Hamilton & Disney's Education Flywheel

Disney should not give away its shot to transform online education

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Happy Monday! Hope you enjoyed the 4th of July weekend 🇺🇸 I don’t know about you, but after fireworks and Hamilton, I’m feeling patriotic.

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Hamilton & Disney’s Education Flywheel

🎧 To make like Mickey and use your ears: Hamilton & Disney Ed Flywheel (Audio Version)

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

(Click any header to play the Hamilton song)

There’s an old joke, maybe you’ve heard it, that goes something like this. 

Mickey is in the middle of a messy divorce with Minnie. 

One day in the courtroom, the judge calls him to the bench. “I’m sorry, Mickey, but I can’t grant you a divorce on the grounds that Minnie is crazy.” 

“I didn’t say she was crazy, Your Honor,” Mickey cried. “I said she was fucking Goofy!” 

Pardon my French, but I promise there’s a connection: 

Our education system is fucking goofy, and Disney can fix it.

This essay relies on the assumptions that education is broken, that online education holds promise it hasn’t yet lived up to, and that learn-from-home during Coronavirus has introduced millions of people to online education on an accelerated timeline, meaning that there is an opportunity for a large company to take advantage of new and unmet demand. These points lack nuance, but are directionally correct, and if you disagree, let’s talk about it in the comments:

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But watching Hamilton this weekend got me thinking... What has two big ears, valuable IP, global distribution, and should not give away its shot to transform education? Disney. 

To this day, Disney operates based on a Flywheel that Walt Disney drew in 1957. 

What is the Disney Flywheel? Everything that Disney owns works together and feeds into each other. Disney creates and acquires worlds and characters (its intellectual property, or “IP”) for movies and shows. It builds theme parks based off of the same IP, entices people to visit those theme parks through its movies and shows, and sells them merchandise based off of that IP when they’re in the parks. Owning Disney merchandise builds a deeper affinity with the brand, which makes consumers want to go see the next movie, which reignites the flywheel. 

Because of the power of its Flywheel, Disney is able to create business magic: consumers pay Disney to market to them whenever they buy a movie ticket, subscribe to Disney+, or enter a Park. When you have a magic trick like that, you want to feed as many brand-accretive offerings into it as you can. 

Hamilton opened my eyes to the possibility that Disney can use its content and capabilities to kick off an Education Flywheel. It can create and acquire captivating edutainment like Hamilton, and use the IP to:

  • Grab student attention in an information-abundant world and inspire them to learn.

  • Partner with the best teachers to develop courses with Disney IP at the center. 

  • Build online and real-world experiences that allow students to continue to explore and build a deeper connection with both the content and Disney itself. 

  • Rethink what assessments and credentials mean online, using the trusted Disney brand to push change where others have struggled to gain traction. 

Disney is the only company with the resources, reputation, distribution, and IP to reimagine online education at scale today. Like any good Disney narrative, our journey to understand how they can do it will be broken into acts (in our case, all Hamilton-themed): 

  1. Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton is the future of education. Disney+ beaming Hamilton to millions is the best ad for a US History course in…US history. 

  2. What Comes Next. Edutainment is the hot new trend in online learning, but modern education needs to look more like a flywheel than a blob.

  3. Blow Us All Away. Disney consistently produces content that we love, and it continues to build on Walt Disney’s original Flywheel. Education is the next big, ambitious project on which to unleash the Flywheel. 

  4. Right Hand Man. Disney should sign Lin-Manuel Miranda to an exclusive deal to make it happen, and acquire companies to build out its tech capabilities, like it did for Disney+.

  5. What’d I Miss. No new entrant has cracked education the same way that startups have cracked transportation, housing, travel, food, retail, or entertainment. Disney will face challenges from within and without if it goes after education.

Captivating stories told well - like Hamilton and so many Disney favorites - have the power to make us keep exploring. They’re a starting point, not a destination.

Information is abundant, the competition for attention is fierce, and with all due respect to your local school district, educators are overmatched in the fight for eyeballs against multi-billion dollar media and entertainment companies. 

Those that tell captivating stories will live, the ones that don’t will die. 

Just ask our first Treasury Secretary. What’s his name, man!?

Lin Manuel Miranda Hamilton GIF

Alexander Hamilton

This weekend, Disney+ held the largest US History class in history. Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway hit, streamed to millions of TVs and phones around the globe on 12am PST Friday, and if Twitter is any indication, “everyone” is watching. 

I’m lucky to have a sister, Meghan, who, among other things, is a theater nerd. When she visited me in New York nearly a decade ago, we went to see In the Heights, Miranda’s Broadway debut. Five years ago, for her birthday in December 2015, we went to see Hamilton with the original cast at Richard Rodgers Theater. 

