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Partnership lessons from building a high-growth edtech pioneer
Guest post: Cousera’s partnerships from Anjuli Gupta
For thousands of years the delivery of education has remained resistant to changes in basic format - a teacher in front of a class. Then along came the internet. Cousera’s IPO last month showcased what is possible when education moves online. Since launching in 2012, Cousera has registered over 77M learners from around the world and is now valued at over $4B.
Cousera’s online learning platform brings technology and global scale to partners - more than 200 universities and companies - who bring talented teachers, methods and curriculum. Partners are critical to Cousera since they develop all of the courses.
Anjuli Gupta was an early member of Cousera’s partnerships team, joining in 2014. During her six years at Coursera, she led a variety of different university partnerships that helped to expand Cousera’s course catalog to more than 4,000 courses.
Anjuli saw first-hand how a scrappy startup can transform one of the oldest industries. So I was thrilled when she agreed to share some of the partnerships lessons learned which she will bring with her in her new role as Head of Partnerships at Outlier.org.
1. Everything Comes Down to ‘Who?’ and ‘Why?’
Ask these two questions again and again. And again. Who are the right people to get this done? Have I engaged them (internally and externally)? If not, who else do I need to talk to? Once I am in touch with the right people, have I given them the right reasons to work with us? Does the project serve their organizational mission? Is the business case strong enough? Does the audience and impact resonate with the people who will be doing the work? At Coursera that meant building the courses and / or managing a degree program; at Outlier, getting students into appropriate courses to help them achieve their academic goals. Are there compelling enough reasons to motivate everyone through ideation, contracting, and implementation? If not, what will keep people going for long enough? Who and why evolve significantly throughout every partnership and especially the complex ones; it’s important to ask both questions frequently at every stage, and have a trusted ‘coach’ within each partner organization who can help answer those questions. The difference between partnerships that move forward and those that fall apart is whether or not you found the right people and the right ‘why’ for those people.
2. Great Partners Lead the Way
Some partners uncover the next big insight or are ready to jump to the next business model before the internal team thinks to make a change. It’s essential to handpick a few partners that will push your limits (in a good way), and then listen to them, learn from them, and find ways to grow with them. As an example, Johns Hopkins was one of the first Coursera partners to launch a revenue-generating Specialization (in Data Science). That success catalyzed the launch of 33 more Specializations in the Fall of 2015; certificate purchases from those Specializations became critical fuel for Coursera’s early growth. University of Illinois encouraged the Coursera team to launch degrees. After Coursera leaders said yes, early degree partners like Illinois, HEC Paris, and others worked side-by-side with the Coursera team for years to envision and build out all the functions needed to support degrees: marketing, student services, product, and more. Duke’s success using the Coursera catalog for its Kunshan campus during the first COVID outbreak inspired a company-wide Coronavirus Response Program in early 2020 that enabled every college in the world to leverage the Coursera catalog. Once you identify which of your partners is most likely to push your team to grow, then invest in some open-ended conversations with those partners.
3. Internal Partners Are (Most?) Important
In my first year at Coursera, I misunderstood a university’s request and accidentally sent a course to the wrong part of our platform, at a time when there was no tooling to move it back. Thank goodness for Jon who bailed me out, and taught me how essential the Engineering team’s work was to my success with my partners. Lesson: Make at least one good friend in each internal function. Friendships evolve naturally when you ask teammates in other functions how their world works, make time to be their guide to your team and partners, and most importantly, have their back when a partner asks a tough question. Each friend in another function will build your instincts about how their team sets priorities, invests time, and manages work flows, so that you have good first responses to partner questions, and they’ll help you find additional experts in their function as needed. Cross-functional friends significantly accelerate partnerships, and when you do encounter a problem, it feels much better to be calling a trusted friend than introducing yourself for the first time!
4. Hand Things Over to the Experts
Particularly for early-stage partnerships, it’s important to understand a cycle of doing things a first time and then giving them to an expert to carry the work forward. In my initial months working on Coursera’s first live degree partnership, I was part of everything: product discussions, weekly student recruitment reviews, and more. As the new degree business matured, we hired true domain experts to lead the key functions that support a degree program. It was early and high-stakes. I’d fielded a lot of constructive feedback from all sides just to keep things running. As I brought new people in, I was terrified that our team would fumble or make the same mistake twice, and my anxiety spiked when someone asked a question I’d addressed weeks or months prior. In hindsight, especially when something is new to everyone, it’s important for internal and partner experts to connect directly, learn alongside each other, experiment, and inevitably make some mistakes that everyone can grow from. Many of the internal leaders (Rachel, Diana, Kapeesh, Sam, Cheri and countless others) who came in and asked great questions in their own voices went on to professionalize their functions, expand what was possible in the industry, and ultimately support dozens of degree partners.
5. When Emotions Flow, Listen Up
As a woman in the startup world, it’s not easy to talk about how important it is to manage emotions, but as a leader, it’s critical to face feelings head-on (your own feelings, and your team’s). Strong emotions (highs and lows) are part of the game in high-growth partnerships. All of us on the University Partnerships team at Coursera poured our hearts and souls into collaborating with partners to activate new markets, launch new products, and roll out new categories of services. When those seemingly impossible new collaborations work out, the elation is intoxicating. And in an ever-changing environment, that initial high can be followed by a surprise: a project is reformulated, a new leader doesn’t see as much value in an initiative as the people who kicked it off, or a pilot project moves to its long-term home. However positive these developments are for the business, they don’t always feel good at the outset. When teammates are struggling with something unexpected, the four most powerful words in management can be “hey, are you okay?” Making space to reflect on discomfort almost always generates value: appreciation of a new direction the business is taking, a new way to do something, a better message for a partner.
6. Make Time to Reflect (But Don’t Ever Stop)
One of our US partners ordered a barbecue lunch for the core members of the Coursera and university teams at the end of each visit. Over messy sandwiches and coleslaw, we summed up what we’d learned in 2 - 3 days of back-to-back meetings, coffee chats, hallway conversations, and dinners. Knowing we had that time to record our insights, ask clarifying questions, and prioritize next steps meant we could run farther and faster during those visits, and in our partnership overall. Internally, we scheduled half-day offsite hikes at chaotic moments (bonus: these are low-budget, high engagement outings). Being in an open space enabled teams to connect more authentically, pose problems with more vulnerability, and brainstorm solutions with more creativity. We literally broadened our horizons, re-set, re-energized, and returned to the office with deeper empathy and new ideas to try.