The edtech industry is booming.
Even before COVID-19 ushered in unprecedented investments in digital learning solutions, the industry was projected to be worth $350 billion by 2025. As classrooms, test providers and workplaces continue to undergo digital transformations, the sector writ large sits at an inflection point that may well see exponential growth.
Take Chicago-based Black Spectacles. Employing a small, scrappy team of just 15 people at the time of publication, the e-learning platform for architecture professionals ranked last year as one of America’s fastest-growing companies by Inc., having seen 739 percent revenue growth from 2015 to 2018. And that was before COVID-19.
To keep up with this growth, Black Spectacles plans to double its employees this year.
“Some companies focus on revenue first. And then there are companies who focus on a purpose first,” said Marc Teer, the company’s founder and CEO. “The ones that focus on a core purpose usually outperform — in many ways, not just financially. We’ve adopted that same approach. We’re a purpose-driven company that believes if we stay passionate about helping architects navigate their careers, everything else will fall in place.”
Built In Chicago recently caught up with Teer about how he’s navigating the scaling of a small company in a hot industry at an unprecedented time in a distributed world. Of all the challenges he and his team face, Teer said he’s most focused on maintaining that strong company culture as he expands the Black Spectacles team.
Still, Teer acknowledged that there have been and will continue to be challenges in this relatively new industry. So he plans to repeat the same recipe for success he used when founding the business in 2010: surrounding himself with strong leaders and making adjustments along the way as needed.
“Having a core purpose and core values in place in the beginning really helped us build a thriving business,” Teer said.
What do you attribute to Black Spectacles’ growth since 2015?
Quite simply, there was a giant opportunity. My background as an architect gave me a front-row seat to how professionals and even students in the field were not being served. Whenever new software tools became available to architects, there was a big gap in learning how to use them. And when it came to the Architecture Registration Exam (ARE), other test prep companies had not updated their materials or approach, which were all old-fashioned print materials like books and flashcards.
Black Spectacles was the first to develop a fully-online test prep approach, and that was the primary key to our explosive growth.
Having a core purpose and core values in place in the beginning really helped us build a thriving business.”
The rest of our success might seem basic: Early on, we hired really talented people so we had a good and reliable product, had great customer service and had key partnerships. All those things helped us serve our customers really well.
As part of that, we were also listening really closely. For example, when we started, we only had video lectures. We heard folks wanted practice exams and coaching and such. So we tried different things and listened again to what folks thought about them.
And none of those things were perfect out of the gate. We had to adjust as we went along, but having a core purpose and core values in place in the beginning really helped us build a thriving business. So that’s been our recipe for success.
What challenges has Black Spectacles come across during its growth over the years?
There are different challenges to work through at different stages of growth. One of the keys to our success is that I’ve found a network of mentors and peers that have helped me navigate each stage.
When I was just starting the business, I was a member of 1871, where I had serendipitous meetings with like-minded people who served as mentors. Later, I learned from my peers in the Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses program, then EO (Entrepreneurs Organization) and, more recently, The Junto Institute.
As I’ve evolved in my career as CEO of this company, surrounding myself with people who’ve done it before has really helped me work through challenges, even before they happen.
I had never built a marketing department or a sales department or an engineering team before, so when figuring out how to do that, I relied on my network of mentors and peers to help me. That’s been the hardest challenge: figuring out what the organization is supposed to look like at each stage and figuring out the right way to build a team without having done it before.
Black Spectacles' Core Values
- Take calculated risks.
- Encourage a confident approach.
- World-class or not at all.
- Make it safe to share ideas.
What kind of company culture are you building as you lead a team that aims to nearly double in size in the near future?
Some companies focus on revenue first. And then there are companies that focus on a core purpose first. The ones that focus on purpose usually outperform — in many ways, not just financially. We’ve adopted that same approach. We’re a purpose-driven company that believes if we stay passionate about helping architects navigate their careers, everything else will fall in place.
The answer to how to grow company culture and how to prepare for growth is about first creating clarity around purpose, where you’re going. Our values are how we’re going to get there. These values create trust within the team, and once you have trust, ideas can really flow.
How are you building that trust and company culture virtually?
Number one, we discuss our values at every opportunity. And we hold ourselves accountable to each other in our actual day-to-day work based on those values and our individual and team goals in our weekly meetings. We have meeting rhythms that keep everybody in sync.
One of the keys to establishing our healthy company culture has been a structured one-on-one every two weeks with your manager. It’s been excellent for discovering problems and working through them so they’re nipped in the bud. Our trust stems from frequent communication.
What specific processes did you have to implement or change as you scaled?
Every quarter we actually have a “process day,” where we ask everyone to spend a few hours documenting one of the key processes for what they do so that we can refine it. For example, our engineers have a certain process for how they deploy code that they might want to tinker with. Because of our quarterly process day, every department has been consistently iterating on the way they do things. What I love about our approach to process is not capturing the way you do something in stone. Instead, we think about process as something to be designed and iterated upon.
As virtual learning becomes more common, what trends or challenges do you anticipate coming ahead and how will you address them?
The challenge is how to make really quality, engaging learning experiences in a virtual environment. We’re working through that with a creative product and content team, working with architects who have a lot of ingenuity in educating and leading lectures online so everyone gets the best learning experience.
What characteristics are Black Spectacles seeking in candidates as it expands to sustain its growth?
We’re looking to grow our product team, our engineering team, our marketing team and our sales team, and certainly around leadership. I think we’re looking for product leadership in the broadest sense, whether that’s design or engineering.
We seek folks who align with our values and believe in starting with the purpose first. Secondly, someone who can be a good coach and manager and help people achieve their goals. One thought I always have in mind is that the number one reason people quit their jobs is that they hate their manager. So our goal is to have really world-class managers with excellent soft skills. In addition to industry knowledge and domain expertise, that will help us be really successful.