EPISODE 116: Fuel Education’s Brian Mills Shares How His Second Grade Teaching Experience Prepped Him to Sell Online Solutions to School Districts Nationwide
BRIAN’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Love what you do and love who you do it with day in and day out. We spend a lot of time away from friends, away from family and loved ones and when you can love what you do and love who you do it with, people say you never work a day in your life.”
Brian Mills is the VP of Business Development at Fuel Education, a division of K12.
If you recognize Fuel Education, we’ve done a previous episode where we interviewed the Chief Revenue Officer, Sean Ryan.
Find Brian on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about you that we need to know.
Brian Mills: First, I’m a past resident of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where I was born and raised, spent half of my life in the Pittsburgh area and the other half here in the Northern Virginia suburbs. I’m really excited to have spent my life in two different areas. I started out here in the northern Virginia area as a second grade teacher in Loudoun County public schools and always thought that I’d be in the classroom for probably 20 to 25 years.
Then one thing led to the next, I received a master’s degree in instructional technology, and back in late ’99 early 2000, I took a job as an instructional designer at Blackboard Education. Blackboard gave me that opportunity to first, jump into the corporate world which was great, because it was right at the time of the dot com boom, but it also gave me the chance to launch my sales career as well. I had a chance to work in E learning and help Blackboard get their K12 arm of their company off the ground as they were focused initially in higher education but were expanding into online professional development and virtual schools, and options for students in the K12 world that led me then into the world of web-based formative assessment where I took a job at Scantron.
What was great about that environment, it was the traditional environment of scanners and bubble sheets but at the time we were in a disruptive phase in educational technology where we were starting to launch web-based formative assessment solutions.
Fred Diamond: Very good. I’m looking forward to hearing your story. We’ve had a number of guests on the Sales Game Changers podcast who came from the educational technology side: Jack Dilanian at Interfolio was a guest, Paul McConville at Hobsons was a guest and of course Sean Ryan, he’s your boss. Also, interestingly we’ve had a lot of people who moved into sales after getting into the work force. Maybe they became a consultant, an engineer. I think you’re the first person that we’ve had that started off actually as a teacher and I’m excited to hear how you went from teaching into bringing educational software and educational technologies into the marketplace. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you sell today? Tell us what excites you about that.
Brian Mills: Today in my role as the vice president of business development here at Fuel Education, I support the sales team from a business development perspective. It has a couple different meanings. One, I help to support the full time school effort here in the organization, we’re out there working with school districts directly providing online curriculum, supplemental solutions, sometimes we supply instructors, whatever a district may need.
Right now districts are faced with losing students to virtual environments. It may be because of a need that they have at home, maybe they’re a special need student, maybe they’re an aspiring athlete. These school districts are wanting still to provide options and solutions for their students to still be part of their brick and mortar environments whether that’s blended, whether it’s on site but I hope to guide that effort and help build these full time schools within the school district.
The other piece of my job is to help provide adjacent partnerships out there in the education market today to expand our footprint of Fuel Education to get to more arms out there that could help us get the word out there to help us get our solutions out there, but also partner with adjacent solutions to bring their offerings to the table as well.
Fred Diamond: Who exactly do you sell to? For the first part, for the districts, tell us for the audience here who specifically do you sell to.
Brian Mills: Typically we’re going after the leadership of school districts whether that is the assistant superintendent of curriculum instruction. It may be the superintendent themselves that has come into the organization with the initiative and the desire to lead in a new direction for E learning. They’re trying to launch virtual programs or blended programs, you’re really looking for the innovative leader within a district who has the mindset that they want to do things a little bit differently to reach today’s learner.
Fred Diamond: Are there a lot of innovative leaders in K through 12 education these days?
Brian Mills: There are a lot of innovative leaders out there and they come from many different walks of life. Some are past business professionals themselves, some have been in the educational world. Maybe they started as a teacher and have worked their way up through the system but you’re finding more and more folks out there that are really taking a different way of thinking about how they’re going to guide and lead their organization to meet the demands of their students today.
