How an Entrepreneur Brought Employee Training to the Cloud

Adam Miller is passionate about education. For one thing, he holds four university degrees and Certified Public Accountant credentials. For another, the original purpose the company he founded in 1999 was to centralize the world’s online training for adults into one place.

That company, Cornerstone OnDemand, is now one of the world’s largest cloud-based service companies, swelling to nine-digit annual revenues and offering much more than online classes. It evolved to become a complete training and employee management solution for businesses, schools, governments, nonprofits and trade associations, with each possessing the ability to introduce new curriculum and mold the service specifically to its needs.

Despite years spent working toward all those degrees and the long hours it took to become a successful tech entrepreneur, Miller has found plenty of time for life-shaping experiences.

Hear him tell about co-owning a bar as he pursued law and MBA degrees at UCLA: “I got almost no sleep for two years. If you look at pictures of me from then, I look like a zombie. And I think that taught me two things: One, working hard won’t kill you. But two, you need some balance in your life. It can’t be all work.”

Before founding his company, Miller also had two brushes with death as he took a two-year postgraduate trip around the world. In Nepal, he ventured onto slippery ice and was saved from a fall over a mountain ridge by a Sherpa. And then there was a trip in Peru, when a bus driver left Miller on the side of a country road because he confessed he was feeling nauseated. Somehow, he made his way to a village. “I remember passing out on the side of a wall.” A crowing rooster woke him up, and villagers helped him navigate to another bus.

SUCCESS wanted to know how so many diverse experiences have impacted Miller’s accomplishments at Cornerstone.

Q: How do you think the winding road you’ve journeyed, including traveling the world, has prepared you for what you’re doing now?

A: When I was growing up, I had a bumper sticker over my desk that said, “You’re only young once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” And that’s sort of how I tried to live…. The travel taught me the benefits of taking risks and living for the journey, not necessarily for the destination. It gave me a global view of the world and of business.

Our service has been used in 190 countries and 41 languages. We have offices around the world. Even when we were much smaller, about 30 percent of our business was international. We went international [at] a much earlier stage than most companies would—we understood the importance of being global and local at the same time.

Q: Why did adult training and employee management appeal to you?

A: I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I believed that I was going to be successful—the question was, At what? I wanted to do something that was socially responsible and would have a positive social impact. I thought about all the different things that I could be doing—working on the environment, working on health care or poverty or an endless number of areas. My belief, at the end of the day, was that education was at the root of solving all of those challenges.

The goal was to bring adult education together with technology, to really try to improve access to training. It morphed into talent management more broadly; as we were designing and starting to sell our product, there were requests from our clients. They said, “We need to manage the training also…. We need to train people based on how they’re performing. We need to train people to be executives based on who we think might have potential.”

Early on, we built something much broader than education and training. Today our product encompasses the entire employee life cycle: from sourcing and recruiting new candidates to onboarding and developing them, connecting them with others in an organization, setting their goals, managing their performance, training them further, and paying and promoting them based on their performance and skills.

Q: Cornerstone was an early adopter of cloud computing. How did you foresee that market developing?

A: The original idea for the business was to aggregate adult education and distribute it. Obviously the Internet was the best distribution platform for that. But in the corporate world, all [software] was installed by CD on site—it needed to be upgraded with new installations or maintained over time. With cloud computing, all that happens automatically and there’s nothing to install or maintain.

For all our initial clients—every single deal that we did in the early days—it was the first time each company ever used cloud computing. Today it’s extremely common. At the time, most companies we dealt with thought we were crazy. They said: “Why would we ever give you our data, and why would we ever have our people access your systems outside our firewall?” So we lost most of the initial competitions to win new business.

About five years ago, the tide started to turn. By 2011, the tide had completely turned. We went from being disliked as a business model to being preferred.

Q: How have you tried to differentiate Cornerstone from other companies now offering business services in the cloud?

A: We’ve focused on talent management. All our major competitors have been acquired by larger companies like Oracle and SAP and IBM. We’re the dominant independent player in the space now. We don’t compete against cloud computing companies in general—we only compete against [employee] management companies.

Q: What are the challenges you face moving forward?

A: We’ve been growing at 60 percent a year for eight years now. Managing that growth is our biggest challenge—how to maintain the culture, quality and the entrepreneurial spirit as we rapidly grow. I would say that we’ve been quite successful at our original objective, which was to help educate the world.

For the company, we’ll keep getting more global in our reach and more specialized in talent management. As we start to have data from tens of millions of people around the world, we can provide even more interesting services. I think that’s very exciting.

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