By Ramon Ray, founder of Smart Hustle Magazine
⏰ 6-minute read
E-learning platform Knowledgelink started in an era that wasn’t quite ready to support its internet-reliant business model.
Via persistence and a natural changing of the tides, cofounder Jon Tota grew Knowledgelink into the robust video learning marketplace it is today.
The long journey left Tota with four tips to pass along to fellow entrepreneurs.
Learning from other entrepreneurs is one of the smartest ways to grow your business. It’s wise to observe the mistakes they’ve made, how they navigate roadblocks and what they’re doing to prosper, then use their stories as building blocks to your own success.
Jon Tota is an entrepreneur who can offer plenty of building blocks. He is the cofounder and president of Knowledgelink, a corporate learning platform on which subject-matter experts preview and sell their video courses to corporate training departments. To date, the company hosts video content from hundreds of e-learning experts. It also ranked in the Inc. 5000 in 2014 (while doing business as Edulence).
The global online education market is currently worth $160 billion, and it’s projected to grow more than 10 percent annually through 2023. Tota got in on the game in 2002, earlier than most of the current major players.
Tota started his career as a tech expert on Wall Street, then worked as a tech consultant for small businesses and insurance agencies. As his career progressed, he identified an opportunity to expand his corporate training knowledge to a larger audience and pinpointed video education as the most promising sector in which to start.
Knowledgelink launched in 2002 with its first content offering: a series of software simulations that trained insurance agents on how to use their new CRM software. Tota developed the simulations himself in the back room of a small office in Fairfield, NJ using Adobe Flash. He mailed the trainings to clients on CDs and DVDs.
At first, Tota delivered his trainings on CDs and DVDs.
Too much too soon
But shipping these discs soon proved too expensive for Tota’s young company. He concluded that offering his training videos online would be more lucrative, and he spent time attempting to convince the insurance industry to move from CDs to online delivery.
But alas, Tota’s strategy was seemingly ahead of its time. Corporate bandwidth was a hot commodity in the early 2000s. Many folks had high-speed internet at home, but at work, a single T1 line would be split across an entire office. Delivering online videos in this environment resulted in daunting “rebuffering” messages and stalled playback.
“My engineering team at the time forbade me to do sales demos before 10 a.m., to avoid the embarrassment of showing a video during morning ‘rush hour,’” Tota recalled.
Despite the setbacks, he remained committed to his vision of a future for online video training.
Internet connections weren't robust enough to handle Knowledgelink's early product.
The future arrives
In the industry’s early days, most organizations, like Knowledgelink, used Flash to produce their videos. It was expensive and required specialists, but it offered a level of interactivity the internet hadn’t seen before. As Flash phased out in favor of streaming, production became more cost-effective for Knowledgelink and its peers.
Today, several video authoring tools are available at low price points, meaning virtually anyone can create libraries of interactive video education. In the near future, these training systems will adapt to each user’s unique strengths and weaknesses using artificial intelligence. Knowledgelink is already incorporating this, calling itself “the industry’s first AI learning platform.” Its intelligent learning system prompts users to review topics they’ve proven to need help on.
Technology has finally caught up to Tota’s original vision, he said.
“I feel now we are entering the most exciting phase of online training as these pieces [accessible editing, AI and more] come together in a ‘perfect storm’ of learning,” he said.
Knowledgelink capitalizes on "next-gen" technologies like AI and user-friendly editing softwares.
Building a community
Originally, Knowledgelink acted as a standard learning management system, single-handedly powering an online university for banks and insurance companies. Today, the platform also hosts videos from third-party experts, speakers and coaches who post them for other businesses and corporate educators to purchase.
Businesses value the ability to train their employees with videos not from a corporate educator but rather from a bone fide industry expert, Tota said. Why show a stale, company-made training video about social media when you could have a compelling, dynamic social media expert explain it in their own style?
“The best expertise, the best knowledge out there, is in the heads of [experts] who do this for a living, not necessarily the corporate training department,” Tota said. “Corporate educators are just curators of this valuable information.”
As a marketplace for e-learning courses, Knowledgelink counts among its customer base not only corporate training departments but also individual speakers, coaches and corporate trainers who use the platform to package their expertise into an online business. Take networking trainer Michael Goldberg for example. He hosts samples of his video training course on Knowledgelink and wins clients from the site regularly.
Entrepreneurial tips from Knowledgelink’s founder
Knowledgelink’s long journey to success left Tota with some valuable advice for entrepreneurs who find themselves in his former shoes. Here are four practices he recommends for anyone who’s growing a business.
1. Ask, “Would I use this?”
Would you use what you sell day-to-day? If you’re able to see value in your own product, you’re on the right track.
“Think of yourself as your number-one user,” Tota advised.
Entrepreneurs should routinely use their own product, he added. When you view your product through the lens of a customer, you will be able to pinpoint changes and suggest them to your team.
Tota said he regularly uses Knowledgelink’s tools himself, which affords him the opportunity to tell his development team, “This was really not the most logical way to do this. And we make it a little bit better.”
Networking expert Michael Goldberg uses Knowledgelink to deliver his trainings to individual financial services professionals and larger corporations who use them in-house.
2. Eliminate excess.
Tota advised entrepreneurs to, “Find one thing you’re great at.” Establish one area in which your company is growing its bottom line, and gradually eliminate projects that distract you from thriving in that area.
Tota recalled moments in Knowledgelink’s history in which he would pursue projects just to bring in some form of revenue--and he doesn’t recommend it.
“We hustled and took any deal we could to keep the lights on in the early days,” he said. But once you find that one thing you’re great at, “Shedding those other things really brings focus into the business,” he added.
The process isn’t easy, but it’s critical.
3. Love it (or you’ll leave it).
Entrepreneurship isn’t always easy. It’s important to find passion so you don’t feel distanced from your business, Tota said.
“Make sure you’re in love with what you do,” he said. “You need that payoff in order to deal with some of the ups and downs as an entrepreneur, and I think that’s what keeps you coming back every day.”
“I don’t feel like I’m selling,” he continued. “I’m just super passionate about what we do for a living, and I just love to be out there talking about it.”
Knowledgelink's library also includes The Hoopis Performance Network, which provides sales training and leadership development for finance professionals.
4. Find scalability.
Tota advocates designing your business for scalability.
After all, scalability is his product offering. His goal, he said, is to repackage a given expert’s knowledge into a scalable product, outfitting them with personal brands that simultaneously generate revenue and create future value. Knowledgelink experts should be able to build a following on the platform that allows them to book speaking engagements and run training workshops as they desire, he added.
Then, the knowledge will continue to spread.
For more from Tota, visit Knowlegelink’s blog or listen to his podcast, “Learning Life.” Hear Ray’s complete interview with Tota on SoundCloud.
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