Must Read Founder's Five February 6, 2023

Founder’s Five: Adam Salkeld, Digital Learning Associates (DLA)

Founder’s Five is a continuing series from Tyton Partners that invites education company founders to shed light on their own success and illuminate the landscape for other education entrepreneurs and investors by answering five basic questions.

Adam Salkeld and his co-founder, Stephen Haggard, formed Digital Learning Associates (DLA) in 2016 to draw in the best expertise in ELT pedagogy, learning design, and media production.

Adam and Stephen judged the existing video on offer in English courses to be of poor quality, lacking the “wow factor” needed to appeal to the YouTube and TikTok generation of learners.

DLA‘s core B2B offering, Ready to Run, brings learners the experience of real-world video stories and connects them to strong characters speaking English. Through partner apps, platforms, courses, and textbooks learners encounter natural English in authentic settings, this powerful engagement drives structured learning based on world class pedagogy.

Ready to Run won the prestigious British Council ELTons Award for Innovation in Learner Resources in 2019 and won a commendation for Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion in the 2021 ELTons. In 2020, Ready to Run was highly commended by the PIEoneer Awards for digital innovation.

What is your company’s origin story?

It’s an unusual one for the education sector. My cofounder Stephen and I had our first careers in mainstream TV.  We spent happy years traveling the globe making documentaries, getting into – and out of – all sorts of mischief. It wasn’t a bad life at all – special forces filming missions, going undercover, exposing crime and corruption, meeting world leaders, terrorists, and business titans. But the time came for a change and DLA was the result. We founded the company on our joint belief that video was going to be a critical component in digital learning. But we felt that existing “education video” was not fit for today’s learners or today’s learning environments let alone tomorrow’s. We were convinced we could do better, and that conviction is still a big part of what drives us today.

How will the market be changed by your company’s success?

Fulfilling the “we can do it better” remit was relatively straightforward – we had the experience and the networks to do that. We launched our B2B service, Ready to Run, in 2018 and it now reaches about 50 million English language learners worldwide. The bigger challenge has been to innovate the business model – to shift how the learning sector sources, pays for, and deploys video and other high-value IP. That is where we see DLA really changing the market. In the past, video and premium media assets were capital intensive, one-off, long shelf-life purchases for learning providers – not exactly digital friendly. DLA offers Video-as-a-Service. It’s a quick and flexible answer for our business partners when they need entertainment grade IP that is aligned to learning outcomes. Crucially agile players can exploit our powerful media responsively. They can react to market trends, refresh, and innovate rapidly. That was not possible under the old purchase models. We are also developing business lines to exploit talent and character brands for education and offer them to partners on a similar flexible model. Ultimately, we want to be the destination for any “.edu” operator looking to bridge the worlds of broadcast media and education.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you began?

I thought that Product Market Fit was a single stage – an action to be completed by companies like us before moving onto the growth push. I now realize it’s an ongoing process. Every day, we think about the best fit for evolving markets.

What non-intuitive insight have you gained through this work?

Empathy was not a quality I had expected to be so important. So often as a founder and an innovator, the emphasis is on tunnel focus and self-belief. But empathy has its place. The empathy muscles get a lot of exercise when things don’t work exactly as planned, when you have to create strategies for getting over or around the barriers you will inevitably encounter.

Empathy is your guide when you reach that founder frustration point of the world not understanding your brilliant, innovative, game-changing idea.

Adam SalkeLd

Empathy is the tool that gives you a second chance, the chance to understand why the world isn’t jumping at your offer and come up with ways to make sure it does next time.

What other education company besides your own do you wish you had started?

I admire Busuu as a smart and focused product and operation founded on delivering to a belief I share: that learning languages changes lives. Other companies that get how video can transform learning include StudySync, Twig, and National Geographic Learning. Outside DLA’s strict area of business, I have to mention Shujaaz in Kenya – an inspirational, creative, Emmy-winning company that has found new ways to connect with and empower young people in East Africa.