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When W. Berry Fowler decided to give up his formal teaching career to open a tutoring business in 1979, he had no idea he was at the forefront of a revolution.

His single location center at the Sylvan Hill Medical Center in Portland, Ore., eventually grew into Sylvan Learning: the largest for-profit tutoring company in the country, spurred on by a transformation in the U.S. educational system.

Former CEO Christopher Hoehn-Saric initially described the wave that propelledSylvan Learning, saying, “We thought education as an industry was going through pretty dramatic changes. We saw a parallel between education and what health care was like, that the private sector had a greater role to play.”

Over the past 35 years the company has pursued a simple strategy: provide K-12 students reading, mathematics, and test-prep tutoring through franchise-operated learning centers. Today it leads its peers with over 800 centers and the highest market share of all paid tutoring brands. It’s been hailed numerous times as one of the top franchises in the U.S.

Despite the decades of success this model has produced, Sylvan is changing, attempting to transform itself from a traditional brick-and-mortar franchiser into a digital learning firm. In the past year alone the company has:

  • Digitized its entire learning curriculum
  • Outfitted franchise centers with iPads
  • Created its own learning app
  • Launched an educational app store
  • Replaced most of its traditional advertising agencies with digital experts
  • Enabled its franchisees to venture out of Sylvan centers into local libraries and other public spaces

That Sylvan should be undertaking such a transformation is not surprising.

Many content-heavy companies, from media firms and book publishers to banks and technology firms, know that digital media is redefining the media and educational landscape. Venture capitalists invested over $1 billion in educational technology last year, and students are moving online at an alarming rate–the number of K-12 students who have taken online classes has tripled to 2 million since 2007.

What is noteworthy is that Sylvan is actually doing something to adapt. Most companies don’t.

Many marketing managers, IT leaders, and even chief innovation officers I know are frustrated, knowing that change is needed in their businesses, but they are unable to break the bureaucracy that restrains their companies.

Sylvan’s Chief Marketing Officer Julia Fitzgerald, who recently stepped in to lead the company’s shift into digital, is also a mom and the former SVP of marketing and product development at VTech Learning Toys. So, it’s fair to say she knows a thing or two about the intersection between digital and children.

She also knows something about how to inspire a large company to adapt to a changing landscape. Here are her steps to encourage your company to change:


Just as a rocket ship needs enough thrust to escape the pull of earth’s gravity, your change effort must begin with enough discontent, from the right stakeholders, if it is to succeed. Julia joined Sylvan because it was clear the CEO was already looking for the change she could introduce. But in a franchise organization, like Sylvan’s, any change has to win the buy-in of independent franchisees.

“We had to convince 100% of our franchisees, 800 centers, to buy in,” said Fitzgerald. “[We had to show that] it’s better for students and also more efficient for the franchisee.”

So she was careful to design and pursue strategic changes that would benefit franchisees. Moving to iPads, for example, allows franchisees to expand their reach and business, offering tutoring not only in their centers but also in schools and libraries. Sylvan calls such alternative locations “satellites” and their franchisees have opened over 100 new ones since tablet-enabled coaching was introduced.


To win buy-in from key stakeholders, Julia focused on the customer, painting a picture of a mom who realizes her child is losing academic confidence and is looking for a solution. By zooming in to the individual, she is able to paint a picture that shows why Sylvan must embrace its “digital future,” as she calls it. She shops on her smartphone, her child plays on iPads, etc.

“Ground [your change] with your customer,” Julia explained. “This is who she is, this is how she is operating, this is what she wants. For example, she searches online so we have to be SEO optimized.”

By painting a picture, your stakeholder can visualize, and showing how each strategic initiative you are proposing helps realize this vision, you illustrate clearly why your plan matters.


Meaningful change takes time–more than many of your stakeholders are willing to wait. So, if you can prioritize the parts of your plan that will produce early results, you can keep people engaged.

Julia understands this. Of the many things she would like to do to achieve Sylvan’s “digital future,” she moved those that would deliver more immediate payoffs to franchisees and the company to the front of the line.

“8Ps” of StrategyOpportunity
for Disruption
Recommended Leverage Points
Position- The farmers, individual and corporate, that you are targeting.

- The need of the agricultural industry that you seek to fill.
3- What technologies do you control that can help you tap into market
segments that you previously thought unreachable?

- What are the potential business alliances you could think about with key players in the segment to serve your customers with integrated solutions? (Serving customers with more integrated solutions example: serving farmers with fertilizers, crop protection and other).
Product- The products you offer, and the characteristics that affect their value to customers.

- The technology you develop for producing those products.
8- What moves are your organization taking to implement Big Data and analytics to your operations? What IoT and blockchain applications can you use?

- What tools and technology could you utilize or develop to improve food quality, traceability, and

- How can you develop a more sustainable production model to accommodate constraints on arable

- What is the future business model needed to serve new differentiated products to your customers?
Promotion- How you connect with farmers and consumers across a variety of locations and industries.
- How to make consumers, producers, and other stakeholders aware of your products and services.
8- How are you connecting your product with individual and corporate farms who could utilize it?
- How could you anticipate market and customer needs to make customers interested in accessing your differentiated products?
PriceHow consumers and other members of the agricultural supply chain pay for access to agricultural products.7- What elements of value comprise your pricing? How do each of those elements satisfy the varying needs of your customers?
Placement- How food products reach consumers. How the technologies, data, and services reach stakeholders in the supply chain.9- What new paths might exist for helping consumers access the food they desire?
- How are you adapting your operations and supply chain to accommodate consumers’ desire for proximity to the food they eat?
- How could you anticipate customer expectation to make products more
accessible to customers/agile supply chain?
- Have you considered urbanization as a part of your growth strategy?
- How your food satisfies the needs and desires of your customer.
- How the services you provide to agribusiness fulfill their needs.
9- Where does your food rate on a taste, appearance, and freshness
- Could the services you provide to companies and farms in the agriculture industry be expanded to meet more needs?
- What senses does your food affect besides hunger? How does your
customer extract value from your food in addition to consumption?
Processes- Guiding your food production operations in a manner cognizant of social pressure.8- How can you manage the supply chain differently to improve traceability and reduce waste?
- How can you innovate systems in production, processing, storing, shipping, retailing, etc.?
- What are new capabilities to increase sustainability (impact on the environment, or ESG) components?
People- The choices you make regarding hiring, organizing, and incentivizing your people and your culture.- How are you leveraging the agricultural experience of your staff bottom-up to achieve your vision?
- How do you anticipate new organizational capabilities needed to perform your future strategy (innovation, exponential technologies needed, agile customer relationship, innovative supply chain)?
- How do you manage your talents to assure suitable development with exposure in the agrifood main challenges/allowing a more sustainable view of the opportunities/cross-sectors?