Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello, I’m Gabriel Kramer, a co-founder and the CEO of SI Certs. We sell online test prep courses to construction inspectors who want to pass important certification exams. Our courses include custom tutoring support through Intercom chat.
Currently, we help people pass the Certified Welding Inspector (CWI) exam by the American Welding Society (AWS) and the Special Inspection exams by the International Code Council (ICC). We’re also in the process of creating courses for other exams including the Commercial Building Inspector exam.
We made around $45,000/month in revenue last year. Based on first quarter revenue, we’re probably going to make around or more than $60,000/month this year.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I co-founded SI Certs in 2011. I had been working as a Special Inspector for six years. A Special Inspector is a type of construction inspector. To advance in the special inspection industry, you have to pass exams to earn certifications. Your earning potential increases as you get more and more certifications.
Looking back, the biggest lesson from the beginning is that small starts can turn into something huge. If you’re patient and work hard every year, you can reap great rewards in the future.
I started the company because I felt I had enough experience and certifications to teach others the inspection trade. Also, I held a bachelor’s degree in journalism and taught high school for a few years after graduating. While teaching, I took classes online at the University of Phoenix and received a master’s degree in education. I thought my degrees would give me a competitive edge in creating useful online courses.
I got into the special inspection field because I burned out from teaching. The low pay and lack of support from the administrators had me looking for a new job. My cousin told me about special inspection and helped me get an entry-level job.
Because of my college experience, I was already used to studying for tests so I kept that habit going in my new career. In the first year, I studied for and passed several certification exams. By the end of the year, I was making more than I did as a teacher.
In 2011, the test prep courses were done in a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom setting. There were only a few of them in the country so people had to drive hours or fly and rent hotel rooms to take a course. Plus, the courses were expensive because the companies had large overhead costs from renting or owning a building.
By delivering courses online, I didn’t have to worry about renting a classroom. Therefore, I could sell courses at a much lower price. Plus, online training is much more convenient. My students would not have to travel long distances and they could learn on their own schedule.
I had a decent online learning experience with the University of Phoenix and I felt like that type of experience could also work with special inspection training. Therefore, I registered the domain sicerts.com and started working on the first course. I named the site SI Certs because “SI” is short for Special Inspector and “Certs” is short for certifications.
Take us through the process of building the product.
Today we have 11 courses but when we were just starting out, I focused on creating the first course. I targeted the most popular Special Inspector certification exam, Reinforced Concrete. It took me around nine months to create the course.
The course was 11 modules, or lessons, long. After each module, I created quiz questions to help people evaluate how well they understood the material. Also, I included a practice test at the end of the course.
I spent around 10 hours each week working on the course. Most of that time was during the weekend since I kept my full-time job. I was responsible for course creation but from the start, SI Certs has always been a team effort.
I gave a good friend, Dee, 20% equity to do online marketing. My older sister, Carmen, drew custom illustrations so I gave her 10% equity. Then, I gave another friend, Chris, 10% equity to do the web design. That left me with 60% of the company.
The only funding I did was paying Dee’s brother $2,200 to program the site. He hacked Wordpress to create an e-learning platform and he used PayPal to take payments.
All five of us worked on the company remotely and part-time since we all had day jobs.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I didn’t know how big SI Certs could get and I was thinking long-term so we really didn’t have a launch. We just put up the website and waited for people to show up and buy.
Here’s a screenshot of the initial site.
That was seven years ago so the site may look dated. However, Chris’ site design actually looked modern compared to our competitors. They had sites that looked like they came from 2006. It’s hard to quantify the branding advantage you get from having a modern design, but I believe Chris played a major role in building our brand from the beginning.
When I consider how small the company was in the beginning, I’m still amazed that we made over half a million last year.
Dee was able to get some decent links from guest posting. Our competitors had not invested in link building so we were able to get good rankings pretty quickly.
Still, it took about two years before we started seeing a lot of customers. We only made $4,865 in revenue the first year and $13,144 the second year. We kept the growth going in the third year when we earned $31,210.
From the start, figuring out the pricing took a lot of trial and error. We had no clue how to do it, and it was difficult to look at what the market was doing and feel good about a price. The few classroom outfits were charging $1,000 or more per course, and classes spanned at least a full week, or drawn out over the weekends for 8-10 weeks. We would have loved to start out that high, but we went the opposite direction and priced our first course at $99 for 90 days of access with email support.
We grew and grew at that price. In year two, we raised the price to $199 and kept the 90 days of access time. The growth did not slow down. So, in year three, we raised it to $299 as another test. We kept seeing growth so we figured we could raise the price one more time. But rather than jump on that right away, we decided to upgrade the course in a major way.
