Hey everyone, on today’s episode we’ve got Greg Smith, CEO of Thinkific, an all-in-one platform for independent experts and entrepreneurs to create, market and sell online courses.
Listen as we discuss how cold calls got Thinkific their first 50 customers, how Greg created an online course that got $10,000 in MRR which allowed him to start Thinkific, the simple funnel that Thinkific uses to grow revenue 30% MoM, and how they saw success by figuring out why people read their content and then monetizing the ‘why’.
Download podcast transcript [PDF] here: How Thinkific Uses YouTube to Organically Drive 3-4K a Month in Additional Revenue TRANSCRIPT
Time Stamped Show Notes:
- 00:57 – Eric introduces Greg to the program
- 01:15 – Greg shares his background and a brief history of Thinkific
- 01:25 – Greg launched his first online course 10 years ago
- 01:34 – Also a security and capital markets lawyer
- 01:55 – What inspired Greg to get into online courses
- 02:30 – Got to $10K MRR
- 02:50 – Made Thinkific a full-time gig 5 years ago
- 03:40 – At the end of the day, make your mission about helping others succeed and you’ll succeed
- 04:19 – Thinkific’s differentiators
- 04:35 – Stability, uptime, support team…you name it
- 05:15 – Strong branding and e-commerce agenda as well
- 05:40 – Early course distribution
- 05:53 – A lot of the strategies that worked 5 years ago still work today
- 06:15 – Create great content and link to great tools
- 06:43 – YouTube!
- 07:15 – Give away your best stuff for free
- 07:40 – People go to YouTube to watch free videos
- 09:10 – Getting people to backlink when you have no brand
- 09:55 – Make sure influencers or people with audiences are a part of your content development and your reach will grow
- 10:15 – You can also try Reddit, but you have to be careful
- 11:30 – How Thinkific makes money?—Monthly subscription
- 12:00 – Today, Thinkific is used by more than 20,000 sites and has 23 employees
- 12:19 – Recently had a few Angels get involved
- 12:40 – How Thinkific got its first 50 customers—cold-calling
- 13:10 – Originally a really unscalable method
- 13:43 – If people say no, that’s great
- 14:20 – Current customer acquisition
- 14:32 – Higher level education for potential and current clients
- 15:35 – When you educate customers, they become POWER users which expands reach and reduces churn
- 16:44 – One big struggle in growing Thinkific?—the daily setbacks…death by papercuts
- 17:35 – Learn as much as you can from each little setback
- 17:53 – One big thing that has had a positive impact in Greg’s life?—having a daughter
- 19:00 – If you could go back in time and give your 25 year-old self ONE piece of advice, what would it be?
- 19:06 – Invest in Home Depot, WalMart, Dell, Adobe, etc…also, keep having fun and doing what you’re doing
- 20:15 – Travel the world
- 20:30 – Greg traveled in early 20s, mid 20s, and late 20s
- 21:20 – One BIG change Thinkific has made in the last year?—adding amazing people
- 21:40 – Good hires accelerate EVERYTHING exponentially
- 22:20 – When you’ve passed the 6 person team-mark, read Verne Harnish’s Rockafeller Habits
- 23:15 – The Alchemist, The Lean Start-Up, and Scaling Up
- 23:40 – get.Thinkific.com/growtheverywhere
3 Key Points:
- Adding amazing people to your company will exponentially grow your business.
- Help others succeed and you will succeed.
- Think about why people view your content and then find a way to monetize the why.
Resources from this interview:
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Full Transcript of The Episode
Speaker 1: Do you want to impact the world and still turn a profit? Then you're in the right place. Welcome to Growth Everywhere. This is the show where you'll find real conversations with real entrepreneurs. They'll share everything from their biggest struggle, to the exact strategies they use on a daily basis, so if you're ready for a value packed interview, listen on. Here's your host, Eric Siu.
Eric: Before we jump into today's interview, if you guys could leave a review and a rating and also subscribe as well, that would be a huge help to the podcast. If you actually enjoy the content and you'd like to hear more of it, please support us by leaving us a review, and subscribe to the podcast as well. Thanks so much.
