Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! I’m Ryan Austin, an entrepreneur who has spent over 10 years driving improvements in learning and development. In my current role as CEO at Cognota, I am focused on developing innovative learning technology that enables corporate learning and development (L&D) teams to increase their productivity by powering learning operations across enterprises.
Cognota’s patent pending technology is the recipient of more than five Brandon Hall awards, including recognition for Best Advance in Emerging Learning Technology and Best Advance in Learning Management Measurement/Business Impact Tools. Prior to Cognota, I served as Senior Vice President for World Trade Group, an organization that offers live events and training courses.
In addition to my role as CEO at Cognota, I am an active Angel investor while also mentoring selected entrepreneurs through my participation at Elevate, a non-profit organization focused on social innovation. I have also co-founded GoFish Cam, a hardware technology company for the fishing industry which was sold to a private equity firm in 2019.
Schoolwise, I studied Sociology at York University and Business/Corporate Communications at Western University. I have also participated in numerous entrepreneurial accelerator programs including Surge Ventures, StartEd EdTech Accelerator, Telluride Venture Accelerator, Capital Factory, and The Next Founders Program.
Lastly, I am the host of the LearnOps Leadership Series and a regular contributor to various presentations and publications for organizations including the Association for Talent Development and The Future of Talent/L&D.
My company, Cognota is the first operating system built specifically for corporate L&D teams. Rather than having L&D rely on disparate tools and IT systems, Cognota streamlines learning and development workflows from training requests through to learning measurement, all in one platform.
This provides data and much-needed insights to L&D teams to run their learning operations much more efficiently and effectively. This was a very difficult business to launch, and it took more than 2x the time I initially thought, however, I wouldn't change anything looking back.
Revenues are growing steadily, customers love the software and want more, and every day the team wakes up mission-driven to drive more growth and value for the industry.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Setting off on a new path after launching several startups, I discovered my true passion upon joining the UK's World Trade Group. During this period, the world of corporate learning and development sparked my interest. This led me to create WTG Training, which I expanded across the Americas until a private equity firm acquired the company.
After my time at WTG, I started ExpertKnowledge with the goal of transforming institutional knowledge into learning. Through collaboration with companies and L&D experts, I discovered issues in the instructional design process. This discovery set the groundwork for Cognota, originally named Synapse and later rebranded in 2022.
My drive to build and launch Cognota stemmed from a sobering realization: L&D teams globally oversee a staggering $320 billion of spending without a dedicated operating system, unlike other business functions. It was through this realization that I uncovered a Vision for Cognota: to power learning operations across the enterprise.
With Cognota, I aim to level the playing field for L&D teams by building a purpose-built system, enabling L&D to effectively measure learning outcomes and communicate business value. This can help these L&D teams fulfill their mission to upskill, reskill, and help other people in their company learn and grow.
Take us through the process of building the first version of your product.
Generally, I would encourage start-ups to take their time in the process of launching a business.
When I mentor, I recommend (1) honing in on a problem in an industry you’re passionate about; (2) speaking to the stakeholders of that industry who would ideally become your ideal customer profile; (3) start designing a prototype on Figma or otherwise; (4) go back to those stakeholders for feedback and iterate until you establish what an MVP would look like; (5) take an iterative approach to product development and get feedback from those same stakeholders during each sprint until launch.
At the same time, establishing a go-to-market strategy by asking the right questions to the stakeholders such as what events they attend, what associations are they a part of, who inspires them and why, and how they like to buy.
I’d interview 6-12 of them and look for trends in their responses to make educated assumptions on how we go to market. Trends might be about hearing the same problem statements being repeated several times by different people.
That’s a signal that you should focus more time and effort and dig deeper, asking them for more information. People call me RyanWhyyy (it’s my Instagram handle), mainly because I always ask “why” to dig deeper into responses. That’s where you can find the true hidden value.
Any founder who I have seen with great outcomes has been focused on the mission and has invested 6-10 years minimum in building.
Describe the process of launching the business.
That all said, this wasn’t the path for Cognota. Initially, we thought we were building a tool to help L&D professionals capture knowledge from subject matter experts and transform it into learning programs.
We got there, but the ACV and contract values were too small to build a meaningful business and required us to pivot. When other vendors and technology providers focused on the content creation and delivery side of the learning industry (e.g. authoring tools and learning management systems), Cognota saw an opportunity to move upstream into operations where there was no market leader.
Little did we know that we were creating an entirely new category, which we defined as LearnOps, which now includes a strong IP portfolio, channel partnerships with CLOs, Thought Leaders, Technology Vendors, and a community on LearnOps.com.
That said, it didn’t start off as an end-to-end LearnOps Platform. Initially, we started with a Content Design feature, which we took to market in 2018. Thereafter, we spent two years listening to the market and iterating on product feedback, eventually getting to an end-to-end solution.
However, the solution that we got was mostly built for mid-market companies, and we started to better realize that our ideal customer profile was enterprise. That’s when we made the hard decision to rebuild the platform using all the knowledge and understanding we now had from previous years.
I don’t recommend this if it is avoidable, but for Cognota it was critical to scale. We released this v2.0 product in 2022 and saw significant growth from there.
Although this path took us much longer, we have a strong foundation to build a strong and meaningful business which we are excited about.
The more partners, employees, and investors that you have, the more you’re pulled from focusing on your core business which is where the value creation is.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Traditionally we relied on inbound and outbound marketing. But with shifts in the market, we have diversified our strategy to be multi-channel.
The pipeline is now generated by three moats: (1) an AMB direct-to-prospect strategy that combines events and content; (2) a partner channel/referral program; and (3) community-led initiatives around education and thought leadership.
All channels lead people to a free trial which our sales team supports with a consultative methodology.
One of our biggest initiatives right now is our Virtual LearnOps Summit, which is free to attend for L&D industry professionals.
Another initiative that we’re going to be investing in soon is our LearnOps Academy, an accelerator program for L&D teams to navigate change and departmental transformation. It’s a cool program because L&D professionals will get access to world-class learning content, but also get matched with a LearnOps Coach (some of whom are former Chief Learning Officers), to increase the probability of success throughout your journey.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The company is almost cash flow break even, with over a few hundred enterprise customers. Our goal is to be a $10M ARR business as soon as possible and continue to grow steadily from there.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
To be patient. Rarely do you see startups become huge overnight success stories. Any founder who I have seen with great outcomes has been focused on the mission and has invested 6-10 years minimum in building.
Earlier in my career I didn’t have this mentality. I was in a rush and made mistakes that in hindsight cost me more time. If I had been more patient up front, I would have made an even greater impact in business at this stage.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Lots. We try to automate wherever we can.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Tell to Win is my favorite book by Peter Gruber.
I recently read Play Bigger on category creation. There were interesting nuggets of information.
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight is a great story about perseverance.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Be patient, be thoughtful, and be smart. Rushing will only create debt that will cost you downstream. In life you always have to pay debt, so try to avoid it by design by being calculated upfront when designing your business model.
Also, try to keep things simple. The more partners, employees, and investors that you have, the more you’re pulled from focusing on your core business which is where the value creation is.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Yes, VP of Finance & Ops, Sr. Developers, and a LearnOps Education and Implementation person (recently hired).
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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