Saturday 31 January 2015

How a Galway company leads the world in free online learning

Mike Feerick has created a global business from his dream of making education free to millions

Published 03/08/2014 | 02:30

Courage, Innovation and Perseverance: Sean Gallagher pictured with  Mike Feerick at the ALISON headquarters in Galway. Photo: Brian Farrell
Courage, Innovation and Perseverance: Sean Gallagher pictured with Mike Feerick at the ALISON headquarters in Galway. Photo: Brian Farrell

The growing availability of free online education is revolutionising how students all over the world learn. One Irishman who is leading that charge is Mike Feerick, founder and chief executive of ALISON - which stands for Advance Learning Interactive Systems Online.

This week I visited Mike and his team in their Galway-based headquarters to learn about how education is changing and how his company is at the forefront of that change.

"ALISON is the world's leading provider of free online learning and certification for basic education and workplace skills," explains Mike. "We offer over 600 different courses to three-and-a-half million registered learners, including 100,000 users in Ireland alone - and we have 350,000 graduates spread across every country worldwide," he adds.

The company's list of course categories is extensive and includes languages, digital literacy and IT skills, finance and economics, business and enterprise, the school curriculum, personal development and soft skills. There is also a range of diploma as well as certificate courses available in subjects ranging from project management and operations and supply chain management to human resources, psychology and nursing care.

Importantly, these courses are self-paced allowing students the flexibility to learn when and where they want.

"Our users to date include individuals wishing to up-skill and enhance their own personal development and small and medium businesses and large corporations who want to up-skill their workforce," explains Mike.

"In contrast to many MOOCs (or Massive Open Online Courses) who focus on third-level subjects, we focus on workplace skills training that help learners become more employable and competitive in the workplace," he adds.

Mike shows me a map of the world on his computer screen which is full of red dots showing where his users are based. They are literally in every corner of the world from the UK and US to India and the Middle East. As we speak, Mike receives a call from a woman in Iraq confirming a contract for ALISON to supply Arabic and Kurdish content for her local education platform. Earlier, he was dealing with an administrator at the University of Sanaa in Yemen who was using ALISON's English language content.

"It really is a global business," explains Mike. "And it's a thrill to be able to run it from the West of Ireland," he adds.

Mike was born in the US to Irish parents. His family later returned to Ireland when Mike was still young, settling first to Limerick and later in east Galway. There, his family ran a country shop, so he grew up surrounded by business. His own flair for enterprise emerged early on when he organised local discos while still in school.

He went on to do Business Studies at the University of Limerick. In his role as president of the University's business society, he had the opportunity to get to know Ed Walsh - the then president of UL - who told him about the great work being done at the time by UL's billionaire patron Chuck Feeney.

Feeney. had made his fortune through building up and selling a global duty free business, and then set up set up Atlantic Philanthropies as a vehicle to give away his wealth - part of his 'giving while living' philosophy. He wanted to use his money to impact positively on important global issues, particularly in the areas of education and health. He was a person who would later have a major impact on Mike's life and on his ideas about the potential for business to influence society for the better.

Mike later applied and was accepted to undertake the MBA programme at Harvard. While officially accepted, the college suggested that, given his age, the then 23-year-old should get some experience before completing the course. Remembering the stories of the good work Chuck Feeney was doing, Mike decided to contact him.

"I wrote to him and told him that I wanted to get some experience, finish my MBA and then come back to the west of Ireland and create employment," explains Mike.

Feeney was so convinced by the young Irish man's pitch that he immediately called and offered him a position in one of his companies. For the next 18 months, Mike had the privilege of being mentored by Chuck Feeney himself.

"He was an amazing mentor to me," explains Mike. "For example, he owned a chain of hotels in Texas and sent me off there to learn the business. One day I would be making beds with the housekeeping staff - and the next day I would be sitting in a financial meeting with the CEO of the hotel group. It was his way of helping me understand that to be successful, you have to know the inner workings of your business," he adds.

