Lessons learned from our journey into the Internet business world
We were initially five women in three different continents, 4 different countries, who had decided to collaborate by sharing a significant amount of high-quality knowledge and experience in education. We all had a vision about the importance of sharing and collaborating as a way of developing lifelong learners in such a fast-changing world. As we believe in sharing, here is an account of our journey into the online business world, which we hope may inspire anyone in a similar situation.
Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano, well known for her Langwitches blog, was the catalyst for the group, as she knew each of the founding members personally We started developing an online course business which we called amplifiEDUcation. Each of the founding members had different commitments either in a full-time job, consulting and/or family, so amplifiEDU was an addition to our busy lives. But we started the business with the belief that our knowledge, in the form of resources and courses, would be a “passive income” – meaning that once created, it would generate income. So we imagined that time commitment would be limited. Lesson learned number one: an Internet business requires a lot more time commitment, knowledge and experience than we initially imagined. Quickly, it became obvious, that it was too much commitment for some of our members and amplifiEDUcation was reduced to three women.
Here are the key elements in our learning journey:
Content: what we love and what people want
We started amplifiEDUcation by focusing on what we believed was important, based on our experience and challenges in education. Our mission is written as follows:
“ Our mission is to help educators “ amplify” their own learning and, by extension, the learning of their students. We know that reflecting, connecting and sharing ( amplifying) invites new, and previously untapped possibilities”.
Our mission was able to express our passion. That’s what we saw teachers and schools needed as they tried to prepare students for constant learning in a continuously changing world and integrate technological developments in the process. Silvia Tolisano, as langwitches, has a large following on her blog and social media, we were counting on those followers as the initial disseminators of the new resources in the form of online courses. We did have sales, but too small to maintain a business. We wondered why we were not selling more? We wondered, why there was no interest? Educators were flocking to the online content on the langwitches blog, expressed interest in being able to learn more on their own, once a workshop or seminar was completed, why did they not take advantage of the online courses being offered?
Our assumptions about these challenges were twofold. First of all, we realized that individual teachers are not willing to buy online courses even though they might be interested in free content. Second, the education world is changing fast as well, and we see schools struggling to find a focus point to invest in terms of teacher professional development.
A very interesting book appeared in our learning journey: “The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepeneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses” . The lessons learned regarding content that represented our passion and beliefs is the following: we had to look at the market and what people felt they needed and were willing to pay for. But that in itself was a complex endeavor. It takes a lot of learning about the market and testing different “ products” (online courses and resources). Learning far outside of our area of expertise, passion, time commitments, and capabilities…
Social Media Marketing
Soon after we started our business, we realized how much we had to learn about social media marketing of our company, even though we were active in social media as individuals. We started mostly on Twitter but then spread into a more strategic presence on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. We had to learn about paid business campaigns on Facebook and Twitter and started to track results. We soon realized how complex it was and how much time was necessary to produce good social media content and follow up on campaign strategy results.
We were initially writing blog posts which we shared on all social media channels. We also curated interesting links and resources related to our mission. The constant sharing of new content as blog posts seemed to bring customers. We also invited guest bloggers. We learned about the idea of a “ Lead Magnet” , which in essence is a free resource that you share to attract attention to your website and collect contact emails. We developed a “ Guide to Teaching in a World of Exponential Change” as our lead magnet and started to collect emails from subscribers using MailChimp. With a list of subscribers, we started to send Newsletters with special resources and news about our site. Producing this content was a lot of work, even though we tried to assign double purpose to each task, by using adapted content from our individual work.
Instagram was a surprise as we could see more likes on it than on other social media platform. We then decided to invest a significant amount of our time to develop an Instagram campaign based on branded images with a short text. This came after we invested in a change to our new website to create a solid brand visual with specific colors and font. Even though we collected many likes towards the end on Instagram, it did not convert into any sales, maybe because at that point we had stopped writing new blog posts frequently. Our learning journey seems to indicate that a collection of consistent social media might be the trick as well as following competitors and responding to followers
As we were a group of women in different countries you might wonder how did we meet and manage all the tasks necessary to run the business? That was the beauty of not just talking the talk about new literacies and amplified learning, but about walking the talk: we collaborated using Google Docs and met on Google Hangout. Except for one person on our team, the other members had never met face to face. Technology did the trick and we figured out different ways to communicate and developed fluency in collaboration. A very useful communication tool for us turned out to be Whatsapp. We had two groups: one called ACTION REQUIRED and the other called FYI. This separation allowed for action to be taken quickly by others when necessary, avoiding mixing with information. But it took us some time to figure this out, after using SMS, email and a project management platform.
