Thinkific CEO Greg Smith interviews best-selling author and online course creator Danny Iny on the future of education and online courses.
About Danny Iny:
Danny Iny is the founder of Mirasee, host of the Business Reimagined podcast, best-selling author of multiple books including Engagement from Scratch!, The Audience Revolution, and Teach and Grow Rich, and creator of the acclaimed Audience Business Masterclass and Course Builder’s Laboratory training programs, which have together graduated over 4,000 value-driven online entrepreneurs. All of this grew out of humble beginnings; he started out just like most online entrepreneurs, with an idea and message to share, and no idea how to do it. He made several wrong turns – which he calls “plot twists” in the Audience Revolution – before really understanding the Audience First paradigm, and how to apply it to online business.
And when he did, it was like lighting a match to a fuse. Back in 2011, he started Firepole Marketing with less than nothing; he had no traffic, no subscribers, no relationships with any influencers in the industry, and over a quarter million dollars in personal debt, left over from his last failed startup. In just a few short years, he grew his business to multiple-seven figures in revenue and a team of 20+ people spread all over the world (including his talented wife) on a mission to support a very special global community of over forty-thousand loyal and inspired entrepreneurs. Then, in 2015, Firepole Marketing became Mirasee, a change that reflects the true mission of the brand, which is helping visionary entrepreneurs create income through impact.
To get in touch with Danny visit: mirasee.com
To watch the interview, click on the video below:
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Read the full transcript below:
Greg: So I am curious, do you think there is still space for information products out there? Is that something people should be continuing to do, or should we just go all out education?
Danny: That’s a great question, and the answer is yes, there’s always going to be a market for information. Books, lots of people are buying books. Amazon is basically like a mint because people buy so many books and that’s all good. Books are information products, there’s always going to be a market for information and that’s fine. People just aren’t going to pay premium prices for information. So if you’re selling information, you’ve got to be able to sell a lot of it for it to add up to interesting amounts of money. As for whether people should be selling information or should be selling education, it depends on the subject matter, it depends on the transformation you want to create. If you want to be Jim Collins and you want to inspire a world of managers to better imagine what their businesses can be, then that’s great. Write and sell books and tons of people will read them. And most people will do nothing with them and some of them will implement some ideas and a few of them will hire you to consult and pay you like a gazillion dollars. If you care about working with a smaller number of people, relatively speaking, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands rather than millions and you want to help them create more of an impact, then education is the way to go. It really comes down to what are your goals, what are you trying to accomplish, what is the impact that you want to have? There is a role for information, and there’s a role for education. The problem is people blur the lines and pretend they are the same thing.
Greg: Yeah and I think that’s a great point, you definitely do see a lot of that. I’m quite on board with the education side of things and occasionally having the information side as well, which I think is still useful in the right circumstances. But, given that those lines are blurred, and they’re blurred in the minds of the consumers and a lot of people out there are still going to be doing the information things and still even marketing them as education even though they’re just spitting information at you, why do we care about, and this again is me being devil’s advocate, because it’s not a viewpoint I would advocate, but if I can kind of blur the lines for the consumer and say, “This is a course, this is an education product” but there’s no support behind the scenes, it’s not truly educational it’s just information and you do see a lot of people do this, where they care about the sale and not so much what happens after that. So why do I care what happens after that? Because you obviously care a lot about this.
Danny: So that’s a really great question. And I know it’s not your position, I know you’re channeling the skeptical view. But there’s something important about that question that I want to kind of make explicit. There’s an underlining assumption there that a lot of people have that in business you are going to be faced a lot of times with the choice between doing the like smart business thing, the thing that’s going to make you more money and doing the right thing, the good thing. And my approach to business is they are the same thing. Like, yes, you might get more people to sign up if you basically, you build a course that’s not really a course it’s just a bunch of information and you lie to them, you tell them it’s something that it’s not. But first of all, your refunds are going to go through the roof, people are going to complain and they are not going to be happy. So you are not actually going to hang on to that money and there will be a massive customer service challenge and all that kind of stuff. Second of all, the word gets out, people know what you are about and what you stand for and they’re not going to want to keep doing business with you. And yes, today the lines are still blurred, there are not a lot of people who are doing real education. When I wrote Teach and Grow Rich in my industry I was the only one. And I’m really gratified to say that now Teach and Grow Rich wasn’t a long time ago, it was September and we’re recording this in March, so it’s like less than six months. There was recently a very big launch of a training program around LinkedIn Marketing, by Josh Turner, and they have adopted a service model similar to what we do, that we advocate from the program. I just finished an exchange, I’m talking tomorrow with another colleague who is very big in the coaching space who says, “I really like what you’re doing and I want us to adopt it as well.” And that’s probably going to start in the summer. And so it is starting to pick up and as it starts becoming more mainstream, customers are going to know what to look for, they’re going to know what to ask for, they’re going to know to ask, “So you say there is support, but what does that actually look like?” “Oh, there’s just a Facebook group where I can talk to other students. I get it, it’s not support, it’s su-port.” And you can get away with it for a little while longer, but building a business on what you can get away with for a little while longer is just not smart business.
