Odilo: “Culture and values are what keep the company afloat”.

Interview published in EMPRENDEDORES magazine.

For some years now, it has been in all the pools to become the next Spanish unicorn, but its CEO, Rodrigo Rodriguez, prefers to take it easy.

An opportunity, a need, and a decision. This triad was fundamental in the birth of Odilo, one of the largest edTech companies in the world, based in the city of Cartagena (Murcia).

An opportunity. “Odilo was not born with the idea of entrepreneurship, but because the opportunity and the right time to go for it arose. It was my brother who came up with the idea of applying technology to libraries to offer digital content.”

A necessity. “I was working in telecommunications between Madrid and London and I wanted to return to Cartagena, but with my job, it was very difficult. And, suddenly, my idea of wanting to return home crossed with my brother’s project.”

A decision. “It’s my brother who has the drive and, little by little, he’s convincing me to join him in setting up what is now Odilo.”

The Shopify of education

Rodrigo Rodriguez, CEO and co-founder of Odilo, the edTech company that has conquered (the education) of more than 9,300 organizations in 54 countries, with more than 300 employees and an aggregate user base of more than 170 million. 

But what is Odilo? According to its press kit, it is a “digital education company that allows any organization to create its own learning ecosystem, offering its users unlimited access to the world’s largest catalog of multi-format educational content and the ability to create all kinds of learning experiences without restrictions.” In other words, a Shopify of education. But was it always like this?

RODRIGO RODRÍGUEZ: “We have been changing every year. Odilo was born with the idea of helping public libraries to digitize their contents. The goal was to transfer the world of physical lending to digital lending. Then we changed the service depending on what our customers asked for. We started doing software only, then we became an aggregator and started negotiating with the book industry. And naturally, we added guides, magazines, audiobooks, courses. In time, we were approached by governments because they saw in Odilo a very good and efficient way to make culture accessible. And, from there, we developed learning platforms integrated with the contents. That is to say, year after year, we have been evolving to create these ecosystems for libraries, universities, companies, governments…”.

Ambition to pick up speed

ENTREPRENEURS: From micro-SME to startup to become a small and medium-sized enterprise and then a large company. What have those phases been like?

R.R.: In Odilo’s journey, we have gone through different stages. When we started, we were a very small company. The objective at that time was little less than self-employment and, in addition, to fulfill the mission of helping culture. We were fortunate that it worked well. In Spain, it took us a little bit longer, but in the US it went like a shot. There we realized that we had a bigger opportunity and that we had to accelerate. In the beginning, we were practically the first in the world, but soon interesting competitors started to appear in the US, and we had to be more ambitious and pick up speed.

EMP: Getting out of the comfort zone…

A.R.: Yes, with the resources we had we could develop technology, but we had to go much faster. And we took the step to be a startup, to have investors, with accelerated growth by working with investment funds and with a global ambition. Once we proved that the company could grow and that it could be global, we moved to the next stage. We saw a very big opportunity in the platform concept, where every company and every organization could create product. And that required a new change in the company with a new organizational model and a much larger investment of funds to tackle this idea, which was very ambitious. In other words, every year we had to rethink the company because every year we had different objectives and the previous models were no longer valid.

EMP: And how was all this evolution financed?

R.R.: In the more than ten years that Odilo has been in existence (it was born in 2011), we have gone through all the stages. We lived the first two years with our own funds, with some help from public funds. From there, we spent about three years with local and international funds to meet the goal of entering the USA. While we were in that country, we opted for international funds to invest in educational projects. And already in 2022 we faced the big investment (60 million euros) with the Bregal Milestone fund to move forward in this last phase of a solid company, platform concept and consolidation of the countries where we are best.

EMP: You have raised a total of around 80 million euros. At what point in the company is it good to start thinking about investors?

R.R.: It is important to understand your company and the stage you are in very well. Ideally, you can grow without investment and your project does not need external capital. It is the best because you maintain full ownership. But investors are a tool that can help you on your way. In our case, we started with our own resources and, at a certain point, we realized that, although we were generating resources, we were not generating them fast enough to develop technology or to enter the markets we needed to be the company we wanted to be. Our business model needed both and, above all, that growth by scale. And, therefore, it made a lot of sense to go for external investment.

Take only the money you need

EMP: How do you select the right investor and capital for your business?

R.R.: When we have raised investment, we have approached it with a two- or three-year plan: where you want to go and what you want to get those funds for and stay there, and even if they offer you more capital, limit yourself to taking what you really need.

