Phill Miller

A driving force for change and value creation in the EdTech space

Please tell us a bit about yourself, Phill.

My name is Phill Miller. I’m the Managing Director of Open LMS based out of Indianapolis, Indiana. Father of seven-year-old triplets and a nine-year-old.

What’s your goal at Open LMS?

We've been building Open LMS as a consolidation of a very fragmented Moodle market.

✨ Pearl of wisdomThe Moodle market is one of the most important markets in the EdTech world, but it's very fragmented and regionalized. My goal is to simplify and unify this market, providing an open-source option that can compete with commercial offerings.

Building a strong team is crucial, and at Open LMS, we've made significant progress in assembling a talented set of leaders. My role involves investing in the team, setting the direction, and watching them execute successfully, which is now coming to fruition. It's a rewarding journey, although it often takes more time than expected, it's been truly enjoyable.

What led you to EdTech?

It's been a remarkable 20-year journey since I joinedco-founded Angel Learning in the early 2000s. I began as a software developer and steadily progressed to product management and leadership roles. Through multiple acquisitions, we eventually sold two companies to Blackboard. A detour led me to the UK, where I immersed myself in the international aspect of their business, a truly enriching experience that provided me with a unique and diverse perspective on global EdTech.

What are the most important skills you developed to get to EdTech leadership?

✨ Pearl of wisdomI can be really specific on this because we have a leadership development program at Open LMS, and we have a very specific definition of what leadership means: Leaders are people that drive change that creates new value, and they think in an unconstrained way and are measured by hard results.

Personally, I've grown significantly in unconstrained thinking since stepping into a leadership role. Solving problems became my responsibility, and that shift in thinking has been instrumental in my journey. Surprisingly, attending law school, despite not aiming to practice law, also played a vital role in shaping my leadership style. It challenged my thinking and provided valuable tools for approaching business problems.

What do you like the most about this industry?

What I love most about this industry is the meaningful impact it has on people and society. Supporting education is hard to argue against. It allows us to build a sustainable business where people can thrive and find fulfilling jobs. At the end of the day, we are helping students learn, and witnessing their growth as they graduate from college or acquire new skills for better opportunities. It's not like working in a factory generating widgets; the tangible results here directly impact people's lives.

What do you consider to be your greatest professional achievement?

It would be the founding—or refounding—of Open LMS around three years ago. It involved the challenging task of separating it from Blackboard's ownership, and positioning it for acquisitions and doing market positioning. While it's still a work in progress, reaching that point required significant effort and several years of hard work. It's a personal milestone as well, and now I'm focused on taking it to the next level.

After that, what do you think the next level is?

The next level is all about the team. As the business grows, my focus is on empowering and growing the team, so I don't have to be involved in every project. We're already one of the largest LMS providers worldwide with 1,800+ hosted production sites in multiple countries and solid revenue and profit. Currently, we have around 150 employees, and reaching 200 employees and exceeding 2,000 production sites are some of our next goals. It's important to be financially successful, but also to make a meaningful impact, which is what makes the EdTech industry so fulfilling.

What do you look for in your teams?

We have a very specific concept that we call the integrator mindset. For me, it's less about skills and more about the mindset that people approach. The integrator mindset is really how we work together to accomplish more than people can accomplish by themselves. When hiring, I look for individuals who exhibit or show the potential for this mindset. Lately, I've learned the value of bringing in leaders from outside the EdTech industry to bring fresh perspectives. While growing internal leaders like Laura Martin, whom we recently promoted, we've also welcomed individuals with new insights that elevate our company and the EdTech industry as a whole. I’m excited about that.

What’s your biggest challenge today?

My main challenge today is aligning the organization so that everyone is working together with the right mindset and approach. It's about getting everyone pointed in the same direction to achieve amazing things. Our strategy of acquiring other companies sounds simple, but the organizational and mindset challenges are significant.

✨ Pearl of wisdomMoving from a small business to a midsize company mindset has proven to be more demanding than the technical challenges.

While we've made progress, we still have work ahead to reach our desired level.

What principles or rules do you apply to get teams aligned?

✨ Pearl of wisdomWe are very repetitive and consistent about our four main objectives as a company, which we call TOGS. Build the best EdTech team in the world, so that is the T in TOGS. Retain our clients by obsessing about the client experience, that's the O. Grow our business in a scalable way by building a new sales engine that grows, that is the G, and then simplify our business so it scales globally.

Those are our four main principles and we talk about them all the time. I think there’s actually a T-shirt with those on them. At every meeting, our teams base their individual objectives off of those four top level objectives. That gives us alignment, as well as a decision making framework.

What’s interesting about the TOGS concept is that it's not rocket science. In fact, if you were selling pizza, you would have some of the same goals that we have. It's more about being clear and consistent, giving people the agency and the authority to act, as well as the autonomy to be able to go do things that are consistent with that framework. That is where I think a lot of people fall down; they have these objectives, but they still require that people to come and ask them for permission to do stuff. That doesn't make sense. If you've  already set the goals and the objectives, if you've hired this person, surely you trust them to make those decisions.

As a leader, it makes me really proud that we’ve had a lot of instances where people have referenced our TOGS principles to make decisions autonomously. The next big challenge for us will also be simplifying our business. As efficient as we’ve become, we still have some ground to cover. I don’t mean efficiency works just to make more money, but to make people's jobs easier; reducing the number of tools they have to use to do their job.

Do you identify yourself as a salesperson?

✨ Pearl of wisdomI think anybody that operates in a leadership role is a salesperson in different ways. But obviously, the most important sales job that I have is not with clients, it's internal. It's convincing people to buy into the vision that we are setting for the company. And that is both harder and also more important.