Fred Diamond: Very good. We mentioned in the beginning that you originally started your career as a second grade school teacher, correct?
Brian Mills: Correct.
Fred Diamond: Now of course you’re in sales. How did you make that transition? How did you first get into sales as a career?
Brian Mills: It’s funny that you mention Jack Dilanian, because Jack actually was the first person who brought me into the sales world. At the time, Blackboard was looking to expand into the K12 footprint, they were looking for folks that had educational backgrounds so that they could make the connection with school leaders, they could make the connections with teachers and directors of technology.
Jack gave me that opportunity as a member of his team at Blackboard as they were starting to expand to get out there and start telling the story. At the end of the day, in sales you’re out there telling stories and you’re trying to draw connections to solutions. Who does that better than an elementary school teacher when they have to sit and tell stories all day and get students to buy in to what they’re trying to achieve in the classroom?
Fred Diamond: That’s interesting. Usually I ask the question, “What key lessons did you learn from your first few sales jobs?” but did you take the storytelling? Were you a master storyteller as a second grade teacher and were you easily able to make that transition to now selling to innovative education leaders at your customer base?
Brian Mills: I think so. It’s one of those things I remember Jack asking me directly: why should I put you in front of customers to be in a sales role? What have you ever sold in your life? I told Jack point-blankly, I said, “Jack, have you ever had to sit and sell the idea of multiplication to a 7-year-old or an 8-year-old? Have you ever had to try to sell to a parent of why their student may need extra help or support day in and day out? Those are some of the toughest sales out there and those are some of the toughest audiences to reach.”
I felt if I could reach those folks every day, I could reach someone in the business world, I could help connect the dots from a solution to a pain or a need.
Fred Diamond: When you’re out there selling today to an adult business leader at a school district, do you sometimes think that you’re selling to a 7-year-old? Do you sometimes really have to speak at that level? How does that apply?
Brian Mills: I think some of the basic lessons are still the same. You still have to one, be a tremendous listener. Take the time to really do a discovery, understand what your customer needs, what their pain points are, what keeps them up at night. If you can do that, prior to ever jumping in to your own solution – I think too often as sales professionals we lean on our product, we lean on our solution, we’re the expert and we talk about it from a perspective of what we love about our solution.
At the end of the day it’s not what we think as sales individuals about our given solution, it’s about what the customer thinks and it’s what the customer draws their conclusions to. I was given the advice a long time ago from a sales leader actually at McGraw-Hill education and she used the term, “Don’t fall in love with your baby.” A lot of times, I think we fall in love with our baby all the time and we’re blinded by what the true need is out there or what truly is happening in the market.
Fred Diamond: Tell us from your perspective, what are some of the big issues for the Sales Game Changers listening around the globe. We talked about innovation, we talked about challenges, but tell us some of the true challenges that your customer base are faced with today.
Brian Mills: I think the biggest challenge that all of us are facing right now are just trying to do more with less. We’re trying to connect the dots and we’re trying to be innovative, we’re trying to find innovative solutions and we’re trying to make sure that we’re reaching a varied audience that’s changing all the time. I think that’s a challenge for all of us and we want to make sure from the business side of it, are we changing at the same pace? Are we meeting the challenges that our customers are facing? If we aren’t, at the end of the day we’re going to be the ones that are left behind because our students are changing.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the challenges your customer is facing? The innovative leaders at the K through 12 school districts. Is it the fact that many students are leaving, is it technology that’s overwhelming them, is it that the family dynamic has changed and that’s provided a different need for the type of technology you might bring to the market?
Brian Mills: I think all of it. Every one of those pieces, Fred, is really coming into play right now and those challenges are felt across all organizations and it’s how we can help meet those different needs. Are we being nimble enough? Even as a big company with Fuel Education being inside of a larger company, are we being nimble enough to meet those challenges?
