Hi, I’m Martin Gessner and I’m the founder of Focus on Force. I started the business in 2015 to help others who are studying for a Salesforce certification.
We sell certification study guides and practice exams to people who are looking to get their first Salesforce certification or continue on their journey by achieving multiple certifications.
Our customers are people who are new to the Salesforce world, those working in various Salesforce-related roles, Salesforce consulting companies that are supporting their team members with further training and education right through to Salesforce architects who are studying for the more advanced certifications on offer from Salesforce.
I started the business in 2015 selling the Admin Certification and now in 2023 we offer certification preparation and training materials for more than 15 certifications, however Admin is still our most popular, as it is usually the first certification that people will attempt.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Back in 2013, I was working for a Salesforce consulting company. I started studying for Salesforce certifications as the certifications were a way to validate and expand knowledge in a particular area of Salesforce.
Salesforce provides an exam outline for each certification. As I was studying, I created notes for each section listed in the outline. My notes expanded with screenshots and examples of topics that were relevant for each section. When I was complete with my notes, I then thought how can I validate that I am ready for the exam?
I then created some flashcards to test myself. After going through this process for a second time, I thought that others were probably facing the same challenge - how do you know you are ready to take the exam? It is expensive both in terms of a financial commitment (e.g. usually $200) and the time to take the test and go to a test center.
Focus on Force started as a blog and having some knowledge of SEO, I looked at the number of searches that Google estimated on Salesforce certification-related keywords. I saw that people were searching for information about the certifications and even for practice tests.
At the time, as I mentioned I was working for a Salesforce consulting company and the blog and the idea for creating study materials was a side project. I didn’t have any background or expertise in creating learning materials, other than being my customer and solving my problem. If what I created worked for me, I thought it would be useful for others.
To validate the idea, I created ‘sample’ exams or ‘quizzes’, a set of questions that users could try. The sidebar was used to position the offer on the home page and the blog pages.
There was already some traffic to the blog, so adding the quiz was a good test to see if there was interest. To my surprise, the sample exams became the most popular pages on the site.
I then had the validation and confidence to improve and add to the content and improve the styling and presentation of the quiz and the results, so that it could be a paid product.
Take us through the process of building the first version of your product.
The first version of the Focus on Force platform was just configuring and assembling different standard components and connecting them. For example, configuring Learndash as the learning management system for the Admin Certification by creating courses, lessons, and quizzes.
Connecting Learndash with Paypal for payments and granting course access after the payment is completed. Loading the practice questions into Learndash quizzes and adding the study guide content into Learndash lessons.
Describe the process of launching the business.
It was not expensive to launch this business. As I mentioned, it started as a blog, which only requires a domain name, cheap hosting, and a theme. I did purchase Learndash, a Learning Management system to provide the quiz and lesson structure for the practice exams and study guides.
The first product was launched in January 2015. It was a very low-key launch, with a basic text sales page and a button to allow users to register and pay. I finished adding the sales page in the evening and went to bed. The next morning I clearly remember opening my email and seeing a payment notification from Paypal, I had my first customer.
I also started capturing email addresses via a newsletter signup. I am not sure why I didn’t do that before, Looking back it seems like an obvious thing to do, as soon as the blog had traffic, I could have captured the email addresses of potential customers.
After the product was ‘live’, I was regularly checking my email for payment notifications. As I was based in Australia and most of the users were in the US, I would wake up and would be happy to see a list of payment notifications in my inbox. The sales continued at a steady pace, which gave me the motivation to keep improving the product.
We should not rely on one platform to support so much of the business, or at least have a backup plan.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
To attract customers, we continued content marketing and also focussed on ranking for the main Salesforce certification keywords. Before starting Focus on Force, I had run an SEO business so knew that it was important to set up the site structure for the long term, to rank for the keywords that would bring the most valuable traffic for the business.
We also engaged with the community and interviewed people about their career journey and their experience studying for Salesforce certifications.
Word of mouth is very strong in the Salesforce community and so our customers provided us with a lot of referrals both online and offline. I can remember I was at a Salesforce conference in 2017 and was sitting in a huge ballroom in Las Vegas with the other attendees. I was seated at a large round table and someone said ‘Hey, have you used Focus on Force? It’s a great resource for Salesforce studying…’. I didn’t say anything but watched as others around the table picked up their phones and started googling and checking out the site.
I then moved to another table and my surprise the same thing happened. There were 1000 people in the ballroom and the word was getting around about Focus on Force. I went back to my hotel room to check on the server, and found it was getting overloaded with website traffic and sales!
We also engage in Salesforce and community events. If we cannot attend the event then we would look to sponsor the event or provide our products as giveaways or a special discount for the event.
To bring customers back, we have our monthly newsletter, in which we highlight our articles, new products, and any sales we are running. We were constantly asked by our customers when we would be adding study materials for another certification.
So our initial 1 certification turned into two then three and now we are covering 15 certifications.
There won’t be an immediate payoff, you need patience to see results and success.
Email marketing is one of our most important marketing channels. As soon as we announce a new product in an email we will start to get sales for it. Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales are our most popular event of the year and we provide the details in our emails.
Initially, we didn’t do paid advertising that was added later, Google, Facebook, and Instagram advertising. We have had some success with it, however, our biggest traffic source has remained organic SEO traffic and customers visiting our site after reading our newsletter.
