How Nerdy Built Trust with Investors, Parents, and Students While Navigating an Ever-Changing Education Landscape

Adam Weber, CMO at Nerdy, speaks with TCV Principals, Katja Gagen and Kunal Mehta.

Katja Gagen, Adam Weber and Kunal Mehta

Nerdy (NYSE: NRDY), the EdTech leader behind companies like Varsity Tutors, which offer live instruction, online learning, self-study, and enrichment programs, saw its demand grow exponentially over the last few years, as parents and schools looked for ways to engage students throughout the pandemic and months of distance learning. The shift in learning from offline to online was already well underway, and as we’ve seen in many industries, the pandemic accelerated a systemic change that the company was custom-built to address. That demand alone would have been enough to drive demonstrable growth, yet Nerdy also chose to rework its marketing strategy and adapt its core product to be an even better partner to existing educational institutions. Doing so allowed Nerdy more ways to meet their customers — families and schools — where they were at and help address the critical learning challenges faced during these unprecedented times.

In this episode of Growth Hacks, Kunal and Katja speak to Adam Weber, Chief Marketing Officer at Nerdy, about the lessons he’s learned overseeing all aspects of the company’s marketing, including performance, product marketing, content, and customer relationship management. In addition to crafting Nerdy’s external narrative when the company was going public in 2021, Adam led a seismic shift in the company’s existing search-focused go-to market strategy, which helped build customer trust and credibility with pandemic-weary parents, teachers, and educational organizations. Adam also breaks down how he adapted his strategy when he joined Nerdy after five years leading marketing at Dollar Shave Club.

Key Takeaways:

  • The importance of marketing narrative in building investor trust when taking a company public
  • Why Adam prioritized understanding customer decision making when moving from Dollar Shave Club to Nerdy
  • How Nerdy shifted from a demand-driven, search-focused marketing strategy to a product-driven go-to market strategy
  • Why Nerdy leaned into enrichment rather than just education, and the payoff it had in building ongoing engagement with students and educational organizations
  • Permanent changes that marketers will have to adapt to as a result of COVID-19

To hear more on this, settle in and press play.

Please find the transcript below, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Katja Gagen: Today we’re being joined by a consumer marketing expert. It is my pleasure to introduce Adam Weber who is CMO of Nerdy, a TCV portfolio company in the EdTech space. Adam leads marketing across performance, product marketing, communications, content, and CRM. Thanks for being on the podcast.

Adam Weber: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be on the Growth Hacks podcast today.

Kunal Mehta: Awesome. Well, Adam, maybe you can just tell us where this podcast finds you today.

Adam Weber: I am recording live from my home office in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is where I am from and live with my wife and three kids.

Kunal Mehta: Cool. Maybe you can just give us the wonder years of how you got to where you are today.

Adam Weber: Yeah. I’ll give you the abridged version. I spent eight years at Procter & Gamble in brand management and brand marketing. Which was just awesome, foundational, the best quote unquote MBA you could get by learning in real life.

But probably more notably recently, I helped the marketing at Dollar Shave Club, which was also in the TCV portfolio. From the early days I was the 10th employee all the way, five plus years through when the company was acquired by Unilever in 2016. I got to do a little bit of everything in the marketing world, everything from performance marketing to brand creative content, which was really exciting. If you’re a right brain left brain marketer like myself I also, just to note, had a couple of I don’t want to call them failed, but far less successful startup roles before and after Dollar Shave Club.

So not everything was as rosy as it sounds.

Katja Gagen: It never really is, right? Because growth comes from learning and that comes from succeeding and failing.

Adam Weber: That’s right. A hundred percent.

Katja Gagen: And now you’re at Nerdy. Tell us, what is Nerdy all about?

Adam Weber: So Nerdy, which is led by our flagship consumer brand Varsity Tutors, connects experts and learners to deliver high quality live instruction and online learning in over 3000 subjects in really anything from kindergarten phonics to high school test prep to collegiate academic, even professional certifications.

We deliver it through multiple learning formats. We’re most known for our one-to-one tutoring, but we also deliver live classes in small group formats and in live large auditorium-like formats, and even have a personalized self-study solution to supplement. The company focuses in and really has built that business on the backs of technology and AI, which helps us deliver personalized learning at scale through our expert vetting, the algorithms that match the experts, the learners, and then through our purpose-built live learning platform, which really goes above and beyond the standard video face-to-face interfaces that exist like Zoom.

