Episode 4: Keeping Your Brand Promise With David Dodge

Thrive to Serve Podcast - Episode 4 with David Dodge
Thrive to Serve Podcast
Episode 4: Keeping Your Brand Promise With David Dodge

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In our last episode, Mark Conway gave advice on how to run a profitable business from day one. How about 3 businesses? Would you be able to run 3 profitable businesses and put one of them on Inc 5000 list?

Today’s guest, David Dodge started his first business – SurePrep Learning – in his apartment and within a few short years it joined Inc 5000 list… for 3 years in the row! Today, David runs 3 businesses – SurePrep Learning, Tutorware, and CodaKid. David shares very practical advice on running a thriving business, including:

  • How he manages to run 3 profitable businesses
  • His morning ritual with an accountability partner
  • Why it’s critical for service businesses to keep their brand promise
  • How to build culture and engage customers in that process

And other tips and tricks he picked up and implemented in his businesses over the years. You might not want to run 3 businesses right now, or ever. But if David was able to start and run 3 businesses, his advice is right on point for every single business owner. Get a notebook out or your Evernote app, and make sure you pay attention and take notes.

Tune in to today’s episode with David, it’s time to thrive.

Resources

David’s Contact Information

Viktor Nagornyy: Welcome, David, to the show. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy day to sit down and have a conversation about your business with me, today.

David Dodge: My pleasure, Viktor.

Viktor Nagornyy: To start things off, you’re a special case because you have three businesses right now. It’s hard to just focus on one. I wanted to give you an opportunity to tell us a little bit about your businesses and what you’re doing right now, so everybody knows where you’re coming from.

David Dodge: Okay, I own two educational services companies. One is called SurePrep Learning. It is an academic tutoring company. I own a second educational services company called CodaKid, which is a children’s computer programming and game design academy. The third business I own is a SAS, a software and services company called Tutorware, which is a business services software for educational services companies.

Viktor Nagornyy: Okay, that’s great. To start things off, in the beginning, before you got into business for yourself, what were you doing?

David Dodge: I started out life in Silicon Valley. I worked in software development in the video game industry. I started working at Sega of America back in the early 90s. Worked on a number of games for the Sega Genesis, the Sega 32X, and then ended up getting hired away by a start-up that was building games for the PC and the Sony PlayStation. I began designing games. That’s my background, and an important part of why I started CodaKid. After that, I have a, I guess, fairly different background. After doing that for almost a decade, basically, I changed gears completely and got into education.

I taught for several years. I taught English as a second language, and I actually had a blast. I taught in several countries. I ended up teaching in Argentina. I taught in Quebec, actually in Montreal. I taught in the United States, and I taught in Mexico. After I did that, I ended up going back to school and getting an MBA at Thunderbird here in the Phoenix valley, where I’m originally from. From there, I decided to launch SurePrep Learning, my first company.

Viktor Nagornyy: No, that sounds pretty good. I didn’t realize you were in game development in the early days. Now, that makes sense why you started CodaKid now.

David Dodge: Yeah, it was a really special time. The big console of my day was the Sega Genesis. I was there when it was overtaken by the Sony PlayStation, the first Sony PlayStation One. It was really cool to be able to work on games for that platform.

Viktor Nagornyy: No, absolutely; I remember. I still have it somewhere in a closet, the PlayStation One, the big box.

David Dodge: Deep in the closet gathering dust, yes.

Viktor Nagornyy: I loved that thing; I remember.

David Dodge: It’s a lot of fun.

Viktor Nagornyy: I’m curious. You mentioned that you taught in a lot of different countries. Which one was your favorite to teach in?

David Dodge: Oh, wow. I would have to say Argentina. I just had a blast down there. I loved Canada. I loved Quebec. I loved teaching up there, as well. I had a lot of fun in Mexico, too. Argentina, there’s just something really special about it. Primarily, I taught business English, and so I taught executives for large multinational companies that needed to improve their English business skills. I taught negotiation, how to give presentations, all kinds of business tasks in English. The people were fantastic. Seriously at two in the morning there, you would see people in their 70s and 80s coming out of tango bars after a great night out. There’s just a great culture there, a lot of really fun and interesting people, and just had a ton of fun.

