Published On: February 22, 2024By
How to Build a Learning-Based Business - Executive Q&A

These days, we often hear about how easy it is to make money selling courses online. That’s partially true. After all, innovative tools do make it easier to develop and deliver instructional content. But if you run a learning-based business, you know success doesn’t come easily. That’s because it’s not just about creating content (which by the way, isn’t a slam dunk).

Building a learning-based business is really about identifying a need in the marketplace that you know how to address. It’s about crafting educational experiences that the right people will value. It’s about reaching those people and building profitable relationships with them. And above all, it’s about being willing to learn and grow along with these customers, over time.

That’s a lot. Sure, you could start with a minimal viable product. Even so, growing a lasting business takes time, resources, and a commitment to continuous improvement. You’re not just selling content — you’re on a mission. And that journey never really ends.

I’ve found out how it works first-hand while growing my own business as a learning technology analyst and buying consultant. And throughout my travels, I’ve heard similar stories from all sorts of other learning business leaders.

For example, not long ago at the Thought Industries Cognition23 Conference, I headed up an executive roundtable about what it takes to run a learning-based business. Although the three panelists come from very different organizations with different goals, their views and concerns are surprisingly similar in some ways.

I often think about that conversation when I talk with clients who are mapping the road ahead for their companies. Lots of smart, practical ideas. So for future reference, I’m sharing my session notes below. I hope you find them helpful, too.


Cognition23 Panelists: Running a Learning-Based Business

Bill Horzempa - HPE - Running a Learning-Based BusinessBill Horzempa is Global Delivery Manager at Hewlett Packard Enterprise Educational Services, where he is responsible for worldwide delivery of customer, partner and technical employee education curricula. In addition to content development and delivery, he leads the development of programs and tools that ensure HPE customers can find and take the training they need.

Amy Farber - Educate 360 - Running a Learning-Based BusinessAmy Farber is Chief Strategy and Commercial Officer at Educate 360, where she wears many hats. Primarily, she focuses on top line growth opportunities, product expansion, marketing and M&A integration.


Aaron Lundberg - Praesidium - Running a Learning-Based BusinessAaron Lundberg is President and CEO at Praesidium, which develops and delivers sexual abuse prevention programs for a wide range of organizations that serve youth and vulnerable adults. With a BS in Psychology and an MS in Social Work, Aaron has conducted extensive research and has consulted on hundreds of related cases over more than 20 years.


Panel Agenda: Running a Learning-Based Business

These executives represent companies that are highly successful in their respective domains. We want to tap into their expertise to better understand what it takes to lead a learning-based business. Our discussion touches on multiple questions:

1. Where does learning fit into your business model?

2. What types of education do you offer?

3. What is your growth strategy?

4. What role does the learner experience play in your business?

5. How does a business-focused LMS help?

6. What metrics matter most?

7. What other advice would you add?


Top Takeaways: Running a Learning-Based Business

1. Where does learning fit into your business model?

AMY: Educate 360 is a family of specialized training brands that help people develop the skills to succeed in today’s technology-led economy. Primarily, we help enterprise customers achieve their L&D goals with training in everything from leadership and data science to IT skills and certification.

BILL: About 5-6 years ago when Antonio became HP CEO, his mission was to transform HP to a full as-a-service company. And at HPE Services Education, our mission is to ensure our customers around the globe receive the right training. So this is not internal L&D. This is external, customer-focused training.

AARON: We don’t consider ourselves an online training company. We’re an abuse prevention company, and online training is one of the tools we use to help organizations manage that risk. Specifically, we work with schools, churches, healthcare systems and youth organizations to set up the right training and response procedures so children they serve aren’t abused by anyone else in that setting.


Find out how other companies are achieving more with learning systems that create business value. Get inspiration from dozens of success stories in our free LMS Case Study Directory


2. What types of education do you offer?

AMY: Our solutions are designed for everyone from C-Suite executives to entry-level staff across various training modalities. Primarily, this is delivered through instructor-led training — both virtual and onsite. And we reinforce course objectives with on-demand training and supplemental resources available through our LMS.

BILL: We provide 300+ lecture/lab courses, some of which happen multiple times a week around the globe. Also, we offer thousands of online courses through HPE Digital Learner — our brand for people who subscribe to take courses anytime they want.

AARON: We have a broad library of over 150 courses geared toward different kinds of organizations. And the content does vary sometimes, because the way abuse happens for example in childcare organizations is different from a youth sports organization. Also, some courses are designed for different cultures and languages.

3. What is your growth strategy?

AMY: We’ve grown organically through customer acquisition and lifetime value.

Also, through business acquisitions we make sure our enterprise customers can tap into a broad range of true subject matter experts. This way, organizations know these aren’t just generic courses. They’re getting instruction and guidance from the best professionals in the industry.

But we need to integrate those acquired businesses effectively, so the special sauce that makes them successful isn’t lost and they benefit from access to a larger platform. This way, we can all grow as one organization.

BILL: I would echo Amy in saying customer satisfaction and quality are key to continued growth. Also, HPE has a lot of products – from low-end servers up to supercomputers. So we also want to create advocates for those products through education. That means quality must be exceptional. If there’s one little hiccup, people remember it.

AARON: As a starting point, we want to increase the number of people using our platform. Because people usually come to us either because they want background checks or formal training. So if someone comes to us for background checks, we want to cross-sell them to training and vice versa.

