When I am looking to set up interviews, I try to think of people who have come from nowhere and created something truly amazing. With that said, I thought I would interview Mat Jacobson, the founder of the Global Education Company, Ducere. The vision of Ducere is working directly with global leaders on topics they are experts in, to deliver a formal education. What makes Ducere truly unique is that they have been able attract some of the best leaders on the planet including five Australian Prime Ministers, two Canadian Prime Ministers, Heads of State from Europe, Asia and Africa, Nobel Prize winners, Oxford and Harvard professors and the list goes on and on.
Mat is very inspiring to talk with and is always looking for ways to help the entrepreneur community. He thinks big by nature and is not afraid to share his opinion about what needs to change in the entrepreneurial education system. I get the feeling that Mat see’s entrepreneurship as a way to solve many of the world’s problems and using trusted, global leaders to deliver that message is one way he can have a major impact on the outcome.
It was important when Mat created Ducere that philanthropy was embedded into the business and wasn’t a case of if they make money they would write out a cheque to charity when they could afford to. There are two companies that make up Ducere, one is the academic arm, and the other is the Ducere Foundation. Part of the profits of Ducere Education go to fund the Ducere Foundation. Ducere doesn’t donate money to third parties, they create programs in Africa with their philanthropic arm through education programs that are now in 12 countries. This business model is quite unique and has helped create a vision that has attracted the types of global leaders they have onboard.
***Spending Time With Bill Clinton***
Ducere is a member of the Clinton Global Initiative where they partner together on a publishing program for Africa. Mat had the chance to speak with Bill Clinton a number of times.
Mat says that Bill just has a genuine interest in the projects they are involved in so when you speak to someone of his stature, you might think they are aloof or politely nodding their head, but with Bill Clinton he is 100% engaged in the conversation with eye contact the whole time and listening very carefully to what you’re saying. He will then ask very good questions and give his opinion on how you can take your vision a step further. Bill gave advice to Mat on the politics of Africa, where the Ducere programs should be based and people they should work with like Sir Ketumile Masire. Having someone like Bill Clinton for Mat to bounce ideas off was an invaluable experience and just demonstrates how the Ducere vision has successfully captivated everyone.
Later this year Ducere will be rolling out four bachelor degree’s with applied qualifications and coursework directly tied into real-life business projects.
After my interview with Mat I thought I would share with you his top seven ways to create an amazing vision for your startup.
1. Attract the best leaders to your startup
You must have a very compelling reason for someone to be involved with your startup. One of the reasons global leaders are attracted to Duceres vision is because of their social enterprise elements.
Having said that, you still have to get in front of someone to communicate your idea. This can only be done by having people around you that have great networks and connections. To get great leaders, Mat said it’s usually done through an introduction or via someone who knows about their work – it’s always one or two degree’s of separation. A method that you should avoid is sending a letter that says “Dear Sir we would like to introduce ourselves to you.” To be successful in attracting global leaders, you need to create a trusted environment that they will gravitate to more than anything else.
2. Decide if you’re startup should have a global vision
It’s just a question of how far do you want to expand the activities you are involved in. If you’re an organisation that operates in one country, and then you take that same product or service to 50 countries, then obviously that’s global. It’s more a question of ambition.
By Ducere doing their philanthropy in African countries, as well as their academic programs in first world countries, they have become global by nature. Another example might be if you create an interesting platform for transport that helps people, such as Uber, that could equally apply in one country and the founders might be happy generating revenue, on the other hand if it’s a product or service that is really popular, maybe it could be spread to more than fifty countries. It comes back again to ambition and not so much whether a product or service is limited to one or more countries
3. Reframe your prior failed visions
In order to create an amazing vision, you need to be able to reframe your prior failed visions and be able to use the lessons to help create your new vision for your startup. Of course, things don’t always work out as planned. There a lot of things that don’t go the way you intend, especially in a startup environment.
The problem with the word failure is that it has a very negative connotation. Mat believes we should use a more scientific type of terminology like experimentation or trial and error. This terminology is really the way startup and entrepreneurial businesses operate. It’s not a question of success or failure it’s a question of how quickly can you move, adapt shift to create a successful outcome. That’s the case with any organisation that you can point to. No company in the world has a 50-page business plan on day one that ten years down the track they can look back on and say “that’s exactly what we intended to do.”
Look at the genesis of Facebook, what it does today is completely different to what it started out as in its first version a number of years ago. If you look at Google and what the plan, idea and vision of was when it first started, it certainly wasn’t self-driving cars. Even when we can point to a business that is successful, it’s still constantly about adaptation and evolving in order for that business to stay in the same successful position. Mat believes we should talk more about experimentation because in an experimental environment it’s very normal for things to be cut-off, modified, focused more on a different area and to go off on tangents.
Failure is such a negative word and people don’t like to be associated with it, which is perhaps why in the western world we have such a risk adverse culture. Trial and error, and experimenting until a business model succeeds is far more palatable.
4. Take the Steve Jobs approach – simplify and focus
How do you balance opportunity with focus? There are always lots of opportunities out there. People overestimate the value of ideas, and they underestimate the value of implementation. People talk about the idea and vision to a great extent, but this is only one component.
There are lots of people that have interesting ideas, but there are far fewer people who can actually execute that vision into a successful, global organisation. It’s about the execution and for Mat that’s the balance between lots of ideas and focus. There are constantly more ideas than the amount of focus you can have to successfully implement those ideas within your startup. It needs to be about having a good sense of core value and being the best at something rather than doing lots of things poorly.
