How d.MBA Built a Learning Community for Designer Business Education
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Alen Faljic created d.MBA to bridge the gap between the design community and the business community and ensure that both ends of an organization thrive.
Alen Faljic noticed a stark disconnect between the goals his company (at the time, IDEO) put forth and those his design department were tackling. His unique role as a Business Designer allowed him to see both sides of the coin, and he quickly realized this experience was not unique to IDEO.
From that realization, the initial vision for d.MBA was formed. The concept of teaching artists and designers about business and vice versa became Alen’s mission.
Before creating the full-fledged cohort-based course that d.MBA is now, Alen started with a blog and a podcast. Growing subscriber counts quickly into the hundreds, he realized he’d have to move fast to monetize what he knew would be valuable content. The community responded in kind, snatching up his $99 email-based course which included 40 different lessons. He gained a lot of insights from prototyping this model and, after seeing where his learners began dropping off, pivoted to a much more high-touch way of offering learning experiences.
Five years later, d.MBA now works with hundreds of designers a year across the globe to teach them best business practices, actionable leadership skills, and personal growth tactics. Designers — or, in the program’s own words, anyone who puts people over profit — leave d.MBA better equipped to facilitate powerful design and thoughtful business acumen.
5 Lessons Bootcamps, Academies, Micro-Schools, and Learning Communities Can Take Away From d.MBA's Success
Market and sell the value of your course
Founders of learning communities walk a very fine line between selling their expertise or their course and pitching an offering the way you’d pitch another product or service. Because of their unique experience, it can be easy to fall into the former camp; learn from world-renowned experts on a certain subject or buy this course and achieve a certain goal. That type of messaging can be initially enticing to a learner, but it doesn’t seed or retain any value beyond that.
“It's very important to get over this fear of selling. If you want to run a business or do anything online, like having an online business, you have to get in the mode of pitching and presenting and maybe reframing from selling to offering your services,” Alen says.
He goes on to recall that his initial pitch for selling his email-based course did not showcase the value of the product: “The way I wrote it was very apologetic, like ‘Hey, I'm thinking of doing this full-time. If you want to support me, I’d be very happy!’” It didn’t create value or seed any sort of offering. Modern schools of all varieties should note the importance of creating value for the prospective learner and showcasing tangible evidence of that value.
Experience doesn’t always equal learning. Read how Shane Parish created the Farnam Street to 300k+ learners who embody this principle.
Curate your community to attract your ideal learners
Not every academy or bootcamp has an application process, but those that do can really learn something from d.MBA’’s approach to curating cohorts.
While some modern schools believe a lengthy application can deter prospective learners, Alen stands behind its value:
“One of the first questions [founders ask themselves] is do you have a curated community or do you have an open community? Both come with pros and cons. So we went with a curated community, and that means we want to have motivated designers. So if you're not a designer, you don't fit in. Secondly, if you're not motivated, you also won't fit in.”
The d.MBA team has used their application to ensure learners fall into that niche category of motivated designers.
“So when you're applying, there are a lot of questions in there, but we just pay attention to two mostly, which are: How are you going to make time for the course? And why do you want to join? There's also a third one, which is: Which of the modules from the course are you most motivated to learn? This tells us if they read the course page or not.”
It’s through this unique combination of questions that the admissions team for d.MBA is able to weed out learners who are just curious and learners who are genuinely interested and eager to learn. The course has to be selective, too — at €3,000 a pop and only two programs per year, this selection process has been critical to the course’s success. It’s important to find learners who are willing to sacrifice free time to access your specific expertise and who want to go beyond content to learn with a community. Anyone can find content anywhere—curating your learning community starts by finding those most eager to engage—with the content and with other learners.
“So through [this application process] we can see: are they motivated? Do they know something about the d.MBA? Do they have time? Your community starts there with the people that apply? Through that conversation through the application process, we basically set expectations for them and vice versa.”