My focus is on selling the vision of what we want to build, rather than working on individual deals with clients. I joke that I don't do much "real" work, as I don't produce documents or code. My role is to enable our team to work more effectively. Currently, we have around 150 people in our organization.

If I could work myself 200 % harder, that would be less impactful than setting up a framework whereby all 150 of our employees were 1 % or 2 % more impactful. It's important for us to, as you grow into a leadership role, to constantly think about that because that is where I should be spending my time. A week and a half ago, during a one-on-one with one of my employees, I shared my screen, and he noticed that I had several browser tabs open, with most of them being my meeting notes with direct reports. That's where I spend around 50-60% of my time—working with my team to enable their success. I can't drive results alone; it's all about empowering the people on my team.

What skill does someone who's entering this industry right now need, especially for marketing and sales functions?

It's a small community. If you do something that’s unethical, dishonest, or that is not in the best interest of your clients, that will come back. For those entering the EdTech industry, especially in marketing and sales, honesty and transparency are paramount.

✨ Pearl of wisdomUnderstanding the client's problem before attempting to sell a product or service is essential. It's better to be honest and admit if your offering isn't the right fit, rather than pushing a mismatched solution and setting everyone up for failure down the line, which isn’t fair to anybody.

What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?

I've been fortunate to love my career, and I want to share some career advice. In the past 20 years, I haven't landed a job through resume submissions; instead, I've relied on networking and building relationships. This approach allows you to co-design your job with your future employer, making it a more fulfilling experience. At my current job, I get to choose the people I work with, both through hiring and partnerships.

✨ Pearl of wisdomBeing able to create a role that makes sense is essential because you'll spend a significant amount of time with your colleagues. Remember, if something doesn't feel right, don't hesitate to move on. It's crucial to find the right fit to thrive in your career journey.

How have you cultivated your network and relationships over time?

Networking goes beyond casual coffee meetings. It's about demonstrating your dedication and willingness to work hard. Having worked at Blackboard, a well-connected company, provided me with unique opportunities and international experience in this industry.

✨ Pearl of wisdomMy advice is to seek out and align yourself with people doing interesting work. Don't settle for mere coffee chats; find ways to collaborate, even if it's outside your current job, like volunteering for education-related causes.

Shared values and perspectives will connect you with like-minded individuals, leading to valuable partnerships and meaningful contributions to the field of education.

How do you see the LMS landscape in the future?

Whether the lines blur or not between corporate and higher education learning depends on whether people disconnect from the current norm and embrace change. In the LMS space, we stand out as we cater to both higher education and corporate learning. We are pretty unique in the LMS space. For the most part, you have some big players in higher education like Canvas, Blackboard, D2L and Moodle, which we provide. Most of them do not really have a corporate learning practice. We are pretty much half and half. Our unique approach led us to host a successful users conference where we brought both sectors together for meaningful discussions about learning.

As for the role of the LMS, it varies widely among clients. We have the second largest school in Europe, the Open University of Spain as a client, and we have a nonprofit in Victoria, Australia, the Victorian Dog Bite Prevention Society, which teaches local postmen how not to get bit by dogs. Both of those look at the LMS as a critical part of their infrastructure. While it's hard to draw direct correlations, our focus is on bringing people together for thoughtful conversations on learning and how tools aid the process. The lines between academia and the corporate world may continue to blur, but full integration might be elusive due to differing objectives.

When you're selling to EdTech institutions or corporations, what's the most important thing that you have to keep in mind?

In the last 18 months, I've come to appreciate that sales is both an art and a science. While some possess innate skills, successful selling also requires discipline and hard work. It's like training for a marathon—putting in the miles.

✨ Pearl of wisdomIn sales, it's about making calls, sending emails, attending conferences, and meeting people. There's no magic silver bullet.

We already have a product-market fit, so for salespeople, it's about studying our existing clients, finding similar prospects, and putting in the effort to understand their needs and be empathetic. The key is dedication and the amount of work you invest in the process.

What do you enjoy more and not so much about your role today?

I enjoy spending time with my team, and soon we'll be meeting at my cabin in the woods for team building. Recently, we rolled out a new version of our core leadership team, focusing on improving collaboration and preparation. It's rewarding to see our team evolve and embrace the changes.

However, I must admit that dealing with back-office issues, like data integration after merging three companies, is not my favorite. While crucial, I prefer focusing on the people aspect of my role and helping the team grow. There are others who excel at data and system management and find joy in it, but it's not my strong suit.

What are the EdTech events you cannot afford to miss?

There are numerous global conferences in the EdTech industry. ASU+GSV is significant for the financial and operational aspects, while Educause and DevLearn are prominent for corporate learning. In Europe, Learning Technologies is a major event not to be missed. EdTech Series and EdTech Asia in Singapore are also gaining momentum.

Attending these gatherings brings together smart minds with aligned visions, leading to positive outcomes. Face-to-face events have seen increased interest after COVID, but it remains to be seen if this trend will continue. The Open LMS Connected Conference has great potential to become a central hub in the EdTech universe in the coming years.

🔥 Rapid fire questions
Direct or through channels?
We do both depending on the country. Direct in the US, channel in Argentina, for instance.
Spears, nets or seeds?
I think more about nets because we are still a fairly young company and we need breadth.
Volume or key accounts?
It depends on the situation. We have clients that spend more than a million dollars with us and we have clients that spend less than $5,000.
Discipline or talent?
Ideal amount of hours per week spent on sales forecasting.
For a sales leader, 15-20% of their time.
In person or virtual?
It's circumstantial.
Ed or Tech?
What EdTech segment or technology are you interested in right now?
Learning records and permanent learning record transferability are interesting to me. It's pretty early in that market, but I think it’s an interesting one.
Inbound or outbound?
You have to do both.
Agency or in house?
It depends. There are specific examples where having somebody from the outside makes a difference. The problem is the cost.

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