Viktor Nagornyy: No, it sounds like a lot of fun. Okay, so that’s great. Teaching’s always important, I think. My mom was a teacher, so I grew up around teachers. I know how important that role is in that society. It’s definitely undervalued, especially in the US.

David Dodge: Yeah, absolutely.

Viktor Nagornyy: CodaKid is your primary business right now. I know there’s a lot of things going on. Can you tell us a little bit about – what’s CodaKid about? What exactly do you do? I know you have camps and classes to teach kids programming. How do you go about that, teaching to a seven-year-old how to program?

David Dodge: Sure, computer programming has traditionally been taught to students, if they’re lucky, in high school, and then obviously in college it’s a big focus. We basically realized that one of the main reasons that younger kids haven’t really gravitated to computer programming is the way it’s been taught. The Hello World method where you type, “Hello, World,” on a screen isn’t very fun and isn’t very engaging. We worked hard as a team. I have a fantastic curriculum team here. We came up with a really interesting way to teach coding to younger kids. We have several tracks that we do. We have a track that’s a Java coding track called Modding for Minecraft with Java. Basically we lift the hood on the source code of Minecraft, which is written in Java, and we teach kids foundational coding concepts like conditionals, and loops, and variables, and methods, and perimeters, all kinds of things.

The kids get to create their own custom mods in Minecraft, and then get that instant gratification of seeing their work in the game. It’s a really cool way of showing kids the power of programming and establishing that connection between coding and creativity. We also have an app development class, which actually uses JavaScript. Again, we involve gaming. Kids build mobile game apps from the ground up, and we’ve gotten just great feedback. The kids get really super excited. They’re fully capable of learning coding concepts like if this condition is true, the computer will do this. Sometimes, we’re hampered a bit by QWERTY keyboarding skills, but we have a way of teaching that, as well. So far, it’s gone really, really well, and we’re having a ton of fun.

Viktor Nagornyy: No, that sounds great. I can definitely relate. When I was in high school my freshman year, I took – what was it called? QuickBasics, learning the basics of programming, which was very simple. My second year, my sophomore year in high school, I took Java. I spent a whole year learning to program Java. Nothing extraordinary, but just the basic, simple apps and things like that. I know how tedious that can be.

David Dodge: Very cool, yeah.

Viktor Nagornyy: What your typical day looks like. You have three businesses you’re trying to juggle and running profitably. What your typical day looks like, can you walk us through?

David Dodge: Yeah, definitely. I wake up pretty early in the morning. Some of that stems from having a two-year-old at home. I wake up very early. I have a ritual that I have found very helpful. I have an accountability partner. We text each other every day the most important tasks that are on our plate that would provide the most value for our company. Very early in the morning, I text my friend, [Leor], and he texts me the things that he intends to get done that day. Then at the end of the day, we check in with each other what we were able to get done and what we weren’t. That’s how I start my day, doing that, and drinking lots of coffee.

I live in beautiful sunny Arizona so I am blessed with — actually I can walk or ride my bike to work. I head into the office, here in old town Scottsdale. I answer a few emails and then I get started with my tasks. Again, I’m always referring back to the texts that I wrote Leor, so it keeps me in line.

Viktor Nagornyy: Okay that’s great. An accountability partner is definitely something that a lot of people should do. I try to do it with my wife; she tries to keep me on point. That’s helpful when somebody can push you along, especially when you’re self-employed. There are so many responsibilities that a lot of things can get away from you, quickly.

David Dodge: Yeah. Another thing that we as a company are beginning to institute, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of Verne Harnish from Gazelles but he has a book called Scaling Up. He was the author of The Rockefeller Habits and he has something that is called the “daily huddle”. It’s a ritual that we as a team are getting into, where we basically check in, and in a very short period of time discuss what we’re doing that day. Everybody as a team gets a sense of where everyone else is and what we’re working on. That’s another very important part of my morning.

Viktor Nagornyy: Absolutely. I have the book and I’m reading it right now. It’s not so much reading; it’s more like a textbook where you can reference different sections to try to implement because there’s so much good stuff in it, the one-page plan and all of that off The Rockefeller Habits. There’s so much stuff that you can’t bite off too much because you’re just going to overwhelm yourself. It’s definitely a great book. It’s not for everybody.