Fred Diamond: Brian, what are you an expert in? Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Brian Mills: That’s funny, Fred. I don’t want to let my ego get in the way and I don’t really think I’m an expert truly in anything but I think my best skill set is looking at someone, realizing their strengths and their expertise and collaborating with those individuals to solve a problem. I don’t have all the answers – actually, I have very few answers but what I try to do is pull from the great resources around me, those small individuals that have gone down the path before or the ones that are locked arm in arm with me, shoulder to shoulder right now. I think my job is to put together collaborative problem solvers and put folks in the right place at the right time to help solve those problems.
Fred Diamond: Very good. Again, you made the transition from being a teacher into being a sales professional, you must have had some impactful sales career mentors along the way. Tell us about an impactful sales career mentor or two and how they impacted your career.
Brian Mills: This is another person that you mentioned in the very first part of the introduction and that would be Sean Ryan who I now luckily have the chance to work with for the fourth time across 4 different companies spanning from Point Solutions that we sold early on back in the day at Scantron to Back Office, larger solutions that we positioned to the government, to being a part of a large publisher who is part of the big three in the oligopoly of educational publishing, to now falling here at Fuel Education.
Sean early on showed us even as a person who didn’t come with a sales background himself, if you listen to his podcast he’ll tell you about his journey coming from business school being a general manager, being in business development himself and then being tagged as the sales leader. Sean taught us early on that you can do it differently, that you can do it in a way that’s not typical of what people think of sales, instead do it in a way where you build obviously trust first and foremost, but you come in with the mindset that your job as a salesperson is to connect with your customer in a way that you can provide them solutions before they retire or you retire.
We referred to it back then as “The handshake that never lets go” and it really turned into “The hug that never lets go.” If you have great solutions, if you build that great rapport, if you’re honest and open it’s something that people will keep coming back to you year after year, maybe regardless of what you sell or what industry you represent.
Fred Diamond: Brian, as a sales leader what are the two biggest challenges you face today?
Brian Mills: Fred, I listened to several different podcasts in preparation for this time together with you today and I heard a recurring theme from sales leaders out there and I agree with it, that gaining and retaining top talent out in the market is probably one of the hardest things that we have to do today. Finding those individuals, those like-minded individuals out there that really do see the long term play in sales, in growing businesses. It’s a really hard thing to find those individuals but once you do – and I’m a product of this – once you find those great people where your moral compass and your professional compasses are aligned, there will always be a seat at the table. You’re looking for people that you can build your own personal brands with regardless of what your business cards might say or what your titles may be. When you have those people around you, you can build great things together.
Fred Diamond: How about your second challenge?
Brian Mills: My second challenge out there really is around finding innovative ways right now to sell and reach out to our customers. As I mentioned, our customers are changing all the time and again, our companies need to be changing, our product development needs to be changing. Are we finding innovative ways to get in front of them? It’s harder and harder these days, all the easy jobs are taken. Right now if you’re going to get in front of people, if you’re going to get them to take your calls or your emails, you’ve got to find different ways that you can connect to them. That’s the hardest thing that we have to do.
Fred Diamond: I have a quick question for you on that. Again, you’re bringing E learning to established K through 12 districts. Your parent company, K12, invented that space of providing curriculum for alternative means of education, correct?
Brian Mills: Correct.
Fred Diamond: A lot of the school districts are slower to move, potentially. How have you found this? Is there some districts that are just way advanced, maybe the richer ones or the ones with higher income zip codes? What does that marketplace look like, are there other ones who are adopting your technology, who are being more willing to listen or is it across the board? Give the people who are listening to the podcast a little bit of understanding of the market.
Brian Mills: You’d think initially out of the gate that it would be the richer ones, the ones that are more affluent having all of the options, they are able to afford better environments, more technology, better classrooms, well, more equipped classrooms but what we’re finding again is it’s the leadership out there regardless of where they are. If they’re an urban school, if they’re a rural school, are they the ones doing the most with what they have?
