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Bootstrap First, Raise Money Later, Build an EdTech Unicorn from Canada: John Baker, CEO of D2L (Part 4)

Posted on Monday, Oct 5th 2020

Sramana Mitra: Is there anything else that we should discuss about that bootstrapping period before we switch into the next inflection point?

John Baker: One thing I would like to discuss is how we differentiated from the competition. In my case, I spent a lot of time on the engineering and design side.

Coming from a systems design engineering background, I felt that if we could build a product that was a lot easier to use, looked beautiful, and broke down a whole bunch of barriers, it would be a compelling offering.

I’ll give you an example. If you were a blind student, learning was a really bad experience previous to D2L. We leveled the playing field. If you’re blind or deaf, you can participate equally with everybody else in the class. There is nothing that will hold you back. We turned print visibility effectively and neutralized that. We looked at what other models existed.

Another good example would be a cost model. Not only were we focusing on accessibility and thinking about mobile learning, we also started thinking about the cost barrier. I got together with Stephen Downes and George Siemens and a few others and came out with this concept of a MOOC. We started to pursue that as a pathway. 

Sramana Mitra: That’s a totally different business model.

John Baker: We haven’t fully capitalized on it to be completely transparent at this stage. We certainly helped our clients run some of the largest and most successful MOOCs in the world.

Sramana Mitra: That started in that bootstrapping period?

John Baker: Yes, it did. That would not have happened if George and Stephen hadn’t pushed us. 

Sramana Mitra: So you had university clients who were running MOOCs on your platform?

John Baker: Yes, back in the late 2000s.

Sramana Mitra: You started in 1999. Your 12-year journey is until 2011. In 2007, the smartphone came out. Soon after, the iPad comes out. How did that impact your product development?

John Baker: We were an early pioneer on smartphones. We had a mobile learning platform on the very first smartphone. We even had a very early version of mobile learning on a Palm Pilot.

I still remember trying to apply for a grant to build a mobile learning platform. We got the rejection letter from the granting agency saying that no one will ever want to learn on a mobile phone. It took another decade before people started to take to that form factor.

Today we’re the only learning platform in our space that works universally across all smartphones. Even if you’re on a third-hand device that doesn’t have apps and that just has a browser, it works. If you can imagine the furthest corners of the earth, you can have students learning anything.

I remember five years ago being on a trip to India. I remember sitting in one of the poorest communities in the world. The girls there put up their hand and said, “It is great to learn something.” 

This segment is part 4 in the series : Bootstrap First, Raise Money Later, Build an EdTech Unicorn from Canada: John Baker, CEO of D2L
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