Instructional Solutions Celebrates 20 Years [Here is What We Learned]

Mary Cullen
Post by Mary Cullen
Originally published September 26, 2018, updated September 26, 2018
Instructional Solutions Celebrates 20 Years [Here is What We Learned]

I’d like to share with you why I founded Instructional Solutions 20 years ago this month and offer three tips about writing, business, and life.

Twenty years in business is a big juncture. The work we do helps people. There have certainly been downs with the ups, but I love the work and am very grateful.

I wish I could tell you that I had a great business plan, but I didn’t. In 1998, I was teaching writing at a college in Massachusetts. I taught the first online course the college offered and was perceived as an eLearning expert really only because it was so new that nearly no one else had any familiarity with online learning. But, I was very excited about the possibilities that this channel presented to teach writing since writing, of course, is very effectively taught online. The internet is a communications medium.

My two children were very young. I was struggling with the commute and rigid hours. I desperately wanted more flexibility to be more involved in their schools and activities and wanted to spend more time on teaching writing and less on administrative meetings. Here’s a picture of them the summer I founded the company:


Desperation does breed inspiration. I realized I could do the work I love, and shape my work more creatively if I taught writing to business people instead of college students. I cashed out my paltry pension ($6k), figured out how to code HTML and built a website, spent three months night and day building the first online course and studying business information flow, and launched Instructional Solutions.

Using the Wayback Machine, let’s look at Instructional Solutions’ first website. “The Advent of the Internet heralds a new age in workforce training.” Yes, I wrote that. I’m cringing in embarrassment, but it was the start.



From these humble beginnings, we’ve grown to now offer ten online business writing courses, customized onsite business writing courses, executive business writing coaching, with a blog that is on track to reach a million readers next year. We’ve helped at least 14,000 people from Fortune 500 companies to small non-profits write with more skill and ease at work.

Three Things I Learned

  1. Trust your heart. Do work you love and work in a way that is most productive for you. We spend too much time at work to not love the work we do.

  2. Keep learning. Looking at our first website, it’s obvious that technology has changed. A lot! Business writing standards have changed, also, primarily because of information overload and the increase in electronic communication. Business writing is trending toward clarity and ease of information flow, which is very good.

  3. Just like the epicenter of business writing is the reader, the epicenter of a business or relationships are the customers and those we interact with. The value of the courses and resources is measured solely by how they help clients. If they don’t help the client, nothing works. Everything ultimately connects to the audience.

What Was Most Helpful

  1. Blind faith that this business would work because it’s so clear that strong writing at work helps people and businesses. Running a business at some points is really hard. There has to be a bigger motivator than money.

  2. When taking any risk, it’s helpful to consider the worst case scenario. It’s not pessimistic to focus on the worst case. Instead, it’s freeing. If we can absorb a worst case scenario, then it’s reasonable to take any risk because even if the worst happens, it’ll be ok. Most likely, the worst won’t happen, and the situation will be much better. This mindset has helped enormously with growth.

  3. Surrounding myself with supportive people. My husband has always supported my work. He’s been very front line with our children when I was deep in the work. I had two colleagues at the college who supported the launch of my business and a great boss who gave me wonderful opportunities to learn when I was teaching. (Thank you Matthew Olson, Charles Kaminski, and Marja-Leena Bailey! I’ve not forgotten.)

    Our team at Instructional Solutions makes it far stronger than it was in the early days when I was solo. They have skills I don’t have. Their combination of talent brings a creative energy that is fun and engaging.

    One of the biggest advantages of running a company is that I can work with clients who have similar values. I’ve walked away from a few projects. Our clients have consistently been great to work with.

    To write better at work, surround yourself with kindred spirits. Find a colleague you trust and share your writing and critique each other's work. It’s true that we rise by surrounding ourselves with positive people.

What I Would Do Differently

  1. I would try to not be so intimidated by the leap from academia to business. At first, I thought business was impenetrable and corporate. Business people scared me a bit at first until I realized that both business and business writing is a person to person connection at the core. One of my first meetings was with a wise and professional woman named Peggy Osborn, who was a learning director at FedEx. I was so nervous about our meeting, but we had an amazing conversation about writing at work and she affirmed the course I had developed was what was needed. FedEx became one of my first ongoing clients.

    When you shift focus, know that all of the skills shift with you. If you can write a report in engineering, you can write a report in project management. Don’t be intimidated.

  2. I would definitely have joined business groups earlier. Truthfully, I know much more about business writing and teaching than I do about running a business. I should have connected earlier to other business owners so I could learn about pitfalls and opportunities from them.

    Eventually, I hired a business coach and that’s when I began to understand how to structure a business and grow. Isolation never breeds expansion and learning.

  3. I wish I had discovered a regular yoga practice earlier in the business. I would have been much less stressed at times. Yoga has taught me balance and quieted my mind. I see insights I missed previously.

Twenty years in, Instructional Solutions is worth considerably more than the $6k I scrounged as founding money after cashing out my pension. My team is fun to work with and caring and skilled. Our infrastructure and content are incredibly strong. I still love the work and am excited about the growth ahead.

Stay tuned because we’re in the process of major updates to our primary courses and are developing new resources!

To all of you reading this newsletter, please accept my heartfelt thanks for caring about the power of writing and for giving me the opportunity to do work I enjoy so much.

Here is a picture of my children now. Deepest thanks to them for always being my biggest inspiration. They’ve grown strong and happy, also.




Mary Cullen
Post by Mary Cullen
Originally published September 26, 2018, updated September 26, 2018
Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.