nlighten chats to Sam Paddock, CEO of GetSmarter

Sam Paddock - GetSmarterGetSmarter’s success did not happen overnight. It took many failed experiments and bad names (GetBrains) before its launch in 2008. In the last seven years, the online education company has shown 100% year-on-year growth and this year, is on track for a staggering R260 million turnover – thanks, in part, to their recent international expansion. But its real success is in the way it approaches its customers.


In his early twenties, SAM PADDOCK and his brother, Rob, were self-proclaimed serial entrepreneurs. But in 2007, a friend gave Sam some advice that changed the way he approached entrepreneurship – “The best opportunities are the ones that are closest to you.”


At that point, Sam had already started GetWine, a successful online wine retail business. He and his brother had also spearheaded an online property law course through Paddocks – his father, Graham Paddock’s law firm. “I took the challenge very literally. The two things that were closest to me were wine and online courses.”

“I was studying Information Systems at The University of Cape Town and my final-year project was to produce a virtual campus. I decided to put on an online wine course, and so launched the university’s first certificate in wine evaluation. We had 281 students at the first course and that’s how GetSmarter was born.”



“Because we come from a family business, relationships have always been very important to us. While organisations will often have primary bottom lines of profits and impact, family businesses have bottom lines of the quality of the relationships between family members. For this reason, we’ve got a very strong approach to people. We also reinvest a lot of money back into our products.“


On average, online courses manage a 5 – 60% completion rate. GetSmarter’s completion rate is 94%, which is almost unheard of in online education. So how do they get their students to stay the course?


GetSmarter takes an outside-in approach, managing their business from the student’s point of view by arming every educator – their students’ primary point of contact – with a support team. “We take a proactive interest in our students’ development – following up if they’re falling behind. We really believe that relationships drive motivation.” But how do they know whether they are hitting the mark?

GetSmarter runs a Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey at the end of every course that asks each student the simple question, How likely are you to recommend GetSmarter to your family and friends? NPS is a basic customer satisfaction measurement tool, rated on a scale of 0 – 10, that simply gauges whether a customer is a promoter or detractor after an experience with your business. Promoters typically score a 9 or 10, detractors score between 0 and 6 and score of 7 or 8 renders the respondent’s score neutral.

“We have an incredible NPS at the moment. It’s 86.4% (meaning this percentage of their students are promoters) – so we know we’re doing something right,” Sam says modestly, adding, “But I also feel it’s unfair, because we develop such good relationships with our students – when you ask them how you did, it’s like the relationship trumps any negativity that may have been experienced.”


When it comes to navigating the waters of the South African economy, Sam admits to certain limitations – like the lack of government support for new businesses and the fact that we simply don’t have a culture like that of San Francisco’s Silicon Valley. “But in my opinion, South African entrepreneurs shouldn’t feel entitled to capital – we have to work for it.”


Sam’s advice for fledgling entrepreneurs is to experiment widely and work hard in the early stages. “Do as much as you can, but the minute someone will pay you for something and you’ve reached into the market – destroy any other distractions. Even after succeeding with GetSmarter, I continued to go out and experiment on other projects for three or four years. It was the wrong thing to do. I should have focussed all my attention on GetSmarter.”

No company is perfect, but given the level of competition out there – especially in online business – it has become so easy for customers to switch to a rival. At its heart, despite employing 200 people full time and having 60 contract teachers on its books, GetSmarter functions like a modest family business. In selling knowledge – providing a service as personal as education – a company enters a customer service minefield. But clearly, by focussing on the quality of their relationships with their clients, GetSmarter has triumphed.

Jargon and legalese abound in the business world

View a nlighten article by Nathalie Schooling: How Customer Experience Impacts Bottom Line Growth

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