089: A Practical Conversation about Thinkific with Co-Founder Miranda Lievers (Thinkific Series #6 of 6)

This is Episode 89. It is our wrap up episode of the Thinkific series. Today I am joined by Miranda Lievers. She is the COO and co-founder of Thinkific. What better way to wrap up this series, then for us to have a conversation with someone who’s been there since the beginning.  Miranda has seen this platform grow from not even being a platform to being one of the leaders in course delivery online for entrepreneurs and small businesses.

This is a very, very practical episode. We don’t talk about jargon. We don’t talk about tech all that much. Miranda is all about the operations, usability, and the metrics. And really, she just wants to see people being successful with their online course endeavors. So with that, let’s get into this episode with Miranda.

I want to take a second to thank Miranda for doing this interview as she is on maternity leave.  I really truly appreciate it. And I love the fact that she can have flexible maternity leave working.

So the reason why I wanted to have her on in this wrap up episode is because of her experience.

Obviously with Thinkific,  Miranda has been there since the beginning.  And she’s watched the platform evolve. She’s watched the type of course creator and Thinkific user evolve.  And I think that it’s going to give a lot of perspective to all the conversations that we have had as part of this series.

So before we get into this conversation, let’s learn more about who Miranda is and what her role is at Thinkific.  Miranda Lievers is the COO and co-founder of Thinkific. She has been at Thinkific since the early days when they were a baby SAS platform. Just about five years ago, they launched as a SAS company.

I have actually visited the Thinkific offices that they are currently in. I also visited what I think was called the bunker.  The bunker was the old super startup office that literally was like a warehouse with no windows. Miranda shared that now they are in “a real all grown up office.

I asked Miranda to go back to not necessarily the beginning, but when they realizes that this platform was going to take off.

Miranda shared a brief history of Thinkific just to give context.  She said that Greg Smith, CEO, was originally teaching LSAT classes in person, just over a decade ago. So he was teaching every Saturday out at UBC. And he was wanting to bring more content to his students. So he originally created a blog.

And then shortly thereafter, wrote to his brother to help him build what was an early version of his online course before there was a platform like Thinkific. He found that, all the sudden, he was able to teach people on their schedules all over the place and not just as in person audience.  And that was quite exciting.

What was happening, though, other people were coming to him.  They were coming to him not just to take his course, but to ask him for help launching their own courses online. And that was sort of the very, very early spark of building out this platform. So pre SAS company, the team started to build some software, started to create and launch other people’s courses for them, and realized that there was no way that they could create, market, and sell other people’s courses for them.  They really had way more demand and needed to create a product that allowed people to do that on their own.

And that was right around the time that Miranda met Greg.

Just as they were pivoting to a SAS company and allowing people to get going on their own. And that was in the fall of 2014. Miranda shared that she remembers the very first time that she pulled a report and took a look at some data. And a customer, who she had never talked to, had signed up on their own, got their course loaded, and was actually making money.  That customer had never even needed to talk to us.

In the early days, there was still a lot of hand holding because their software was really early.  But she remembers, the first time that she thought, “Whoa! Somebody really did it. They signed up, loaded their course, got students, made money, and they’re off to the races without us having to do it for them.”  Because we had built software that allowed them to do that.

And that was quite a moment at Thinkific.

Every day there were more and more people signing up and getting going. They’ve always had a real focus on great customer support. And they were doing all of that early on themselves. But more and more, they were finding that people didn’t even need to talk to us.  They were able to just get off to the races and do their thing.

I can only imagine that Miranda was like, “Okay, so who is this? Who on our team created this fake user?”  That would have been the first thought that went on in my mind. Miranda shared that she didn’t remember doing support for them. She even asked Greg if he knew who user was. So it a cool realization for sure.

So was it in that moment that Miranda realized that they had something?

Miranda shared that she remembers when she first met Greg which was sort of right before the transition to a SAS company. So they had been building some courses manually on their own, and then she met him.  She said that before working with Greg, she was a small business person. She’s been involved in technology and small business for years.

She’s done lots of consulting with small business owners. Her joke was always that small business owners don’t know that they need consultants until it’s too late. And typically they can’t  afford consultants. So she thought:

“I love small business. But I want to find a way to help small business owners, that’s different than just sort of this one to one consulting.”- Miranda Lievers

So when she met Greg, she just saw the potential before there were customers. And before people were able to do it on their own. But she just saw the potential for this platform to be able to help small business owners get their businesses growing with online courses in a way that she really felt like could take off and could help people do that.  It could help small business owners around the globe. And so she had sort of seen the potential. But it wasn’t until they saw people actually doing it, like that first example, where she knew that there wasn’t just potential was there, but they were actually starting to help people achieve what they’re wanting to achieve.

