Bill Nelson – Fast 50 2003


After 25 years of making movies in Hollywood, Bill Nelson moved to Nashville to create an edutainment-based company to teach kids how to read. Seven years later, students in more than 10,000 schools have used Little Planet programs — and business is catching on as well: It’s using the company’s technology to improve training. Next up: a deal with the U.S. Department of Education to teach English to 300 million teenagers in China.


Bill Nelson
CEO, Little Planet Learning
Nashville, Tennessee


Tell us what you do (or what your team or organization does) and the specific challenge you faced.
After 25 years of making movies, Bill Nelson abandoned Hollywood to become an educator, using computers as his new creative medium. Bill joined John Bransford, the nation’s leading learning scientist, to form Little Planet Learning. Together, they invented a edutainment-based program to teach kids to read. Seven years later, kids in 10,000 schools loved their programs. Then, Bill sold off his education products to focus the company on creating learning experiences for the corporate world. It looked like a great move. John Chambers was quoted saying “Education over the Internet is going to be so big it is going to make e-mail look like a rounding error.” But corporate American cared not for Bill’s fabulous stories and learning experiences. It wanted silver bullet technologies like Learning Management Systems and huge libraries of off-the-shelf offerings instead. Stocks like Docent, SABA, and Provant skyrocketed, and Bill was barely breaking even.

What was your moment of truth?
Calls were coming in daily from Internet-crazed venture capitalists, looking to help Bill cash in on his creative force. Major players looked to buy Little Planet to add sex appeal to their technology plays. The money was huge, but it didn’t feel right. The suitors wanted Little Planet’s sizzle — but the suitors’ real business was selling technology systems. Bill refused to play their game. If the technology did not help create powerful learning experiences, it was out at Little Planet. Bill got back to his Hollywood roots and started cranking out learning programs that set corporate learners on fire. Bill told them stories. He showed them experts in action. He showed people how they mattered and how it’s done. He gave them an experience that they valued. He engaged their hearts, and he engaged their minds. When the Internet bubble broke, companies discovered that their employees really didn’t want to read stuff on the Internet. Their libraries of off-the-shelf content taught people nothing about serving their customers with their core products. The tide was clearly turning back towards Bill. (The exact date? 9/11/2002)

What were the results?
The corporate world woke up to Little Planet. The world’s most valuable brand asked Little Planet to help them assimilate new people into their culture and teach them the brand. The world’s biggest food service chain hired Little Planet to teach their managers to improve their restaurants. The Bill Gates Foundation asked Little Planet to teach principals in schools how to become educational leaders. The U.S. Department of Education engaged Little Planet to teach 300 million teenagers in China to speak English. Revenues doubled, the company became profitable. Now the sky is the limit for Little Planet.

What’s your parting tip?
Never let the technology tail wag your dog. Technology is your servant, you are the master.