First of all, how are you and your Family doing in these COVID-19 Times?
Greg Smith: It was a difficult adjustment at first, with two kids under 5 home from daycare and my wife and I working full time. We managed and with daycare back open things are getting back to some degree of normalcy. We’re lucky that we live near the forest and are able to get outside lots.
Tell us about you, your Career, how you founded Thinkific
Greg Smith: I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship and starting new ventures. I got started in online courses when I was in law school by creating my own online course to help my LSAT students prepare for the Law School Admissions Test. The course slowly grew and reached thousands of students and I just loved the ability to help people around the world learn and achieve their goals. Eventually I left my career as a lawyer and went full time into online courses.
How does Thinkific innovate?
Greg Smith: At Thinkific we help you start and grow a business by sharing your knowledge, skills, or passions with the world. Whether you’re an individual hula hoop instructor with a course or a business teaching their customers how to use their software product or market on social media, Thinkific creates innovative ways to help you grow your business. Thinkific exists at the intersection of education and business, and this is where we innovate.
How we innovate comes from the culture of the company. We ensure we have a culture of blameless failure, context not control, and diversity.
Blameless failure allows us to talk about and even celebrate our failures as an opportunity to learn. Then we apply those learnings to new ideas to create better innovation. A good example of this was a few years ago when our servers struggled to handle the load of some massive course launches. We analyzed our failures and built a team dedicated to building trustworthy architecture that could handle massive changes in demand from our product. This was instrumental in allowing us to support our customers when the demand for online education accelerated with COVID.
Context not control means that we do our best to give context about the high level strategy of the company and the outcomes we want to achieve to every person in the company. All our information is freely available to anyone on the team so that they are better equipped to make their own decisions. We avoid control by pushing decisions as close to the front lines as possible. The person doing the work should be the one deciding how to do it, not being told how to do it. Our leaders set goals with guidance from the team, and then the team decides how to achieve those goals.
Diversity also promotes innovation. If you have a room of like-minded people with similar backgrounds and viewpoints, you’ll come up with less diverse ideas. Differences in our team allows for different perspectives which leads to greater innovation. Our team is over 50% women – including in leadership – and represents diverse religious, LGBTQ and racial backgrounds as well, bringing a wonderful set of perspectives to every problem.
How the Coronavirus Pandemic affects your Business, and how are you coping?
Greg Smith: In early 2019, the online course market was forecast to be worth $300 billion by 2025 (up from $190 billion in 2018). But in the months since Covid, at Thinkific we’ve seen a 200% increase in entrepreneurs and businesses creating online courses. Although much of this impacted us positively, it came much faster than anticipated and caused some chaos in the early days.
This pandemic has not so much created new trends as it has accelerated existing ones. Remote work, online learning, and so many other changes going on right now are trends that were already in the works. We see growth in the creation and adoption of online learning is happening much faster than predicted. The takeaway for me is to be prepared to have the future meet you far faster than anticipated.
After surveying our team, the consensus seems to be that we will probably move to a more remote-first culture. We’ll keep the office, but it won’t be big enough for everyone to have a permanent desk.
Another positive change for us is our all-hands or department meetings. When we held these in person pre-covid and got to the Ask Us Anything section, there were only a few questions. Now with the chat feature alongside our meetings in Zoom, not only are the Q&A sections full of great questions but the entire meeting has a running commentary and cheering section from the whole team. It’s an amazing shift in the experience. We may also be adopting themed costumes for our team wide zoom meetings now.
Did you have to make Difficult Choices, and what are the Lessons Learned?
Greg Smith: We have to make difficult decisions every day. Probably the hardest area I’ve had to learn this is in strategy. As an optimist I want to do all the things, solve all the problems, build all the features. But doing too many things spreads your focus too thin and waters down your strategy. The hardest and most important decisions are the things you want to do and would be great to do, but you choose to say no to.
How do you deal with Stress and Anxiety? How do you Project yourself and Thinkific in the Future?
Greg Smith: My wife often tells me she’s amazed at how hard it is to stress me out or phase me. I can be hit with pretty stressful scenarios and generally don’t suffer much from stress. A few things that help me with this are:
- Taking breaks – I try to take breaks, whether it’s during the day for a few minutes between calls, or during the month to take a day or two off, or ensuring I get enough family vacation time each year.
- Sleep – this one is tough for me because I’m not a great sleeper, but I really prioritize sleep as I think more than anything it can be the difference between a stress free day and despair.
- Seeing the big picture – I often find that if I take a step back from the details or a particularly stressful situation and look at the bigger picture we’re trying to accomplish and then re-enter the specific situation with a clear view of the goal we’re trying to achieve it makes things much less stressful.
The one area that does get to me is if someone on my team or close to me is suffering. We do everything we can at Thinkific to help our clients and team members in need. But when someone is having a tough time it can cause me some stress until we get it figured out.
Who are your Competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the Game?
Greg Smith: I believe that a rising tide floats all boats. Especially in our industry. Companies like Udemy, Coursera, Masterclass and others are drawing attention to the online education space and encouraging people to both take courses and create their own courses. This is helping contribute to the rapid growth of online learning. Once people get interested in online courses, the ones that align with Thinkific often end up finding and using us, even if it was another company that drew them into online courses. For people who want their own course to start or build their business, Thinkific often ends up at the top of their list of companies to work with to help them accomplish their business goals.
Your Final Thoughts
Greg Smith: I believe that that education is such a powerful force for positive change in the world. Unfortunately, education often runs out of steam if it’s not-for-profit or government-driven. By adding in the business component to education the revenues become rocketfuel allowing education to scale and reach so many more people. This revenue and freedom it brings for the course creator also means that people with special skills, knowledge or passions are more likely to share them with the world. So if you’re one of those, I’d encourage you to consider creating your own course.
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