All right, everybody. Today we have Greg Smith, who's the CEO of Thinkific, which is an all-in-one platform for independent experts and entrepreneurs to create, market, and sell online courses. Greg, how's it going?
Greg: It's great, Eric. Thanks for having me here.
Eric: Thanks for being here. Why don't you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Greg: I work at Thinkific. I'm a founder here. It's on online course platform, as you mentioned, that lets people create and launch online courses. We've been doing this for about four and a half years, and then personally my background, I launched my first online course about ten years ago, and in addition to having that up and running and still going, I've practiced law as a securities and capital markets lawyer for a few years for some of the bigger firms, and also started a few other tech and non-tech companies and been involved in a few other startups. I'm a father, and I love kiteboarding.
Eric: Awesome. Great. We'll have to talk about kiteboarding in a second. Take us back ten years. Why did you decide to start doing online courses? What did you sell exactly? How did you do?
Greg: I was just getting into law school. I was as a side job teaching some classes on actually how to get into law school, or more accurately, how to take the LSAT, the Law School Admissions Test. My students were asking for a bit of extra information, so I put together a little blog. People liked it. It wasn't anything amazing in terms of the viewers or the visitors, but that led me to an idea to create an online course, so I put that up and it took off and did really well and then we just kept building on top of it. That really led to the whole interest in the online education space.
Eric: Got it. Just to give the audience an idea, I read somewhere that you managed to get to $10,000 in monthly recurring revenue. Is that about right?
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Greg: Yeah, and it's actually continued to grow significantly from there, and the surprising thing to me has been that I basically ... Before we started Thinkific, so about five years ago, I gave myself six weeks to just touch up things on the course that hadn't been done that we always wanted to fix, because it was always a side project. It was never a full time gig, so we gave ourselves six weeks to touch it up. My brother and I did everything that needed to get done, and then we started Thinkific full time. Since then, so almost five years, I haven't touched it and it just continues to grow, so it's been a pretty amazing opportunity to pay the mortgages and allow me to do other things, like create and build Thinkific without having to worry about cash in the early days.
Eric: Awesome. Most people would be like, "If I made $10- or $20K a month recurring, I'd just go around traveling the world and not have to worry about working." What inspired you to start Thinkific?
Greg: It was really when my course took off, I started getting phone calls from other entrepreneurs saying, "How did you do this? How can I create my own online courses? How can I do what you did?" So it was really about meeting that need for them and building something for them that would allow them to do what I had done, so it was really mostly about helping other people. At the end of the day, everything I do from the businesses I've built to the teaching I've done, it's all about what I love to do is help other people succeed. Even the course I taught was how to get into law school and become a lawyer for people who really wanted to take that route, and the biggest thing I got out of it wasn't the revenue, it was actually getting those emails and calls back from people saying, "Oh my goodness. I just got into the law school of my dreams. I'm so stoked. Thanks."
Eric: Awesome. There's so many different course platforms out there at the moment. How does Thinkific separate itself from the pack?
Greg: Yeah, you're definitely right. Lots of options. I've heard it compared to drinking from a fire hose I think. I'd say we set ourselves apart in a number of ways. One, we've been around for four and a half years now, and I've been in this space for ten years, so that alone I think sets us apart. There's a lot of people who've come along in the last couple years who are still pretty new to the space. The fact that we've been around a lot longer differentiates us just in terms of the feature set that we've been able to build, the stability of the platform, and the uptime and lack of bugs and all that kind of stuff included within it. Another big one that I think people sometimes pass over when looking at platforms or software is our support team is amazing.
We have a whole team of people here who've built their own online courses, and they're amazing from a customer success side of things, and that's really the biggest feedback I hear from people who try us out after trying two or three other systems is they're just, "Oh my goodness. Your customer support is amazing. I'm so stoked to be working with you guys," because whenever they run into an issue or a question, even if it's nothing to do with our software, we're there to help. Then even within the software we've got a ton of features that you don't see elsewhere. We've got some cool things like a sales widget that allows you to promote your courses all over the Internet, or the
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ability to do voice over top of slides right within our system, and then a ton of stuff around the E-Commerce and a really powerful branding engine that allows you to basically make it look like anything you want.
