Welcome to the Making of Gusto Academy. In this six-part multimedia series, we’re serving up a detailed, insider guide to imagining, designing, building, and launching an impactful customer education initiative—all wrapped up in a roller-coaster of a personal and professional journey.
No matter how or where customer education functions at your company, we’re here to show you how it can be more. We’re here to help you transform it from a languishing support function to a viable, valuable product...and have a little fun along the way.
The Chapters of Our Story
They had dreamed it…they had built it…and boy, had they launched it. But could their convention-defying approach to customer education move the needle in the industry they were looking to disrupt?
We had built an Academy that we believed could redefine customer education for accountants—from basic product training to a full-on path to professional development. We were not only investing in our customers and their careers, but we were building a community that was bigger than our product—while leveraging all of that to grow Gusto in the process. But no matter how useful or well-designed your customer education platform may be, it’s nothing without impact. What do you want your platform to do? What metrics should it ultimately move?
From the very beginning, we had sold leadership at Gusto on the vision and ability to impact revenue, and it was time to deliver the competitive differentiation I’d promised.
When customer education is built as a product rather than a support function, it needs to live up to the name: products add value for your customers. Products should be positively impacting your bottom line. But as we created the Academy, we weren’t just thinking about our own bottom line.
Designing our program with a learner-centric approach meant we viewed the impact of our program through the lens of our customers from day one. Would our product help them grow their bottom lines? Help them grow their own careers?
Our three-fold approach to professional development pathways meant impacting the “bottom lines” of everyone involved. For a quick recap:
For entry-level accountants and bookkeepers, it would allow them to level up and increase their career mobility. For more advanced accountants, they could transition payroll from a low-margin compliance exercise to an inroad to higher-margin advisory services, and for those who already owned their own firms, we were offering a new way to empower and retain their teams all while increasing margins and billable employee hours and expanding their services across the board.
In short: If they’re successful, we’re successful. If they feel confident and add more clients, then we see increased annual recurring revenue (ARR).
“This training has been amazing…I was able to create a beautiful SOP with this training to support me and my team. I also loved the perspective from other financial professionals on the opportunities to better advise clients by having such wonderful software.” - Virginia
And the best part about creating a program built around who our customers are? Designing and delivering People Advisory as a service means embedding our solutions into the accounting profession’s business model. It meant that we were fully entrenching Gusto in every step of their journey forward. Talk about a win-win-win.
So many of the customer education platforms we’d seen along the way had large course catalogs with theatrical-level quality—but no real engagement or goals. Before we could get to those big-picture, downstream revenue drivers, we needed to lay out our core assumptions about education as a whole and define the metrics we believed mattered most.
We started with the belief (backed up by data) that well-trained customers are better customers. We wanted to see deeper penetration of education within our existing partner base and we wanted higher adoption of education with new partners in their early days with Gusto.
Obviously we want as many partners as possible to get certified. But in order to set realistic expectations, we looked at historical metrics from our People Advisory training program at each stage of the funnel alongside overall customer growth; then we made assumptions about increased adoption based on the awareness and relevance of the Academy and its offerings. Then we worked our way backwards down the funnel, with total course completions dictating our initial funnel success.
Here’s some back-of-the-napkin thinking:
If we assumed a 30% funnel throughput to completion, and we want 200 certifications a month, then we’d need 600 people to start the course, which means about 1,000 unique Academy visits a month. Bing bang boom.
Tracking how much partners engage with our programs, and (hopefully) absorb what we’re teaching, is pretty straightforward. Academy visits and course completions are easy-to-measure metrics. But what do total course completions tell us? What does it mean for Gusto?
What matters most to us is whether learners implement the things they’ve learned, integrating them into their practice, and ultimately impacting the core business metrics we’re striving for. We can see down the end of the funnel and say completing these courses will drive our partners to add more clients, but there’s a natural lag between taking a course and changing the way you do business.
So how do we make strategic decisions based on business impact when business impact takes time to develop and can change based on external factors? To measure the true value and impact of Gusto Academy—and to create a consistent, organization-wide approach—our data science team created a concept called Impact Ladders.
An impact ladder describes how an initiative achieves business impact in a series of consecutive steps, or rungs, where each rung has more business impact than the last. As an organization, we develop a common hypothesis about the number of rungs, their causal connection, and what metric measures each rung.