Kunal Mehta: Amazing. Your company just did a really nice job going public. Maybe you can tell us what a typical day is like, and what’s changed between being private versus being public from a marketing perspective.

Adam Weber: I think for us, our big principled approach to the process of going public, which, you know, does take a long time, was to just focus on the execution. We thought that was ultimately the best way to deliver the best return for our current investors that were with us when we were private and help us attract the right long-term investors. We have an amazing product. We have a really strong vision for the company. It’s this really transformative time in the category of education right now. We did our best to try and not let the process distract us too much from getting done what we needed to get done.

Kunal Mehta: I think that’s great advice for all marketers. Just continue to keep your heads down and focus. You’ve become an expert in the process of going public, and I think it would be good to just hear, for marketers that are in companies that are about to go public, what is it that they must do to get ready?

Adam Weber: I was actually pleasantly surprised by the process itself and actually what role me as a marketer was asked to play. And what I mean by that is I kind of thought that the process was like a financial only type of discussion. And look, I’ve helped raise different financial rounds in the private sector with Dollar Shave Club in previous years.

And I understood, especially in early-stage companies, the importance of the story and the narrative in those discussions, but I thought with later stage investors, that wouldn’t be as true. What I was really surprised by was that it wasn’t really all about the data. Obviously, financials matter and data are paid attention to, but it was really important to enroll potential investors, even at this late-stage institutional phase, to what makes the company unique, why we’re different and how it can grow into the future. That’s a fundamental aspect of what your job is as a marketer at these companies, and I was kind of thrust in to help develop that story and make sure it was clear and concise and delivered in a way that was interesting to the investment community. I think that was a really surprising and really exciting part of the process.

Katja Gagen: You also made the transition from Dollar Shave Club to EdTech, which is interesting. What are some of the main lessons as a marketer that you bought to Nerdy and what surprised you?

Adam Weber: It was a pretty significant change and particularly in the industry. I think that was probably what my biggest lesson was really understanding that when you transition and especially going from a personal care category to education, then you really have to understand the nuance and the differences between how customers make decisions.

So, for example, Dollar Shave Club: it’s a very affordable razor, you’re thinking about a $6 purchase. Customers will make those decisions very impulsively. In education or tutoring, it’s a highly considered, highly personal decision and people really want to build trust in and really be thoughtful about making that type of investment.

Our go-to markets had to be fundamentally different to reflect the different types of decisions, whether that was, if you think about Dollar Shave Club, our funnel was about just getting to the point of commitment quickly and reducing as much possible decision friction as could exist.

But in Varsity Tutors, we spent a lot of time developing a two-way communication with our customers, helping understand their needs so that we can build trust with them and make sure we deliver the best possible solution for them. I think that the biggest marketing takeaway and strategy change is that you’ve got to know the nuance and the decision-making for the category you’re in and make sure that your go-to market reflects it.

Katja Gagen: Tell us a little bit more about your go-to market strategy? How did you go about this when you joined, or what changes did you make during COVID?

Adam Weber: Maybe to overly simplify it, on the customer acquisition side, it is a very search-based category. There’s a lot of search volume, a lot of people start their discovery process for getting help in the Google bar. We do design a lot of our experiences around understanding that demand, understanding the intent in that demand and personalizing the website experiences and in the tele-sales experience, to basically cater to the different types of intent that come in through search. So that’s a big aspect of the go-to market, and one that’s been kind of really honed over time. Maybe on the flip side, one of the newer aspects of the go-to market and something that we did differently during COVID was we really switched and did a much more product led strategy for growth, which was we put our product experience at the top of the funnel, encouraged people to engage with us.

We offered to them for free through this initiative called star courses, which basically takes highly notable celebrity experts in a field. This was largely focused on K to 12 enrichment topics. So, think of astronauts, animators, experts. We allowed prospective clients to engage with us for free and go to these live classes that were taught by these well-known experts and get really unique experiences from our platform.

