Daring to be different: How Decoded kept focus while pivoting its model

Decoded is in the business of technology education. It has built a strong brand by offering classes like Data in a Day, while growing at a steady clip. But its founders want more. At a recent Leap 100 Breakfast we heard from co-founder Richard Peters, as he discussed their plans on pivoting the firm.

“When you hear pivoting stories, they’re all about how the business was at a moment of destruction and we pulled it from the flames,” says Peters. “But what if everything is going according to plan? At Decoded, we’ve had fantastic growth; we’ve moved through coding, data and cyber security. Why would you want to pivot?”

Despite most people advising that they focus, Peters and his co-founders have taken a different tack. Their experience with clients has shown that disruption could suddenly see a business drop off a cliff. “There will be other startups out there who will be copying you and doing something just a little bit better. So the sense of focusing on something extremely well is tempered by the fact we don’t want our own Kodak moment.”

Since starting Decoded, there have been plenty of opportunities to take the business in a different direction. “Someone once mentioned that we should do Sushi in a day, or law in a day.” But Peters doesn’t think theorising is the right way to make strategic decisions. You can just end up going round in circles.

Decoded has circumvented this by bringing in product owners, which “changed our culture where testing has become a drive for strategy.” Peters says “real pivots only happen when you do something. When you see something change, it’s completely different.” This is how William Wrigley Jr realised that the chewing gum he was giving away with his baking soda was the real product.

Last year, Decoded started to do things differently. While its classes are principally a personal experience (10 to 20 people sitting in a room), Peters always knew they needed tech to scale. “That’s been quite stressful – we’ve got a strong brand, but we know that the e-learning marketplace does not match its potential. We’re in the business of delivering mind-blowing education experiences and the channels we use to deliver this have to meet that standard.”

Peters and his co-founders took a risk. “We started prototyping stuff with landing pages in very basic ways and we spoke to some of our most important, valuable clients. It’s interesting what happened. First they looked at it and said ‘no way’. We went back after a week and prototyped more technologies, games and experiences. Their reaction: ‘That’s a bit better’. And we then went back a week later and made some more changes until people were asking to see the latest iteration. By the end they’d become huge advocates. The only time it failed was when we didn’t analyse data, pivot and test quickly with clients.”

Peters thinks you can put anything in front of your most valuable client as long as you’re prepared to listen. From the testing, Peters learned that the demand wasn’t for scale but an on-demand product: “they want education any time, any place on any device.”

Peters has the right blend of daring and humility: “We can all be very smart, but we don’t know as much as the market knows.” He quotes Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author Eric Ries, describing pivoting as a change in strategy without a change in vision: “It’s not about losing focus. We can still be the world’s best technology educator. We just need to be a bit more nimble about how we get there.”

This article originally appeared in City A.M.