Imagine where we are at with Circles three years after launch. 3,000 peer groups (“circles”) consist of 20,000 learners who pay an average of $58/month. A team of 75 employees has finished building the foundation of the technology, processes and learning journeys. A digital dashboard shows the team the age, location and health of each circle. The company was poised to help hundreds of thousands more learners without needing additional capital.
Why Learners Signed Up
The majority of learners are in their mid-to-late 20s, and spent a few years working before experiencing a “quarter-life crisis.” They signed up to Circles looking for what their boss’s boss’s boss already had – a group of peers that help each other succeed at work. They are skeptical about school, and know not to wait for companies to train them. They might have tried books, or online courses, but they really want something deeper. Sometimes they have a specific goal, like when someone becomes a manager for the first time. They are typically employed, or freelancing, when they join, but might feel underemployed.
After a few months in a Circle, their careers begin to move forward faster. But they find even more value because they’ve become deeply connected to the others in the group in a way that the word “friends” doesn’t quite cover. They’ve learned how to direct their own learning, and see growth opportunities everywhere.
How They Found Circles
Most members came from one of two channels. About half were referred by executives, HR or learning professionals at their company. Circles had a program for CEO members of YPO or Vistage peer groups. These leaders saw a chance to foster talent and loyalty. These bosses were all brave enough to realize the leverage of having workers who trained themselves. Many reimbursed some of the Circles tuition, although the learner was always the customer.
The others joined after completing a boot camp like General Assembly’s 16-week data scientist course. On a high from having their learning synapses re-fired, they understood that they would need support in their new careers, and wanted to continue learning. GA used Circles to help build a legendary alumni network. People participated in the GA community more actively when they had a close Circle of alumni that were central to their daily lives.
In 2019, both employers and universities are steadily becoming Circles partners, thanks in part to an in-house business development team that launches 12 new employer or university groups every quarter. Success for the business development team is fulfilling the promise that a Circles program makes a network of alumni or businesses radically stronger.
The Circles Experience
The Sorting App
The Circles experience starts with an online game that takes about 30 minutes. The app pulls in publicly available data to start. Then the individual answers questions about their background, learning goals, schedule/availability, and a few questions intended to get at their personality. They are asked to record a short headshot video about their goals. Along the way they learn a bit about how Circles works. At the end, they receive a summarized report with personal insights.
Circles only admits a learner if they match in a group of 8 that has a high chance of sticking. Quality is baked into a business model that counts on (1) less than 10% of learners dropping out each quarter and (2) learners recruiting friends. The sorting app selects 20 people and invites prospects to swipe left or right to decide if they’d want them in their group. They have a deadline to decide. But each day before the deadline they are getting targeted messages explaining what’s possible if they join. During this interval, they will also get an invitation from an existing Circles member that came from a similar background. These few days are more than just “selling” – they are key to the learning process.This is the start of what author Dan Coyle calls “ignition” when the learner comes to believe change is possible for them.
A guide facilitates each Circle. The ability to recruit, certify and support competent guides is a key to scalability. A guide is not a subject-matter expert. The guide team consists of one full-timer per eight volunteers, former Circles learners who know the best way to learn is to teach, and want to be in a guide “premium” circle. The guide team is the largest in the company – in 2019 it reaches 50 paid ($80,000/yr loaded + profit share) and 400 volunteers. Guides attend kick-off meetings and then taper off. Circles offers big price cuts if a group maintains its satisfaction metrics without a guide, and also premium services to have more guide time.
If you sign-up, and the group is formed, the first kick-off is live. It takes 4-hours at a sanctioned space. The guide leads through a fixed orientation and training program. Much of this kick-off is about getting to know each learner’s personal story.
Held every two weeks, regular meetings last 90 minutes. They take place in the Circles meeting app, a video conferencing experience that is almost infallibly easy to use because it is built only for this purpose. The meetings start on time, have almost no technical distraction, are crisp, and intense, and leave people wanting more. Some groups decide to increase the time to 2 hours. Commonly, groups have in-person meetings each quarter. We may experiment with hybrid live/virtual. Some groups opt to pay for more of the guide’s time, particularly if they elect to have in-person or longer sessions.
