Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! My name is Zack Hall. I’m a software developer, and I’m the founder of SketchUp For Woodworkers, an online course teaching woodworkers how to use 3D design software. This was a project that grew from scratching my itch. In my spare time, I joined a makerspace near my home in the suburbs of Boston to start woodworking.
Woodworking was the perfect hobby for me because it is the exact opposite of software development. Software moves quickly and you continue iterating and testing until you get it right. If you move too quickly while woodworking, you will make mistakes. But there’s no Control+Z to undo. This led me to want to learn to design my projects in 3D before I started cutting.
Fast-forward and I ended up acquiring an old website and setting out to build the woodworking design tutorials and resources I wish I’d had when I was getting started. After launch, it is currently earning about $1k/month.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
When I started trying to learn how to create woodworking plans, I started just as any other person today would: Google. And when I was searching for SketchUp tutorials related to woodworking or furniture, one site kept popping up over and over. It had a great set of complete tutorials, but they were made for an incredibly old version of the software from 2009. But they were still the best resource explaining how to use SketchUp’s tools for woodworking. And I did some research with SEO tools like ahrefs and saw it was still getting a lot of traffic.
I saw the potential in the site. I couldn’t help but think that I’d love to update this and make it relevant to woodworkers today. I looked at it as the digital version of flipping a house, but with a lot less capital needed upfront. And I felt that I had just the right set of skills/interests to help grow this: I have a lot of experience in software, I know how to build websites, I am a woodworker, and I’m a photographer/video editor.
My advice for would-be entrepreneurs is to consider purchasing an existing website. If you have the skills to improve and market a website, this can be a great start.
So eventually I found the website owner’s email and worked up the courage to email him and ask him if he’d sell. To my surprise, I got a response. After a little negotiation, he agreed to sell the site for $5,000. I was nervous about the price because although it was getting a lot of traffic through organic SEO it wasn’t earning anything today. So I had very little basis for a valuation. But I decided to just take the risk and go for it.
Take us through the process of designing your course.
After acquiring the website, the plan was to sell a new course that would teach a woodworker all the basics they needed to understand in SketchUp to design their project, create a plan and a cut list, and print it to take with them to the shop.
It turned out to be a slow-moving process to get the new course up. I started by creating and recording the content myself. But I had a lot of self-doubts. Yes, I had become very good at this software but who was I to charge someone for a course? After all, I’m not a professional woodworker. And most of my online presence is around my work as a web developer or photographer, not my woodworking. So I didn’t have established credibility.
If you have a unique set of skills for building and growing websites, you can use that to grow a web business.
Then, I was at the Rockler woodworking store one day and saw a book title that sounded very similar to my website name: SketchUp Success for Woodworkers. I bought and read the book. And afterward, I reached out to the author David Heim and asked him if he’d be interested in helping me out. After chatting with him and sketching out the vision, I knew that his experience would create the best product and course for customers. So I ended up contracting with him to create the course videos.
Describe the process of launching the course.
While the course instructor was creating the videos, I focused on setting up the website and platform. Though I’m a web developer, I wanted the website to be easy to maintain. I’d research nearly every course platform you can think of. But they had too many drawbacks; most commonly they were not easily customizable or they were just too expensive.
After a while, I decided to roll out my online course platform so I had full control. This allowed me to fully customize the design, manage members/costs, and control the SEO. But I used a couple of key tools to help simplify that. I used a static website generator (Eleventy) and a member management plugin (Memberstack). The best part is that this kept the ongoing costs very low.
With regards to SEO, we had two things to think about. First, don’t break the existing SEO. The site already had some initial authority in Google. So when redesigning and relaunching, we needed to make sure that we didn’t break that. Make sure that we didn’t break old links, that we retained important page headers, etc.
The second goal was to improve on our existing rankings. This is mostly a manual process. I use Ahrefs tooling a lot for two primary goals: identify adjacent keywords and identify potential new backlinks. From there, it’s a manual process to either write high-quality content for new keywords or to reach out to other site owners to build your backlink portfolio.
After the platform was ready and the videos added, I did a quiet launch. I just flipped the switch one evening from the old site to the new one hoping to capture the organic SEO traffic and get feedback. Within 24 hours I had the first sale!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Believe it or not, I still haven’t worked on growing the audience of the course. The site and the sales have been entirely driven by organic SEO traffic. Since the relaunch, it has been noticed and we have gotten some additional backlinks which always helps.
I’ve been solely focused on building the very best resource for woodworkers on the topic and improving the experience for existing customers. This has been through reaching out to talk to customers, surveys, site improvements, adding transcripts, including references to the keyboard shortcuts used in the video.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Just now I am starting to look at additional ways to market the course. I intend to do this with a few different marketing strategies. The plan is to focus on:
- SEO: It is the core of our customer acquisition today. I plan to put a lot of effort into content marketing making the best online resource on the topic online today. This will help the course to expand to add relevant keywords as well as improve in some others.
- Affiliate program: Many online woodworking vloggers and bloggers today share or sell downloadable woodworking plans. Often, these plans are for SketchUp. So I’m planning on creating an affiliate program for woodworkers to include a link next to their plans. This will help us both. We will sell courses and share the profit with the affiliate. And the affiliate’s customer may now be able to buy/use their woodworking plans.
- Video Marketing/Remarketing: I’m currently working on plans to create relevant SketchUp design videos for social media platforms like Facebook and remarketing customers who engaged with that content.
The business is profitable because the ongoing costs are very low. A single sale each month will cover the business's fixed costs. The ongoing costs are:
- Hosting: Static-website hosting has become very cheap or even free from many providers. I have a Netlify Pro plan because I use Netlify to host many sites, not just this one. But were it not for that, their free plan would be more than sufficient.
- Member management software through Memberstack: This has an ongoing cost of $15/month for their basic plan and takes a small percentage of the course sale.
- Payment processing with Stripe: This has no fixed cost, so you only pay if you are making sales. But it also takes a small percentage of the course sale.
At the time of this writing, we average almost one sale per day but are growing as our SEO improves.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The biggest mistake that I made was waiting too long to relaunch after I’d purchased the site. There was a little over a year between when I acquired the site and when I relaunched. This was partially due to not setting tight personal goals, indecision (over which platform to use, whether I should record videos, etc.), and partly due to Covid happening.
But as I’d mentioned, the content on the site was old. And due to this, it started to lose some links and traffic while the new site was in the works. It has since regained most of that and we’ve reversed course, but I lost some potential customers in that time.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I rolled out my course platform using a handful of tools. I kept it intentionally simple to reduce costs and make it very easy to maintain. But I used:
- Eleventy, a static website generator.
- Memberstack, for member management and showing course content only to students.
- Stripe, for payments.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
For anyone interested in SketchUp, I always recommend two books:
- SketchUp Success for Woodworkers, the book written by David Heim, the instructor of my course.
- Illustrated Cabinetmaking. This book is an encyclopedia of different furniture drawings. If you want to design your furniture, it’s always a great reference to get started with.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
My advice for would-be entrepreneurs is to consider purchasing an existing website. If you have the skills to improve and market a website, this can be a great start. For one, it gives you focus. Starting out, you have all these ideas and it’s hard to choose one to focus on. By purchasing an existing website, it has already found a target audience. And this will force you to focus on that audience’s needs. And secondly, it will give you a head start in SEO.
As I mentioned earlier, think of it as the web expert’s version of flipping a house. If you have a unique set of skills for building and growing websites, you can use that to grow a web business.
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