Design and iterate the learning journey based on your learner's needs
Part of what has made d.MBA so successful is this idea of instructional design. The concept isn’t new or novel. It incorporates the natural tools founders employ to improve their own academies, bootcamps—even their businesses—like listening, learning, observing, and determining what works or doesn’t work for your specific cohort. Not all learning communities are created equal, and Alen both employs this idea and teaches it in his own course:
“There’s reasoning by analogy versus reasoning by principles, especially now where there are many online courses established out there. We cannot just see what's already working and want to copy it. What works best is that you actually listen to your community and your customers and see what works for them. By using the reasoning by analogy, you’re just copying the format, the length, or whatever from somebody else, which may not fit very well for your content.”
Alen goes on to stress the importance of reasoning by principles with an example from the d.MBA course.
“We teach designers very hard core business skills like prototyping with numbers. A lot of designers are afraid of using numbers, so we have to go through changing that mindset while also teaching them how to use these skills. That changes who you can use as mentors in the program. For a lot of cohort based courses, you usually try to scale your course by recruiting your students to be the mentors. But that only works if you have more content that allows for this. You're teaching something that other students will feel comfortable being taught by another student in a year or two years.”
“So after every iteration, we have interviews and surveys, but we pay attention to the behavior too, we're tracking how many people show up for the course.”
Alen’s approach is to lead by principle, and design your course around what is most valuable to your learners.
Read how Sarah Lacy used pointed intention to create ChairmanMe, a global learning community for female empowerment and entrepreneurship.
Great learning communities are built on competence and care
When Alen started stoking the flames of d.MBA, he immediately knew the value in measuring the impact of his teachings. Initially, this came in a more quantifiable form — completion rate — and is still an important metric the team measures today. But there are two other metrics the d.MBA team employs to understand the value students are earning from this business-for-design course:
“Finding this word was a really interesting design process: what is the impact we're trying to have for the students? For us, it was this business competence. It's not business mastery, but business competence because, in six weeks, you need to ask yourself ‘What is realistic?’ So for us, it was competence. Once we had that — the why, or the what — now we started asking ourselves ‘What do we need to provide for the people taking the course to actually achieve that competence," Alen questioned.
From there, the d.MBA team examined other online courses and schools that were netting only a 10-15% completion rate. The content was solid; the availability of information was there. What was missing?
“We wanted to create something that people would follow through on and have an impact. And that came back to care. Care is something where it changes the way you approach the whole learning experience.”
“We pay a lot of attention to showing our students that we see them. The size of the classes is a little bit smaller. If you get out an hour late with your assignment, you get a nudge from us right away. We keep in touch even after the course because there's a lot of stuff that is not part of the value proposition. There is a lot of stuff that happens in the alumni community. We have monthly calls, we have a newsletter, we have circles of mastermind groups, which are all things that they don't expect coming in, but it shows we care. We see that this care is the big change maker in the way students approach their learning experience and how much more likely they are to take it seriously,” says Alen.
Galvanize referrals by offering incentives
After completing a few successful cohorts of d.MBA, the team found impactful ways to get more viable applicants in the door and give them a leg up in the process. Alen himself leaned heavily on word-of-mouth and referrals from friends when building up his own LinkedIn presence and podcast audience, so naturally he’s found this unique referral tactic to work positively for the community:
“What we came up with is if you recommend your friends, they could skip the line. Because we would open applications only twice a year, it would fill up quickly. So we said, ‘If you have a friend, help us build the community. You can refer them, and they can skip the line.’ That's worked really well.”
Once that referral program was scaled to success, there was an opportunity to create even more of a gift incentive, since the d.MBA community is so active and passionate on channels like LinkedIn.
“Now, the last version of this is that we do offer a small thank you. If a member of our alumni community recommends somebody, they skip the line and get a lower price, plus the recommender (alumni) gets an Amazon gift card. So that's what we have currently, as a system, because we want to better track if this is happening or not. Most of this word-of-mouth is just happening outside of the system, meaning people show up with an application or call and they say ‘I heard about it from this friend and then I decided to join."
Referral programs work really well for tons of live learning communities. Others, like WeAreNoCode, value making those referrals themselves. Read how they do it.
Always be marketing, even if you have a (virtual) line out the door
For cohort-based courses like d.MBA that have created such innate value for their learners, it can be easy to rest on those laurels and forego additional marketing if you have a waitlist of eager applicants.