Eric: I want to switch gears back to what you were doing before we jump back into the product. Back in the day, when you started doing your course, I think a big problem people have when it comes to creating courses is the distribution portion. How did you go about distributing your course in the early days, and how do people do it nowadays?
Greg: It's actually a lot of similar things. Lots has changed, but a lot of the strategies are still fairly similar. The ones that really worked for me in the early days, it was funny. I had a blog and I was writing my 500-word blog post every few days and publishing that, and that did okay for generating some traffic, which led to some sales, but it wasn't as effective as actually creating epic resources or tools for people. I had two or three pages on my site that were really useful tools. One of them was a simple chart of numbers that people would refer to to check their LSAT scores. Another, I actually built a little tool in Flash that was an LSAT proctor where you'd hit a button and it would talk you through the LSAT. But these kind of things I found generated a ton of inbound links and a lot of traffic, and they actually continue to do so today. Into those pages I've built calls to actions to do a free trial of the product or the course, and that led to a lot of conversions.
Another great channel for me was and continues to be YouTube. It's still the second biggest search engine out there. It's plugged right into Google, and if you do it properly, I think I have about twelve videos on my YouTube channel. I have less than a couple thousand subscribers, so nothing amazing that way. Views are getting to be pretty good, but it drives $3- or $4,000 a month in additional revenue just from people searching for and watching a YouTube video and then coming over and buying the course.
Eric: For YouTube, this is all organic. This is not ads, right?
Greg: No, this is all straight organic. It's building out ... My strategy on YouTube is just add a ton of value. Be really honest with people. Give away some of your best stuff for free that they're looking to learn, and then mention that they can get more free videos over at your site. The reason I go with the call to action of, "There's more free videos at my site" is I think anytime you're using social channels, you really have to think. Why is someone on this specific channel? The strategy that works on Facebook won't work as well on Instagram or Twitter or YouTube, and people go to YouTube to watch free videos, so my CTA is always about, "Come over here and watch more free videos." Because I already have the difficulty of getting them to leave one platform to come over to another. I don't want to also have the difficulty of getting them to get out of the mindset of free videos and into some other mindset, so my CTA is always about whatever it is that you're doing. On Facebook, your CTA would probably be about voyeurism or checking out cool pictures or reading your friends' posts or something along those lines.
Eric: Somebody's watching a free video, and then you send them to your site to watch more
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free videos. Then from there, are you telling them to opt in for something, or what does that look like?
Greg: When they get to the site, there are a few free videos they can just watch there, but mostly it's straight to an opt in to take the free trial of the course, where there are some free videos. They watch two or three free videos at a free trial, and then they buy. I'll be honest. It's a simple funnel. I know some great funnel people, and they would laugh at this funnel, but it works. I could definitely jack up my conversion rates with a better funnel, but again, this is something that I stopped working on five years ago, but it still works. People watch the video. They come over. They sign up for a free trial. They watch two or three more videos, and then they buy.
Eric: This is super valuable. Even though it's five years ago, it's still very relevant like you mentioned. I think I want to dive back into another thing that you mentioned. You talked about linking for ... Let's talk about SEO for a second. You mentioned creating content. It was nice. You got some traffic here and there, but when you started to create epic resources or you started to create widgets or tools, that's when you started to generate a lot of backlinks. But I'm curious, because if you don't really have a brand in the beginning, how are you generating these backlinks? How are you getting to link this when nobody's ever heard of it?
Greg: That was an interesting one. I did a few guest blog posts. I shared them with people. I guess it was a little bit easier than to get ranked in Google. Some of these things just happened magically by having it out there for a few months and people referring to it. You get the odd social share, and then very quickly you can move up the ranks, but at the end of the day I think it is, if you had something amazing out there that even if a small number of people find it and they start sharing it, then very quickly things can happen. Currently, nowadays, what we do is you see that process a lot better. If I have a big resource that we've created now at Thinkific, we will make sure that there are influencers and people with audiences that are involved in creating and being a part of that and they're linked to and they're highlighted in.