In Ducere’s case, education is a huge space. They implemented this idea of simplification by narrowing down their focus to a business school rather than teaching all the broader areas that a typical business faculty in a university would offer such as bookkeeping. This allows them to leverage off their unique skill of business programs that can utilise global leaders in the areas of entrepreneurship, leadership and management.
Your startup needs to look constantly at the core focus you are trying to achieve and make sure it is relevant to everything you do. Don’t just implement something because it sounds like a good idea or financial opportunity, if it doesn’t meet your core focus.
5. You need lots of diverse thinking, interactions and experiences
If you work in the airline industry, you would typically go to airline industry conferences and deal with people in your industry. If Mat was in the banking industry and wanted to come up with something novel, he would spend time trying to understand how the airline industry works. On one hand, the airline industry has nothing to do with banking but that’s where opportunities for innovation arise. It allows you to see something totally unique and different, and then you start thinking to yourself, how can I use what I have learnt from the airline industry in banking.
A classic example of this was when the founder of Ikea went on holidays to New York to visit the Guggenheim. Most people would wonder what visiting a museum has got to do with a furniture business. When he was in the Guggenheim, he had to follow a set path through the different attractions. This experience he had while on holidays became the impetus for the now famous IKEA model of a structured pathway through their stores, ensuring customers have to walk past every product.
Another important component of creating a vision is being in an environment where you can have headspace and think clearly. A holiday is a perfect example of this and often you can think that a holiday is to get away from work. What a holiday does is to allow you to think outside of the hustle and bustle, the hundreds of emails / meetings and phone calls where it’s very difficult to think innovatively, and completely change your environment.
Mat does his best work often when he is on holidays or an aeroplane where he can’t be interrupted. The idea for Ducere came to him when he was in holidays in Bali, in a pool, thinking about what he wanted to do to start up his new education business. He already had a few things like philanthropy, education qualifications, and leaders in his head and these began to link together while in Bali.
6. Stay focused on your vision
True entrepreneurs are typically not very disciplined or organised people; they are more the creative type. Mat says that it’s very easy for him to stay inspired because he has created a business that allows this process to occur naturally. Their programs in Africa are world-leading initiatives to improve education and then in their academic side they are working with the most inspiring leaders from all over the world. This makes it very difficult for Mat to not be inspired. If you embed these types of things into your startup, you too can achieve the same inspirational results.
“An entrepreneur is almost like an artistic equivalent but in a business environment”
Mat applied the concept of staying focused by only allowing Ducere to partner with not for profit, public institutions because he saw that they had the right focus, which is on skills and quality outcomes. Mat found that the focus in education is not necessarily the same for “for-profit” education institutions. Public education institutions typically aren’t the most nimble or entrepreneurial but that’s why the partnership works so well because Ducere’s thinking is totally different and much less traditional.
At the same time, these institutions bring a very different level of process, rigor and compliance that is non-typical for a fast moving, innovative, startup company. Sometimes these two sets of strengths that both organisations have can bring operational challenges but if the end goal is aligned, you can work out the detail. As long as you have a vision with your partners of where you want to go ultimately everything else can be figured out.
7. Execute your vision in line with the fundamentals
Be outcome focused. It’s not about sitting in a room and pitching to investors about a concept or idea. Ultimately it’s the customers who decide whether a business is successful or not. If customers buy your product or service, this single ingredient will determine whether your startup is successful. You need to refine your business model around the customer through speaking with customers and doing focus groups. Often the reverse happens. People go out and think about their startup, product or development and then go out to customers and say this is what we have
Be very clear about the niche focus of the organisation because it’s very easy to take on too many opportunities as opposed to saying “no that’s not our core business.” It’s harder to say no than yes.
When it comes down to executing your vision make sure you do so in the biggest and most exciting way possible because that’s what get’s people on board. No one is interested in who came seventh in an Olympic race. On one measure coming seventh in the Olympics is unbelievable because out of billions of people in the world that person was the seventh fastest. The reality is no one cares or remembers who came seventh. People care about who is the most successful and came first. You need to be thinking about what you can be successful at and be number one in, and then create a bold vision around that.
Lessons from Africa
Mat loves spending time in Africa, and one of the things that was surprising to him is the culture and the positive attitude of the people. When you think about going into a place that is the poorest area in the world where they don’t have running water, earn less than $200 USD a year and have schools that have no libraries you would expect these people to be very disgruntled.
What’s amazing is that you find the opposite. Kids in schools in these areas have such a positive attitude, a desire to learn and such an appreciation for any opportunity they have. It makes you feel how complacent we are in some western countries where kids can take a lot for granted and run a muck or be disruptive in class instead of appreciating how incredibly valuable the opportunity of a good education is. In Africa, it’s the opposite, if you give a child a book to own for the first time, you can just see the gratitude and value they have.
Just by providing some of the basic necessities people need, you can achieve amazing things quite quickly because of their willingness to learn.
Final advice from Mat Jacobson
Work on the most exciting thing that you can possibly work on. Only work with people that you enjoy working with and that you trust in. If you have the passion and work hard then you can do absolutely anything and can change the world by working on something exciting, and working with people who share your vision, and believe in you.
14th-century scholar Maimonides, “The highest form of charity one can give is to give someone a livelihood, so they needn’t rely on charity“