As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Joel Mathew.
Joel Mathew is an entrepreneur with a background in media and technology. He spent several years in the media world in Chicago working for both the television and radio industries, before founding his own digital focused agency.
His past clients range from new startups to billion dollar global corporations including All State, Nike, Acura, Rakuten and more. In addition to his expertise in advertising and technology, Joel is also a partner in several ventures in a variety of verticals including legal, fitness, cybersecurity, publishing, higher education and more.
Joel graduated from Northern Illinois University and holds a certificate from Harvard Business School. He frequently speaks to organizations on various topics including entrepreneurship, digital marketing and faith. Joel has been featured in Forbes, Inc Magazine, The Next Web and other business and technology outlets.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
As a first-generation Indian American, I was raised in the Chicago area. After attending Northern Illinois University, I entered the big world of business, and cut my teeth in the working for some of the largest media corporations on the planet. Even though I had opportunities to get into management roles, I always leaned toward the marketing and sales side of the house. I loved meeting with business leaders, finding their pain points, and suggesting ways we can solve those problems. About 10 years ago, the entrepreneurial bug bit me, and I decided to start my own digital marketing agency in Chicago. Last year, a trusted family member invited me to co-found Beyond Academics — a think tank and consulting firm to help higher education navigate through the pandemic and into the new normal.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
That’s an easy one. Back when we started my digital marketing agency, we were so excited to order our first round of printed business cards. In entrepreneurial haste, we skipped the typical “check to make sure” step, and rushed to hand them out to friends, family, and business contacts. Turns out the phone number printed on the cards was off by one digit — and of course, that 1 digit error led people to a phone sex line. The lesson learned? Check and double-check your work — especially work that will end up on the client’s desk.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Patrick Lencioni — 5 Dysfunctions of a Leadership Team
This book was extremely helpful in understanding motivators and communication styles that vary amongst a team. It also gave the glimpse for what could be done if everyone is on the same page.
Traction — Gino Wickman
This book was a godsend at the time I picked it up. It helped simplify and systemize business processes and helped with accountability, communication, and visibility.
Entreleadership, How I Built This, and the MFCEO Project
I love hearing stories of business leaders and how they navigated the good times and the bad. The podcasts listed above all show different styles and perspectives on how successful visionaries got from point A to point B.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
My partners and I co-founded Beyond Academics to help higher education transform. Our lead partner Matt Alex is one of the foremost authorities on the Future of Work and Future of Campus Enterprise. He has been sounding the alarm of the “perfect storm” that has been developing around higher education. Covid-19 was just one of the accelerants to the inevitable. A major reset of the entire system has been long due. Unfortunately, higher ed does not have the capacity within itself to transform. Most everyone employed in higher ed has been tasked to be as “non-entrepreneurial” and change-averse as possible. We feel our purpose is to guide them through these uncharted waters by leveraging our entrepreneurial experience, business backgrounds, and network of solution providers. Our vision is to see as many schools thriving on the other side of this storm as possible.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
My faith is the most important driver to how I operate in business. It has been the single most important leveling effect for me through the ups and downs. The #1 principle that guides me is the verse “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, mind, and strength.” that has been a priceless asset through the ups and downs of running a business. It also gives me the perspective that there is someone above me who I report to.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Our family has faced many of the same challenges most families have. From the volatile initial days of the shut-down, to the disconnected side of zoom meetings and e-learning with two small kids. However, very few are as impacted as the higher education space, and since that is our customer today, I feel their pain. Some of the most secure jobs on earth now face a very uncertain future. Revenue streams you could take to the bank a year ago (such as dorm fees) may no longer exist post-pandemic. Methods of delivery of teaching that seemed so normal just a few months ago, are now considered completely unsustainable. Covid-19 didn’t cause the higher education bubble to burst, but it sure sped up the process.
