Ryan Austin had VP-level experience in training when he decided to start a consulting business to help enterprise-level companies with their corporate learning and development initiatives.
Ryan and his team noticed so many inefficiencies across the L&D workflows. “It got us thinking: Why is there no purpose-built operating system for corporate learning and development teams, when their jobs are so strategic to the business, and they’re managing massive budgets, but they can’t track things like ROI?”
Ryan called it a light bulb moment out of which the idea for Cognota was born. Founded in 2019, Cognota is the first and only LearnOps platform for corporate learning and development teams. There are now over 150 enterprise companies using the platform.
I spoke to Ryan about how they created a new enterprise ops category: LearnOps. He also shares insights about how Cognota is maintaining ownership over the category they created while encouraging dialogue and collaboration in the market.
Stream the full interview below or find it wherever you listen to podcasts.
Full Interview: Audio-Only
Full Interview: Video
Ryan Austin 00:02
One of the values at Cognota that we call embracing uncertainty that we try and teach people, because there’s so many times in this business where, especially in the early days when you’re like, oh, wow, we’re going to die? How are we going to do this? How are we going to do that? Like, you’re literally on the floor like crippled with crying just like two years of your hard work, or whatever, you know, you’re like, ah, and then you get a phone call at that exact moment.
EJ Brown 00:31
That was Ryan Austin, the founder and CEO of Cognota, the first and only LearnOps platform for corporate learning and development teams. And I’m EJ Brown, cohost of the Growth Stage Podcast and Senior Content Strategist at FastSpring. On this podcast, we share stories from global SaaS leaders like Ryan, that you can use to inspire new growth strategies in your own business. Ryan, thank you for joining me, why don’t you introduce yourself?
Ryan Austin 01:00
Sure. Thanks for having me on today’s episode, I’m Ryan Austin, the CEO and founder of a company called Cognota. We’re enterprise software for a new category called LearnOps. So essentially building the first operating system for corporate learning and development teams in bringing thought leadership community best practices around the LearnOps category.
EJ Brown 01:29
Yeah, tell us a bit about the the origin story behind the company.
Ryan Austin 01:34
Sure, no, starting businesses are really tough as everybody knows. And that was particularly even more true for Cognota. It really took a few pivots, and even name changes to get just the go to market efforts and product market fit right. Before seeing good success in the company. Cognota didn’t necessarily start as a software business. Historically, the way it was founded was that I was Senior Vice President of Training at a company called World Trade Group. And prior to that, I was an entrepreneur, and always wanted to go back to entrepreneurship but had a good thing going where I built a new revenue stream in this company, WTG, around corporate training, and that’s how I really fell into that industry and market. They were acquired by private equity. And when that announcement happened, I decided to go back and become an entrepreneur still didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but knew how to generate revenue in corporate learning. And I just started a consulting business, it was a service business. But in working with these enterprises in their corporate l&d teams, and seeing the inefficiencies in the workflows, and and then coming from a sales background, seeing existing operating systems for rev ops, or even DevOps for software development, or marketing, ops, so on and so on. That’s really when it got us thinking about that. Why is there no purpose built operating system for corporate learning and development teams, when their jobs are so strategic to the business, and they’re managing massive budgets, especially at the enterprise, but they can’t track things like ROI? And that’s when the light bulb kind of went off. You know, in hindsight, it took a lot longer to get to where we are today, to actually building out a new category. It’s really, really hard to do that, but wouldn’t change it at the same time.
EJ Brown 03:43
So before we get to the category creation, because of your consulting business, you had customers lined up before you had a working product, right?
Ryan Austin 03:52
Yeah, we actually, there was a fortune 10 customer who read an article online about, you know, the idea of the software that we were starting to focus on, whoever wrote the article. They wrote it in a way like the software existed, and it didn’t yet we didn’t even have one code of software yet. But big company reached out and said, Hey, we read about what you’re building. This is really important to us. We’d like to see your software. And I replied back and said, well, we don’t really have software yet. We’re starting to conceptualize what’s going to go into it. Were interviewing larger customers, figuring things out, and they were in Houston. So they asked me to come to Houston and introduce it to their team show, show the team the plans, and we did that and we left that meeting with a verbal commitment, where they’ll help us co developed the software and become our first software customer. And that kind of gave us a little bit of a head start to then bring together a couple of angels and like early stage investors to hire our first couple engineers and really pivot from being a service company to starting the path to becoming a software company.
EJ Brown 05:13
So you were in Toronto at the time, right? When all this happened, and then you, you move temporarily to Houston to oversee development.
