HAI Analytics Just Turned 3! Reflections from our CEO, Emily Coleman

September 21, 2021

ast week, we celebrated our third anniversary as a company. When I think about the past few years, the thing I feel more than anything else is gratitude. From that perspective, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on our journey and share some of the lessons I have learned thus far, in hopes that they may help others thinking about embarking on an entrepreneurial journey.

We have learned many things along the way. Here are the six most valuable lessons I have learned:

1. Focus on your strengths. Before founding HAI, my business partner, Jen Cox, and I had spent our careers building and implementing statistical models within the field of higher ed. But, when we first began thinking about starting a data analytics company, we knew that the type of work we do is applicable to many different sectors. Therefore, we assumed that we would be more successful if we did not limit ourselves to one industry. Following that line of thought, we reached out to our personal networks and talked to everyone we could about how predictive modeling was being utilized across a variety of fields. When we built our website, we made a concerted effort to avoid being too focused in any one area. We attended professional conferences and pitched our services to anyone who would listen.

Where are we now, three years later? We are working almost entirely in higher ed, which we love! We found that our clients came to us, rather than the reverse—and we slowly began to realize that we should take their “hint” and focus on what we are good at. And the website that we didn’t want to be “too focused” on one area? We are in the process of revamping it so that it more accurately represents the work we do and are passionate about.

2. Listen, and don’t be afraid to adjust. Part of our early hesitation to focus solely on higher ed came from the fact that we did not want to be a carbon copy of other vendors in the space. Luckily, by listening to our prospective and established clients, we were able to identify a hole in the services being offered, and we slid ourselves right into that hole. That doesn’t mean it was easy to bring our idea to fruition. We had a service and product that we wanted to develop. We wanted to empower our clients with data, rather than just offering services that would make them reliant on us in perpetuity. But, we still had to figure out how. There was a learning curve and we spent a LOT of time building and refining, but both the experience and the work it has allowed us to do have been quite gratifying.

3. Know your limits and get help where you need it. One of the first things we decided as a company was that we should have a blog. We knew that blogs were an effective inbound marketing tool, and that having one would be a great way to provide relevant and useful content to our subscribers and site visitors. We came up with ideas for posts, then wrestled with those ideas for a few months, trying to turn them into compelling content. Eventually we accepted the fact that HAI was founded by two people with backgrounds in psychology and statistics —not creative writing! We finally waved the white flag and reached out to a good friend and former colleague who is a great writer and knows the world of higher education and enrollment management. She has been helping us ever since by turning very technical content into great storytelling that is compelling and easily accessible. The morals of this story are that 1) you don’t have to do everything yourself (and it’s probably not a good idea if you do), and 2) a trusted freelancer can also be a valuable member of your team!

4. Seek partnerships. Since the very beginning, we have explored potential partnerships with other companies. These have mainly been companies that offer consulting services in higher ed that are complementary to the services we offer. In some cases, another company approached us about partnership; and, in other cases, we initiated the discussion. Most of the conversations have been about how we might be able to bundle services in order to build a new and unique product offering for our mutual clients. To date, only a few of these discussions have produced joint projects. But, in every case, without exception, these interactions have been well worth our time. I have learned so much from the people we’ve explored partnerships with, even when that exploration only lasted for one phone call. People have shared their experiences with us, offered advice, and connected us to other opportunities. One of my favorite parts of my job is having conversations with like-minded founders, sharing our ideas, and listening to theirs.

5. Share what you know with others. We have had the opportunity to participate in many webinars and conference presentations, and we have done so with great colleagues from Vemo Education, Alteryx, Carnegie, and Baker Tilly. One of the high points for me was the 2019 Women and the Future of Work Symposium, sponsored by Catalyst and Lockheed Martin. HAI was only a year old when I was invited to speak on a panel. Other presenters at the Symposium included VPs at companies like Google, Dell, and Kimberly-Clark. I felt completely out of my league, but also really lucky to be there talking with so many amazing people. I learned a great deal and met people with whom I am still in contact. And, I am confident that I shared a perspective that some, perhaps many, of them had not thought about before when it comes to supporting women in the workplace. It was a tremendously gratifying experience.

6. Pay it forward. A few years ago, I read an article in National Geographic that summarized studies of happiness in adults. One of their key takeaways was that living a life with meaning appears to be correlated with happiness. Things like making a ton of money, having an impressive title, and being at the top of one’s career, although nice, do not go as far as one might think toward making people truly happy. But, in general, leading a life that we feel is meaningful and has purpose, makes us happy. And this rings true for me. Being able to apply my knowledge and skillset to support a cause I believe in has been particularly fulfilling. And, because my business partner and I are the ones “steering the ship” at HAI, we have been able to take on gratis projects with organizations that are doing great things. Over the past three years, we have donated our analytical skills to several non-profit organizations. Right now, we are working with Comfort Cases, a company that is improving the experiences and outcomes of children in the foster care system. We have built models to predict donation likelihood for them, which their small development staff can use to target their outreach efforts, save resources, and improve outcomes, ultimately allowing the organization to do more of what they do. These projects have been extremely rewarding and we will continue to donate time to support causes we believe in.

Our growth over the past three years has exceeded our expectations and we are continuing on an upward trajectory. For this—and all of the incredible opportunities we’ve had since our founding—I am enormously grateful! I hope that these lessons I’ve shared are useful to you, too, and welcome any questions or thoughts you may want to share about them. Here’s to a healthier and more hopeful year to come!

--Emily Coleman, CEO