New models for success

Why today’s big hitters are valued so highly and how ambitious providers can replicate their achievements

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Introduction

 

“Training providers need to examine the way they used to do things, to ask whether they are still fit for purpose.”

 

The dynamics of the apprenticeship training sector are changing. Investors are paying attention to a set of factors that go beyond what mattered a few years ago. And several companies are seeing near unprecedented growth as a result.

Most notably, of late, we can look at the private equity investment in Corndel and the venture capital investment in Multiverse. The speed at which both organisations went from startup to exit is astonishing when compared to the many companies who have grown steadily in the sector for decades without seeing the same kind of financial backing.

Extraordinarily, despite Multiverse not yet having made a profit, venture capitalists valued the business at $200 million. It’s evident that we’re now seeing a different level of interest and value in the sector.

So naturally, it follows that we should ask: How did they do it? What is occurring in the market that enables such deals to take place? And which characteristics of these newly successful models should training providers emulate?

As we break these questions down, we’re going to assume that fundamentally, you understand apprenticeships, the shift to standards, and how to navigate compliance and funding. Such knowledge can help training provider businesses to grow to perhaps the £10-£15 million mark.

To go beyond this, to attract the kind of investment Corndel and Multiverse did, providers need to adapt their approach.

 

There’s also a risk if providers do not adapt. It is no exaggeration to say that the training sector is subject to serious volatility. Funding pots change, government priorities shift and skill gaps can open wide or close depending on the instability of individual sectors. That’s without mentioning the impact of COVID-19.

Thanks to the pandemic, investors are even more focused on looking for businesses that are tech-enabled, that are disrupting old market dynamics. Training providers need to examine the way they used to do things, to ask whether they are still fit for purpose.

Corndel and Multiverse’s remote delivery was well insulated against the worst of COVID disruption. But even before this industry altering event, they – along with several other organisations entering into investor consciousness – understood how to position themselves to take full advantage of the market.

To help us unpick the factors at work here, we are joined by Heather Frankham of Bud, Vicky Giles of Grant Thornton, Ben Pike of Paragon and Ian Koxvold of PwC. Read on to gain their insights into what helped propel the likes of Corndell and Multiverse to success, and how others can – and must – follow suit.

 

Our experts

 

Heather Frankham

Founder of training provider Lifetime, which grew to a team of more than 1,000 staff before being sold. Heather is aware of the intricacies involved in a successful exit. She is also the founder of Bud Systems and Origin Workspace, and NEC of Paragon Skills.

 

Vicky Giles

M&A Corporate Finance Director at Grant Thornton UK LLP. Vicky is highly experienced in disposals, acquisitions and fund raising and has assisted in the disposal of a leading apprenticeship training business to a private equity fund.

 

Ben Pike

CEO of MasterStart and NED at Paragon Skills and MD2MD. Ben has a deep understanding of the Education market and how to build both market proposition and business structure to achieve high growth.

 

Ian Koxvold

Director and Head of Education Strategy at PwC UK. With 22 years of consulting experience at his back, Ian now works with educational institutions, investors and suppliers of services to preserve and maximise value at key junctures.

 

Why apprenticeships are now an employer-focused arena

 

“Now that the levy rests with the employer, apprenticeships are much more sector driven.”

 

To add value in today’s changing environment, training providers are balancing funding agencies and contractual requirements with the marketplace, which is increasingly being influenced by employers as much as learners.

This has in part hinged upon the shift that took place since the levy. Employers are no longer treating their choice of training provider as a peripheral issue. Now that employers are the ones holding the funds, they are signing agreements less readily, and they are adopting more of a buyer’s mentality.

“They’re agreeing pricing, they’re pitching competitors against each other, and they’re measuring the impact of training provision on their business,” says Bud founder Heather Frankham. “In a positive sense, they’re demanding return on investment.”

While the attention of training providers should not deviate from the learner experience, getting uptake is no longer primarily about finding learners who want to do a course, it’s about finding employers that want to partner with you.

In the past, because there was no financial agreement, training providers almost avoided the ROI conversation. Now it’s a much more complicated sale that requires a different way of working and a different thought process.

“The training providers that are succeeding are those with a more mature ‘go to market’ strategy,” says Heather. “Where they really understand the dynamics of the employers they’re working with. You need USPs that align with their interests.”

Vicky Giles, M&A Corporate Finance Director at Grant Thornton UK LLP, agrees: “Now that the levy rests with the employer, apprenticeships are much more sector driven. It’s going to be interesting to see what industries will drive the skills gap that training providers seek to fill.”

 

Should training providers specialise?

 

Both Corndel and Multiverse chose to specialise in sectors with large skill gaps. But should other training providers follow suit?

