Design Thinking In Action: How We Grew 350% In One Year

You’ve read and heard about Design Thinking. It’s been used to disrupt industry giants, solve problems in developing countries, and even design a better life.

This article serves to demonstrate how to use Design Thinking to solve an entrepreneurial challenge: marketing.

1. What is a challenge

As we have established what is a challenge here. There are two ways to look at a challenge:

A challenge is something that is hard to do but doable.
A challenge is an obstacle that when overcome will bring you to the next level.

No doubt, challenges can be insurmountable. However, most challenges can be resolved if we apply some creativity. By refusing to succumb to challenges is how we, as a human race, make lives better for ourselves and future generations. In fact, many of the benefits that we now take for granted are a result of relentless pursuit of solving bigger challenges.

2. Our challenge: live with it or change it?

It all started in 2004, when a friend approached me with a proposition to work with schools in Singapore. Compared to private companies, working with schools mean getting a pay cut. Because for the same amount of work, you can only charge the schools one-third the fees you would charge private companies.

The idea of working with schools was also extremely exciting as the impact we make isn’t just restricted to the teachers we trained, but also their students and in turn the students’ families. As a result, despite knowing we will get a pay-cut and an uphill task marketing to schools, we went ahead anyway.

We embarked on the journey to help schools establish a human resource framework that when certified would be recognized as an organization with sound practices in the field. Within the first three months, we were able to secure four contracts out of sheer hard work cold calling the schools.

We would need another 12 months before we have our first success story, and hence a track record of helping schools establish a nationally certified human resource framework. Despite being able to secure appointments to meet with schools, we faced an uphill challenge in being awarded contracts as they simply didn’t want to work with consultants with no track record.

We basically had two options: wait 12 months to get our first success story and track record or to find a way to circumvent the challenge of having no track record. We had another option, which was to explore markets other than schools. But because the calling was too strong to ignore, we knew bailing out was not an option.

3. How we grew 350% in less than 12 months

First, we needed to clearly define our challenge. Because without accurately defining our challenge, it would result in us wrongly identifying our strategies to resolve it. Therefore, our problem solving ability is dependent on our ability to accurately identify the problem.

i. Challenge: What is the challenge facing your business?

If you have no track record working with schools in Singapore, it is very unlikely schools would want to work with you. Clearly, people just are not willing to stick their neck out for you if you profess you have never done any work with schools.

Even more so if you charge the same fees as those who have a string of track records. This presents a classic catch 22 situation – if you have no track record no one would hire you and if no one hires you, then you will not have no track record!

ii. Learning: What insights can you gained by learning about your situation?

Consulting is a relationship business. If people don’t know you, don’t like you, and don’t trust you, then they wouldn’t do business with you. At that moment, people don’t know us because we have never worked with schools before. People don’t trust that we can do the work because we have no track record.

At the same time, with the four schools that have engaged us, we took a very socratic approach when working with them. Instead of telling them what to do, we asked them lots of questions. Based on those questions, we quickly learned how schools work and more importantly, what are their major pain points.

From the conversations with our clients, we learned that schools in Singapore are externally validated by the Ministry of Education Singapore every six years using the School Excellence Model (“SEM”). SEM is, in turn, based on the RADAR Logic developed by EFQM. However, teachers are not trained in organizational excellence nor are they familiar with the requirements.

iii. Ideate: How can you leverage your proficiency to address the problems faced by your potential clients?

Based on those learning points, we explored various ideas. Some ideas were obvious – conduct a free seminar on the requirements of RADAR Logic or send out brochures to schools introducing ourselves. Other ideas were more interesting – put together a White Paper available for download or ask for referrals from existing clients.

We tried almost everything we can come up with, but the one idea that gave us a breakthrough was an initiative we called LINEAR (LINE Assessment and Review) Program.

The LINEAR Program offers any school, who wasn’t working with any consultants at the time of signing up, a free audit of their systems and processes. We not only conduct an audit of their documents, but also spent two days speaking a selected group of their staff. At the end of the audit, we present to the school a list of their strengths, as well as their areas for improvements (“AFIs”). Further, we gave them practical steps to take to address the AFIs. We held nothing back and never pressured them to engage us.

iv. Prototype: How can you quickly and cheaply test your solutions?

We tested the LINEAR Program with a few schools and quickly incorporate their feedback into enhancing the program. For instance, schools were asking us for a checklist of documents so they can better prepare themselves for the audit. With that, our next iteration included a checklist of documents. Then principals were letting us know that staff do not understand the technical jargons we used. We then used that feedback to make sure we use terms that staff are familiar with and avoid technical jargons they do not understand.

v. Scale: How to take the refined solution to the next level?

Within a period of six months, we were able to introduce the LINEAR Program to 19 schools, of which 18 of them decided to engage us to help them address the AFIs and bring their schools to the next level of excellence.

As a result of our refusal to succumb to the challenge we faced, we grew by 350% in the second year of working with schools. By then, we also had our first success story and that catapult our firm to the next level – by building a referral system that was responsible for more than 80% of new businesses.

In a short span of five years, we had already served more than 50% of the schools in Singapore, which translate to about 190 schools in total that contributed to our success of a six-figure training and consulting firm.

4. How can you apply design thinking to your business?

Every business faces challenges. Whether your business grow geometrically or exponentially depends on how you resolve them.

What challenges are you facing with your business? Let’s schedule a call and make this year, the best year ever for you!