Skillsoft Reinvented: In A Bold And Exciting Way

Skillsoft is one of the most fascinating companies in the marketplace. As the pioneering company in online learning (founded in 1998, originally focused on soft skills), the founders aggressively defined the market for web-based corporate training and rapidly dominated the landscape. During my years as an analyst I watched the company go from a $10 Million startup to a multi-billion dollar company through the acquisition of many content and tech companies (NetG, Books 24×7, SumTotal, ElementK, MindLeaders, 50 Lessons, Vodaclic), an aggressive salesforce, and a relentless focus on building all the content any corporate training manager would need.

During that time the company built a tremendous breadth of content: all aspects of IT and digital skills; a large library of softskills and leadership content; and a wide array of books, audio recordings, assessments, simulations, and badges. In fact Skillsoft is by far the largest library of corporate learning content: today the company offers more than 150,000 learning assets which include courses, digital books, audiobooks, book summaries, practice labs, and bootcamps. Together the company delivers more than a million digital badges each month.

And the volume of learning delivered is massive. Skillsoft has more than 4,500 clients (more than half of which are running the company’s newest platform Percipio) who consume around 23 million content enrollments per month and is now seeing renewal rates on Skillsoft Percipio of over 100%. The content library has been redesigned and the company’s new delivery platform (Percipio) is one of the most advanced Learning Experience Platforms (LXP) in the market.

After going public, then going private, and being sold several times to different private equity firms (Skillsoft had amazing cash flow – Charterhouse paid $2 billion for the company in 2014), the company had produced billions of dollars of value for investors. While that was all good for finance companies, it burdened the company with lots of debt. Well in a brilliant new move orchestrated by the company’s new Executive Chairman Ron Hovsepian and Chief Administrative Officer John Frederick (also CEO of SumTotal), Skillsoft just restructured its debt (essentially converting debt to equity) and is now incredibly profitable. So this is a company that’s ready to grow again.

In this latest chameleon-like change to the company, a new management team has joined and the company is totally reinvented. I have been talking with the Skillsoft leadership team for several years and people like AP Purakayastha (CTO), Mark Onisk (Chief Content Officer), and Michelle Boockoff-Bajdek (Chief Marketing Officer, ran marketing for IBM Watson) are seasoned veterans. And reinvention is what they’re all about.

Reinventing Skillsoft In A Changed Market

Before I explain what Skillsoft is trying to do, let me mention that the online corporate learning market is experiencing explosive growth. Not only is this a healthy market, but it’s also one of the biggest “red oceans” in business. In other words, there are a lot of content companies delivering a lot of similar content.

If you want to buy IT or Digital skills, for example, there are very successful companies like Pluralsight, Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, Microsoft, O’Reilly Media, and hundreds of others. If you want to buy content for leadership or diversity, there are hundreds of small and mid-sized companies. And in domains like technology, digital transformation, and business there are courses from MIT, Harvard, and thousands of courses on YouTube. And then in specific domains, there are providers like us (Josh Bersin Academy) who dive deep into specific functional areas.

How can Skillsoft compete in this enormously fragmented space? The company has brand, channel, and distribution. While every company wants to buy “the best” training they can find, most companies quickly realize that they have “over-bought” a lot of content, and after a few years they have to rationalize, cut-back, and streamline all they offer. The typical employee can spend 20-30 hours a year learning (some spend more but this is rare), so no matter how much wonderful content you buy, there’s only so much people can consume. So buyers want to keep the content world simple.

It’s a little bit like walking into a very fancy high-end food court. You immediately want to buy tacos from one vendor, ice cream from another, and a few drinks, some side dishes, some snacks .. and then you realize you’re full, your bag has no more room, and you just have to stop. And when you get home you realize “that was fun but I kind of wasted a lot of money.”

Corporate learning buyers face precisely the same problem. There is so much “good stuff” out there that buyers try to buy it all – and then they run into the brick wall that employees cannot possibly consume it, they’re distracted with other things to do, and often people don’t want a course, they just want a short video to teach them what they need right now.

