March 1, 2011

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Eat the Elephant


Eat the Elephant

Prosper, Inc. Illustrates How to Accomplish Colossal Business Goals

Gaylen Webb

March 1, 2011

In 2008 Jason Coulam faced a monumental business challenge. As the new executive vice president of fulfillment at Prosper Inc., it was his job to terminate an outsourcing relationship and bring his company’s entire coaching fulfillment, product development, student care and continuing education departments in-house—all in three short months. Today, Coulam is president and COO of Prosper Inc., which provides coaching and distance learning in the fields of real estate and stock market investing, entrepreneurship, e-commerce, personal development and personal finance. Looking back, he says the decision to open a new division at his company and insource the fulfillment was the right move, but it certainly had its challenges. For example, the outsourcing company had its own network of mentors that it deployed to serve the educational needs of Prosper’s customers, and those mentors were averaging approximately 1,700 one-on-one coaching sessions per week. Bringing Prosper’s fulfillment in-house meant Coulam would have to recruit his own army of expert mentors in the educational fields Prosper supported, along with the back office help to support them. And he had to do it fast—Prosper’s decision to insource had spoiled the relationship with its outsourcing company. “They didn’t want to help out much with our customers once we decided to go in-house,” Coulam explains. “When I told the individual at the outsourcing company we were taking over our fulfillment, he told me I was making the biggest mistake of my career and that I would fail individually, as would the company.” Without the support of the outsourcing partner to make a smooth transition, Coulam could ill afford a protracted effort to bring Prosper’s fulfillment in-house. Thus he launched an aggressive timeline—three months—to find real estate for a new office, hire hundreds of expert trainers, develop a customer relationship management system, and produce Prosper’s own training curriculum and products. The task seemed insurmountable, but Coulam believes there are two types of challenges. One is mental. “You have to believe this can be done and I can do it.” The second is tactical and covers all of the physical steps that need to be taken to achieve success. Coulam not only believed in himself, but also in his team. So rather than light his hair on fire and have a meltdown, he established “a very clear direction with a specific outcome. First, we mapped out everything we needed to do within the three-month timeline. Next, we detailed each step, and then set our goals.” For Coulam, there are four keys that are essential in accomplishing any challenge. The first two keys follow a paradigm from the book Good to Great and focus on “who and then what?” The third key is to create urgency without creating panic. Fourth, he says, is to celebrate the little victories along the way to the big victories. Who? In the first step, focusing on the “who” meant Coulam had to quickly hire and bring up to speed an army of talented, extremely capable people—trainers who were experts in their fields as well as back office support—and they all needed to possess vision and purpose in their own lives. Coulam wanted to hire people who could see how working for Prosper would help them achieve their own personal goals. “They had to be highly productive individuals in their personal lives and goal oriented, because that’s what drives individuals in their work lives,” he explains. Thus much of that hiring would have to occur through personal referrals rather than help wanted advertising. Then What? Next, Coulam turned his focus to the second half of the paradigm: “then what?” In this effort, his focus was on implementing the strategy—establishing a clear path of what needed to be done and how it would be accomplished. “People must have a very clear understanding of what you expect them to accomplish. And never confuse activity with accomplishment. People have to be crystal clear about your vision,” he explains. Urgency Regarding the third key to success, Coulam says all great leaders have an innate ability to create urgency without crossing the line and creating panic in their employees. “Panic leads to chaos,” he says. “It is essential that everyone on your team understands the urgency of what you are trying to accomplish.” To achieve urgency, Coulam held active, productive meetings, demonstrated conviction and belief in his actions, and “walked with a little swagger.” Moreover, he says the best leaders “get out of their chairs and put out fires as quickly as possible. They are urgent in all that they do.” For Coulam and his team, urgency and a high-energy environment often meant they arrived to work early and skipped lunch on occasion in order to achieve their goals. Celebrate Celebrating the little victories on the way to the big victories—the fourth key to success—goes back to the belief that “this can be done and I can do it,” according to Coulam. “When you are trying to eat an elephant you can’t do it in one bite.” Thus Coulam’s team set weekly goals and then celebrated when they accomplished them. They also celebrated when a new coach came on board and finished his or her first coaching session. The celebrations were often simple, like eating lunch together, but the key, he says, is to celebrate each milestone. “The celebrations point out your progress and help lessen the massive task you have in front of you.” The Takeaway Did the project go according to plan? Yes. Were there mistakes along the way? Of course! What advice would Coulam give to companies looking to expand in a short amount of time? First, he says, when a mistake is made in hiring, deal with it quickly. Act. Don’t wait around. Get the right people in the right places. Next, set aggressive goals on a quarterly basis. Develop a goal sheet for every employee in the organization and hold quarterly performance reviews with them. “It is about accountability,” he says. And then celebrate when goals are achieved. Further, he advises to hold “town hall-type meetings with your employees and train them on the vision of the company…the town hall sessions will help them believe in the company, in your vision and in themselves. It will drive the culture. And build your company’s culture around your mission.”
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