“The continuing level of consolidation in the training landscape is killing everything that is both specialist and local,” says Ian Koxvold, Director and Head of Education Strategy at PwC UK. “You can be specialist and national, or you can be generalist and local. But you shouldn’t aim to be both specialist and local. There’s no future in that.

“If you’re going to be local, you have to wrap around your customer base and say, ‘We’re going to provide everything for them, either directly or through subcontractors.’ Your mission needs to be to solve all the problems in that region.”

But if you do specialise, you need to ask whether the marketplace is large enough to scale in that area. Whereas if you take a scattergun approach the danger is that you don’t excel in any one sector.

 

Why providers need to readdress the exec team

 

“If the founder is not selling themselves as part of the solution, they need to demonstrate the capability of the business without them in it.”

 

The state of a training provider’s valuation is inseparable from the state of their executive team.

“The management team are front and centre,” says Vicky. “Especially if it’s a pure play private equity investor. They’re buying into the management team, the business they’ve built and where it can go.”

Lifetime received an early investment offer in 2008, but Heather and her board decided it wasn’t time to exit just yet. Instead, they focused on honing their business and recruiting greater capability at board level so they were ready to work with investors. They brought in a new FD, a new NED and a new COO who was elevated to CEO a year before the process.

It was at this time that Heather discovered the importance of having the right advisers, of getting the management team ready for their new ‘home’. But she also learned that the business must not be reliant upon her input.

“If the founder is not selling themselves as part of the solution, they need to demonstrate the capability of the business without them in it,” she says. “They need to prove it won’t fall like a house of cards.”

When it eventually came to presenting to investors, Heather remembers the advice her  advisors gave her – and it was counterintuitive to everything she had done in building the business. They guided her not to answer investor questions – or at least not those that her management team could answer. By letting them take the wheel, investors saw the value in the breadth of the exec team rather than a business that was reliant on the founder.

“Making sure the management team is on the bus for the journey is really critical,” says Vicky. “Investors need to buy into the growth plan and that always comes back to the numbers – and what they will look like over a three to five year period.”

And so we come to the need – founder-led or not, private equity funded or not – for a strong business plan.

 

What’s your reputation like with investors?

 

Reputation plays a significant role in valuation. If you’re a business with private equity, the reputation of your team should be your main focus, since you’re already on investors’ radars. But if you haven’t reached that stage, you might need to consider your PR too.

“At Lifetime, we’d always been quite hot on our relationship with customers but we’d come up under the radar,” says Heather. “Because we’d received so much of our business from referral, we had little in the press. So we needed to start warming up the investment community.”

 

Why providers need to reimagine their business plans

 

“Investors don’t want to be rolling the dice every year and a half.”

 

Both Corndel and Multiverse defined their product-market fit really well. They were built on the basis of apprenticeship standards, the apprenticeship levy and working with larger employers. Their business plans were future-facing and – as evidenced by their success – robust enough to deal with the curveballs of COVID-19.

“There were several reasons Corndel received a lot of interest,” says Vicky. “You had a business that was highly profitable, delivering good margins and good outcomes for its learners – part of that was the way it delivered its training digitally. But equally they had a really robust, low-risk growth plan for investors to buy into.”

For providers to create a strong business plan that attracts investment requires extensive preparation. It needs to demonstrate minimal risk and maximum value, but it also needs to be aligned to the market they’re operating in. Vicky says this is where timing is a critical factor.

Providers need to assess the wider market sentiment and refine what makes their offering different. This needs to be coupled with realistic competitor analysis, SWOT analysis, risk assessment, and – of utmost importance for apprenticeships – what the likely changes in the sector might be.

The funding and political landscape is constantly changing for training providers. Fresh faces in the sector tell Heather they can’t believe quite how erratic it all is.

“This is a risk for those looking to buy into a business because they can’t predict the future,” says Heather. “Providers need to show they have already anticipated the future and that they’re prepared for changes that could come in the future. Some will happen, some won’t, but providers need to demonstrate that nothing will hit them by surprise.”

Providers need to be more responsive than ever. COVID-19 was a prime example of something coming out of left field. No matter how much crystal ball gazing you did, you wouldn’t have predicted it. But organisations that were more used to adapting, problem solving and finding solutions were better prepared to rapidly pivot when the time came.

“These businesses were used to being on their toes,” says Heather, “ready to get on the front foot even when the unexpected did come.”

That said, it’s also essential to show what will remain constant in your business plan, regardless of what is thrown at you. Nimbleness, says Ian, is great because it can help you follow the opportunities faster than others can. But there is a downside to having this as your core selling point.

