The Yarno story: we've levelled up!

Erin McGee, 12 min read

So we’ve used a different method with our chat today. Lachy and Mark have answered the same questions, but separately. This feels a bit like Family Feud, now that I think about it. Except with less bad jokes… Anyway, I digress! Let’s talk.

Alright! If you would, I’d like to start by asking you to tell me three words that come to your mind when you think about Yarno today.

Lachy: Adventure. Unknown. Potential.

Mark: Wow. This is like an ambush meeting. Okay, this is good. Excitement. Change. Quality.

So the last ‘Yarno story’ told the tale about the creation of a great idea from the pain points that you both had experienced yourself working in digital agencies.

Now, we know that led you down the path of developing short video courses to educate clients about digital skills. However, today Yarno is something very different. Before we get into what prompted the change of direction, let's hear a Twitter version of what Yarno looks like today.

Lachy: Trivial pursuit for corporate learning.

But for me this ties into what the company is all about. It’s helping learners uncover their potential. We heard often in our customer interviews that much of traditional learning is shotgunned out to a mass audience.

You don’t really get to distill the key concepts out of it, and it’s not targeted to you as a person, an individual learner and where you want to go. And I think that’s where we can really help; to distill information in a personalised way that’s going to help learners in their career.

Mark: So we’re trivial pursuit for corporate learning. We’re small chunks, delivered daily to reinforce training.

(It was at this point that my suspicion that they may be telepathic started to arise…)

Was there a distinct turning point where Yarno started to shift away from the idea of video training and towards a knowledge reinforcement tool?

Lachy: Well, I think there was a pretty distinct point, when we decided to test the original idea with agencies. So we created a landing page and sent some emails out to about 25 digital agencies to get their feedback — if it was a pain point for us, then surely it should be for them too, right?

But the feedback that we got was they were reticent to sell a third party product to their clients. There were also some concerns of saying “Hey client, you need to do this training” and what sort of message that sent to the client about their digital knowledge. They said that a lot of clients think they know a lot more than they do, but who are they to tell them otherwise?

So when we started getting that feedback, we thought: “oh no…” and then one or two of the agencies came back and said they thought it would be condescending to send to their clients. And that was absolutely what we didn't want. Because you know, it’s training, it should be helping.

And that’s when we realised that we hadn’t actually done any proper end-user research. So that’s when we went back and researched lean canvas, then the rest is kind of history from there!

Mark: There was, there was. So I’ll talk to you about the first point…

We went out to market, we e-mailed a whole bunch of digital agencies and said: “We’ve made an assumption that we would like to improve the education of our clients” because that’s what we thought would be useful and we thought it’d be useful for our clients, but turns out the agencies didn’t think the clients would want that. Instead they thought it could be received as patronising.

The second point was that the agencies thought it was a way of ‘watering down’ the agencies expertise and sort of how they were seen by their clients. Which is something we didn’t even look at, because we hadn’t asked the right questions. We thought it’d be really great, but a lot of the agencies came back and said: “Well, the clients think they know what they know, so for us going and saying that they need to go and learn all this stuff is going to be a little offensive.”

The relationship with a client is way more important than anything else, so that was a really big learning curve for us. We didn’t ask the right questions, we didn’t speak to the clients, we didn’t even take it our existing agency customers and say: “Hey, what do you reckon about this?”.

It was a typical start-up mistake when you just put your head down and do what you're best at: producing an item of work. And unfortunately you have an element of confirmation bias the whole way, when you sell it to people and you’re excited and you say:

“You should see this awesome thing we’re working on!”

Nobody’s going to stand there and go:

“Nah Mark, that sucks, I’m not going to use that.”

Cause you’ve just said it’s awesome, right? You’re so excited about it that it’s almost infectious so people are of course going to get excited with you, and you’re nodding and smiling, everybody else is nodding and smiling. The reality sets in though, when you send out an anonymous survey and you get something a little different to the response you got in the meeting…

That sounds like a roadblock if I’ve ever heard one. Out of that, are there any elements of the original idea that are still present now?

Lachy: Definitely the tone and the style with the illustrations. That was something we really wanted to focus on, we wanted to bring personality into the product and we were really excited about the illustrations as they’re a real point of difference.

The Yarno branding has carried on, the name, and what its about has really stayed true. But yeah, the product and our approach has totally changed.

Mark: Yeah, the branding stayed the same. The characters that we used for all the videos that we put together, I used for our user personas. We’ve used them all through the website, the blog.