David Dodge: Yeah, definitely. I’m in an organization called Entrepreneurs Organization, EO for short. For entrepreneurs out there, I highly suggest getting involved with some sort of support group, whether it be EO Accelerator or Entrepreneurs Organization. If you have more than $1 million in annual revenue, you would qualify. Vern came and spoke actually at one of our events a few weeks ago and it was just fantastic.

Viktor Nagornyy: He’s in charge of that organization isn’t he, like Chairman or President?

David Dodge: He started it several decades ago. I bet he’s a permanent member on the global Board somewhere. I don’t know exactly what his role is now though.

Viktor Nagornyy: Okay. I just remembered it from the book. I’m glad you mentioned that book because it’s definitely really good. I don’t have a huge business for myself, but I’m reading it because it helps me figure out exactly where my business needs to go and how it needs to be structured to be able to grow easily. I think it helps you create that path that you need to follow on your journey to growth.

David Dodge: Yeah, absolutely.

Viktor Nagornyy: Okay that’s great. Juggling three businesses, what usually keeps you up at night? What are the things that are on your mind for your businesses?

David Dodge: I guess what keeps me up at night is delivering on the brand promise. In educational services companies, actually in most services companies, operations, it’s making sure that you fulfil on your promises is one of the, obviously, the keys. Whenever you grow and scale, the risk of losing quality is always something that can become — it’s a very common issue. That thought keeps me up at night. Somehow as we grow, we’re delivering some sort of sub-par service experience.

Viktor Nagornyy: That’s a thought that I’m very familiar with. Running a service business, trying to trust others to do things that, in the beginning you were doing, and making sure that the quality is the same, it’s definitely a challenge. That’s when it becomes important to make sure that you’re hiring the right people.

David Dodge: Yes, absolutely, absolutely.

Viktor Nagornyy: Okay that’s great. What are you working on right now? I know you have the three businesses so what are the things on your plate right now that you are growing?

David Dodge: SurePrep, my first company, is in autopilot mode, which is nice. Then Tutorware, we’re relaunching this summer. I am spending quite a bit of time with our design team, just going over wire-frames and making sure that some of the new architecture that we’re producing is on track and is going to be what our customers want.

CodaKid is definitely taking most of my time right now. CodaKid has a brick and mortar business. We have an academy here in Arizona. We do after-school classes and camps. We are expanding that, getting ready for a busy summer camp season. We’re on a pretty fast growth trajectory right now. We’re anticipating almost 400% growth this year.

What I’m primarily working on is the launch of our online division, which you’re actually helping with. The online division is really exciting for us. It’s a way for us to take all of the hard work that we’ve put in over the last year, honing our lesson plans, our curricula, which we just think is fantastic, and allowing students from all over the world to take self-paced computer programming classes online, so we’re very, very excited about that.

I’m spending a ton of time just making sure that that goes well. Again, what keeps me up at night there is fulfilling the brand promise and making sure that customers will get the kind of support that they need, should they run into bugs or installation issues, things like that.

Viktor Nagornyy: That sounds like you’re on the right track. You’re doing a lot of good things. What I’m curious about, you mentioned Tutorware, and I haven’t asked, but I just remembered a question I had. I was curious because you started out as a service business, and you still are a service business, but Tutorware is one of your businesses that’s — that service is software. How did you get an idea to create Tutorware and launch it as a business?

David Dodge: Well, SurePrep grew really fast. We were an Inc 500/5000 company for three years in a row, which is just an insane growth trajectory. We needed software to run our business. We were in 19 markets and had around 1500 active employees, tutors, and we could not find software that handled our needs. We were using six different software suites to run our business and it just was insane; all the version control issues that we had and whatnot.

We just started to build modules to help us with pain points. Before long, we realized that we had software that, in many ways, we felt was more valuable than our tutoring company. It’s very unique. It’s been designed by tutoring professionals from the ground up. It’s great actually when you’re able to use software and build it with your own employees rather than early adopters and what not.

We basically built it for ourselves, realized that it was something really special that other companies would want. We’ll be unveiling the latest rev — it’s a long story, but we basically realized who our customers really are. We realized we needed to make a pretty significant architectural change to one of the modules, and we’re doing that right now. We’re really excited for the summer. We think we’re going to have a product that’s going to really help tutoring companies all over the world manage their businesses.