Hamilton captivated me like no entertainment before or since. It still has a hold on me five years later. The music is “I listen to this all the time” excellent, the cast was magnetic and dynamic, and as I sat in the theater, I felt an American pride that I’d only felt during the 1996 Olympics Women’s Gymnastics Finals, the days following 9/11, the night Obama was elected, and the night we killed Osama bin Laden.

I couldn’t get Hamilton out of my head. I listened to it at work, sang it at home. Please don’t tell anybody this, but during quarantine, I’ve had Panini Time nearly every day. Here’s how it works: at noon, I make a panini while blasting the Hamilton soundtrack. 

But Hamilton is more than just entertainment - it was the top of the funnel for an educational journey. After we saw the play, I ripped through David McCullough’s 1776 and Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. I spent hours poring over the Hamilton lyrics Genius page. I’ve never been hungrier to learn about the birth of our nation than I felt after watching Hamilton. 

Until the play, I barely thought about Hamilton, Jefferson, or Washington, and when I did, I thought of them as old and kind of boring. Hamilton brought the Founding Fathers to life as the youthful, brash, energetic shit-stirrers they had to be to lead a Revolution against the world’s greatest military power.

The play has also inspired tens of thousands of students through the soundtrack, Hamilton Education Program, and now, EduHam at Home. By giving students discounted tickets to live shows and online access to further content, and asking them to create their own songs, skits, and raps, Hamilton democratized educational inspiration for the group lucky enough to see it. 

Now, by combining forces with Disney’s distribution machine, the nearly 60 million Disney+ subscribers and their families have on-demand access to that inspiration. 

Hamilton is a glimpse into the future of education at internet scale. Disney might have a shot at pulling off what no online educator has to date. 

What Comes Next?

King George Broadway GIF by Hamilton: An American Musical

What comes next? You’ve been freed. Do you know how hard it is to lead? You’re on your own. Awesome! Wow! Do you have a clue what happens now? 

-- King George III

When the United States defeated the British, it faced a new set of challenges. In war, there is a clear objective; building a new nation with a new Constitution, laws, and leaders is more amorphous and challenging. War is tame; governing is wicked.

COVID may have dealt the fatal blow to traditional education, giving the scrappy upstart a chance at running the system. But as anyone who’s watched Hamilton knows:

Winning was easy, young man. Governing’s harder.

-- George Washington

Online education is in its 2.0 phase - it’s happening, but its best form is still unclear.

Online education 1.0 featured MOOCs, which were akin to banner ads in the early days of the internet - a clumsy attempt to bring the offline paradigm online. 1.0 was the Wild West - fragmented, scam-ridden, noisy, and uncredentialed. A much-cited MIT study highlighted MOOCs’ abysmal 4% completion rate. 

Online education 2.0 is about group courses, community, vocational training, and edutainment. A lot of smart people are experimenting with new approaches. Teachable is taking the Shopify approach of “arming the rebels” by enabling anyone to easily set up an online course. David Perell, Tiago Forte and Nat Eliason are building online-first schools for writing, business, productivity, and marketing with communities in which students teach, support, and promote each other. Lambda School and others like it are rethinking skills training and certification. Masterclass is partnering with celebrities to deliver slickly-produced “edutainment.”

Teachers are starting to use content as top of funnel for courses, just as marketers have long done for a host of products. Perell uses Twitter and his 20k-strong newsletter to sell Write of Passage courses, Teachable advises YouTube stars to monetize their audiences through courses, and Masterclass is putting on a … master class in using compelling video to convince people to pay for courses. As Adam Keesling wrote about Masterclass’ marketing videos in Why Masterclass Isn’t Really About Mastery:

MasterClass certainly used these videos for paid advertising, but they are so good that they also generated a lot of views on their own... Add in the fact that the videos are both a great story and great marketing tool and it’s no wonder MasterClass ads have done so well.

Masterclass’ edutainment approach seems to be working; Keesling estimates that it is on pace to generate over $200 million in revenue this year, a big number in an industry whose biggest US acquisition was LinkedIn’s 2015 $1.5 billion purchase of Lynda.

Compared to other online education businesses, Masterclass is big. In the entertainment world, however, it’s tiny. Disney’s Avengers: Endgame is the highest-grossing movie of all-time at $2.8 billion.

Though still small, online education feels inevitable. The opportunity to connect students with the best teachers anywhere in the world is too transformational to not happen, and technology will keep improving the virtual classroom experience.

