This week we did coffee in style at the Cape Town V&A Waterfront Workshop 17, office to the dynamic iXperience team. A team of twelve, led by two inspirational dudes with a passion for purpose and the stamp of Yale on their LinkedIn profiles.
Now, given the size of waves this business is making in the startup world, they probably don’t need much of an introduction. You probably already know that they originally started as a coding bootcamp with an added internship experience. You also probably know that today they connect with students from top universities in the world, like Harvard, Yale and MIT.
And if you’ve chatted to Aaron Fuchs or Rafi Khan before, you might even know about their massive plans for the future, including international expansion, a global campus, and the new base they set up in Lisbon, Portugal this year.
So we’re here to tell you what you don’t know. The inside scoop on the real purpose behind iXperience, what drives their leadership, what challenges they face, and how they feel about strategy in a startup.
Now you’re hooked!
From “What” to “Why”
iXperience started without a grand vision. They had no idea what they would look like three years in, and it took them a while to discover their purpose. But what they did know, was that they were doing something epic.
“In the early days, our team didn’t have a concrete vision of what we were building, but everyone knew why: we wanted to create a life-changing experience for students. We wanted to bring students here and change their lives through education, connecting with people, and building an inspiring community”
You see, they’d identified a gap, a need, that wasn’t being met. A need that resonated with them as university graduates themselves. Students at top universities were getting very elite, very expensive education, but leaving without the skills that would impact them in the workplace.
Ba-dum-chhh. Their purpose was crystal clear. To create epic journeys of growth that unlock students’ potential.
“The idea is really to help people discover something about themselves that they didn’t previously know. The time they have here, and the person they get to be and become while they’re here, is transformative. The people they meet, the culture they experience, the idea of connecting with an inspiring environment and really being pushed out of their comfort zone, is something that I think a traditional university performs abysmally.”
This, of course, is incomparable with many of the other advances in the education industry, too. Like MOOCS, which are, well, massive, meaning that they’re about distribution and dissemination of knowledge. Not exactly the kind of personalised experienced that’ll leave you teary-eyed and sniffling on completion.
Not even kidding! Many of the students who get the iXperience-experience shed a few tears as they leave Cape Town International Airport, knowing that the journey (or at least this part of their life’s journey) has come to an end.
How They Did It
So, how did they do it? How’d they become so successful in such a short period of time?
The natural answer would be, “A solid strategy”. But it wouldn’t be the truth. Because Rafi has some unconventional feelings on strategy in a startup, and they make a lot of sense.
“I have mixed feelings about strategy in a startup. There’s a saying I like, which is ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. The idea being that building a team that’s aligned around a common mission is far more effective than spending that same time planning the perfect strategy.”
But, while strategy wasn’t the divine answer to growth for iXperience, they did share some of the most important practices and experiences that helped them to move forward:
Access to Market
On first launching the business, Rafi and Aaron found themselves staring straight into the nasty face of their first challenge – access to market.
“Just getting people to believe that what we were doing was good was a very, very difficult thing.”
But, fortunately, Rafi and Aaron are both Yale alumni, so having existing connections at top universities in the U.S. was a big foot forward (and not something that many other South Africans can leverage).
Initial traction came with visiting universities, connecting with students, being able to understand their journeys, and selling them Cape Town as the destination.
“Our market is very far away. It takes an incredible amount of time, and 2 to 3 trips to America each year to foster those relationships and keep building a community.”
Community is an integral part of the programme, and a powerful way of reaching (distant) future students. The community of iXperience alumni are activated to connect with other students on campus, and to share their stories, ultimately creating a network effect in countries beyond South African borders.
Data, Data, Data!
iXperience leverages data to continuously improve the customer experience, make better business decisions, monitor quality, and refine their marketing approach.
“We believe in the power of data, and the power of technology, to really transform business.”
iXperience boasts an impressive revenue/employee ratio. Why? Well, because they have 12 madly-skilled employees who are invested in their purpose, and the rest is left to tech.
They use Google, Facebook, and Instagram to reach a global audience through digital marketing. They have an impressive website that’s easy to navigate. And they use a complex system of surveys and qualitative and quantitative interviews to get feedback from students.
“We’re obsessed with tracking every single part of our business, to the point where we know every link that’s clicked, and every professor who opens our email. We base our decisions on this information.”
This tracking enables them to monitor who loves them, who doesn’t, how to improve the experience for those who don’t, and how to activate those who do love them, to do more for them.
People Are Everything
According to Rafi, the people are everything. Both in terms of how you connect with your customer, and how you phrase your vision and purpose to others on the team.
“People buy the who and why, instead of the what. You have to be honest with yourself about why you’re doing something, truly believe in it, and then hold yourself accountable to finding others who believe in it for the same reason.”
[bctt tweet=”People buy the who and why, instead of the what.” username=”iXperience”]
This is why iXperience feels that the best thing they ever did was to find a group of people who really, really, REALLY cared about the same cause.
“A players hire A players. B players hire C players. So to attain high talent density over time, you have to be rigorous with your recruitment.”
Now, iXperience will be the first to admit that they’re not perfect at this yet. They have about a 50% success rate at hiring, but they’re learning, and getting better at knowing what it is they’re looking for. Today, they have an 8-step hiring process, and discuss personal growth plans right from the onboarding phase.
But what really makes them unique is their hardworking, passionate and self-driven culture. A culture where people hold themselves accountable as a team, because they share the same expectations of success. Finding other people who connect with this culture is the challenge.
“You’re not here to be busy, you’re here to get results. This resonates with a certain person, but it’s not for everybody.”
As Rafi says, a culture actually has to be exclusive, for it to be a culture.
“It doesn’t really matter what the culture is, as long as it’s authentic. I find culture isn’t something you can say. It has to be discovered over time.”
[bctt tweet=”It doesn’t really matter what the culture is, as long as it’s authentic” username=”iXperience”]
Rafi on Entrepreneurship
We asked Rafi to share some personal insight on his experience of entrepreneurship. After all, the guy could be working at Google, where he’d have a boss whose job it would be to make sure that he succeeds. As it turns out though, Rafi chose the startup road for some very cool reasons, like freedom and ownership of his own growth.
“For me, freedom has been the best and the worst thing. It’s amazing to be able to hold myself accountable to results, but, I have to hold myself accountable to results! That means that I have to be the one reading the books, I have to be the one reaching out to people for feedback. That takes a certain amount of discipline.”
From what we can tell, Rafi is pretty freaking good when it comes to discipline. So the question is, does he ever get time to do human things like eat, sleep, and watch stupid series?
“My personal philosophy is to work hard, and then take epic holidays.”