I think that helped us go to the top of funnel and build a lot of trust and credibility along the way. Then you nurture those relationships into, you know, more monetized, client base over time. We’re really thinking of our go-to market on the capture, the search query and demand that exists out there, but then also lead with our product experience and build trust at the top of the funnel with content and in interesting unique content.

Kunal Mehta: That’s awesome. You guys rolled out a ton of programs during COVID. I remember my daughter commenting on the astronaut sessions specifically and she just loved it. Maybe you can speak to those, the impact, and the lessons you learned during COVID.

Adam Weber: COVID’s had such a transformational impact on the education category. We were right dead smack in the middle of a lot of that transformation and change that’s occurred. Every metric we study, and track is showing just an incredible level of openness and willingness, and frankly, even now desired preference for learning online that didn’t exist pre COVID. One of the major things was just the change in our business has more and more people are willing to learn through technology which really sets us up for long-term success.

But I do think there was some underlying kind of short-term and potentially even over time trend lines that, that we see happening when I kind of mentioned about star courses, there was this huge growth in enrichment, a desire for people to actually blend fun and learning together which was kind of around pre COVID.

I think what really, really jump-started it was COVID because for a while there, learning was a chore through the schools in particular. It was tough whether it was done remotely, or it was done in isolation. I think that a lot of families turned to online learning as a place where they could bring together and enrich their students and make learning fun again.

We really leaned into that as a trend and really built out an enrichment program that didn’t even exist in our portfolio prior to COVID. The other major trend, and this is one that we kind of think is the most critical one is that learning right now matters more than it ever has.

COVID because of the impact it’s had on schools — I think there’s a McKinsey study that said this — set back students in K-12 by on average five months from where they should be based on their learning journey. I think the result of that is that learning and outcomes matter more than they ever have.

That’s great for our business because the product we deliver I think is absolutely the best thing you can do to address learning loss or to catch up or to get ahead. What we’re seeing as a trendline in our business and how we adapted to that is not only did we see that in our kind of direct-to-consumer business, but we saw and were able to partner with schools for really the first time in our business history.

We developed an institutional strategy that allowed us to go into schools who are catching the blunt force of this COVID learning loss problem. With a teacher shortage that’s happening nationwide, schools are looking for partners like us that can address that need not just in the short term, but now durably over the long-term we believe.

I think the two biggest pivots we’ve seen in our business, or I should say additions to our growth strategy, have been utilizing enrichment as a mechanism to get people into our ecosystem and to have fun while learning. We also address a lot of the academic needs that are in the market right now, by partnering directly with schools.

Katja Gagen: I think Nerdy, or Varsity Tutors, saved many parents during the pandemic, including myself with your virtual summer camps that were awesome because it’s such a variety of topics across various levels. Thank you so much.

Adam Weber: I mean, it is funny you say that. One of the advantages of online is the availability of selection. It’s really hard for your local YMCA or school to deliver a broad option base of summer camps, or afterschool programs. When you’re online and you have a purposeful platform like we do, that’s possible. We can offer 10, 15 different types of summer camps and afterschool programs that just can’t be offered on a local basis.

Katja Gagen: Thanks Adam. As you look into consumer markets, we want to drill deeper in a couple of areas where we’d love to get your input, as a CMO who’s worked for two iconic companies. During COVID, we found that changes that we thought were short-term might be a bit longer. What are some of the other permanent changes that marketers should be planning on?

Adam Weber: I think with all the changes right now in the privacy landscape, I think that marketers need to get really used to measurement being very tough, and I think it’s going to probably get worse before it gets better. Back in the Dollar Shave Club, there was certainly no perfectly insulated silver bullet to measurement, but we definitely had a good grasp on how every dollar you spent was impacting our bottom line.

I think in these days where we have less visibility to what’s happening in the user journey, and we’re able to track it to a far lesser degree than we used to, the key is about triangulation and really being able to get at it from multiple angles on what’s working and what’s not. Sometimes it’s through some of the measurement vehicles that exist in tracking a user online, but also understanding brand health metrics, understanding survey data, and in multiple ways, understanding what’s happening underneath the hood so that you can get better and optimize.

Kunal Mehta: Adam, thank you. We typically end our podcast with a series of rapid-fire questions. I wanted to start with a book and a movie that changed your life.

