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The 4 am Report


Feb 6, 2020

Today we are kicking off season four of the 4 am Report 🥰

Today we're talking to Suzanne Tyson, who is someone who's been involved in various capacities with higher education and student funding for more than half or 30 year career, holding roles in several educational publishing companies, the loyalty industry and a scholarship matching company. 

We are especially excited to talk to Suzanne on two levels. 

  1. One, she's raised the kind of meaty marketing problem that makes us get excited. 
  2. And secondly, having a business as cool as hers. She's walked through the journey as a women owned business, raising funds, finding out what the pitfalls are.

Suzanne raises her biggest Marketing Challenge which she calls ‘probably the best challenge that any startup can have’ Her business HigherEdPoints.com has solid proof of concept. They have raving fans. And they have people who have been customers for a number of years. However, their biggest challenge is awareness. 

“Marketing makes the world go round. And I wish I had a $10 million budget like a lot of consumer brands out there. Because then my life would be very easy. Everybody in Canada would know that they can use loyalty points to pay for their tuition and to repay their government student loans.”

But life is rarely that simple.

So what do we chat about with Suzanne?

Higheredpoints.com  is a very simple concept. Most Canadians are loyalty program participants. And so HigherEdPoints is an option in the rewards catalogs. They are in the Aeroplan reward catalog for example. And instead of redeeming your loyalty points for a trip or for merchandise you would redeem for the HigherEdPoints reward, or education credits.

They come in $250 increments. The parent or the student takes that redemption and HigherEdPoints deposits that directly into the student’s account, at the school or in the loan account. So the short version of how HigherEdPoints points works, is instead of redeeming your loyalty points for trips or toasters, redeem them for an education credit and HigherEdPoints will  deposit those funds directly into a student account at a school or a loan account at the government student loan institution.

“the challenge for HigherEdPoints is the beneficiary is the student because they're the ones that have to pay the tuition or the recent grads, they have to repay their loans. So we can create awareness with those students, but they don't actually have the assets. So they have to go then and tell their parents. So our marketing challenge is to make students aware that this exists as an option and encourage them to tell people in their lives that they have loyalty points, but our primary target really would be the people with the points. So we have Anthony is on our website. He's one of our blog featured members. And he actually worked at TD as a as a teller and didn't know about HigherEdPoints, his aunt and uncle run a small business, they wanted to help him find his education. So they looked in the TD rewards catalog found higher ed points, they switch their corporate credit card for their business spend to a TD rewards card and ended up putting enough spend on that card to pay off $17,000 of his OSAP loans. So in that case, it was the aunt and uncle who found out and said, “Hey, Anthony, we can help you pay for your school.” And they're the ones that found it. So it's a fun and sometimes frustrating Marketing Challenge, because we need to find the people who collect the points to help people with tuition or student debt.”

“the number one way that our members tell us they're finding out about the program is through our participating institutions. So if you go to the U of T website on how to pay your fees or to Queens to Western, George Brown, etc, you'll find us in their fee payment web pages. And so probably 40% of our members in total, over the last number of years have found out about HigherEdPoints from their school or our participating institution. We're actually also listed on the federal government's, how to repay your student loans website. But the challenge with that marketing channel is people go once, and then they figure out how they pay their tuition or repay their loans and never return to that site. So there are 1.3 million graduates repaying their government student loans right now. And if they set up automatic debit from their account, they're not going to go back to that ‘how do I repay my student loans?’ page.  So that's one challenge. We're using some social media marketing now. And over time when our members register, they're telling us how they found out about the program. They're also telling us what relationship they have with the recipient when they transfer funds to an institution. And most of those people are not the student, but somebody related to that students. So we know that if we're going to spend money on advertising, we actually have to reach the parents, the aunts, the uncles, the grandparents.”

“Is there value in talking and making the students aware of this while they're still on campus and this kind of program could be spread word of mouth, very organically by the students themselves. I can imagine if in my final year on campus, I had I had heard about this program, and I tell all my friends and we'd all know about it so then when I did graduate, and it would be it would be top of mind is there value in I guess from your, in your opinion of of targeting and reaching out to students while they still are at university? College?”

“100%. And we actually have our very first Co Op student, and she is at Queens. And she's been reaching out to the various administrative departments on campus and also to the student groups on campus. And one of her areas of focus is going to be students in third and fourth year who are about to graduate. And we also have a blog post on “Eight tips on saving money on your OSAP loans” at the site. She just went and updated that herself based on her personal experience, and is using that to create awareness with the students that are about to come out. So yes, for sure. The challenge this Marketing Challenge and the challenge that a lot of brands have with reaching students on campuses is each environment is its own little city, essentially. So there are 80,000 students going to U of T. There are, you know, 80,000 or so, including mature students at Western all the big schools, but it's one by one by one. So the challenge is having somebody embedded on the ground, like we have Paige now, at Queens, navigating all the systems. And so if we could get the business school and the engineering faculty and the teaching faculty and the nursing faculty to send information directly out to their students, that would be great. But that's a lot of time on task.”