Then we can share it with them, and often they'll go out and share it with their audiences and that can then go and obviously create a nice network effect of bringing more people in. Then the other thing is you can go and, you have to be careful with this, but you can get into places like Reddit and other communities where you can go and share these things. Reddit's probably the most vicious in terms of promotional stuff, so you usually have to get someone else to share it and then you just stay the hell away from it or you'll get banned, but you can go and share these things in communities like that and that can be at the start of your backlinking strategy.
Eric: Awesome. Just to let the audience know, Reddit is offering a new feature now where basically you can promote posts that ... Let's just say Thinkific is killing it on Reddit. You can actually go in there as a Thinkific advertiser and just push that post even harder. I think that just came out last week, so you guys can take advantage of that if you find a way to make Reddit work for you.
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Greg: Excellent. That's great. I didn't actually know about that, so I'll have to take a look at that. I'm always fearful doing anything promotional in there. Usually we just sort of mention what we've created to other influencers who maybe are big on Reddit, and then they can choose to share it if they want. Anything beyond that I find sometimes you just get lambasted on there for being promotional.
Eric: True, true. It happened to me many times.
Greg: [crosstalk 00:11:11] where an influencer on Reddit shared our post, and then a couple days later one of our team saw that it was trending. They hawked in and made a comment on it. Boom. Everything was shut down. They tore us apart.
Eric: That sucks. I know how that feels. Going back to Thinkific, how do you make money? How do you charge, and how does everything work?
Greg: We charge a monthly subscription fee. We do have a free plan. It's freemium. People can hop in, build courses, sell courses, do all of that for free for forever, and then if they want to upgrade, they get some additional features, and they do that on a monthly plan. Those range from $39, $49 a month to $79, $100 a month. We have a few higher level, more enterprise level plans, but mostly people are on the $100 a month range. That's our primary revenue model there.
Eric: How's the company doing today? What are some numbers you can share?
Greg: Happy to. I think we're over 20,000 sites using us now. We've got 23 staff. We're profitable, and revenues and customer base is growing about 30% month over month and has been consistently for a year or two now.
Eric: Are you guys venture backed?
Greg: No, we're not actually. We recently had a few angels get involved, but that was not actually through need of financing. It was actually more that they're just amazing people that with some really good connections and some amazing ... They're all founders of their own companies that are much, much larger than ours, and so I wanted them involved so they could share their advice on the successes they've had. They have some specific domain expertise, so that was great to get people like that involved.
Eric: Awesome. Let's go to the early days. How did Thinkific get its first, let's just say, 100 customers?
Greg: That's a good one. First 50, I called them personally. We just looked around. We found people, called them up, and I got on the phone with them, talked through what they were looking for. Even the first five, it was almost like more of a real sales cycle of a lot of work, and then after that we figured things out and it was phone calls. That was the first 50, and then the 50 after that, it was more emailing them and then the odd Skype chat with some of them. I started really unscalable methods. Initially it was a lot of work to find someone, email them, get a phone number, set up a call, get on the call, maybe
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get on three calls with one person before they really got using it. That was the first 50 customers, and then we started to make it a little bit more repeatable and scalable from there, and we slowly iterated from hard work, nonscalable, phone calls and sales processes over to a lot more automated and even retargeting and ads and things like that.
Eric: There you go. The hand-to-hand combat, that customer development. That's gold, right?
Greg: Yes. You learn so much in those phone calls, and if people say no, that's great because you can run ads or blog posts or post links all you want and have a whole bunch of people come through and not use your product, and you don't know if it's because you've got a bad landing page or a bad call to action, or they just don't like your product or your feature set, or maybe they would love it but there wasn't enough education on your site to show them what it did. But if you get on that phone and someone says, "You know, I'd love to use your system, but you just don't have this," okay, there you go. Your question's answered. Now you know what to do.
Eric: Perfect. We talked about early day customer acquisition. What's one thing that's working really well for you guys right now in terms of customer acquisition?
