Welcome to The Higher Edge Podcast!
Sept. 27, 2022

From Higher Education to Analytics Startup: Solving The Right Problem (featuring Eric Spear)

The demand for better analytics solutions is peaking at a time when many institutions are struggling to keep up. 

What role do collaboration and on-the-ground experience play in accelerating higher education analytics? 

Eric Spear (https://www.linkedin.com/in/eric-spear-84158b100/), President of Precision Campus (https://precisioncampus.com/), tells us about his journey from working in higher education to founding a growing reporting and analytics company dedicated to advancing institutional research capabilities.  

Join us as we discuss:

- Why vendor solutions in higher education are not plug-and-play (3:50)

- The collaborative nature of working in higher education (11:23)

- Overcoming challenges in institutional analytics (19:01) 

Check out these resources we mentioned during the podcast:


- PrecisionCampus.com 

To hear this interview and many more like it, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or our website or search for The Higher Edge in your favorite podcast player.


[00:00:00] Welcome 

[00:00:08] Announcer: to The Higher Edge, a podcast for the brightest minds in higher education. Hear from the change makers and rulebreakers that are driving meaningful, impactful change for colleges and universities across the country from improving operations to supporting student success. These are the stories that give you, "The Higher Edge".

[00:00:30] And now your host, Brendan Aldrich. 

[00:00:33] Brendan Aldrich: Hey everyone, and welcome to The Higher Edge. I'm Brendan Aldrich and I'm here today with. Eric Spear, who is the founder and CEO of Precision Campus in Education technology, or an ed tech firm focused on delivering institutions a unified view of their data via interactive dashboards and reports tailored for higher education.

[00:00:56] Eric, welcome and thank you so much for joining us here on the Higher Edge. 

[00:00:59] Eric Spear: Thanks for [00:01:00] having 

[00:01:00] Brendan Aldrich: me, Brendan. Hey, Eric, while you are the CEO of an education startup, you didn't start as an entrepreneur. You actually started working in education, is 

[00:01:09] Eric Spear: that right? I really started out getting my master's in computer science and starting as a graduate student at the University of Maryland.

[00:01:17] While I was there, they had for some financial support, research assistant. And it happened to be in institutional research. So I was there providing the computer science support, the database support for my IR office at Maryland. And I ended up staying, you know, as it happens, ended up staying there for many, many years.

[00:01:38] If you'd asked me 20 years ago or 30 years ago, hey, uh, what are you gonna be doing? I never, I didn't even know what IR was. Never heard of it. But, uh, turns out it's a, it's a great office and it's a great profession, so, Ended up working there in the technical support area, but within the domain of higher education and really learning, understanding higher [00:02:00] education data.

[00:02:01] So working in that space, working for the state of Maryland for many years, um, I really got inspired kind of right around the last decade. To provide the same services for a variety of colleges and universities, not just one. And so that kind of got transformed into this idea of a business where I could leverage my skillset for a variety of colleges and universities.

[00:02:30] instead of just one. That only became a possibility. I, I always has that idea in my, in my head, you know, a lot of my friends are entrepreneurs and always inspired me, Hey, this is something that could be possible. But it only became a technical possibility with the rise of cloud computing. You know, back when Amazon first started releasing this concept where you could say, Hey, we can create this service, build it in the cloud, and then.

[00:02:58] other colleges, other [00:03:00] universities to sign up for the service, get the benefit of our efforts in terms of data warehousing or reports or online query tools, dashboards, things like that, that we've built for them without having to deploy anything on premises, which for all the time I was growing up doing this stuff in the eighties and nineties, that that's what you had to do.

[00:03:20] So now that we have knocked down a lot of those barriers and the whole, this whole new way of doing things, it became possible to. A business like Precision Campus that, uh, has a very light footprint, allows people to connect, get their, you know, do their reports on a much lighter basis than previously was possible.

[00:03:41] But I really enjoy running a business and, and really enjoy providing value, providing a service to my clients. I think that's the highlight of the. . 

[00:03:51] Brendan Aldrich: So it's really interesting when you talk about going from one college to building a product that would serve the needs of a number of universities across the country.

[00:03:58] Because you know, [00:04:00] when we look at institutions, they have different faculty and students and cultures, but many vendors working in the higher education space often think that their solutions can work for every college, even without modification. Uh, you've now got experience of having started in higher education and then worked to build a data analytics platform for a wide variety of schools.

