Teaching Startup Founders High Growth Strategies and Tactics Online at Craig Zingerline’s Growth University

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Learn about teaching startup founders high growth strategies and tactics online at Craig Zingerline’s Growth University in this episode of the LMScast podcast hosted by Chris Badgett from LifterLMS.

Growth University is a place where startups and founders go to learn a lot of the holistic elements around growing their startups. Craig takes a very stage and industry agnostic approach, and has put together a series of training programs that help startups across the board learn customer acquisition, activation, how to measure and track retention, how to do product-led growth, and how to run experiments.

Teaching startup founders high growth strategies and tactics online at Craig Zingerline's Growth University

That has really been Craig’s life passion, and he went from building a team starting out with one program and now they have 8 and will probably have 15 by the end of this year. The origin of Growth University came from a few different angles. Primarily Craig was an operator in a few startups, a couple that had been bootstrapped and a couple that had raised venture money. And he had a sense of trying to build, grow, and scale startups from different angles in the various industries around growing and hitting monthly metrics, trying to build a bigger company, and drive more revenue and get more customers.

The origin of Craig’s content was when he started to document the common pain points he was seeing. After 180 conversations with founders on that platform, he was getting asked questions every day similar to, “I have this challenge. How should I think about solving this challenge?” Through those conversations, as well as Craig’s own experiences, he had started to build this curriculum.

To learn more about Craig and his Free Growth 101 program, head to GrowthUniversity.io. You can also email him at [email protected]. If you have growth questions, Craig does 15 minute office hours all the time for free, so feel free to email him for more information about that. You can also find Craig on Twitter at @CraigZingerline, and you can see some of the fun stuff that he posts about everything from product-led growth, to activation, to entrepreneurship, founder struggles, and all that great stuff. He’s also on LinkedIn at @CraigZingerline.

And at LifterLMS.com you can learn more about new developments and how you can use LifterLMS to build online courses and membership sites. Subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast. If you like this episode of LMScast, you can browse more episodes here. Thank you for joining us!

Episode Transcript

Chris Badgett: You’ve come to the right place if you’re looking to create, launch, and scale a high value online training program. I’m your guide, Chris Badgett. I’m the co-founder of LifterLMS; the most powerful learning management system for WordPress. Stay to the end, I’ve got something special for you. Enjoy the show.

Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name’s Chris Badgett. I’m joined by a special guest. His name is Craig Zingerline. He’s from growthuniversity.io. Craig, I’m really excited to get into it with you today. We’ve got a lot in common. We’re into software, we’re into education, we’re into community, so there’s just a lot of good stuff going on here. But first, welcome to the show.

Craig Zingerlin…: Hey, thank you so much, Chris. I’ve been a big fan of the pod as well as the platform. Had failed at many other platforms before we found Lifter, so thanks for building it, first of all. And thanks for what you’re doing to support the community. It’s good stuff.

Chris Badgett: Awesome. Appreciate it. We’ll go into the backstory, but just real quick, in a nutshell, what is Growth University?

Craig Zingerlin…: Yeah. So, Growth University is a place where startups and founders go to learn a lot of the holistic elements around growing their startups. And so, we take a very stage and industry agnostic approach and really have put together a series of training programs that help startups across the board learn customer acquisition, activation, learn about how to measure and track retention, how to do product-led growth, how to run experiments.

And that’s really been my life’s passion. I built a team and we started with one program and now we’ve got 8 and we’ll probably have 15 by the end of this year. And we’re just scaling that out. So yeah, happy to go in the backstory or whatever, but that’s… In a nutshell, it’s an online platform, a learning platform that has a bunch of content for founders where they can level up their skills to help them grow their startups.

Chris Badgett: Wow, that’s awesome. I spend a lot of time in learning myself. And as an entrepreneur, and specifically as a software entrepreneur, I’ve gone out into the world and pieced together training and learning. And I mean, I know there’s entrepreneurship tracks and tradition higher ed and stuff like that, but there’s just such an opportunity for the niches. I’m a big fan of, there’s a program I’m in called SaaS Academy with Dan Martell.

Craig Zingerlin…: Oh, cool.

Chris Badgett: I learned a ton inside of that and just connecting with other founders and Jason Calacanis’s podcast, Startups For the Rest of Us, The All In podcast that he does. I listen to that as well. Take us on the journey of what you, Jason Calacanis and the origin story of Growth University here.

Craig Zingerlin…: Yeah. So, the origin of Growth University really came from a few different angles. Primarily, I was an operator in a couple startups, a couple that had been bootstrapped and a couple that had raised venture money.

And so, I had a sense of trying to build, grow and scale startups from a couple of different angles in the different industries. I had personally seen some of the same challenges when trying to grow and hit your monthly metrics and try to build a bigger company and drive more revenue and get more customers.

So, I had struggled with some of the same concepts at pretty much every company that I had been at. And in a lot of cases, you feel like you’re reinventing the wheel when you go to market.

And then the other thing is that, really from the last 10 years or so, I had done a ton of advisory work, a tiny bit of investing and had hundreds of conversations with founders around their pain points with growth.