Viktor Nagornyy: That sounds like a good thing to do. You’re doing it the right way. A lot of start-ups start with an idea, sometimes with not having any experience in the industry and then they try to figure out why they fail because they don’t really know their customers. You are the customer and you’ve build it for yourself, and you’ve built for tutoring companies that are doing similar things, and you know their pain really well.

David Dodge: Yes, yes, I do.

Viktor Nagornyy: That’s the best way. Try it yourself first and then once you have that perfect solution you can go about selling it to others.

David Dodge: Yeah. Knock on wood, it goes well this summer, and we’re really excited.

Viktor Nagornyy: Well you’ve got two successful companies, I’m pretty sure the third one will be a success too.

David Dodge: I hope so, I hope so.

Viktor Nagornyy: We’ve got to “our thrive round”, as I like to call it. I want to tap into your experience over the last ten years running your businesses, to see how you’re doing things in your business operationally for marketing, sales and things like that. My first question is what do you think is the number one thing that a professional service provider needs to know, running a service business?

David Dodge: Well the number one thing that a service business needs to know, well, again, I’ll go back to brand promise. I think that one thing that really trips service companies up is when your marketing promises something and you’re not able to deliver it. For example at CodaKid, our brand promise is that your students will learn how to code in a fun and engaging environment. In an educational environment that is conducive to learning. That is open and encourages kids to ask questions and interact with their peers.

If we as a company go out and have a teacher that goofs off for example and maybe they — I don’t know, this hasn’t happened yet, but let’s say a teacher goes out and instead of coding, the kids convince the teacher that it’s okay to play Minecraft all afternoon and not program Minecraft and not program in Java. Parents find out about that, that they’re paying a lot of money for their kid to be sitting around playing Minecraft, that would be cause for a pretty back Yelp review or whatever else. Those types of things will affect your business down the line.

Viktor Nagornyy: Absolutely. That’s so true with a service business. In Silicon Valley, the tech start-ups these days — that’s why venture capitalists don’t want to get into service businesses because there’s so much reliance on the people. It’s not an app that you can just code and it does its thing, as expected for the most part. There’s so much human element in the service that it’s hard to control. That’s one of the things why I have a service business, why I prefer working with service businesses because I do like that part about it, the human element.

David Dodge: Yes, yes, definitely. Well one thing that we worked very hard on here is creating key performance indicators, KPIs, as we call them. When you’re able to boil your business processes down to similarly key metrics, it allows you, as you grow and scale, to gauge very quickly on a daily basis or weekly basis or monthly basis, however your KPIs are set up, the health and trajectory of your business.

Viktor Nagornyy: Absolutely, absolutely. You need to know what you need to measure to be able to figure out if it’s working or not. I see that a lot in marketing. A lot of people come to me asking me why it’s not working and there’s no way to measure it.

David Dodge: Yep, yep, got it.

Viktor Nagornyy: In the early days, did you make any mistakes when you look back on that time and you think what was I thinking about?

David Dodge: Oh man, yes, so many mistakes. Wow, I don’t even know where to begin. When I launched SurePrep Learning in 2005, I basically launched it in my little apartment. I had no money. I had no marketing budget. I had really nothing. I put a little website up and started to market to some schools and other aggregators.

I guess what happened in the early days, as I grew, I grew too quickly. I did not plan for, again, the operational side of that growth. My approach back then was, let’s just throw something at the wall and if it sticks, let’s just run with it and we’ll figure it out. What ends up happening is you end up having to make diving catches. It feels great the first couple of diving catches you make to avoid some fiasco, but after a while, diving catches get exhausting, and it’s obviously not scalable. Mistake number one was not really creating an operations plan and thinking through a scalable model that would, again, deliver a brand promise. That’s mistake number one.

Mistake number two was my hiring. I didn’t really establish a hiring process. I didn’t really establish a culture. I just hired based on, I guess, intuition, and a lot of my early hires were poor ones. I learned the hard way that a bad hire will cost your company almost 10x the bad employee’s annual salary. Yeah, had a number of issues with that; learned the hard way.

Viktor Nagornyy: I think it’s so true. You mentioned scaling up earlier. I can’t remember the specific quote from the book, but paraphrasing it, is says that growth needs cash. It’s like you can’t grow if you have no cash.

