau has been doing with their program that benefits the company, but also benefits society. During COVID last year, they actually started this amazing ‘buy one, give one’ program that funds donations to less represented groups. So the bundle they've created is six weeks of online learning. It's powered by Skilljar and supported with a live instructor and a certification voucher. If you fail the exam, then you get a readout of the places that you need to study and tips, and then you get a free retake, because sometimes people who are new to test taking just aren't that good at it. They get test anxiety and that's a real factor too.

If you buy one [learning bundle], they will give one to a less-represented group. Some of the groups they work with are Black Women in Data, [and] there's a group called FourBlock, which focuses on veterans. I just love seeing our customers launch initiatives. I go back to that win-win-win where they can improve their business results, and they improve the career trajectory of the people who are taking this training while also helping re-skill our society.


In the spirit of win-win-win, we're always excited to ask our experts about Uncommon Support—it’s when we ask our experts to choose a nonprofit whose cause and mission they really love and want to highlight, and then Uncommon donates in their honor. I'd love for you to tell us about the organization you chose to dedicate your Uncommon Support to today.

At Skilljar, we're actually part of Pledge 1% —Marc Benioff sort of started that movement where we put 1% of our equity towards our foundation. I would like to dedicate [my Uncommon Support] to Year Up. They are an amazing customer of ours and they're an organization that is very aligned with our mission. They provide job training and corporate internships to help close the opportunity divide as an alternate college pathway. So they're a great organization and I'm happy to support them.

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