[00:04:19] So what did you. 

[00:04:20] Eric Spear: Yeah, there's definitely a balance. I mean, obviously most schools, all schools are gonna have the same types of reports for fall enrollment or retention and graduation rates or things like that. So you'd like to be able to provide those right outta the box, and people can get the benefit of those reports immediately.

[00:04:38] Get up and running within a couple weeks. That's great. However, schools also, every school has. either their own unique reports that they're concerned about a particular, uh, KPI unique to that school, or they have their own unique measures. Maybe they have a certain way of measuring time to degree that [00:05:00] is different from other schools based on that.

[00:05:02] Maybe they're a professional school, maybe they're just a seminary or something that is unique to that school. And so as a business, you have to be able to provide for their needs as a software business, of course. The more you can build once run, many times that's a win. Whatever their process is, whatever their business is that they're running and they're successful with, you wanna enable that.

[00:05:25] You want, you wanna make it. It better add more value. But you don't wanna go in there and tell them, well, the way you've been doing it, we can't accommodate that, is you're gonna have to change the way you do things. No, that, that's not appropriate for a vendor. So be able to deliver value by delivering the reports that are common to most colleges, but also be flexible enough that you can meet their needs.

[00:05:46] Brendan Aldrich: To give them actual options instead of the illusion of options. I think there was a at and t's to do something like that. 

[00:05:53] Eric Spear: You can have any color as long as it's black. When you lease your phone from the phone company, that was your choice. 

[00:05:58] Brendan Aldrich: Right. So Eric, let's get [00:06:00] into this subject of, of actually building a business.

[00:06:03] I mean, if we go by what we see in the movies, it would seem that all you have to do is come up with a great idea and then the customers start knocking down your door while you struggle to grow fast enough to keep up with demand. I suspect the reality might be a little bit different. 

[00:06:15] Eric Spear: Definitely a little bit different for me, I, I did spend, I tried to do my homework.

[00:06:20] I, I read as many books as I could in terms of how to start a small business. I watched a lot of videos. I have a lot of friends, like I said, who. Entrepreneurs and I talk to all of them, a lot of friends who are working startups in various capacities. So be a sponge. Learn as much as you can. And the one thing I'll say, uh, to anybody who's thinking about doing a startup, it's gonna be take twice as long and be twice as hard as you think it's gonna be.

[00:06:48] And. Whatever, whatever roadmap you had, just make sure you double that both in terms of, or your, have your revenues and double your costs. Just do that right out the gate and it'll save you a lot of headache [00:07:00] down the road. But 

[00:07:01] Brendan Aldrich: wait, have your revenues and double your costs. Yeah, exactly. Just in terms of what you're expecting, we, 

[00:07:06] Eric Spear: we really do believe we have a great idea.

[00:07:07] I'm, I'm, we we're true believers in that. Anyone who starts a business, first of all, they're always an optimist, perpetual opt. , the horses are coming around the bend and my horse is gonna be in the lead. I know it. And so that's true, right? That's, that's a good attitude to have. But I remember thinking, I'm gonna have to beat off these customers with a stick.

[00:07:24] There's gonna be so many coming at me. That was not the case. Um, in fact, in, I would say in higher education, you know, I picked, this is actually a very challenging field to be in in terms of sales. Anyone who works in higher education on the vendor side knows this. The sales cycle is very long. It's a consensus based decision making process in the industry.

[00:07:45] And so, you know, getting to yes can, can take a lot of time, but it's absolutely worth it. The one of the things I love about this space as a vendor is that. The, your clients are wonderfully [00:08:00] collaborative and so unlike if you're selling to Pepsi and you got a great solution, they're not gonna tell Coke how great you are.

[00:08:06] They, they don't want anybody to know, but it's not the case in higher education. If you have a great solution and you sell to big state University, they're gonna tell all their friends, Hey, these guys are great. You gotta work with these guys. And so to me that that's one of the upsides, again, starting out a little bit challenging on that sales cycle.

[00:08:24] It's kind of talking to everybody, you know, spreading the good word. And eventually you're gonna get that lighthouse customer, that very first customer who then if you deliver value, they're gonna share their experience, like I said, cuz it's a very collaborative space and, and, and that can lead to a lot of 

[00:08:38] Brendan Aldrich: success.