First, we started shipping physical blueprint plans. Aspiring Reinforced Concrete Special Inspectors have to be able to understand these complex documents to pass the exam. In fact, the plans section of the test is where most people fail.
Previously, we were just using screenshots of the plans. By shipping real-life plans, we could justify another increase in price. Our competitors were already using physical plans so we went even further. We inserted teaching notes on our plans. None of our competitors had these useful modifications so we had a big competitive edge. Here’s a sample page of our plans.
We raised the price to $399. We made one more price jump to $449 as we added more courses. The growth continued.
We tried $479 shortly after and felt the interest sliding off a bit, so we returned to $449 and have stayed there today. We think it’s the sweet spot and don’t foresee another increase for several years out.
With pricing, my recommendation is to start small. This helps you attract a large customer base and your low price should lead to good word-of-mouth marketing. Once you have a lot of customers, you should try higher price points and see how the market reacts. We started at $99 but we are fortunate enough to have an audience that is willing to pay $449.
Looking back, the biggest lesson from the beginning is that small starts can turn into something huge. If you’re patient and work hard every year, you can reap great rewards in the future. Anything good and worthwhile comes with sacrifice.
When I consider how small the company was in the beginning, I’m still amazed that we made over half a million last year.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The most important thing we did to attract and retain customers was creating more courses. We got great reviews for the Reinforced Concrete course. Many of our students wanted help passing other special inspection exams.
Therefore, I created a couple more courses over the years. And then I was fortunate enough to meet Matt, another inspector who was also skilled at course creation. Plus, he had a very popular certification that I did not have – the CWI certification. Matt created the CWI course and the rest of the special inspection courses.
Another effective thing we did was create videos for YouTube and embed them on our site. In the first year, we shot seven videos to help people pass a small exam. This exam is smaller than the Reinforced Concrete exam and it’s required to earn the Reinforced Concrete certification. Those videos have gotten many views of the years. Even today, they account for over 20% of our organic traffic of new site visitors.
About a year ago, the ICC added a new exam for people who were brand new to the special inspection field. This was a small exam that covered general requirements. We took advantage of this new development by offering a free course to pass the test.
As far as I can tell, we are the only ones providing this course. Meeting a new need in the industry with a free offer has been great for our business. We’ve seen many people enroll in the free course and we expect many of them to become paying students.
It has helped a lot that our competitors in special inspection still have not done any serious link building. Therefore, we’ve been able to get organic traffic pretty quickly with all of our special inspection courses.
Also, we’ve written articles about the special inspection industry. These articles have gotten a decent amount of traffic because of the link building advantage we have over our competitors.
The competition for CWI test prep is much tougher so we’ve had to work hard to get good rankings in that field. What’s worked for us has been building links by replying to media requests on HARO (Help a Reporter Out) and writing articles that target important keywords.
For articles, you can use Google’s Keyword Planner tool to discover good keywords in your industry. For example, we typed in “certified welding inspector cwi” in the tool. We got back “how to become a cwi” and “cwi exam pass rate” so we wrote these articles based on those keywords:
Your articles don’t have to be long to do well on Google but they should be very useful. Google looks at user behavior to determine rankings. If people are spending time on your site reading your articles and not clicking the back button right away, you will get higher rankings. But if your articles are not useful, visitors will click the back button right away and your rankings will suffer.
You may have noticed that the second article above has a video. This is something we want to do more in the future. Video increases the usefulness of your articles because it adds a visual element and many people learn better with video than text.
Last year, we tried out paid traffic with Google Ads. It’s still early to make a definite judgment on its effectiveness but initial results have been promising.
We bring back existing customers through site promotions. Every quarter we usually run a sale and we email our users to tell them about it.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
This is a very relevant question because I recently quit my day job on February 28, 2019. Until then, I had worked on SI Certs part-time. But with our big year last year, I felt it was time for me to work on SI Certs full-time. I’ve gotten busier supporting our growing number of students on Intercom chat and there are a lot of things I think I can do to grow the business with more time on my hands.
It is better to try something and fail miserably than to never try at all. Then, you don’t have to live with the “what if” doubts, and even if you failed, there is so much you can take away from the experience.
I’m going to a few trade shows to promote SI Certs. I believe there is untapped potential with videos. I’m going to create videos to help students navigate the site and to enhance our sales pages. I also want to create drip email campaigns so we can stay in touch with our users.