This is especially true as you scale up your team and move from solopreneurship to an organization of multiples.
“Now, you have to create processes. People [on your team] need to feel empowered. We are in this process of trying to create a content calendar and have certain topics that we write about. Just going back to understanding that creating content is your job is marketing.”
The distribution of content is equally as important to the quality of it. This involves understanding where your audience exists and existing alongside them in those spaces:
“Having a plan and knowing where our audience lives [includes] having a list of resources they use. Do the Google search analysis and see which keywords fit well with the topic you're trying to target and that have low difficulty so it's not as many content pieces battling for that phrase. That's our approach. It also all comes down to the way you're talking and approaching a topic. Do people like it? If the same topic will be taught by a business school professor, it may have a completely different impact on the design community (for example). As of now, it comes from somebody that’s part of the community.”
Determine your scaling goals and then work backwards
“My goal from the beginning was $3k,” Alen says. “I knew where I would like this thing to be, so I needed a team for us to be able to do all these things.”
He goes on to recommend starting with a price you initially feel comfortable with and basing that price off your conversion rate and feedback from those first few cohorts. From there, work backwards and listen to feedback along the way until you hit that number you’re looking for:
“So initially, I felt comfortable with $500 and that's what the first eight paid. It worked. So I said, ‘Okay, let's go with $1,000.’ So then we gradually increased it with each intake. Then, the biggest increase was from $1,500 to $2,500, which is a huge increase. For these kinds of increases, it helps if you have some kind of justification.”
The d.MBA team didn’t just justify their reasoning, though. They re-recorded the entire course from zero, seeding the new curriculum and messaging with a full rebrand. Naturally, after a major overhaul of that nature, you want to track conversion rates and sentiment from those in your community.
The numbers were positive — at all price points.
“That was always the feeling of like, okay, so it's still working. We looked at risk assumptions over and over again, and it still kept working. That's the story you need to build for yourself when you're starting. Increasing the price may feel scary, but you have to do it. You have to do it if you need to do it. Or, to put it differently, if you want to do it. Just try it. It's never going to get easier.”
For d.MBA, a big part of reaching that end goal of $3,000 per learner was knowing when to scale the team that can support that goal. In Alen’s words, working backwards and hiring people when you need them —– even when it hurts — was the only way to make it happen.
“Hire when it hurts. Don't start with the thought of ‘I need this many people for this to work,’ but I couldn't even do it myself if nobody joins me. Maybe somebody can take over application calls, somebody could take over running the logistics of the course, and so on.”
Scaling that team went beyond hiring the right people for these roles. It also meant setting the team up with the proper processes, tools, and software for managing those roles.
“Very early on, I started writing certain things down a checklist, like how to set up Slack for the communication with learners or how to start saving certain emails that were sent out repeatedly. I would use Zapier to simplify certain things, like sending out emails with certain templates.”
“So I just began writing out all the tasks and thinking ‘What is the thing that somebody else could help me with? Maybe that someone else could be even better with that particular thing. Having a good profit margin helps in finding that person. So you model it out: From the start, what is the price point? If you reach this number, can you even hire somebody? Or does it have to be just me? So if I get 200 people a year, what does that mean? My advice would be not to be somewhere in between. You either need to go higher or more premium and then you can build a whole system around it, or you need to go cheaper. But then if you go cheaper, you need to go for volume. So choose one or the other, and then plan accordingly.”
The Future of Education is Powered by Community and Peer-to-Peer Learning
There’s an innate responsibility as founders of bootcamps, academies, micro-schools, and other learning communities to know your role as an innovator of education.
Write of Passage’s David Perrell has some additional insight on moving the live learning community forward. Read them here.
Alen Faljic is no exception. His hope for education moving forward is even less focused on the creator, and more on the community:
“Right now it's me, teaching you. You are joining because of me. The more we mature as a community, the more it's going to move into, ‘Actually, I'm not joining this because of whoever this expert is.’ The most successful companies in this place will build a model where you're teaching and learning from each other in the community, so it's not just on one person. The best way to learn is to teach, and so I think the future of learning is teaching. It's almost like reversing the model and teaching others how to teach. That's hopefully the future of d.MBA.”