[00:08:38] Well, I think it's interesting when you talk about being so collaborative with your clients in order to, uh, mature and evolve your solution. Tell us a little bit more about that, about how you evolved the way that you thought about your product over. 

[00:08:52] Eric Spear: Yeah, when we started out, we thought, Hey, we're gonna offer a soup to nuts solution of the data warehousing solution, the reporting [00:09:00] solution, and plug it in and and be ready to go.

[00:09:02] But I think when you're starting out, you really have to listen to your customers, and we're small enough that we are able to do that. And so, What we were hearing from our customers was they, their emphasis was really on the reporting side of it. And a lot of times our clients, they already had, to some degree, they already had a data warehousing solution in-house, and so, You know, we, we said, well look, if they're interested in the reporting solution, let's focus our development efforts on that and, and really mature that space.

[00:09:37] And so we did. And so I think for me, again, the lesson as an entrepreneur, you use your ears more than your mouth and listen to what they're saying. And if their pain points are, Hey, we need a reporting solution to help us do this. Hey, well that, guess what, uh, we're gonna move. Pivot our business to focus on that.

[00:09:57] And I think, um, that's really [00:10:00] worked for us because now when the colleges have their most painful processes, uh, become painless, then suddenly they're gonna say, Hey, these guys offer value. Let's, let's sign up with these guys. So it works. Hey, for everyone 

[00:10:15] Brendan Aldrich: listening, hang tight. We're gonna take a quick break to hear from our sponsor and we'll be back in just one minute.

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[00:11:23] Brendan Aldrich: Thanks so much for listening to our sponsor. Let's get back to the show. , and I think that's a real difference. For example, there are some pretty big players in the ed tech industry companies with lots of money and scale that are doing business with hundreds of colleges.

[00:11:36] But I think what you're talking about is that small businesses have an advantage. Do you think that size plays a factor in how you interact with your customers? 

[00:11:43] Eric Spear: Yeah, absolutely. For two reasons. Number one, when a customer has an issue, We're able to respond very quickly when, whenever I go to these conferences where we meet other IR practitioners from all over the country.

[00:11:57] One constant thing you'll hear [00:12:00] from our own clients when they talk about us, cause I can overhear their conversations, is that our customer service is number one. And I think we can do that because we're small and flexible. So that's number one. And number two, we work closely enough with our customers that we're able to share experiences in a way that adds value to every client.

[00:12:20] And so, you know, we hear one client is using a solution in a certain way or experiencing a certain issue with their data. Uh, we become a sounding board and a space for collaboratively finding so, Recently, we're seeing some challenges with enrollment, all right? Enrollments are declining, especially in the community college space.

[00:12:40] How does that affect our business? Well, it means that all these, all of our clients are talking with us, talking to each other about how can we present these enrollment figures in a way that's meaningful. To the deans, to the cabinets. What kind of enrollment declines are we seeing? Are we seeing it across all demographics?

[00:12:57] Are we seeing declines in [00:13:00] online learning only? Or, you know, these types of, uh, data questions we can help provide answers to those questions working with our customers. I don't know that you'd find that necessarily with a, a much larger firm because, you know, especially if they're a general purpose firm.

[00:13:16] If they're solving the problems of healthcare and finance and everybody else, and they just. You know, every, everything's going on. We're focused on higher education. And so I think that allows us to successfully, there's a, it's, it's not additive. It's, uh, there's a multiplier in there more than just additive.

[00:13:38] And so it becomes really exciting to collaborate in that space as a vendor and as a, as a. , but 

[00:13:46] Brendan Aldrich: not, uh, focused. But I wouldn't say limiting in the sense that, you know, I always think of higher education or every institution as being almost like its own city. You know, you, you have housing, you have meals, you have, uh, [00:14:00] buildings, facilities, finance, human resources.

[00:14:03] You've got all of these different. parts that you would find in any large corporation. It's really incredibly complex. More so sometimes than people think when they think about, you know, having been a student at college, 

[00:14:14] Eric Spear: I've been on both sides. Like I said, I, I worked for, uh, universities sometimes, and we would hire vendors and I remember vendors coming in, uh, thinking that, Hey, I've conquer.