Greg: I agree wholeheartedly and like I said, my first online course came out ten years ago and I do nothing for it anymore because I’m fully focused on Thinkific and helping others create now, so it’s been years since I have really even touched it. But the majority of my sales now come from referrals, testimonials, people checking out online reviews and if you’re in it for that quick win, you’re in it for the short term and you are kind of passing up on the whole point of the game which is that long-term passive revenue stream.
Danny: Absolutely and there is an important thing here too and people think the question is, do I build information products that have no support? Or education products that have tons of support? And of course with tons of support comes massive overhead; you’ve got to have coaches, you’ve got to answer e-mails. And that’s kind of a false dichotomy, that’s not the two options. Education is not going to be cost-effective either if you have to offer ridiculous levels of support. The thing is you have to be willing to put in the time to get to the point where you can deliver the education well without enormous levels of support. The way we teach is that the whole premise is that you want to kind of go through these integrative pilots. So do a pilot version of your course, deliver it, be very hands-on, help people, where they can, see where they get stuck, see where they have questions, adjust the course to not make those questions necessary anymore. Then do it again, then do it again and you only kind of put it on semi-autopilot with coaches or whatever you need to deliver the support. When you have reached the point where you’ve streamlined it as much as possible, and as much a possible could mean, in our course builders laboratory, every student has a dedicated coach. Because the subject matter is complicated and even when it is streamlined, that is necessary. In another course of ours, it was called Write Like Freddy and we shut it down to rebuild it. We are going to reopen it called Standout Guest Posting at some point. There is much much less support, certainly not a dedicated coach because it’s a much simpler course, there just isn’t the need. So it’s not that like people have to go to a place where every student gets a dedicated coach and massive overhead, it’s just about being willing to put in the time and go through your iterations to streamline the delivery of your ideas to the point where it becomes cost-effective.
Greg: Yeah, and I’m glad you went there because I think that is a fear. It’s something that I was concerned about getting my course up and running and always have been that if you start the coaching thing, how does it scale? Is it scalable? And it sounds like we have definitely seen people doing it, we have seen you doing it and being able to scale. You’re in the multi-millions with your courses and you’ve scaled and you’re doing the coaching side of things. So it obviously is scalable and I love that because your approach is very much kind of like the lean startup approach in software.
Danny: And you want to keep in mind when people talk about scalability and they think about scalability with courses as if it’s an app. How do I scale to a million customers without any additional human interactions? Like, that’s one model of scalability but there are many models. Zappos is operating at an enormous scale and you know what, they have a huge human touch element. So scalability doesn’t mean no human interaction, it means scalable in a way that’s cost-effective through every kind of level of scale.
Greg: At scale do you work towards a certain ratio of coaches to students? Is there a gold standard you’re shooting for in terms of the ratios?
Danny: It totally depends on the subject matter, and the subject matter and the value created is going to dictate what a fair price is and how much work goes into it as well. But ultimately, you have got to always strike a balance between two opposing factors. One is you want to make sure every student has all the support that they need in order to succeed. And, on balance that usually means fewer students per coach, rather than more. And on the flip side of that, you need to make sure that you are making money, that you are profitable and that means more students per coach. So, of course, you have got to find the middle ground where you’re profitable and students are getting all the support that they need. And if you don’t go through the lean startup iterative process, you’re probably not going to get there; like it’s very hard to make those numbers work without the course that is optimized and streamlined.
