Prior to becoming a six-figure online course earner, Brian Gordon worked as a Bay Street banker in downtown Toronto.
There, his colleagues would often ask him for help studying the notoriously difficult finance industry exams, like the CFA, CFP and CSC. He began running classes after work to help his colleagues pass their exams.
Little did he know that this act of service would lead to finding his passion. “I found out that I enjoyed teaching a lot more than actually working in the industry,” he laughs.
He left the finance industry and landed a full-time tenured professor’s position at Centennial College, where he taught for 14 years. During this time, he was still being called by banks and other brokerage firms to teach internally. “I started thinking, this would be a pretty good business,” he says.
In 1999, Exam Success was born; in addition to his own teaching at the college, he taught exam preparation courses and ran seminars across Canada in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver. “I started with six students,” Gordon continues. “And I built my business entirely on word-of-mouth referrals; I didn’t do any advertising.”
Eventually, he gave up his teaching position at the college to pursue his business full-time. When the pandemic hit, he transitioned from in-person classes to online, thanks to finding Thinkific.
Here’s how he did it.
- He didn’t let perfection hold him back
- He kept his content simple, succinct, and direct
- His courses have high completion rates
- He provided a positive learning experience
- He used YouTube to drive organic traffic to his website
- He targeted a specific audience
- He positioned himself as a middle-of-the-road cost provider
- He connected with his passion for teaching
Gordon knew it was only a matter of time before he moved his courses to the online space, as many of his competitors had. The pandemic catalyzed this pivot.
Once all of his in-class sessions were canceled, he scrambled to get his material into an online format. Thankfully, he had built a library of content since his early teaching days. He had study notes, practice questions, learning examples, exercises, and video clips of himself teaching concepts live in the classroom on hand. “A mentor once told me that content is key,’” he says. “I’ve always made the effort to make sure I consistently create content.”
In the early days of his business, Gordon used the Moodle platform.
“It was a bare bones platform and I was searching for a long time for a system that was user-friendly, looked good, was easy to navigate, and created a feeling that the student wasn’t alone,” he says. “I found that with Thinkific.”
But at first, Gordon’s transition to online teaching was rocky. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says.
He didn’t let perfectionism stop him from approaching his now online business with full gusto, though; soon he found his online teaching groove and gained positive feedback from his students. To date, he says his biggest achievement is when he receives notes from students saying that they couldn’t have passed their exams without him. “People are paying money for your courses, so they have to be professional and complete,” he continues. “But you can make mistakes along the way; people appreciate and understand that you’re human.”
Gordon describes his courses as one-stop-shops where students can get everything they need to prepare for their financial industry exam.
When it came to developing his curriculums, the first thing he did was remove the technical jargon; he wanted to explain everything in simple terms. In this way, he says that his students feel that he’s able to teach in a format that’s easily understood.
Unlike his competitors, his goal isn’t to make his students into experts; rather, he aims to create his content in the most succinct, direct way possible. Since his students are studying for exams that are four to six months away, Gordon believes that the conciseness of his information helps with retention. “Someone studying for one of these exams is getting so much thrown at them in such a short period of time,” he says. “My approach teaches students what they need to know in order to pass, get their credentials, and move on. I leave building their expertise to follow as their career develops.”
Aside from making his content to-the-point, he aims to make it as engaging as possible. He does so by using a mix of teaching methods; he offers videos of himself, whiteboard lessons, practice test questions, and packages with instructions and reading material — all with a healthy dose of humour. “People have told me that they feel like they’re in the classroom with me,” he says.
Once students purchase one of his courses, they have access to all of his content at once.
Gordon says that the completion rate is high, since those taking his course are preparing for an exam and need to go through all of the material to do so. “I’m not teaching a soft skills course, where people often drop off or lose interest,” he says.
However, for the few people who do drop off of the course, he’s dabbling with automation; he wants to send them messages of encouragement that help to motivate them to keep going.
Over the years, his small audience grew to over 100 people in each classroom, thanks to word-of-mouth referrals.
He believes that the reason he’s had so many referrals is because of the positive experience he provides his students.
“You can always find content at a lower price or for free,” he says. “But the unique experience you offer people is something you can’t find anywhere. If you give your students a positive experience, then it will drive your success.”
As a plus, he prides himself on being available to his students, which many of his competitors don’t do. This personal connection between him and his students helps them to feel supported along their learning journey. It also helps to encourage a positive view of his business, which turns into more and more word-of-mouth marketing. “Many students say that they’re overwhelmed, don’t know where to start, and have nobody to turn to,” he says. “These courses make them feel like they’re part of a program and that they have someone who can help them along the way.”
In connecting with his students, Gordon encourages them to ask questions and get in touch. In this way, his content is being driven by students’ needs. “If someone is having trouble with something, I’ll create a video and post it for everyone,” he says. “If one person is having that issue, I’m confident that many people are having the same issue.”
Currently, he doesn’t have a Facebook community for his students; right now, they just have access to him.
On top of the referrals that drive course sales, Gordon also has a YouTube channel that he created in 2020. Now, it has over 800 subscribers. “My videos are low-tech and just involve me giving advice to the camera,” he explains. “I’m a professor; I’m here to teach people. But not with the flash and entertainment that you see from others.”
(Speaking of YouTube, hear his story directly from Brian himself in the YouTube video here!)
He’s also created a sales funnel with ConvertKit. Prospective students find him on YouTube, watch his videos, and are encouraged to sign up for a free preview of one of his Thinkific courses. “I’m not an overly aggressive salesman,” he laughs.
Once they’re in his funnel, they’re sent a series of emails that encourage them to purchase the course.
Gordon’s target audience includes financial industry professionals and those looking to become finance industry professionals. Most of his students are in their late twenties to early forties, and many work in banks, investment firms, mutual funds, and hedge funds.
His audience is 95% Canadian, however a few of his students are in Dubai, Hong Kong, and Norway. This is because he offers material for several financial designations, the majority of which are Canadian.
His courses range in price from $69 to $800. Currently, he has around 1,600 Thinkific students. Over the last couple of years, he’s had close to 800 new students join per year.
Price-wise, he’s positioned himself as a middle-of-the-road cost provider. “I’m not the lowest cost provider, since I provide more of a personalized service for my students,” he says. “But I’m not the highest cost provider, either. That seems to work for me.”
While he now has a supportive team of over nine people, when he reflects on his entrepreneurial journey, he says he wished he’d collaborated with a team earlier on. “I didn’t allow that to happen because I’m someone who likes to control everything,” he says, laughing. “If I could go back, I think I would have tried to start my business with a group of people and grow it from there.”
Aside from connecting with students individually and creating engaging, succinct content, Gordon believes that his success came from finding what he loves to do: teach.
In fact, he believes that if people approach online course creation with the sole intent to make money, it’s the wrong attitude.
“If you have a love and a passion for teaching, then I think that’s really going to come through. It will drive your success.”
If you’re ready to find your passion for online course creation, sign up for Thinkific today.
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