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
Not every hero knows their journey is a calling when they take the first step. But the call to challenge and adventure pulls us—it pushes us. It tells us we can do more. It tells us we can be more. When you hear that call, no matter how unorthodox or wild or crazy it may seem, you answer.
Hi, I’m Jaclyn, Head of Community and Education at Gusto. And this is the story of my own call to adventure: the Making of Gusto Academy. In 2022, our team worked around the clock for 6 months to produce 12 hours of eLearning, 85 videos, pull off an LMS migration, and execute a launch in front of 2,000 people. And, in my opinion, we absolutely nailed it. In fact, our Academy won the ACE Program of the Year Award in customer education. But why am I sharing this journey?
My hope is to spark a change in customer education. It’s to inspire and excite and motivate education leaders and decision makers to take a chance, to go off-script. It’s to show that customer education can be so much more than a supporting function; it can be a product. It’s to prove that technology is so much more than code; it can be part of a human learning experience. And through it all, it’s to show that women can be leaders every step of the way.
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So let’s get started where most heroic tales begin, at the beginning.
Back in 2020, my team at Gusto had successfully launched our first major partner education initiative, People Advisory Certification. Gusto is a people-centric payroll, benefits, and HR provider serving hundreds of thousands of businesses and the thousands of accounting professionals who support them. People Advisory was a classic marketing-driven effort for those accounting partners. We used education as a lever to bring our category creation concept to market, and it worked.
Actually, let’s rewind a bit more. I was hired in 2019 as Gusto’s first Partner Education Manager with a mandate to build a certification program. I had no team, no funding, and no LMS. Partner Education was an experiment that went against the grain of our ‘easy-to-use’ marketing messaging. To say that I felt intimidated building a certification from scratch at this unicorn start-up would be an understatement.
While most customer education teams exist in Customer Success or Learning & Development, my team is part of the marketing department. What that meant for me was the opportunity to operate as a vertical team (of one at the time) rather than as a horizontal support function. I set program goals aligned to revenue and customer growth, rather than say, support case deflection. It also meant the opportunity to position education as a value-added component of our partner program—as a means to attract the right partners at the top of the funnel, then unlock their potential once in our base.
People Advisory Certification was my chance to prove education could be more than just tech training (and quite frankly, to prove it to myself as well). Given the marketing team’s apprehension at investing in a “learn where to click” approach, I took the path less traveled. Instead, I created a program that helped our accountant partners (yes, resellers) reframe how they offer payroll to their clients while expanding the type of people-oriented services they provide.
Lo and behold, People Advisory Certification was a hit. Hundreds of partners were getting certified, with many of them touting their new status on social media. They were driving brand awareness across all of our customer segments—spinning the proverbial flywheel. Offering the People Advisory program also helped differentiate us against other payroll providers who were more transactional. And, in working with data science, I could eventually prove that getting partners certified helped influence annual recurring revenue (ARR) and annual contract value (ACV). Makes total sense. Certified partners have the knowledge, confidence, and skill-set to be better at their jobs, thus outperforming those partners who were not certified. We’d tested the waters and proven that education was a winning strategy for Gusto.
With this win, I was ready to make the case for Gusto to invest in more than just a single program. I was making the case to invest in customer education as a function, as a part of how we deliver value to our customers across the customer journey from start to finish. I was ready to build an Academy. Luckily, I had the support of Gusto’s Head Ambassador, Will Lopez. Will shared the same passion for education and our customers that I did, and he was ready to back me up every step of the way.
He saw Gusto Academy as a multi-year initiative that could help Gusto provide what our competitors were not: true professional development. Gusto Academy wasn’t going to look like education at a traditional SaaS company. If we wanted to differentiate Gusto in the marketplace, we had to rethink customer education in the way Gusto rethinks so many things: through a human lens. We wanted to connect with learners rather than shoveling them lifeless content. We wanted to provide not just education, but true professional development.
To do all this, we’d need to convince the powers that be, aka Gusto leadership.
To convince leadership that the Academy was the right investment, I’d have to make the business case. Our growing team dove into a discovery phase, looking first to the market for insights. This included looking for inspiration from other folks who were doing this well. We found some gems outside of the accounting space (such as Mindbody and Contentful), who had the full package: great content, strong architecture, and a sound strategy. But in looking at our competitors, we quickly realized that most of the content out there…wouldn’t put up much of a fight.
