Steven Schragis is founder and director of One Day University, an adult education program that brings the best and most popular professors from all over the country to develop fun and engaging talks that inform and inspire adult “students-for-a-day.” At One Day U, learning isn’t driven by career advancement goals or earning a degree; it’s for people who simply want to engage in the pure joy of lifelong learning.
Steven has positioned One Day University to effectively meet the needs of a large niche market of learners while maintaining a clear and unique value proposition. This makes Steven the perfect professor for you, our learning business MBA student-for-a-day.
In this fifth episode in our seven-part series on the learning business MBA, Jeff talks with Steven about creating One Day U, how it has evolved as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and the importance of keeping fun in mind when developing at least certain types of learning offerings. They also discuss how to successfully leverage partnerships, tips for hiring, and what it takes to succeed as a learning business.
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[00:15] – Introduction of Steven.
One Day University
[01:17] – Can you tell us a little bit about what One Day University is, what it does, and your role there?
One Day University was founded in 2006, and, until the pandemic hit, it was a live-event company. They ran events around the country where they would invite “star professors”—those that students love learning from—and a mostly 50-and-older audience would come and enjoy it.
Since the COVID pandemic, One Day U no longer runs live events (or very few of them). The organization has pivoted to online delivery and a membership model, and people around the country have joined. Five days a week, members get a new 50-minute lecture from a professor on a different subject.
[02:41] – How did you decide to get into of this business in the first place?
Steven was the national director for a company called The Learning Annex, a continuing education group, and he wanted to try something on his own. After bringing his daughter to college and hearing different professors give a brief talk about what they teach, he realized how much he and other parents enjoyed the lectures.
[03:36] – What did you find challenging, particularly from a business standpoint about building a learning business?
Running live events is somewhat challenging because people have to travel to the event, and One Day U didn’t know what its pricing should be or how to present the events. They ended up partnering with media companies around the country, mostly newspapers, that did the marketing for them, and the company took off from there.
[04:48] – Did you develop specific criteria or approaches to identify great professors, those who are really good at delivering and facilitating learning experiences?
Finding great professors is not very hard. It’s not secret information. The great professors are the ones students are all talking about, and every school has about two or three. In the beginning, One Day U went to campuses and asked around. There are also Web sites where people talk about professors, and the colleges run articles about their most popular professors. Contacting the professors was also easy because their e-mail addresses are usually listed on the university Web sites.
[06:03] – Did you find that most of the faculty you approach are receptive? How has that changed over time?
As One Day U became better known, securing professors became even easier. Everybody likes being identified as one of the most popular professors at their school. These people are rock stars on their campus, but they aren’t necessarily known off their campus. Steven can rattle off names, but most people will not have heard of them.
They’re not famous. They probably didn’t write a number-one bestseller, but, on their campus, everybody knows they’re a great teacher. It turns out some are old, and some are young, and some are men, or some are women. There’s no one way to be a great teacher, but, the ones that are, they know it, and the students know it, and we find out pretty quickly.Steven Schragis
Pivoting with the Pandemic
[07:13] – One Day U traditionally held live, face-to-face events, but, like most learning businesses, once the pandemic hit, the company had to pivot to survive. What sort of considerations went into making that transition?
In March 2020, One Day U wasn’t thinking of doing anything, but then the government announced its Paycheck Protection Program loans. Steven couldn’t say no to that deal, so One Day U applied and got a loan in a few days. Then employees started asking what they could do. They came up with the idea of soliciting people who had been to a One Day University event live (and they had held live events all over the country) and asking if they’d like to join a membership program. In the first week, thousands said yes. What One Day U offered evolved a bit over the next two to three months.
As far as technology, within a week, they were able to record material and send it out to members. Turnkey software exists, and people at One Day U figured out how to use it, and they built it from there.
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A Membership Model
[10:50] – How did you decide on a membership model, as opposed to selling courses one by one?
Having to sell over and over is a lot harder than getting members and promising them something. One Day U tried to price it pretty low. Recently has the company has begun offering intensive, longer courses (which they call “premiums”) that cost money beyond the membership, and about 10 percent of their members buy those.
[11:43] – How does the premium model work, and how do you decide to add that into your offerings?
Lectures are 50 minutes with a 10-minute Q&A, done via text chat. Because people have a somewhat limited attention span, One Day U has used this one-hour, five-days-a-week concept. But sometimes one hour wasn’t enough time to go in depth or to answer all of questions in the chat. A few months ago, they started offering some longer sessions two to three times a month for people who are very interested in that particular subject.
