Out of the West: Gal­way en­tre­pre­neur takes on­line busi­ness to global heights

Irish Independent - Business Week - - TECHNOLOGY -

Gal­way’s Mike Fe­er­ick has built up one of Ire­land’s most suc­cess­ful tech ex­ports Alison. com. With a bil­lion-dol­lar out­fit now on the cards, he spoke to Adrian Weck­ler cen­tres, like Lon­don or New York. Dublin wouldn’t work ei­ther.

AW: So are you look­ing for a big round, in Ir­ish terms? Like €50m or €60m?

MF: I know that our fig­ures are com­pa­ra­ble with Udac­ity and Udemy and all of them. And they have bil­lion-dol­lar val­u­a­tions. I’m not sug­gest­ing a bil­lion-dol­lar val­u­a­tion. But is it worth a de­cent amount of money and have we a re­ally good po­si­tion to be one of the top three world­wide? Yes, ab­so­lutely.

AW: Clearly you don’t want to un­der­sell your­self.

MF: No. What I’ve wanted to do is to bring it so far that we can raise money at a val­u­a­tion where I’m not wor­ried about con­trol. That’s im­por­tant to me. It’s not a ma­te­rial thing, as my wife and I are pretty fru­gal.

AW: You’re do­ing all this from a po­si­tion of strength, though?

MF: Yes. We’re a prof­itable com­pany. We’re un­usual in the sense that we’re proven, one of the very few in the in­dus­try, ac­tu­ally. Many of the others are still try­ing to fig­ure out a suc­cess­ful model.

We have a thou­sand cour­ses now but I want to have tens of thou­sands of cour­ses. That re­quires an or­gan­i­sa­tion that’s go­ing to be able to en­gage with sub­ject mat­ter ex­perts on every ver­ti­cal, from el­e­men­tary, be­gin­ners and in­ter­me­di­ate to ad­vanced pro­fi­ciency. You name a sub­ject, I want to have cour­ses on it. So if you’re into bee­keep­ing I want to have 101 bee­keep­ing and I want to go all the way to ad­vanced pro­fi­ciency in it.

AW: Doesn’t that re­quire get­ting ex­pert teach­ers on bee­keep­ing?

MF: Yes and also the ad­min­is­tra­tion of it and cre­at­ing sys­tems to han­dle all of that. You want to au­to­mate ev­ery­thing. We’ve just de­vel­oped a self-pub­lish­ing tool. You’re go­ing to be able to go into that and, if you’re a sub­ject mat­ter ex­pert, we will fun­nel the in­for­ma­tion in your head to cre­ate a course the way we want it.

AW: Isn’t there still a snob­bery on­line about ‘buy­ing your own cert’? What’s your per­spec­tive on that?

MF: That’s a big is­sue, sure. But the tra­di­tional ac­cred­i­ta­tion sys­tem that we have right now is way too slow, too costly and too nar­row. What’s hap­pen­ing is that even for col­leges in Ire­land you have cer­tain sub­jects be­ing taught, but it’s lim­ited be­cause of eco­nomic de­mand and the busi­ness model those col­leges have.

We should have cour­ses on ev­ery­thing. But in uni­ver­si­ties they’re very slow. If you try to get a new course into one of the main col­leges, you’d bet­ter start plan­ning three years be­fore­hand.

We can have a course within days. What you’re mov­ing from is tra­di­tional in­dus­try as­so­ci­a­tion ac­cred­i­ta­tion to the ac­cred­i­ta­tion of the crowd. Years ago, a B&B would be ac­cred­ited by Bord Fáilte. But now Tripad­vi­sor is way more im­por­tant. There’s no ques­tion that the ac­cred­i­ta­tion of the crowd is far more pow­er­ful.

AW: Okay, but what about qual­ity con­trol?

