Sailing through the storm
Author: Tran Phuong Nam – Principal, Mekong Capital
30 April 2022
2021 could have been the end of YOLA if the lockdown mandate was not lifted before September.
YOLA was going through a rough time when all YOLA centers had to close for most of 2020 and throughout the first half of 2021, cutting off the main way for YOLA to enroll new students. Across all the education sector, monthly revenue and cash inflow dropped by more than half since 2019. In June 2021, there was no vaccine yet, enrollments were dropping month by month. The company faced a real risk of running out of cash to even survive in 6 months.
“Why would you join the crashing education sector? You could have chosen a well-paid and comfortable job anywhere else but you went to YOLA, do you have any personal agenda here?”
– Doubtful speculations and insolent questions were targeted at Ms. Ngoc Vo – the new Chief Commercial Officer who has only joined YOLA since early July 2021. Many people who had a grim view of the education sector’s future during COVID lockdown had no idea why a senior leader of Ngoc’s caliber would choose to join YOLA.
Indeed, for the past 10 years, Ngoc has been an accomplished CEO/COO for many successful companies, with lots of resources under her command to grow and very well-compensated. Ngoc knew it was going to be an extremely challenging job, but she made the choice to join YOLA anyway—even as at Mekong Capital, we wondered if adding Ngoc, one top talent was enough to help the company with so many problems on so many fronts.
And let me tell you right now – she did succeed! How did she do it and more importantly, why did she make a courageous choice of choosing YOLA?
Upon her arrival, apart from the business downturn, the team’s spirit was at all time low due to the extended Work From Home period. Multiple people left the company—including the critical Head of Sales. Already stretched to his limit, YOLA CEO Khoa Pham had to jump in and handle everything in the Sales team.
Despite onboarding online and working from home, never had a chance to meet anyone face to face, Ngoc still showed up as a leader since day 1. The way she communicated, made decisions, and took actions were the total embodiment of YOLA’s mission, vision, and core values. She brought her energy, enthusiasm, unshakable stand for the results through every interaction. As a result, after only 2 weeks, she quickly gained trust of the senior leadership team and then the whole company.
During the first two months, CEO Khoa fully delegated to Ngoc and trusted her with the transformation of the sales team. She had to make tough choices as the new leader, such as closing 5 underperforming centers and restructuring the whole Commercial team. These significant changes and the pressure of the high targets caused many employees to consider leaving. Being an empathetic leader and caring for employee experience, Ngoc had impactful conversations with the team to really understand their experience, their personal motivation and re-inspire them to commit to YOLA Vision. By August, some team members who saw different pathway decided to leave and most of the sales team fully chose to follow her because of what she powerfully stood for and believed in. The context of the whole company was then gradually shifted from reactive and uncertain mood to a full sense of power and new possibilities.
By end of September 2021, they launched IELTS Online, the first 100% fully online course by YOLA. With Ngoc at the wheel, IELTS Online gained traction quickly and generated a remarkable result of new enrollments, accounted for 23% of all 2021 new enrollments only 4 months after launch. With the success of IELTS Online, YOLA has taken the first step to truly transform into a hybrid offline-online model – a whole new channel for growth in enrollment. By the end of 2021, overall sales results also picked up, cashflow stabilized and YOLA was no longer at risk of being out of cash, no longer being the ship battered in the storm. The ship has been completely remodeled to be faster, more resilient, with confident leaders and crews towards the committed Vision of enrolling 500,000 students while being fully adaptive to any COVID development in the future.
It was too good to be true, she was the perfect leader that YOLA needed, and we were still left wondering what caused her to step in and lead effectively from Day 1.
You see, in the midst of the COVID crisis, Mekong Capital’s Deal team and Talent & Culture team were standing with CEO Khoa to fulfill his intention to build a transformational leadership team. A key missing piece was a newly created position of Chief Commercial Officer (CCO), to be responsible for all sales, marketing and enrollment activities. The whole team moved with velocity and—amazingly to all—successfully recruited and onboarded Ms. Ngoc Vo. While everyone was excited and relieved that Ngoc accepted the offer, most wondered why she would jump at this dubious chance, out of all the other possibilities that were offered to her.
What most people didn’t know was that before offering Ngoc the job, Khoa had multiple one on one conversations with her during which he authentically shared his passion for education, how its ripple effects can have vast impact for people to unlock their full potential. As it turned out, the two shared a common sense of mission. Coming from the background of a poor countryside and being the mother of a child with special educational needs, Ngoc was deeply and personally committed to the importance of education. She has a burning passion for education, learning and coaching as the way to create a better world full of possibilities. It was—and is—her personal passion.
Through her conversations with Khoa, she found a special connection with what YOLA is doing to teach young people about life, how to care for others, social responsibilities, courage… and that’s what she wanted to achieve in her career. For her, this is way more than just about teaching English and earning money – YOLA’s mission and vision is about giving the parents and students the opportunity to reach their desired future.
In the first quarter of 2022, YOLA witnessed a 31% YoY growth in new enrollments. At first glance, YOLA’s upturn could be attributed to hiring one top-tier talent. But if we look closer, in addition to being a talented, decisive, and capable leader, Ngoc also possessed a rare personal passion and commitment that is totally aligned with the company’s mission and vision. Thanks to that spark of personal passion, YOLA has emerged from the darkest time of COVID lockdown. That personal passion and the power it brings are always worth searching for.
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Mekong Capital makes investments in consumer-driven businesses and adds substantial value to those companies based on its proven framework called Vision Driven Investing. Our investee companies are typically among the fastest-growing companies in Vietnam’s consumer sectors.
In January 2022, Mekong Capital founder Chris Freund published Crab Hotpot, a story about a bunch of crabs who found themselves stuck in a boiling pot. The colorful cover of “Crab Hot Pot,” complete with expressive cartoon crustaceans, looks like a children’s tale at first glance. But as one continues reading, it becomes clear that the work has an important message about organizational transformation, leadership and focusing on a clear vision for the future.