This is a follow up story for SI Certs. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published almost 4 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
Hello everyone! Gabe again here with SI Certs. We just passed our 11th year in business in what started as a side hustle for two dudes, now exceeds $1M/year in revenue and we are pushing up towards $2M. You can read our original post with the starter story here talking about our beginnings.
SI Certs is an online test prep and coaching platform helping people get into and advance their careers in the construction inspection field. Honestly, it’s a great alternative to avoid the debt and time burden of college and make good money after passing a few certifications.
Most of our courses are 30+ hours of online training, so they are technical, in-depth, and designed to usher people back into study mode where they may have been out of school for 30 or even 40 years. Often people in construction can have aggressive working schedules or work unusual shifts. SI Certs work in both arenas since a person can study anywhere, at any time.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to. Has the business been growing?
Over the last two years, we’ve been spending time building a new line of courses in commercial inspection. It’s hitting a new market sector, so we’ve got our work cut out for us in advertising the new offerings and getting in front of lots of new people. I think we need to be present at many trade shows, as this feeds the grassroots efforts and lets people know we exist.
We have grown year over year! Thankfully, we haven’t seen a decline, yet. Even through Covid and 2020, where we were about as uncertain as one could be (and was), we saw growth from 2019 to 2020 (44% growth and passed $1M in revenues), and again from 2020 to 2021 (13% growth). The growth slowed down from the pace we’ve been living in, but we’re still very hopeful that we’re not even close to hitting a saturation point or some kind of ceiling.
I’ll take a few minutes to tell you about our Adwords campaign. One of the keys to our success is that we give people buy-in. I’m talking about nearly everyone in our company. Everyone who works for SI Certs makes good money. Our course content developers make great money supporting the courses, looking at their earnings compared to the time they spend supporting their courses. Without divulging specifics, they’re making more hourly than some doctors and lawyers I know.
Essentially, we are structured to share profits out of the gate, so naturally, this incentivizes people to work hard, and want to work for us. This is how we have gotten and kept some very high-level technical people, who excel at everything they do. This means they excel for us!
Back to our Adwords efforts. One of our programmers and marketer runs our Adwords every month. I rarely even ask him about it – he has a pretty free range with his budget (our money), but we give him 10% of the revenue share for anyone who clicks and then buys. He tracks all this stuff and gets paid. We don’t pay him hourly to do this – he works completely on commission. He’s incentivized, as he probably makes around $200/hr. for the time he spends managing, running, and updating. He could be averaging more.
It’s okay to pay people when you are getting paid. If you are not getting paid, you can’t pay people well. If people haven’t proven themselves, this could be a hard pill to swallow. But the lesson is this: People who are good at what they do can get paid well, and they should get paid well This kind of treatment incentivizes key players to keep performing at a high level.
Oh – our programmer Dee built us a nice feature that might be unique to us as an online educational training platform. It’s similar to say Flashcards. It’s a Review interface but based on an educational concept called Spaced Repetition.
When you study, how often do you need to review concepts that you struggled with? How many times, and how much time should pass before you should review that concept again so you don’t lean toward forgetting but rather learning and retaining?
This is what this new feature addresses: keeping track of all the questions a user misses during the study. Then, based on spaced repetition algorithms, showing the user these questions again at the right times so they can refresh when they should, based on educational studies. Our system tracks all this. The user just needs to do the reviews, which means they should never worry about what they should restudy and refocus on in terms of all the assessments. This is big and cool actually. We plan to market this til the cows come home! No one in our space has this.
What have been your biggest challenges in the last year?
The biggest change for us last year was my business partner quitting his day job (July 1, 2021). He’s been threatening to do it for a while, and we knew the time was coming soon. I planned to shift about $100K of ownership to him as he was going to cast aside the day job and solely focus on our company. He was making good money at his day job – on track to exceed $200K for the year. He’s a high performer. But his upside is much greater than that with our company, and he’d be making 1.5 times that basically day one and shedding a 50-hour a week time killer (that’s the day job).
Chris finished building his pool right before he quit his day job;
The challenge then came immediately as we saw our Q3 numbers drop to the lowest we’ve seen in over 2 years, on the heels of him quitting and me moving over ownership! It racked our nerves a bit. Was this a temporary blip, and would we see our numbers return soon? Would they never return and was this our new fate? When you’re running your own business, these thoughts continue to plague your mind as you never know what you’re gonna get!
Thankfully, our numbers returned the next quarter, and in Q1 of this year (2022) we saw the best numbers we’ve ever seen in the company.
So what was going on? We aren’t sure. Maybe all the free money was drying up a bit, and halted us abruptly, even if just for a time. Maybe the summer was just too busy and people didn’t have time to study our training. We don’t know, and we are looking to see what this year’s Q3 does.
Also, everyone has the problem of launching a new product and then having to figure out how to make people aware of it and buy it. But this is synergistic. What I mean is the hardest part is the first product, or when you first launch your business. You do a lot of work and effort to get enough exposure, but then just create another product or service that all your existing clients may want or need. Keep doing this, and the snowball rolls downhill gaining speed and size.
