From Higher Education to Analytics Startup: Solving the Right Problem
Starting a business can be difficult for anyone, but starting a higher education analytics business can be even more difficult without a deep understanding of the needs and challenges facing higher education.
In this episode of the Higher Edge podcast, Eric Spear gives us insights on how he left the University of Maryland University College (now called University of Maryland Global Campus) and started his small business Precision Campus, why vendor solutions in higher education are not plug-and-play, and how collaborative working in higher education has become.
Taking Higher Education into the Cloud
Spear got his master’s degree in computer science at the University of Maryland University College working in the institutional research office where he provided computer science and database support and ended up staying.
After a decade of working in higher education, Spear had the idea to start a business where he could provide these same services for a wide variety of colleges and universities instead of just one. A prospect that only became possible with the rise of cloud computing.
“We can create this service, build it in the cloud and then invite other colleges and universities to sign up for the service and get the benefit of our efforts in terms of data warehousing, reports, online query tools, or dashboards without having to deploy anything on-premise,” says Spear.
With the advent of cloud computing, it was now possible for Spear to start his own business, Precision Campus, empowering colleges and universities across the country with advanced institutional analytics.
Why Vendor Solutions in Higher Education Are Not Plug-And-Play
Every college and university is unique. For example, each has unique metrics, reports, and needs that fit with its faculty, students, and cultures.
However, many vendors working in the higher education space often think that their solutions can work for every college, even without modification. These “plug-and-play” solutions often don't work for every college or university as each one it’s own culture and a unique way of operating.
“Every school has either their own unique reports that they're concerned about, a particular key performance indicator (KPI) unique to that school, or they have their own unique measures,” says Spear, ”And so as a business in higher education, you have to be able to provide for their needs.”
As a software business, it's great to be able to build software once and have it run multiple times, and it’s a real challenge to do that when the software doesn't work the same for every college or university.
“The solution is to deliver value by delivering the reports that are common to most colleges, but also be flexible enough that you can meet individual needs,” says Spear.
Offering a flexible solution that can work for multiple different colleges is great for higher education.
If you can meet the needs of every unique college and university successfully, the word will spread, and you’ll have a lot of people wanting what you have to offer.
The Collaborative Nature of Working in Higher Education
One of he things that makes higher education unique is that colleges and universities are very collaborative when they find something that works for them.
“One of the things I love about this space as a vendor is that your clients are wonderfully collaborative,” says Spear, ”If you have a great solution and provide it to a big state university, they're gonna tell all their friends.”
The other key for a business working in higher education is perseverance. Especially when starting a small business in higher education where the sales cycle can be very long.
“Eventually you're gonna get that lighthouse customer,” says Spear, “That very first customer who then, if you deliver value, is going to share their experience, and lead to a lot of success.”
As you get more customers wanting your solutions, you get more feedback on what went right and possibly what went wrong.
Starting as a small business, but with a decade of experience working inside higher education, Spear was able to listen to his customers and make changes quickly so that they could help their college clients achieve their goals more effectively.
In working with a variety of higher education customers, he learned that many colleges and universities already had some kind of data warehouse in place - but all liked the reporting solution Precision Campus offered.
“As an entrepreneur, you use your ears more than your mouth and listen to what institutions are saying,” says Spear, “I think that's key because now when the colleges have their most painful processes become painless, they're suddenly saying, ‘Hey, these guys offer great value, let's sign up with these guys.’”
Spear and Precision Campus wanted to deliver solutions that addressed the real challenges for researchers in higher education and not find themselves in the position of being a “solution” that was looking for a problem. This is how Spear and his team were able to focus their development efforts more on what the colleges needed rather than what they, as a vendor, “could” offer.
Overcoming Challenges in Institutional Analytics
For most colleges and universities, the institutional research office is really where all of a college or university’s data comes together.
It can sometimes be challenging to find what you’re looking for when you combine multiple different data sets that don’t correlate with one another, especially when some of the data differs year after year.
“You want to be able to combine different data sets and respond tactically [with one another],” says Spear, “It shows the kind of unique place of IR but also the need for it in this very changing environment.”
Over the last couple of years, the global COVID pandemic gave higher education institutions the motivation to dive even deeper into understanding students’ mental health needs. Many institutions are now addressing these needs by delivering content that is not only effective but comfortable for the student.
Doing this well for different cohorts of students can only be found with the use of data.
“[We want to] make sure that the decision-makers have the data they need to make appropriate decisions,” says Spear, “We're maybe just a small part of that, but I think we're a valuable part of that.”
Finally, it’s important that data is made into something that can be viewed and interacted with by everyone at the institution.
“We worked with one college to make a visually interesting display of all of their KPIs,” says Spear, “The cool part about it was the president and the cabinet could then readily see how they’re doing towards our goals, which was a great success for that college.”
While data visualization like this might work for some, others prefer to go straight in and look at what the data tables are saying.
“You have to be able to deliver both,” says Spear, “You can't have one size fits all in this case. Being able to have real choices in terms of what you offer works best.”
The Higher Edge
To learn more about Eric Spear and the work he does for higher education, check out the work he’s done with Precision Campus.