Start a company that completely reinvents the way people learn. Sounds easy enough, right? Probably not, but for the founders of Top Hat, that was the goal: transform the way professors interact with students to create a more engaging active learning environment.
A significant chunk of the modern workforce has attended some form of post-secondary education, and most of them have a story about how the current system is flawed. Mike Silagadze and Mohsen Shahini are two of those people. After graduating from the University of Waterloo together, the two realized the current educational experience is completely disengaged from what students really need to succeed.
They set out to change the way we learn by founding Top Hat in 2009. With Silagadze now as CEO and Shahini as CAO, the company offers a learning platform to professors that better enables them to create and handle their own material, which means they can engage millions of students both during and outside of class. Edtech, as it’s called, turns out to be a hard industry to master. So hard, in fact, that Top Hat is one of the only companies to actually crack the code when it comes to creating an educational technology platform.
The secret was to make sure the platform targets the market that really has influence when it comes to learning: The professors themselves. By starting there, Top Hat can disrupt publishers, the academic community, and finally, learning itself.
Despite the difficulty of succeeding in the edtech space, Top Hat is doing extremely well for themselves. Now sitting at 330 employees in their gorgeous Toronto office designed by Ray (with help from Cresa), the Bloor-street space spans over 50,000 square feet across four floors. The company also has a small satellite location in Australia. Top Hat isn’t done yet either—they are expanding quickly, and given the fact that worldwide education spending easily tops $1 trillion, the target market has never been bigger.
With well over 300 people within four walls, there are a lot of different teams working together to make sure Top Hat functions at peak performance. The desk space is split up through four floors, each with a decidedly different feel. The top floor is home to engineers and developers, resulting in a bit quieter of a vibe. The sales floor, however, is buzzing with calls, music, and discussion.
The revenue team has the largest headcount within Top Hat, encompassing sales, customer success, onboarding, account management, and more. However, some of the sales desks often sit empty as reps are out meeting with clients at some of the most well-known and prestigious universities in the world, represented by school banners on the walls. Engineering, marketing and FinOps make up a large amount of the other Top Hatters, as they like to be called. The product and content team is also significant—this group is chock full of “recovering” academics, including Ph.D. holders helping to write and design the content that professors and students engage with every day.
Meeting rooms named after famous educators such as Bell, Comenius, and Musa hug the walls of the top three floors. The main boardroom, however, is labeled Monocle, a tribute to the company’s early days when the name was Top Hat Monocle. No elaborate backstory here—Silagadze and Shahini liked the name Top Hat, but the website was taken, so they added Monocle. Once TopHat.com become available, they made the switch.
Top Hat has four key values: Good in the woods, which means employees must be agile, resourceful and brave; There is no “I” in Top Hat, a self-explanatory adage that inspires teamwork without ego; Treat professors like heroes, a motto that celebrates higher education and Top Hat’s main customer; and Aggressive growth, a catch-all goal to move fast, aim high, and revolutionize education.
The combination of these values and teams creates a modern market-leading educational experience. Professors can create and assign textbooks, take attendance, conduct live polls, and deliver secure tests, all through one centralized platform.
Over 64,000 professors and 3.8 million students have used Top Hat, with 2.5 million app downloads and usage in over 1,000 institutions, including 75 per cent of the 1,000 top North American schools.
Speaking of top schools, it’s actually harder to become a Top Hat employee than it is to get into Yale University. The company has exceptionally high hiring standards, and it turns those standards into a strict focus on their three target groups: Professors, students, and institutions.
The company is built to enhance learning, and not surprisingly the internal culture values learning as well. Top Hat hosts a weekly all-hands meeting in their atrium where the whole company comes together to celebrate milestones and welcome new team members. Every four weeks, a guest professor is brought in to talk about the “angels and demons” of learning—what works, what doesn’t, and how Top Hat can make a difference. The University of Connecticut’s John Redden is a particular favorite for the company.
Town halls happen every quarter and also boast a guest speaker. Former Ryerson University president Sheldon Levy recently addressed Top Hatters about the intersection of technology and higher learning.
The office is adorned with several colorful posters representing the different personas Top Hatters work for, such as Joseph, the young professor who wants to make teaching less time-consuming. These personas build a real-life audience for the company, grounding their work in the everyday struggle of teachers and professors.
On top of the 20+ normal chairs in the main boardroom, two colored chairs permanently join every meeting: A purple one representing the customer so that every meeting acts as if a Top Hat user is there to hear it all, and a newer pink one, which represents every employee, signifying that workers are at the heart of every Top Hat decision. This is manifested in #TopHatProud, a program that identifies areas of improvement in the employee experience. The company runs engagement surveys through a third party, including one on diversity and inclusion, and then invests in the areas employees identify as needing the most upgrades.
Focusing on education means the company must also know how to have some fun. A monthly recess brings employees together to eat, drink, and be merry, and the most recent one during Pride month featured a performance from a Drag queen. Every year, a company kickoff celebrates top performers and aligns the whole company on strategy for the next 12 months ahead.
Food is brain fuel, and for a company that specializes in learning, Top Hat has it on lock. Lunch is catered each day, providing two local options as well as a veggie and salad bar. A custom pop machine (like the ones at the movie theatres) keeps employees quenched, and snacks like chips, cookies, granola bars, and Pocky—so much Pocky—keep everyone well-fed.
With kitchens on every floor, Top Hatters do not have to wander far to find a bit of sustenance, but the main cafeteria remains on the first floor, bringing everyone together to chat and socialize.
Another essential of the student and employee life is coffee, and of course, Top Hat has that covered. The company boasts a heavy-duty old-school espresso machine on the first floor, as well as coffee carafes and single espresso machines throughout every other kitchen and a well-stocked David’s Tea section. Local cafes like Sorry Coffee offer reprieve when Top Hatters want to venture out for their morning caffeine. A separate fridge is stocked with adult refreshments to enjoy during recess.
A full and healthy mind is the key to creating a platform that enriches the minds of others. Top Hat recognizes the importance of wellness by offering yoga sessions throughout the office, though mainly in the large atrium on the first floor. Benefits also cover massages, physio, psychology and more, all through the popular Toronto provider League.
Each employee also has access to lifestyle and healthcare spending accounts. The former covers transportation, charitable giving, fitness memberships and more, while the later covers mental health care, sleep therapy, assistive devices and other similar perks that do not fall under the traditional benefits umbrella.
Staying healthy is important for the team as well, so biking to work is encouraged with on-site storage and showers. The Top Hat Library features a quiet space where employees can unwind in addition to a prayer room, a mother’s room, and a meditation space.
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