MF: Yes, that has been a big con­cern for self-ac­cred­i­ta­tion. But a lot has changed in the last 10 to 15 years in how peo­ple mea­sure qual­ity-con­trol mech­a­nisms. Take sys­tems like Airbnb and Uber, where the Uber guy cred­its you and you credit them. It’s not so dif­fer­ent with learn­ing. When we have a sub­ject mat­ter ex­pert that puts a course out, we have a small pool of peers around that sub­ject mat­ter ex­pert that will help that per­son make sure that they’re spot on. Then it goes live. Be­cause we have mil­lions of learn­ers on­line, within 10 min­utes of that course be­ing out there are com­ments com­ing in on it. If there’s some­thing wrong, we can change the course im­me­di­ately.

So what I’m say­ing is that the power of the crowd is the fu­ture of ac­cred­i­ta­tion. And of course you’re go­ing to get the old tra­di­tion­al­ists say­ing ‘It’s not good enough’. It is snob­bery. It’s also de­fen­sive and it’s slightly ig­no­rant. But most of them kind of know that it’s ac­tu­ally the fu­ture of learn­ing and that it will af­fect them. Uni­ver­si­ties are go­ing to have an aw­ful hard time charg­ing for the stuff that they charge for to­day.

AW: Where are Alison’s big­gest mar­kets? MF: It’s still the US and UK.

AW: Those peo­ple pro­vid­ing this course in­for­ma­tion, are they pro­fes­sion­als?

MF: I see it as any­one from an or­gan­i­sa­tion that is pro­vid­ing a prod­uct or ser­vice and that can cre­ate cer­ti­fi­ca­tion around it. It could be a res­tau­rant. A res­tau­rant may have huge turnover. So it wants peo­ple to be able to be trained when they come in, in the stuff they need their work­ers to be trained in.

It might be some­one from a com­pany like Siemens which de­vel­ops elec­tri­cal power sta­tions. If you run an elec­tric­ity au­thor­ity like the ESB, who would you like to hire to run your gen­er­at­ing sta­tion? Some­one with a clas­sic elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing de­gree out of col­lege? Or some­one who has all of the cer­ti­fi­ca­tions pro­vided by Siemens on how to run that gen­er­a­tor?

AW: But you need more than com­pa­nies pro­vid­ing cour­ses. Other than try­ing to gen­er­ate fu­ture skills in a po­ten­tial work­force, why would an ex­pert pub­lish a course on Alison?

MF: A few rea­sons. One is to make money. We share the ad­ver­tis­ing and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion rev­enue that we make. That can be sub­stan­tial. Last year, we would have paid our top pub­lish­ers tens of thou­sands. There are also ver­ti­cals that com­pa­nies want to own. For in­stance, we’re talk­ing to a tech­nol­ogy com­pany that sees an op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate learn­ing around their ser­vice and to cer­tify it.

AW: Is there re­ally an ap­petite among com­pa­nies to de­velop their own cer­ti­fied cour­ses in that way?

MF: Mas­sively. They have to be­come brand lead­ers in the sec­tor they’re in, If there’s some­body else out there teach­ing peo­ple about what the in­dus­try is or how to en­gage in it ef­fi­ciently, they’re miss­ing out and not in that con­ver­sa­tion.

AW: How much did you sell your pre­vi­ous com­pany, Yac.com for?

MF: It got sold for marginally more than the money that went into it, about €15m or €16m. We made a lit­tle bit of money on it but I didn’t hit it out of the park. I prob­a­bly could have if I was wiser at the time. But I’ve no re­grets on it.

AW: You were ahead.

MF: We were ahead. I con­sid­ered it a plus for me. It was my first time at the bat, to use a base­ball thing. I came out ahead in it. I learned a lot. And for hav­ing done what I did in the West of Ire­land, an aw­ful lot of peo­ple came out of Yac. A lot of peo­ple went on to cre­ate their own busi­nesses.

I’ve al­ways seen at least part of my role to give peo­ple an op­por­tu­nity in the west of Ire­land to work at a place like Alison.

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