The 8-person content team curates learning journeys from publicly available material, sprinkling content from some partnering gurus. These thought-leaders do it to get immediate feedback from people going deep into their work. Other partner schools and associations input material too. The journeys involve only a little bit of required media, and then exercises for group discussion and application on the job. A Circles map helps learners choose relevant journeys, and gives them a chance to give feedback about the ones they already experienced. A personal dashboard stores their notes, links, and progress. Typically, a member of the Circle would lead a topic, going a bit deeper and helping the others. Experts are often available for questions. The team also adds “depth” to any content. This means baking work on fundamental skills into each journey— even if this wasn’t revealed to the students.
Between meetings, the Circles learners actively chat with each other. Either the guide, or the topic leader, or a robot injects material from their learning journey into this chat thread every day or so. They might drip a question, an assessment, or a piece of media to read or listen to or view. Material from previous journeys automatically cycles in as well, to reinforce their mastery of past topics.
Meta: In every meeting, and in the drip feed, some time is spent learning about learning.
Circles learners are invited to participate in large events from time to time. Sometimes they form ad hoc groups to go deep on a particular subject. This might be a speaker on a relevant topic, or just a gathering around a particular school or industry. These events give Circles learners access to experts and each other. They also help reinforce partner alumni and member networks. They are great parties.
Although not an initial feature, in the last year Circles launched “The Game,” a point system for circles and the learners to get points and prizes for all sorts of things: attendance, answering the drip-feed emails, reviewing, viewing extra media, filling out some Circles data requests, attending online or live events, doing a live meeting, going through guide training, answering questions for prospective members.
One of the trickiest problems is managing groups that wane. When this happens, the members that want to continue can “re-sort” and form a new group with other learners. Each time, they start again with a live kick-off meeting. As long as about half the learners continue each year, the business model and experience are not sacrificed.
Beyond the Inflection Point
By 2019, peer groups had become a popular idea.The program had worked out most of the major kinks. Hundreds of thousands of people were using Circle’s free but branded tools to power their peer groups. Examples of popular Circles shareware included the google hangouts plugin for peer groups, the scheduler, the one-click chat group tool, and the best practices email newsletter. People used these tools and methods to run study groups in schools or for MOOCs, support groups, makers working on learning together, and many other applications.
An increasing number of these individuals started to apply to be matched into paying Circles. By amassing hundreds of thousands of “applicants,” Circles improved its success and speed matching learners with the right blend of commonality, diversity, and shared purpose.
Thus, 2019 marks the beginning of the third method of reaching learners – “direct.” The Circles icon took thousands of people into the “sorting app” every day. Many LinkedIn groups had added this button as a way to drive engagement in their communities. Conferences pushed it on their websites, having found that placing participants into small groups energized their events, helping their attendees find the true connection they were looking for. Gurus who wanted to build communities of practice around their ideas had hopes of building networks like what Sheryl Sandberg had done with Lean-in circles. Multiple other professional associations and nonprofits that didn’t pursue a formal partnership with Circles simply added the button and notified members. Price Waterhouse Coopers used the structure to keep their alumni network engaged. There were even rumors of a political party to launch Circles for its membership before the 2020 election cycle.
Why – Brand and Mission
The founders and 75 people that came together to make Circles were on a mission to turn education upside down. The 20,000 members of active Circles were ambassadors of a new “learning lifestyle” that challenged the teacher or employer-driven status quo. They were part of a new educational ecosystem. Their almost radical transparency was spreading not only their model but the philosophies on which it was based. Plus, these learners were more likely to get a job they wanted. The learners were more likely to feel secure about the rapid march forward of technology. As employees they were beginning to amplify the new companies that were scaling-up to solve other world problems. Circles was emerging as a recognized brand.
What Do You Think?
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