On Building An Online Course Platform To Over 40K Active Customers
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Greg Smith, I’m the co-founder and CEO of Thinkific, a software platform that enables you to create, market, and sell online courses. Each of our clients runs their own business and we’re the platform behind the scenes that they use to deliver their courses and membership sites.
People use Thinkific to teach everything from corporate finance to hula-hooping. If you take a look at the customer stories on our website, you’ll see the wide range of skills and expertise people share through online courses. For example, large companies like Hootsuite use us to deliver their customer education at scale using our Plus platform. Others are solo-preneurs like Tiffany Aliche, who has monetized her expertise in personal finance by offering self-guided courses to her engaged community on the platform.
Currently, we have over 40,000 active clients with their own courses or membership sites selling through their own websites and brands. Last year our clients sold over $150 million in courses on Thinkific, creating tens of thousands of successful businesses and educating millions of students around the world.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I’ve always been entrepreneurial but really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life for a long time. I tried business school, worked for enterprise rent-a-car, tried a few failed startups, and eventually went to law school. While I was in law school I started teaching and tutoring the LSAT (Law School Admission Test) on the side to pay for tuition. I created a blog to help my students and eventually added a small online course. The course took off and eventually I was generating more revenue from the course than my successful legal career. I also had people reaching out who wanted to build a business by creating their own courses under their own brand and on their own website like I had done.
I was lucky that my brother was a software developer who could help me build my course website, but even so, it was hard getting started. It was a challenge connecting all the technical requirements required to build courses, market and sell them, collect a payment, and then deliver a great learning experience. Seeing my own struggles with this and hearing similar needs from others, we set out to build Thinkific and make the journey easy for others who had no technical skills.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
In the earliest days, everyone did whatever role or job needed to get done that day. We operate very differently now with a team of about 120 people, and we’re growing fast.
Our first product wasn’t even something that other people could use. It was hideous. We had a great website, so we would email or call people up to convince them to Dropbox us their videos or whatever content they had, and we’d build their course.
At the time, our process was to go film the client in person if they didn’t have a course or content yet. Then we would use the content to build their courses and site for them. Only at that point would we send it back to for feedback and ask if they’d like to start paying us. We had a few instances where we had done all that work for a client, and we couldn’t even get back in touch with them after the fact.
While this was not scalable in the beginning, it allowed us to gain key insights into what our clients wanted, and how we would need to evolve our product. The most amazing part out of all this was that we got to talk to our customers constantly and had to execute on all of their needs and asks. We acted as both their software company and the team that helped them execute on their vision. This experience allowed us to learn exactly what they wanted and why, which helped immensely in building and improving the first publicly accessible version of the product.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We never really “launched” in the sense that there was no defining moment in time when we turned things on or went public. It was more of a slow roll from possible customer conversations to building something and mixing a half-built product with services to set things up in as lean away possible. We had revenue before we really had a fully functioning product. We filled in the gaps in our product with our own manual efforts, constantly learning from doing the work ourselves and being the go-between for our product and our customers. This allowed us to continue to develop the product towards something ready for customers to use themselves while still making revenue and acquiring customers before it was finished. It was a huge win for us doing it this way.
The big thing I wish we did right from the start was to create thought leadership content in our market of choice. It’s unlikely that your first idea or product will be what your business succeeds with, and that was true for us. But it’s rare that you change markets or topics entirely. If we had started creating content about online education and courses right from the start we would have developed a customer base or potential customer base much faster.
A key milestone in our early days was hiring our first employee. It was a designer, and I loved the website he built! It made us look professional and feel like a serious company. Looking back we’ve definitely come a long way, but at the time it felt amazing to have a beautiful site that our clients liked. It was only a few pages of info with a pretty vague value proposition. We really just wanted people to sign up so we could reach out and talk to them. Today, when you go to thinkific.com everything is ready for you to get started on your own and there’s a whole team ready to help you out. When we started, there was no app to sign into or use – signing up just meant giving us your email so we could reach out to you as a potential customer.
We funded the first few years of the business and the first few hires purely from revenue from our own online courses. It was doing about $10,000 a month in course sales. Another reason we were so excited was around the opportunity Thinkific was creating. We were living the dream we wanted to create for others – we had created a course that made enough revenue for us to quit our jobs and go full-time on our dream project. We wanted to make that same opportunity easy for others.
Today we’ve created that opportunity for thousands of entrepreneurs, some of whom make millions per year from their online courses or memberships.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The marketing strategies that worked for us in the early days look very different from what we do now. What worked for us in the early days was a variety of unscalable things. Here are a few of the things we did in the beginning.
When we started out, we spent a lot of time picking up the phone one customer at a time. This worked well for a few reasons.
It allowed us to learn a lot about our customers. Having these insights allowed us to build a better product much faster. Doubling down on one-on-on customer calls also massively increased our sales close rate along with our customers’ happiness. We had an extremely high NPS and customer retention rates because we had built direct relationships with our customers. We would work with people from their first call with us, all the way to making sure they saw success with our product.
