On Developing An Online Learning Platform For Teachers [2M Traffic Per Month]

Published: February 24th, 2022
Terry Heick
Founder, TeachThought
from Louisville, KY, USA
started June 2012
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I am Terry Heick, and most of my work (at the moment) is in progressive education. I founded TeachThought, a platform dedicated to innovation in education through the growth of innovative teachers. Our ‘products’ are essentially ideas--often in the form of models, strategies, and conceptual frameworks. One of our primary goals (beyond innovation) is to clarify and promote critical thinking and its application in a rapidly changing world.

Though we are a mission-based organization whose currency is social change, our pure revenue growth rate over the last 48 months has averaged to be around 40% annually. This is critical because, for better or for worse, a business model is how good ideas become sustainable projects over time.


What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

Growing up, my focus was on normal (for my neighborhood) stuff--friends, cars, music, video games, and competition of any sort. I grew up poor, and almost everyone I grew up with did as well. You kind of get used to it--and my financial literacy was and is low as a result, I think.

How you frame the world and your values have a direct relationship and once you see the world one way, it can be hard to see it another. I had a friend who would see an abandoned building and think of it as a real estate opportunity but when I look, I see it and wonder who built it and why and what they were hoping to accomplish and how far they got and if it made the neighborhood a better or worse place, and so on.

I don’t like money or business or markets of advertising or really anything related to ‘business.’ I tend not to be very good at it and I’m not interested in it--two factors that I’m sure are related. However, the thought of spending the best years of my life being directed by someone else whose goals diverge from mine doesn’t seem very attractive.

The saying, ‘build your dreams or someone else will pay you to build theirs’ really resonates with me. There are many kinds of ‘dreams’ and the best (from my perspective) aren’t financial but as George Bailey says in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life,’ “(money) comes in pretty handy around here, bub.” So entrepreneurship has kind of been forced on me if you will.

And it hasn’t been all bad.

Eventually, I went to college on an engineering scholarship and got a degree in English mainly by default: I had no idea what I wanted to do but could see very clearly what I didn’t want to do. My dad worked for himself under the umbrella of a larger company and nearly worked himself to death only to barely make it financially. That plus my five years at UPS in college was very clarifying for me.

I did some side writing projects finding out what it even meant to be a ‘writer’ and thought I might try teaching, so I got a Master’s in education and taught middle and high school English. And what I learned was startling: public education is an absolute mess. It seemed to me to be--considering the nature of the work and its goal of intellectually nurturing children--unforgivably bad.

So I started writing about it on a website I made and sharing some of my teaching materials online.’ This was back in 2012 or so. Not long after, for the first time in my life, I started having crushing anxiety problems (which I attribute to the nature of my teaching position at the time) so one day, I found myself out on the sidewalk in front of a grocery store, calling my dad essentially asking for his blessing to ‘quit.’

Though I was an adult with a young child at the time, he and my mother have always been a source of strength for me. My mom couldn’t believe I quit working at UPS years earlier and probably didn’t think I should stop teaching either, but he supported me and gave me the courage I needed--or at least the final little push--to try to monetize my thinking in and around education. So I did.

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

The first several years were hard because I was taking care of a child full-time while my wife worked and also trying to help TeachThought find traction. I also didn’t know what I was doing really (sometimes I still feel that way). People would ask me what TeachThought ‘sells’ and it was always such a strange question to me. I view one’s ‘work’ as a kind of will to affect the world and the people around them in some sustained, compelling way based on a kind of human intimacy and care and affection and when I answered that way, people would pause and say, ‘Yeah, but how do you get your money?”

The answer has generally been ad revenue. Our website gets decent traffic and ad revenue has, usually, allowed me to pay my bills and raise my family. But COVID and the rise of video and over-dependence on organic search and shifting values in education and just a general relative global instability have all motivated me to diversify our revenue sources--and to do so while remaining mission-based.

So a few years ago, we started offering professional development to schools and districts all over the world, which is performing strongly in lieu of COVID challenges. We also started offering some affordable teaching materials, as well as a podcast and newsletter that could be monetized. Since we are small and our overhead has stayed relatively low, this has allowed me to be both conservative in growth and agile in pivots and reactions.

A few years ago, I started developing TeachThought University, an online learning platform for teachers. It’s taken me so long for a couple of reasons. Mental health challenges started becoming significant for me about 10 years ago--first generalized anxiety disorder, then some depression. The depression part is weird--it’s more of a general numbness and overwhelming tiredness than any kind of ‘sadness.’ It makes it difficult to prioritize, focus, and get anything at all done at times in lieu of my remaining incredibly motivated and ambitious.

