Today we’ve announced that Michael Chasen, the co-founder and CEO of Blackboard, will be leaving us at year-end. And thus ends a 15-year run on the frontline of educational technology and arguably the greatest display of entrepreneurial pluck in the short history of our industry.
A Brief Chronicle
Some of us remember the early days of Michael’s career. He formed an enduring and productive partnership with college friend Matt Pittinsky, the meditative and scholarly yin to his aggressively entrepreneurial yang. Together they assembled the platform of product, capital, and market vision needed to capture the imagination of educators trying to understand the future potential of the Internet in learning.
One of Michael’s key influences on the early company was its agility. Not everything Blackboard created was beautiful, original, nor perfected. But it was often the first out, the most widely known, and packaged with enough of the services and company attributes needed to win against larger but slower companies. At a time when it was vogue to give away software with quixotic hopes of future value, it was Michael that established a business model driven by FTE based annual subscription. He found the balance of reasonable costs for clients (a fraction of textbook prices) but also the predictable revenues needed to build a business. This business model innovation has been adapted widely and is the financial bellwether for many decisions to add capital that’s funding startups in our growing industry.
Classically, Michael’s ambitious pursuit of the entrepreneurial dream sometimes led to controversy. As the leader in the space he faced many decisions before others. Concepts that were common in other software realms, like company acquisitions and aggressive tactics, were new to this quiet cove within the tech industry. Michael inevitably tested boundaries without fearing failure. The results included some memorable chapters in an education technology industry coming of age story, as it set its values, and clarified its expectations of company citizenship for the future.
To the surprise of many in the industry Michael recruited me, openly critical of Blackboard’s approach at the time, to join his leadership team. He’s continued this practice of bringing in fresh talent and perspective that counters whatever orthodoxy develops in the company. He does so because he’s self aware about what we need to learn, and for the energy this fracas produces in debates about our future. He constantly drills everyone around him with his conviction that only with continual change and adaptation can we keep our company relevant and retain our position as a leader.
Today, Blackboard is more open, more transparent, and has a healthier balance of ambition and humility. Its products are maturing rapidly in the face of market challenges, and a quality and performance discipline has greatly professionalized them. And yet we’re also capable of decisive investment and speed as witnessed by the position Michael has led us to in mobile learning, online collaboration and analytics. This better balance of forces has led to our strongest ever customer satisfaction. It’s also led us to another year of growth for the business despite a global recession, the new competition that aspires to disrupt us, or come what may.
Michael’s legacy is to leave us mildly paranoid but battle tested. And on behalf of all of us that will remain at our posts to continue the evolution of Blackboard, we sincerely thank him for his good challenges and the confidence he’s produced in us about taking on the future together.
A Few Words About the New CEO, Jay Bhatt
The road ahead for Blackboard presents a very different set of challenges than those Michael faced in our early days. Michael’s awareness of this was one of the drivers behind his pursuit of our current structure as a private company with the backing of Providence Equity Partners. Michael and our Board also recognized that Blackboard’s next phase would require a leader with experience, insight and passion to tackle these challenges, and that search has identified a uniquely qualified individual in Jay Bhatt, who will transition into the CEO role by year-end.
Jay combines deep product, sales and services insight as CEO of a public software company featuring a large product portfolio with strong financial and deal insight as a former Chief Financial Officer and M&A specialist. Jay is not an education industry veteran but has chosen this path because of the opportunity it presents to apply his skills and passion for solving education problems. He brings much transferrable insight and experience. In business terms he helped create a company that’s much larger than Blackboard, and more like what we’ll be in the next decade. He understands the demanding end-user that needs to get work done and whose productivity is greatly impacted by software UX and workflow design. Our hunch is that responding to the demands of architects, engineers and entertainment pros trying to design and communicate buildings and animations using 3D models will prove useful preparation for understanding instructional design and educational administration.
Jay comes equipped for understanding an industry changed fundamentally by mobility, seeking online collaboration, and requiring new and more sophisticated content management applications. He’s directly experienced with the evolution we face at Blackboard, both in continual improvement of enterprise technology and in the expansion of our cloud offerings. And importantly, he understands the demands that come from a highly scaled global company in sustaining excellent performance on the fundamentals -- quality, support, transparency and innovation. Finally, he’s got a history of creating a rich dialog with the community and is ready to join the conversation in our industry directly.
And so we undertake another chapter in the evolution and maturation of Blackboard. We’re all very much looking forward to what this change will bring, what new lessons we’ll learn, and continuing to evolve into an ever-better company for the clients and the community we serve.