Ryan Austin 05:24
Yeah, well, I was in Toronto, and I moved to New York to go through this kind of incubator program to start thinking through software. And because of that program, we got in this newspaper, somebody wrote about what we’re doing. And that company saw that contacted us, asked us to come to Houston, when we ended up signing a deal. They’re like, we’ll give you badges, you can come into our office, Make this your office get access to people interview us. And so then I moved from New York to Houston, eventually, Houston to Austin, thinking Austin would be the right place to build the company. But all all the data was coming back for corporate, like a lot of people think of us as an ed-tech company, we’re not. Corporate learning is really enterprise SaaS. And we thought we were an ed-tech company at the very beginning. And if we were Austin would be a great place there. You know, there’s a lot of higher ed, as technology solution companies down there, a lot of investors a lot of customers, before corporate l&d at the time, just didn’t make sense. The data was saying go back to New York, or Toronto, or Florida or the West Coast. And, you know, my, my partner really wanted to move back home too. And we just took it as an opportunity to move back. By that time, we had some software, we had some customers using the software. And we decided to do a seed financing, found a lead investor in Toronto, that kind of solidified things for us. And we converted the company from a US Corp to Canadian Corp, doing something called a continuance just really started building the company from there. naturally over time, we became more remote just hiring people from all over, which was really good, because of the whole COVID scenario. We were kind of prepared. But yeah, that’s, that’s a little bit of our history.
EJ Brown 07:24
That’s awesome. So I love just how it’s not luck. I mean, it’s you doing the work, but that the right people read the right things. And that magic happens because of it. I think that that’s sort of what all founders are hoping for is that, you know, they attract the right people that really get the project.
Ryan Austin 07:45
That’s one of my sayings making the magic happen. Yeah, crazy, because in entrepreneurship. There’s literally like magic, there’s unexplainable, that has created at one of the values at Cognota that we call embracing uncertainty that we try and teach people, because there’s so many times in this business where, especially in the early days, when you’re like, oh, wow, we’re going to die? How are we going to do this? How are we going to do that? And like you’re literally on the floor, like crippled, like crying, because like, two years of your hard work, or whatever, you know, you’re like, ah, and then you get a phone call at that exact moment. And it’s like, Hey, Ryan, just want to let you know, my wife and I are in we’re going to become an angel investor. And we just wired are you 100 grand, I’ll follow up with the sign docs after don’t worry about it. So it’s crazy how these things happen. And it teaches you that you really need to embrace uncertainty, because you just don’t know what’s around the corner. And you can only control what you can control when you as a human trying to control things that are literally out of your control, you’ll get stressed, you’ll get anxiety, cry unnecessarily, all of that stuff. It’s all bad stuff. But if you can get comfortable with that uncertainty, and just accept that, look, I can’t control the outcome, I can only work my hardest to increase probability of success. Then to answer your question, it’s 90% Work 10% luck, that makes the magic happen. And you just have to believe that things will work out because there’s no data that will support otherwise, and it’s either gonna work out or it’s not. Usually if you have an idea or you’re working on something, and it’s stupid, like you got to do what Kevin O’Leary says on Shark Tank, like take it out back and shoot it right? Because time is too valuable. And you have to be your number one critic in those scenarios because as entrepreneurs you have infinity belief that your work, your determination will push forward most of the time. And that could be really dangerous too. And in those scenarios, luck doesn’t happen. And it shouldn’t happen. Right? And you should embrace and accept that maybe it’s time to just work on something new.
EJ Brown 10:21
So speaking of the work, give us a sense of timeline, how long has the company been around? Or when did you start working on it? And where are you now? Like, how many employees do you have? customers?
Ryan Austin 10:33
Yeah, I mean, we really didn’t have a full end to end software business until 2019. So I kind of look at that as the start date for like just being 100%. SaaS, with a product to market and what the product wasn’t perfect by any means. We’re still building today. When I say product to market, it was the first feature launched. And today we have an intent platform. So lots of features, we launched with one feature only, and worked our way over the years to get to end to end LearnOps platform. So I would really say as a software company, 2019 was when we were born. Today, we have close to 40 employees, over 150 customers, you know, and starting to grow pretty quickly, quarter over quarter.
EJ Brown 11:27
And those 150 customers, they’re predominantly enterprise level.
Ryan Austin 11:31
Yeah, we were enterprise software, mid market to enterprise. You know, that’s our, our sweet spot.
EJ Brown 11:40
Okay, so let’s talk about LearnOps. You invented the term, correct?
