“We let thousands of people write their own paychecks now,” said Thinkific co-founder Greg Smith.
With skills and entrepreneurial drive, anyone now has the opportunity to launch a course online in minutes, and grow and nurture a student base.
Thinkific is the out-of-the-box software that quietly powers this, a subscription SAAS solution that does not dilute the student experience with ads or cross-selling. The Vancouver company provides an education platform that gives course-designers the ability to rapidly set up courses while building and compounding their own brand, and maintaining ownership over their lists of students and leads.
There has been a steady movement of education and funding to online platforms as education goes through the process of slow-motion disruption. Individuals who have gained skills and experience can curate those to provide value through courses, and students who are seeking to improve and compete can now proactively guide their own educations online, on demand. Taken in the aggregate, this dynamic can lead to millions of dollars in added value for both sides of the market.
Your Brand, Your Data, Your Business
Thinkific offers teachers a customizable online learning experience for students the way Shopify provides e-commerce retailers with an online shopping experience for customers. This includes payment solutions for credit cards, the handling of student registrations, and all aspects of course delivery.
Unconventional education has been a theme in the founders, Greg and Matt Smith’s, lives for some time. A decade ago, while practicing law, Greg taught live class courses at UBC for LSAT preparation. Students asked for extra resources, prompting him and his brother to put some together, and upload them for free to their website. Witnessing the popularity of these resources grow, the brothers decided to put an online course together consisting of a couple of hours’ worth of material with a starting price point of $29. They started to see revenue grow from hundreds of dollars to multiple thousands per month, and continued to expand their expertise in online education, available platforms, and the student experience.
After creating the online course, the brothers were approached by people looking for help launching their own online courses. Due to this initial pull from the market, and the realization that they were in a position to help these instructors, they decided to create the platform that could replicate their success for other instructors. Now, using their service, anyone with skills can become an educator and set up a course in minutes, with multimedia courses optimized for any device, video and content hosted with Thinkific, an analytics dashboard to track student engagement, and most importantly, a business model that allows teachers to retain ownership over their content and student lists.
They charge a flat monthly fee for the use of their platform, and a 5% transaction fee at their first paid tier. Apart from this expense, the instructors keep the entirety of their earnings. Smith said, “It’s your course, your site, your IP, your brand, your data, your business. We’re kind of just the software that powers it behind the scenes.”
Apart from individual teachers, Thinkific also has major enterprise customers such as Hootsuite and Wishpond, who use the software to create social media learning programs and marketing academies, and have determined it to be a significant asset for engagement. Wishpond’s Community Manager Bree Nakatani has said that “[b]etween February and May, Wishpond upgrades from academy increased 1500%. This is having barely touched academy after we first launched it in the winter. The courses that are gaining us these dollars are ones I created four months ago and haven’t touched since. We are thrilled with these results and this week we are ramping up the optimization of Academy to drive sales,” and that they’ve seen a 20% boost in upgrades from people that signed up with them and then took a course.
Instructors Build Their Own Brand
Their business model is in contrast to other online education markets, Smith says. “Some marketplaces are motivated to bring in more students, but not necessarily to make you money. If you have a $100 course, they’re happy to give it away for free if it helps them generate another 50,000 users which they can sell other things to, with your course as the magnet that draws them in.”
Although some other platforms may help instructors market their courses, those instructors may never own their list of students, which they could otherwise be able to follow up with or upsell to. This means that instead of their work compounding the value of their own brand, instructors are instead building up the marketplace’s brand. Depending on the agreement the teacher opts for with the platform, after paying the platform’s applicable marketing fee, affiliate fees, transaction or administrative fees, the instructor may be left with only a fraction of the revenue derived from the course.
Thinkific has deliberately built their business model to avoid this, ensuring that the interests of the teacher and the company are aligned.
The company’s mission is to make it easy to teach online, and from that mission flow the core values of empowerment, ownership, and the delivery of incredible student experiences. In line with these guiding values, the team makes an effort to maximize the success of the course producers.
“We help you build the course the right way. A lot of little things go into it that help net out a good student experience, which will help you be successful,” Smith said. Examples of details that increase the success of courses include videos limited to 2-7 minutes, short interesting quizzes, and free courses and trials. The company provides marketing resources, case studies and strategies to their users, and also offers concierge onboarding and professional services to help with content production and marketing, if desired.
In one of Thinkific’s success stories, an instructor, John, has been able to leave his job and move to Spain on the income gained from his course with Thinkific. Previously working at a blue chip company, the teacher created a course teaching techniques for Microsoft Excel. After some dissatisfaction with other online education platforms, he set his course up on Thinkific, and six months later was earning $20,000 per month.
A critical element of success for him was the key differentiator for Thinkific: the fact that he was able own and manage his own student list, learn to market to them effectively, and upsell new courses. When later asked by a fellow instructor where she should put her course, John’s response was clear: “If you want to make money, go to Thinkific.”
Of the example, Smith said, “We have definitely achieved product market fit when people are quitting their jobs to use our product.”
Thinkific aims to get at the root of education’s value. Education should make the student more capable, and, through a refined and well-designed student experience, the value of the course should manifest in how effectively it enables the learners to do something that improves their lives, professionally or personally.
“What’s most important to me and our team is the student experience and making sure they have a good experience learning online and are successful with whatever goal they have. Whether to get a better grade, get a promotion, learn these skills, make sure they have an awesome student experience,” Smith said.
Part of the grand vision for the company is ‘education anywhere’. Smith said, “People are staying where they hangout on the internet, not leaving Facebook, Google, or Instagram to get their shopping done. I want to bring education to where you are, so you’ll be sitting there on LinkedIn, and you’ll be taking and sharing the courses there.”
The company has just been accepted into the inaugural cohort of BCTIAs Hypergrowth program, a second-stage accelerator aiming to rapidly ramp up earnings for companies that have already achieved product-market fit and revenue.
On participating in the HyperGrowth program, Smith says, “Our biggest goal is growth, to put Thinkific in front of as many people and companies as possible. We are past the uncertainty of product-market fit. We’re looking to grow the marketing channels that are working and find more that work.”
In the midst of this growth, the team keeps its focus on enabling instructors to create consistently high quality courses. Smith said, “Our ultimate goal is to help instructors to build their brand, grow their audience, and engage with their community by delivering an awesome experience for their students.”