Our biggest challenge did not seem to be online communication, but rather the number and complexity of tasks necessary to run a business. We had several meetings to discuss roles and tasks for each one of us. We had to split the tasks among us, due to our busy life constraints, we ended up with a single task that had several steps, where different steps were undertaken by different members of the group, as in a factory line. This required even more communication via Whatsapp. Due dates were also a challenge as it was hard to define how much time we would have available to work on our business as opposed to our personal commitments. As neither of us was an expert in any aspect of the business, we were all doing a bit of everything, even though we did have some areas of strength/focus and choice as well. We started the business with most partners as experts in content. A lesson learned would be to have partners that have a background in marketing and accounting.
As we started selling, it was necessary to keep an organized record and decide on how to split up the revenue. Accounting proved to be very complicated, especially when we decided on the rules for sharing according to authorship of courses, roles, and responsibilities. As a beginning business, we started sharing equally, but then differences in time commitment or availability generated questions about “pay” per each role played in the business. We realized how little we knew about the complexities of accounting, bookkeeping, fair “ salary”, etc.. Since we did not have clear roles, it was difficult to define that clear difference in “ salary”. That was also complicated by the fact that some of us were not only partners but also authors of courses, which generated income according to the sales of that specific course. Silvana was the one who dealt mostly with accounting due to her spreadsheet skills. We knew that if we were to grow, we would need an accountant or equivalent to organize our income and expenses.
At one point in our business journey, we wondered if one of the reasons we were not selling more was because our original website was not user-friendly and hard to navigate. We had created the website based on our own knowledge about WordPress. Actually, Silvia Tolisano was the one to create and manage the original site which had different languages. A critical requirement was to offer the same content in different languages, as together we spoke English, Spanish, German and Portuguese. Katrin was responsible for translating the website and all the content to Spanish, so we started to create a mirror website.
When we decided to improve the website we had to hire an outside company for the job, which had experience in branding as well as networking wordpress sites. The company helped us redesign the logo of our company, creating a visual brand, and improved the user experience of the web site. This was the first time that we had to really invest more money into the business. A word of caution about hiring a third party website company: you may very likely be at their future mercy if they develop personalized code which can only be accessed and edited by them. So you will need to keep in mind that you might not only have to invest in the development of the website but also for the maintenance of this website. For this reason, it might be helpful for an Internet business to have a partner who can deal with coding (if not to develop the code, to at least follow closely).
This is where we arrive at a turning point in our business. We started as amplifiEDUcation, making some sales, but then it became necessary to change our company’s name. Even though we did research brand names, at one point we received an email from another company which had the term “ amplify”, “ amplify education” as their trademark. Even though our names were not exactly the same, they claimed a trademark on “ amplify” related to education. Another official email letter from their lawyer made us realize how serious this was. It had been so easy to create an LLC in the United States. We had purchased several domain names to avoid problems. But we had not searched trademarks and had not applied for one ourselves. Paying for a trademark may be too much if you are starting but we learned that you can claim an “ unregistered trademark “ by using the symbol on the website, emails, invoices, etc. If anyone claims a trademark, the company which used it first will most likely win.
The trademark issue forced us to change our name to ampeduca and rebrand our entire work up to that day including our website… This change came at the same time we were already having difficulties in getting the new website finished. This ended up causing a significant pause in our communication as we could not use the previous website for blog posts, newsletters or social media. When we finally came back under the new name ampeduca, even though we advertised the change connecting to amplifiEDUcation, we lost the initial momentum of generated sales.
For all the reasons above related to time commitment, learning curve, investment, and Internet competition as a trademark war, we have decided to discontinue our business as of July 31st. This has been an incredible learning journey and we finally realized we would need a full-time commitment from each partner, more investment, and other skilled partners (perhaps accounting, marketing, coding) to keep going. As we talk about education in a world of exponential change, we also have been caught by change. We noticed how priorities are shifting in schools and even though they may not be focusing on anything that different, still the language and the approach seems to be changing. As the “ Lean Startup” book says: this would be a time for us to “ pivot” – to find out how we can reinvent ourselves. Maybe at a later time, we will be able to do that.
For now, as we write about our journey, we are amazed and proud of how much we were able to accomplish. We are also thankful to the partners who trusted us and joined us as guest authors for online courses: Mike Fisher, Jacqui Murray, and Karin Hallet. We also thank Andrea Hernandez and Chic Foote who started the business with us and are such inspiring educators!
As we learned more about businesses, we know that this is natural in the business world. We start, we fail, we try again. We “ fail forward” by building resilience. We hope that anyone out there reading about us has the enthusiasm and time to dedicate to their own journey.
The ampeduca Team
Katrin Barlsen – Argentina
Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano – USA
Silvana Scarso Meneghini – Brazil