David Dodge: Yeah. That was another big pain point for us. We were growing very quickly and our customers with SurePrep in its second year became school districts who were paying us net 60 and net 90. We had to pay our employees every two weeks and so we had just a tremendous cash crunch. That was very, very challenging. We had to factor receivables, which was very expensive. It took us almost a year and a half to get a line of credit with a bank. I remember when we finally got our first line, I think it was the first night I had slept well in almost a year.

Viktor Nagornyy: I know that pain very well! It’s a very serious pain and a lot of people don’t realize that just because the industry does 30, 60, 90-day accounts receivable, it doesn’t mean your business has to do it. I think, again, referring back to scaling up, there are some really good ideas of how to try to mitigate that, to have more cash flowing into your business.

David Dodge: Yes, absolutely.

Viktor Nagornyy: One thing I realized, I don’t know if you’ll see that analogy, when you’re trying to grow your business and you need more cash, it’s like trying to scale Mount Everest without oxygen.

David Dodge: Yes, yes.

Viktor Nagornyy: It’s like the higher you go the less oxygen it gets. If you don’t bring any with you, you’ll die eventually.

David Dodge: I have boot-strapped all of my businesses. I have never taken a single investment dollar from the outside, which many of my friends think has just been insane. There have been some periods of suffering, no doubt, in doing so. Yes, you learn very quickly that cash is king. Managing cash flow is mission critical, and mistakes regarding cash flow can actually sink your business in a very short period of time.

Viktor Nagornyy: Absolutely. There was an article in, I believe it was Inc magazine, a friend of mine showed me. It was about being an entrepreneur, and they had this interesting story, somebody described an entrepreneur. The description was that a lot of people see an entrepreneur as this man sitting on top of a lion. They’re amazed that that person was able to get on top of a lion. He was able to tame the lion.

When you get in the head of an entrepreneur, the entrepreneur thinks how did I get on this lion? How do I stay on top of it? It’s not easy.

David Dodge: No, you’re right. You’re right, it’s not.

Viktor Nagornyy: I would never trade it for anything.

David Dodge: Oh yeah, no, no doubt. When things are going well in entrepreneurship, you’re at the top of the world. There’s nothing better. When things are going poorly, there is nothing worse. It’s a lot of ups and downs.

Viktor Nagornyy: Absolutely, it’s a roller-coaster for sure. The funny thing is that the best roller-coasters have the steepest falls and twists and turns. It gets more rewarding the more work you put in.

David Dodge: Yeah, I know, I would agree.

Viktor Nagornyy: You mentioned hiring and that’s a good topic to briefly touch on. How did you transition from hiring not-so-good people to hiring great people? Do you have any tips for other people that are looking to start hiring or trying to figure out how to hire better? I do a lot of consultations with small business owners, and one of the things I hear sometimes is, “It’s so hard for me to hire somebody that will do the same quality of work that I would do. That’s where I always suffer. People are not doing what I want them to do.”

David Dodge: Yeah, well I would be lying to you if I told you I’m a hiring guru; I still make lots of mistakes. One thing that I have learned over the past few years is the importance of culture. When you put culture first, great things happen. With SurePrep in the early days, we let the culture create itself, and the culture that was created at one point was not at all what we envisioned. It was like a runaway train.

The old expression from E-Myth, you’ve got sometimes employees that are in the wrong seat of the bus rather than… Some of our employees didn’t belong on the bus at all. What we’ve really done with our latest ventures, and really we’ve used this to transform all of our companies, is really paying attention to culture. Once I read Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness, it’s just a great book that really has helped me transform our companies.

The mission and vision statement that we have for our companies, it’s not just something that just hangs out on the wall. It’s the core of who we are and what we do in our culture. We actually sent out a culture questionnaire to all of our employees and all of our customers. It was so interesting to get their feedback on what our culture is really about here at CodaKid.

We have used their feedback to frame what our values here at CodaKid are. We use them in hiring and firing, in pretty much every decision that we make. There can be great people that have a great track record that can probably sell the heck out of our product, but if they are egotistical and don’t work well in a team context, they just aren’t a fit for the culture and we will just simply not hire based on things like that.

Viktor Nagornyy: Right. I’m curious you mentioned that you sent a questionnaire out to customers. How did customers receive that? Were they eager to reply and provide good feedback?