EMP: I mean, even if they offer you more, shouldn’t you take it?

R.R.: Yes, it is key. First you have to have a business plan and define very well what stage of the company you want to reach with that capital and set a margin. But not the other way around: go looking for capital and then see what options you have and the more the better, and then design a plan from there. That is a mistake. Round sizes are fine for the press, but they can create a problem in the future: every time you do a round you make a commitment to reach certain targets. You have to be realistic about where you are as a company and what your model is. And, even if there is a possibility of taking more investment, if your company is not ready to go that fast, it is better to avoid it. Silicon Valley investors, for example, may have the ability to help, but they also have very high expectations. And if your company is not going to go that fast or, as in the case of ours, you are very consistent, but you lack fast growth levers, you have to look for partners who are aligned with this way of doing business.

The size of the rounds is fine for the press, but it can create a problem down the road.

Rodrigo Rodriguez, CEO of Odilo.

The same thing happens with the valuation of the company: a very high valuation is very good for the ego, but the investor who enters has to achieve a multiple. In other words, the fact that you have optimized and obtained many investors may be complicating your future. The entrepreneur must look for the right partner for each stage of his company and make sure that everything fits well.

EMP: Having said all this, the truth is that you have led a mega-round of 60 million, the largest in the edTech sector. Did you consider that amount or did it come up on the fly?

A.R.: When you’ve already received several funds, part of your job as CEO is to spend time understanding the market and talking to investors all the time, even if you’re not on the beat. It is important to establish a long-term relationship, that they get to know you, that you get to know them. We had a relationship with quite a few funds and we would talk to them. At one point in the company several large providers come in at the same time and our technology makes a very big click because it allows us to integrate any learning mode into one and that is a very significant change as a company. We were aware that we had something unique and we asked ourselves the same question we ask ourselves with every round: the company is in a very good moment and I can continue to grow with the current team, but we see a very big opportunity and we need resources. We made a plan and considered several scenarios, not just the 60. As we had relationships with many funds, we started to receive proposals and we talked. We decided on the right amount that would allow us to fulfill our four-year plan and with the right partner because he was very aligned with us.

EMP: Odilo started in the United States, why?

R.R.: What we wanted to do at the beginning – to digitize content from libraries, universities and companies and offer it by subscription – was very disruptive and here the industry was more conservative. In the U.S. they were more evolved: going there allowed us to gain time to build confidence in these models and in these sectors. And then it was easier to come to Spain with a consolidated model.

The confidence of the first customers

EMP: But, how do you face the adventure of entering a market like the North American one from Cartagena and being a recently created company?

R.R.: At the beginning, it was more pure survival. We thought: we have a service, it’s advanced, it doesn’t work here, we have to go to the US to learn. We started very small: I traveled there and wrote to everyone on LinkedIn, especially those who were a couple of hours away by plane, and visited a lot of people. We were fortunate that the Colorado government wanted to do a joint venture with us. Getting the trust of one of the most relevant, helped a lot to get others to also bet and to grow a lot more from there. Being successful in the U.S. helped a lot globally. Competing in a tougher market is difficult, but if you get traction you learn a lot.

EMP: How does international expansion develop in a model like this?

R.R.: At Odilo our job is to bring together thousands of suppliers with the organizations, so we had the obligation almost from the beginning to be very international. In our case, instead of focusing on two or three markets, we are more about going to many countries, but with a very small structure, with little investment in each one and learning from the market. We start with a small, very local office, then a partner who distributes you. If it goes well, we create a small team and then we hire a country manager and a structure. And after two or three years, we make a serious bet. So we always have different stages of countries: where we are in testing, where we are growing and where we are strong.

EMP: In the end, you are in 54 countries, in 9,000 organizations and with more than 170 million users. How do you manage this volume of business?

R.R.: Our model seeks to work with the organization to provide the digital ecosystem that its users need. In other words, we reach the users through the organizations. And many of these organizations come through governments. We work with 18 governments worldwide. Within Odilo there are models as different as working with the Government of Paraná to improve reading comprehension in the country or with Google Singapore to optimize diversity management, for example. In other words, it is not a standard service, but we are a platform that allows us to create a solution for any educational need. In addition, we work a lot as a white label in companies. That’s why many users know their company’s platform, but don’t know that we are behind it.

EMP: You have been called the Netflix or Shopify of education, what is the advantage of this model?