4. What role does the learner experience play in your business?

AMY: Success depends on ensuring a quality experience for our learners. This comes from expert, informed instruction in our core product. And now, that offering must be multi-modality. It’s about great instructor-led training with live interaction in the classroom – whether it’s onsite or online. And it’s equally important to extend the relationship with each student over time.

BILL: We have to be willing to reinvent ourselves continuously. We have to be open to change. That’s why listening is really important.

Each morning when I log in, I review a summary of comments from customers around the globe. This is well worth the time because we pick up on important trends. Also, in addition to hearing from individual customers, we want to hear from the businesses we serve. Those views don’t always match up, so we have to figure out improvements that work for both.

AARON: Although training is just one thing we do, it really is the glue that holds everything together. You can’t just have good policies or reporting procedures. Your staff and volunteers need to know what those reporting procedures are. And you can’t expect anyone to report a potential offender if they aren’t trained to recognize red flags. If you want to change behavior, training is essential.

As Amy said earlier, success isn’t one person doing one training. That’s a failure on our part. People need to feel like training is designed specifically for them. That’s what gets them engaged and motivates them to come back for more.

5. How does a business-focused LMS help?

AARON: Our challenge is that we serve a lot of different types of organizations, from very very small companies to very very large enterprise-level clients. And within those organizations, we serve very different types of individuals. So the learning experience must be very diverse.

20 years ago, we developed our own LMS and moved in-person training online. Then 3 years ago we started working with Thought Industries to make our training system more robust. Also it has streamlined multiple processes for us.

BILL: HPE has evolved from multiple enterprise companies, and that’s a challenge. Like Amy, when we acquire another company, we have to figure out how to integrate them into a seamless education experience for our customers. That requires the right kind of LMS.

Also, in the past we did training primarily onsite on our IP. But moving a lot of equipment around isn’t efficient or good for the equipment. So we’ve morphed into a group of follow-the-sun sites for virtual instructor-led training. Even at the start of the pandemic, we were 75-80% VILT. Then we shifted to 100%, and now we’ve pulled back a bit. But now we use visual remote guidance, so people are taking classes from just about anywhere, anytime.

AMY: For a great learner experience, we need to leverage leading technology. That’s why our partnership with Thought Industries is essential. Like Aaron, we had a homegrown LMS for many years. Then we onboarded with TI several years ago for a more modern, interactive experience.

Why? Obviously, we want students to come away with a positive reflection on their time in the classroom. And what does that mean from a monetary standpoint? What if they refer others to your classes? What if they’re more likely to return for additional training? That’s why core product quality is so important.


Find out how other companies are achieving more with learning systems that create business value. Get inspiration from dozens of success stories in our free LMS Case Study Directory


6. What metrics matter most?

BILL: We are a P&L in education, so we are accountable for multiple metrics. As I mentioned before, customer satisfaction is key. Renewals are also important. Also, we have financial metrics for revenue, orders and margin.

And another worth mentioning is employee satisfaction. Our team puts in a lot of extra effort to make sure our clients are highly satisfied, so we want to be sure we’re taking care of them.

AARON: Our metrics map to our strategic plan on three levels:

  1. We measure new growth, retention and upsells.
  2. We want people to find value in our training, so that’s why we measure the time it takes to train x% of a customer’s people. We also track the number of users, number of courses taken and number of annual refreshers taken.
  3. We want to change behavior. This isn’t check-the-box compliance training. That’s not enough. And we’re still working on the best metrics to reflect that.

AMY: I’m a big believer in tracking data and sharing underlying KPIs. But I would say the number one stakeholder group is employees. And there’s a critical storytelling element that keeps our people working effectively across functions within the organization. Things like case studies, anecdotes and stories from the frontlines with our sales and customer service teams really energize and motivate people.

7. What other advice would you add about building a learning-based business?

BILL: I’m sure this is not news for anyone, but keep metrics as simple as possible. We use data extensively, but I’ve seen some organizations try to write a book with data. I suggest focusing on no more than 5-6 key metrics.

AMY: I agree completely with Bill. But our business is successful when our employees come to work excited to help fulfill our mission – which again is to help individuals get better jobs, get promotions within their organization, learn new skills, and feel more confident in their current roles. Also at an organizational level we aim to help teams start clicking and seeing impact and progress being made. So we focus on stories that show kind of impact our training has on people.

AARON: Couldn’t agree more with Amy about stories. In the past, we made the mistake of thinking numbers were the most important thing to share with customers. They do want those numbers, but stories and qualitative insights matter more.

There’s a saying, “Just when you get tired of talking about something people start to listen.” It’s true here. Find multiple sources and methods to communicate success to everybody. And do it all the time. Communicate constantly in various ways so people start to see the impact you’re making.


NOTE: If you’d like to learn more about Thought Industries — the flexible platform each of these executives rely on to scale their learning-based business — check out the vendor profile in our Learning Systems Directory. This includes my Hot Take review, a detailed product demonstration, insights, case studies and more. Or for additional information, visit the Thought Industries website.


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About the Author: John Leh

John Leh is Founder, CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning and the Talented Learning Center. John is a fiercely independent consultant, blogger, podcaster, speaker and educator who helps organizations select and implement learning technology strategies, primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based upon more than 25+years of learning-tech industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to hundreds of learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $100+ million and growing. John would love to connect with you on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

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