I’d gone through the launch accelerator with two different companies, so I got exposure to just dozens and dozens and dozens of companies. Had prior to that worked at an agency. And so I was building websites and products for people. And what occurred to me was that, as my journey went from highly technical, I started as a software engineer, then I ended up in product management, then all the way over to marketing, what I realized was that the growth component of the startup really became the most important thing.

If you can’t get in front of customers, if you can’t drive revenue, then effectively you’re not growing. And if you’re not growing, then you’re likely going to run into trouble. And so, I had met Jason Calacanis in 2014 when I took a head of growth and product role at a company called Red Tricycle.

And I pretty quickly got involved in the launch ecosystem, speaking at a lot of the events. We took Red Tricycle through the first cohort actually, of the launch accelerator. When I left that, I started another tech company called Votion. I took that through the third cohort of the accelerator.

That company didn’t really scale, but towards the trailing end of that, I had collaborated with Jason and his team on a program called Founder University. And that was my second or third iteration into the curriculum building side. And I realized that I loved building curriculums, I loved putting content out there, more long form content.

And I had a bunch of ideas around trying to wrap my arms around all of these fairly esoteric concepts of growing your startup. There’s tons of advice online, what to do, what not to do. Should I raise money? Should I not raise money? What channels should I be in? How hard should I drive emails? What is activation?

And long story short, I had start to just document those common pain points that I was seeing. At the same time, I had gotten involved with a platform called Growth Mentor, so growthmentor.com. I’ve done, I think, 180 conversations with founders on that platform and just getting asked questions every day about, “I have this challenge. How should I think about solving this challenge?”

And through those conversations as well as my own experiences, I had started to build this curriculum. So, version one of that was basically a failed attempt. So, my first iteration of what became Growth University came out about two years ago.

And I had put some content up on an LMS and I had advertised it a little bit and it was crickets. I didn’t have the right methodology for going to market, which again, I brought back to my own learnings. I was like, “Okay, well, how do I apply some of the stuff that I’m thinking about and talking about for my own application of trying to get this curriculum out there.”

And along the way there, I had kept the dialogue up with Jason and he’s putting a ton of companies to his accelerator every year. And so, we had a couple conversations and it became clear that there was a need for growth-based training.

And so, I had built a beta version of what was my original program, but I put a lot more energy and effort into it. And we ran a private beta with the launch accelerator companies in the summer of 2020, so just over a year ago. And the feedback was phenomenal.

And out of that, we decided what if we productize this? What if we put this out in the world and try to monetize it and just see what happens? And the first cohort just went gangbusters. It was a huge success. Feedback was great. And it was enough of a catalyst for me to really jump in and do this. We raised a little bit of capital. We hustled our way to figuring out what our business model even was. We had started as selling transaction and we moved to subscription and now we’re off to the races.

Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. And for anybody listening that’s not in the startup scene, how would you define the purpose of an accelerator?

Craig Zingerlin…: Yeah. I think there’s, I just gave a talk actually two weeks ago at conveners.org. I had a program called Accelerate the Accelerators, and it was all about ecosystem building for startup accelerators.

I think a lot about accelerators in terms of their core operating thesis. So, what type of accelerator are you? And if you’re a startup and you’re thinking about an accelerator, the point of the accelerator really depends on the accelerator.

So, for example, there’s accelerators that might help you with funding and fundraising. Those are very capital-specific accelerators. There might be some-

Chris Badgett: [crosstalk] Y Combinator type?

Craig Zingerlin…: Like Y Combinator launch is very capital-specific. It’s a lot of pitching, pitch review, just understanding how to talk to investors. There’s an investment piece. Y Combinator is very similar there.

Then you’ve got a whole arm of nonprofit accelerators, which are meant to support the entrepreneurial community and to try to help folks who maybe have a full-time job still but are looking to make a transition into startup life. So there’s a bunch of accelerators there.

There’s accelerators that focus on social good, social change, there’s company builders. Actually, I’m part of a company builder that’s in the ESG space called black lab venture studio. And so, there are so many different areas of focus, but the main point is to help within that theme of the accelerator, you and your startup build community, build some scale, build some continuity into how you’re thinking about whatever their operating thesis is.

It’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all. So, I think a lot of people hear accelerator and they’re like, “Oh, it’s just, you’re gonna go and you’re going to get some investment and you’re going to go meet a bunch of investors.” Not all of them work that way and not all of them should work that way.

Chris Badgett: So, how does Jason’s accelerator work and the role of education play into that?

Craig Zingerlin…: Yeah. Actually, that’s a great question. And I think one of the challenges that accelerators actually have is, and I’ll answer the question in a second, but one of the challenges that accelerators have is, they intake a bunch of companies and then the companies graduate and then that’s it, right? There’s some kind of graduation event.

Chris Badgett: [crosstalk] funding.

Craig Zingerlin…: This is generally like an accelerator putting a little bit of money, they’ll have a demo day and then that’s it, right? So then the startups they’re off, the accelerator has their piece of equity. They’ll be somewhat supportive of the startup, but basically the startup has graduated, right?

It’s like they graduate from high school and now they’re going to decide either continue to college or they’re going to go their own way. They’re going to figure it out on their own.

