Phil and I spent some time at Desire2Learn’s FUSION conference the other week, and it was an interesting experience. D2L had a couple of first-ever “analyst days” in which we and a few others got some intensive briefings on their products and strategies. (D2L isn’t the only company that is doing this sort of thing, but they’ve gone significantly further with it than the other LMS companies have so far.) It was a useful complement to the information that we get from walking the floor and talking to customers. And, as I’m sure they intended, we walked away from the experience feeling somewhat more positive about the company than we did going in—not so much because of the dog-and-pony show but because we were able to ask some hard questions to senior managers and, more often than not, get reasonable answers.
Historically, my take on D2L has been as follows: On the good side, they have coherent product vision and their own take on the LMS space—I have a lot of respect for Ken Chapman as a product guy—and good relationships with their customers. These factors contribute significantly to their very high customer retention rate, even relative to the other LMS providers which, as a group, generally have fairly high retention rates. On the bad side, D2L has not always been particularly good at executing technically difficult projects, and they have not always had a good sense of how well they are performing in that regard—what they have achieved, how long it will take them to deliver functionality, how serious the problems are, and so on. CEO John Baker, whose deeply ingrained sense of optimism enabled him to face down a patent lawsuit against serious odds, can be the worst offender in this regard. He is chronically overly optimistic about the state of the company’s products and the seriousness of any bumps in the road.
In the last year or two, D2L has begun hiring some outsiders to bolster their technical team. They have benefitted from the hot tech market in Kitchener in general and to the collapse of RIM in particular, snapping up relatively senior Blackberry technical people. But it’s fair to say that they have been actively recruiting tech talent, both inside and outside of Kitchener, for a while now. For example, they hired Al Essa, whom I have known for over a decade since his time as CEO of MIT’s Sloan School of Business and his leadership in the dotLRN open source LMS community, to head up their analytics product line.
It’s hard to tell for certain whether this hiring trend has accelerated since D2L received their investment, but it certainly appears like that might be the case. I’ll call out the example of Nick Oddson, the new VP of Enterprise Product Engineering, who came from OpenText (a serious enterprise content management company that you probably have never heard of). Nick impressed both Phil and me as a guy who knows his stuff and is a straight shooter about what the company is doing well and what it is not doing well yet. At some point we expect to write more about what Nick in particular is up to, because we think it’s pretty pivotal for the future of the company. For now, the point is that D2L seems to be making hires that have the potential to shore up their historic weaknesses. In the next 12-24 months, we will see whether these new hires are empowered to make a real difference in D2L’s performance.
I’ll have a follow-up post specifically on their analytics products fairly soon.