David Dodge: Yeah, definitely. I was pleasantly surprised. We have a very loyal customer base and we just celebrated a year in business at CodaKid so a lot of our customers have been with us the entire way through. There are very few academies like us in the United States, and I think the customers feel like they’re a part of something really special. We, in many ways, our curricula and how we do things feels like we are creating fresh tracks in the show. Actually I guess we’re in the desert here, fresh footprints in the desert.

The customers when they got the questionnaires — I was surprised, the majority of the customers I approached have already sent theirs back. They gave me just some really cool feedback on what they perceive our culture is about, things that I hadn’t considered.

Viktor Nagornyy: That’s good to hear. It’s like you have to ask. A lot of people think, oh the customers won’t talk to me. It’s like, well did you ask?

David Dodge: Well one thing that Tony Hsieh from Zappos has done is he’s created a culture book and we are going to be doing the same. We’re actually taking all of the feedback that we’ve got from our customers and our employees, and we’re going to print a book every year and have it as part of our hiring and training process. It’ll be like a little part of our process for new hires. As well, we’re going to have copies of it out here for our customers that come and visit. Yeah, it’s really cool to involve them in our company in such an intimate way.

Viktor Nagornyy: That sounds great. It’s good to hear that you’re doing that because not many businesses do and they don’t realize how much they’re losing out on. My next question is what’s the best thing you did to get more customers?

David Dodge: I think the best thing we’ve done to get more customers is really focus on customer service. We go above and beyond, I think, your traditional educational services company. We’re constantly doing surveys of customers, of our kids. We’re doing a lot of outreach to them. What I find is that the vast majority of our new customers come from referrals, from satisfied customers. They’re telling their friends, and we feel that our customer service, by really staying uber-focused on that, it in many ways – yeah, it costs money to do, you have to pay employees to create surveys, to make the calls, and do all of that. We almost see it as part of our marketing budget.

Viktor Nagornyy: You mentioned referrals. Have you done anything proactive, any campaigns, or anything like that to get more referrals from customers?

David Dodge: Yes, we have. I have not – I’ve been researching some referral software. There’s one called Referrizer, I believe, that I was looking at. We have not formally used a software that’s geared towards that. What we have done in – is we created a referral bonus program so basically customers will earn dollars off on their next class if they refer someone and whatnot. We have a very active email base. We do regular email campaigns, and we have a pretty large number of people on our list now. We talk a lot about our referral program in those e-blasts.

Viktor Nagornyy: That’s great. At least you have the program in place even though you don’t have the software. Not many businesses are able to have a software to be able to track that. It’s good that you have a program set up that clients know about.

David Dodge: Yeah, well we’re looking to develop that further this year. That’s actually on my list of things to do this week. I’ll be texting Leor about that on Monday.

Viktor Nagornyy: That’s great. When you do start working with customers, via CodaKid once they sign – come in for the class, or the camp. If you think back to the Sure Prep days when you were actively involved in it. When you start working with the customers, do you have any tips on setting the expectations for what you’re – for the journey you’re about to embark on with them?

David Dodge: Yeah, definitely. First of all, in our business, our customers really aren’t the – we don’t view them as the people paying the tab. We view our customers as the end user, the student. We stay extremely student-focused in all of our educational services businesses. We find that when you do that, the customers are – the parents are extremely happy. Yeah, sorry, Viktor, say – what was the question again?

Viktor Nagornyy: Client expectations, how do you set client expectations in the beginning of working with a client to make sure that they know what to expect?

David Dodge: I guess on the website we try to establish some brand promises. Many of our clients, we speak with on the phone prior to having them send their students to us. We’ll talk very clearly about what – where we’re going and what the brand promise is. We also have a very clear pathway on our website that lists the courses that we offer, the Beginner I, Beginner II, Intermediate I, Intermediate II, and we’ll be getting into advanced courses soon.

There’s a clear pathway that’s established there. Yeah, I guess I don’t have any really secret hints there other than I think it’s important to frame your brand promises, like what the experience will be like, and to try again to deliver something that is replicable and predictable to your customers.

Viktor Nagornyy: That’s a great tip. Sticking to your brand promises is always the key. My next question is about competitors. How do you try to differentiate yourself from other companies that are selling similar classes, camps for kids?

