Client Spotlight: An Interview with Thomas Guyer of Winsor Learning
Updated: 4 days ago
When it comes to business ownership, we understand that success means so much more than profitability. At The Resultants, we measure our clients’ success by a number of other factors, one of the most important being “owner freedom.”
As the former Owner of Winsor Learning, Thomas Guyer knows well the paradox of running a booming business but feeling chained to the every-day details. Our Senior Business Advisor Chad Haldeman began working with Tom in 2008, helping him achieve more freedom until Tom successfully sold his company this past year.
In light of his successful transition, we sat down with Tom to reflect on the inspiration for Winsor Learning, the importance of doing what you’re great at, and the true meaning of success.
Tell us a little about Winsor Learning: What product is the company most known for?
Winsor Learning provides curriculum and training to schools as both a physical and digital product. We sell a number of different products, but the most famous one is called Sonday System.
The Sonday System uses the Orton-Gillingham method for remedial reading instruction. This method is all about using not just your eyes and ears, but also using your sense of touch to learn the content.
So teachers who worked with struggling readers could use our curriculum and training with great success, so much so that we ended up being one of the leaders in that niche of the education space.
Does Winsor market this product to public schools, private, or charter schools?
All of the above. We had clients across the spectrum, but the majority of our clients were public schools. Elementary especially was our niche, but we also worked with struggling middle school and high school students.
Nonprofits around the country also use our curriculum. For example, volunteers from the Boys & Girls Club were using our products to work with students in a number of different locations.
That was really our calling card. We created a product that almost anybody could use, and it created a very versatile market for us. Anybody who wanted to teach their kids to read could use our product and be successful.
Can you talk about the inspiration for Winsor Learning?
I was a struggling reader as a child. Luckily, one of the best tutors in the country happened to be in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I lived. Her name was Arlene Sonday. Arlene began tutoring me when I was in the 2nd grade, and after about 18 months, she’d turned me into a confident reader.
In my adult life, I went on to work for my father’s product development company. One day, Arlene came to us and said, “I think there’s an opportunity in the education space to create a tutoring product that would be accessible to almost anybody who wanted to teach a struggling student.”
So we analyzed the market and found that there was definitely an opportunity there. There were plenty of products out there that were using the same Orton-Gillingham methodology, but they weren’t very accessible. These products made it seem as though to work with this methodology you had to be a highly trained teacher.
So with our product, we turned philosophy on its ear and said that anybody who had the motivation could be a good teacher.
And Arlene had become a national leader in this methodology. So we had her expertise and knowledge, we just needed to help her make the method easy to use.
How long did it take you, Arlene, and the team to create the first tutoring product?
We started developing the product in 1994, and it took about three years. My sister Cindy spent three years with Arlene perfecting it. I worked on the sales, marketing, and management side of the business, and my father helped finance it.
When we released the first product in 1997, we started out in just one school in one district. Today, 26 years later, Winsor Learning is in over 6,000 school districts across the country, has trained over 300,000 teachers, and has helped millions of students.
That must be incredibly gratifying, especially with your background as a struggling reader.
It’s been a lot of fun to watch it grow. When we started this, I thought, “Gosh, if we could just help five kids learn how to read that would be awesome!” I’d say that to people all the time when I was out speaking about the company, that if just a few people can learn how to read, we’d be excited… and now it’s in the millions.
So let’s get into the operational side of things — before you sold the company, what did your day-to-day look like?
My last role at Winsor was simply “Owner.” So over the last couple of years, my day-to-day has been overseeing the operational parts of the business, including inventory, banking, finance, and governance.
But prior to working with The Resultants, you were doing it all?
Absolutely. If anything happened, if a lightbulb went out in the office, I’d hear, “Tom, the lightbulb is out!” So it was the classic “hub to all the spokes” situation. Chad helped me to step out of that situation by bringing talent into the organization who were frankly much better at doing all those things I was trying to do. That allowed me to focus on what I did best.
Chad talks a lot about “owner freedom,” and part of that is making sure that everybody in the organization is doing what they’re great at. So with the help of Chad and The Resultants, we accumulated great sales, finance, and operational talent over the years. Once we had all that in place, my team was like, “Tom we got this, and we’re much better at it than you are,” and they were correct!
How did you first hear about The Resultants?
Chad and I met at a conference in 2008 where he was talking about a tool that The Resultants used to profile job candidates. This tool helped them to make sure new hires were a good fit for their clients’ organizations. So I cornered him after the presentation and said, “I need that!”
So Chad started working with Winsor as a consultant providing a profiling tool, and later ended up as a full advisor doing all of the facilitation and helping us implement a new business operating system (BOS).
I understand a big part of the success of the organization had to do with bringing in an “integrator” named Amanda. Can you expand on that?
Amanda joined the organization in 2010, and she was a former educator who was actually a client of ours. She’d used our product and had great success with it.
So when I was looking for people to join the organization, I asked if she’d be interested, and she said yes. And she joined Winsor thinking she was going to be a Brand Ambassador, and she said, “I just don’t wanna be a salesperson.” And I said, “Oh no, you’re not going to be a sales person!” — and I was completely lying to her. We joke about it all the time, because she turned into the best salesperson we ever had. She was the catalyst for our growth.
And once we read about “integrators” and “visionaries,” we knew I was the visionary and she was the integrator. Even though she has “visionary” in her bones as well, she was just really good at leading people.
So with that growth, we brought a number of talented people into the organization. And that was the moment Amanda and I looked at each other and said, “OK, this thing is growing, we need to start defining what we do and we need a consultant to help us put the structure around the company.” After Amanda had been with us for five years, that’s around the time we started having Chad act as a full advisor to Winsor.
What were some of the ways Chad helped you implement a better BOS at Winsor?
Chad and the rest of the team put a superstructure in place to really help us focus our energies on growth. They also helped me understand the difference between working “in” the business and working “on” the business.
So we hired The Resultants to facilitate quarterly meetings with the leadership team, which were crucial. But Chad was also a resource to our team outside of those meetings. If somebody had a quick question about implementing one of their goals, they had access to Chad to have a quick conversation with him.
How did things change or improve at Winsor after you began working with The Resultants?
After eight years of working with Chad, I ended up being an Owner with a lot of freedom to do what I enjoyed and was best at. That meant I was developing new products, taking care of the governance of the organization, and so on.
And by the end of our partnership, every single person on the leadership team went from doing a lot of different things to doing what they were really good at, too.
Now that you have successfully transitioned and sold the company, are there any personal hobbies or plans you’re looking forward to?
So far, I’ve been enjoying spending a lot of time with my family. My wife and I spent a lot of time apart while I was working, just because I was building a business and traveling to all four corners of the earth, so spending time with her has been great. I’ve also taken up a primary hobby that I’ll never perfect, but I still enjoy: golfing.
Looking back, I feel that I've been very fortunate to be able to run a business like Winsor Learning. And I hope to eventually give back to my community, I just have to figure out what that’s going to look like.
How would you describe your overall experience with The Resultants?
Winsor Learning would not be where it is today without the help of Chad and The Resultants. Between the quarterly meetings, the tools and resources Chad provided, and the implementation of the BOS… Without them, we would have still grown, but it would have been completely chaotic. Chad and his team really helped us grow in a disciplined way.
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