We had a whole bunch of scenes that were applicable in general, so we’ve used them. Nothing was re-drawn for the website, it was all taken from scenes that we’ve already done. So it was a good 12 months worth of drawing, which was a silver lining…

The “Level up.” tagline stayed the same. It was around a long time before we even thought of gamification. It was the idea that you were levelling up and we thought was kind of clever that it was a bit like a game, and then it just happened that we turned into something that had more of a game element.

So that was cool! I think the base idea of what we want to produce has stuck with it as well. We wanted to do something that was mobile based, that was taking the learning to the learners. That’s still stayed the same.

Did you have any personal conflicts or reservations when starting the new product? Or find it difficult to remove yourself from it so you could focus on generating new ideas?

Lachy: No, I don’t think so. I don’t really hold onto things. We could see that V1 wasn’t working and it would take a lot more time to get it to a place where it might work.

So when we found the Running Lean methodology, it just made sense straight away, and we can see as soon as we started talking to those first customers that there was a whole other direction that we should probably go in. So I didn’t have any reservations about following that.

Mark: (laughs) Yeah, I did. I think my biggest conflict was the drawings. I mean, you’d know this, but the amount of time that you spend briefing illustrators takes a lot of work. But you know, that was my own personal struggle from letting go of that. Though now we’re using them for other stuff, I’ve definitely gotten over that. But I think we were both actually pretty good.

I was surprisingly less attached to it than I thought I’d be, and I think I was kind of glad… I think we were both sort of relieved that we didn’t just go and bet the house on something that wasn’t going to work! It was a sort of the ‘learn by doing’ part of it. It was great, and look. The speed at which we picked this one up wouldn’t have happened without the backing of the first go so, we had all the structure in place that we could work off.

Right! So then starting on a whole new endeavour but for the second time, did you find it easier to put ideas into motion? How so?

Mark: The Lean Canvas. Running Lean was the real turning point for us. I’d read the first book, Lean Startup. So Running Lean we’d both read before we started Yarno V1 and we sort of had the ideas, we thought we were being lean, and this is the funny part…

At the time we were thinking: “We’re running so lean man!” but we built a full system out, you know? It felt lean to us because from a software background it was easy for us to do that, whereas now we look back and we’d run a whole system before we’d even tested anything about it.

Which was just stupid, and even though you can say you’ve read the books, until we had it happen to us we didn’t realise. So, the second time round we literally banged the idea out on the wall in two hours and then we said: “Alright, now let's go test it” and that prototype that we’re still using took me two days to do. Done, right? So yeah, it was way quicker.

So from that testing, what were the first pain points that you found? The ones that stuck with you?

Lachy: I guess just a lack of measurement around training effectiveness. People just weren’t doing it. Which was kind of scary for us, we'd just assumed that everybody would be doing it. Because how do you know how well the training is being applied in the learner’s everyday role without measurement?

Learner engagement was a massive issue as well. Most large companies require each employee to complete mandatory compliance and/or OH&S training. This training is universally derided by employees because it's broad, often boring and they just want to click next, next, next until they're done.

Then the learning department get really excited about more personalised, self-guided learning that is far more relevant and the employees are like ‘I just don’t have time for that’. That was a real eye-opener too.

And also the difference between what the learning managers believed their job was and how they measured success, compared to what the rest of the business saw as their role.

And what about the wins so far, where have you seen the biggest successes?

Lachy: I’d say we’ve listened really well to our customers, and that’s informed our direction and approach. Following Lean Startup, that’s been a massive success for us. I mean we’ve almost got our MVP completed in 4 months, I think? We’ve done over 30 customer interviews now so it’s been moving really, really fast which I think is really exciting.

And then obviously finding you and Joel (note: I’m blushing) has been kind of serendipitous as well, we know that we have a really unique culture that we want to create from the start and it’s important to find the right people for that and we’ve been really lucky that we’ve found the two of you so early on in the journey as well.

Mark: I think the response from the pilot customers has been eye opening, and just the amount of meetings that I’ve had. Simply by asking for help, rather than trying to sell something, that’s been another real eye opener for me. I mean, I’ve talked to companies that I never would’ve dreamed of getting into meetings with.

They get approached by so many people, but the difference for us was that we didn’t have a product. So we were taking the approach of: “Look, we’re just asking for your help looking at this” and people were so much more receptive of that over “Hey, I wanna sell you my stuff” because there’s no agenda, the agenda is that we talk to you for 20 minutes and then if you’re keen I can show you this thing we’ve been doing.