R.R.: It was the Chilean Minister of Education who, referring to our platform, announced on public television that they had created “the Chilean Netflix of education”. Odilo’s concept is more similar to Shopify’s, because these organizations end up creating their own educational model through our platform. What differentiates us is that we are not a product but an aggregator platform. In education, there are more than 7,000 digital companies and more than 20,000 content platforms. We bring them all together in a consumption and learning technology platform that we customize for each organization with its values and systems. So it’s more like a Shopify because you can customize it, create a platform that is 100% yours. No two customer platforms are the same.

Advantages and disadvantages of innovating from Cartagena

EMP: And developing technology from Cartagena, what are the advantages of doing business from there?

R.R.: Developing technology from Cartagena has allowed us to create a very united team. In addition, we have three universities very close to our headquarters with which we have agreements that allow us to have the best engineers who do their degree plan from Odilo, so we have a very good talent. It is true that it is a model that requires more time than if you work from Madrid or Barcelona, but, in return, it is more solid, because you create a culture of very loyal talent, which is growing in the company and even talent that creates their own companies.

EMP: And what are the disadvantages?

R.R.: Communication is complicated. The commercial part is more difficult and forces you to have commercial teams outside. The network of contacts is also smaller. There is also a lack of references of people who have done it and that ambition of wanting to do big things is more difficult to carry. But then you gain a more stable team with a greater sense of belonging.

EMP: How do you maintain the culture in a company with such high growth?

R.R.: One of the most important issues when you grow so fast is to maintain the culture. Throughout this time, we have been wrong several times, we have made mistakes, we have pivoted, but what has allowed us to continue with this strength is the feeling of belonging and effort that are very much ours. When you are small it is easy to maintain that culture because everyone is clear about it and managers hire according to that philosophy, but when you start to climb the ladder things get complicated. How do you transfer that culture to people who are working in another country? We are now making a great effort to introduce the values and culture throughout the company and to convey its importance to them because they are vital: in the end they are the ones who keep the company afloat. A big part of my job today is to repeat the same thing in terms of strategy, values and culture so that it permeates the whole structure, regardless of the changes.

Every year we have had to rethink the company in order to evolve and move forward.

Rodrigo Rodriguez, CEO of Odilo.

EMP: What would be Rodrigo’s management keys?

A.R.: When the year is over, I think about my management as a CEO on an individual basis, whether I am the ideal CEO and what I need to do differently. The capabilities you have to have when there are 10 of you have nothing to do with what you need with 300. You have to be able to learn and keep the positives, but modify almost everything else. Every year I renew my role and try to be transparent with the team on this journey. They say the CEO has to do certain things and you have to do them. And, if you are able to do it, great, but if you are no longer comfortable, it’s time to bring in someone else to take on that role. Statistically, when companies grow a lot, it is rare that the founder remains the CEO and if both roles have to be separated, you have to accept it.

EMP: We are seeing more and more ambitious Spanish projects like Odilo, what has changed in the national entrepreneurial ecosystem?

R.R.: Now you have many more references. In Spain we need to believe it and in Cartagena that feeling has to be multiplied by ten. There are many self-imposed barriers. I have grown more because I have been lucky enough to be close to entrepreneurs who have done it before and that makes you normalize their stages, their problems. I’m going to do a bigger round, I’m going to be the one to buy companies, I’m really going to enter the US… Besides, in Spain there is a very healthy ecosystem of great entrepreneurs who have created great companies and who have no qualms about sitting down with you for a coffee to explain how they have done it. That helps a lot.

EMP: Education is one of the sectors in which Artificial Intelligence is having the greatest impact, is it a threat or an opportunity?

R.R.: For me it is a very beautiful moment. There is going to be a big change in education. For us, there should be no duality between physical and digital education; education should be a hybrid. In the end, technology as a value allows you to personalize your experience, to adapt to you, to give you more possibilities to improve your curriculum, to make the teacher more efficient. That’s where AI is helping. To change something as rigid as education you need a solution that is ten times better and what is being done with AI is ten times better.

When education can be very, very profitable

In Rodriguez’s words, “Odilo is the largest educational ecosystem in the world,” with content agreements with more than 7,300 providers in 60 languages and working with 9,100 organizations and platforms that give access to more than 170 million users globally. “We are one of the most trafficked educational platforms in the world.”

It has been profitable since July 2023. Today it has offices in Spain, Chile, Colombia, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Philippines and Brazil, and a presence in 54 countries. All this with 337 employees. Due to confidentiality with international funds, they can only provide revenue data for Spain, although, as they remind us, “since mid-2023, platforms in Spanish are a minority compared to those in English and Portuguese”.

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