How does this work in Education & Community? Low rungs in the ladder (e.g., site visits, course starts, course completions) are activities we can measure quickly and attribute precisely to the Academy. Higher rungs (e.g., learners integrating insights into their practice, client adds) take longer to reach and are influenced by external factors.
But as long as we’re internally aligned on the number of rungs and the causal connection between each rung, we can infer that hitting lower-rung metrics puts us on track to achieve higher-rung outcomes later on. This allows us to use those low-rung metrics to make quick decisions about prioritization and course offerings, while we do longer-term research to validate impact on the ultimate goal: client adds.
The new payroll certification training from Gusto was focused as much on the mechanics of running payroll as it was learning how to use Gusto itself. Despite not being new to payroll, I feel like this training solidified my payroll skills and gave me a huge confidence boost.” - Vicki
When we hear feedback like Vicki’s, we know our narrative about confidence and firm integration is a solid rung on the ladder. And when it comes time, we’ll have the data to prove it.
Speaking of data, I’m not a data scientist. I’m a content gal all the way. Ideation, collaboration, writing, erasing. I love every bit of it. But spending hours toiling in spreadsheets to monitor the progress of the Academy is not my idea of a good time.
And that’s where our partnership with Intellum has been a complete game-changer. When it comes to measuring all those juicy metrics—and understanding their impact—Intellum handles most of the heavy lifting. I haven’t had to learn how to use SQL or Tableau. I don’t have to export huge data sets to CSV or spend time poring over a pie chart.
It’s all just there. Using the Insights feature, we can reference data-driven dashboards right from our account that tell us about the learner engagement of our programs. It’s also made it easier for our Business Intelligence teams to create the data piping needed to bring together disparate data sets and tell the impact story of the Academy.
I can pull reports right from Intellum on pretty much…anything. (Not to say that I look at our course completion numbers every day…because…who does that, right??)
Okay, I do. I check those numbers every day because I know we’re going to hit them. I can’t wait to see us sail past the metrics and impact targets we’ve set for ourselves. Gusto Academy may be a newborn in the world of customer education, but I have zero doubts about our ability to move the needle in the long term. And that’s because we’ve entrenched the value of the program as a whole so deeply into who our partners are and how they work.
“The “Onboarding Checklist” and the module on the Journal Entry were so good I almost cried. What I wouldn’t have given for that info back when I first started my business.” - Kate
Winning the ACE Program of the Year award was a watershed moment that confirmed we’d been making the right choices and taking the right chances. But for me, hearing positively glowing feedback from the people who use our program has been the real proof in the pudding. A lot of SaaS education tends to meet customers where they are, but we worked hard to level up from satisfying pain points to creating opportunities for growth at every step of their journey.
At the end of the day, impact isn’t just about numbers. And growth isn’t just about P&L. Building a customer education initiative that can change an industry requires a truly people-centric approach. It requires caring about the community you’re serving. And behind the glitz and glamor of video shoots and product launches, it requires building a team who’ll support your vision.
I am beyond proud of the team we assembled and what we were able to achieve in six short (yet insane) months. We didn’t fall in line with the status quo or look over our shoulders to see what we should be doing. We built something of meaning together, grounded in a shared belief of what education can do. We created a product and a platform in line with our values and what we believed could make the biggest impact. Impact to the bottom line, sure, but driven by impact to the customer and the community first and foremost.
Of course the only thing on my mind now is… What’s next?
The Academy launch was only the first step on our multi-year strategic journey. Our initial course offerings are just the backbone of what we hope grows into THE home for professional development for the accounting profession. We believe Gusto can become an indispensable piece of how accountants do business and offer services to their clients, and we’ll continue to expand our course offerings and learning tracks to reflect that.
But the growth doesn’t stop there. On top of our cherished client partners, we have our sights set on expanding education to new audiences like sales enablement and direct-to-customer. And we know that Intellum’s scalable platform will be there to grow with us every step of the way.
No matter what the future holds, we’re going to continue to be inspired and excited by what education can do, by what it can be. I believe we’ve proven that customer education can be so much more than a supporting function; it can be a valuable, viable product. We’ve shown that technology is so much more than code; it can be part of a uniquely human learning experience. And I hope through this crazy journey, we’ve inspired and excited other women to believe they can break out, go off-script, and lead the way toward changing the face of education in their own companies and industries.
No customer education initiative is ever a finished product because there is always more to learn, more to teach, and more ways to grow. Technology never stops changing, and our platform will always be there to help our partners and customers connect with one another and achieve their goals—encouraging them to be more every step of the way.