Circles Spring: Month Two Testing Guided Peer Groups

Hello Advisors:

Spring has arrived in Barcelona. And with it, the start of the 100-day countdown until I move back to Brooklyn. In a way, I wish I wasn’t so swept up in Circles, as I am determined to savor these last drops of the European sabbatical lifestyle.

Status Overview

  • Two test circles with IESE launched exploring guided peer groups. While nothing is certain, the early experience has been encouraging enough that IESE wants to test a larger program.
  • Of the two “friendly” alpha circles, one is going strong and discussing how to keep their group together past the alpha period. We learned a ton from the other one, but suspended it, so we could fix the mistakes and try a clean start with a different circle.
  • Our video meeting tool is largely stable now with minimal features to support a circle.
  • Franko Franicevich, one of the most talented technologists I’ve ever worked with, resigned his job at ShoreTel and is working on Circles full-time.

Challenges and Learning

  • We’ve developed a business model around guided peer groups that seems to work at about $50/month – $25 for software and $25 for guide time. A guide that makes $40/hour can earn $10-15,000/year guiding 5-7 circles. Potential customers and guides are giving us encouraging feedback.
  • We’ve developed a metaphor of a circle as a “learning machine.” In a world awash with content, it is a missing piece. If we select peers, train them to work together, enable them with a platform and a guide, can they reliably and enjoyably accomplish their learning goals?
  • While 15 out of 15 IESE students signed up to participate in Circles, only 10 showed up at the first video meeting. We learned a lot about pitfalls to onboarding. We need to reduce scheduling and technology friction and be more inspiring at the start.
  • We haven’t cracked learner engagement with content. One observation: learners react to the material that their peers post more than to what we post.
  • Our current hypothesis is to pair with existing content or a course, rather than create content.
  • After spending a fair amount of time with Northwest Mutual, our principal contact left the company and the project is delayed. A reminder about enterprise sales.
  • English as a second language is a challenge when trying to accomplish deep learning. We’re collecting some ideas that might help with this.
  • We’ll probably need to build our own messaging engine at some point. For now, we’re using the Slack platform and hope we can twist harder to get it into the shape we need. (We’re optimistic they add threaded discussions soon.)

Next Steps

  • It is time to build a draft of the one big remaining piece of tech – the sorting app.
  • Circles advisor Verne Harnish invited us to present at his Scale-up Summit in Atlanta. The slot will be shared with General Stanley McChrystal, author of Team of Teams, and Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Redhat and author of The Open Organization. We’ll get to see if many of the 700+ CEOs and teams sign up for our beta. With luck, we’ll launch more test circles.
  • We’re working on a Circles pitch for the conference – the very beginnings of a marketing test.
  • We are also going to invest time in building another version of our “learning to learn” or “meta” curriculum. This will be a core part of our experience, bundled with the software. It will build the skills needed to make a learning machine work. This project will also iterate our on-ramp and guiding processes.
  • Our lawyers came back with data about using the generic name “circles.” Time to resolve the intellectual property strategy. More on that in another note.

We could use a couple more hands. If you know any all-around athletes that might be inspired by our project, ideally in NYC or Barcelona, let us know! Comment on the blog or write to me directly.


Dilbert mission statement


Daniel Hoffman
Entrepreneur, Learner, Synthesizer, Designer, Connector, Ne'er-do-well

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