Ryan Austin 11:47
Yeah, I mean, we shouldn’t have, but it just shows you the maturity level of the industry and the category at the time, just looking at business functions that existed inside of these enterprises, revenue development, marketing, finance, HR, you know, again, being an entrepreneur, and always thinking about how do you be lean, you know, how do you be scrappy? How do you be effective, you tend to create these operating models that are really efficient, because you have to do so much with like, very minimal resources. And usually, when you see these DevOps or RevOps categories are built on the foundation of like, how do you be agile, and it starts with frameworks and methodology to best practices. And then eventually, there’s these big technology companies that are born out of out of these transformations inside of these other categories. And for us, we started to notice that l&d learning and development was going through a transformation from being like this more waterfall cost center business function to be looked at, more strategically by the business as a performance function. We started seeing reporting structures change, we started hearing these learning functions talk more about being agile, and it just reminded me of the whole 20 years ago, the the IT transformation where software development teams reported to IT was very waterfall, it wasn’t agile, and there was these transformations. And so our bet was that l&d is going through this transformation right now. And it took us a while to call it like we have extreme challenges in this business. on just how to bucket the messaging from our product marketing perspective. And actually, in collaboration with one of our VCs, we invented the term LearnOps, which you would think should be already invented, etc. And it wasn’t. And so now we’re leading that category creation.
EJ Brown 14:04
What did the research look like into organizations to figure out like, what was working? What wasn’t? What was gaps in their operations? Yeah.
Ryan Austin 14:14
It’s really painful. Like, when you’re first there’s no analyst reports. There’s no data. There’s not even chat GPT at the time, right? Like you’re literally spending like the 10,000 hour rule is thrown out the window. And it’s so painful, like, like, your mind is spinning in cycles. You’re banging your head against walls. Just try. It’s like a scattered puzzle. And you’re hearing feedback from the market, which is really positive and you’re getting signals. That’s what keeps you going and preventing you from taking it out back and shooting it. It’s because the market feedback is really strong. and they don’t even know how to describe the problem properly. And you’re building this puzzle, finding the puzzle pieces, looking for sources, and it takes years to kind of like, get to a place and determination, like you can’t give up. But again, it’s stupid, you know, value time. In this case, the market feedback was really strong. We knew there was something there, we were still figuring out how to build the pieces, how to call this, and over time, very stressful time, we kind of cracked the code.
EJ Brown 15:34
So you cracked the code. I mean, you were both invented, or you were both creating a platform. But you’re also I’m assuming, like, involved in the processes of running a learning operations for these companies, right? Or did they? Were they already in place?
Ryan Austin 15:53
Yeah, we don’t do any service whatsoever. Although this category, still maturing, even the biggest companies in the world, even with software still are figuring out their operations, strategy, their framework, things like that. And it’s never good for one company or one group of people to say we know the best in the world. That’s why when I see service arms, at other software companies, like I personally don’t fully buy it, like sure you have a lot of good insights and information and working deeply with customers on this problem set. You’re not the expert on everything you can’t be. So for us, what we did was we took a playbook from my brother, he owns a company. He’s a co founder in a company called Millions.co it’s a sports tech company. They recruit sports athletes, and offer a bunch of things for the sports athletes pretty cool. Check it out. There’s the plug, Brandon, you owe me one but this thought of recruiting athletes and creating a marketplace. When we were chatting over a couple of drinks one night I’m like, that’s how we can solve the service problem at Cognota. So what we did is we partnered with all of these Chief Learning officers from across the world, like literally the rock stars of the industry. And we built this marketplace called our chief learning officer coach program, where customers can buy credits, it’s part of the SaaS offering. And one credit is equivalent to a one hour virtual consulting call. We’ve automated it pretty much with a real rock star, a real person who has the scar tissue of spending 30 years of their career figuring out certain problems. So the marketplace allows you to filter the in search these problem statements, and so customers can get matched with the right coaches. And that way, Cognota is not pretending to be the expert at everything. Although, you know, we are the leader, we have a lot of expertise. We’re a trusted partner. But we also have fiduciary and moral responsibility, to be honest, when we don’t know something, but to still be a good partner by bringing forward the right people so that it becomes part of our customers playbook. And that’s what we’re focused on.
EJ Brown 18:24
That’s amazing. So that marketplace, it’s only available to Cognota customers.
Ryan Austin 18:29
Well, it started out that way. But last year, we started building out channel partnerships, because we don’t want to go at building the category alone. In we don’t want this to be a buzzword. So we have certain IP to protect, LearnOps from becoming just a buzzword in the industry. l&d is really bad at creating buzzwords, because there’s so many red oceans, in Downstream markets to learning operations. Where like a learning management system might just decide out of nowhere, oh, cool term, we’re gonna use that. And it’s like, no, that’s not LearnOps, it’s not the framework. Don’t try and get your next deal. So we’ll block them through IP and doing that. On the flip side, they can become a trusted partner with Cognota to build the LearnOps category together in a trusted way. So we actually licensed certain IP at no cost, but they have to come through a trusted partner program so that we’re doing it responsibly for the industry together. Right. And so that’s our focus on on how we do this in the right way for the industry.
