How Ryan Austin Used His Industry Experience to Spot a Gap In the Market

How Ryan Austin Used His Industry Experience to Spot a Gap In the Market

Ryan Austin created Cognota after a decade of experience in the learning and development industry. Through previous roles with a few different companies, Ryan recognized the need for an operating system built specifically for learning and development teams, which led to the birth of Cognota.

In this interview, Ryan shares his company’s journey over the past 5+ years. He provides a great deal of insight into the strategies he and his team have used to grow the business. You’ll see that Ryan is a big believer in the power of networking. Additionally, you’ll see how Cognota uses content marketing (including blog posts, whitepapers, podcasts, and webinars) to position itself as a thought leader.

👇 Key Takeaways

  • Cognota was built by gathering feedback from users and iterating to improve.
  • Ryan leveraged his industry connections to land some of Cognota’s first customers.
  • The team researched and identified ideal customer profiles for effective outreach.
  • Ryan encourages other entrepreneurs to follow their passion.

Overview

Business Name: Cognota
Website URL: https://cognota.com/
Founders: Ryan Austin
Business Location: Online (Canada)
Year Started: 2018
Number of Employees/Contractors/Freelancers: 40

Tell us about yourself and your business.

My name is Ryan Austin and I’m the CEO of Cognota, the first operating system built specifically for corporate learning and development (L&D) teams. Cognota streamlines learning and development workflows by providing an end-to-end platform that powers learning operations across enterprises.

Before founding Cognota, I spent over 10 years driving improvements in learning and development. I have a background in entrepreneurship and have launched several startups, including GoFish Cam, which was later sold to a private equity firm. In addition to my role at Cognota, I am an angel investor and mentor for selected entrepreneurs.

At Cognota, our mission is to power learning operations for enterprises globally. We’ve received several awards for our innovative learning technology, including recognition from the Brandon Hall Group. It’s fun creating a new category.

Cognota

How does Cognota make money?

Cognota generates revenue through a subscription-based model. Our customers pay a recurring fee to access and use our LearnOps platform. The pricing is typically based on the number of users or learners that will be using the platform.

We offer different pricing plans to accommodate the needs of different organizations, from SMB to enterprise-level companies. The subscription fee provides customers with access to all the features and capabilities of our platform, including training request management, program management, learning measurement, and analytics.

We may offer additional services or add-ons customers can purchase to enhance their experience or customize the platform to their specific needs.

Overall, our revenue is generated through the ongoing subscriptions of our customers who benefit from our platform to streamline their learning and development operations.

What was your inspiration for starting Cognota?

My inspiration for starting Cognota stems from my passion for learning and development and my desire to drive improvements in the industry.

During my time at World Trade Group and later at ExpertKnowledge, I became deeply interested in the world of corporate learning and development. I saw the challenges that L&D teams face in managing training programs, capturing knowledge, and measuring the impact of their efforts.

I realized that L&D teams were overseeing billions of dollars in spending without a dedicated operating system to streamline their operations. Other business functions, such as sales, marketing, and finance, had their own specialized systems, but there was a significant gap in the L&D space.

This gap became my inspiration to create Cognota, the first operating system built specifically for L&D teams. I wanted to provide a platform that would empower L&D professionals to efficiently manage and measure their training programs, optimize their resources, and demonstrate the business value of learning and development.

I am driven by the mission to help L&D teams make a lasting impact within their organizations by equipping them with the tools and insights they need to drive continuous learning and growth.

How and when did you launch Cognota?

Cognota was initially launched in 2018, although it took time and iteration to reach its current form as an end-to-end LearnOps platform.

The process of building the first version of the product involved extensive market research and iterative development based on feedback from stakeholders in the learning and development industry.

We started with a Content Design feature, which we took to market in 2018. Over the next two years, we listened to the market and gathered valuable feedback to refine and expand our product offering.