The Future: Face-to-Face or Virtual?
[12:51] – Assuming COVID-related restrictions are behind us, do you think you will revert to the same level of face-to-face offerings? What does the virtual-versus-in-person mix look like in the future for you?
The organization is trying a few live events, but a lot of people still aren’t comfortable coming yet, so One Day U isn’t pushing in-person very hard. When it is safe, One Day U may try some large, carnival-like learning festivals with lots of professors in certain major cities. It’s an idea they’ve toyed with before but never had the time to think through, until now.
Guidance for Leveraging Partnerships
[14:08] – Partnerships are important for you. Can you talk a little bit about how that came about? And is there any guidance you would offer to others who want to leverage partnerships to grow their learning business?
You have to be unique. You have to be able to talk about your product—and I hate to call education or learning a product, but we’re a business. We’re a for-profit business. That’s why we’re doing this…. So you really need to learn to say how are you different, in fact better than a thousand other people. If you could do that, then doors will open.Steven Schragis
Steven finds that only when he’s successful at convincing people that there’s no alternative to One Day University—either work with them or don’t work with anybody—will the partnership fall into place.
[15:21] – How do you typically articulate your value proposition when talking with a potential partner? What do you say about One Day University to make them realize that they need to work with you?
There are a million people offering educational talks, and people’s time is valuable. People take One Day U classes for the same reasons they would go to a Broadway show or a museum, and that means they need to be entertained. One Day U tell their instructors up front that they have to be fun.
The company obsesses about titles, using online focus groups to try out different ones because the same course called by another title can triple the enrollment. Most actual schools don’t obsess about the title of courses, but this is what keeps One Day U learners interested and what distinguishes them from others.
One Day University gets compared to MasterClass a lot. Steven distinguishes his company by emphasizing that they don’t look for celebrities; they look for the best possible professor. Being well known doesn’t make that person a great teacher.
[18:22] – Have you had partnerships that haven’t panned out? What do you want to try to avoid in a partner?
There’s no benefit to One Day University except that it’s good for your brain. When One Day U has partnered with groups that had objectives different than the company’s, the partnership hasn’t been very successful. When the company partners with groups that cater to same audience as One Day U, it’s been more effective.
What It Takes to Succeed As a Learning Business
[19:39] – What kinds of skills, knowledge, and behavior do learning businesses need to be successful?
One Day U serves an audience of people who are choosing to learn, but they don’t have to. For Steven, that means One Day U can’t forget that those people need to enjoy themselves. It has to be fun, and it can’t go on too long. It has to sound interesting and then deliver on being interesting, while also seeming unique.
When all of us read the statistics of people who start these things and then drop out, and they’re enormously high, a key reason is it’s not fun. It’s not interesting, so, unless you have to do it, you’ll drop out. If it’s something you thought would be good for you, probably would be good for you, but this is like pulling teeth, you’re going to lose those people. So we really try to work to make it enjoyable.Steven Schragis
[22:24] – Are marketing, an attention to details, and production values part of the skills and knowledge that are important for learning businesses?
Steven says the phrase “A company is only as good as their technology” really is true. If the sound isn’t clear, you will lose people. Also, make sure to keep track of data, and use it to evaluate efforts. Doing business by the seat of your pants doesn’t work. He admits he personally may not understand all the details, but he hires people who do.
[23:33] – How have you built the team you need and cultivated and developed those people over time?
Other than his business partner, Steven says almost everyone One Day U has hired was right out of college. He looks for people who can learn fast, have the right attitude, and can communicate well. He asks interviewees to share about a movie they love and to try to convince him why he should see it. This helps him identify people who can communicate well with a sense of humor and who look like they’ll work well with others. They may know nothing on day one, but, by day 60, they’ll know a lot.
Advice for Learning Businesses
[27:28] – What other advice do you have for those who want to grow and take their learning business to the next level?
Most of the growth One Day U has had has come through partnerships. Often there’s a way to structure things a partnership so that both sides will be glad they went into the deal. One Day U has had working relationships with 59 different media companies, newspapers mostly. Why those 59 in particular? Those are the 59 that answered Steven’s e-mails.
So if someone reaches out to you, answer it…. Even if you’re not sure up front what the arrangement can be, after you talk to someone, usually it’s there…. The opportunities are there if you communicate…Steven Schragis
[29:30] – Wrap-up
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Other Episodes in This Series:
- Learning to Get Down to Business
- The Strategy and Marketing Episode
- Studying Innovation with Mary Byers
- Learning Diversification with Jim Obsitnik
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