It makes so much sense to me that there are SAS companies like Thinkific out there that provide platforms for other entrepreneurs to use.

And I love this model. I love being in the thick of it. And I find that it’s one of those things, with Thinkific, you could look just like that first client did.  You can go in, load your content, go through whatever you need to go through to get everything hooked up, and sell your product. Or you could work with a consultant or you could work with the team there at Thinkific.  Or you could work with a third party. There’s plenty of us experts listed. There’s a lot of different ways of getting to sale number one.

Because there are so many ways of getting to sale number one, what does Miranda find is the most common trajectory for someone who is just getting started?

Miranda said that typical Thinkific customers  are coming to them having already monetized an expertise in some way. So they might be doing consulting, coaching, or speaking themselves.  They might have written a book or a blog. But they’re getting revenue. So in some way they’ve monetized this content or this expertise that they have. But they haven’t necessarily created and launched an online course.

So this question almost twofold. Miranda said, “It’s more like, how do I see most people who are successfully getting Started? And how do I see people getting tripped up getting started?”

The good news is she can answer both. The people who she sees who dive in and actually sort of take the wrong path and get a little bit tripped up are the people that think that they need to make everything perfect.  They think they need to create the biggest, baddest course that they’ve ever seen before they even open the doors. And that’s where she sees people getting a little bit tripped up when they kind of dive in.

They go into this rabbit hole of building like a massive course with tons of content.   We’re talking funnels, multiple pages, bundles of courses, and all of this crazy stuff.   They’re trying to open the doors with everything perfect. And they can get caught in the whirlwind and not come out.

What Miranda recommends people to do, and when she sees people who are really successful out of the gate, is to go small, rip off the band aid, build the mini course first, get the doors open, and start to get their feet wet in terms of getting clients.  She tells people:

“It’s always a good idea to do a small mini course first because inevitably, like anything in life, once you do it one time, you’re going to come up with a list of the 20 things you’re going to do differently the second time that you do that.”-Miranda Lievers

So that’s exactly what she encourages people to do.  She tells them to rip off the band aid course first, get your feet wet, figure out what you know, what’s what’s working, and what’s not. And then you can iterate on your next versions.

I think that is definitely a good strategy.

And I think that a lot of the listeners right now have something that they could put into a mini course or a small course to get going and start using the platform.  They definitely could be putting in what needs to be put in in order to prove that they can do online courses. You may be the best speaker or he may be the best author, but if you can’t translate that into a way that your students are going to appreciate it, learn it, use it, and refer you to others, then you may not be the best course creator.

Miranda shared that she thinks that going through all the motions at least once and getting something out there is important.

So you’ve got a landing page out there.  You probably are collecting leads. And you’ve got emails, students, and so on and so forth, that can really help you identify where the biggest holes are in your sort of end to end process.  It is about figuring out where the bucket is leaky.

It may actually be that your content is actually doing a really good job of moving your students through to completion, but it may be that your conversion rate off your landing page is actually where you’ve got a problem.  And maybe you need to dig in there. Or you might find that it’s quite easy to sell to your audience and you’re getting students into your course, but they’re really struggling to complete it. So having having something up as soon as possible helps you to identify where you need to focus your efforts next.  Because otherwise, you’re just trying to make an assumption about where the weakest parts of this business are. And you don’t necessarily know until you’ve got things up and running.

I totally agree with that because a lot of us who have smaller audiences, because we’re in a niche or a small town, may be very effective in online marketing and be able to get people in the door. But once they get in the door, they don’t know what to do next. Or we could be really good at putting that course together. And it could reach beyond the proximity of our niche or our small community, but we haven’t explored the avenues of marketing to a larger audience. So there are a lot of different variables in there.

So at what point is Miranda finding that people themselves find success?

Is it with their first sale? Or is it with their 10th sale? Is it when they cross the five figure mark income? What is it that has somebody coming to your support team there and saying that they’re ?

Miranda shared that she is such a data geek. So they actually just welcomed a brand new data scientists to their data team.. Miranda made sure to go over and say hello, because she’s so excited to have somebody else on that team.  She finds that she’sthe biggest internal client of our data team because she’s constantly asking, “Have we dug into this? What about this? How do we trend? How’s this trending over time?”

So they’ve looked at customer success in a lot of different ways and trying to figure out things what is that tipping point, both quantitatively and qualitatively. So obviously, there’s what are people telling them, but then also what the data telling them in terms of when people seem to really get it.  Miranda shared that it’s actually a different number than she thought it would have been.

What they’ve actually found looking at the data is, it’s actually in the five to 10 student range is where things start to tip.

