Eleven months ago, Education Management Solutions (EMS) faced the same unprecedented challenge as millions of small businesses across the country: pandemic-induced, government-mandated shutdown. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf had just issued his first statewide lockdown order, and only three of EMS’ 100 staff worked remotely. The mandate threatened to reverse the company’s flourishing first quarter, and possibly put it out of business.
What EMS did to survive and thrive is a case study in turning obstacles into opportunities. The company’s workforce was fully remote within 48 hours of the mandate. It introduced industry-leading products which were tailored to a suddenly remote target market. And with trade shows cancelled for the year, the company’s marketing team went into overdrive by tripling lead generation while shortening EMS’ sales funnel from over 100 days to 22 days.
EMS exceeded its pre-pandemic 2020 revenue goals by 30 percent. It also was acquired by Collegis, a higher education IT firm which saw EMS as an avenue into the medical and nursing school target markets.
What helped EMS avoid the fates of millions of other businesses? Our founder profiled the company in a recent Forbes column; what we learned is that the company did three key things which small business owners can apply to their own companies. First, it changed its mindset. Second, it kept things simple and focused. Lastly, it never stopped seeking and seizing opportunities.
Mindset matters most
Education Management Solutions Vice President Lynn Welch leads the company’s marketing and business development. She said Wolf’s mandate forced EMS to adopt a new mindset which she called the “Don’t Panic, Assess Risk, Seize Opportunity” plan. She said the company focused first on responding to Wolf’s mandate by getting all staff working remotely. Then, the company assessed changes it needed to make, such as replacing trade shows with a digital marketing strategy. Finally, the company examined opportunities which the virtual learning world presented.
The EMS mindset produced industry-leading software within two weeks of nearly shutting down. It ramped up its marketing while lowering both marketing costs and the length of its sales funnel. EMS CEO Anurag Singh told me that the software “helped hundreds of nursing and medical students…get into the workforce as the pandemic ramped up.” Instead of being closed off from critical hands-on testing as the pandemic was pushing medical workers to the brink, students and instructors who used EMS’ virtual simulation program stayed on track for graduation and entry into the workforce.
This one technology and Lynn’s team created massive opportunities for EMS. Its monthly industry webinars grew from an average of 200 attendees to 1,300. Hospitals, universities, and other potential clients were now paying close attention to its solutions. And EMS was suddenly on Collegis’ radar.
Stay focused and keep it simple
What helped EMS turn its mindset into measurable success was disciplined focus on its target markets’ core needs and developing a widely-accessible software platform. Singh said the company sought to solve the COVID-caused disruption of “all three core pillars of higher education” – class lectures, hands-on lab work, and workplace practice. None were available, which meant medical and nursing students were left in the lurch – unable to learn, unable to graduate, and unable to serve.
Once core needs were identified, EMS had to decide how to meet those needs. It could have created proprietary software based on a proprietary platform or signed exclusive partnerships. Instead, it developed software that connected students, instructors, and third-party organizations like professional organizations through technologies that everyone already owned. This decision “ensures workflow is easy to learn, use, and scale,” including the “self-guided virtual training program,” said Singh. And he was unequivocal that had EMS chosen the opposite strategy of creating software which relied on specific operating systems or devices, it “would not have worked” for the company or its clients.
The simplicity of both the technology and the training gave EMS the chance to quickly establish proof-of-concept as students and instructors alike got up to speed for education and testing. And by staying focused on clients’ core needs, EMS rose to the top of its niche market in just a few months.
“Seize opportunity” was part of the EMS pandemic plan, and it played a significant role in EMS’ overall 2020 success. When Governor Wolf’s mandate went into place, EMS wasn’t looking to grow or be acquired. Its executives just wanted the company to survive. But by avoiding panic and assessing risk, the company gave itself the chance to see what opportunities it could create for itself.
And opportunities abounded. Singh and Welch told us that the software it launched in April 2020 attracted so much attention that other industry-leading technologies were developed to meet demand. The same month, Singh and Collegis CEO James Cowie met while helping a mutual client. Just 30 days removed from EMS nearly closing its doors, both leaders saw overlap that launched talks of an acquisition. Four months later, EMS was under the Collegis umbrella.
Cowie made it clear during our e-mail interview that acquiring EMS was part of Collegis’ strategy to seize opportunity. One of the company’s top priorities is to ensure that high standards are met for student clinical rotations and for testing in a virtual world. Another priority is taking advantage of the loosening of some state telemedicine regulations that have helped medical professionals provide high levels of care to home-bound and other patients. And, finally, Welch – EMS’ Vice President of Marketing & Business Development – has been tasked with liaising with trade associations and other professional groups to ensure that telemedicine opportunities don’t go away.
Don’t panic. Assess Risk. Seize Opportunity.
The lockdowns of 2020 exacerbated what was already going to be a challenging environment for millions of small businesses. Education Management Solutions’ leadership kept their cool, assessed the new landscape, and seized opportunities that didn’t previously exist. Small business owners across all industries can take heart and lessons from their example to likewise create record results.