The most important thing we are doing with our clients in higher education is bringing a message of hope. There is so much doomsday information about there. The daily news of campus outbreaks certainly doesn’t help. There is so much fear and uncertainty, that we are striving to be a source of empowerment and a place for answers and direction. When our clients can’t see past the corner, we assure them that we’ve already been there, and know what they need to do. When they lack answers, we seek to provide them. In times of uncertainty and change, we are striving to lead with a positive and uplifting set of solutions.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Higher education (like us) has been overly dependent on face-to-face interaction. Whether it is the freshman dorm experience, a lecture on human physiology, or an emergency room nursing lab. Covid-19 brought a screeching halt to all that. So now comes the urgent need for schools to reinvent (and in some cases reboot) for the new normal. To address this massive need we’re starting the process with the question “why”. Schools have to go back to the “why” of their existence. From there, we help them identify the outcomes they are looking for (e.g. increase enrollment by 25%). Once all the outcomes are on the table, we then do the heavy lift of creating roadmaps (all the action steps needed) to achieve that outcome. Add to that a dashboard that measures results along the way, and we’re well on our way to transformation.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
At Beyond Academics we recognize there is a lot of fear out there, and we don’t want to underplay how real that may be in people’s lives. However, our mission is to lovingly guide people out of a state of fear, and into a mindset of empowered transformation. We cast a vision for a better and brighter future, because that is achievable and not just lip service. We talk about how the pandemic is forcing schools to think smarter, leaner, and for the benefit of their constituents. That is going to drive better decisions, and better outcomes. Of course, there will be those who will ignore our guidance and stay the current course. Their demise is eminent. However, for those who join our tribe and innovate forward, we promise a better tomorrow.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
There is no doubt a Post-Covid economy has a promising future for those in higher education who innovate today. Some examples include;
- Creation of educational marketplaces/exchanges where students can access accredited coursework from multiple schools/professors from the comfort of their home
- Alliances and partnerships where schools will come together to provide a better, leaner solution for students.
- Digital campuses where affinity doesn’t require being in a packed stadium of football fans. It will likely involve virtual experiences that are as immersive as a game of Minecraft.
- Students from anywhere on the planet will be able to access education on their mobile device. It will no longer require a 4-year on-campus degree to get a good job. Companies like Google and Microsoft will build education that will allow people to get hired with an accelerated certificate program.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
There is no doubt in my mind that Covid will create a new normal. What’s hard to predict is what the new normal will really look like. As a business owner, I’ve now learned how to socialize and sell via Zoom — as opposed to over a fancy lunch or drinks. I’ve done business across state lines without having to fly in-and-out of Chicago O’Hare airport. Our clients at Beyond Academics (who historically would never pay an offsite consultant) are begging for us to stay off their campus. Yes, the new normal will be very different. But I do miss meeting clients over a great dinner and building relationships that way. I do enjoy the tranquility a 3-hour flight brings. I enjoy shaking a person’s hand when I meet them. I hope some of those things are not part of history.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
There are three things we are focused on in this Post-Covid Economy
- A positive, empowering company culture and client-facing message
- A pursuit of entrepreneurial innovation both inside our company — and for our clients
- A lean startup mindset even when we’re 10 years old
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
If I was advising a peer business owner, I would encourage them to do what we tell our clients to do
- Revisit your why and your purpose for being in business
- Redefine your target and get a rich understanding of their “new normal”
- Innovate products and services to meet them where they are going to be (not where they were in Q1 2020)
- Stay positive, and always look for the silver lining
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My faith provides an endless supply of life lessons and quotes but I will take this a different direction. The lyrics of the Tom Petty song “I Won’t Back Down” really resonated with me early in my career and have provided a soundtrack for me through the ups and definitely the downs. Life and business are all about grit, tenacity, and perseverance. There’s no better quote around those themes than “you can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.”
How can our readers further follow your work?
We’re easy to find at beyondacademics.com. My partners and I are also fairly active on LinkedIn. There’s myself Joel Mathew, Matt Alex and Joe Abraham. Feel free to connect with us on LinkedIn and start a conversation.