Even living in an affluent county myself, it doesn’t always mean that my kids – and I have three of them out there in the public school system right now across elementary, middle and high school – it doesn’t mean that their classrooms offer them everything that they need to have. It really comes down to the leadership, it comes down to the building leadership that are willing to go out there and do things differently and find the best thing to meet the needs of their students.
Fred Diamond: Brian, again you’ve worked for Blackboard, you worked for McGraw-Hill, Scantron. Take us back to the #1 specific sale success or win from your career that you’re most proud of. Take us back to that moment.
Brian Mills: The year was 2006 and I remember it vividly. We were in the great state of Florida in Hillsborough County. We were a sales team meaning that we went out there arm and arm, shoulder to shoulder and we were working with our customers directly to spread the mission and spread the word of what Scantron was doing in a disruptive market of web-based formative assessment. We walked into Hillsborough County as we were answering the RFP process and we were going up against the big companies, Pearson, Houghton Mifflin, and they walked in as we walked in together to present on that final day with teams of people, 5 and 6 and 7 individuals that all had a role in their presentation.
There Sean and I walking in together just the two of us with our laptop and a couple brochures and we had a 3 hour presentation in front of us. We stood up in front of that panel and as just two salespeople out there trying to win the business that maybe we didn’t have any rights of winning made our way through a 3-hour presentation and won the hearts and minds of that evaluation committee, and ended up securing a $3.5 million dollar deal for their full web-based formative assessment solution.
It was one of those things at the end of the day and it’s still something I take away, the assistant superintendent of accountability said to us, Sean and I as we were walking out to the parking lot, he said, “One of you had to have been a teacher because you connected with the audience in a way that no one else actually has that I’ve ever witnessed.” It wasn’t the fact that we got up there and we told the story in a different way, but it was that we found the connection and we found out what each of those people in the group needed and wanted in a solution.
Fred Diamond: Brian, you moved from education, you were a second grade teacher, you thought you were going to be a teacher for 20, 25 years but then you moved into sales and you’ve had a great career. Did you ever question making that move? Was there ever a moment where you thought to yourself, “Sales thing, it’s just too hard. It’s not for me”?
Brian Mills: Fred, I’ve never questioned being in sales although when I first got into it my dad absolutely questioned me early on because he was a salesman as well and he would tell me, “Brian, are you sure that you want to leave a secure job that you can have for the rest of your life, that provides you a pension, that provides you the summers off and a lot of flexibility? It’s a hard racket.” That was his perspective, I’m doing it in the 70’s, in the 80’s, in the early 90’s.
Sales is a challenge, but it’s not hard. Yes, we run into economic headwinds, we run into federal and state mandates that can affect our ability to be successful, but at the end of the day we don’t have a beating heart in the back of our car or in our briefcase on an airplane, we’re trying to save someone. We’re just trying to help people get what they want and connect the dots so when you approach it from that aspect, it isn’t hard. Yes, there will be challenges but it’s what you do to mitigate those pieces that can be hard and accept the challenges to be a success long term.
Fred Diamond: Brian, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the junior selling professionals to help them improve their career?
Brian Mills: It’s one of those things that as sales folks and sales leaders we all typically have A+ personalities and a lot of times ego can get in the way. I use the term ego as not your amigo to make sure that each of us do keep our egos in check as we go out there and we venture into the sales world and we meet with customers. I think one thing that is really important to learn is that you will rise and fall with people around you. I think the importance of a team really comes into play.
Salespeople a lot of time are out there on islands, they may work remotely, they may not even report into an office but they have leadership maybe scattered all over the country but the power of a team at the end of the day will help you in those good times when you want to celebrate major successes or when you’re running into challenges and you’re experiencing pitfalls. We’ll hall have them, you can’t stay on top forever but you do need the power of the folks around you to get you through some tough times.