We didn’t put a lot of effort into social media in the early years, but we were constantly mentioned on LinkedIn. People would share their success and mention us. This helped our word-of-mouth referrals and our following grew. We also saw good results from posting our articles and content on LinkedIn and engaging with people there.
We also launched a point system to retain customers. They could earn points by engaging on the platform or by sharing on social media.
We also started a B2B offer. There is a large market of Salesforce Consulting Companies that have teams of people who need to get certified.
We were regularly contacted by users telling us that they had purchased our products individually and wondered if we had a corporate offer. We added an option for companies to purchase ‘credits’ that could be distributed to their teams.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today we have developed systems and processes to add more certifications to our platform efficiently. We have expanded from covering just one certification to 15 and growing. We have also added other types of training courses such as ‘readiness’ which helps our users prepare not only for the technical aspect of taking an exam but the mindset and approach to time management.
Our users are still asking us to add more courses and cover more certifications. Salesforce is always expanding and acquiring new companies e.g. some of the bigger acquisitions are Mulesoft, Slack, and Tableau which means there is an increasing base of customers and opportunities to add more training materials.
We are constantly adding more features to the platform. In the beginning, our study materials were more of a reference and our practice questions were a static list. Now we have added interactive features like study goals, study plans, mind maps, question banks, personalization, and gamification to make learning a more interesting experience.
In 2022 the business was acquired by K2 Partnering Solutions. Joining forces with K2 University provided us the opportunity to expand the breadth and type of training we can provide to assist everyone from those entering the Salesforce community to experienced professionals.
It gives us the network, infrastructure, and support we need to continue the growth and do more of what our customers love.
I am still part of the Focus on Force team, enjoying seeing our platform and content expand with the collaboration of K2.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
We have had growing pains as many other businesses have. As we got more and more traffic to the site, our website hosting sometimes could not cope. This would result in downtime and unhappy customers, which is understandable as they were preparing for an upcoming exam! I guess the learning here is to always be thinking about the next stage of growth and what would be required to be prepared for that.
Being proactive instead of reactive. In our case, we eventually moved our hosting to a more powerful and suitable hosting environment, but it would have been better to have done that before we had the downtime emergencies.
There was a period when I would wake up in the morning, hoping that I would not see emails from customers complaining that the site was slow or unavailable.
Business is a team sport! Hire and add people to the team as soon as practical. But when adding people, make sure that the job descriptions are clear and the processes documented to allow them to succeed.
It is a great feeling when the team is working well and the business is operating smoothly due to it being clear who does what and each team member knows their role and can work independently and in the team.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Thrive Architect also allowed us to improve the presentation of our content. Here are some screenshots of how the content looked prior to Thrive Architect and what it looks like now.
We were using PayPal as the payment processor without a shopping cart until we finally added WooCommerce in 2019. Until then, customers could just purchase one item at a time through Paypal. Once we added WooCommerce, our sales increased significantly as customers could add multiple items, and we could offer bundle discounts and sales.
To manage the content and workflow, we use Google Drive, Gsuite, Trello, and Salesforce. We built an app on top of a Google sheet using Appscript and integrated that with WordPress.
I remember back in 2020 getting a shock when I got a notification that my Google account had been suspended due to the behavior of our app, probably that it was uploading images to Wordpress, and for some reason, Google found this suspicious.
This was a very scary moment as all of our content was in Google Drive and our workflow app was built in a Google App. I read stories about others who had waited weeks and months for Google to review the case and decide if the account should be reactivated. Was this the end of the business? How could we have avoided this situation?
To my relief, the account was reviewed and reactivated in a few days. This however was a lesson that we should not rely on one platform to support so much of the business, or at least have a backup plan.
We then set out to rebuild our workflow management app in Salesforce. We were teaching others about Salesforce, so it made sense for us to build an app ourselves. We then integrated this app with Google Drive, AWS, and WordPress.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I remember when I was working full time I used to listen to podcasts when commuting - there were a few like smartpassiveincome.com from Pat Flynn, and Super Fast Business from James Schramko. Books like Scale and Traction describe EOS (the Entrepreneurial Operating System).
While reading and listening is great, in-person interactions were also really valuable. I had a couple of business coaches who encouraged me to think outside of the limitations that I had imposed on myself. For example, I had thought it would be impossible to build an app in Salesforce that could manage our complex workflows.
Also meeting other business owners and entrepreneurs offers perspective and motivation. I joined the Dynamite Circle which is an online community of online business owners. It has regular meetups around the world, including an annual conference in Bangkok.
The conference in Bangkok was amazing to meet others at the same level or way beyond and I attended that every year since 2015 taking away inspiration and motivation from hearing the stories firsthand of people who started and grew their businesses.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
My main advice is to start something and ‘focus’ :). Be disciplined and persistent. Keep working on your business consistently, every day. There will be days when you don’t feel like working on it but it’s important to keep momentum.
There won’t be an immediate payoff, you need patience to see results and success. I am reminded of that when I look back at the analytics screenshot and see how the website traffic increased steadily over time, although in the beginning, it seemed like it was not increasing at all.
Where can we go to learn more?
Focus on Force website.
My personal website.
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