Evolving as a Brand With OKRs

Skillshare reaches its full potential with OKRs.

person drawing cats in sketchbook

Skillshare is an online learning community for over 12 million teachers and students, and the dedication to their users’ personal growth is reflected in their company culture. Learn here how they used OKRs to create a robust system of employee feedback, develop brand identity, and focus on long-term growth.

Ever wanted to learn how to code? How about to paint with watercolors? Or do you need some cooking tips? If so, you’ve likely encountered an ad or two on YouTube or your favorite podcast for the educational service, Skillshare.

Among the various online learning platforms available, Skillshare is the one that most caters to creatives with easy-to-consume, project-based courses and an active online community. With over 12 million users, Skillshare has leveraged the power of the internet to democratize the exchange of skills. Since it’s an open platform, anyone can potentially teach a class on Skillshare. The lack of gatekeepers allows for members to have access to a great variety of classes taught by instructors from all walks of life including logo design, creative writing, and even tarot card reading. But maintaining an open exchange amongst this many people comes with major challenges too.

To address this paradox between openness and quality, Skillshare has turned to the Objectives and Key Results management framework.

“We want people to come in and share their knowledge and expertise,” says CEO Matt Cooper. “But we also have to make sure that the content is what you would expect in a paid premium product.”

For the content and community teams, that means thinking extra carefully through both the student and — just as importantly — the teacher experience, making sure that course guidelines and expectations are clear and resources are easily accessible.

Getting the balance right between growing a diverse course catalog and keeping consistent quality requires more than just a focus on growth. OKRs allow Skillshare’s content and community teams to reconcile priorities that might otherwise seem at odds. So their Key Results focus on two measurements: the percentage of website courses that meet a high-quality grading threshold, and the rejection rate of courses submitted to the platform.

Teacher development drives improvement in both these efforts, which is why they have implemented programs to build a pipeline of new teachers while assisting exceptional ones.

The Teach Challenge program identifies potential teachers and provides them with more hands-on coaching for developing their first course on Skillshare. For instructors who made their mark in the Skillshare community, the Top Teachers program provides additional marketing resources and coaching. Investing in teachers leads to more quality courses — which in turn can lead to more subscribers.

A culture of personal growth

The connective tissue that makes Skillshare’s strategy, OKRs, and performance all work together are its values. And for Skillshare, no values are more important than personal development and continuous feedback.

COO Sabrina Kieffer, who is responsible for strategic planning at the company, says, “The way we’re conducting ourselves from an external brand perspective is also very similar to the culture that we’re trying to build at Skillshare.”

At the core of both sides of Skillshare is the belief that curiosity and creativity makes a more well-rounded person — and workforce.

On the Accidental Creative Podcast, Cooper and Kieffer agreed that leadership is about building a quality team and getting out of their way.

“It starts with identifying the right team, and then giving them the runway to grow and develop,” said Kieffer. “And figuring how I can support them.”

The best way they have found to achieve this is through mutual feedback.

This belief that feedback is vital for personal development can be seen reflected both externally and internally at Skillshare. The platform feels like a community because students can upload projects they completed during their courses online and receive feedback from their teachers and fellow students.

Internally, the company is investing in building a similar system of continuous feedback. They are working to give managers the skills and tools necessary for them to provide meaningful feedback and conversations about personal development to their teams on a weekly, quarterly, and annual basis.

“I just truly believe that people need to be receiving continuous and constant feedback because without it, people start to make up things, in terms of how their value might be perceived for the company,” says Kieffer. “And if someone is valued or has an area for growth, we should be talking to them about it.”

The ultimate goal is to make their employees feel safe to be their full selves at work and share their diverse insights and strengths.

Feedback and personal development aren’t just core values at Skillshare, they’re good for business. An open and diverse workforce results in a more robust and adaptable company.

In addition, they’ve also built spaces for employees to provide feedback to the company and influence its strategy through anonymous company-wide surveys.

“We’re kind of constantly switching between top-down and bottom-up to try to get something that has a very clear strategic direction, which is set by the executive team and the top-down approach,” said Cooper. “But also gets a lot of buy-in from the team.”

It was in one of those spaces that a recent and large shift in strategy emerged.

Know thyself; brand thyself

“Skillshare’s mission is to help ignite and fuel the creative spark that is in everyone,” says Cooper.

In the middle of last year, the company was focused on growing its subscriber base through improvements in the user experience. Those conversations eventually led to the realization that as a brand they weren’t communicating why users loved their service.

“We have an online learning community that’s really designed to help professional creators excel in their career, develop new skills, and potentially share those skills with others and earn money for that,” says Cooper.

They agreed that a new visual identity could have a meaningful impact on their business in the long term. It needed to fit well in all digital spaces — including on mobile and tablet devices — and communicate Skillshare’s goal of transitioning from a learning platform to a lifestyle brand.

So, they quickly rallied the company around this new priority, creating a SWAT team for the initiative. Six months later, they rolled out a new look: a mix of upper and lowercase letters bookended by two wander green dots giving it a playful flair. Tying the look together across the website and marketing materials is a wandering green line motif that weaves and loops from place to place.

two people talking in front of a skillshare neon sign

“It’s the first time in Skillshare’s history that we’ve gone through something like that,” said Kieffer. “If the team wasn’t open to addressing the most important needs of the business in a nimble way, we would never have been able to pull it off.”

Echoing their brand’s wandering green line motif, they’re helping creatives navigate their huge course library by creating curated pathways that make it easier for users to find what they’re looking for. Recommended lists group relevant classes into syllabi like Videography 101, Introduction to SEO, and Freelance Essentials. Workshops, like “Create a Successful YouTube Channel: From Concept to Camera,” and even more specific topics provide additional support and structure with a set schedule and deadlines.

And on their blog, you’ll frequently find posts and video content catering to their creative-class audience like “Your Best Year Yet: 5 Tips For Building A Successful Creative Career” and “Female Founders On The Power Of Creative Communities” that also highlight their teachers and class offerings. The move toward a more editorialized discovery experience is part of the company’s shift to becoming a lifestyle brand.

Cooper and Kieffer continue to use OKRs as fuel to reach their long-term vision.

“I have been a really strong believer that every company needs OKRs,” said Kieffer. “I just don’t see how you operate a business without Objectives, because without it, people just don’t have direction.”

OKRs enable them to envision this long-term goal as a series of steps. Each step, like the rebrand, being a natural evolution of the company rather than an excessively planned in advance move.

“We recognize that it is necessary to have this three-year plan as a North Star for people to align around,” says Kieffer, who you can actually take a class on strategy from on Skillshare. “But we also recognize that business needs change and the things that you set out for the next year aren’t always relevant in that moment.”

This new direction for Skillshare is really just the company becoming a fuller version of itself. Like the creatives it attracts, Skillshare is capable of growth.

person drawing using skillshare

If you’re interested in starting our OKRs 101 course, click here.

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