“Investors don’t want to be rolling the dice every year and a half,” says Ian. “You need to tell a story of ongoing need. And you do have, in the end, three enduring needs. First, learners will always want better jobs. Second, employers are always going to have skill gaps. And these both feed into the third, political need, which is that the government will always want to show it is addressing industry skill gaps and social mobility.”

 

Are you at risk of distraction?

 

When you’re getting geared up for investment, it’s important to keep focus where it matters. A sales or fundraising process can add a whole new layer of demands to your exec team, but you can’t let your business wobble as you’re going through this time.

Heather says: “For anyone who approaches a sale or fundraising round, their business needs to be at a place where it’s running like clockwork, where it doesn’t need their input all the time.”

The risk is, if you and your team are consumed with the sale, the business won’t hit its targets and you either won’t be able to sell or you’ll have to settle for a lower price.

“It can be all encompassing,” says Vicky. “It is an emotional journey and you still need to run the business to make sure learners are achieving their qualifications and their career outcomes or pathways. This is, after all, what training provider management teams get out of bed for.”

 

Why providers need to reconsider their product

 

“Where we’ve seen businesses become more advanced in their exit-readiness is when they have very robust data and technology.”

 

Both Corndel and Multiverse created the blueprints for their business around the Apprenticeship Standards, without inheriting the legacy elements of the old Apprenticeship Frameworks. This enabled them to create a product that was radically different.

Employers – and by extension, investors – are looking for a product that is easy remote access, that’s always on (so learners can complete their training at any time), but also a product that creates an innovative learning experience that will drive higher results.

“The shift to Apprenticeship Standards is the slightly unspoken story,” says Ben Pike, CEO of MasterStart and NED at Paragon Skills and MD2MD. “There are providers who moved to the new Standards but haven’t changed the way they actually operate. They’re essentially still rooted in the safety of what they’ve always done.”

The key shift they need to make, Ben says, is to think like a learning organisation rather than an assessment organisation – and that’s a big difference.

When it comes to training providers, there can be resistance internally to creating a radical model. But to create a high quality experience, that is built around high quality learning instead of preparing for an assessment, we need to do away with legacy thinking.

“For Corndel and Multiverse, high quality content was absolutely key,” said Heather, “Corndel developed their own while Multiverse went to the best digital content providers and wrapped their offerings into their programs.”

Meanwhile many existing providers were still leaning on individual tutors to carry the weight, creating their own worksheets and printing them off to hand to learners the next day. And their print outs would be different to what their colleague was doing 20 miles down the road. This lingering lack of consistency was a residual from pre-standards days before training providers started becoming digitally native.

There’s no need to try and convince people that digital is an important part of the learner journey anymore. Now it’s about honing the user experience, together with the social side of learning. This is where Bud is focusing its attention right now, developing avenues for social and peer learning that will enhance the whole user experience.

“There is no shortage of online digital content that is designed to be consumed by learners,” says Ben. “But to motivate learners to progress through a long term programme of learning, especially with the softer skills programs, you can’t just have digital content. You need to somehow, humanise the online learning experience with new support infrastructure, proactive engagement strategy and a peer community to help motivate them along the learning journey.”

In the Multiverse example, one of the key stories they told was about being ‘a university experience without going to university.’ An apprenticeship that does not only provide learning, but also the networking, social interaction and events that a uni would provide. For many providers to even begin to assess how they can replicate this, they need to evaluate the core of their product.

Ben explains that when you design a learning programme, there should be an iterative process of improving what you do. You need to create feedback loops and measure the effectiveness of learning interventions so that you have the opportunity to make the learning journey more efficient.

“This makes it better for the learner and more efficient for you as a provider,” he says. “And when you add scale to that, you’ve got a huge opportunity to get a return on your investment.”

This is the challenge to all providers that had to pivot during the pandemic. It was admirable that they responded and adapted in the way they did. But now they need to leverage the benefits of online learning in a streamlined way. This, after all, is what investors will have their eye on.

“Technology becomes critical here,” says Vicky. “Where we’ve seen businesses become more advanced in their exit-readiness is when they have very robust data and technology in the business evidenced by data and KPIs.”

Getting tech-ready for the next opportunities

 

What will be the next opportunity open to training providers? Right now, with the right technology supporting a streamlined, innovative learning journey, you’ll be on the right track. And if, like Bud, you pay attention to the forthcoming social side of digital learning, you’ll be on the front foot. But what might come after that?

“Typically, the sector has been anchored to prior behaviour as a model for determining where resources are allocated,” says Ian. “But as you see procurement change, you see market share led by new models.”