Within two years, we expect to cross the $1M mark, but who knows what the future holds? We attempt to make projections, but I feel our focus should remain on keeping our training up to date and continually adding the right features that enhance user experience. The money should follow suit. I don’t know where the ceiling is at, but we definitely want to do the one thing that catapulted us to the numbers we’re at: build more training courses.
I’ve recently partnered with five people to create test prep courses in other industries. These courses will be targeting brand new audiences so I am excited about the future of SI Certs.
We’ve grown quickly over the years and we’ve focused so much on course creation and content generation that we haven’t had time to dig into our data and discover our main sales metrics like customer lifetime value. But we’re slowly working on it.
One thing seems to be for sure though. We’re getting a lot of sales from word of mouth. Direct traffic accounts for over 26% of our new visitor traffic and that type of traffic is much more likely to buy than other types of traffic. Therefore, we are trying to figure out how to increase word-of-mouth recommendations. We have to treat people really well, and we do. So they advocate.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I would tell someone that it is better to try something and fail miserably than to never try at all. Then, you don’t have to live with the “what if” doubts, and even if you failed, there is so much you can take away from the experience. Of course, don’t put your family at steep risk with unwise financial decisions. As you can see with my experience, it’s possible to build a big business while continuing to work at your day job. It will take longer but it’s much less stressful.
I also don’t see a lot of value in chasing money just to get rich. I think the better approach is to solve a real problem in the marketplace. I never expected SI Certs to be this big. I was just focused on helping people by teaching them what I learned from my work and test-taking experiences.
If you’re entrepreneurial, you’ve probably thought of a number of business ideas. Ask yourself which one actually provides a great solution to a real problem. And then, ask yourself if you are capable of delivering that solution. We found great success by offering education combined with online delivery in a niche market that hadn’t historically had the combination of both.
Finally, as far as possible, focus on what you’re good at and delegate the rest. What I’m good at is course creation and partnering with other course creators by leveraging my career network. To accomplish the other things like marketing, web development, and web design, I’ve given away equity and hired people.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use Google Docs to collaborate on creating courses and writing articles. We like this tool because it makes it easy to see edits and who made them.
To keep track of tasks that need to get done, we use Trello. This tool has a nice interface. You can quickly see what needs to get done and who is responsible for getting them done.
Since we are a remote company, we use Slack for company-wide communications. Slack is also great because you can hack it to provide useful notifications. Our web developer added notifications of revenue with Stripe, code updates with Github, and task updates with Trello.
In the last few years, we’ve been using Intercom chat to provide custom tutoring to our students. This tool has been convenient for them and us because they can ask for help within the course. They don’t have to take the extra step of opening their mail program and sending an email. Plus, Intercom provides great features for keeping the chats organized.
Intercom has been great for non-students too. After someone signs up to the site, they get immediate access to the chat. They can ask us questions before buying and we’re able to sell to them.
Whenever we have a sale, we use Intercom to email our users about it.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
As I thought about this, the truth is really that I found the most inspiration from the people I’ve brought on board to build the company. Chris, my founding partner, always has strong business sense and a solid foundational approach to everything we do. He was my first inspiration. My sister, another founding person, was my second biggest cheerleader and advocate. My wife was my first, and both of them fueled my fire.
Dee, my longtime friend since childhood, inspires me with his knowledge of the marketplace and his forward thinking about education, government, and other topics. We can literally talk for hours at a time and often do so. Matt, who finished our course offerings for special inspection and also gave us CWI, inspires me with his work ethic and commitment to excellence. Stuart, our CTO, inspired me from the outset when he told me he could rebuild our site using a modern web development platform. With our growth, we were having problems with Wordpress so Stuart rebuilt the site in Meteor and Next.js.
The team has been a great influence and I’ve learned a lot from each member.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
My advice is to be patient. Have a multi-year perspective and aim to improve your business every year. I wasn’t making enough to quit my day job until the beginning of 2019. I worked nights and weekends for eight years. It was a major sacrifice for my family, and in the beginning, the light at the end of the tunnel wasn’t so bright. Sometimes I look back and wonder how I even did it for so long.
Also, if you can find good people to work with, don’t be afraid to share profits with them. We’ve been able to partner with awesome course creators and an expert web developer by giving them generous profit share programs.
These types of programs incentivize people to work hard for the company. If the company does well, they see an increase in their paychecks. Plus, the programs lower your risk because they don’t cost you any or much money upfront.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re keeping an eye out for our next web developer. Stuart and Dee both help us in this regard, but we could potentially need another solid person down the road if we undertake one or two significant features.
Also, we’re always looking for good course creators. If you have writing skill and work experience in the construction inspection field, feel free to email me at [email protected]. We offer generous profit-sharing programs.
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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