David Dodge: We don’t have a ton of competitors yet at CodaKid, but the ones that we do compete against we really try to compete in terms of customer service. I also think that one of our real differentiators is how we are supreme, above all an academic institute. The kids almost don’t realize it because they’re having so much fun. They see it almost like an enrichment or some sort of entertainment. I’d say that customer service, I think, is one way that we certainly differentiate, and then the other way is just our curricula. We think it’s very unique; we think it’s groundbreaking, and we haven’t seen anything quite like it.

Viktor Nagornyy: That sounds great, absolutely, customer service in the service industry can be a very big differentiator from competitors.

David Dodge: On the Tutorware side, just transitioning over there, I think that the one really interesting competitive advantage we have there is most people that are selling software to educational services companies, whether they’re SAT prep companies, or after-school tutoring companies, or enrichment camps or whatever, most of them are software guys that don’t know the business.

When I’m able to sit down with a tutoring, test-prep, educational services company, and I have the background and experience of growing two successful companies from the ground up. We speak the same language. Chances are I’ve been through some of the things that they’re going through, and I can relate to their pain points. We definitely get a lot of traction from company owners that are like, “Wow, you’re the first person I’ve talked to that knows that pain point, and actually has created a solution for it. Amazing.” It’s been a lot of fun interacting with educational service owners around the globe.

Viktor Nagornyy: It’s key to know the pain points of your customers, and it’s so much easier when you are the first customer. That’s one of the things I tell all of our clients when it comes – especially when it comes to marketing and sales. You should treat your business as a client. Your business is your first client, your first customer. If you can’t treat your client, or your first customer the way you treat others, you can’t really do – you can’t run a profitable business.

David Dodge: Yep.

Viktor Nagornyy: My last question is where do you see your service industry heading in the future? I know there’s a lot of stuff, everything is going in the cloud, online classes, online courses, stuff like that, open – what are they called, MOOCS, Multi – I can’t remember what it stands for, the large online classes. Where do you see it’s heading?

David Dodge: That’s a really interesting question. I think I really enjoyed the J.J. Abrams, his first Star Trek Movie, there’s a – it came out a few years ago. I can’t remember the name. Basically it’s a – there’s a scene in which a young Spock is in this learning pod. He’s surrounded by computer screens, and basically he’s being taught essentially by AI. I think AI, I think that intelligent versions of SIRI are going to play a role, obviously, in the future of education.

The one lament that I have about out brick and mortar business on the CodaKid side is that it’s very expensive. It’s also very expensive to run. It’s not affordable for low income families. We are starting a nonprofit that will donate our products and services to schools and districts in Title I areas, which is going to be a big part of what we do in 2016. Yeah, to truly make education scalable is going to involve, it’s going to have to involve AI. I love what companies out there like Knewton, K-N-E-W-T-O-N, are doing. They’re creating, essentially, very intelligent AI for education. Pearson Learning is now working with them. They’re allowing – they’re using basically big data in order to create completely customized, personalized learning pathways for students as they take self-paced courses online.

The MOOC phenomenon I think will continue to grow as well. There’s nothing better than free. I think that we’re going to see the expansion of Con Academy and similar models where students from all over the world will be able to learn how to code, or learn how to study calculus, or whatever the topic may be. What we do to stay ahead of the curve, it’s all about curricula, it’s all about training. I think as an educator, at least for the time being, I cannot see any better way to learn than with a real human being that is highly trained, that is highly intuitive, that is able to build rapport in a very human way with students.

We’ll continue. I think parents love our brick and mortar classes, and we’ll continue to build those classes and camps around the country. Our asynchronous platform, our self-paced platform, the online offering that we’re coming out with, that will be the one that we’ll just have to stay ahead of everybody with stellar content. Hopefully, we’ll be able to differentiate. Right now, our online product is, we think, significantly better than anything you will find out there. It’s called, “Modding for Minecraft with Java.” It’s A, a lot of fun, and B, it’s really educational.

Viktor Nagornyy: I don’t know if you’ve heard, I think it was recently, I think it was this year, maybe within the last month. I was reading in the news that MIT and a bunch of other universities were offering, for the past few years, free courses, their curricula and all the material online that you can go through and learn the same type of stuff that they teach in classrooms.

