Building a marketplace business is a notoriously difficult endeavor, but through perseverance and a commitment to a rigorous testing and optimization process, Acadium has beaten the odds and achieved breakout growth. They have created a platform that rejects the uneven playing field of the unpaid internship model and replaces it with an apprenticeship concept that harnesses the fundamental desire of humans to reciprocate when one person helps another.
This commitment to providing a fundamentally balanced environment for apprentices and businesses is reflected throughout the Acadium business. Even though the company only charges business clients for its services (it does not charge the apprentices), every element of their business from culture to North Star Metric is built around creating this equitable relationship where companies commit to training apprentices in exchange for value, and apprentices commit to providing that value in exchange for learning and opportunity to get real world experience.
In this growth study, we learn how Acadium’s North Star Metric of weekly active apprenticeships helps the Acadium team focus their growth process to ensure that both sides of the marketplace are well served.
Acadium’s Mission and Product/Market Fit
Acadium’s story starts with a mission to fix the broken internship model that exists today. Acadium believes the internship model is inherently lopsided, especially unpaid internships. There is no real regulation to ensure fairness, and a glut of hopeful interns are vying for a limited number of corporate opportunities.
In this traditional model, interns often end up working for companies where nobody is accountable for their training, and this lack of ownership often results in little value for the company, and very little learning nor meaningful experience for the intern. Acadium starts by shunning the word internship and using “apprenticeship” not just in its place, but as an improved concept.
Apprenticeships, historically, have been about an exchange. A craftsman offered food and housing in exchange for a transfer of knowledge. The apprentice would not get paid, but with their food and shelter accounted for they could grow their skillset and eventually go out on their own while providing value to the master’s business along the way. Both parties had an ownership stake in the success of the relationship. Unpaid internships do not have that inherent balance.
Acadium found product/market fit by making this exchange more equitable. Companies must make a commitment during their onboarding process to ensure that they are ready and willing to train, have a level of experience and knowledge that is transferable, and are willing to provide feedback to apprentices. Acadium makes sure a human being will own the apprentice’s training throughout the relationship. Originally, this system was managed through a call with an onboarding specialist, but to achieve scale they have mostly automated the process.
On the apprentice side, the process is equally rigorous, setting up the relationship to be based on providing value to the business in exchange for learning and real world experience. Onboarding is thorough to ensure the student’s commitment, but Acadium provides free marketing courses, certifications, and support to further drive success. Product/Market fit is the byproduct of this clear focus on delivering value to both sides of the marketplace.
To build on this Product/Market fit, Acadium has developed a multi-channel engine growth strategy. They prefer marketing methods that talk directly to customers and leverage viral loops inherent to their balanced, effective offerings, rather than looking to more broad reaching methods such as PR.
They have put a great deal of emphasis on referrals, affiliates, and partnerships to attract both apprentices and businesses to the platform. The referral program has been a key component, and they are currently re-launching an improved version to double down on its success.
Paid channels such as Facebook have also contributed to the company’s success, but CEO, Moe Abbas is not a huge fan of paid channels as a long term platform for growth. He believes “It's just a matter of whether you can get good unit economics out of ads. The ad platform’s job is to make the unit economics as bad as they possibly can for you, but just good enough that you could keep paying.” Abbas recognizes that unit economics can be improved by optimizing the conversion funnel so his team has a rigorous testing program focused there.
Leveraging multiple channels has given Acadium the ability to scale, and a growth process that supports both product and marketing is clearly providing the strong foundation from which the company can sustain their breakout growth.
Growth Leadership and Acadium’s Process
“A real startup grows very, very quickly, so you have to build the organization to blitz scale,” says Abbas.
To accomplish this, Acadium has built cross-functional departments and integrated OKRs into their approach. The apprentice and business sides of the business operate independently from one another with their own set of OKRs, but cross-department collaboration is built not only into their processes but also into their culture.
To that end, teams sit within 8 meters (26 feet) of each other to facilitate the sharing of knowledge throughout their experimentation cycles. While that may not continue to be possible as the company expands, Abbas feels strongly that the physical placement of people in the workspace is fundamentally important to growth.
The company’s North Star metric also fosters culture and communications, as it aligns everyone in the organization with the mission. Their metric is “Active apprenticeships” and when it is moving upwards it means that a candidate is getting trained and business is getting value. This allows teams on both sides of this marketplace business to rally around a common goal.
Breakout Growth Results and Final Thoughts
Today, Acadium connects 30,000 businesses with 60,000 apprentices, and a focus on mission continues to sustain their breakout growth.
Mission permeates their business, and it’s clearly articulated in their approach to pricing. The company offers all of its services to apprentices for free because they feel that even a small fee would fundamentally change how apprentices perceive the apprenticeship concept. Similarly, when price tests yielded results that proved the company could charge businesses more than the current $89 fee, Acadium opted to hold their pricing so that they could help more entrepreneurs get value and encourage a win/win relationship with apprentices.
Acadium is proving that sustainable breakout growth is possible when companies build processes and organization that relentlessly focus on delivering value. For Acadium this means delivering equal value to apprentices and businesses even though only one half of that equation directly drives revenue to the company. Clearly, having a North Star Metric focused on growth is working to align the teams and make breakout growth a reality at Acadium.
Learn more about Acadium’s exciting growth story in Sean Ellis’s Breakout Growth Podcast interview with Moe Abbas, Acadium’s Chief Executive Officer.
Note, the podcast refers to the company by its previous name GenM.