Skillsoft’s strategy for years was to be the “one-stop shopping” for corporate online content. And this is what made the company so successful. In the early days of e-learning, you “could not get fired by buying Skillsoft.” Everyone had to have it… 

But without realizing what had happened, Skillsoft lost focus on its value. Most of that period of time (the 2000s and early 2010s) the management team was more focused on sales and contract value than they were on user experience and real learning. So many customers who loved Skillsoft (the “love” for Skillsoft was high) started to find the product lacking. While Skillsoft made many e-learning pioneers successful, it suddenly started to look like “the old stuff,” and more and more companies stopped renewing their licenses. Today companies like NTT Data, Deutsche Telekom/T-Mobile, Cox Enterprises, Bank of America, Baxter Healthcare, Anthem, Citi, and SAIC remain committed. But many others started to leave.

Much of this happened because Skillsoft’s platform was old (Skillport is a 20-year old stack of technology that has been bandaided together for years), and the company realized this. So around 2016 and 2017 the company launched Percipio, a brand-new state of the art learning platform. While Percipio is not a complete LMS, it’s one of the most feature-rich Learning Experience Platforms in the market – and it has been wildly successful.

The leadership team shared with me that renewal rates and NetPromoter Score for Percipio are amazing, and the user experience (I’ve seen it) is as compelling as any on the market. Today Skillsoft still has about half their customers on the old platform, but that migration is happening quickly. (Percipio is not an open LXP today, by the way, it’s the new platform for Skillsoft content.) So now Skillsoft’s product is compelling and the company is starting to grow.

Reinvention of Marketing

In addition to the reinvention of Skillsoft’s technology and financial structure, the company is also transforming its position in the market.

For many years I met with Skillsoft execs and they never took marketing very seriously (they were a sales-driven organization). I continuously advised them that their logo and branding was behind and that customers simply didn’t know what the company stood for. Well they now understand this issue and the new management team has a whole new focus, led by Michelle Boockoff-Bajdek, a savvy marketing exec who came to Skillsoft after running marketing for IBM Watson.

The new tagline for Skillsoft is entirely different: Unleash Your Edge. Rather than focus on the HR buyer or the content itself, Skillsoft is now focus on the user – making it possible for people (and employees) to learn, grow, and take charge. This new idea, focusing on helping individuals and employees innovate and grow, is an existential change. Now Skillsoft must measure itself through its learner’s experience – and this is an ever-changing challenge. 

Making The Brand Real

To make good on this new message, Skillsoft is unleashing its own barrage of new offerings. Now that the leadership team is refocused on the learner (the real customer Skillsoft serves), Mark, AP, and Michelle have greatly expanded their thinking. Not only does Skillsoft want to offer compliance and credential-based skills development and e-learning, the company is building Leadercamps (I will be doing one with Skillsoft), which are immersive online experiences designed to bring people together in an educational and collaborative experience. The Leading Inclusively Leadercamp, which took place in June, attracted more than 6,000 attendees – and was rated one of the most valuable experiences Skillsoft has delivered.

I won’t give away any of the other secrets of Skillsoft’s plans, but the innovation and creativity is now unleashed, so I expect good things to come.

Empowering Employees Is The Issue Of Our Time

One of the biggest issues in the entire workforce today is this feeling that “we all want to achieve more but somehow our organization, the economy, or the pandemic is getting in the way.”

To deal with this, more and more companies are using words like “unleashed” or “empowered” or “agency” or “freedom” to describe their people strategy.  Skillsoft is tapping into this trend, and plans to be the company that helps employees (and HR leaders) “unleash” the power of their people.

I think this strategy is particularly powerful in the pandemic, where all of us feel “locked in” or “constrained” by forces outside our control. We can’t travel, we can’t see our friends, and we can’t even go out to eat without worrying about our health. Skillsoft’s new strategy, if they execute it well, has the potential to give the company a huge new cycle of growth, one that will feed the frenzy for online experiences, and obviously help make the company grow.

The Power of Market-Led Strategy

For many years I’ve always felt that companies that focus on their market first, and their financials second, are the ones that outperform. Skillsoft over-rotated toward financial growth, and lost sight of its customer needs for years. With immense financial strength, a huge asset base of content and customers, and an exciting new message and strategy, I think Skillsoft could become a reinvented company – one that’s more relevant today than ever before.

Let’s watch what they do and I look forward to telling you more.