In 2022, we released the v2.0 product, which marked a significant milestone for Cognota and has contributed to our success. Since then, we’ve been growing our customer base and enhancing our platform based on ongoing feedback and market needs.

Launching and growing a business is an ongoing process, and we continue to evolve and improve our offering to meet the needs of our customers and the ever-changing landscape of the L&D industry.

How much money did you invest to start the business?

In the early days, we invested our capital and raised a bit of Angel and Seed financing.

Cognota recently secured a $6.25 million Series A funding round, which has been instrumental in driving the growth and development of our business.

In addition to the Series A funding, we’ve also raised funds through government grants. These investments have allowed us to further invest in product development, expand our team, and scale our operations. 

Ryan Austin of Cognota
Photo courtesy of Ryan Austin

How did you find your first few clients or customers?

Our first few clients were acquired through a combination of targeted outreach, networking, and industry partnerships.

I leveraged my existing network and connections within the learning and development industry to identify potential early adopters and advocates for our platform. This involved reaching out to colleagues, former colleagues, and industry connections, and participating in industry events to spread the word about our offering.

We also focused on establishing thought leadership in the learning and development space through content marketing efforts. This included creating informative blog posts and whitepapers, and participating in webinars and industry events. By sharing valuable insights and knowledge, we were able to attract the attention of potential customers and build trust in our expertise.

Finally, we conducted targeted outreach campaigns to reach out directly to organizations and individuals in the learning and development industry who fit our ideal customer profile. This involved personalized emails, cold calling, and attending industry events to make connections with potential customers.

These early customer relationships helped us gain traction and credibility in the market, setting the stage for future growth and expansion.

Tell us about your first year in business.

In our first year of business, we focused on building our product and establishing our brand presence in the market. We spent a lot of time refining our product offering based on feedback from potential customers and industry experts.

During this time, we also started to build our sales and marketing teams to prepare for our go-to-market strategy. We attended industry events, created content to educate our target audience, and began reaching out to potential customers to generate interest in our product.

We were fortunate to secure our first few customers early on, which allowed us to validate our product-market fit and gain momentum. We focused on delivering exceptional customer experiences and building strong relationships with these early customers to gain their trust and advocacy.

Overall, our first year was a period of learning, testing, and building the foundation for future growth. We faced challenges and setbacks along the way, but we remained committed to our vision and persevered to achieve our goals.

What strategies did you use to grow the business?

To grow our business, we implemented several strategies that focused on account-based marketing, thought leadership, community building, and partnerships. Here’s an overview of each strategy.

We adopted an account-based marketing (ABM) approach to target and engage with high-value accounts. This involved researching and identifying ideal customer profiles (ICPs) within our target market, tailoring our messaging and campaigns specifically to their needs, and creating personalized experiences for these accounts. We utilized various channels like email, social media, and personalized content, to nurture and engage with these accounts throughout their buyer’s journey.

We recognized the importance of positioning ourselves as industry thought leaders to build credibility and trust in the market. We created and shared valuable content, including blog posts, whitepapers, webinars, and industry reports, that addressed the pain points and challenges faced by L&D professionals. By showcasing our expertise and insights, we established ourselves as trusted advisors in the industry, attracting attention and interest from potential customers.

We focused on building a strong community around the concept of LearnOps. We created the LearnOps Leadership Series, a podcast and webinar series featuring discussions with industry experts and thought leaders. We also launched LearnOps.com, a platform that serves as a hub for L&D professionals to connect, share insights, and collaborate. Through these initiatives, we fostered a sense of community and provided a platform for knowledge exchange, networking, and learning.

We forged strategic partnerships with other companies and organizations in the L&D space to expand our reach and enhance our offering. This included partnering with learning content providers, technology vendors, and industry associations. By collaborating with these partners, we were able to offer a more comprehensive solution to our customers and tap into their existing networks and customer base.

These strategies worked synergistically to drive growth for our business

Tell us about your team.