In the past month or so, there was news that you can now, actually – I can’t remember if it was just that you could get credits for those classes, taking the free classes online from MIT, or I think it might have been that you could actually get a degree from MIT doing their free courses. I can’t remember which one it was, but it was a big thing because you could get credit for taking free classes. With everything being online, it’s very hard to compete when there are a lot of free things offered.

David Dodge: Yes, definitely, yeah, I haven’t really been following the MOOC phenomenon as closely as I did a few years back. I do know that there are several free online degrees that you can earn. I do also know that companies are trying to almost monetize – you can take courses for free, but in order for you to get an actual degree or certificate, you would need to pay something. Companies are trying to monetize certifications and what-not that are actually quite valuable to employers. That I think is part of their business model.

Viktor Nagornyy: The one I know of that does that, that I’ve taken some courses, is Coursera.

David Dodge: Yes, Coursera.

Viktor Nagornyy: They have good content, that’s for sure.

David Dodge: Yeah, definitely.

Viktor Nagornyy: My last question is what’s the number one advice, that gold nugget that somebody can take away from this interview. If they didn’t pay attention for the past hour that we’ve been talking, what’s one thing they should take away?

David Dodge: Oh, I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but brand promise. There’s nothing more important. I think that as you grow in scale it’s exceedingly important that you think through how you can maintain your brand promise. Something that is – provides a stellar service for your customer, that differentiates you from your competition, that is replicable, that is predictable, that will get customers to become your evangelists, that will get them to check in on Facebook, to write reviews on Yelp, to write reviews on Google+, the variety of other review sites that are out there, and just getting on the horn and telling their friends. That, to me, is the key to a service business, particularly ones that have a human-to-human interaction.

Viktor Nagornyy: Absolutely, that’s a gold key, that’s for sure. If anybody wants to get in touch with you, what’s the best way to reach you?

David Dodge: You can reach me on Twitter. I’m easily reachable there at @codakid is our – my Twitter handle. You can also reach me at my email address which is david@tutorware.com. Those would be two very easy ways to reach me.

Viktor Nagornyy: That’s great. I’ll make sure to include contact information in the show for anybody who wants to get in touch with you.

David Dodge: Yeah, absolutely, I’m always happy to help entrepreneurs. I’ve received a ton of help along the way. I have – I didn’t mention this in our talk, but I can’t stress how important it is to find mentors. I have several mentors in my life that are so helpful to me I can’t even describe. One of them is a venture capitalist who is now retired. His name is Jaime Shennan and he basically started the venture capital firm that backed Starbucks and Jamba Juice and Smith’s Ski Goggles, and a number of other really well-known brands.

He’s been enormously helpful. Barry Lindeman is a local entrepreneur who sold his company for a hundred million dollars, and just a fantastic operations guy, learned a ton from him. In organizations like EO, I have gotten just a ton of help. Always happy to help, always happy – I view it as a way to pay it forward, and always happy to help people.

Viktor Nagornyy: Thank you, that’s a great tip for the road.

David Dodge: Great.

Viktor Nagornyy: Thank you so much for taking a little of your time today. I know you’re busy, and have a lot on your plate running three businesses. Thank you so much.

David Dodge: Always happy to help, and your business has been very helpful to mine as well. What you’ve done for us, particularly in SEO and inbound marketing has been tremendously helpful. Those of you who are listening to this, give Viktor a call. You will not be disappointed.

Viktor Nagornyy: Thank you, no, that’s what I do. That’s what I love, and am good at, and I love working with clients like you, helping you grow your business. That’s what I always tell my clients. The way I like to work with our clients is that your business is my business. I wouldn’t recommend or do anything for you that I wouldn’t do for my own business.

I want to make sure that – it’s like I’m not just somebody that you hire to help you, but I’m a business partner to help you make sure that you get your business objectives met, that you get everything done that you need to do to be able to keep growing your business.

David Dodge: Great, well, thank you again, Viktor.

Viktor Nagornyy: Thank you so much, David. Take care, bye-bye.


Viktor Nagornyy

Viktor Nagornyy

As an inbound marketer, Viktor loves working with small businesses. He has created the Inbound Method strategy framework for creating an effective inbound marketing strategy. As a Business Guardian he works directly with businesses giving them practical, focused and actionable marketing advice.

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