What You Can Learn About Adaptability From Sylvan Learning

You already know your business needs to keep up with the times and adapt to changing landscapes. But if you’re a franchiser, this also means ascertaining 100% buy-in from all your franchisees and their customers, which can be easier said than done.

What You Can Learn About Adaptability From Sylvan Learning
[Image: Flickr user Social Woodlands]

When W. Berry Fowler decided to give up his formal teaching career to open a tutoring business in 1979, he had no idea he was at the forefront of a revolution.


His single location center at the Sylvan Hill Medical Center in Portland, Ore., eventually grew into Sylvan Learning: the largest for-profit tutoring company in the country, spurred on by a transformation in the U.S. educational system.

Former CEO Christopher Hoehn-Saric initially described the wave that propelled Sylvan Learning, saying, “We thought education as an industry was going through pretty dramatic changes. We saw a parallel between education and what health care was like, that the private sector had a greater role to play.”

Over the past 35 years the company has pursued a simple strategy: provide K-12 students reading, mathematics, and test-prep tutoring through franchise-operated learning centers. Today it leads its peers with over 800 centers and the highest market share of all paid tutoring brands. It’s been hailed numerous times as one of the top franchises in the U.S.


Despite the decades of success this model has produced, Sylvan is changing, attempting to transform itself from a traditional brick-and-mortar franchiser into a digital learning firm. In the past year alone the company has:

  • Digitized its entire learning curriculum
  • Outfitted franchise centers with iPads
  • Created its own learning app
  • Launched an educational app store
  • Replaced most of its traditional advertising agencies with digital experts
  • Enabled its franchisees to venture out of Sylvan centers into local libraries and other public spaces

That Sylvan should be undertaking such a transformation is not surprising.

Many content-heavy companies, from media firms and book publishers to banks and technology firms, know that digital media is redefining the media and educational landscape. Venture capitalists invested over $1 billion in educational technology last year, and students are moving online at an alarming rate–the number of K-12 students who have taken online classes has tripled to 2 million since 2007.


What is noteworthy is that Sylvan is actually doing something to adapt. Most companies don’t.

Many marketing managers, IT leaders, and even chief innovation officers I know are frustrated, knowing that change is needed in their businesses, but they are unable to break the bureaucracy that restrains their companies.

Sylvan’s Chief Marketing Officer Julia Fitzgerald, who recently stepped in to lead the company’s shift into digital, is also a mom and the former SVP of marketing and product development at VTech Learning Toys. So, it’s fair to say she knows a thing or two about the intersection between digital and children.


She also knows something about how to inspire a large company to adapt to a changing landscape. Here are her steps to encourage your company to change:

1. Build on a discontented power-base

Just as a rocket ship needs enough thrust to escape the pull of earth’s gravity, your change effort must begin with enough discontent, from the right stakeholders, if it is to succeed. Julia joined Sylvan because it was clear the CEO was already looking for the change she could introduce. But in a franchise organization, like Sylvan’s, any change has to win the buy-in of independent franchisees.

“We had to convince 100% of our franchisees, 800 centers, to buy in,” said Fitzgerald. “[We had to show that] it’s better for students and also more efficient for the franchisee.”


So she was careful to design and pursue strategic changes that would benefit franchisees. Moving to iPads, for example, allows franchisees to expand their reach and business, offering tutoring not only in their centers but also in schools and libraries. Sylvan calls such alternative locations “satellites” and their franchisees have opened over 100 new ones since tablet-enabled coaching was introduced.

2. Pursue a shared, easy-to-communicate vision

To win buy-in from key stakeholders, Julia focused on the customer, painting a picture of a mom who realizes her child is losing academic confidence and is looking for a solution. By zooming in to the individual, she is able to paint a picture that shows why Sylvan must embrace its “digital future,” as she calls it. She shops on her smartphone, her child plays on iPads, etc.

“Ground [your change] with your customer,” Julia explained. “This is who she is, this is how she is operating, this is what she wants. For example, she searches online so we have to be SEO optimized.”


By painting a picture, your stakeholder can visualize, and showing how each strategic initiative you are proposing helps realize this vision, you illustrate clearly why your plan matters.

3. Produce early results

Meaningful change takes time–more than many of your stakeholders are willing to wait. So, if you can prioritize the parts of your plan that will produce early results, you can keep people engaged.

Julia understands this. Of the many things she would like to do to achieve Sylvan’s “digital future,” she moved those that would deliver more immediate payoffs to franchisees and the company to the front of the line.

About the author

Author of Outthink the Competition business strategy keynote speaker and CEO of Outthinker, a strategic innovation firm, Kaihan Krippendorff teaches executives, managers and business owners how to seize opportunities others ignore, unlock innovation, and build strategic thinking skills. Companies such as Microsoft, Citigroup, and Johnson & Johnson have successfully implemented Kaihan’s approach because their executive leadership sees the value of his innovative technique. Kaihan has delivered business strategy keynote speeches for organizations such as Motorola, Schering‐Plough, Colgate‐Palmolive, Fortune Magazine, Harvard Business Review, the Society of Human Resource Managers, the Entrepreneurs Organization, and The Asia Society