LearnOps platform for learning and development teams | Ryan Austin - CEO Cognota
What is Cognota?
Ryan: Cognota is the first learning operation system for learning and development teams and many other business functions in the enterprise. They all have these operating systems – Salesforce for sales teams and HubSpot for marketing teams. And for whatever reason, these learning and development functions are critical to enterprises, but they’re still working with disparate tools and manual methods. So we’re the first operating system for LearnOps for these teams.
Many enterprises and corporations have one or many learning and development teams. It’s a very decentralized function, learning and development teams. They’re like product managers in a product company. And their job is to partner with customers to learn about problems. But instead of building a product like a software product, they’re building solutions. Solutions to solve problems for the business, how to upskill people, and how to train people. So they need to manage those customer relationships internally. They’re getting a lot of requests from the business, and they need to prioritize those. They’re always over capacity because they have so many requests coming to them from different ones that our software helps to give them the intelligence on how to prioritize, which initiatives to work on, which ones to put in the backlog, and how to drive those solutions forward.
What are the top Cognota features?
Ryan: Especially now when there’s a lot of uncertainty with the markets and companies are cautious about how they’re spending. They want to drive more efficient operating models. And as the only learning and development operation system, we’re very much behind that. We help these teams go from costly and efficient processes to an efficient, effective, and data-driven approach to show their value, show the impact they’re having on the enterprise, and keep that level of executives confident that their investment will be of good use. So the ROI Calculator helps to show the value they can have on the organization, the inefficiencies, or the costs that might be being spent that aren’t as efficient as they could be and gives them transparency on that so they can do better. We help them manage processes like intake project planning, capacity tracking, content design, and data analytics, and we’re working on some cool stuff to do with strategy and evaluation.
We’re the first in the world, which is exciting. You always have competitors, but I wouldn’t say they’re direct competitors. And over time, as we continue to mature this platform, I think we’ll get compared less and less to, for example, a project management tool. The reality is that even though we do get compared to sometimes just because there’s some education to learn operations since it’s so new, somebody might say, well, can’t they do this in smart sheets? The reality is no. Like the data, models are built differently in a platform that’s purpose-built for L &D to solve L&D problems versus a platform built to solve everybody’s problems in the company because their business model is to capture all users in the company. So it would be like asking software developers to try and do their work in smart sheets versus Jira. Could you do it? Maybe. But is it going to be effective? Not as effective as it could be. Focusing on a purpose-built solution.
Cognota Pricing Plans
Ryan: We do offer a free trial and two pricing plans. And as we approach the new year, we’re also introducing a starter pricing package, which is more of a freemium model. This is very exciting for us because sometimes there are learning and development teams slightly outside our ideal customer profile. As a business, we need to focus on unit economics, the right size contract values, and things like that. But there’s this whole group of people who we could help. They’re just outside of our core business model. So rather than not helping them, we’ll introduce a starter pricing model free forever for these smaller L&D teams. And that way, we can help them drive value on day one. It will be efficient and effective for them and cost affordable, given that it’s free. And in return, hopefully, they start telling their friends in the industry about us.
Ryan: We just launched our Connector marketplace, which is very exciting. And it’s a marketplace where we can access hundreds of endpoints to connectors or integrations. And that’s available on our website and hundreds of integrations from LearnOps to extend into the broader enterprise applications super.
Can you share some success stories?
Ryan: There have been many successful stories, which is amazing. There’s this one health care company, for example, that during the pandemic, their L&D function got flipped upside down overnight where they had to help to support all of the pharmacies and all of the frontline staff on new compliance mandates and new regulatory and things like that. And it used to take them ten days to get a request to manage the request, and by streamlining processes, adding automation, and helping them to prioritize better, we took the request time period down to four days, and they had over 200 requests. So that’s time savings of over five years in less than one year of using Cognota.
When did you start the company?
Ryan: Like any entrepreneurial story, it’s usually never smooth at the beginning. I had a consulting company, a service-based consulting company, in 2015, and I did that until 2018. I started to build the software alongside running the consulting company. But when I took on our first angel financing round and then our first pre-seeding round, I stopped doing consulting, and I flipped to relying on my living off of my savings and line of credit until we started generating some revenue with the software business. So in 2018, we effectively got our first few customers with the software company. In 2019 I formulated the Company in Canada, and we raised the seed round and started to grow it from there.
Just being a consultant in learning and development and having an entrepreneurial background, I could see the gap, and it started to bother me. As an entrepreneur, you adopt things like the lean principle, work quickly, and make decisions by only having like 30% of the information, but it’s enough where you’re like, okay, let’s go for it, and we’ll pivot or iterate after that. And I’m working with all these enterprises and learning and development people, and I was just surprised by their operating models and how they were functioning. And then I started asking, where’s the technology to improve this? And they laughed. They’re like, we haven’t seen it in 20 years, we still haven’t seen it. And that’s when I started formulating this thesis. Because of all these other functions, they have Rev ops, Marketing ops, and DevOps, but learning had no LearnOps. And it was an amazing opportunity to bring this to the industry. Very hard problem to solve. A lot of education, but very rewarding from my mission perspective.
