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Learning to Find Balance during a Pandemic

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Maria Davidson, Udutu

We talked to Maria Davidson, founder of Udutu, about online learning programs, and this is what she said about it.

First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times? 

Maria Davidson: Good. COVID has given me the opportunity to work from home full-time so I am able to take my child to and from school almost every day while still successfully managing a company. It has really helped with the work/family balance.

Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Udutu.

Maria Davidson: My educational background is in biochemistry and while working as a biochemist in a proteomics lab I decided that science was not for me and I wanted something that was less routine. In 2006 I was hired by Udutu in their first year of business as the office manager. Being a small company, I could wear many different hats and really learn about all aspects of the company from the business side to sales, marketing, project management, and even course design. Definitely a big difference from my career in science. The CEO Roger Mundell really took me under his wing and became my mentor. My eagerness to learn and take on any role led me to become COO. 

In the past few years, Roger had reached a point in his life where he was looking to retire and looking for someone to take over for him. He has a bucket list he wants to accomplish and more importantly a boat that he wants to spend more time on and working day to day leads little time for this. Last year when the pandemic hit, it created urgency and he looked internally for someone to transition into the role as CEO. The pandemic reinforced that life is short and he wanted to spend more time with his wife and on his boat traveling around the pacific northwest. Another change because of the pandemic is that our company became a virtual company back in March during the lockdown. Our business is all online and most of our clients are in other locations all over the world, so this was an easy transition. With this change and a new direction for the company I agreed to become CEO and was eager to embark on a new chapter for Udutu.

In January of this year, I officially stepped into the role as CEO, and Roger has stepped back and taken on a more advisory role in the company. He is still dedicated and invested with Udutu but now has more time to do the things he enjoys doing. I am enjoying my new responsibilities at this company with a core dedication and a team that is working hard to be innovative in such unprecedented times.

How does Udutu innovate? 

Maria Davidson: Our company has always focused on empowering people, hence the name “You do too”. Our focus has always been customer-driven and trying to make non-eLearning specialists successful with the training needs. We started back in 2005 with the first online course development tool centered around collaboration. You could work with anyone, anyplace anytime without the limitations of licenses and cost. We even gave the authoring tool away for free. We made our revenue off custom course development projects and services we sold to support the authoring tool. The free authoring tool landed us large accounts we never would have been able to get if someone in one of their departments had a training issue and found our authoring tool and then needed our help to get their project up and launched. One of these accounts was the United Nations.

We always have helped our clients take control of the course development process by eliminating the need for licenses which allowed subject matter experts to be directly involved in the development process rather than standing on the sidelines through the collaborative workspace. This also allows for rapid development. Courses that used to take 6 months to develop could now be developed in a matter of weeks because all the key stakeholders could be involved in the process, decreasing the need for endless rounds of revisions. This has been our value proposition for our own internal course development department. We can work directly with our clients in the authoring tool which results in high customer satisfaction. 

We began to see the profitability of tracking training. Not only was it important to have effective training but you needed to be able to track that as well and this is where a learning management system (LMS) becomes important. At the time there was a gap in the market for lower-cost systems. Not everybody had $40,000 to spend on an LMS and it was hard to justify the cost if you are only training 100 or even fewer people a year. There are thousands of these systems out on the market so once again we wanted to remove the limitations of cost and implementation. In 2011 we released our own LMS and once again focused on making it low-cost with a pay what you use to model and quick implementation without the technical requirements and up-front costs other systems require. The LMS has a self-serve option where people can set-up and subscribe on their own, but we also still offer complete consultation and set-up services to help our customers accomplish their training goals.

We are constantly improving and adding new features to our software products as our clients require and as the industry changes. An example of this is when the pandemic started, and everyone had to move online we added an open-source web conferencing platform that doesn’t require a subscription built into our LMS so users can deliver and track webinars directly in the LMS. Even as our client base grows, we still focus on our customers and listen to their needs, and are constantly helping them solve new training issues that arise due to a constantly changing world.

 How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business and how are you coping?

Maria Davidson: When the lockdown happened in March, we transitioned to a virtual company. Rather than choosing to make it a temporary solution, we made it a permanent one and everyone adapted quite quickly. We put systems and communication lines in place that we were using minimally previously, which we now rely on to stay engaged with each other and our clients. I have met clients in online meetings who I had only previously spoken to over the phone.

Our business is based on online training so fortunately business never decreased with lockdowns and COVID restrictions. It increased as more people moved from face-to-face training to online. We have been able to assist many companies who used to do in-person training to help them move their training into an online format.

Did you have to make difficult choices and what are the lessons learned?

Maria Davidson: Moving to a virtual company we had to give up our beautiful office space in the inner harbor of Victoria, BC, and the ability for our tight-knit team to work together in person. We still have a daily online team huddle which still allows us to communicate but it covers high-level issues. We were finding that our development team was struggling with certain projects due to a lack of collaboration. We have since added a daily dev team meeting which has drastically improved the productivity and innovativeness of the team.  

What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?

Maria Davidson: We have used the following tools:

  • We have a daily team meeting via Microsoft teams to discuss what we are working on, what projects we have coming up, and to problem solve any issues we are dealing with.
  • We manage tasks and technical requests and bugs using Asana.
  • We instant chat using Slack.
  • In August we held a COVID-safe corporate retreat as a team-building exercise. We hired a 3rd party facilitator to run the retreat and had a Lumina Spark analysis done on each team member so we could understand each persons’ strengths and weaknesses and get an overall view of our team’s dynamics. This really helped increase communication and understanding among our team.
  • We held a virtual Christmas party where we had food baskets delivered to each person and met online to play online games and socialize.
  • We started a monthly training initiative and let each employee choose training or webinars they want to attend to help improve their skills.

Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?

Maria Davidson: Docebo, Litmos, Absorbe, Desire2Learn, Articulate

We plan to continue focusing on good customer service and specialize in being a solutions provider rather than focusing on our software. We want to help our clients be successful in their training initiatives from inception to implementation. We can provide expertise in all aspects of online training implementation, including training development which not all our competitors can offer. We also will not try to sell anyone something that will not satisfy their needs. Our number 1 goal is our client’s success and happiness.

Your final thoughts?

Maria Davidson: So many companies and industries have struggled in the pandemic and we have been so fortunate to have benefited from it. I personally am so appreciative of the fact that I can be so involved with my child and family on a daily basis but still be dedicated to running a successful company. Schedules have changed due to the flexibility of working from home which has helped. It is so rewarding to not have to choose between work and family and being able to find the balance.

Your website?

www.udutu.com

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