[00:14:25] pharmaceuticals, I've conquered aerospace, I can conquer higher, higher education. And they come in, you're right, it, it is actually quite a challenging environment in its own right. And not only is, is the student space weird in terms of, you know, what's a credit hour? And people can be confused on that, on that concept.

[00:14:42] But you're right, it, it's not just student data. You have facilities data, which is everything from space utilization to. We, we'd have to figure out the time it takes to walk between buildings. Cuz you're trying to do scheduling for classes. You have to make sure that there's enough time to, and so [00:15:00] the, and then there's of course there's hr, there's, there's actually HIPAA data, healthcare data, because campuses often run their own healthcare systems, uh, on campus.

[00:15:10] Yeah. The, the, the data. Diversity is, is quite startling. And to be able to somehow package that all in a data warehouse and then report on it, I think that's challenging thing for, from a reporting standpoint, and you, and you touched on this with the, the different kinds of data colleges have, it's only in ir when we finally bring these pieces together and try to make sense of it, try to bring all these different data systems often from.

[00:15:36] technology providers bring 'em all in and try to make sense of that in one holistic view. So then the deans can come in there and look at it with one picture and see everything at once. 

[00:15:50] Brendan Aldrich: So it's really interesting when you say that, uh, you know, the institutional research office is really where everything comes together.

[00:15:55] What are, what are some of the examples of, of work that you've done working with some of the teams, [00:16:00] uh, to help them overcome some of the challenges that they've been having when it comes to, to analytics and. , it's quite 

[00:16:05] Eric Spear: pertinent in, in this environment. We we're just having some discussions with some clients about, um, the declining enrollment issue ties, right?

[00:16:15] Sure. Into resource management and how can we make sure that we're leveraging our resources appropriately as fewer and fewer students are enrolling. And so what that you're combining student registration. With scheduling data and also with payroll data and the types of faculty who are teaching the classes.

[00:16:37] Can we bring all these together? Look at it with. One view, and then how can we most efficiently leverage our faculty who are our most expensive resource and most valuable resource into the sections that we're offering. You can't, you're not gonna have five years running where the same number of sections are needed for all the same classes, the same, not only that same types of sections, you know, you can't [00:17:00] rely on the fact that we always ant, we always offered Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 8:00 AM and, and no, that's changing so fast.

[00:17:06] And so you wanna be, Combine all those, um, different data sets to be able to respond tactically to deploy both, uh, the time and place for your classes, but also the faculty are, you know, your ad hocs, your full-time overloads, those type of things. That's something that we've been focused on this past year especially.

[00:17:29] I think it shows you kind of the unique place of ir, but also the need for it in this very changing. 

[00:17:37] Brendan Aldrich: When I think the last couple of years have, have really accentuated that, that idea, that pre pandemic, there was a little bit of a build it and they will come, right? We'll, we'll, we'll put out the sections, we'll fill the sections.

[00:17:47] You know, if they don't happen to come, we'll shift them over to this other one. But I think, uh, during the last couple of years, there's really been that shift of realizing that. institutions need to be a little bit more proactive. We need to be a little bit [00:18:00] more, um, uh, to reach deeper, to understand more about what students need and what they're looking for, and how to deliver that content in a way that is, um, not only effective, but actually comfortable for the student, given a lot of the concerns that there have been over the last couple of years.

[00:18:14] Um, so I think that's, that's really been something that, um, institutions have focused on, uh, especially in the last year or two. 

[00:18:20] Eric Spear: That's right. That's right. And, and, you know, trying. Meet the students where they are, you know, being dynamic in that respect. And then also being flexible. You know, uh, we've seen in the past couple years a dramatic surge in the need for healthcare workers.

[00:18:37] And so you see that translate into the wait list counts for health nursing classes in a lot of our colleges. So can we, can we respond to that? Can we be, uh, meet the student's needs right away as a college and. I think, um, making sure that the decision makers have the data they need to make their appropriate decision.

[00:18:57] Uh, that's where we come in. We're just a small part of that, [00:19:00] but I think we're a valuable part of that. Another example of working with a client to really address their needs. We had a, we had a college that was working on their strategic planning and as part of their plan, they had some key performance indicators with some goals at the end, the five year, five year goals.

