When it comes to creating and selling online courses, there are many different platform options. But in the case of Greg Smith, a passionate entrepreneur, there wasn’t an option on the market that met his specific needs—so he took matters into his own hands and created Thinkific.
As co-founder and CEO of Thinkific, Greg has worked to build a platform to “empower modern course creators” by making it easy for them to create, market, and sell online courses. This allows people to focus on what’s really important – their learning business – not the tools and technology behind it. With over a decade of experience as a course and platform entrepreneur, Greg knows what it takes to both lead and succeed in the world of online learning.
In this episode of the Leading Learning podcast, Jeff talks with Greg about his experience launching and growing Thinkific, practical advice for how to create and sell online courses, and what he sees as the biggest opportunities in the future of online learning.
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[00:18] – Thank you to Castle, which is the sponsor of the Leading Learning podcast for the second quarter of 2017. Castle is an accomplished full-services certification and licensure testing company that also offers its clients a variety of learning solutions capabilities. With an expert team of testing and instructional design professionals and a thirty year history of excellence in it’s field, Castle understands what it takes to develop and deliver quality learning and certification programs.
[01:12] – Highlighted Resource of the Week – A free Thinkific video on how to create and sell successful online courses. The video covers steps that will set you on the best path to successfully creating, marketing, selling, and delivering online courses to your audience. It also gives you an up close look at the Thinkific platform.
[03:33] – Introduction to Greg.
[04:12] – I’d like to start at what I guess is the national level – I have an impression of Canada/Canadians having contributed a lot to the growth of online learning (e.g., in terms of leading edge thinking, technology, adoption by universities). What’s your perspective on that–what’s in the water there and why is it that Canada is doing so much in the world of online education? Greg explains that in Canada they do invest pretty heavily in education and their university network is smaller. He also points out that unlike the US, pretty much any university in Canada is a tier one university where you can expect similar results. There’s also a lot of support for tech companies and this has all created a great acceptance of educational entrepreneurialism and acceptance of technology.
[06:33] – You started your career as a lawyer so when did it first hit you that you were an entrepreneur? And then that you were going to apply that in the online education space? Greg shares that the entrepreneurial side came even before law and that in high school and university he always had a side business. He admits he always had a keen interest in education and when he was just starting doing his law degree, he was teaching a classroom course on how to write the LSAT—that led to having a blog, which then led to him creating a mini online course for the LSAT. This was really the start of all of this and it happened about 11 years ago. Greg adds the great thing about the online education space is he was very quickly able to reach people all over the world. He went from having 10-15 people in a classroom to suddenly having thousands of students.
[08:12] – You were able to start Thinkific off of revenue you generated from creating and selling an online course—is that correct? Greg says by the time he left practicing law, the LSAT course was probably producing more revenue than his legal practice and it just kept going from there.
[08:58] – How did you pull that off, and what do you see as the “secret” these days to creating courses that sell? Greg shares one of the big things he learned when he wanted to launch the LSAT class was (thanks to advice from his brother) to get something ready to launch in 30 days rather than build something huge all at once. Once he did this, he was able to generate a little revenue, gather student feedback and iterate that and on the course, content, and software as well as the marketing. The big mistake he sees some people make is they obsess over the details of getting everything right before they launch and it’s actually a much better scenario to just get something out in the hands of students/clients/learners and iterate from there by getting feedback.
[10:27] – So this is like the idea of the minimal viable product. Is that a concept you were familiar with at the time or did that just come to you or your brother intuitively that this would be the best way to go about things? Greg recalls his brother was familiar with this and pushed it on him, adding that they have carried this concept through from then until now including their first launch of Thinkific.
[11:09] – What else do you see as fundamental to success right now with selling online courses? Are there other key practices or tools that really help with making the launch and ongoing success of an online course a reality? Greg says you can really divide it into two areas. There’s success, which he defines differently than just making the sales, and also looks at student success. Then there’s closing the deal and getting the sales and marketing done – this is really more of a marketing problem than anything specific to education.
He points out the nice thing about most of the podcast listeners (associations) is they already have 90% of the difficult work done because they have the list of people who are interested and, in many cases, those people have education requirements. Then it’s just about getting in front of them and making sure you’re delivering a message and then finding out if that message resonates and iterating on it from there. If you don’t have already have the audience then he says there are a ton of places you can go to build that (i.e. YouTube, Quora). Greg notes a lot of this is experimental – you figure out what works and double down on that rather than spreading yourself too thin and trying to touch every single marketing point that you hear about.
