Updated: Sep 14
When COVID hit, Founder & Managing Director Karen Beattie and her team at The Growth Faculty were two weeks away from delivering their largest live event hosting Simon Sinek – one scheduled for three cities and involving 12,000 delegates.
They pulled the plug and rescheduled.
One year on, The Growth Faculty hosts a top-tier, high-quality online membership platform that aims to “let the best business brains inspire you to act”.
They’ve got live instructor-led masterclasses with world-class speakers, exclusive author talks, interviews, webcasts, videos, podcasts… you name it. Basically, every knowledge-hungry business (or aspiring) leader’s fantasy.
And mind you – this is a business that prior to the pandemic, 98% of relied on live, in-the-room, face-to-face events.
I had been following The Growth Faculty and Founder Karen for years, so I was thrilled to finally get to chat with her and pick her brains for the strategies that have allowed the company to thrive, even through changing times.
We open up this episode by talking about how we both handled having to change our business models radically.
As some of you would know, I’m very grateful and proud of The Coaching Institute’s four-day transition online. After early indicators of how the market was going to shift, including, of course, how only half the room in our New Castle event showed up, we had to forgo face-to-face training. Everyone had to do it, if you wanted to stay afloat.
As mentioned above, the evolution, if you will, for Karen and co began with postponing their largest event yet to February 2021.
“I was on the phone every day to venues. I could see the impacts. I could see it's like a tsunami coming ahead, but in slow motion,” Karen describes. “We just need to deliver this event. And then we can deal with COVID after. But... that did not happen.”
After doing so and unfortunately having to let a lot of her team go, it felt like a steep downhill battle. “We were staring down the barrel of 2020, not an event in sight…2020, it was going to be our year. 10 years of hard work just disappearing, you know, just crumbling in front of you.” We then talked what changed. In two simple words: mindset & perspective. Karen explains that she was initially fixated on the question: How do we survive and make it to February 2021? (This was March 2020.)
“We’d go into work every day, optimistic that we can control the things around us. You know, the entrepreneurial mindset. And then punches – left, right and centre. You walk into, well, actually there's a lot more things out of our control.”
Upon this realisation, it was then about flipping the question to: How do we build a business that does not have to rely on this event in February 2021, no matter what happens and what are we in control of?
It was about tapping into what they had. Which was (a) an incredible network and community of CEOs and business leaders that trusted them; and (b) their (existing) digital platform, that Karen describes what was once a bit of an “unloved child”.
First, their network. “We went out to the CEOs and business leaders and we said, right, what do you need to know right now? What is going to help you get you through?... How can we help you? How can you help us?”
They took part in and hosted many CEO roundtables, and Karen gave a shout out to the advice and guidance she got from Mark Bonchek and Jim Collins. (This is why you should always aim to be in the smallest room.) By April, they rocked their first virtual, ticketed event with Jim. A huge win for The Growth Faculty was that like with TCI, their international audience expanded – no geographically live events equals no geographical limitations.
When I asked about what successfully launching this first event was like, I love what Karen shared: that it was all about iteration after iteration. They knew they still had a long way to go about, so it was all about figuring out what works and what doesn’t – or as I like to say, testing and measuring.
For them and many of us, the biggest challenge to being competitive was the free content posted everywhere throughout the virtual world – everywhere. “But when it's free content is a different style of delivery. So we were relieved. We stuck with what we do best and deliver the best content. So we were really grateful for that and we thought, okay, there's something in this.”
Then they took things up another notch…membership subscriptions. (And spoiler alert – they got an outstanding result that Karen reveals in the episode!)
Karen shares that interestingly, she hired a head of digital innovation back in mid 2019 who helped set up their membership platform. “Prior to COVID, it was that project waiting to be worked on. COVID forced the hand where you got no choice and thank God we had this all set up.”
Little did they know that it would soon become the game-changer for the business.
“I've always had this thought about membership in the way that I would love to include all my events in a membership. But in the live event situation, every single event is so different. Then all of a sudden we've got these kind of virtual events and I'm like, you can control the costs. Let's go. I know what I'm up for.”
For me, necessity is the mother of invention. This strategy worked unbelievably well for everyone in our space.
Now it is The Growth Faculty’s business model moving forward, and I love that. That’s got sustainability. What’s even better is that Karen and her team are not undoing the knowledge she’s built over the years. It’s not a start-up mindset.
What has helped businesses like Karen’s and The Coaching Institute successfully pivot is the long-term thinking.
The initial scramble is inevitable. But the scramble is not sustainable. I see too many business owners still doing the scramble. You’ve got to build the foundations of the new business (model). Karen agrees that substantial changes have to be taken on early, because as is becoming clearer, “there is no going back.”
Back to the Beginning
After that quick dive into how we’ve been in the past 12 months, I invited Karen to return to the beginning to satisfy my curiosity on how it all began with The Growth Faculty.
After university in the early 90’s, Karen travelled across the globe to the UK and landed her first event management job with her friend who was bringing Anthony Robbins (yes, that’s the one and only Tony Robbins) to London for the very first time.
In the sparse group of three, she was involved in every aspect of making it happen, and describes it as “insane, but fun”.
When she eventually returned to home-base (Sydney), Karen settled into events management for the Certified Practising Accountants Association (CPA). She describes that this was the key to her learning the art of pulling programs and industries she knew nothing about together.
While her time in London taught her the logistical side of event management, this was the other half, the content aspect.
Tying it back to becoming an entrepreneur, she says she always had the urge to start her own business; driven by wanting to “design her own life”, “replace her job” and so she “doesn’t have to answer to anybody” – she says with tongue-in-cheek.
We laughed that that’s indeed what we believed we were in for.
Our conversation is continued in the next episode of the podcast, where we dive into Karen’s entrepreneurial building phase, and what that reality was like for her.
If you love learning about how successful businesses do their thing, this is the podcast for you. I trust you find inspiration. x