Dale Leatherwood – Founder of Smart Degree


Dale Leatherwood brings deep expertise in higher education student recruitment and enrollment to Smart Degree. Dale works closely with higher education institutions to help them embrace innovative new models of adult learner engagement through the Smart Degree program that enables the schools to identify and recruit students who will succeed.

A senior marketing executive with extensive experience in developing and managing higher education marketing strategies, Dale is always looking for opportunities to enhance the future of higher education marketing. When it comes to enrollment marketing, Dale is focused on identifying prospective students who are truly prepared to succeed in school and delivering them to schools via affordable, high-quality channels. This insight and expertise led Dale to develop the Smart Degree concept, which finally creates a school search process that’s on the student’s terms, combined with a much smarter student search process for schools – so both sides succeed. He manages strategy and partner school development for Smart Degree.

Dale has held leadership roles at a number of institutions in training and higher education, including the development, oversight and marketing of online degree programs. He currently oversees business development, marketing and strategic partnerships for Sparkroom, a leading provider of higher education performance marketing solutions.

Where did the idea for Smart Degree come from?

The idea for Smart Degree came from my experience leading various higher education marketing and campus operations, most of which was focused on the education of non-traditional students.

The challenge for higher education enrollment is not focused on enrolling enough students. To be successful, schools must find students who can be retained and will graduate from their programs. Lack of information about prospective students makes it difficult to identify and categorize those who are likely to or not likely to succeed. And from the student perspective, lack of information about the college programs – including the real price and which credits will transfer – leads to post-enrollment issues.

Smart Degree grew out of the need for transparent relationships between schools and prospective students so that both parties can be more successful.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My typical day is focused on ensuring that both ends of the program (student and school) are maintaining equal progress. The success of Smart Degree depends on a combination of quality students seeking degrees and quality institutions seeking students.

I spend a lot of time on the phone, at events and conferences and in meetings presenting the Smart Degree concept to schools. I also work closely with a team that helps identify student candidates and prepare them for success. The key to productivity is organization – I plan a week ahead, but leave space for the flexibility needed with a fast-growing program.

How do you bring ideas to life?

To me, the key to turning an idea into a reality is in finding people who share my vision and are willing to invest time and funds (sometimes one, sometimes both). The best people aren’t just willing to “come along.” They need to believe in my idea, first and foremost. The right team will bring the idea to life in a way that retains the core concept.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

Direct, informative relationships between buyers and sellers. Consumers are looking to reduce the steps in purchasing high-cost goods and services – and they’re expecting the sellers to assist them by providing them with access to detailed product information. This trend is evident as transactions for cars, appliances and other big-ticket items are becoming more transparent in terms of price and features – and that trend will expand into other purchases including homes, investments and education.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I love working with smart people, regardless of their background. I realized early on that an idea isn’t enough. You have to find really smart people willing and able to provide objective feedback along with a helping hand to get the job done. A strong team keeps me from spinning my wheels and helps me gain more production out of each day.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I’ve been lucky enough to have great jobs since I graduated college, but there was a job that had a huge impact on me as a teenager. When I was 16, my neighbor owned a water bed store. She was short an installer and asked if I could help out for one day. I needed the cash so readily agreed. Thus began what became the worst day of my life.

I’m guessing you’ve never had to install a water bed, but it’s incredibly difficult work. By the end of the day, I was ready to get home and get on with my life watching MTV and playing Nintendo.

As the head installer was driving me home after installing our third bed, he commented on something he wasn’t happy about from our first installation of the day. It was a minor issue, and definitely something that didn’t need to be addressed right away. But he was planning to go back to the installation site and make it right – that night.

That moment stuck with me. The head installer was taking it upon himself to achieve perfection, without the owner even needing to know about it. It made me realize the value of having a team of smart, passionate people who share your vision. They’ll make sure things get done right.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

If I could start all over with Smart Degree, I would have put more emphasis on the operational process to ensure supply meets demand from the very beginning.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Always have a touch point in “reality.” As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to get so caught up in your vision that you can’t see outside of it. I like to make sure I have someone who isn’t “in the woods with me” – someone who can give me a real picture of how everything looks.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Condensing the concept and vision into an understandable pitch has been the most difficult and the most important part of growing Smart Degree. Smart Degree is a complex and innovative idea, and at first it was difficult to explain it without getting glazed eyes in response. Having a snappy discussion focused on the specific problems of my audience has allowed for steady growth in buyers.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

A prior iteration of this concept didn’t succeed. I overcame that by refining the idea, finding better partners who shared the true vision and not compromising in order to save time. As a result, a better idea became a reality.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

There are 30+ million adults who have some college credits but no degree. Smart Degree is helping them find the best path toward finishing their degree. But then what?

There is an opportunity to support adults who graduate from college later than the “traditional” student. They seek advice on career opportunities, financial planning and more. These “regular” people need life coaches, and while they can’t afford to pay for coaching, there are companies that will pay you for finding the people that best meet their needs.

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

I love comic books.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

Like most people, I live in Microsoft Office. Regardless of what you think about Microsoft, they deserve immense credit from the productivity that has come out of Word and Excel (and maybe some blame for PowerPoint).

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s about how Abraham Lincoln staffed his team with the best minds available, regardless of background, even if they were rivals who disliked him immensely at first. As a result, Lincoln received fresh, objective opinions from his team.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Abraham Lincoln, of course.
On Twitter, I follow a mix of news, sports and comedy. I find that sometimes my best insight comes from comedians!