It was an atypical summer for a 12 year old boy. For eight weeks, Stuart Draper climbed out of bed to work for his Brother-In-Law, Mike—a plumber. Every day, Mike would assign him new tasks. Dig a ditch. Cut some pipes. On some days, Mike would wrap up at 3pm, and they’d play at the lake instead.
Working for his self-employed Brother-in-Law was revelatory. While Stuart’s dad woke up to long, stiff hours in corporate America, Mike lived exactly how he wanted. Sure, he probably put in more hours, but he chose his schedule. He started when he wanted. He ended when he wanted. He picked his tasks and set his deadlines. Mike was his own boss, and as a 12 year old, Stuart was forever changed.
Why work for someone else when you could do it all yourself?
But it wasn’t until Stuart was laid off from his corporate job post-college that he actually pivoted towards a career in entrepreneurship.After getting laid off, Stuart sat at a crossroads. He explained, “I either had to find clients, start [a company], and have my clients be my boss or go find a new boss. And I chose to start a business.”
At the time, Stuart had been building his skillset in Google Ads. Using the platform, he had advertised for his brother-in-law, Mike, and helped a dentist expand his clientele for a record-breaking three months. Figuring he could use that first success as a testimonial, Stuart found other dentists who needed help running their Google Ads.
A rush of new business confirmed the merit of his digital marketing ideas. He officially started his company GetFoundFirst, became a Google certified partner, and grew hundreds of dental practices through his digital marketing knowhow. GetFoundFirst succeeded as his first foray into startups, and the thriving company needed interns.
That’s when everything changed.
As Stuart Draper was hiring interns, he realized many lacked the requisite skills for digital marketing—even though that’s exactly what they were applying for. Each majored in marketing, but none knew how to set up a Google Ad.
They knew the strategy. They knew how to think about the theories of marketing. But actually creating pieces of content that would perform well and convert people into customers, being able to actually build a website and do a good job of organizing that content on that webpage to convert visitors into buyers? That part of digital marketing and marketing in general terms, they didn’t really know.
And that was a problem. His company had to retrain all the students to become proficient enough to just do their jobs. Not ideal.
Later, Stuart signed up to teach as an adjunct faculty member for a marketing course. And he saw the exact same skills-gap reflected in the curriculum. The course materials were seriously out of date. The previous professor had left a word document with a list of hyperlinks to marketing resources. But some of the links were broken. Others were over three years old. Many times, Stuart had to notify his students that their reading assignment was obsolete, and they’d have to redo the homework with new materials.
Maybe the problem was confined to a select set of schools?
Stuart called colleagues from other universities and discovered a stunning reality: around 40% of the schools didn’t even teach digital marketing to their students.
So he decided to fix the problem by writing a digital marketing textbook and updating it twice a year. But when he researched publishers, he found most only permitted updates every two to three years.
A massive knowledge gap existed between what was useful in the workplace and what universities were teaching. His GetFoundFirst interns couldn’t properly optimize SEO or craft clickable google ads. Those interns lacked the knowledge because course curriculums were out of date. Outdated marketing curriculums and stringent publishing regulations meant that many schools couldn’t teach the newest advancements in digital marketing.
It was a recipe for disaster.
Stuart brainstormed solutions, but all his fixes operated within the system of colleges themselves. It wasn’t until a lunch with his mentor when he realized that he could turn his solution into a functioning company—changing marketing education from the outside. Over their meal, Stuart had casually mentioned that he was thinking of writing a book.
“Cory, if I got a hundred schools with a hundred students, paying me $100 a semester—that would be a million dollars a semester,” Stuart described, and that’s when it it hit him. He had a strong value proposition for modernizing marketing education, and he wouldn’t go broke doing so.
That night, he returned home and excitedly recounted his thought process with his wife. “I feel right about this. I need to go and start this other business,” he said. It was a huge risk, but it was also a huge opportunity, and who could give that up?
Stuart’s prior experience simplified his transition into his new company, Stukent. But he only had a rough idea of the product he needed to build. So the team conducted market research.
They learned that around 40% of schools didn’t teach digital marketing, and that most curriculums were about six years behind. Coincidentally, sending surveys attracted the attention of some professors for their new product. Stuart realized he could turn that nascent interest into pre-sales.
