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Thirty years ago, a man named Arthur Keiser embarked on a research study that never truly ended. While working at a state university, he saw a gap between what traditional universities were offering students and what students really needed. Arthur began studying how education in the United States is evolving, specifically exploring why the existing educational system was overlooking the educational needs of working adults.

As a true innovator, Arthur did more than test and measure. He and his mother together constructed a never-ending experiment that has emerged as one of the leading for-profit universities in the country. Today his experiment, Keiser University, serves 14,000 full-time students, produces over $500 million in economic impact annually, and employs 2,400 people (most of whom are faculty). And Keiser University is likely to grow even faster during this recession.

How did a mother and son pair, with little backing, build such a successful organization? The answers to this question reveal classic "outthinker" behavior. They do things differently because they see things differently.

Reach and Sustain Discontent

All great innovations, my research shows, are born out of a deep state of discontent. This is why true innovations historically come from resource-deprived geographies. This is why advances in alternative fuels heats up only after fuel prices rise. It is a fundamental rule of nature that for things to rise they must first fall.

The Keisers reached such a discontented state in the mid 1970s, and like other successful innovators I have featured in this blog, they work hard to keep this discontented state. Describing the first insight that drove him to launch Keiser University, Arthur says, "It goes back to when I was a teaching assistant at the University of Florida. I realized that the public university system wasn’t where I wanted to be. I saw a need for a career-based education."

While universities were designed to build a broad base of knowledge and research, Keiser University would focus on just one goal: helping an adult make a career leap.

As we shall see later, the Keiser family's unique focus has numerous strategic and organizational implications. It forces them to make multiple seemingly counter-intuitive choices for the university that build a barrier to competitive assault. Remember, great innovators do things the competition chooses not to copy.

The Keiser family recognizes that the university’s unique focus is the critical gateway to its competitive advantage, so they work hard to continually remind themselves of it. As Arthur says,

"The reason we are successful is that our whole team is passionate about what we do. We love our students and I know that sounds quaint, but it’s true. If we take care of our students then the students will take care of us. That’s our competitive advantage. At a community college, a student is just a number."

So, if strategy is the answer to three questions – "who?" "what?" and "how?"— then Keiser University early on settled on a unique answer to "who?"

Make Counterintuitive Choices

By starting with a unique answer to the "who" question, you open up thousands of possibilities to make disruptive choices, which are choices your competition will choose not to copy.

Keiser University ignores the 18-year-old high school graduate seeking to discover his/her purpose in life. Instead, the university focuses on the working professional who is looking for a new, serious career path. This student has usually gone to a state university or community college, but has yet to reach professional dreams. Keiser University students are crystal clear about what they need and want. Consider these Keiser University student body statistics:

· 83% of students work 33 hours a week or more

· 68% of students have been to a community college or university

· 65% of students have dependants

· 48% of students have spouses

As Arthur points out, since the university’s students are unique, their needs are unique. "Our commitment was always to the student and our niche was for adult learners. Adults do not learn like kids coming out of high school. They have different responsibilities and lives."

This uniqueness makes it possible for Keiser to organize itself fundamentally differently than the traditional competition. During my interview with Arthur, he shared numerous examples of what he does differently.

Over the next few days, I will share some the most interesting differences between Keiser University and traditional colleges. But today, ask yourself this question: What is my unique answer to the "who" question?