Greg: We do a ton of stuff, but if you want to get it in one thing, I'd say I'm actually seeing this across the SaaS universe that the companies ... Not everyone is doing it well. Not everyone is doing it at all, but the ones that are doing really well are doing a higher level of education for their potential clients and existing clients. This involves not just ... It's table stakes now to have a support database or a help center of articles that show people how to use your product, and even the odd course on how to use your product, but what I'm seeing people do a really good job of and say, Hootsuite is a good example of one doing this is they're actually creating education around how to be successful in their entire sphere of influence. They have training and education on how to use their product, and we have that too, but we also do courses and training for how to be successful in our space.
Even if you're not using our product, you can learn all about how to be successful with online courses and online education through sort of a university that we run, and then that can potentially convert you into a customer, but even if it doesn't, it's creating a buzz and an interest in what we're doing, and exposure. Then for our existing customers, educating them to be more successful in our sphere means that they become essentially power users. They're really good at doing things with our course software, with Thinkific, but then they also will refer other people more likely, more likely to upgrade and continue using it, reduces churn, but the big thing that comes out of it I think is that they become champions of it. If someone's really, really successful and good at what they're doing and you helped them get there, they're much more likely to go out and refer other people to you and tell everyone they know about it.
Eric: That's awesome. You're driving more referrals, you're driving more retention at the same time when you're building these universities or resource pages. Are these public
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to search engines too?
Greg: Yeah, exactly. It really does become even an acquisition channel there, and I've seen a lot of SaaS companies even creating, or startups or tech companies or even bigger ones, creating these sort of universities of education in their sphere, and then using it as an acquisition channel because it can bring people in and it's not hitting them right away with, "Buy my product." It's like, "Hey, we've got some great courses, even free courses, on how to be really amazing at social media marketing," and then eventually that could lead into, "And by the way we've got a great social media marketing product for you."
Eric: Love it. Tell us about one big struggle you faced while growing this business.
Greg: I look at this question and I think, definitely have had big setbacks but really for me, I think the most dangerous thing is the little daily ones that just ... Death by papercuts. It's the little things, like you try an ad campaign and you run a little bit of money into it and it doesn't work, or you try getting out there and reaching out to a few influencers and nobody writes you back, or something like that. It's those little daily things that especially early days, or even you talked to three or four potential customers and nobody is interested and they don't give you any meaningful feedback on why or what you could do to fix it. I think it's the little tiny papercuts that are actually the most dangerous thing and have always been for me. The thing I take away from that, really, is to learn as much as you can from each little setback or challenge or obstacle, and then take that and apply it and move on. Most importantly just move on and keep going and trying new things.
Eric: I want to go one level deeper now. What's one big thing, positive or negative, that has impacted your life dramatically?
Greg: My life, or business life?
Eric: Your life overall.
Greg: Well, I just had a daughter a year ago, so that'd be the biggest thing for sure. I got married a couple of years ago and had a daughter a year ago, and it's been amazing, and funny actually. It's had an impact on my business in that having a kid, well one, I'm amazingly happy. It's super fun and I'm stoked to play with her every evening and every weekend, but it's created a lot more structure and schedule in my life. I had my party days, and now I've got business and family, and that's pretty much all I focus on, definitely to the detriment of other areas of my life, but I'm loving it. I'm super happy with it, and it just means that I get up super early in the morning and head out to work. Work a long day, but I'm always home in time to hang out with my daughter and do bath time and bedtime, but just creating that structure, it means ... I haven't been hung over in years now, not that I had a lot of that to begin with, but it creates a real structure and focus for you, so it's been an amazing impact, both on personal and business life.
Eric: Awesome. How old are you right now?
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Greg: Me? 38.
Eric: 38, okay. What's one piece of advice you'd give to your 25 year old self?
Greg: Let's see. If I could go back then, I'd tell myself to invest in Home Depot, Walmart, Dell, Adobe, Marvel Comics, maybe Nintendo, Apple. If I could fly back in time and give myself that advice, that'd be a quick, easy win, and then honestly, I'd say, keep having fun and doing what you're doing and things will go well. I'd actually be scared to give myself some totally different direction in life, because it's worked out pretty well, so I can't complain. I don't think I'd want to change massive amounts of things.
Eric: The reason for that is because you're saying all of the experiences that you had add up to where you are now. Is that what you're saying?