He also realized that to get those professors to pull the trigger and buy their product, he needed early adopters to buy into their idea and generate referrals. They first sold to BYU, a top 20 business school in the country at the time. Stuart was searching for early adopters, and called a professor that he knew.
“Hey, I’m teaching digital marketing,” Stuart said, and then listed off several of the key problems he was facing. “What problems are you facing?”
“It would be really cool if we had a digital marketing simulation,” the professor replied. A lightbulb went off in Stu’s head.
“If we build that, would you use it?”
“If we build this for you, what would it have?” Stuart asked.
The professor listed off several key features he wanted in the simulation. Stuart went back to his product development team, and they crafted a prototype—the Mimic Pro. It was a digital marketing simulation that gave students $50,000 simulated ad dollars to practice running their own campaign.
When they finished the product, Stuart returned to the professor and asked if he would want to use it for free. He said yes, and that was their foot in the door. It was also a confirmation that their sales strategy worked: learn about pain points, build an ideal product, and give for free use. According to Stuart, “Getting that first customer is the hardest. And getting each additional customer gets easier and easier. You learn how to sell them.”
A first-of-its-kind marketing simulation represented a step forward for Stukent, as it was a unique value proposition and a leg up on the competition who hadn’t even gotten started. With each sale, they would obtain feedback, and adjust the product to the professors’ liking.
Stukent paired their marketing simulation with Stuart’s original idea—a textbook of the future—one that updated frequently to follow the newest marketing technologies. This simultaneously solved all of the problems that Stuart had listed before.
But Stuart cautioned with putting too much attention on product alone:
When you start a business, your first hire should be a killer sales guy because sales solves all the problems. If you have sales, then you have money, and you can justify getting money to fix the issues with your product or service. If you don’t have sales, then you don’t have money and time to justify fixing and improving your product or service.
This was especially important in EdTech. Universities take a long time to make decisions. And if they used Stuart’s product, Stukent would have to wait for over a year before they earned revenue. So working with as many early adopters as possible was crucial. “With early adopters you don’t retain all of them…but you will retain some of them. So you have to be able to have new sales and revenue to go and pay and fix the previous problems,” Stuart reasoned.
The sales team, therefore, had to balance between hiring new sales people and limiting costs so that they wouldn’t blow through their funding.
When they finally deployed the new textbook platform, Stuart believed it would be smooth sailing. They used frequent digital updates to track the evolution of the industry, and used their marketing simulation to help students with hands-on learning.
But something unforeseen popped up.
“Professors don’t want you to change their book in the middle of the semester, because they have a syllabus that they’re working off of,” Stuart explained. But they didn’t realize that at the time and changed the textbook in the middle of semester, throwing an entire class’s project into flux.
The professor raged on them in their online forum, and the team had to quickly come together to figure out a solution. After apologizing profusely, they sent a new update that would allow professors to work with certain versions of the book that doesn’t get changed for the entire semester. If you started before the update, you could stick with the old version.
Luckily, the professor is still a customer today, but the experience was a testament to navigating tricky customer satisfaction challenges—especially with a product that had never been used before.
Stuart saw these challenges as welcome, though. I was curious why.
“It’s hard, but hard is a barrier to entry. You have to find things about your business that are really hard for other businesses to go duplicate,” Stuart said.
Essentially, their complex product was good because it was hard to replicate. And since schools take a long time to make financial decisions, that long sales cycle which proved frustrating in the beginning was also good because it made it harder for other companies to penetrate the market.
If you can raise funding and overcome that barrier of waiting for 12 months to make money, now the next company has to start that same process of waiting 12 months to make money. And you’ve already overcome that. Now your money is flowing, you have that repeat business, and it’s easier for you.Stuart Draper
From business school conferences to webinars, the word for Stukent’s new product spread fast, and they quickly became the university standard for digital marketing education.
These days, Stukent is still developing their textbook in tandem with the Mimic Pro software. Their platform is used at numerous top institutions like Wharton, Northwestern, and UC Berkley. Inc. has also inducted them into their ranking of the 5000 fastest growing companies in America.
While Stukent may seem like another rendition of the textbooks that we’re so used to, Stuart approaches his product differently. For him, it’s a digital platform that teaches the newest developments and allows students to practice them at the same time.
Wait for the right opportunity, and vet that opportunity with market research, and then go all in. Don’t just force it. You have to wait for the right opportunity, prove that it’s really the right opportunity with market research, and then go all in.
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