Leading the Charge into Democratizing Education and Building Community (not just Content) with Wes Kao, the Co-founder of Maven

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Let’s be honest, content is king. And the challenge today is finding ways to make that content not just resonate with people, but also more helpful by giving users a community that not only creates a lasting impression but one they can benefit from. Wes Kao knows content, and as the creator and co-founder of Maven, what she sees as the answer to improving the online course education experience for instructors and students. Paralleling the development of the technology along with curating a powerful roster of instructors, Maven has already seen financial success before the platform has even hit the market. This reflects Wes’ nuanced approach to modern, content creation. While quality still reigns supreme, the days of begging for subscribers might be trending downwards, in favor of a more hyper-personalized approach.

“Like and subscribe is dead because people used to need hundreds of thousands of followers to be able to make a living online. Things are shifting so that if you are a creator these days, you can make a pretty healthy living from a smaller audience of true fans who love what you do and want to, uh, want to engage with you and are willing to invest more in, um, in your content because they find it so valuable.”

And what is it that consumers are valuing these days? Community. The days of online interactions are on the rise,, which means those users are looking for new ways to flex their creative muscles. Wes knows how to curate these communities and In this episode of Marketing Trends, she delves into the way she approaches hiring, growing, and developing her business, as well as shares some of the nuggets of wisdom she gleaned from her time with Seth Godin. Wes has so many insights! Be prepared to take a few notes and learn a lot. Here we go!

Main Takeaways:

  • Focus on Behavior in Marketing: There is often too much emphasis placed on the next and newest marketing tools, instead of a focus on the actual principles of human behavior. Being able to answer those deep marketing questions, knowing how to increase or decrease desire, is where you can have real impact. The basics of understanding people and cognitive biases are the pillars of what makes for a good marketer. 
  • Keys to Hiring Well: Having a good team makes for a successful company and knowing how to suss out the right candidates means taking a few extra steps aside from having a verbal or in-person interview and looking over their CV. When you’re going through the hiring process, make sure that you look beyond the candidate’s resume, and focus on some of their ancillary activities. Seeing that people have side projects, personal websites, newsletters, etc. will show you about how a person presents themselves online, what they care about, and how much effort they put into their work. Take home projects are also a great way to ensure that you’re hiring someone who can do the job you have for them, and not just someone with some cool job titles in their past. 
  • Community has Become More Valuable than Content: Videos, lectures, articles are a dime-a-dozen and you can get really high-quality content about almost anything for free online today. If you want to make it in the content game, you have to focus on the community aspects of your business that you’re offering. Provide ways for people to connect with like-minded people and develop relationships with them. That’s when people will open their wallets.
  • ‘Like and Subscribe’ as a Business Model is Dead: You used to have to rely on big numbers of followers or view counts to be able to have a successful business or influences, but what matters now is less about overall numbers and more about the level of active participants that are viewing your content. Spreading vanilla messages that resonate with a mass audience is not what drives engagement. Hyper personalized content that the listener or viewer can relate to is.

Key Quotes
“I think a lot of times people see marketing and it’s a little bit of a  process of elimination type of career for some people where it’s like, well, I’m not great at math, so I’m not going to do finance or accounting. I’m not good at strategy. So I’m not going to do management consulting. What’s left? Marketing.”

“I think marketing as a field is changing so fast that, instead of staying up to date with the latest tools and technology, which is important. That’s one part, I think there’s a bit too much focus on that and not enough focus on going back to basics with how do people make decisions,, what sparks excitement in your customers? What are people confused by? how do you increase desire for people wanting to engage with you, wanting to get you through the product?”

“I’d say another one [describe the one] is leaning more into my strengths as a leader. The first 10 years of your career are about learning the business fundamentals and overcoming your weaknesses enough so that they don’t hinder you from advancing your career. “I used to be pretty disorganized. And if you’re disorganized, you can’t get your [thoughts?] together to actually launch projects, bring your ideas to life, get promoted our boss wants you to have your ducks in a row. “I spent time learning how to be organized, how to manage projects, how to look at numbers and read data.”

“If people are not interested, it doesn’t matter if your intent and your strategy was X. People are now reacting as Y like let’s not ignore that. Let’s acknowledge that as reality, and then work with this new data that we have and constantly update our hypotheses about what’s resonating and what’s not. The thing is, mimicking reality as closely as possible. Marketing is creating a landing page, they want to walk you through it. Back when I was a consultant, my clients would always want to walk me through the landing page they put together. My team now wants to walk me through the page that they put together. I always tell them, don’t give me any voiceover.”

“I think having this Navy SEAL mentality is something that you can see in someone’s background, not necessarily their resume, which shows their formal job experiences, but from their side projects, from their internet presence, are they launching,  side projects or do they have side hustles? Are they, are they writing their own personal newsletter and blog, even from something like someone’s newsletter, you get a ton of information, you get a sense of the person’s general aesthetic and design sense. You can there’s a sense of judgment. You can tell the kinds of topics that they write about and how well they execute. ou get a ton of insight into the way that this person thinks and whether they’re able to have an idea and then execute well on it.

“I’m a huge proponent of competency-based hiring. That is not necessarily looking at the person’s background and previous work experiences, but looking at the actual work output that the person has produced.”

“Working with Seth taught me to be a lot more strategic. It taught me to be strategic in my bones and my blood. I thought it was strategic before. And I thought I shipped quickly before but the speed in which we shipped at the altMBA at set HQ was pretty wild.”

“We wanted to buy ourselves time for engineers to build a product with robust features. And in the meantime, the business side of the company, the operational side, was helping to build courses and teaching them how to build. So this two-pronged approach was really great because it allowed us to start making revenue, start getting traction and start really learning about our customer and the problem that they wanted us to solve.

We want to democratize education and unbundle higher education. The vision there, by making corporate courses more accessible for experts everywhere, to be able to teach, we’re going to open up access.”

“One thing to think about in this transition is acknowledging that content is not the end all be all.  lot of us logically or intellectually might understand that, but a lot of creators when they’re building their courses, sometimes they’ll feel self-conscious that they’re charging this premium amount. And the first instinct is, let me add more content. Let me add another module on this. Let me add a couple more hours of lecture on this. Very rarely do I hear students say at the end of taking a course, saying gosh, ‘I wish there had been more lectures.’ That pretty much never happens. What they do say is ‘I wish there was more of a chance to meet other people. I wish we had longer time to share our ideas and get feedback.’”

“If you want to differentiate yourself, you need to offer something that is scarce and communities are scarce.”

“Marketers should be less judgmental overall. That’s a sign of a great marketer. We talk about empathy, but this is like extreme empathy.” 

Wes Kao began her marketing career in the rotational program at the Gap which gave her experience in all aspects of those businesses across many of their key companies and brands from merchandising, to supply chain, etc. She co-founded the altMBA with Seth Godin, and went on from there to launch Maven, an online education platform, to democratize education.

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Episode 251