In 1991, Mike went to Harvard to complete his MBA. It was during this time that he first heard of the internet and immediately realised that this would be the vehicle that would enable him to achieve his mission of returning to Galway and setting up his own business there.

He then worked for a period with the BMG Music label in the UK, figuring out the challenges and opportunities that the web might pose to the music industry, before leaving that role to join a friend who was launching an online start-up in London. A few years later, the business was sold, and he made enough money in the process to allow him return home to Ireland.

His next venture saw him set up J Fax Ireland, a company with access to technology that allowed users have their faxes automatically converted to emails and forwarded to their email account. He later sold the business to the Denis O'Brien-founded telecoms company ESAT before going on to create a similar company called YAC which sold to a Nasdaq-listed company in 2007.

With capital now in the bank, he turned his attention to the e-learning space.

"I realised that with changing technologies and greater broadband penetration, there was the possibility to create a global free online education business," explains Mike.

In late 2005, he came up with the idea of ALISON. At the time, he operated a model where users paid for the content they were given access to. However, in 2007, in a courageous move, Mike decided to change the model to a so-called freemium one where the courses were offered free.

Sales would come from a combination of advertising and premium services. The advertising appeared alongside the content and when users clicked on this, the company received a small payment.

The revenue from additional premium services included payments by businesses who wished to upskill their workforce using online learning groups created by Mike for companies anywhere in the world, and allowing local HR managers to monitor the progress of each learner. However, the move meant a reduction in revenues in the short term until numbers grew.

For Mike, it wasn't all about the money. His personal mission was to make a difference to the world, by making education free to those who might otherwise not be able to access it.

"And it did take time to convince some people that free resources could be of equal quality to paid content," adds Mike.

His decision to focus on the export market, starting with the UK and US, together with the rapid growth in internet usage worldwide, meant he could achieve the scale and reach he needed.

"It took us five years to reach our first one million learners but only a further 12 months to reach the second million," explains Mike. "It was a real lesson in patience and perseverance," he tells me with a broad smile.

The growth in the popularity of MOOCs also helped give credibility to the business and suddenly Mike no longer felt like a lonely voice.

Given the innovative and ground breaking nature of the business model, he initially found it a challenge to secure finance. However, with the help of angel investors, he successfully managed to bootstrap the business until it eventually became profitable. Over the next 12 months, he hopes to raise significant funding to support the next phase of development.

"Many competitors are raising tens of millions, yet we are just as big - and we're the only profitable MOOC we know of," explains Mike.

While he must now often travels around the world to expand the business, he still finds the work personally rewarding.

In a recent survey of users where he received over 40,000 responses, over 14pc of ALISON graduates revealed that they had found a job, received a promotion, or been offered a college placement through studying for free on ALISON.

"Getting an education is an expensive process, no matter where you are - and as people begin to take advantage of continuous education and skills training, there's still a lot of exciting work for us to do," he says enthusiastically.

Mike Feerick is a man on a mission. He is also hugely inspiring. He combines his drive with a desire to help people gain access to education. He has shown too, that he has courage, innovation and perseverance - traits required of great entrepreneurs.

Looking at the number of 'thank you' emails he receives, and the pictures of graduates on his office walls, all proudly holding ALISON certificates, it is easy to see why he might be so personally satisfied. Mike Feerick has a major impact in the lives of his many thousands of learners around the world.

Mike's advice for other businesses 

First, find your mentor

"Young entrepreneurs should look for a mentor to help and advise them as they build the business. They can help you get basic business principles and operations right - and in the longer term, this will save you time and resources."

Look to global businesses

"Where you can, chose a business where the market is global. While the downside may be that there may be more competition, the market size makes you much less vulnerable to regional downturns in economic activity."

Look for a social impact

"There is a lot of satisfaction in growing a business that has a social impact. The fact that you and your team know that you are helping others to improve their circumstances can be both motivating and rewarding."

If you have a business worth talking about, please contact Sean at seangallagher@independent.ie

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