Disney is in a position to accelerate the transition, starting now. With the right company behind it, the prize is big enough to justify an aggressive move.

In 2015, the US government spent $649 billion on K-12 education and US colleges spent $559 billion. In 2018, student loan debt passed $1.5 trillion for the first time, and it just keeps growing. 

It’s one of those rare opportunities for a $200 billion market cap company like Disney to make a meaningful impact on its business and on the world. 

Mickey Mouse Falling GIF by South Park

In the context of Disney’s superpowers, Masterclass’s edutainment looks like just one small piece of what I think online education 3.0 will look like: Disney’s Flywheel.  

Blow Us All Away

At the center of Disney’s Flywheel is its ability to rise above the noise with excellent content. It is the perfect antidote to today’s information overwhelm. In his recent memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime, Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger wrote about the three strategic priorities that have defined Disney since he became CEO in 2005:

  1. Devote most of our time and capital to the creation of high-quality branded content. 

  2. Embrace technology to the fullest extent, first by using it to enable the creation of higher quality products, and then to reach consumers in more modern, more relevant ways. 

  3. Become a truly global company. 

Disney can use those same three priorities to crack online education.

Faced with a sea of abundant entertainment on Netflix, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, HBO, and literally millions of other sources, Disney was able to create and distribute the most financially successful movie of all time, Avengers: Endgame, in 2019. 

Similarly, everything that you would ever want to learn is available online, for free. The challenge is not producing good content, it is creating content so great that it stands out from the noise. To that end, Iger wrote: 

In an age when more and more “content” was being created and distributed, we needed to bet on the fact that quality will matter more and more. 

Online education faces the same challenges that content does more broadly. There’s just too much good content out there, and very few have been able to rise above the noise.

Disney has a powerful enough brand to stand out. It also has a proven track record of extending its brand from one area into many through its Flywheel. 

Recently, sensing streaming’s threat and opportunity, Disney flexed its Flywheel, Iger’s three strategic pillars, and all of its IP to launch Disney+. Disney acquired its technology by purchasing BAMTech from the MLB, leveraged its existing back catalog of IP, and acquired recognizable brands like Star Wars, the Marvel Universe, and even The Simpsons to attract subscribers. Disney even created a new, much-memed character just for Disney+:

The launch blew Disney’s own expectations out of the water. The company predicted that it would have between 60 and 90 million paid subscribers by 2024. As of May 5th, it already had 54.5 million subscribers from all over the world. And that’s before accounting for the Hamilton boost this weekend.

Disney+ is the latest example of the company successfully using the Flywheel to grow and strengthen its empire. Education should be the next. 

Masterclass has seen early success because its advertising content is good enough to attract edutainment subscribers. Disney has much stronger IP and the ability to beam it into more than 50 million devices, allowing it to spend a much lower percentage of revenue on paid marketing. In fact, its content, which kicks off the Flywheel, actually makes money for the company. Anything else it sells - like courses - is gravy. 

With that in mind, let’s make like Imagineers and imagine what a Disney Education Flywheel might look like, using Hamilton as an example (Disney would need to buy full rights):

Use Content to Kick Off the Flywheel. Hamilton proved that a play about US History can get people as excited as the biggest blockbusters. Right now, after a holiday weekend during which millions of people watched and interacted with Hamilton, there is more demand than ever to learn early US history. But those people are left to their own devices. This is where Disney’s opportunity lies - they’ve done the marketing already, now they need to convert. An educator that I spoke to told me, “Hamilton with interactivity and assessments would be any teacher’s dream.” With Disney+, they own an interactive interface through which they can ask students, “Want to learn more? Click here to take the Hamilton Course.”

Produce Lessons with World-Class Teachers. Studios work by letting the creators create, the producers produce, and the distributors distribute. Online education today requires teachers to be their own producers, marketers, salespeople, and guides. On the back of Hamilton, Disney could identify the best US History teachers in the country, pair them with actors from the play, and work with them to produce online courses that curiosity-piqued students could take to further their learning. It could even work with these teacher partners to produce various media from the IP, including TV shows, video games, and interactive assessments. The best teachers would no longer be constrained to a local classroom, and could generate similar income to top actors and athletes, inspiring more talented people to teach.

Self-Directed but Guided Discovery. Part of the magic of Hamilton is that it inspires people to want to do their own research. Currently, that means that Hamilton viewers turn to the abundant content on the internet without much guidance or formal credit for their curiosity. What if Disney bought Genius and partnered with its stable of teachers from the last bullet to create assessments based on the sources linked to the Hamilton lyrics? The exploration could be free, and students could pay for the certification, like they do on online platforms like Coursera.