And in digging into that further, they found as soon as people that you don’t know, start buying your course, even that very first stranger who pays you for your online course is such a big aha moment for their customers. That is when they think that this is actually working. So if they find that as soon as you start to get outside of the “friends and family are buying my course” stage, that’s the tipping point.The first time that strangers are starting to pay you for that knowledge and that online course, that’s when things start to really sort of get going.

That is so cool because it’s mirroring what the Thinkific story.  It is similar to the, “Oh my gosh, one person did this on their own.  They’ve paid us and they’re successful! This really can and is working” moment Miranda had.  .

Now, one of the things that I love so much about Thinkific is the connections that Thinkific has to the other tech tools that people are using.

An example would be their email marketing.  It allows you to put your Google tracking in your facebook pixel and all sorts of other pieces that keep getting added and added over time. I asked Miranda if there some that she’s finding are gems that people are just digging into and loving using.

Miranda had a bit of a different way to answer my question.

She shared that there’s definitely different platforms that people are choosing where they want to move their online course to and their platforms that are more closed in terms of sort of being more like an all in one.  And then there’s a platform that’s like Thinkific that is a little bit more open.

So they’ve got an API.  They’ve got external integrations. And that’s quite intentional. Because at the end of the day, we recognize that they can build the core of our of our business around online courses and they can build what the majority of people want to need. But every business is a little bit different.  Every business model is a little bit different. And every industry is a little bit different. So they want to allow the broadest range of customers to be able to use and get value out of Thinkific.

They can’t be, at their core, everything to everybody and solve every need.

It’d be impossible to anticipate what every single need is. So one of the things that that really focused on is building their platform and their core functionality. So the online course engine to be really good at everything else.  Where you can do basic email marketing through Thinkific, but as soon as you start to get into more complex needs, and as your business is growing, we want to integrate with the best of the best in tools across the range.

So whether that is being able to add those those pixels, so you can do your your ad recognition. Or best in class email tools, funnels, or landing pages.  Miranda shared that they are actually just about to launch their Shopify app, which will be quite imminent. So their goal is always to integrate with best in class tools, so that people can expand their businesses without them trying to be something that they’re not.

When referring to my question about the tools that people are using that hit home for them, she shared that,  it really depends a little bit on the business.

She said they know that probably the greatest number of people are using an email platform in addition to Thinkific because that just makes sense.  We all know that we want to be communicating and marketing to that list, especially as it grows and you can do that. When you’re getting started, you don’t need to integrate with an email tool. But that is one of the things that people tend to integrate with first. And some examples are Active Campaign, Convert Kit, or MailChimp. But the tool gets into the sort of the specifics of what it is that you’re looking to do, and what is the right tool for you. But I would say that emails are the first one that we tend to see.

That’s something that I do a ton of integration with.

I mean, I was just having a call with a client yesterday.  They were a Thinkific a client and we were going through the motions of, “Okay, so this is what it looks like when you integrate with MailChimp. This is what it looks like when you integrate with Active Campaign. And you have to make the decision.” I shared the advantages and disadvantages of both. There are definitely advantages and disadvantages on both platforms. And then there’s other things that you can do. I know I’ve talked about it quite at length.

And I know in one of the interviews in this series, I talked about Zapier.  I might have talked about it in two of the interviews, because I just love Zapier.  And the integration that we’ve got between Thinkific and Zapier allows so much flexibility and so much control, depending of course, on what level of thinking that you are at which is kind of why I brought that up.  Because it was a really good segue into the growth add on to the pro plan out there at Thinkific. The pricing is pretty standard pricing, but what you get with the growth package really elevates the potential of this platform as a foundational platform within your tech stack.

And I really want to kind of dig in a little bit into not just the thought of should people be adding on the growth package, but why you might want to add on the growth package?  Because for most people at some point in time, they will. Why you might want to add on the growth package?

Miranda share that with any size company, they’ve really analyzed their pricing and tried to strike that balance between wanting to help especially small businesses who are a new business owners get started, but they also want to make sure that the can continue to support them as their businesses grow and scale. Thinkific’s growth package was one of the biggest ways that they’ve been able to do that.

So the growth package essentially has all of Thinkfiic’s core features available on their basic plan.

Then, as you as you move up in plans, you basically get access to features that tend to help you as you have more and more customers. So the kinds of things that you need, as you grow, as opposed to necessarily need right off the bat.

So the kinds of things that growth offers on top of a regular plans for customers are things like groups.  You can start to sell into cohorts. And this starts to really apply when you have instructors who’ve got the same course, but they want to sell to things like organizations.  And then the organization is going to want to be able to pull a report on all of their employees and how they’re progressing through their course material, for example. So again, not the kind of thing that we see most people doing on day one. But as successful course creators are getting more and more customers, especially some of those big groups, that’s a really valuable feature.

Back to the idea of customer contact and email, they get into bulk email.

