During a May video meeting, Thinkific co-founder Greg Smith said something that, in most boardrooms, would be shocking. The approximately 80 employees on the Google Hangout were casually dressed, many wearing jeans and T-shirts. The attendees, largely product engineers, and marketing, sales and support specialists, were listening to a presentation from the Growth Team, which tinkers with Thinkific’s online platform.
As the team presented their numbers, Smith quickly did the math. “Hey, do you realize we just lost $250,000 on that experiment?” he said. Then, Smith encouraged everyone to congratulate themselves. Virtual high fives and thumbs-up emojis poured in. “To me, part of ‘learn and grow’ is to celebrate and learn from failure,” says Smith.
Learning is the internal driving force behind Thinkific’s business: the nearly eight-year-old Vancouver-based software company offers e-learning platforms and resources so anyone from a hula hoop dance expert in Australia to a real estate broker in America can create online courses. Videos from former pro hockey player Jason Yee teaching students how to maximize their potential on ice or former pilot Kate Klassen’s multiple courses on flying drones aren’t just side gigs for the Vancouver-based creators, but income-producing businesses (Yee’s is called Train 2.0; and Klassen’s, Coastal Drone).
Thinkific (No. 17 on Growth 2020) supports 51,000 course creators in over 165 countries, “and [course creators] have students in over 170 countries,” Smith adds. Overall, the company generated US$340 million in gross merchandise value: revenue generated by customers selling courses on Thinkific. Smith projects “that number will be over $500 million Canadian” this year. In late September, Thinkific raised $22 million in new funding.
Creating a global “Shopify for online courses” wasn’t initially Smith’s plan. The road to Thinkific began when Smith was attending law school at the University of British Columbia in 2003. On the side, Smith taught LSAT prep courses. After hearing the same questions repeatedly (“What is a good score?” “Is the LSAT something I can study for?”), he set up a blog with the answers. The site grew in popularity, reaching many more students than his small tutoring sessions, inspiring Smith to create an LSAT course that was delivered entirely online.
“I knew from my time teaching and tutoring that the learning [format] was really the most important part,” says Smith, who partnered with his brother, Matt Smith, to build the site. The brothers wanted to invest more in the experience, which meant including quizzes that provided feedback on answers, or avoiding lengthy videos of classroom lectures in favour of two- to seven-minute segments.
The side gig brought in a few thousand dollars monthly, split between the brothers. With some development and marketing, the LSAT course revenue began to surpass Greg’s salary as a corporate lawyer. Then, others wanting to learn how to start their own online learning programs started reaching out with questions. That’s when Greg realized the potential of helping others to create and disseminate their own classes.
Thinkific launched mere months before the New York Times declared 2012 “the year of the MOOC” (massive open online courses), when major players like Udacity, Coursera, Google and A-list universities entered the market, signing up hundreds of thousands of students. “We started to see high-quality providers creating access to high-quality educational programming, but without the bounds of a degree or an institution,” says Amrit Ahluwalia, managing editor of the EvoLLLution, a Toronto-based online publication focused on non-traditional higher education. Ahluwalia notes that companies like Thinkific democratize the delivery of online classes so that “anyone can offer a course on anything to anyone.” As he puts it, “having a Ph.D. in something is not the exclusive arbiter for whether or not someone can teach something.”
With the online-course market on track to reach US$350 billion by 2025 (according to forecasts from Research and Markets), Thinkific entered 2020 on a wave. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, “it went from a big surfing wave to a legitimate tidal wave,” says Greg. As companies rushed to transition their business online, Thinkific’s numbers surged, in terms of growth rates, signups and success rates. In the 12 months before COVID-19, the company was growing at a rate of 70% year-over-year, and with the pandemic, that rate jumped to between 110% and 150% year-over-year. However, Greg notes that at the height of the pandemic-fuelled demand, the monthly data represented an annual growth rate of 400%.
Thinkific was a 100-person team at the start of 2020, and hired staff quickly, growing up to 150 at time of writing, and still hiring rapidly. Dalena Nguyen, talent branding specialist at Thinkific, says when the pandemic hit, they received 2½ times more customer support tickets than normal. So, “100% of [staff] were jumping in . . . We had days where every single person at Thinkific was in there answering at least a ticket or two.” The strength of that team is essential to coping with the company’s rapid growth, says Nguyen. During onboarding, every employee is trained in customer support and encouraged to regularly “hop into the queue” of support tickets weekly.
That sounds like a scramble, but Thinkific happens to be really, really good at team-building. Sure, the company has the hallmarks of a tech start-up, allowing office dogs (Instagram account: @dogsofthinkific), an open vacation policy and $1,500 to put toward learning opportunities. But Thinkific co-founder and COO Miranda Lievers says it’s not the perks that make its award-winning culture, but core values. “Everything [Thinkific has achieved] is because of our team,” Lievers explains. “We’re people first.”
Nguyen has been with Thinkific for a year, during the company’s growth spurt. “When you grow that quickly, a lot of processes and things can break,” she says. That is why, when Thinkific hires, it uses the topgrading approach to hiring, which digs deeper into candidates’ history than typical corporate interviews. The average age is around 32 and includes everyone from tech veterans to former teachers and travel agents. So while the volume of applications has blown up since the pandemic, Thinkific’s hiring process allows its team to get a better sense of motivation, and find candidates who align with the company’s core values.
Around 50% of the leadership team and staff identify as women—notable, considering in 2019, women made up only 20% of Canada’s tech industry, according to the Brookfield Institute. Further, one-third of the team are newcomers to Canada (representing 25 different countries). According to Lievers, welcoming this wealth of perspectives has contributed to the company’s own ability to learn and improve. She points to the impact of a recent hire, Cole Sanderson, on the question of accessibility. “We thought we had been doing an okay job,” says Lievers. But Sanderson, who is deaf, noted several ways to improve features—like closed captions on marketing content and on social media videos—which have since been implemented.
“There’s a real opportunity to grow and scale,” says Greg. “So, really, the only limiting factor. . . is: What is the impact on the culture?” The answer, Lievers explains, is continually checking in with their teams to find out what works, what doesn’t and what could be better.
In other words, keep on learning.