Ben gives his own prediction on what these models might be: “We’re going to see commercial, vocational and university education converge. And I think where they’ll merge is online. So thinking innovatively, not just for today, if providers get scalable technology in place, I think they’ll have an opportunity to both take vocational training global and to offer hybrid inter-sector learning in the future.”

 

Why it’s still all about the learner

 

“If we forget the learner, we lose the heart of everything that we do, along with the faith of investors.”

 

Although employers have more influence than they used to and the market is changing, some aspects remain constant.

“You have to ask what does the learner need, what does the employer need, what does the funding agency need,” says Heather. “And actually it’s that triangle of making sure that that is solid, and it’s not skewed in any direction. You’ve got to get them all right.”

If you grow too fast and overlook Ofsted and the ESFA, you do so at your peril. Meanwhile if you forget the employer, you’ll struggle to grow your client base. But of course, if we forget the learner, we lose the heart of everything that we do, along with the faith of investors.

Keeping the learner front and centre is a difficult task if it is to be more than admirable rhetoric. Heather recalls that when Lifetime was small, she could meet most of her clients and hear of learners names in the office. This worked up until they reached 400 staff and the first investment into the business in 2011. After that, they were adding 40 or 50 new staff each month, and that was the last time Heather could keep track of every individual’s name.

If that’s true of staff in a rapidly scaling business, it’s even more pertinent when it comes to learners.

“The only way to know what’s going on is to look at the data, to look at the trends and measure the right things,” says Heather. “You need to have feedback loops in place right down to the customers at the coalface. Because the bigger your business becomes, the more removed you are from them.”

It’s these feedback loops that will help providers refine their product, improving learner experience and learner outcomes to upgrade the overall quality of what they do. This is what matters to the learner but it also matters to the headline valuation and the level of investment that can be achieved.

Eventually, it comes down to being the best at what you do. It’s straightforward in theory but many don’t succeed. This, Ben says, is what distinguished the Corndel sale:

“Corndel has come along into an apprenticeship market and delivered a different product, with a different approach, and – perceptually, at least – a different standard. That’s been a disruptor.”

 

Corndel

 

With a strong base formed through serving the banking, insurance and professional services sectors, Corndel was well insulated against the pandemic due to its digital delivery and its employer-led focus on software engineering, data analytics and DevOps. Their highly paid tutors were able to maximise their one-to-one support when travel restrictions prompted them to pivot to an entirely online offering.

 

Multiverse

 

Formerly known as Whitehat, Multiverse hadn’t made a profit at the time of their valuation and sale. Founded by Euan Blair (former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s eldest son), who seems to uphold the same belief in ‘education, education, education’ as his father, Multiverse stood out to investors as being a university experience without having to go to university. This was created through an amalgamation of one-to-one coaching with industry experts, high quality third party digital content and a streamlined system to help young people build social capital and networks.

 

Where should training providers go from here?

 

“Where your business should focus its attention depends partly on your goal.”

 

The market has changed and it will change again. While the need for quality will remain a throughline, training providers will need to adapt how they create, refine and replicate that quality at scale if they are to earn the notice of investors and a high valuation.

You may have a good business to date, but what about the forward story? How do you make sure someone isn’t going to come and eat up your market share tomorrow? What can you do to stay ahead of the curve?

Investors will be looking at what you’ve achieved to date. But judging by the current speed of the market, it’s clear that our history is not so hot to investors as our present positioning and our capacity to scale.

To get the strategy right here, the engine must be streamlined; providers need to create feedback loops with learners and then create the time and space to innovate and refine their product, without cutting corners on contracts or Ofsted.

 

Growth can only happen when everything is running smoothly. The more efficient your business is, the more resources you have to invest in new projects and scale up growth more quickly.

At this point, where your business should focus its attention depends partly on your goal. If you’re seeking private equity funding, like Corndel, it’s essential to get your metrics, profits and employer focus in place. Whereas if you’re seeking venture capital, as the Multiverse sale has proven, you don’t necessarily need the profits so much as proof of potential.

To create such a forward story, the use of technology is critical to demonstrate you can replicate quality at scale and, ideally, at a lower cost.

Finally, it is worth considering whether an exit is right for your business. Selling is not the only way to make a financial gain through your business. And the best outcome is not necessarily getting paid the highest price.

As Heather says: “If you’re staying in the business, or if you’re going to have an investment in it, the best outcome is about finding the right partner. The benefits of that relationship go both ways. If you set false expectations and sell too high, you might do well up front but as a part-owner/shareholder you may not do so well on the other side.

“As a founder, I did not build my business for a financial return. Delivering a profit meant that we could invest in better ways of doing things that meant we could make a difference to more people. Finding the right partner was key to ensure that we continued to do that.”

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