Adam Weber: On the book front, I don’t know that it’s any single book but I’m a huge fan of presidential biographies which I think really give you an inside track to how decision-making and leadership is really conducted at the highest levels of, really the world. So right now, I’m reading a book, Theodore Rex, which is about Teddy Roosevelt’s kind of formative years as a president, which I find really interesting and is one of the examples of that kind of genre that I really enjoy. On the movie front, I guess I’d go with Dead Poets Society. I watched Dead Poets Society for the first time as a high school junior in my English class. I think it really taught a lot of important things in life like, seizing the day, Carpe Diem, finding yourself, being true to yourself, taking risks. I think it was a really important movie at that stage of my life.

Katja Gagen: Thanks Adam. And since you are lifetime learner, what’s one skill you want to pick up or an area you want to learn more about next?

Adam Weber: Lifelong learning is super important for us at Nerdy and something we really believe in. For me, oddly enough I’m kind of starting to get into coding. I’ve never learned how to code. I’m not a developer but my kids who are seven, six and four, are really into coding right now.

And they actually learn on our platform at Varsity Tutors. Through that, I’ve been myself kind of starting to learn and spend more time coding not because I’m using it at work on a day-to-day basis, but because I find it intriguing and challenging. My kids are actually really heavily influencing my learning right now.

Kunal Mehta: I love the way kids just have that impact, right? I know our listeners would love to hear what your favorite marketing metrics are.

Adam Weber: Yeah, I think it’s tough to pick one. I guess ROAS to me is really critical as a marker of return on ad spend, you got to pay the bills and you got to be accountable as a marketer, especially as a CMO. I think ROAS is the ultimate metric of accountability.

But maybe the less notable metric that matters I pay attention to a lot is unaided awareness and I think it really shows the strength of your brand. It shows how top of mind you are in your category, and it usually is most correlated to growth over time. So unaided awareness is maybe the unsung hero of the metric landscape.

Katja Gagen: That’s really interesting. What’s a lesson learned in your career that you would want to pass onto your younger self?

Adam Weber: I think if I were to reflect back on my earlier years of my career, I think you’ve got to think about your career kind of more like chess, not checkers, and plan a couple of moves ahead and realize that not every role is your ultimate destination. When I left Procter & Gamble, I left for a lateral move, less money, not the best title but for me it was a role where I knew I could learn.

I had gaps in what it was going to take for me to become a great marketing leader or a CMO one day. That move out of P&G and into an e-commerce company allowed me to do that and it set me up for success to join Dollar Shave Club, which was obviously a great experience.

Kunal Mehta: I think there’s great wisdom in that, Adam, because the faster you learn, the faster you’re going to rise. So, closing those gaps really matter. Maybe we can end on the most interesting life hack.

Adam Weber: Life hack. This one I definitely have picked up since COVID — the walking meeting. We were remote from the company before COVID, we are now honestly fully remote. Most of my meetings are in video in my home office and I think it’s really important to be present on video for most meetings, but I will take probably one to two one-on-ones per day in all weather, and I will walk them.

It gives me energy. I can actually focus. I don’t multi-task. And of course, it kind of covers my exercise for the day. So, walking meetings is my big life hack.

Katja Gagen: That is awesome. We learned, Adam, that you’re not only a lifetime learner, but also now a lifetime walker. When it’s right, I’m hoping we can take you on a walk and talk more about everything we covered today, from what it’s like to build a CMO in a private and public company, to how CMOs should think about demand gen and why the customer experience matters now more than ever.

But also, how someone who was dealing in the consumer space with shaving and grooming products made the successful transition to the EdTech space. Thanks so much for being on the podcast today, Adam.

Adam Weber: Thanks for having me. This was a lot of fun. And I’d be happy to go on a walk with you any day.

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The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview and blog post are not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit www.tcv.com/all-companies/. For additional important disclaimers regarding this interview and blog post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at http://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/.

Originally published at https://www.tcv.com on January 18, 2022.

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TCV backs growth-stage private & public tech companies. For a complete list of TCV investments, visit: www.tcv.com/portfolio-list.

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TCV backs growth-stage private & public tech companies. For a complete list of TCV investments, visit: www.tcv.com/portfolio-list.