Adults like learning like children - even if they're wearing suits, says Excel Academy's Dan Stillerman

"So many people - even in big corporates - have no idea what Excel is capable of and how to work smart instead of hard."

Dan Stillerman, founder of Excel Academy, studied Actuarial Science at Wits, finishing his studies in 2008. The following year, he began working for a small startup life insurance company. He recalls being “thrown into the depths of the most complicated Excel stuff” he had ever seen. “I was way out of my depth. I had this degree, four years of actuarial studies, but no practical understanding of how to use this Excel thing,” he says.

For the next four years, Dan’s life revolved around Excel; all day every day, he says. “I went from an Excel zero to hero,” he laughs. A “quarter life crisis” rattled his cage during his mid-twenties, and Dan began reconsidering his career options. After deciding he didn’t want to be working in a traditional actuarial role his whole life, he quit his job and started seriously considering other options. “All through my varsity years and after, I loved tutoring and helping people. I think I’ve got a knack for taking complex concepts and simplifying them so that people can easily digest them,” he says. “Excel was this tool I was scared of and couldn’t appreciate or enjoy, but then once I got the hang of it and unlocked its power, I could really appreciate its value. There are one billion Excel users across the world, and most of them are just scratching the surface. I realised that a big opportunity lay in this.”

Dan came up with the idea of Excel Academy, to help people work smarter, be more efficient and productive, he says, and launched the company in 2014. However, after a few months, he decided the training manual – the traditional, spiral-bound, black and white type – needed an upgrade. “I realised that I needed to make the workshops into a colourful, fun and engaging experience,” he says. “Now, we have a series of three workshops, and our manuals look like children’s books; they are colourful and have lots of pictures and big writing. Adults like learning like children – even if they’re wearing suits. If you give them an experience that is cool and fun, and different, they really enjoy it.”

To date, Excel Academy has trained more than 10,000 people and Dan says there’s an insatiable demand. “It’s hands on discovery-style learning, not just theory, and people gain a deep understanding of why something is done as well as how to do it,” he says. “So many people – even in big corporates – have no idea what Excel is capable of and how to work smart instead of hard.”

What would you say makes Excel Academy unique? 
“Firstly, we are very focused on Excel, we are professionals in our field and we’re professional trainers; we’ve undergone significant training ourselves to learn how to educate others. We decided strategically to focus on our niche, to stick to Excel, and to become the only logical solution for anyone wanting to master Excel.”

“Secondly, our curriculum and training methodology is unique. It’s carefully structured and designed in a unique way, using colourful systems, quirky acronyms, and real-life case-studies.”

“Thirdly, our workshops are available in classroom format as well as online. From our experience, online learning on its own does not work. That’s why this year, we started rolling out a gamified, blended approach. We kickstart a workshop with a 45 to 60-minute live onboarding session, where we explain the process, hand out the workshop material, and answer questions to ensure that the delegates are comfortable. Delegates are then given two weeks for online self-study. We have a very sophisticated system on the back end that allows us to track each person’s progress and send leader-boards out to the delegates and managers. Everyone loves competition! We have online coaches or “#ExcelPals” to assist people throughout this time. This gamified approach has taken our online completion rate from 10 percent to 98 percent plus. It’s changing people’s behaviour in a learning context, and we’re proud and excited to roll this out more extensively both locally and abroad. We’ve recently onboarded 51 people in a large Chicago-based insurer, and 21 government officials in Freetown, Sierra Leone. We did live webinar onboarding instead of in-person sessions. The feedback from these groups has been superb. And we’ve never even met them!”

What value does your organisation offer to those in the finance profession?
“We work with a number of corporates in South Africa and abroad. The vast majority of our clients are in finance and most of their staff members use Excel as a universal business tool. When you are crunching numbers and looking at data and models in Excel, for example, it is very useful to understand how to unlock the functionality and efficiencies of Excel as a tool.”

What are your plans to evolve the organisation and keep it current in the coming years?
“We strive to be constantly innovating. For example, what we did with our gamified, blended approach has helped us to reach more people, as well as to provide companies with a more time- and cost-efficient training solution. We also realised that quite a number of people work on a Mac, so we’ve made a Mac-friendly online Excel 101. It has all the Mac-friendly shortcuts, and is created on the Excel for Mac interface. Our Excel 101 online course includes 4.5 hours of video content. We made a condensed 2-hour version of this, Excel 101 Express, for faster learners or more advanced users. We find that a lot of people want to jump straight to Excel 202. So, what we did for them is to make an Excel 202 prep course; a short, 20-minute video with the key concepts from Excel 101. We are embracing video technology and our online learning platform to give people value and to meet their needs. We have also noticed that Google Sheets is becoming more prominent, especially amongst start-ups and smaller teams. I want to make a Google Sheets 101 in the coming weeks so as to meet this need.”

“We’re also able to create customised solutions for customers. For example, we recently worked with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to roll out our online programme to 21 government officials in Sierra Leone. They had a prospectus of what they needed to cover in the training and we tailored a customised mini course for them. Now they’re looking to roll it out to Ghana and other countries in Africa.”

Please share some of your insights into the future of the finance profession and how you see this taking shape.
“People like things to be easy – for example, going into a bricks-and-mortar bank is out-dated and time-consuming for many people, specifically amongst the millennial generation. Why go to the bank, when you get great apps on your phone these days for banking and can have everything at your fingertips? The world is changing fast and finance is not excluded from that. I think, one has to stay curious and aware of what’s going on, especially with new technology. Is Excel always going to be relevant? As far as we are concerned, it definitely is.”

Why did you decide to partner with the Finance Indaba? Moreover, what are your expectations from the Finance Indaba?
“For us, a big focus is to spread our message about productivity and success. We want to reach as many people as we can. We partnered with the Finance Indaba because it’s a win-win-win situation. It’s a win for The Finance Indaba because they’re adding value and building rapport with their clientele; it’s a win for the end user, who gets a free crash course, as well as the chance to sign up for further training; and it’s definitely a win for us as we get exposure to an awesome audience”
“Over the two days of the Finance Indaba, we’re excited to be running several little crash courses that anybody can join. We look forward to seeing you there!”