[00:19:16] So, uh, we worked with the college to make a visually interesting. display of all of their KPIs. We used thermometers like you might see in a fundraiser or something, and, and the end of the ther thermometer was their five year goal for that specific metric. So we, I don't know, 2020 or so thermometers for all these different metrics.

[00:19:37] And the cool part about it was the president and the cabinet could readily see how are we doing toward our goals because you, you wanna make all of your visualizations attractive. We worked really hard to get that. And then if you click into the thermometer, you can actually see kind of the detail level of how are all these different student groups doing to achieve our goal?

[00:19:57] Whether it's the, you know, graduation [00:20:00] rate or maybe a core success rate. How are we doing to achieve our goal? And, uh, that's, that's been a great success for that college. And then of course, now other colleges can leverage the same visualization. So that's been, that's been fantastic. 

[00:20:15] Brendan Aldrich: I think it's one of the great things is visualizations.

[00:20:17] They, they do a better job of telling the story than just raw tables and lists of data. 

[00:20:24] Eric Spear: You're right, you have to do both because I, colleges are so diverse in terms of their audience. Some people, they see the visualization and, and they love it. They're right on it, especially an attractive one. And then I talk to other people.

[00:20:38] At the same institution, but they, they're just show me the data table. Because these people are more data scientists, right? They, they, they just, they don't wanna be distracted by the graphics. No one's right or wrong. But you have to, you have to be able to deliver both. And so there are people who say, yeah, just let me click.

[00:20:54] And some people say, I don't even care. Just let me download that into Excel. Cause they wanna play with it themselves. , [00:21:00] okay, we can do that too. You know, you just gotta make sure that, you know, you don't, you can't have. size fits all in this case because your users within the institution, your users are so different and, and they all have their own needs 

[00:21:16] Brendan Aldrich: choice, like we were talking about before.

[00:21:17] Yeah. Having real choices. That's right. Uh, in terms of how you want to proceed personally That's right to, or what works best here. That's right. Eric. Many of our listeners are working in institutions and with vendors in the EdTech space all the time. Is there a piece of advice or a, a suggestion that you might share with them as they're looking at potential vendors to work with or the vendors they're already working with, something they could actually use, maybe to give them the higher 

[00:21:41] Eric Spear: edge?

[00:21:42] If you think about automating bad processes, all you get is your bad pro, your bad results faster, which really isn't, doesn't do anybody any good. And so for me that that means we really need to be sure that we're solving the right problem. You know, whether you're working. , it doesn't matter if you're [00:22:00] working in ir or you could be working the, in the, uh, in the cafeteria space.

[00:22:05] The cafeteria experience for college students is different than it is for other, other institutions that serve food. So I think when you look at different vendors in their solutions, I think there's definitely, uh, an advantage to be had to bringing in vendors who have higher education experience they can really add.

[00:22:26] So, to the solution. That might not be on the prospectus. It might not be exactly on the roi, but when you work with them and you're talking to them on a, on a daily basis, it really shines through. And I've worked with vendors myself who have experience in that space, really know the language, and they can bring their expertise to help you craft a solution that goes beyond what's specified in the contract.

[00:22:51] And I think that that's something to think about as you're looking for. 

[00:22:54] Brendan Aldrich: So, , something to help advance the mission, right? Rather than to solve a task. Right. Hey, Eric, [00:23:00] thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your experience with us. This has been great. For our listeners, we've been talking with Eric Spear, who is the founder and CEO O of Precision Campus.

[00:23:10] Eric, if listeners would like to reach out to you with questions about today's episode or continue the conversation, what's the best way for them to reach out to you? 

[00:23:17] Eric Spear: Well, we do have a website, uh, precision campus.com. But also I'm easily reachable by email, Eric dot spear. Precision campus.com. And 

[00:23:28] Brendan Aldrich: that's Eric dot spear.

[00:23:30] S P E A R 

[00:23:31] Eric Spear: S P E. That's right. Precision campus.com. S P E A r@precisioncampus.com. 

[00:23:39] Brendan Aldrich: Eric, such a pleasure to have you on the show. Thanks again for coming on and being a guest with us on the higher edge. And for everybody listening, I'm Brendan Aldridge and we'll talk. 

[00:23:48] Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Higher Edge.

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