This article is part of our Rising Star Portfolios series. Sean is co-manager of the Dada Portfolio.
In the first part of this deep-dive look at K12 (NYSE: LRN ) , we introduced you to the company and profiled its explosive growth. In this second part, we'll explore CEO Ron Packard's attitudes toward management and running the company, as well as take a look at the products that have set K12 apart in the virtual education industry.
A class above
What Bryan and I found most exciting at the company was the culture, which starts at the top. Packard tells all his employees that he wants to run K12 not in terms of business obligations but in terms of moral obligations -- what is best for students? He's found that when the company focuses on that moral obligation, the growth, profit, and stellar business results end up taking care of themselves. His answer reminded me of one of my favorite CEOs: Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, who set out to create the world's most customer-centric company.
So I asked Packard who his favorite CEOs were. He listed three, and each reveals a lot about his priorities:
- George Merck, the founder of Merck, who said, "Medicine is for people, not for the profits." Packard says Merck is his all-time greatest hero, and there are a lot of similarities between Merck's people-before-profit outlook and K12's focus on students.
- Andy Grove, the founder of Intel. Packard liked that Grove built so much out of nothing, with a persistent attitude about competitors: always staying paranoid and alert.
- Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, whom Packard admires for his ability to deliver to the customers what they want and to build multiple companies out of nothing.
Watch and learn
After our interview with Packard, Bryan and I spent an hour with Maria Szalay, Tom DiGiovanni, and David Pelizzari from K12's product development and content and curriculum departments. The product development work is exhaustively thorough. There's a lot that goes into thinking about how to keep students engaged (Hint: It's not from expecting them to work through a 600-page textbook on their own), and how best to present the information.
K12's virtual curriculum uses a combination of text, images, videos, and interactive programs. Maria, Tom, and David kindly guided Bryan and I through some of K12's coursework, an example of which you can see here:
K12's developers have thought through every permutation, and this virtual lab's results replicate the same outcomes -- both successes and mistakes -- that students could reach in a real-world biology lab.
The business exam
There’s a lot to like about this company. Of course, there’s the disruptive innovation aspect, there’s the passionate management, the obvious financial results, but tying it all together is what I found to be a truly exuberant entrepreneurial spirit. In the past decade, K12 has gone from a startup to a $1 billion company. But the vigor with which it has approached and taken on new business ventures is reminiscent of much smaller companies. Packard and company ask only two questions: Is it good for the students? And does it generate a good internal rate of return?
As Bryan and I left, he uttered a single phrase that captures our impressions: "They get it." Packard and the excellent team at K12 understand what running a visionary and disruptive company is all about. For them, it's about designing really great curriculum and getting it out there to as many students as possible. I love that simple and clear focus and I’m excited to bring K12 to the attention of the Dada Portfolio.
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