TL;DR version: it works. The business is sustainable and profitable. We have worked with a large, growing, and international group of clients to help them think and plan for the future of education. The future of education and technology is a vital and sustainable topic upon which to base an enterprise.
Let me break that down. As I wrote when starting this adventure, I want to be as open as possible.
What the business looks like now: the core of BAC is continuous research into the future of education and technology. We conduct horizon scanning and trends analysis, complemented by Delphi reports and scenarios, along with experiments on new tools. Every day – literally – involves looking for new developments and analyzing trends. And when I write “continuous” that doesn’t mean isolated work, but conducting ongoing research through social networks, pushing notes and queries out to many fine folks, and learning from their responses.
From that research core stems a set of functions and services, including: speeches and presentations; consultations; digital media production; the FTTE report; the Future Trends Forum; writing, including multiple articles, interviews, and book chapters, plus at least two book projects of late; classes; workshops. Some of these connect with each other, as a speaking invitation might follow from someone reading one of my books, or a consulting request come from a keynote.
In a sense BAC is like a small, fairly open, intensely social, and very hyperactive think tank.
Who is BAC? At its base it’s me, Bryan Alexander, president and public face, plus Ceredwyn, my wife, and chief operating officer. We hire different people part-time for specific needs. I also consider the thousands of people we’ve interacted with over the past three years to be key contributors.
Who hires us? When we launched our core clients were small, liberal arts colleges and universities in the United States, based on my decade of work with NITLE. We rapidly expanded across American higher ed, working with community colleges, state schools, research-I universities, religious schools, military academies, libraries, and museums. That diversity of institutions is terrific from a research and networking perspective, as it’s rare to see such a range in education. Over the past year and a half our international work has grown, with clients ranging from professional associations in Britain and Australia to Canadian colleges and the Maltese Ministry for Education and Employment.
The number of requests has been steadily rising. Demand is healthy. Which is A Very Good Thing.
How does BAC make money? Roughly 50-60% of revenue comes from speaking engagements. About 30% is consulting, which is actually a wild mix of offerings in practice: workshops, meeting facilitation, report writing, helping relationships between parts of an institution, and help with decision-making. The remainder of income is sponsorship, FTTE contributions, and book sales.
What have we learned over this 30% of a decade? Here are some practical lessons, not in order:
- Always network. The more stuff shared with people, the better: the smarter the research, the greater the ideas. Also, tend that network. Curate who’s in it, and always seek to expand and improve it. For me, this distributed social ecosystem often functions as a personal learning network.
- Being open wins. Very rarely clients ask me not to share aspects of our work together. That’s fine, and not always predictable (what one client holds close to their vest, another shouts to the world). There are also some obvious things I decide not to share, namely personal details. Otherwise, and possibly due to the nature of my futures topics (education, technology), I can blog, tweet, podcast, YouTube, etc. what I’m seeing and learning. This increases what I know, and wins more discussion from the world.
- Always market. When we launched BAC I had some degree of reputation in certain areas of education and technology, based on prior positions. From then on I had to market myself and BAC with a great deal of energy. Three years in this has become second nature, as I’m always ready with business cards, URLs, multimedia, and quick descriptions of BAC’s services. Marketing, being open, networking: these are really facets of the same practice or ethos.
- Writing is marketing. It is also delight, but that’s not the point of this post. Educators respect writing. Journalists use writing to find experts. Writing lets you pin ideas to the wall of history, claiming them for the record. It’s good for the business, in short.
- Digital media is better than writing for marketing purposes. More people read blog posts than my articles. A larger number watch my videos than read my books. Plus videos give some sense of how I can act in person, as a speaker or facilitator.
- Personal health is vital. We are working without a net, as one friend put it (see below). That is, we don’t have an institution backing us up. We are responsible for *everything*, from setting up workplace insurance to paying taxes to arranging transportation to IT support to… you get the idea. A very bad medical crisis last November threatened our business and livelihoods (among other things). A crippling health issue or catastrophe to either myself or Ceredwyn could simply end BAC. So I’ve been trying to take better care of my health, which isn’t easy. I’m turning 50 next February. Being driven to do this work means excessive hours. Today’s American air travel is also bad for one’s health, physical and mental. I need to get better at self care. Friends, and Ceredwyn, help.