Usually, everybody’s wearing a learning and development or training hat. The sales manager will do their training. Customer Success will do their training. The CEO will do training. You usually don’t have an HR person at that stage. As you start moving into SMB, you start hiring an HR person. They start formalizing more like onboarding programs, things like that. There are really good platforms to help with those things that are good enough for that stage of the company. But eventually, a company grows and adopts the type of technology called a learning management system. And the second they do that, it adds horsepower to allowing the company to deliver more training, schedule training, start tracking the training, get the results, and things like that. And when you adopt technology like that, you start getting a lot of requests from the business, and that’s when you start thinking about, okay, to keep up, I need to hire an L&D team. And the L&D team is probably okay when they’re very small. But as that team grows and they get more requests, it becomes complicated. And that’s the exact moment a LearnOps platform can solve the problem.
What are the next steps?
Ryan: There are always next steps – creating a category is very exciting, but you have to stay ahead, and it’s very hard always to know what’s happening. We have a long list of very exciting initiatives for next year. For this year, most recently, we just launched something called the Chief Learning Officer and Learn Ops Coach Program. So a lot of our customers love our technology. But the reality is, sometimes, they’re still working on their learning operations strategy. Maybe they run into an operational challenge as they’re executing. So rather than being unable to support them with those strategic, operational initiatives that are more like service. Because we’re a technology-first company, we’ve partnered with all these Chief Learning Officers. The Chief Learning Officers are like the celebrities of the industry. They’re like the most senior learning professionals in the industry. They’ve been there, they’ve done that. They have scar tissue from making mistakes. They know how to avoid mistakes. It’s like when you’re an entrepreneur and go into an accelerator, you have the EIRS, right? Like the entrepreneurs in residents or the mentors. So these are the industry mentors that can now work with our customers to help solve operational challenges so that we can unblock them, so they can keep moving at the speed of business. And so we just launched that program. We have 20 coaches, some of the best names in the industry, like Martha Sorok, the Chief Talent Development Officer at Comcast. Dr. Sydney Savion, the Senior Vice President of L and Dean Innovation at City Block Health, and Rob Laber, the Chief Learning Officer at McDonald’s. So all these amazing people with this knowledge and expertise can now work with our customers in the industry to help them get better and work smarter.
Software that Cognota uses
Ryan: On the sales side, we’re using Outreach and Salesforce. We use HubSpot to manage the back-end marketing efforts. We use Google Suite as kind of our operating system. So we have a lot of tools. I like Outreach a lot. It really helps to take advantage of a hard job and add some automation and help a sales development rep do things faster, better, and more organized so that they can focus on tasks and less on the administrative work.
What is your entrepreneurship story, Ryan?
Ryan: I would say I’ve always been an entrepreneur. I’ve maybe had two jobs in my life. I dropped out of university, which is interesting because I now run a learning and development company. For me, my best learning experiences were making mistakes on learning how not to repeat those and to keep building like that when I was sitting in class. Unfortunately, in university, I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was very hard for me to learn by listening to somebody speak and focusing on the textbook. Even now, I listen to books versus reading books because when I read books, my mind drifts and I’m like, wait a second, what did I just read? So I’m now more aware of that, and I didn’t realize my challenges during university, but I was always focused on business. I built my first tech company out of my university dorm room. After that, I joined a company to lead some sales functions. I identified a new revenue business line for that company. I pitched the board to build it, and after that company was acquired, I started to do some consulting simultaneously because I had no idea I would build a learning operation system. I was consulting more from a cash flow perspective and liked the industry. And I built a technology company with my brother, a hardware technology company called GoFishCam that we sold to a private equity firm in 2019, and he was the main operator of the CEO. Eventually, I became a mentor investor, and when I started to build what’s today Cognota.
I guess persistence is key. You need to be smart. A business doesn’t fail and doesn’t die, right? Only the person can kill it. And so you need to be smart. A lot of entrepreneurs fail because they quit too early. If you’re hearing good market feedback, which is the number one indicator, even if it takes a lot longer to raise money, you will eventually succeed if you hear good feedback and stick to it. Now, on the flip side, if you’re super passionate, but you’re not hearing good feedback, you’re not hearing about a good problem or solution, don’t just love your idea and think you can succeed. Go out, take it in the back, shoot it in the head and focus on the next one with the lessons you just learned. So you need to be really smart, but don’t quit too early. That’s why, in my opinion, most companies die because the entrepreneur gives up way too early. These things take time.
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