EJ Brown 19:39
Interesting. So what other marketing strategies have worked well for you?
Ryan Austin 19:46
Oh, there’s a lot and you always experiment with marketing. You know, a lot of people say marketing’s longwinded before you get an ROI. I personally believe that marketing can be run in scrums like just get enough data to make decisions pivot is just like a startup, right. And any business function can operate like that. You could also say that startups need a long view in order to know about the investments, right. But that’s not how it works in the real world. We do everything you know, we used to do, we started naturally with a lot of outbound. Now we’ve gotten to the place where I would say more than half of pipeline creation is inbound. This year, we’re building out the first community for LearnOps, we own the domain, learnops.com, it will be live very soon over the next few months. Also launching a freemium product, just so we can help more people that might not be ready to buy, but we still want to help them, we still want to partner with them. Being that leader like we know, we can help them. And that’s part of our mission. And vision is to enable these teams but also to power learning operations across the enterprise. Just because you might not have budget yet. We shouldn’t delay helping you. And that’s what we’re really focused on, is just really helping the industry. And building a great business happens as a residual effect in doing that, if your intentions are true. And for us they are. And so we just want to help people. And if we do that, we know it’ll spread more virally. It will scale more at the end of the day, and you will make the whole go to market motion, much more efficient, too. So it really is a win win. When you look at it that way.
EJ Brown 21:38
So speaking of going to market, we’re all feeling the economic downturn coming into 2023. And what kinds of conversations have you been having with customers or prospects about like changes in their their budgets? And how has that changed your your strategy going forward?
Ryan Austin 21:58
It’s tough, but you have to be disciplined as a founder right now, specifically, it’s tough to say, Is this a real downturn? Or is it just the world reinventing like business models? Right? There’s some healthy debate around that topic, for sure. I think if you’re a SaaS company, and you’re not selling into a specific industry, it’s just about segmenting, which industries to focus on. Like right now high tech is hurting, don’t sell to high tech, it’s pretty simple, like focus your efforts on markets, like financial markets, or banks, or insurance companies, or areas that you know, are doing well in this market, they have cash they can buy. And so you need to be agile and pivot where you need to quickly during this economy, and then the most important thing. There’s a great revenue leader, somebody I used to work with a friend of mine named Carl Norton. And I remember he posted this Slack post, like what’s, what’s the community’s feedback on? Like, what size of company to work with, like big or small during this time, because of the layoffs that are happening. And everybody who you know, is providing feedback, etc. And I wrote, I wrote something which is like, I wouldn’t look at the size of the company as security, I would look at what product are they selling right now? Is it being seen as a vitamin or as a painkiller? and I would stay the hell away from any vitamins during this time. Because businesses are still moving forward, they just need to do more with less, which means they need to be the best investors of all time right now to be efficient. And so they’re still investing, they’re just going to be critical around their investments. And for something that’s a painkiller that aligns to help them to do more with less, they’re going to find the money to do that. And that’s what we’re focused on.
EJ Brown 24:07
So when you talk about vitamins versus painkillers, explain a little more about what a painkiller is.
Ryan Austin 24:13
It’s just about solving a problem. And being honest with yourself, like you can our target market live without us or solve the problem without us? Yes or no? Right? And if the answer is yes, they can live without us. How do you change your go to market motions and positioning? So that becomes a no, because then you can challenge prospects and consult take a consultative approach during the sales cycle to show them what they’re leaving off the table by saying no. For example, you’ll die without eating food. So or drinking water. If you’re really thirsty, and somebody told you that they’ll sell you a glass of water for 100 bucks, and there was no water around like you would pay it, right? So how do you build those scenarios in your sales cycles, where you’re helping people, but you’re seen as a must have. And I think part of that if you don’t have ROI calculators, or white papers around return of investment right now. Your go to market team really needs to wake up and rethink their strategies.
EJ Brown 25:35
Has that changed what deliverables you’re you’re pushing out right now? Are you focused more on that value for your sales cycle?
