There is a huge trend in education towards digital transformation. Companies from Hobsons to Coursera, Lynda (now LinkedIn Learning), and more are making the shift to—or doubling down on—subscription business models.
Education subscriptions are a win-win for consumers and businesses. For customers, education subscriptions provide easy access to consumable training. For education SaaS businesses, these subscriptions create a predictable stream of recurring revenue.
So what role does the IT team for an education SaaS company? It depends on who you ask.
For 4 out of 10 CIOs, they see their role as “adding value to the organization through exceptional operational performance.” Put another way, their focus is on keeping the lights on.
On the other hand, there is a growing number of CIOs within education businesses who see their role as more strategic. It’s their responsibility to enable the company on the latest and greatest technology, as well as drive broader business growth strategies. As Deloitte notes “When companies are growing quickly, their organization likely needs a business co-creator in the CIO role.”
But what happens when one of those corporate growth strategies is to adopt an education SaaS model? This is an area where IT can play a leading role— but it’s also where things can get tricky.
Let’s start with what is different about a subscription business model before we jump into what has to be different about the technology to enable it.
A subscription model focuses on recurring customer relationships rather than one-time product sales. In other words, subscription companies adopt a “customer-first” mindset rather than a “product-first” mindset. They are focused on providing products as a service to customers, on creating long-lasting customer relationships, and on driving growth throughout the entire customer lifetime. They can’t rely on creating hit products anymore, these companies need to constantly provide value to their customers through ongoing services.
So, to succeed with a subscription business model, IT leaders need to rethink their systems to build a “customer-first” architecture that optimizes for this business model.
Now let’s look at the typical technology architecture.
While there are dozens, if not hundreds, of applications in every company, there is always a similar set of tools that enable the “order-to-revenue” process (also known as order-to-cash or quote-to-cash)—the process that lets your company sell to customers, capture payments, and make money. It’s the backbone of any business.
Most companies today anchor the order-to-revenue process on a two-cloud architecture—a Customer Relationship Management system (CRM) and an Enterprise Resource Planning system (ERP).
But here’s the thing: stitching together a CRM and ERP does not work for the dynamic nature of an education SaaS model, so the fix is a bottomless pit of hard code and customizations.
Why? Let me net it down to three reasons:
For every single possible scenario, your IT team will need to hard code a solution to anticipate the downstream impacts on order management, billing, collections, revenue recognition, and reporting. It’s an endless uphill battle. Most companies recognize this, and end up putting the burden on their finance teams—asking Accounts Receivable and Revenue Accounting teams to essentially handle every scenario as a manual one-off. Needless to say, if your company is planning to grow, that’s not sustainable.
Over the course of our work with over a thousand subscription companies, the pattern has become clear—a two-cloud architecture inevitably forces companies down the path of hard-coded customizations.
As IT teams realize this, we’ve seen some creative workarounds—that put pressure on Finance…and ultimately fail:
These are the three most common paths IT takes with Finance:
It’s important for IT teams for education SaaS businesses to think about the architecture that enables long-term growth rather than a short-term win. The right decision will solve the issue of the IT team being a bottleneck to the overall business strategy.
Instead of retrofitting a new subscription business model into a legacy architecture, IT teams that we work with have found a better solution.
Because of the dynamic nature of subscriptions, subscription businesses need to adopt a three-cloud architecture strategy with:
The subscription management solution is responsible for all order-to-revenue operations, enabling you to price, rate, bill, collect, recognize, measure, acquire, and nurture your subscribers.
That’s how long it now takes Symantec to process 80% of orders—without workarounds, without bespoke back-end systems, without manual processes, without complications. As the company transitioned from a traditional product company with a very complex IT system to a subscription company, its underlying systems and processes had to change as well.
According to Sheila Jordan, CIO for Symantec, “We were looking at where the future was going and we saw that the future is SaaS.” So Symantec made the decision to consolidate their complex IT ecosystem into one platform and make the transition into a security-as-a-service provider.
At the heart of this transition: Zuora. As Jordan notes, “You call Zuora the hub. I call Zuora the heart. It’s the heart of the platform because it holds all the intelligence around the billing and the subscriptions—it’s the heart that ties it together.”
Now with Zuora at the center of its tech stack, Symantec has been able to simplify their complex order-to-revenue processes. Whereas Symantec used to have long provisioning times (as noted above, one legacy product took a full 21 days to book), now 80% of their orders that are running on their global subscription platform are provisioned in just 5-10 minutes. And in FY17, Symantec experienced 28% YoY growth growth in GAAP revenue and 35% growth in non-GAAP revenue.
What worked for Symantec, and countless other companies across all industries, works for education SaaS.
When IT can help business units across the organization to do their jobs better, more easily, and faster, they become heroes. When IT is instrumental in architecting a new stack to solve for the dynamic order-to-revenue process, they cease to be merely order takers and ticket fixers. They become drivers for growth and valued strategic business partners.
The way we do business has fundamentally changed. The way we sell education has changed. The way people consume training has changed.
All this means the IT function has to change as well.
The new order-to-revenue process doesn’t just usher in a whole new way of doing business and a whole new set of systems—it ushers in the dawn of a “New IT.” No longer is IT a closed off G&A department. Modern IT marries business and technology, with the IT function playing a pivotal role in driving change and enabling new revenue streams.
Business leaders are demanding that IT enable the transition from product-based companies to recurring revenue models. Marketing & Sales looks to IT to compete in the market and be strategically positioned to launch new products and services, provide new ways to price and package, and identify upsell and cross sell opportunities. Finance looks to IT to provide growth metrics and a new financial model for subscription businesses.
In other words, the time has passed for technology leaders for education companies to focus their efforts on simply maintaining legacy systems. Working cross-functionally, technology business leaders need to break down silos across the organization and drive the alignment that is necessary to transform a business. Now is the time to take bold steps towards an innovative IT architecture and help architect your company’s newfound growth as a successful education SaaS business.