The second factor that has kept what I anticipate to be the most important development in TeachThought’s history as an organization from being ‘finished’ (i.e., TeachThought University) is my kind of absurd/not-grounded-in-reality standards for quality. The goal should be to give users something that can help them and by focusing on what I ‘want it to look like,’ I’ve lost a lot of time and money. I just have not been able to create it to meet my vision and even with lowered expectations and a ‘just ship it’ mentality more recently, I still have struggled to see it through because--well, it’s just not something I thought fit with our mission in the state that it was in.

(Oh, I forgot to mention that I homeschool four children--by myself, with no curriculum--and that takes more than a little of my attention each day, too.)

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

In the last four months, I discovered meditation and daily practice there have allowed me to make strong progress again. Many days my ideas come out too fast to even write down. I am also obsessive/compulsive and that has both helped and hurt the growth of the organization as well. As an entrepreneur, it can be very difficult to separate yourself from your work--especially when you’re a one-person show.

Though uncertain because of the global ‘state of things’ from COVID to the hyper-polarized politics in the US, as well as technology changes like the Google Core Vitals update, the elimination of third-party cookies, GDPR, shifts to audio and video, big data, etc., TeachThought seems to have a strong enough brand and sufficiently diverse revenue to be able to expand into new markets as they surface.

Our costs have risen some, but much of that is me experimenting to keep up with changing consumer expectations. In a pinch, I could reduce operating costs to a few hundred dollars a month and survive.

Our traffic continues to grow. We are right around 2 million pageviews a month--sometimes a little lower, sometimes as many as 3+ million--and that is with me doing everything: writing, social, SEO, projects, budget, books, etc. If I ever decided to bring someone on to help, our growth could even be stronger but our overhead and general ‘risk’ increases as well. I like the concept of ‘staying small and being the best’ in your chosen market or niche. If I ever see that we’ve (ironically) outgrown that concept, I’ll change,

We currently have a following of around 150k or so on Facebook and Twitter--again, with no real social ‘voice’ and not nearly enough consistency because I frankly don’t have the time.

The immediate future of TeachThought is entirely focused on growing TeachThought University. The success of TeachThought.com has at times hindered the growth of our ideas and mission because I have to worry about page speed, Ux, ads, SEO, caching, time on page, bounce rate, and dozens of other factors that all force me to prioritize the speed of the website weight against ad revenue instead of clarifying the best ways to package our ideas that make them accessible so that teachers can grow. TeachThought University is designed to address these problems.

In the short run, that has to launch while I continue to create text, audio, and video content.

In the medium run, TeachThought University has to assert itself--both relative to TeachThought.com as well as in its market space as well--to drive scalable growth moving toward 2025.

Long-term, I’d love to see TeachThought become a kind of school model (like Montessori schools, as one example) that is usable anywhere in the world to improve local communities and human growth.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

The biggest lesson I’ve learned--that has both helped me at times and cost me when I didn’t do it--is the ‘just ship it’ mindset. Don’t overthink things because you never know what you don’t know and the best way to learn is to make mistakes rather than anticipate them. There are exceptions, of course, but broadly speaking, plan less and do more.

Listen more than you talk. Read a lot. Get data from social media--trends, ideas, markets, and competition--then, as much as possible, stay off of social media and focus on your business.

Also, listen to your harshest critics and learn from them. And don’t do so emotionally. They’re often ‘wrong’ or, at best, cynical and rude, but sift through what they say and find what they’re right about to protect yourself from those kinds of ‘truths’ in the future and strengthen your business.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

My main tool is, of course, WordPress. We use cloud storage, research tools like Google Scholar and Academia.edu, social media sharing software like Buffer, and bookkeeping software like QuickBooks. I also use Upwork at times, as well as a developer to help me out when things break and I can’t fix them.

I have generally tried to avoid tying our success to one platform or tool though WordPress is an exception, I suppose.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

The biggest outside influence on TeachThought has probably been Wendell Berry and his writing. The Art of the Commonplace, for example, changed my life when I read it and helped me clarify who I was and by extension, what I wanted TeachThought to ‘do’ and ‘be.’

Also, Grant Wiggins and Understanding by Design and a book called Teaching What Matters Most by Perini and Strong have been useful guidance for my thinking as well. I’ve also enjoyed conversations with Drew Perkins, Director of Professional Development at TeachThought PD, a sister LLC, whose ideas and experience have pushed me in my thinking as well.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Listen more than you talk. Read a lot. Get data from social media--trends, ideas, markets, and competition--then, as much as possible, stay off of social media and focus on your business. See what others are doing that works--both historically and today. Play scenario ‘games’ where you place yourself in certain markets during certain eras in the past and see what everyone else ‘did’ and how they positioned themselves and try to identify what the ‘winners’ market-wise saw coming that the ‘losers’ did not.

While we don’t have traditional ‘employees,’ I do have a lot of paid contract work available in content creation, writing, social media, and more. Anyone interested can email me at [email protected].

Where can we go to learn more?