Episode: Brandon Phipps

Brandon Phipps of Academic Works

Brandon Phipps, from Academic Works in Austin, TX, discusses his transparency policies that got his company amazing reviews on Glass Door and incredible customer and employee retention.

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Tell us about Academic Works

  • Works with colleges to help students find scholarships
  • Got started in 2010
  • Won multiple awards for “best places to work”
  • Management team had experience in education technology, and was looking for another problem to tackle. Scholarship issues came to the forefront.
  • Academic Works makes applying for scholarships easier for students, and allows academic institutions to grant all their available money, which had not previously been fully utilized. Student data is captured, and automatically applies them to scholarships that they are eligible for.
  • Work with 525 different clients.
  • It’s easy for all the employees to get behind the mission of the company, having had similar experiences themselves while in college.

What was the initial growth of the company like?

  • Began with research in the higher education institutions. Over 200 interviews with institutions across the country to identify scholarship management challenges.
  • Many of these institutions became some of the earliest customers.
  • All of the co-founders worked in that market research phase.
  • The first employees came from local relationships that the co-founders already had with people in the area.
  • One of the core values is concern for the client experience. Many people are attracted to the client services components.

Did you try to get everyone involved in that way from the beginning? Seeing how the product is actually used?

  • We want to have everyone involved in that experience
  • Small company, 47 employees, flat org structure, if the phone rings anyone who answers is going to try and figure out how to help.
  • In higher education and nonprofits when something works, they want to tell their peers. So spreading the word is easier than it would be in a different kind of market.

How do you set goals while you’re growing?

  • We’ve begun implementing a framework called EOS and it helps the whole company get on the same page.
  • With EOS there’s reporting infrastructure with key metrics. There’s also a weekly newsletter to the entire company, transparent quarterly updates, setting goals, etc.

How did you know to implement EOS?

  • We always had a strong culture because the founders all knew each other.
  • With EOS we looked to identify who our prototypical employee should be. Who do we love to work with and does a great job. We came up with keywords and commonalities, and identified our core values for what we have to be.
    • Obsessed with customer experience
    • Engaged
    • Kind and respectful
  • We go with the candidate who may be less experienced, but has those values

What is one of the biggest things that entrepreneurs or co founders do wrong in how they manage or build culture that you’ve fallen into?

  • Culture isn’t aspirational, it’s something that has to exist and then you put a definition around it.
  • We’ve been self-funded from inception, so we’ve been able to build a culture then define it. Companies who are venture capital backed have to hire dozens of people all at once. There’s less opportunity to let culture develop. In some cases you have to dictate it.
  • We’ve been deliberate in terms of growth.
  • Between 99-199% of our customers say they would recommend us to their peers. All of that goes back to all the people we bring in and have focused on our mission.

One of the cons was upward mobility. He you guys noticed that being a detriment?

  • For people who have been here for a year or two, maybe they haven’t seen a change. But if you look back three years I don’t think there’s anyone who has not had a chance to change or grow.
  • We post all of our opportunities internally first before posting externally.

It looks like your employees liked anonymous surveys

  • It’s very valuable. We do them quarterly.
  • We take that feedback to heart
  • We’re looking at what benefits that we can offer compared to other companies, and as we add benefits in we can get feedback from the employee survey.
  • Through quarterly meetings and profit sharing we’re able to explain the reasons behind things that people struggle with.
  • It’s easy for us to measure the value of customer service and investing in culture.

What’s one thing you would go back and do differently?

  • That framework that helps us determine what to measure, that’s something we would have implemented sooner…not straight out of the gate, but definitely something we could have done sooner.

What do you hope for the future?

  • Continue to release products to our customer base, looking for other problems to solve.




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