A little ditty ‘bout Jack & Diane…two American kids growing up in the heart land.”
Actually, this story isn’t about “Jack and Diane.” It is about Derek and Jessica but they do live in the heartland—Osage, Iowa to be exact. Osage is a town of 3600 in northern Iowa near the Minnesota border. As one would expect, it is a community built on agri-business to support farming.
But as you’ll read about here, Derek and Jessica Balsley found there was more than one way to create a successful business in Osage.
Derek and Jessica are the founders of The Art of Education, a company dedicated to delivering “ridiculously relevant professional development” to art teachers around the world. They have grown this business from a simple blog site to a company of over 20 employees offering magazine content, “credited” online classes and a consistent array of conferences. Thousands of art teachers from around the world are their customers. And they do all of this from Osage.
How? I invite you to read on to learn more about their strategies.
Flip Your Script
Derek and Jessica made the move from a consumer mindset to a provider mindset. Jessica writes, “Several years ago, as an art teacher working towards my Master’s Degree, I began a search for a university with courses designed for art teachers, but I came up short.” That frustration moved her and she went from looking for a solution to providing a solution.
The lesson? You might find yourself with a customer mindset, looking for a service or product but not finding a good solution. Instead, flip it and change the mindset; imagine yourself as the one supplying the answer or solution. That is a big switch if you’ve always been the consumer, but it is one you definitely can make.
Don’t Be the Lone Genius
Jessica realized every idea is a partial right answer, but she didn’t “settle” or otherwise commit to the partial answer. She realized it almost always takes others to fully form a solid business idea. Derek, who had a degree in marketing and tons of business expertise, was an obvious partner able to build on her amazing content for art teachers. In addition, his tenacious ability to learn social media platforms completed her vision. Together, their complimentary creativity formed a blog site with a growing reader base of art teachers. They also involved others in their idea. They enlisted the creativity of known and credible colleagues to generate lots of “ridiculously relevant” content, they moved the blog to a magazine format and they began offering online courses for college credit by partnering with an accredited institution.
The lesson? If you depend on your own innovative insights too much or for too long, you will slow yourself down and likely never get traction in the marketplace. Therefore, make your business adventure bigger than your original idea, or otherwise bigger than just a lone genius.
Focus, Focus, Focus
Derek and Jessica knew there would always be shiny objects to distract them but they committed to staying focused! They successfully fought the usual temptation of any emerging business to explore other products for other customers. They continue to remain dedicated to the art teacher, and art teachers have rewarded them by being dedicated, raving and referring fans.When Derek and Jessica uses the phrase “ridiculously relevant” to describe The Art of Education’s mission, they mean it. The team tests their content’s relevancy constantly and pivot often making it better, more available and supportive. They have also built an organizational culture that insists that everyone reflect that same dedication. Their employees are recognized and rewarded for living the vision and concentrating on their customers.
The lesson? You get what you concentrate on. The sooner you and your team identify who your right customer is the sooner you know who to focus on. Don’t let up! Insist that everyone maintain focus on the “who” your company exists to serve!
Small Markets Are Big Opportunities
Derek and Jessica realized that art teachers were an underserved market. Derek explains that, as an art teacher, Jessica couldn’t find quality professional development because of the way colleges and universities had developed their offerings. Most colleges serve their immediate region and courses are determined by potential students. It doesn’t make business sense to a college to go after the niche, art teacher market. Furthermore, apart from major population centers, there aren’t many art teachers in any given region. The result is that most art teachers are underserved.
Derek and Jessica realized that, in the intersection between the underserved market and the varied financial ability of a potential customer, there was an opportunity! The Art of Education responded to this and offered/offers no cost, low cost, medium cost and high cost content offerings to the world of art teachers. This took time to develop, of course, and Derek and Jessica began with the “no cost” content. But this “loss leader” focus paid off with the growing opportunity built on customers who trusted them and appreciated their motives for serving them.
The lesson? There exists underserved or poorly served markets made up of customers with available dollars to spend. They are waiting to be your customers if you can find a way to deliver authentic value to their real needs.
Connectivity Results in Lots of Neighbors
Derek and Jessica knew from the beginning it wasn’t likely that they’d find employees from or willing to live in Osage. Instead of using this as an excuse NOT to think big, they embraced the idea that it didn’t matter where someone lived. What mattered more was their willingness to commit to the mission of The Art of Education.
The lesson? Even today, in a global market, we often think of location as a limiting or prohibitive factor to business opportunity. But it isn’t! In a global market, we can be most anywhere, and so can our employees. We can start a successful business in a place like Osage, and our customers can be anywhere in the world.
There is a lot more to The Art of Education story, and I encourage you to explore it. But I hope these lessons are a good start for you to creatively find a new mission in the marketplace. If you feel that where you live is limiting, or that your resources are limiting, you are likely wrong. Today, we live and operate in an economy that isn’t as much about resources as it is about resourcefulness. Resourcefulness is at our fingertips; we just have to choose to awaken it.
This article first appeared in the January 2017 issue of STRIVE magazine.
About the Author
Mike Wagner is President of White Rabbit, a business consultancy he founded in 2004. He is a skilled communicator, facilitator, and business consultant. Mike serves leadership teams in the creation of competitive advantage and growth strategies. His approach is a unique combination of leadership development and organizational culture, informed by the tools and process of “design thinking”.
Mike has been speaking professionally for over 30 years. He engages audiences with fresh ideas and tells compelling stories to inspire them to keep creating.