Flashpoint Academy CEO Howard Tullman has built his career on not just going against the grain but blazing a trail in staying current and encouraging change, even when it seems risky to do so. Case-in-point, his digital arts/entertainment studies college, a school that helps prep students for actual jobs in media production, just won accreditation to grant students associate's degrees.
To get a feel for what this means for him and his school, I gave Tullman a call. He elaborated on what's next for Flashpoint, what others can learn from the process, and the best approach to take with regulatory organizations in general.
So what does winning the accreditation mean for you both personally and also for the school?
Howard Tullman: Well, it's a process. The metrics are pretty straightforward. It takes basically four years, you have to do everything right during those four years, and if you take your shot and you're lucky, they approve you the first go-around. Usually they make you jump through a bunch of hurdles, especially in the current environment. Also, usually, if you're a new school, as we're a relatively new school, they also give you a very short string in terms of you're accreditation. Typically it might be a year and then they'd approve it. By those metrics, we got it as soon as you could humanly get it. We got four years, which was a really sizable commitment by the team that was here and the accrediting body to say that they're comfortable we're going to be around and what we're doing is appropriate. They're very supportive of it.
What does it mean for you, personally?
After having had to answer parents questions for the past four years, my answer is much shorter than explaining the four steps. [Laughs.] "Standby." And believe me, it was a nightmare. You literally couldn't say anything that suggested it was close or anything else. They're very sensitive about it. It's not soup until it's soup, and God forbid you should say something, because then someone could say, "I'm confused, I thought you were accredited." But anyway, it's great. I'm very happy. It's a great honor. It's very important also to the students and that's really the biggest part of it.
All of this is very a much a work in progress. The reason I say this is the Department of Education is pretty aggressively looking at this and deciding how many they need, are they worthwhile, do they really make a contribution and all those kinds of things. You could lose it as a product of complaints, non-performance, or financial conditions. But by and large if you do what you're supposed to be doing, you have a review process, and every few years they come in and ask how you've done in meeting the plan you developed. It's called an Institutional Effectiveness Plan. Once you've done that, then they ask you in retrospect, how did you do in following and implementing that plan. That's how they measure it. We have such a plan and it has everything you would imagine in the components of a plan. It's an ongoing process. We review it quarterly. Everything we do is collaborative, and this is a particularly collaborative part of the whole process.
What's the next thing you want to tackle for the school?
So this primed the pump for another level of availability in terms of the ability for students to borrow federal money. So that's the next step in the process: Now that you're accredited, you apply to the government for what's called Title IV financing. It's just government financing. That's the next step in the process.
You mentioned metrics you had to meet. Which of those was maybe the most challenging to prove or give them examples of?
I think when you're a startup, the most challenging is they have to be comfortable as a regulatory organization that they're not going to be embarrassed. [Laughs.] If you've been around a zillion years they don't worry anywhere nearly as much, but in our case the largest single thing was that we have a new curriculum, way of teaching -- all of which didn't fit into any standard cookie-cutter frame of reference. To that extent, convincing them that it made sense and we've thought it through.
Can you speak a bit to the lessons other entrepreneurs can learn from being certified by a big organization like you just did?
First of all, this is not my first time, so I've done this in a variety of industries. We did it years ago in the insurance industry. We created a whole new business by doing this cockamamie thing where we submitted ourselves to the jurisdiction of the regulators, and they were like, "Who the hell are you and why are you doing this?" And we said we intend to a new service to insurance companies, and you regulate the crap out of insurance, so for sure you're going to want to regulate us. So they did that but what they didn't understand, was that from our standpoint, being able to say that we had been approved by the regulators was a gigantic, gigantic step forward in terms of small, new business dealing with industry giants, Allstate, State Farm, people like that. It was huge, a huge credibility thing. We sort of invented the obligation to regulators.
In this case, the most interesting thing was just giving these people comfort that they wouldn't be embarrassed. Just to give an example, we're a completely digital school, and when they arrived they said one of the first thing you do is set up a war-room complete with documents. And we said, "Well, we've got them all on floppy drives, USB drives, or disks for you." They said, "No, no, you don't understand, we're paper-based." [Laughs.] So we had to go buy shelving and fill this space to the brim with binders with everything in the world. It just sorta shows you that the methodology of these organizations has not necessarily kept tracking -- and this is true not just with these guys, I don't think the FCC has figured out to regulate securities trading. They're cash-constrained and they're not innovative. They're reactionary. So these guys came and the biggest lesson was to be pre-emptive in terms of answering every conceivable question that could come up.
People tell you that it's their responsibility, but the more you can do for them, the more comfortable they are and the easier it is to get them to support what you're looking for.
But a bigger lesson that has nothing to do with this situation has to do with what I call "the second sale." That's in almost every selling enterprise or business where you're selling something. There comes a renewal, and in the renewal period, you aren't in the room. Very few people understand this. In some room in the business, some accounting guy or someone is presenting a requisition to renew your business. And if you haven't done a good job of supplying those internal champions of your business with the ammunition to support that renewal, then there's a flash. This theory of providing ammunition and doing everyone's homework for them, and being engaged with that entire process, is something we do in every business. It's been a real formula for success.