Durham startup finds success in making corporate training fun

kblunt@newsobserver.comJune 23, 2013 

CLARIFICATION: A word was added to the first quote of the second paragraph for clarity. Clarification made at 5 p.m. Monday, June 24, 2013.

DURHAM -- It was Where’s Waldo for grown-ups – two hours worth of corporate training disguised as a game that rewarded players with gadgets if they found objects hidden within a series of digital maps. Then the program hiccupped.

“When the company told us they had an (internal) issue, they said their employees were calling to make sure they would still have their gadgets when it was back up and running,” said Tracy Bissette, chief learning architect of Weejee Learning, the Durham custom learning company that designed the game for a large pharmaceutical company. “They were more worried about keeping their gadgets than saving their progress.”

Weejee fixed the program, saved the gadgets and restored the employees’ excuse to play games on the job. For Bissette, the incident reinforced what she already believed: E-learning can and should be fun.

In just three years, that philosophy has helped make Weejee a player in the rapidly growing e-learning industry. Within the last decade, e-learning – education facilitated by a digital platform such as a desktop, laptop, tablet or mobile application – has become integral to the corporate training industry. It can eliminate the need for face-to-face conferencing or classroom instruction, a welcome development for companies whose employees are divided by time zones or language differences.

“The technology and data to support change in behavior and learning outcomes has gotten to the point that e-learning is a viable option for educating a workforce,” said Ian Huckabee, Weejee’s CEO.

Weejee specializes in both custom learning development and instructional design. Some of the company’s eight full-time employees focus on constructing online course modules that are engaging and visually compelling, while others work to ensure the educational content is effectively conveyed.

“Usually the process starts with some sort of need,” Bissette said. “Maybe they want to convert some boring workforce training content into a fun game. The client is very much a partner in the creative process. It’s very interactive in the sense that within the first couple of meetings, we give them some mock-ups and introduce a common vocabulary that we can all respond to. Then we start putting together content.”

To make serious content as stimulating as possible, Weejee may incorporate any combination of animation, graphics, games, quizzes, simulations and social media elements into its course modules or programs. Courses usually include practice-based assessments and activities to gauge a learner’s ability to meet project objectives.

Weejee’s formula for educational fun has earned it a large client base of mostly Fortune 100 and 500 companies. The company, founded in 2010, tripled its year-over-year earnings in 2011 and 2012 and is poised to do the same in 2013, Huckabee said. It now works with more than 20 companies at once.

“We don’t put all our eggs in just a few baskets client-wise,” Huckabee said. “It’s been a concerted effort to diversify across multiple industries.”

From textiles to e-tools

Bissette didn’t discover her interest in e-learning until after she graduated from N.C. State University. She majored in textiles and then moved to Washington to work in the education departments of several trade groups. She spent a year with Cisco before deciding to launch her own business.

Bissette met Huckabee and discovered they shared many business interests.

“We both recognized the same trends in learning,” Huckabee said.

Although Weejee employs less than 10 people full-time, it maintains a network of more than 90 independent contractors. “We can scale up very quickly if needed,” Huckabee said.

He said the company plans to hire a chief operating officer, a senior instructional designer and a creative project manager this summer.

A billion-dollar market

Weejee’s rapid success speaks to the viability of a relatively small but steadily growing industry. Valued at $12.8 billion in 2011, the U.S. corporate e-learning market is expected grow 5 percent annually through 2016, according to research firm IDC Insights. The firm’s 2012 forecast predicted the market will generate $14.1 billion in revenues this year.

There are many subdivisions of corporate e-learning. Some companies build content management systems, some produce products to be bought off the shelf, and others, like Weejee, construct custom programs for their clients. Weejee’s price for custom courses starts at about $8,000 and may reach into the six-figure range, depending on the length and complexity of the training needs.

According to Craig Weiss, an e-learning consultant who founded E-Learning 24/7, custom learning developers may be best positioned to capitalize on what he considers the biggest trends in the industry: video, gamification and online-offline synchronization across multiple platforms. “There is more supply and more demand for custom learning than ever before,” Weiss said. “A company’s needs might be really specific. It might need courses designed to be seen on mobile devices, or courses with gamification pieces if you want to do that. Gamification has just exploded.”

Banking on HTML

In an effort to gain a competitive edge over some of its main competitors, like Allen Interctions and Tricore, Weejee builds its modules mainly in HTML, a coding language understood by both Apple and Windows systems. Specifically, Weejee is working to develop complex animation and other elements in HTML 5, the latest version of the coding standard revised to support more multimedia elements. Many other program developers build animated and interactive elements using Adobe Flash, which isn’t supported by some Apple products.

“HTML is way better than Flash, and its becoming very big on the corporate side,” Weiss said. “Flash can’t be seen technically through an iPad unless you have a certain kind of browser. As more and more people adapt to mobile devices, it’s just a better way to do things. On the business side, more and more small businesses are going with tablets over laptops, which is going to drive HTML expansion.”

Ultimately, Weejee stakes its growth on its fun-centric strategy and willingness to innovate.

“We’ve established a brand platform that has positioned us in a unique spot in the industry,” Huckabee said.

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