If you don’t have a great team structure, leadership can change around you, the organization could change around you and you could be left by yourself one day. I think it’s really important to put the ego in check and rely on the people that could help make your successful inside your own organization.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the things you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Brian Mills: I’ll tell you two things that I really adopted, especially over these last couple years, especially getting into leadership. Those two things are I run for physical activity and I journal a lot, and I find ways to evaluate myself each day professionally. Personally as well, but most importantly for this conversation professionally. My goal is to make sure that I am getting a little bit better each day at my craft, so I take time to evaluate, “Have I gotten smarter today?” It might be just a little bit smarter. “Have I gotten a little bit better in maybe how I tell my story or how I represent my business?”
I really think self-study is important and right now I’m in a new organization. I’m just going into my third month here so I think it’s important when you’re a new leader or coming into a new organization, a lot of times you see areas that you think need improvement right away but it’s important to take the time introspectively to see what you can change for the overall greater good. In my first 60+ days Fred, I’ll be very candid, I’ve probably filled up a journal already and I’ve probably run more miles than I have in a long time but I found those two ways to really help me be a little bit sharper, to be a little bit tighter in my responsibilities and what I do for my job.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative that you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Brian Mills: I think my biggest initiative right now is to stop looking at schools in isolated measures. As you mentioned, I’ve been in E-learning, I’ve been in web-based assessment, back office solutions, curriculum, adaptive learning but for the first time I have a front row seat in the virtual education movement and what options are really out there for our students across the country. I realized I can’t look at what we just offer now, but I have to be making sure that I’m part of a business and an opportunity where we’re looking at what are going to meet demands for our students 10 to 15 years down the road. You can’t stay ahead as an organization or even as an individual if you’re just looking at the now, we have to be looking outside.
Fred Diamond: What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
Brian Mills: I know I read it in Lou Holtz, the famous college football coach, his book that he wrote. He came from a long lineage actually of salespeople in his life. His sons went on to be successful college football coaches just like he was, but he told his boys early on, he references the fact that, “Your grandfathers were in sales, part of what we do as college football coaches is we have to sell to 18-year-olds about why they should join our football program or come to our university.”
At the end of the day, sales is not a dirty profession. It’s not something that you need to do in the shadows of a building or an office environment, it’s something where you’re really just helping connect people with what they want and what they’re trying to get. What keeps me going is knowing that I am that person, that conduit to help people at the end of the day just get what they want, just get what they need.
That’s what drives me every day, that’s what keeps me going.
Fred Diamond: Actually working in a marketplace that you can appreciate, having come from education. If you didn’t even come from education as a parent and probably a lot of your friends are parents, we know that we want kids to continue to grow and make the best use of technology and continue to evolve, especially in these such fast-paced times that we’re in right now. Being able to provide valuable solutions to a marketplace that’s so important to our children has to also be satisfying as you come to work every day.
Brian Mills: It really is. Knowing that right now it’s foremost in my mind and in my daily activity of seeing what we provide and can help provide for children out there to make their lives better and to meet their individual needs. I have a son who struggles and receives extra help and services, and I’ve realized that the things that I am a part of and decisions that I help make within a business structure could affect his life and can make his life better to make it easier. He has a long educational journey ahead of him and anything that I can do as a business professional, as a parent to make his life easier and better and more fulfilling, it makes it all worthwhile in the end.
Fred Diamond: Brian, why don’t you give us one final thought to inspire the Sales Game Changers listening around the globe today?
Brian Mills: I think that one thing, Fred, that I try to live my life by right now professionally and also personally is really to love what you do and love who you do it with day in and day out. We spend a lot of time away from friends, away from family and loved ones and when you can love what you do and love who you do it with, people say you never work a day in your life, I agree. You should have fun, I’m not saying there won’t be challenges, there won’t be days that are tougher than others but it is so gratifying and it is so rewarding when you realize you’ve surrounded yourself as I mentioned with having people at the table who are like-minded and who share and care about the same things you do professionally and personally. It makes your professional life that much more fulfilling so if you haven’t found that yet, I encourage you to find it. We get one chance to go around this carousel of life and our professional careers. I feel I’m just now entering the back 9 of my professional career, I want to make sure that I’m always living that day to hold tight to that feeling.