My advice for entrepreneurs is if you’re just getting started, don’t be afraid to start with the non-scalable things. Don’t worry about trying to build scalable channels to acquire thousands of customers until you have your first 100 happy and successful customers.
As we’ve grown, keeping customer success at the forefront of our mission has been an important part of our business success. By providing a high standard of customer support, we have many happy and successful customers who continue to spread the word about us, which helps drive our marketing engine.
After working with your first few satisfied customers, building thought leadership is an excellent way to kickstart your marketing. This could be creating content across social media, blogs, and courses, with the goal of growing and maintaining an audience.
I would recommend that you work to build thought leadership in your space even before you start creating your product. Very often, the first product you create is not the one that will take you to success. Most people end up pivoting their business to some degree, often within the same market. If you make it a priority to build thought leadership from the start, you’ll have a customer base to rely on and continue selling to in the future, even if you pivot your product later on.
Influencer and partner marketing
Another marketing tactic that worked well for us during the early days was working with influencers. Find someone in your space who has an audience that matches up with your own and partner with them to cross-promote. If you’re brand new and don’t know anyone yet, it can be hard to cold call people with influence and get through. The best thing you can do is head to an event to make in-person connections. A great way to strike a point of connection is to offer to interview them. Even if you have a very small audience, people are much more likely to have a call with you if there’s something in it for them, like an interview. This could be a quick 30-minute interview. At the end of your call, if all goes well, it’s a great opportunity to talk about working together more.
Once you have a relationship built, a great way to engage an influencer is to run webinars to their audience. We found this was an exceptional way of finding and generating new leads and customers early on. The benefit here is that the audience knows the influencer, so they will be much more open to hearing what you have to offer.
If you want to learn more about how to do this, check out the training from the Thinkific Amplify summit, where Josh and Jill Stanton teach on how to run successful affiliate launches with partners. If you’re interested in hosting your own Summits check out Virtual Summits.
We did try social media and paid ads early on, but did not find them to be successful. It was challenging because we found it was an area where you can sink a lot of time and money in and not see great results. However, we’ve since seen a lot more success with these strategies at scale.
CURRENT MARKETING STRATEGIES
These days, we use a variety of marketing tactics including paid ads, SEO, thought leadership content, and partner marketing among other things to continue to drive awareness and customers to Thinkific.
We regularly share helpful educational content through social media, our blog, YouTube channel, and training courses. These resources continue to drive traffic to our site, educating people both on how to get started with online courses, and showing them what is possible through customer stories.
Running virtual summits has worked very well as a strategy for us to acquire new customers, strengthen influencer relationships, and establish ourselves as thought leaders in the online course space.
Our most recent online summit was Amplify 2020, where we brought together some of the top industry leaders in the online course and digital entrepreneurship space to educate attendees on how to build a successful course business and monetize their expertise. This event has been an excellent way for us to acquire qualified leads and strengthen relationships with industry partners.
There are a ton of amazing ways to market your digital and physical products. Since we support tens of thousands of businesses on our platform, we see what strategies are working for them to market and retain customers. If you’re interested to hear experts talk through strategies for validating your idea, creating a marketing plan, or evolving your product, check out the masterclasses through Amplify.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today Thinkific is about 120 people and profitable. We’re approximately doubling year over year. The majority of our team is in one office in Vancouver, Canada, with a few remote team members. We’re currently looking at opening new offices to expand our customer and marketing reach as well as help with talent acquisition.
In 2019, course creators on Thinkific earned more than $150 million, and that number is more than doubling each year. The online education industry is in a rapid growth phase and the opportunities are virtually limitless for people with a skill or passion they want to share and monetize.
Probably the most exciting metrics are those of our customers. We support over 40,000-course creators to deliver courses and have powered over 30 million experiences for students. Our long term goals are focused on empowering more business owners to tap into the $300 billion online course market and grow a successful business.
A great example of this is Tiffany Aliche. She is a personal finance educator who started out teaching local workshops but wanted to reach more people with her message and build a profitable business. Through thinkific, she built a membership site offering a variety of online courses to help people take control of their finances. She now teaches over 20,000 students through Thinkific and built a profitable business to the tune of $4.1 million in revenue to date.
We also continue to look for ways to give back to the community as we grow. For example, Think In Color was an online summit we designed to celebrate, connect and educate underrepresented women who are thriving as entrepreneurs and online business owners. The goal was to empower women to break down barriers for improved diversity and inclusion in the digital entrepreneurship space. Not only was the event attended by 10,000 people, it rapidly grew our community of thriving entrepreneurs. It spawned a Facebook group that now has over two thousand members who continue the daily conversation around diversity, business, and women in leadership.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Be embarrassed by what you produce. There’s a great quote by Reid Hoffman, ‘if you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.’ Resist the temptation to wait until your product is perfect to share it. Give yourself a launch deadline, and commit to getting feedback early on. You’ll move much faster when you gather feedback and build towards the things people love about your product, rather than getting hung up on how it looks and works in the beginning with no indication that people will actually use it.
