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Chet Linton has only one goal: Change the world. As the CEO, founding partner and president of School Improvement Network, Linton’s idea to create an on-demand professional development platform has provided training for thousands of educators.
But it hasn’t always been easy. For nearly a quarter of a century, Linton’s family-owned business has been through economic booms and financial droughts. But through every struggle, the company has emerged stronger than ever, continuing to adapt and evolve to keep up with an altering industry.
“When the chips are down, it’s important to believe in yourself and remember your passion,” he says. “Don’t give up. It usually takes a lot of effort to get the idea to come to fruition.”
We spoke with Linton about some of the specific challenges he’s faced over the years and how he used those obstacles to bring School Improvement Network up a grade.
Seek Advice, Feel Free to Ignore It
In 1991, when Linton started the Video Journal of Education with his parents John and Blanch Linton, he knew what the education system needed to create trailblazing leaders. The company produced training videos that sold in the United States and Canada, and as its popularity grew, it started to pick up more clients.
However, during one particularly bleak period, things were tough for the business, and Linton had to decide between laying off valued employees or acquiring a home equity loan to meet payroll.
His accountant suggested layoffs, as well as cutting incomes for remaining employees. “I knew a home equity loan was literally putting your home at risk. I appreciated his advice, but didn’t follow it,” Linton says. “I knew we were on the right track. It turned into one of the best years in the history of the company. He’s not the accountant anymore.”
Listening to counsel is important, but making your own decisions can mean the difference between success and failure. Linton knew his product was addressing needs in the marketplace in a way no one ever had before, and he was willing to put his home on the line to prove it.
Building a mentor network of CEOs, entrepreneurs and other forward-thinking people can give company leaders a place to turn when they hit a wall. Talking to someone who has been in a similar situation can provide a new perspective or lead to a solution.
Put Relationships before Business
To increase sales and visibility, Linton partnered his company with a national group boasting nearly 100 sales people with $10 billion in annual sales. But after working together for a while, he wasn’t getting the promised results.
“We quickly realized we weren’t working with the company’s strongest sales people. Their sales force was not focused on our product. When you create a partnership with a group, make sure you don’t just get a press release—and nothing else,” he says.
Developing a working relationship—whether it’s with a venture capitalist, a partner or a customer—is paramount to making a business successful. Making your first concern the client creates a starting point for all future decisions regarding the customer’s needs.
The company learned this lesson the hard way when it acquired a new client that had learned about School Improvement online and closed the $120,000 sale within 30 days. But less than a year later, the client wanted out of the contract.
“Our sales person didn’t supply the highest level of support,” Linton says. “We learned if you don’t develop relationships, customers won’t stay. We should have been teaching them how to utilize products and get the most value from their purchase.”
The situation highlighted the need for the sales team to become more effective partners with customers, and Linton began emphasizing the importance of relationship building for his sales staff. A couple of years later, the client was happy to return.
Evolve and Adapt
To stay viable, companies must be fluid, ready to change quickly. This is especially true in the digital world, where technology transforms every few months. In 2006, Linton realized the education industry was ready for a change, and in 2007 the Video Journal of Education became School Improvement Network.
What started as a video training company evolved into the PD 360 on-demand professional development platform, with a membership of nearly 1 million educators. School Improvement now offers comprehensive training on Common Core standards, Title I schools and teaching children from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities, among many other things.
On top of that, Linton believes there is a great need for on-demand learning for students, and the products on offer aren’t having the intended impact. The company surveyed 2,000 schools that use its programs and discovered a significant increase in math and reading scores, giving it the momentum to soon launch products for students.