Ryan Austin 25:45
No, I mean, we were sticking to our plan, because our plan was built on kind of this thought process in general, when we looked at go to market, we always look at positioning around problem solution, ROI pains, social proof, things like that, you know, so that we’re not really doing anything truly unique there. It’s just about being disciplined, and sticking to it. We’re very, very focused around unit economics and making decisions around what makes the business work by doing this, does it decrease our sales cycle? By doing this? Does it increase our win rate? What are our top three objections? If we do this, can we eliminate them? Right? So we always prioritize like that. And being a product company, we try and be product first. And so we listen to customers like that is your lifeline as a SaaS company, b2b SaaS company. Listen to customers, keep customers happy. And the rest will kind of work itself out over time.
EJ Brown 26:59
So being a creator of a new category, you’re solving problems that it seems like people knew that they had, but they didn’t know how to define.
Ryan Austin 27:11
Yeah, that that’s a good way of describing it.
EJ Brown 27:15
So was a lot of the initial strategy. Just it reminds me a lot of this intro to sociology class that I took where, you know, sociology is all about studying the behavior of groups of people or, or societies in order to understand things that should have been common knowledge, but you just never thought about it before. You know? And if it feels very much like doing that, like studying how employee development programs or learning programs within an enterprise level companies works, and then seeing what are the pains that a good like, platform could solve? Is that true?
Ryan Austin 28:01
Yeah, sort of, but you’re doing it more at the market level? Right?
EJ Brown 28:06
Ryan Austin 28:07
What makes it challenging is that it’s not so focused, like on an individual, it’s a market and a global market. And you literally have to be the number one expert to win. If you’re doing category creation, like there is not one learning technology on this planet that you can ask me about. And I won’t know who they are, what they do, who they sell to, like not one, at least in corporate, you know, higher ed all that’s different, because it’s not where we sell into specifically. So you just need to know what’s going on constantly. And it’s tiring, but also rewarding, because that’s what allows you to plan and execute. Like, you’ll make mistakes. But my job is to minimize mistakes for the company. They’re too expensive, because everything is like it costs two to three times in time and costs if you’re wrong during category creation.
EJ Brown 29:07
So you mentioned global are your customers predominantly in North America, or are they spread out?
Ryan Austin 29:15
Well, North America’s the biggest market for us we have customers in different areas, but we’re focused, you know, just being the size we are today on this market, but spreading seeds, I guess you could call it in other areas. Right now we’re using channel partners as a strategy to enter new markets. Eventually, we’ll also bring direct channels to those markets. Yeah.
EJ Brown 29:42
Gotcha. Yeah, I was gonna ask about category creation across cultures. I’m assuming it’s something you’re thinking about right now that you’re starting to plant those seeds.
Ryan Austin 29:52
Yeah, for sure. Like, as an example, India’s a humongous market for us. And I’m under The belief that like certain markets, you can’t try and come into when they’re just so different, can’t try and come in with the expertise that you have, from, you know, North America think that you can replicate it in India, right? You can’t. So that that’s when, in my opinion, it makes more sense for any business. Rather than trying to take time learning the market, learning what works, what doesn’t work, you just find a partner, like literally create a joint not just a partner, a joint venture, right? Like create a corporation with somebody who’s from there, who knows the whole game and the whole market there, and you do a 50/50 partnership, we do what we do best power the technology, and they do what they do best and execute into that market. So that will most likely be our strategy. As we enter and become really a global software company over time. We don’t want to do everything alone, we could, it will just take longer, and I’d rather be more effective and have speed and get to a place where we’re helping more people faster.
EJ Brown 31:18
I love it. So is there anything we missed any other advice you would give to founders who are working in underdeveloped categories or markets?
Ryan Austin 31:30
It’s tough. I mean, I would just say storytelling in general, any business, you just need to become a good storyteller. Sometimes I’ll even mentor entrepreneurs or participate in these accelerators and try and give back because a lot of people help me, and it’s just the right thing to do. And then I see these decks that come my way. And it’s like, very painful, because it brings me back to a place and then like, I remember that, and it’s a long road ahead. One of our board members. He’s really smart. And he always says like, if it doesn’t fit on a slide in 30 point font, like one sentence, like, get rid of it. And it’s true. It’s like, you really have to think through like how do you tell stories concise, right, because with category creation, you have a lot of audiences, you have to convince investors, you have to convince the market or the operators which are your buyers, you have to talk to analysts get them to believe in it. So you have a lot of different audiences. And you’re gonna have to tell the same story in different ways. And I don’t know there’s a good book called tell to win. Probably one of my favorites around storytelling to win. I think it’s just a good skill to have and one that’s under served or overlooked by a lot of people. It’s pretty powerful skill.
EJ Brown 33:04
Great. Thank you so much for sharing your story and how the magic happened. I appreciate it.
Ryan Austin 33:10
Yeah, appreciate your time too. Thanks for having me.
EJ Brown 33:15
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