Greg: If you have a certain amount of time you can dedicate to coaching resources within a course, would you push more towards a small amount of one-on-one time via email or calls, or would you put people into a larger group with one coach? I’ve done a few where I bring in ten or twelve people together and the response from the participants has been amazing, but I have always felt like it’s a bit more of me talking and you hear little bit from each person, you answer their questions, but each individual person is not sharing or talking that much because there’s only so much time within your hour or two hour coaching session. But it does seem that they’re able to gain a lot of stuff from each other, so do you have a tendency that you lean towards between the group sessions or the smaller one-on-one time, given a limited coaching time?
Danny: That’s a really great question. And it’s a really hard one to answer because it will depend very much on the subject matter. I mean, some subjects are just really sensitive. If you are coaching someone up on how to deal with something very sensitive in their relationship, maybe they don’t want to talk about that in front of ten other people. So there is the subject matter and how sensitive it is and how individualized the questions are going to be. And then there’s also the style of the coach. So in the course builders lab, that I’ll tell you what we do. The primary modality for support is e-mail. You send the question, you get an answer from your coach within twenty-four hours as many times as you need. We also have calls, one-on-one calls at key intervals in the program, where we want to make sure they are on track before they move onto the next step. And we have office hours calls, so every day there is a call that is forty-five minutes long, it’s like an open call on Zoom just like this, where people can just hop on and talk to the court and ask their questions. Now we’re constantly evaluating other modalities. So we’re looking at group coaching set up where you can just make appointments that are ten or fifteen minutes long within a ninety minutes office hours window. We’re looking at day-long, like work parties, where you can hop on and everyone is working at the same time. We are looking at a setup where someone is really struggling with something might hop on a call with three or four coaches to kind of workshop it. And with all of these things, what we are looking at are two metrics. The first is, is it helping our students do better? And the second is, is it saving or coaches time on balance? And ultimately it’s got to do ideally both, but at least one of those things without hurting the other one too much.
Greg: That’s great and from a technology company perspective, I love the fact that you’re looking at the metrics and trying to make those incremental improvements that way, that’s great. I know you’ve talked a little bit about the pilot project, but can you kind of give people a little bit of an overview of, and I know this is in your book in more depth, but the overview of how you go about the approach with the pilot project and in particular what I’m interested in is how you manage student expectations through that pilot project.
Danny: So this is a radical idea, but what you do is you tell your customers the truth. You just want to be up front and say look, this is not a finished, polished course, this is a pilot and I’m doing it for the first time, I’m testing my assumptions. And the reason I’m doing a pilot is that I need feedback on what’s working to make it better. So ultimately it’s going to cost whatever you know 50, 100, 1000, a million dollars, it doesn’t matter what the number is, but my pilot students are getting it at a substantial discount in exchange for their feedback. And that’s important. You’re not getting it at a discount because it sucks right now, you’re getting it at a discount because the value is still there but I need feedback, so you’re paying in part with your cash and in part with your feedback. That’s the deal. And when people know that that’s the case, they’re very happy and excited to be basically co-creating this with you on a certain level. And as I talk in the book about the power of co-creation, why it’s so important from a business standpoint; but they’re also much more forgiving, they understand that is not supposed to be permanent, they’re not evaluating it from the lens of how does this look compared to finished courses I would expect it to look like, but rather, what is the potential here and how do I provide feedback that helps you to unlock that potential?
Greg: Excellent and as people co-create things they see so much more value in it and that lends itself to taking your next course, recommending it to friends, rating it highly, so it’s very cool to see that and I love it. It’s a good concept, be honest with your customers, tell them, “Hey, it’s a pilot, I want your feedback.”
Danny: This happened today in my student group right, somebody posted to our student community and they were sharing about their experience delivering their first training and their pilot. They had developed their pilot, sold it following our process, they got a whole bunch of people so they were delivering their first lesson, and they’re using Zoom, which is the exact platform we are recording on. And they were using the free version and they hadn’t realized that Zoom cuts you off after forty minutes. And so the lesson, it was killed, like in forty minutes, over. And so she had to restart a new session, get everyone back on and she was super embarrassed and she said one of her students said, “Well, it’s a pilot, that happens.” People get it, they are super understanding. If you pretend that this is like the final polished version, and that happens, they are going to be upset. But if you are upfront that this is what it is, people are going to be fine with it.
