How GetSmarter’s distance learning overhaul created a $100m company

The brothers Sam & Rob Paddock explain the "deliberate design" behind the e-learning empire's success.

Download options

If you were in the Design Indaba Conference audience and you didn’t already know that Sam and Rob Paddock were brothers, you’d know in an instant. The pair make it very clear from the minute they step on stage. Mere business partners couldn’t have that kind of playful chemistry in front of a packed arena.  

But as they launch into their talk we soon learn that what they’ve been doing is anything but playing around. 

Sam and Rob Paddock are the co-founders of the Cape Town and London-based, globally recognised online learning platform, Getsmarter. Sam serves as CEO while Rob is Chief of Strategic Partnerships.

The brothers recognised a serious need for working professionals to learn and develop themselves sans the need to attend lectures. Traditional correspondence learning was available, but success rates were abysmal, so they sought a way around that. Online was the answer.

With the singular goal of fundamentally shifting the trajectory of distance learning, the brothers shared the key elements of their business’ success. Sure, success is relative, but the kind of success Getsmarter is enjoying has never been seen on the Cape Town start-up scene, nor even in the country.

From humble beginnings in 2008, to a staff contingent of 70 in 2013 and barely managing to stand, to operating in 140 countries and employing 350 people on three continents in 2017. Then finally selling the company for R1,4 billion ($103 million). It’s safe to call the once-startup a runaway success.

The brothers say that a big part of this success can be owed to forming partnerships through design. And this is both at student and employee and executive level. The core of implementing this with staff is to “find a way to have the right people doing the right things, right.” In fact, Sam identifies this as a challenge, and it’s probably one many other businesses can relate to.

The team have also implemented what could be described as their business bible – the One Page Strategic Plan (OPSP), which helps the business to define who they are, why they exist, and where they play.

Furthermore, the brothers say that it’s important to establish three to five things that the business must achieve annually. But what’s more important is focusing on those things and doing them really well.

They say none of this would be possible without being "partnered through deliberate design,” across the company. 

Design Indaba 2018 Conference Talks are presented in partnership with Liberty.  

More on business and design:

Roger Martin on leveraging design in business

How these Barcelona creatives are helping brands to connect more with people

David Butler on why design is critical to business