Some solutions discussed

Often for us, the most fun part of the exercise is, how do you take that and amplify it to a digital level? Right? So if you've got one person in one campus, who's doing some of the conversations on the ground, how can you pick that and make it a digital way to reach those students and to us, you know, one potential answer is geo targeting on a social level, like if you've got, I don't know whether it's Facebook or whatever it is that the social media of the moment channel is it's certainly worth exploring geotargeting because many channels people don't realize, allow that. And which means that as soon as you enter your UofT campus of whatever the geographical postal codes are of that area, people start to see your ad. So they've got some interest in it or they've previously been, this is the retargeting part of it, if they've previously been to the government website, or they've previously been to the institution that has a partnership with this and suddenly exploring how that can work in your benefit. Right, and you're amplifying it instantly. I'm not saying that the success factors are going to be or the success rates are going to be massive, but it is it is definitely taking the one on one and amplifying that.”

“I'd love to chat with you as well on one more thing that I know that we've had many fun chats about in the past, Suzanne, it's a pet peeve for me, for sure. And I'm sure with an interesting and impactful end product like you’ve come up with it, you've had interest along the way financially…. but pretty much anytime I talk to five women, four of them are whining about the same problem, which is how to find the money, how to find the funding, and how to grow these big ideas to the next level? So talk to us a little bit about your journey as a disruptive entrepreneur.”

“So I started HigherEdPoints after as, as you read in my bio after I've been in business for 20 years, and it was having worked in in college publishing and the loyalty industry and the student funding industry was able to come up with the concept. The advantage of that was I had people in each industry to make sure it was a win for everybody. But I also am what I call a “Silverpreneur”. So I was 40+ when I started it, and so I had access to all sorts of debt funding. So when I launched HigherEdPoints, I had just come out of a business where we had private equity investors and my business partner and I spent more time managing that relationship with the private equity investors than we spent managing the business. And so I made a conscious decision not to do any capital raising and to bootstrap the business and I do know for sure seven years later, that if I'd had an outside investor, they would not have been patient enough to wait to get to the stage that we're at right now. So I made that conscious choice just because I'd already been down that road. But I do know from having been in different cohorts down at MaRS and doing, you know, investor pitches and all sorts of other pitches, that you really need a full time person in your business to go and do that stuff. And quite frankly, entrepreneurs don't have time to to put together the pitch decks and to put together all of the other information and HigherEdPoints is also part of SheEO and Vicki Saunders will say only 4% of private equity capital goes toward female led ventures. So my choice has been I'm not even going to bother. I'm going to focus on the benefits of the business and to date $2 million is what we've offset in tuition and student loans, which totally means proof of concept. And if I have to keep going and acquiring customers manually, that's a much better use of my time than going out and chasing investors.”

“Let's define bootstrapping, because I know people have asked me… okay, bootstrapping, what does that mean? Do I never take a salary again? Or do I go out and sell more? So let's talk people through bootstrapping a little bit more.”

“Well, my bootstrapping situation is probably a lot different than people at other stages of their life. And hindsight is 20:20. When I was in my mark MaRS cohort, there was a fellow who had outside investment and when all of the other businesses in our cohort said no no, we're self funding this thing,  he basically said, “you know, don't be stupid. Don't use your own money to fund a risky venture use somebody else's money.” And Okay, fair enough. Sorry. I was so stupid, sir. However, his business is now the only one still not in business. And so the investors he had, were not patient enough to wait for him to find the right niche, and they shut the business down. So, you know, and bootstrapping, for me, it there's a heck of a lot of debt on the business for sure. And it's not something that I would wish on any entrepreneur, but I think you have to make a choice and a decision through your own business’ evolution and how much you're willing to invest. A lot of people work part time job, and then focus on their business. And I think there's this thinking in private equity and venture capital circles. You have to be the next unicorn for anybody to pay attention to you. There's no funding out there for lifestyle businesses, because everybody wants to invest in a “10 banger”, but if you Google “well-funded startups that failed” you can find on Fast Company an article on 100 startups that had 100 million dollars of investment that tanked.  Wouldn't be great to take just one of those hundred million dollar investments and give a million dollars to 100 startups and see what they could do with it? I think my ROI if I had a million bucks in marketing spend, would give them back a much better return than the ones that went belly up.

About Suzanne

Suzanne Tyson has been involved in various capacities with higher education and student funding for more than half of her 30-year career, holding roles in several educational publishing companies, the loyalty industry and a scholarship matching company. In 2013, Suzanne combined all of her previous career experience to conceive, develop and launch HigherEdPoints.com, the only company in the world to enable the conversion of anyone’s loyalty points into funds for higher education. Her efforts with HigherEdPoints have directly assisted students and parents’ funding over $2,000,000 in tuition payments and student loan repayments.

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