Greg: Yes, that’s great. And I think that even the feedback loop can continue well beyond your pilot as well. I mean if you start out that way then it’s something I think you don’t even want to quit. Look at the multibillion-dollar companies like Slack and they are built entirely on that co-creation feedback loop and they continue to take that in and do it and it’s part of their exponential growth factor I think.
Greg: Okay, one more for you and I think this is a big one, and that is really in the simplest form is, can anyone teach? And I think you’ll see that sort of bigger picture, the concerns there that people have. So I will just leave it at that. Can anyone get out there, create online education products and teach?
Danny: So that’s a great question and the answer is no, but yes. So, no, not everybody can teach, you have to have something of value that is useful for other people to learn and you have to be able to deliver it in some useful, meaningful way. And those are both skills. But the bar is a lot lower than people think. So in terms of having something that other people would benefit from learning, people think well I’m not an expert in my field, I don’t have seven PhD’s, I haven’t written three bestsellers. And that’s fine, you don’t need that, the illustration that I love is that the second-grader, the fourth grader is an expert. And that’s not about pretending you know something you don’t, that’s about understanding the value of what you actually do know and the people to whom it is actually valuable. The second-grader doesn’t care if you’re in the fourth grade or eighth grade or you have a PhD, they just care if you can help them with their multiplication tables or whatever it is that they are trying to do. Beyond a certain level, all that extra information and knowledge is irrelevant. And it gets in the way. Because the more you know often in the course of knowledge means that you are going to have a lot harder of a time understanding the people you are trying to serve. Teaching is definitely a skill, and there’s an art to it. Some people are just brilliant, gifted teachers; not everybody is going to be the best teacher in the world. Now that’s kind of like saying, can anybody write? Not everyone is going to be a Malcolm Gladwell, but most people can learn to write much better than they currently do, and most people can learn to write well enough to be impactful. And teaching is the same way. You may not be the best teacher in the world, but you can learn to teach in a way that is helpful and impactful. And the key to that is to really limit the scope of what you’re trying to teach, which I talk about quite a lot in the book. And also very importantly, going through that piloting process because one of the things we forget is that teaching is a learned skill. And teaching a specific piece of content in a specific context is a learned skill. So, can you get this right and the kind of it to be a home run on your first attempt? Probably not. Can you get to a point where you can do a good job with it if you try several times and get feedback, and improve each time? More than likely. Not everybody can, but most people can.
Greg: Great, that’s excellent and I’m sure you see examples of this all the time. In one case a gentleman had a skill where co-workers just kept coming to him and saying like “Hey can you just show me how to do this?” And it was as you said just super narrow, just a little tool he was using at work. And eventually, he put together a course, mostly just to stop people from interrupting his workflow and said, “Here, you guys can take my course.” And that took off, he quit his job, moved to a nice beach, lives there with his wife and kid and his full-time revenue teaching online and no celebrity status, no massive mailing list, no huge influencer status. And I’m sure there are plenty of people who know more than him about the subject but he went out and created that niche course. And he didn’t even focus on the whole tool, he picked a really specific aspect of using it that people kept asking about. So definitely I think it’s an opportunity as you say that maybe not everyone has the perfect skill set for it, but you can find those niche topics and then learn how to do it.
Danny: And fundamentally, who as a child did not show their friends in school how to do something? Most of us, that’s not to say you’re the best teacher in the world, but it is to say that teaching, demonstrating, communicating are kind of innate to our realities as human beings. So whether you’re the best in the world at it or not, it’s not going to be a totally foreign thing.
Greg: Yes, definitely. Awesome. Well, I think that’s super helpful, I know everyone in our audience will get a lot of value out of this. Check out Danny’s book Teach and Grow Rich. I definitely recommend it, really good insights on things from piloting your course to some of the trends that are happening in this space and in our market and how to really take advantage of it and make sure that years from now, you’re on top of the curve. Thanks, Danny. I really appreciate your time. Your insights on this stuff were awesome and I’m looking forward to chatting more with you in the future.
Danny: Greg, thank you very much for having me, totally my pleasure. Look forward to doing it again.