- No need for an official office. BAC’s offices are a combination of digital devices, the cloud, and a home office. No prospective client has ever asked to meet me in my offices. They are instead happy to learn about my when I travel or from afar, and want to engage our services for remote work or on-site activity. This is excellent, as it saves us rental fees, and the home office is the best commute ever. Cloud computing: Google apps, Quickbooks, Reclaim Hosting are our cabinets and safes.
- The three month horizon. Some few clients engage us from as far out in time as a calendar year, and we love them dearly. A handful look ahead four to eleven months. But we’ve found a large number prefer to track us down three months – or fewer – before they need us. That horizon has been as short as one week, actually. This makes planning tricky, since we have to be flexible on short notice. It’s hard to anticipate (even for a futurist, yes) how much business lies ahead for a season, so we low-ball estimates, and enjoy the extras when they occur.
- Virtual events. People in education still prefer face to face events. While videoconferencing is getting better technologically, few want to use it. The exceptions are organizations for which travel is a major cost, and when participants are accustomed to the virtual experience. I keep pushing for these, though, since I’m betting on humans becoming steadily more comfortable with the technology.
- Saying no and pricing appropriately. Trained as an academic, reared in the humanities, I’ve been schooled in seeing money as an evil and scarce thing. Running a business without a net… does not allow such an attitude. Ceredwyn and I have steeled ourselves to set reasonable prices, negotiate for them, then make sure they get paid.
- Sponsorships matter. Last year NYSERNet started supporting our FTTE newsletter. Soon after Shindig began supporting the Future Trends Forum. These are generous and thoughtful partners, to whom we are deeply grateful.
- When to do something for free. When there are other benefits that could be worth as much, such as marketing (the biggie) or professional development. I try to make room for helping out good causes on their own terms, like judging a local contest or contributing to an innovative startup project, but it’s hard to fit those into the business plan. The realities of scheduling – i.e., how much time it takes to conduct even a baseline of paid work – makes doing free gigs something rare. So far. Generally the rule is to make every trip, every gig pay.
- Community involvement. BAC’s ambit is increasingly global, but we have applied some of it to the local area. Two clients, colleges, are in Vermont. Ceredwyn has taught a brilliantly flipped emergency services class several times in central Vermont. Bryan has immersed himself in district K-12 school boards. Results? Besides some income, we have learned much more about Vermont, and are more deeply intertwined with the community. We are contributing, which is important ethically and politically.
- Working without a net. I want to expand on this point. BAC is not part of a university or library, nor any company, government agency, or nonprofit. Ceredwyn and I do not have extra jobs to fall back on, nor family wealth. We did not incur debt to launch or maintain BAC. We are entirely on our own, every day. BAC alone supports us, plus our homestead, and our two college-age children, plus a swarm of animals. This can be frightening, especially in the modern economy, and in a state with very few options. For me, the academic job market is laughably horrendous. For Ceredwyn, there are vanishingly few paid EMT positions in the area. We are on our own.
Practically speaking, this inspires us to work seven days a week. We keep on accruing revenue to build up cash reserves in case of a macroeconomic downturn, health issue, or drop in business. Being without a net does not incentivize taking downtime.
- Redesigning the BAC site, yes, yes. I have a clients page just about ready to launch, and am writing up some case studies. The site really needs a new look and feel for the whole thing. It’s nice to be too busy with work to adjust the company site. Heck, we might just outsource it.
- Visualizations. I need to get cracking on making visualizations of trends. Anyone want to help with that?
- Producing new stuff. Future Trends Forum participants have asked about a podcast spinoff. I am considering a couple of short ebooks. Ceredwyn has a novel appearing, already available on preorder.
- Considering new projects. I’d love to see a new project to grapple with the future of education and technology, such as a crowdsourced effort or an experimental app.
- Expansion. As demand picks up, we run out of time to fulfill all good requests. We also don’t necessarily have the expertise for each one. So this may be a time to create and fill positions.
- Sponsors and partners. Given our success so far, our growing client base, and expanding media projects, we’re looking for media partners and sponsors.
What else can I tell you about the enterprise?