It speaks to the effectiveness of our operational team and how we’re moving forward here to execute on this vision.

Being recognized is always a good feeling, unless it’s for that extra 20 pounds you recently acquired over the winter. In the case of Pluralsight, being recognized by Forbes as one of America’s Most Promising Companies is definitely a good thing. Just ask CEO Aaron Skonnard.

“I think it speaks to the opportunity that’s in front of us, along with the disruption that we’re causing and the overall size of the impact we’re going to be able to have in the marketplace,” Skonnard told Beehive Startups in a recent interview. “It also speaks to our culture — you know that’s a big thing for us — and it speaks to the effectiveness of our operational team and how we’re moving forward here to execute on this vision. I think a lot of it boils down to the size of the vision, we’re really committed to democratizing professional learning around the world.”

So how does a company — in the span of ten short years — move from startup infancy to major player? By waging war, not necessarily on individual competitors, but on an entire outdated marketplace. For Pluralsight, this means coming strong at the classroom training space.

“We’re thinking much bigger than just worrying about this competitor or that competitor, it’s more about the whole market,” Skonnard said. “It’s like Uber going up against the taxi industry. That is a pretty apt analogy — we’re going up against the traditional classroom training model that has been used for centuries. Any kind of learning that happens after what would be thought of as traditional college experience is where we sit. There’s so much opportunity there to improve people’s lives, to give them better opportunities to pick up today’s modern skills, especially around technology.”

Competition is a great thing. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy such fantastic creations as college football, golf, or dueling banjos. From a business perspective, competition breeds tougher, smarter, creative companies. To stay afloat in the blood-infested waters of classroom and online training, Pluralsight has been forced to continually evolve, both through innovation and healthy competition. But in the end, only one company can be king.

“It’s been an evolution,” Skonnard said. “Now that we have this strength and success, it’s really given us the confidence to go after the whole industry. It makes us a lot more comfortable talking about the competition and knowing that there will be competition. We actually encourage the competition, we stay really close to our competitors. I have a really close relationship with the folks at Lynda, I have dinner with the CEO over there, and we have close relationships with some of our other competitors. Together, we are changing this space and we’re changing it pretty dramatically. But we feel like we’re the driving, dominant force that will hopefully help change it faster than anyone else. That’s what we’re laser-focused on and we focus on that much more than any of those other specific competitive issues.”

As established in the opening line, adding things isn’t always good. In Pluralsight’s case, their recent addition of Nate Walkingshaw as chief product officer is definitely a good thing. Walkingshaw brings with him a wealth of entrepreneurial knowledge and experience, most recently leading the technology-focused research and development arm of O.C. Tanner Recognition Company, Tanner Labs. And he fills a void that Pluralsight has been looking to eliminate.

“Nate is the product guy we’ve been needing for a long time,” Skonnard said. “This company was started by software developers…we really built this company over the last ten years without any product focus. I’m talking about product science, where you’re actually connected with the customer, using customer-centric design process, listen to their voice and really dialing in the innovation so you know the people you’re serving so well that you can innovate for them, surprise and delight them with exactly what they didn’t know they needed, but just at the right time. We haven’t had that at Pluralsight. About a year ago, we decided that we had to shift towards a more product-centric culture. So we’ve been looking for a while for the right person who can bring that in and really reboot the way we think about building our products at Pluralsight. And that’s what we hired Nate to do.”

Whether it’s new hires, continued acquisitions, or just an old-fashioned refusal to stop moving forward, Pluralsight continues to make a monster push towards the pinnacle of the online education industry. Even as their growth exponentiates, restlessness remains — no matter how big you get, there is always room for more.

“When you go through these big growth spurts as a company, you have this arc, and then after a while it will level out if you don’t find a new innovation or transformation that creates a new arc,” Skonnard said. “The idea is that there’s a sweet spot within the arc, not at the top, but in the middle of that journey where you’re having a lot of growth, which gives you a lot of investment opportunity — you have cash to spend. That gives us the ability to invest those dollars at the right point in time to create that next arc of growth. When I look at the long-term nature of this business that we’re in, our journey is going to consist of several of those arcs — we have to continue to innovate. I still look at us being in the very early stages of this online education revolution…there’s so much more to come. We’ve barely scratched the surface on the types of learning experiences we can provide, the effectiveness of online learning when you take it out of the classroom.”

Published 2/26/2015