Even best-in-class academies seemed to be overlooking the most important piece of customer education: the customer. They seemed to care more about positioning their own brands than serving the people they were meant to be teaching. And few understood how up-and-coming generations, now dominating the workforce, consume content. We see entertainment value all the time in top-of-funnel content, so why is education any different?
As we started to envision what we wanted to build, we also quickly realized that the LMS we had been using just couldn’t cut it. We were going to need a product that matched Gusto’s values and product design principles so we could create a truly seamless experience. We needed an LMS to help us sell the vision to leadership and create a great learning experience for our partners. What we needed was way more than an LMS. We needed a partner with an enterprise-ready solution who would provide unparalleled customer support and help my tiny team do some of the heavy lifting, rather than being a time suck. What we wanted to build wouldn’t be some ad-hoc attempt at pushing out a course no one asked for. We weren’t in a sprint…this was a marathon.
With a better sense of the external space, we turned inwards to focus on our own audience.
In partnership with James Lee and our Product Marketing team, we set out to develop learner personas. Learner personas are composite characters that represent what slices of our audience want to learn about: their knowledge and skills gaps, and their jobs to be done. From this work, three learner personas emerged.
We identified their extrinsic and intrinsic motivators, mapped their customer journeys, and pinpointed what they’d need to learn based on a Venn diagram of their career goals mapped to Gusto’s objectives. The key here wasn’t just creating stand-alone learner personas, but linking them to Gusto’s existing customer personas. This mirrors how we set out to create education as an integrated part of our business strategy, rather than a stand-alone function.
As the strategy and our business case began to emerge, it felt like we were onto something. The excitement was palpable. Were we really doing this? Could we really make it happen? The more people who told me nothing like this had ever been done at Gusto, the more certain I was that it was exactly what we needed to do.
But if everything sounds like it was easy, let me assure you, it wasn’t.
Trying to make the case for the Academy, I second-guessed myself every step of the way. The imposter syndrome I felt in my early days at Gusto had returned with a vengeance. Could I really pull this off? I didn’t have the years of experience in customer education or Ivy League degrees to fall back on. And—especially for women—we all know our professional lives aren’t our only lives. How on earth was I supposed to balance this massive workload with being a good partner and a good mom to my two girls?
Like so many others who had pushed boundaries before me, I had no choice but to silence the self-doubt in my head. Armed with a well-crafted memo and a deck that I’d revised no less than 15 times, it was time to sell Gusto on the vision. But how could we convince execs at a $10 billion company to invest in customer education that seemed to counter our own ‘easy to use’ messaging? The data we did have from People Advisory proved correlation but not causation. Would they be willing to take a chance and get behind the Academy on the path to IPO?
At the core of everything, we believed Gusto Academy could be more. So instead of selling them on the numbers alone, we sold them on that vision: to be more. To be more than the status quo. To deliver more value than the competition. And maybe what we were doing could change a whole lot more than Gusto.
After a high-stakes presentation, I patiently waited to hear the news (read: hovered over my Slack feed day and night). Finally, the message came in: They loved it. Gusto was willing to take a chance on the Academy.
Suddenly, our customer education department had internal buy-in at the highest levels. We were empowered to utilize internal and external resources, and we had the mandate to marshall cross-functional support with everyone from data science to engineering.
I reeled knowing that this was all really happening. The vision that had started as a single wild idea was becoming a reality. But I quickly realized no part of this was a quick win; we were in it for the long haul.
If we were going to turn customer education from a single program to a fully entrenched function, we needed to approach it as true professional development every step of the way. We couldn’t just throw together some mini-courses and call it a certification. We needed to know and care about what our customers needed—what would help them succeed.
And above all, we needed the Academy to truly differentiate us from other payroll providers in the market in a way that’s aligned with our people-centric values. Ultimately, that differentiation is what got Gusto on board. Through helping our partners be better at their jobs, we help them and their customers take better care of their hardworking employees. As a result, Gusto sees stronger business performance by our trained partners, lifting our ARR and ACV.
And somewhere in the chaos of what lay ahead, I realized that part of building a winning strategy for Gusto Academy was going to be my own self care. Finding (semi) healthy outlets to relieve stress, unplugging on weekends, and keeping perspective was going to be key in this six-month marathon to launch. Our new education initiative was about investing in the real people that make Gusto great. But I would also have to remember to invest in myself along the way.
As Jaclyn’s dreams of Gusto Academy began to take shape, she would soon realize the sheer volume of work that lay ahead. She had a vision, but she also knew she’d need to uplevel her content, her team, and her tech to pull it off.