And that has been a massive step towards building rapport with these potential customers, and they’re helping refine your product so you end up creating something that they’re going to use.

What better way than actually asking your potential customer what their problems are and how we can solve it for them? It was more of a consulting approach, over a sales approach. So that’s been really exciting.

As well as having customers sign onto a product before they’ve even seen it built, that shows they’ve got trust in us and what we’re going to produce. That was cool, because I thought a lot of people would’ve said: “Hey, come back in 6 months when you’ve built it and show me”. But people straight up said: “We’re keen. Let us know when you’re ready to pilot it”.

What’s the best part about the feedback you’ve got so far, Lachy?

Lachy: I always love when people get the concept, straight away. It says to us that its simple to understand, and it’s going to be effective. The best feedback we’ve had is that it looks easy to use and it looks like it’ll produce results. So the employees will be happy to use it and it will improve their memory and their knowledge.

A lot of learning managers are under-resourced and super busy, so they need a tool that can help them get out to a wide range of learners really easily, and I think they can see Yarno as that tool. Which is awesome for us, because it means we’re helping them do their job better, I guess!

And what about your biggest fears, or areas that challenge you?

Lachy: Well, obviously doing the pilots! Seeing how the product goes in the real world. I mean, we’ve done the research, the learning principles have been validated… There are competitor products out there, internationally, that kind of do the same thing - but you never really know until you test it.

So that’s scary, right? We don’t know what the results are. We’re hopeful that we’re going to be able to show an improvement in knowledge retention over time but again, we can’t know the results until they happen. That’s probably the scariest part.

Mark: I think the challenge for us is finding the right learning and development managers. The ones who really see the value in what we’re doing and understand that that’s the way the market is shifting. The move to mobile, the move to micro-learning and really engaging employees in training.

The ones that are going to ask: “Is there a better way?” instead of saying “This is the way it’s going to be, it’s never going to change, it’s the way we’ve always done it” are the ones that we’re going to be able to really show how we can help them.

If we can show these managers that that’s how they can save money and increase engagement and ultimately increase the retention of knowledge of the employees then everyone wins. We’re a cost saving to them, our product gets another customer, and the employees actually start enjoying the learning. Hopefully that’s how it pans out.

So that’s important, right? Aligning our culture with that of our customers?

Mark: It’s funny you say that, because I say to Lachy all the time that the people that come back to us to chat are generally the ones that we have a lot in common with, and see a similar path so it’s sort of like a filtering mechanism anyway.

The people who aren’t interested in our product usually aren’t the ones who share the same sort of values as us. I mean, the managers who are looking at piloting have a similar goal: they want to engage their employees, they want to see an increase in knowledge retention, they want an increase in efficiency, productivity…

They want to see it done in a way that people enjoy, that’s fun, rather than getting the stick out.

Speaking of panning out… Lastly, and most importantly - where do you see Yarno going from here?

Lachy: Look, it’s really exciting! Once the pilots are done, we’re going to roll it out. We want to work really closely with the right clients.

That’s really important for us as we’ve got this unique culture and personality and we’d love to try and find customers that do as well.

We’d love to get into unis and schools, as learning starts so early and we think this is a great tool to benefit the younger students as well. Really, the opportunities are limitless.

Mark: So from here, I really see this as the first part of our journey in terms of products. I like to think that with the approach that we’ve got, we create ideas and test the waters, and encourage everyone internally to do the same.

To be honest, it’s been hard for us to keep afloat whilst we’ve got two young families. So for us to provide a backing for our employees to come to us with ideas and then take that off and have everyone have a bit of skin in the game, that’s a big thing for us. Rather than saying: “Here’s your job, go and do it”.

The knowledge based businesses, the knowledge economy that’s coming through, the ‘freedom’ economy (cheesy I know, but it’s true) that’s where things are shifting and that’s where the younger generation see work becoming.

The whole hierarchal structure of top-down management is dying out. Companies that continue to work like that are eventually just going to implode.

So there we have it! That should have brought you up to speed on all that is Yarno.

However, if there’s something still niggling at your curiosity, we’d love to hear from you.

Erin McGee

Erin McGee

Erin is an ever-trusty wordsmith and resident spreader of good vibes. You'll find her chatting up a storm in Mandarin, yelling kiai's at jujitsu and eating dark chocolate at 2pm sharp.

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