So on their growth plan, you can send bulk emails out to segments of your customers.  Miranda shared that that was quite fun, because you can do things like quickly send an email to everybody who’s enrolled in a certain course, but who hasn’t completed it.  Or you can set all sorts of fine tuned segmentation on those emails. This can be really valuable when you’re dealing with a bigger group of students. And similarly, you can even pull reports on very hyper focus segments of your users.

An example of this would be that I want to see everybody that’s enrolled in this course and that course, but hasn’t purchased this course. And so now I might custom market to that group of people or give them a promotion or a deal.

They’ve got a public API. And that is a word that most people don’t even know what it means.

And it’s basically technical speak for the back end infrastructure that allows two tools to talk to each other. So most of their customers never need to know about that. Most of their customers interact with an API via something like Zapier, which is an integration that they have that allows you to easily set up integrations between their platform and like hundreds of others. But if you’ve got a technical background or a developer on your team, you want something super custom. It’s the API and their web hooks are the technical ways that allow you to interact with that data.

Thinkific’s growth plan also offers things like the Zapier connection.  And some of their advanced integrations with things like Infusionsoft, Active Campaign, and Beryllium that allows you to import and bulk enroll students as well.

They were quite intentional about setting up their pricing so that you don’t need those things to get started. Those are all features that apply when you’re scaling and when you’re really growing. So they actually encourage people to choose growth, when they’re actually setting up.  It’s free for your first hundred students. So it’s like you get all the benefit of getting to play with some of those advanced features and you don’t have to pay for them. And you don’t pay until you’ve got more than 100 students. Then it’s just 10 cents per student per month. So it’s really very accessible.

And those are the kinds of features that allow you to grow and scale. Generally, alongside your business growing and scaling, in which case, the added very small incremental cost is negligible anyway, because you’re already growing your business.

Because there’s an additional expense for this, that’s why it’s designed for growth.

Your revenue absorbs the additional cost because of your growth.  Your revenue pays for the functionality that you’re looking at. And so I’m sitting here saying to myself, how are we going to make sure that we get the absolute best wrap up of this series out there on the airwaves so that it can just like put a beautiful statue or beautiful monument saying that this is what Thinkific is all about and that they can go to techofbusiness.com/thinkific, which is my affiliate link, and get started.  What is it that says, “yes I’m ready to start an online course” or “yes, I’m ready to invest the time required to work on an online course and get it to market?

Miranda said that she really believes that the future of business and education is changing and it’s converging.  When you take education and you superpower it with business you create this unstoppable force for change. We know that entrepreneurs and business owners have amazing knowledge and expertise. And when they can translate that into online courses and help other people transform their lives whether that is with skills and knowledge that helped them in their career, or their own business, or even just as a hobby, or helps them achieve personal goals, that we’re really having an impact on students and people worldwide.

So, back to the, you know, like, “Can I do it? Should I do it?”

Miranda’s  answer is always going to be, “Today! Yes!”.  She is constantly humbled and surprised at the incredible courses that she’s seen people create, who probably just like you, never thought that they had something worth teaching.  And they probably never thought that they would be able to achieve what they have built for themselves in their own families, but also for the students whose lives that they’re able to impact.

And what she’s seen is just humbling and incredible. So she encourages people to rip off the band aid.  And don’t die trying to create the “everything you ever needed to know massive course” that’s going to take you months to do.  Just think about today, what is one small way for you to dip your toes in and create content that allows you to teach somebody else something that you know?  And start that ball rolling of building online education for you and your audience. And get going.

I think that it’s a perfect way for us to wrap things up by saying, find something that you can create content around that people are going to be interested in purchasing.

We didn’t say that people are going to be interested in purchasing because you’re on Thinkific.  Or because you’re using Active Campaign. Because you’re using this tool or that tool. Your content is the most important thing and having it positioned in a way that it’s going to provide value to your leads, prospects, and customers and for them to have an impact for it to change their lives, their businesses, and their families. That is the goal of online education!  For it to change and empower the end user and we’re just using vehicles. Thinkific is a vehicle for that.

As I share before, the link for getting your free month of Thinkific pro plane is techofbusiness.com/thinkific. Yeah, so it’s just we’re on Thank you so much for hanging out with me for this Thinkific series here on the podcast. If you know someone who is thinking about doing an online course or that you know would do amazing with an online course, send them to this entire series.  You can get to the series by going to techofbusiness.com/series/Thinkific.

Again, thank you so much for being part of the tech business community. If you have any questions for me whatsoever, hit me up over on Instagram. I’m @techofbusiness.  I will see you next week.

Thanks for listening to the tech of business podcast. If you enjoyed the show, please subscribe, share, rate, and review on Apple podcasts, Stitcher Radio, Overcast, or wherever you download your favorite shows.  You can also learn more about me at techofbusiness.com.

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