I’d say it took us 6 or so years to get a grassroots presence in the marketplace. Still, a lot of people don’t know about us. But a lot more people do. After about 6 years, we’d run into people in other states who had either used us or even just heard about us. This lets us know that we had a market presence, and in one sense, we truly made it. That was 6 years of word of mouth advertising and ranking in SEO search engines. We could be found, that the competition was low, and the product was solid and unique. Over time, it seemed to work itself out in terms of exposure and trust in our company.
Here is a chart of our traffic growth since 2018;
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
So what have we learned this year? Would it be crazy if I said to have more trust in a higher power, something other than just ourselves and our cumulative efforts? I wouldn’t be completely transparent if I left that out. We all know someone who has worked a day in and day out to try and build something that makes money, but even good efforts alone aren’t an easy recipe for success.
When we went through our worst dip in 2 years, to remain composed and not make knee-jerk or poor decisions, we placed more trust in God. I can see how this helped us think clearly, and see some things a little differently, I see more wisdom emerging in my own life, and this eventually settled in us an underlying peace through uncertainty, and through what would normally produce lots of anxiety!
I could easily say “Don’t make hasty decisions,” but this is just an overly-simplistic response.
So what else have we learned? I just finished building our family’s dream home. Building a house was probably the most stressful thing we’ve ever done. 100s of decisions, worrying about things going wrong and seeing the cost of materials skyrocket faster than you can finish. It’s rough! But, we’re done and moved in.
What did I learn? The building process revealed some things about myself that weren’t great (a new level of impatience, wanting everything to be perfect, and taking things out on people who were just working hard). Does this have a parallel to business perhaps??
But through this, I saw these things and decided to correct course. This made me a better person in the end, even though it was humbling and a bit of hell to go through. It made me a better leader for the company.
Concurrently, this was also one of the most exciting things that happened to my family last year!
Here’s my dream theater! HBO Max has taken this place to some new heights!
Here’s the wife and I taking a few more vacations. There’s some sweat equity for you;
Here’s me on another vacay with the family in Vegas, trying to rep my buddy's family coffee bean roasting business (Red Beard) so I can get on his website!
Here’s my 9-yr. old son beating me at chess;
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
We’ve had our eyes opened in a couple of ways regarding our ability to make money. We now have built a really large audience, so why stop at training courses? Why not create a place for companies to, say, advertise hiring positions and we charge them for the post? The timing might be ideal for this with the general labor shortage we are seeing. But, we’re going about this a little differently. Allow me to explain.
We’re offering two methods for posting: Paid, and Free. Well, how do you get Free?? You become a Trade Partner with SI Certs, which means you’re company branding is also advertised on our homepage. With this position, you can post job listings for free on our Job Board.
Okay, so how do you become a Trade Partner? Well, you have to buy X amount of our training courses every year. Each year of meeting this purchase threshold requirement qualifies a company to remain as a Trade Partner, and have the benefit of posing free job apps for their company.
So what’s the paid version? Well, if you’re not a Trade Partner and don’t want to be, this is fine. You’ll pay us something like $500/mo. to advertise. With this, you get any number of postings as well, so it’s a good deal that way, too.
In terms of efforts, now that we have the exposure, this should be an easy way to provide our customers with more value, and another service that generates income. We’re still working out the details on this and I hope it pans out!
I did say a couple of ways, and the other is possibly repurposing our existing training into smaller doses and selling that. We have some technical challenges with this – mainly, exporting what we have, from the format we have, into a format that can be used by the group who is asking us for this. It’s a trial thing for sure, but if it opens up a new revenue stream, this is great! More exposure, even if they do not immediately jump in sales right out of the gate. There is value in the brand presence and our awareness in the marketplace. People need to see we are being used and are affiliated with big organizations. Also, this is simply creating more things to sell to our existing customer base. And building in incentives and perks, such as the Job Board and free opportunities! You definitely can’t be afraid to give stuff away for free.
What’s the best thing you read in the last year?
Honestly the Bible, and not as fulfilling some moral obligation or to look religious, or as a religious duty. I don’t care about any of that. It just hits so many different avenues of life, and of course, it spills out into how Chris and I run the business and how we approach various opportunities.
Other books? I’d rather read for entertainment, more than for knowledge and growth for our business! If you’ve read some good books let me know! I’ve taken up learning the piano though!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
It’s crazy how a day job can get in the way of success! Until the business supported my family, I couldn’t quit my day job. (And I loved my day job – it was the best place I’d ever worked.) But when you’re working 45-50 hours a week, you don’t have much time to do anything else, let alone work the efforts you need to grow.
But don’t quit your day job in the hopes of making more money. Is that super obvious? I hear it being discussed. I’ve said this before, but seek to really solve a problem, not just invent a clever way to make money, and success will follow if it does solve a problem. I think the true desire to solve a real problem is the impetus for something great!
Sometimes the ideas don’t stop, because this is the way your brain works as an entrepreneur. My advice here is that if you start to see success in one area, think long and hard before you take on a second and third idea. Focus on what is successful, for greater attention, possible results, and success. This kind of thing can be hard to let go of. Relationships are much better than money, so don’t end up forfeiting them in pursuit of it.
Also, don’t take yourself too seriously. Believe in people, encourage them, and inspire them.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
SI Certs has provided an update on their business!
Over 2 years ago, we followed up with SI Certs to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Over 1 year ago, we followed up with SI Certs to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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