Greg: Yeah, and honestly, you know the whole butterfly effect. You see those time travel movies where you go back. You change one tiny thing, and everything works out differently. I'm super happy with where I'm at now in personal, family, business, everything, so to change anything ... It's been an amazing, fun ride the whole way here, so there's not a lot that I'd be like, "Totally do this differently." Even if I told myself to do things a little bit faster, I'd probably miss out on some of the shenanigans and fun and travel. I took six months off here and six months off there and went and traveled the world. I really wouldn't want to even change that kind of stuff and trade it for faster business success or something.
Eric: Interesting. What's that timeline? When you started doing these six months trips, what age did you start and what ages did you do it for?
Greg: I did the first six month trip. That was just when I finished university, so 20 or 21 for my first degree. I did another trip just before law school when I was mid 20s. I think I did another one after law school, but that one wasn't for as long, so mid, late 20s. Then I actually have a commitment now with my wife. I try and do a little bit of travel every year, but I have a commitment now with my wife that sometime in the next five years before our daughter gets into grade one, we're going to live somewhere else for a year. I'll still be working I'm sure at that time and doing all that kind of stuff, but live in some tropical country for a year. It's something that I love doing and she loves doing.
Eric: Great. Let's go back to the business for a second. Let's talk about one big change you've made in the business in the last year that's had a pretty big impact.
Greg: Definitely people. A year ago, we were six or seven people. We're 23, 24 today I think. Depending on, we've got new people who've just accepted offers and are starting soon. Focusing on adding amazing people to the team, and just working with absolutely amazing people has been the single most profound impact I find. You make bad hire, that can have a terrible impact on the whole company, but good hires just accelerate everything exponentially, so single best thing for me is focusing on good people, and the process I'm using now is all based around the Rockefeller Habits and topgrading as a
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process for bringing great people onboard.
Eric: Just for everyone to know, topgrading, it's a system. I think there's also a book, as well, and then Rockefeller Habits, there's a new one by Verne Harnish. This is his version too called Scaling Up. Make sure you check it out. I think there's a lot of worksheets in there for businesses that, virtually any size, I think they should be taking a look at those worksheets, right?
Greg: Yeah. I think you maybe could get it ... We're implementing a lot of stuff from Scaling Up right now, and have some consultants helping us with that stuff, but I wouldn't get into it until you've got product/market fit, you're starting to scale rapidly, and you're passing that six person team mark and you really see yourself bringing on five or ten people at least over the next year. That's where I think it's the sweet spot to start, and after that, once you pass that point, at any level, you could be a 500 person, 1,000 person company and still implement it and see great results.
Eric: Fair enough. We talked about topgrading. We talked about Scaling Up/Rockefeller Habits. What's another book you'd recommend to everyone?
Greg: I have three, depending on the stage of business you're in. If you're thinking about it, just getting started, not sure yet, The Alchemist. It can be a dangerous one if you're just happy with your job, because it'll probably convince you to go and start something yourself. If you're starting something and you're in the early phases, The Lean Startup I think is gold in terms of thinking about minimum viable products and being efficient with the things that you're doing. Then for the further, once you're actually scaling, that Scaling Up book is key, and even within the Scaling Up book, there's one they recommend, which is Topgrading as well, and even the book, Who, which is by Geoffrey Smart, which is great for the hiring process of bringing people on.
Eric: Greg, this has been fantastic. What's the best way for people to find you online?
Greg: We're at Thinkific.com. We could even put something together for your audience, so whether they're looking to create their own online courses or they want to do it for their SaaS company or startup, we could do something at get.Thinkific.com/GrowthEverywhere, and put some great stuff for them there if they're interested in getting started in online courses to try it out.
Eric: Yeah. Let's do it for sure. We'll set something up afterwards offline, but everyone make sure you check out Thinkific if you're looking to sell anything online. I think it's really interesting. Greg, thanks so much for doing this.
Greg: Appreciate it. Thanks, Eric.
Speaker 1: Thanks for listening to this episode of Growth Everywhere. If you loved what you heard, be sure to head back to GrowthEverywhere.com for today's show notes and a ton of additional resources. But before you go, hit the subscribe button to avoid missing out on next week's value packed interview. Enjoy the rest of your week, and remember to take
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action and continue growing.