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Name: Emil Heidkamp
Company: Sonata Learning
What are you building, and who benefits most from it?
Sonata Learning provides learning-related consulting and content development services, whether it’s creating an onboarding program for Red Cross Red Crescent disaster response personnel or helping a Fortune 50 retailer create a diversity-focused mentoring program.
What is one of your startup’s most impressive accomplishments?
Sonata Learning’s most impressive accomplishments in the corporate world are subject to NDAs. We helped with the leadership development component for the succession program of one of the world’s most famous CEOs. We also redesigned a Fortune 100 company’s sales training, which it was able to directly connect to a $700 million to $1 billion increase in revenues the following year.
However, I’m equally—if not more—proud of how we’ve worked with organizations such as CGIAR and Finca Impact Finance to develop business skills and financial literacy programs for women entrepreneurs in emerging economies: milk vendors, salon owners, farmers, etc. Being a small business owner myself, I don’t see them as any less legit than our Fortune 100 clients.
What has been the biggest challenge so far, and how did you overcome it?
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Our business model depends on attracting and retaining incredibly smart, talented, and capable people, but that’s also the kind of people who would ordinarily be snapped up by much bigger companies. We’ve been able to compete by offering extreme flexibility in our working arrangements and also taking a chance on young people who pass our rigorous aptitude tests. It’s a high-pressure environment, but for the right kind of person, it’s engaging and a great way to quickly build an impressive resume.
What tool or app could you not live without and why?
What marketing strategies have worked for you?
We’re working hard on our marketing. On the one hand, we’re proud of the fact that Sonata Learning has been able to grow primarily through word of mouth and winning public RFPs. However, we probably need to do more systematic, large-scale marketing. This will likely involve me running around speaking at conventions and giving TED talks or whatever, which is not very appealing. Talking about myself and/or our company’s work is my least favorite subject. I’d much rather talk about our clients’ work, whether it’s rescuing people during a typhoon or developing eco-friendly data center equipment.
Can you share any financial data about your startup?
Several of my entrepreneur friends are in the venture-funded startup scene, getting millions in funding from the likes of Andreessen Horowitz and Richard Branson. We’re not as cool as them. Sonata Learning is pretty much an unsexy, bootstrapped professional services company. We do a modest $1.5 million a year, but we’re cash-positive, debt-free, and unbeholden to any investors. Not that we wouldn’t want investment—it would just need to come from parties who share our values and have a clear purpose and plan behind it. (Reported on September 19, 2023.)
What has been your biggest business failure to date? What did you learn from it?
We’ve had some misadventures in technology development. For instance, Sonata Learning created a learning management system that was—and is—an excellent LMS with some unique features for delivering content “offline” to people in remote areas without reliable internet connections.
The problem with this entire product category is that most companies select their LMS not based on quality but on whether or not it integrates with their existing HRIS. We literally had a Fortune 500 company tell us, “You have the superior software, yet we’re going to go with this Oracle product that we know sucks, but it’s a push-button deployment that will be fully integrated from day one.”
We’ve got a lot of stories like that. We still have a few companies using our platform, and it eventually broke even on its development costs, but it just felt like a huge missed opportunity.
What’s the best specific piece of advice you have for other entrepreneurs?
This is going to sound like incredibly lame advice, but if you’re the kind of person who had to work for their money and wasn’t blessed with a trust fund, make sure you set aside a year’s salary in the bank before you quit your day job.
I didn’t do that, and while things turned out more than all right in the end, there were a few times early on when I was so stressed, thinking, “What’s going to happen to me and my family if the company goes bust?” Thankfully, that’s not as much of a worry at this point [knock on wood]. Still, simply having those money reserves there and knowing the downside is covered makes it so much easier to focus on the upside and your company’s growth.
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