Our team at Cognota is comprised of talented individuals with diverse backgrounds and expertise. We have a lean and agile team, but everyone plays an integral role in driving the success of our business.

Product and Engineering:

Our product and engineering team is responsible for developing and enhancing our LearnOps platform. They work closely with our customers and stakeholders to understand their needs and ensure that our product meets their expectations.

Sales and Marketing:

Our sales team is responsible for generating leads, conducting product demos, and closing deals. They utilize various strategies, including account-based marketing, to target and engage with potential customers.

Our marketing team drives brand awareness, produces educational content, and manages our digital presence across various platforms.

Customer Success and Support:

Our customer success team plays a crucial role in ensuring the satisfaction and success of our customers. They provide onboarding, training, and ongoing support to help our customers achieve their learning objectives.

Additionally, our support team is available to address any technical issues or inquiries that our customers may have.

Overall, our team is passionate, dedicated, and motivated to create a meaningful impact in the corporate learning and development space. We value collaboration, innovation, and a customer-centric approach in everything we do. 

Cognota Team
Photo courtesy of Ryan Austin

What are your future plans for the business?

Our future plans for Cognota revolve around three key pillars: growth, innovation, and customer success. Here’s a glimpse into what we have in store:

1. Accelerated Growth:

  • We aim to scale our business and increase our market share by expanding our customer base and increasing our revenue. Our focus is on targeting enterprise-level customers and establishing strong partnerships to drive growth.
  • We will continue to invest in our sales and marketing efforts to generate leads, convert prospects, and drive customer acquisition. This includes refining our go-to-market strategy, optimizing our sales processes, and leveraging data-driven insights to improve our customer pipeline.

2. Continuous Innovation:

  • We’re committed to continuously enhancing our LearnOps platform to meet the evolving needs of L&D teams. This includes incorporating advanced analytics, AI-driven insights, and automation capabilities to deliver more personalized and effective learning experiences.
  • We’ll invest in research and development to stay ahead of industry trends, explore emerging technologies, and identify new opportunities for innovation in the corporate learning space.

3. Customer Success and Retention:

  • Ensuring the success and satisfaction of our customers is a top priority. We’ll continue to invest in our customer success and support teams to provide exceptional onboarding, training, and ongoing support.
  • We’ll develop and implement customer-centric initiatives to drive adoption, engagement, and long-term loyalty. This includes launching additional educational resources, thought leadership content, and networking opportunities to facilitate knowledge sharing and community building.

Overall, our long-term vision is to establish Cognota as the leading LearnOps platform for corporate L&D teams, driving innovation and empowering organizations to maximize the impact of their learning programs. We’re committed to delivering value, driving growth, and championing the success of our customers.

How did you make the transition from side hustle to full-time?

Making the transition from side hustle to full-time entrepreneurship was a significant decision for me. It took time, careful planning, and a leap of faith. 

Before making the leap, I tested and validated my business concept. I conducted market research, sought feedback from potential customers, and made adjustments based on their input. This helped me gain confidence in my idea and understand the potential demand for my product or service.

One of the biggest challenges I faced was leveraging my network. Building relationships and connections within my industry was crucial, and I sought out networking opportunities, attended events, and engaged with professionals in my field. These connections not only provided valuable insights and guidance but also led to potential clients and partnerships.

I started small by devoting part-time hours, but I was determined to make it work. I dedicated evenings and weekends to building my business, focusing on tasks that would move the needle and gradually scaling up.

There were moments of doubt and uncertainty along the way. At one point, I even took on $100,000 in debt to invest in my business. It was a risky decision, but I believed in my vision and the potential for success. It was a calculated risk, and I was willing to take it to give my business the best chance of thriving.

The transition from side hustle to full-time entrepreneurship wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. It allowed me to fully commit to my business and pursue my passion. It’s been a journey of learning, growth, and hard work, but seeing my business thrive and making a meaningful impact makes it all worthwhile.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned growing the business?

