Rovy Branon | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Rovy Branon


The Continuum College at the University of Washington provides learning opportunities, including project management and data science certification, to more than 55,000 mostly non-traditional students.

The Mistake:

I have been in my present role since 2014. When I arrived, I began to look at the portfolios we have. We are a big research university. We have adult learners primarily, but our department also runs summer camps for kids. Overall, we served about 55,000 outside of the traditional university students through a range of programs.

One of our most important offerings is in the certification area – teaching job-ready skills for mid-career professionals. I began to look at the capacity for our existing 105 programs and explore why we weren’t filling all of our seats.

The website at that point was pretty dated and running on old architecture. We decided we would launch into an effort, update the website and move to a more digital marketing platform. We were supporting between 10,000 and 14,000 web pages and managing them for the university. We called for a complete redesign of the website. It was not just designed to be an informational endeavor, but we wanted us to help drive enrollment because that was the problem we were trying to solve.

We had every contingency planned for. If the new sites didn’t work, here’s what we’d do, etc. What we anticipated was the site would go live and we’d see some slow growth, and it would grow incrementally and move forward. Typically, about two to three people would sign up per day via our newsletters for our programs.

We launched it on time. I still remember that January 2016. Literally, the first day the site launched, we got 150 inquiries and only had two people answering questions. Then we had to scramble. We had not planned for such immediate and overwhelming success.

We had not thought through the possibility that this would be so outrageously successful.

The Lesson:

To handle this new online capacity, we built a new team, the enrollment services team, to answer simple questions and help people make these decisions. After several months, we were able to handle all questions.

As a result of the new website, our more popular programs were filling up fast, and we were still a ways away from the start of the next quarter.  People were hearing we had waiting lists and even waiting lists were being closed. It really began to threaten and damage our brand. Part of charge was to help provide access to these kinds of programs, and we were facing the possibility that people have to wait, not just one quarter, but maybe even next year. 

We had not thought through the possibility that this would be so outrageously successful. This began about 18 months ago. I brought together my senior executive staff, and we brainstormed what we needed to do immediately and how we should handle the situation moving forward, seizing on the opportunity rather than getting stuck in the challenge and change.

We moved faster than we’ve previously been comfortable with. We pulled people out of their day jobs. We launched an effort called the Career Accelerator.  Last spring, we pulled our five most popular programs, including data science and project management, which were perpetually full and offered them in four different formats – not just face-to-face but online.

We added an on-demand feature, so students can pay anytime. We also launched a rapid completion option so students who are going for face-to-face classes don’t have to go for nine months. They can accelerate their efforts.

With these options, we have eliminated most of the wait lists. All along, I’ve been communicating with staff. Morale at times, has been an issue, with a need for overtime and weekend work. People also had to learn to work differently, coming together in cross-functional teams rather than siloed efforts.

But everyone is now on board with working holistically. We have scheduled a post-mortem on pain and suffering and plan to take time to be more thoughtful and acknowledge a need for work-life balance.

We’re going to do a post-mortem on pain and suffering and take time to be more thoughtful and acknowledge lives. We also acknowledge that even the best plans might not include every possible outcome, and we are committed to doing our best. It seems to be working. We’re not having the same angry calls with people who’ve been wait-listed. We’re also looking at adding additional resources and staff because of our success.

Traditionally these kinds of problems are met with skepticism. But once we began to see some of the early successes, attitudes began to shift. That doesn’t mean that staff was any less tired, or frustrated, but they are very mission-driven. And our efforts clearly helped us provide broader access to our mission.

Follow Rovy Branon on Twitter at: @rovybranon

Photo courtesy of Ty Kelly/UW Continuum College

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