When we first started, we didn’t even have a SaaS app. We would call customers up, offer them a demo of what we had built at the time, and offered to create their courses for them. They would send us their content, and we would build it into an online course for them. Only after showing them how their content could function on our platform did we ask for payment. Doing things this way allowed us to learn what customers did and didn’t want early on, and build towards those needs faster than we could have otherwise.
Put people first. One of the things that have been a driving force of success for Thinkific is putting people first. If you plan on building an app or SaaS company, you’ll need great people. Making the right hires early on will have a big impact on your ability to move towards your goals. We got lucky with some of our earliest hires that the team was willing to roll up their sleeves and do whatever needed to get done. Once you start to grow, you can start hiring for more specialized and niche roles. We take a lot of care in who we hire to make sure that they can not only do the job but are aligned with our values. Building a healthy culture has been pivotal to our success, and keeping people happy is something we put first, above all else.
Leverage market trends. We’ve been very lucky to enter the online course space from a place of passion ourselves and find ourselves in the middle of a convergence of major trends driving this industry. These trends are the rise of the entrepreneur, an increased interest in people starting their own businesses, especially online.
People from all demographics are also now going online as their first place to learn. There is also the changing nature of work and increasing rapidity in which people change careers and seek professional development. There are also more people looking for education after post-secondary seeking self-improvement in all areas of life like fitness, crafts. It’s the convergence of these things that we see driving a massive tidal wave of success for people who go and create online course business. Anyone with a skill or expertise and monetize their knowledge through courses.
Whatever industry you’re in, look around to see if there are any changing trends that you can tap into and use to your advantage as you build your business.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
One of the main business tools we use is Thinkific. We use it both internally and externally. Internally, we use it for employee onboarding, ongoing training for our team and sharing resources. Externally, we use it to train our customers to teach them what’s involved in building an online course or membership, and how to use our software.
On top of that, we spend in excess of $100K per month on SaaS tools to run our business. There are hundreds of business tools that we use from productivity and planning to marketing and product development. For example we use Jira for product development, Asana for project management, and Slack for internal communication between teams.
Thinkific integrates with hundreds of other apps – some directly through the API and some through Zapier – where we connect with other tools for marketing, content creation, and business tools including Shopify where you can sell your physical goods alongside your digital course products.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I’m a fan of Jim Collins, particularly his books, Good To Great, Great By Choice, and Turning The Flywheel. These are an excellent look inside really successful companies and how they operate differently from their less successful competitors.
I find a lot of value in John Lee Dumas’ podcast, Entrepreneurs on Fire. Their show touches on everything from offering great business advice and inspiration as an entrepreneur, to providing total transparency around how they run their own business.
I also recommend Todd Herman’s book, The Alter Ego Effect. It’s a great resource for parents and entrepreneurs who are looking to show up well on their chosen field of play.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Start with product-market fit
My first piece of advice is to start with ensuring you have product-market fit. If you don’t have this, you’ve failed before you’ve even gotten started. Often I see people jumping headfirst into product development and spending a ton of time and money on paid ads when there’s really no viable product yet to justify those efforts.
You’ll know if you've hit product-market fit when you go from trying to get people to work with you, to not being able to keep up with what your customers want from you. Until you hit this point, keep iterating and talking to users and taking their feedback, looking for a common thread that leads you to an important problem to solve for them. Do not skip or shortcut this step. It will save you a ton of time and resources down the road.
We struggled to do this in our early days. For example in one case, we found a customer who was willing to work with us and even pay a higher price for our product than we had seen before. At the time, we thought we had found our ideal customer and set out to create solutions for their specific use case. But it turned out that there were few other customers who had a need for the exact same solution. Unfortunately, we ended up investing a ton of effort in trying to build and sell a solution that was not a fit for the majority of the market at the time – the sales cycle was far too long and the budget was too small. So we wasted months building products for and calling customers.
Be data-informed. Increasingly, the ability to make decisions and choices based on data and empirical evidence is fundamental in the life of an entrepreneur. People look at leaders like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates and think they pulled great ideas from thin air but in fact, they were fanatic about looking for evidence to inform and support their creativity. Experiment frequently to test your ideas and look to the data to validate your next big move. We currently have a team of data scientists helping us make better-informed decisions, but when we started out we have only a few key data points we looked at each day. You should start looking at product usage data very early on and customer feedback data even before you start building anything, but don’t get obsessed with building more than a few key metrics until you start seeing some real results. Also, it’s important that data is only part of the equation, theories, interpretation of the data and other facts are important too. Data can mislead you if used blindly.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are hiring for a number of roles across Engineering, Sales, Marketing, and Customer Support. While most of our positions are based in our Vancouver headquarters, we have opportunities available for remote work as well and we’ve also helped people relocate from all over the world. The best place to get the details on these roles and stay up to date on new ones is our careers page.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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