The most important lesson I’ve learned while growing my business is the power of perseverance and resilience. Building a business is not easy, and there are bound to be challenges, setbacks, and moments of doubt along the way.

It’s crucial to stay committed and keep pushing forward, even when things get tough. There will be times when it feels like progress is slow, or when obstacles seem insurmountable. However, it’s essential to remember why you started and to stay focused on your long-term goals.

I’ve learned that failure is not the end but an opportunity to learn and grow. Each setback and obstacle can provide valuable lessons that help refine your strategies and improve your business. It’s important to approach challenges with a growth mindset and view them as opportunities for innovation and improvement.

Another lesson I’ve learned is the importance of building a strong and supportive network. Surrounding yourself with mentors, advisors, and a community of like-minded entrepreneurs can provide valuable guidance, support, and insights. They can offer different perspectives, share their experiences, and provide encouragement during challenging times.

Lastly, I’ve learned the importance of being adaptable and willing to pivot when necessary. Business landscapes are constantly evolving, and being able to adjust your strategies, products, or services to meet changing market demands is crucial for long-term success.

Ultimately, the most important lesson I’ve learned is to keep pushing forward, stay resilient, and never lose sight of your passion and vision.

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?

My advice for other entrepreneurs is:

1. Follow your passion: Choose a business idea or industry that you are truly passionate about. Building a business requires dedication and hard work, so it’s important to have a genuine interest in what you’re doing. Passion will keep you motivated and help you overcome challenges.

2. Embrace failure: Failure is a part of the entrepreneurial journey. Instead of being discouraged by setbacks, view them as valuable learning opportunities. Learn from your mistakes, make adjustments, and keep moving forward. Remember, many successful entrepreneurs faced failures before achieving significant milestones.

3. Build a strong network: Surround yourself with like-minded individuals, mentors, and advisors who can provide guidance and support. Networking events, industry associations, and online communities are great places to connect with other entrepreneurs and professionals who can offer valuable insights and help you navigate challenges.

4. Continuously learn and adapt: The business landscape is ever-changing, so it’s important to stay updated on industry trends, new technologies, and evolving customer needs. Be open to learning, seek knowledge from experts, and embrace continuous improvement. Adaptability is essential for long-term success.

5. Prioritize self-care: Building and running a business can be demanding, both mentally and physically. Take care of yourself by maintaining a healthy work-life balance, setting boundaries, and practicing self-care activities. Remember that your well-being is vital for your business’s success.

6. Stay focused on customer needs: Your customers are at the core of your business. Continuously listen to their feedback, understand their needs, and strive to provide exceptional value. By putting your customers first, you’ll build a loyal customer base and generate positive word-of-mouth.

7. Be persistent: Entrepreneurship is a journey filled with ups and downs. Stay persistent, even when faced with challenges or obstacles. Believe in yourself and your vision, and keep pushing forward. Remember that success often comes to those who persevere.

8. Enjoy the process: Building a business can be demanding, but it’s also a rewarding and fulfilling experience. Embrace the journey, celebrate milestones, and find joy in the progress you make. Enjoying the process will make the entrepreneurial journey more fulfilling.

Remember, every entrepreneur’s journey is unique. Take the time to define your own path!

What is your favorite quote?

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Thomas Edison

I find this quote to be incredibly inspiring because it highlights the importance of perseverance and resilience. It reminds me that failure is not a final outcome, but rather a stepping stone on the path to success. It encourages me to embrace challenges, learn from my mistakes, and keep pushing forward, even in the face of setbacks.

What are some of your favorite books, blogs, podcasts, or YouTube channels?

Some of my favorite books, blogs, podcasts, and YouTube channels include:

Books:

Blogs:

Andreessen Horowitz Blog: A venture capital firm that shares insights and analysis on technology and trends.

Podcasts:

The GaryVee Audio Experience” by Gary Vaynerchuk: Gary Vee shares insights and advice on entrepreneurship and marketing.

YouTube Channels:

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