[13:38] – Greg shares what he’s found in terms of strategy or practices that can help a course or course maker to stand out in a crowded market where there’s a lot of competition for the potential learners attention:
- If you offer a complete suite of products that learners can subscribe to that’s always a big win
- Timing – if learners need a particular course at a certain time, you can market to them and easily pick them up as a subscriber at that time and build your audience for future business
- Have people who are known experts teach the courses
- Get other people promoting the course for you
[16:50] – Why did you feel it was necessary to create a course platform? There were hundreds out there even when you started – what was the gap you felt needed to be filled or what was missing that the Thinkific platform was going to address? Greg admits that they didn’t set out to build their own system and they would’ve much preferred to take something off the shelf and use it. When they first launched his course, most of the LMSes were lacking in a few key areas—not particularly easy to use, bloated with unnecessary features, and really difficult to make it look pretty. He wanted to sell courses online but he knew he needed to convert people who weren’t his employees. He says the conventional LMS was built for a student in an institution or an employee and they were trying to build an LMS for people outside their direct control or organization where they needed them to make the choice—this required two things: great conversion optimization and a beautiful looking site so people could easily sign up. They also wanted total control of everything so you could actually build it into your business and own everything you did.
[20:38] – What have been some of the biggest challenges for you, as a leader, as Thinkific has experienced significant growth? Greg talks about how Thinkific started with just him and his brother and they now have 62 employees. In the early days it was about figuring out product-market fit and he says it’s kind of a difficult thing to define but when you have it, you really know because everything becomes so much easier. Suddenly, rather than calling people to convince them to use your product, you have people coming to you. Once they got that in place, they faced other challenges related to how quickly to grow, hiring, etc. They had to figure out the hiring and team building side and he says surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you is one of the most important things in building a business in the early days. Now they are at a point where it’s about finding a balance between process and speed.
[24:01] – Are you finding it more challenging to think entrepreneurially at this point? Along with that, what does that mean to you to think entrepreneurially? Greg thinks they are still super innovative and entrepreneurial but recognizes it is a slow change over time to where you have to be more careful about just putting something out there. However, they now have a bigger team so they can be a lot more innovative and he shares an example of how they are building a room just so they can play around with virtual reality technology (with no specific objective at this point – just to explore the posibilities).
[25:28] – How do you see Thinkific and, more broadly, online learning evolving over the next five years or so? What do you see as some of the biggest opportunities? For Thinkific, Greg shares they want to be as open as possible (in terms of things like API’s and allowing their software to be customized in any way that people want it). They are trying to build the core of education as a platform really, really well and for the pieces they don’t have, he says it’s really easy to add them on either through integrations or applications. Regarding bigger trends they are looking at, Greg says the two biggest are virtual reality and artificial intelligence. He predicts in the next 5-10 years we will likely see this increasing in automation of work. This will start to flow into everything so you’re going to see a lot of people increasing their skill sets and that’s where online education is just going to continue to grow as a need as people need to level up.
[30:01] – What are your own lifelong learning habits and practices? Greg goes to a few events every year but one thing he does on a daily basis is read a ridiculous amount. He prefers paperback books but he has reluctantly transitioned to now using a Kindle (and gets the audio version as well) which he then syncs with his Audible account – this way he can now read on the Kindle and then turn on the on audio book when he wants. Since he started doing this, it has doubled the amount of books he can read. He also takes online courses but constantly looks for book recommendations related to management, leadership, vision, strategy, and building great product.
[32:11] – Greg shares some of the best books he’s read lately, particularly in the area of leadership:
- High Output Management by Andrew S. Grove
- Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott
- e-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer
[33:53] – How to connect with Greg and/or Thinkific:
Facebook group to share resources: https://www.facebook.com/groups/thinkific/
[34:59] – Wrap Up
Thanks again to Castle, a full service certification and licensure testing company that also offers its clients a variety of learning solutions capabilities, for sponsoring this episode of the Leading Learning podcast.
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[36:47] – Sign off
- Thinkific has continued to grow significantly since this interview with Greg Smith. In 2020, the company took on $22 million in outside investment. In 2021, it went public and raised $129M.
- Greg published an article in Fast Company on how to accept critical feedback at work.
- Thinkific has also launched the Thinkific App Store, a move that is likely to be copied by other online course platform providers.