Communities and Experiences. A core component of the Disney Flywheel is turning IP into immersive experiences, typically in the form of Parks. After Disney bought Lucasfilm, for example, it built Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, where Star Wars fans can pretend that they’re in a world far, far away. Imagine Hamiland. It would be Colonial Williamsburg on steroids, an instant class-trip destination for thousands of schools around the world. Given the diversity of educational offerings, it might not be able to create physical worlds for every subject, but it could create virtual worlds where students can continue to explore, interact, build even stronger affinity for Disney’s IP, and learn. And imagine creating educational content so compelling that students would want to buy course merchandise (traditional merch or even virtual skins)! 

Assessments and Credentials Based on Output. The internet rewards people who create. Instead of focusing on testing, Disney can focus on giving students the tools and space to create and collaborate. Instead of a reading comprehension test, students could work together to create videos that extend the stories in Hamilton, like EduHam does. Instead of a final exam, students might create a podcast exploring a piece of US History that grabbed them. In this world, students could receive pass/fail grades based on completing the work, and the best students could rise to the top and gain exposure in the fields in which they do their best work. 

At the end of the flywheel, the very best of the student output could be repurposed as top of funnel content or new lessons, giving students an unrivaled incentive to do their best work. In 2020, fame beats grades. 

Disney can do what I just described for Hamilton across hundreds of subjects by using existing IP and infrastructure and acquiring and creating new characters and worlds. With Hamilton as a model, it could even put out calls for topic-specific content and acquire the most compelling.

Disney can’t do it alone, though. It is going to need Right Hand Men and Women to create the school of the future. Good news, it already partners with one of them.

Right Hand Man

We gotta make an all-out stand.

Ayo, I’m gonna need a right hand man. 

-- George Washington

By all accounts, new Disney CEO Bob Chapek is an excellent operator, well-liked inside the company, and able to spot and nurture innovation that plays to the company’s strengths. Reimagining education will take both his operational know-how, and some magic. For the latter, he, like George Washington, is going to need a right hand man. 

He’s working with one already: Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda is a former English teacher who has proven his unrivaled ability to create mind blowing content that makes people want to learn. Disney should back up Scrooge McDuck’s treasure pool to bring Miranda in as the creative director of DisneyEd on an exclusive deal akin to Spotify’s with Joe Rogan. 

Disney has already worked with Miranda on Moana, Mary Poppins Returns, Star Wars, and DuckTales, to mixed success. The company should empower him with the mission to create and discover educational content unlike anything the world has seen outside of Hamilton. What young creator with a passion for education wouldn’t want to work at Walt Disney with Lin-Manuel Miranda?

Disney will also need to partner with or acquire EdTech companies that fill gaps in its ability to serve a holistic education solution.

Under Bob Iger, Disney used acquisitions to achieve its three strategic priorities and reinforce the Flywheel.  

Today, Disney is best positioned to build the content that kicks off the Flywheel, and it can give the best EdTech companies the fast exposure to millions of students that they currently can’t access. It could acquire companies across HolonIQ’s future of education taxonomy with a particular focus on areas where it currently has no advantage, such as Assessment, ClassTech, STEM/Coding, Teacher Support, and Study Notes. I am very bullish on Disney buying or partnering with Genius and pushing students to annotated versions of all of its content. 

Creating excellent content and capturing attention is what online education needs most and what Disney does best. It should take advantage of that unique capability to capture the rest of the value in the Education Flywheel by acquiring the remaining pieces it needs. 

What’d I Miss

There has never been anything quite like Hamilton, a cultural phenomenon at the Public even before it debuted on Broadway in August 2015. It’s easy to say that education should just be like Hamilton; it’s harder to make that happen. 

Certainly, there are challenges: 

  • Many have tried to “fix” education at a systemic level; just as many have failed. 

  • Selling into schools is hard and school politics are messy.

  • A “Disney Diploma” might now mean the same thing as an actual diploma. 

  • Miranda may never create something as magical as Hamilton again.

Reimagining education won’t be easy, and implementing it will be even harder. No one has been able to do it yet. It seems almost impossible. But no one has ever had the content, reach, and trust that Disney has. From Disney’s perspective, there is no greater opportunity to make an impact with its existing IP while building an even deeper and more important relationship with customers from a young age. They can leverage what they do best to acquire customers for negative cost and increase their Lifetime Value.

During Coronavirus, traditional education is as vulnerable as it’s ever been. If I were running Disney, I would not give away my shot. 

alexander hamilton GIF

Plus, as Walt Disney once said, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

Thanks to Dan, Meghan, Reuben, Jomayra, and Puja for input, editing, and feedback!

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