ALISON is a world leader in online education. It has 10 million registered users. Here, founder & CEO, Mike Feerick talks about business, working in the west of Ireland and The Art of War.
How did you come up with the name of the company?
I had a previous business called Advance Learning – so that is where the “A” and the “L” comes from. Beyond that, I was looking for a name that could morph to become many things. Although we are known for our free courses worldwide, our business is more generally human capital management. We want to define ourselves who we are, and a name like Alison allows that – not unlike “Google” or “Alibaba”.
What’s your elevator pitch?
Free online learning for the workplace, anytime, anyplace, anywhere on any subject. Education and training are a $4 trillion global business. An entire disruption is possible, and we are a world leader in making that change.
“We’re constantly on the lookout for top class new employees for our technical, publishing and marketing teams.”
What are your company’s biggest strengths and weaknesses?
Our strengths include a clear vision, creativity, ethos, talent, market impact, business opportunities, and a global presence. One of the significant challenges we face is talent attraction; we’re constantly on the lookout for top class new employees for our technical, publishing and marketing teams – please see our careers page.
“We have 14 nationalities at our Galway HQ, and we operate in every country and territory worldwide.”
What innate qualities do you look for when you are hiring?
Our top priorities for new employees are excellence in their functional areas, engagement with our social mission of free online learning for everyone, and international experience.
We have 14 nationalities at our Galway HQ, and we operate in every country and territory worldwide. We have a positive workplace, and everyone has a responsibility to contribute to it.
Would you say your company has a company culture?
Yes, it does. We are driven by the opportunity to transform access to education and skills training around the world, and conscious of the responsibility to make this greater access happen. Culture is one of innovation, education, empowerment and inclusivity.
“One of Sun Tsu’s first rules of War should be remembered: ‘Know thyself’.”
How did you go about installing your company’s culture?
Every organisation has a culture, but not every entrepreneur understands the importance of knowing what it is and what it might and should become. It takes leadership. At ALISON, we got together a professional branding team and worked to understand the essence of what we were about so that we could make sure those principles were embedded in everything we do and how we work. One of Sun Tsu’s first rules of War should be remembered: ‘Know thyself’.
“What has stood to me greatly is growing up in a country shop. You get to know how to deal with all sorts of people and situations from a young age.”
Would you describe yourself as book smart or street smart?
I am both. I have two business degrees, one an MBA from Harvard and have academic interests. However, I am also street smart, not least from being an entrepreneur most of my working life and overcoming all the inevitable ups and downs. What has stood to me greatly is growing up in a country shop. You get to know how to deal with all sorts of people and situations from a young age. If you simply enjoy people, you won’t ever go too far wrong.
How did you go finance your business when starting?
Through a combination of personal earnings and friends.
Is there anything you would change about the way you started?
If you were setting out to start a global web-based business like ALISON, the west of Ireland is not where I would advise you to locate.
There are too few people here with the experience you need to grow fast. Investors know that and are often reluctant to invest. Having said that, it’s where I live and where I want to live. We “broke through” by having some exceptional people with specialist expertise joining our team from abroad. We have a critical mass now to grow from here but being based out of here has probably slowed us down two to three years. It is a precious gift to be able to do the work you love from where you want to live. Galway is a great place to work and live. I think all of us know and appreciate it.
“We are keen to find people with senior level marketing or business development experience within an online B2C or B2B space.”
If money was no issue what positions would you hire for?
You don’t have enough room in this publication for me to complete that list. Top hires right now are front and back-end developers, designers, and systems administration. On the business side, we are keen to speak with people with senior level marketing or business development experience within an online B2C or B2B space. Bottom-line, we want top-performing individuals who are ambitious for themselves, for the company and the people we serve.
Are there any magazines, blogs, newsletters or brands on social media you read religiously?
I scan the NYT, The Guardian, the BBC, The Irish Times and Independent early every day and subscribe to The Economist, Fortune and Business Week. I read books – mainly on history, philosophy and international affairs. I don’t need the latest gadget, but I do try to make sure I understand how they work and what they enable. My job is to think. To envision what might be and make critical decisions. I rarely use my phone and am not on Facebook. It is important to control your headspace.
If the internet ceased to exist how would you change your business model to cope with this?
Talk to me when you flip the switch.