What’s interesting about launch is that they tend to take a three-phased view of their ecosystem. There’s pre-accelerator, there’s accelerator and there’s post accelerator.

In the pre-accelerator, what they do is, if you listen to Jason’s podcast, for example, he talks a lot with startup founders about things that they’re going through, things that are important to startups, right? Helpful tidbits, tips, tricks, strategies, frameworks, founder to founder.

They also have a program called Founder University. And Founder University is 100% free, there’s no equity investment or anything, there’s no investment. And they do this, I believe, six times a year. And this is all about helping operators and founders understand some of the different aspects of running the startup.

So like, I do a lot of talks with that around growth and marketing, but they’ll have how to raise capital, how do you build a cap table, how do you pitch? Think of it as like the minor leagues for the accelerator.

That becomes intake for the accelerator, which includes an investment and then just week over week, relentless pitching and feedback. By the end of the launch accelerator, you are extraordinarily good at telling your vision, and showing your metrics, and showing your product and presenting.

And that’s not only helpful just for raising money, but it’s also helpful for recruiting, finding teammates, talking to potential partners, getting clients. And then there’s the post-accelerator support, which is all about helping the startups that are out there in the world get access to additional capital or to the resources that they need.

And so, Growth University actually is one of the value-adds of the accelerator where all of the accelerator companies who are current members get access to all of our growth youth programs.

And in fact, our participants, right alongside the rest of the cohort of the community that we’ve built for, whether it’s a live cohort or even what we’re doing on demand, those launch accelerator companies get access to our programs. And then we’ve got a relationship long-term with those startups as well. So, it’s really benefit-driven in terms of that whole ecosystem that they’ve built.

Chris Badgett: I love that. You mentioned the terms on demand and live. So, you have something called live mentor. Tell me how you think about the, as organizing all this and all the patterns you see of problems people have and what they need help with, what do you do live and then how do you think about your on-demand training?

Craig Zingerlin…: Yeah. So, we had started as only doing the, we had a six week live cohort program, so everybody would have to show up at a certain time. We had some supplemental content that was already built. So PDFs, Excel Sheets, data dashboards, things like that, that live in the LMS that are available on demand.

But really the meat of the program, if you will, was every week for six weeks, you show up at a certain time and day. And I walk through the high level takeaways of the theme of that week. And so, that’s the live cohort.

The value and benefit of the live cohort is that there’s a forcing function around just showing up every week. It’s really good for building community. So, if you’re going to run live cohort programs, you have to put a lot of energy into it.

If you’re just showing up once a week, and people show up once a week and that’s it, you might as well just record it on demand and make it easier for your audience to consume your content. And I’ll get to why we ended up doing that and why we’re a hybrid now.

But the value in the live cohort is that peer-to-peer community aspect. There’s accountability, there’s regular check-ins. I run office hours during our live cohorts. We have guest speakers in almost every week. I mean, not huge names in the industry. I like to find what I call normal startup operators who are running startups that are maybe between $100,000 and $10 million in revenue or maybe 15 or 20 million in revenue and get them to come in, because they are in these seats that most of our companies are going to be in in one to three years.

So, a lot of other live cohorts are going to get famous speakers from all these big companies. My view is like, that’s not super relevant to somebody. Hearing somebody come in from Airbnb might be inspirational, but it’s not going to be probably super effective at teaching skills that are going to be useful for the startups that we have at the stage that they’re at right now.

So, we do a lot of that community building. But what we found is that, often that’s tough for people as well. So, we would lose a certain percentage of founders and startup folks who just can’t commit to a specific day in time, maybe they’re homeschooling, maybe they’re still working a job, maybe they’re in a different time zone.

I mean, we’ve tried to account for this, but you can’t account for every edge case. And so, we did a lot of customer discovery in surveying and talking to our members and saying, “Do you like the live cohort or do you like the on-demand?” And it turns out they like and want both.

So, we move to a model where we run the live cohorts, we’re doing it three times a year right now. We’ll get a bachelor program starting in the fall. We’ll run another in Q1 in 2022 and then another in late spring.

But then we also record everything and then we have additional programs that are on demand. We can’t run amazing live cohort for the eight programs that we have right now. A, we don’t have the audience, but B, it would dilute the efficiency or the effectiveness of our flagship programs that we can put in.

And some of the material on demand is actually better for on demand. So, for example, a deep dive in Google advertising, that stuff that you’re going to want to start, and stop, and rewind, and move through, there’s less of a necessity for community building there than something like more holistic growth with my mastering growth program where there’s inherent value in getting that peer feedback.

And then we do things like the live mentor, which is brand new, which is, again, out of necessity from our members, they told us, “Look, we love the live cohort, we love the on-demand, but we want more touch points and we want more community.” So we said, “Okay. Well, we’re going to start this weekly session where any of our members can just drop in.”

And the first week we ran, we’re in week five now. The first week, so just over a month ago, we had a bunch of people show up. And I had thought, coming in that I was going to be doing most of the talking. Like, they’re going to have a lot of questions, I’m going to try to answer them, or my co-founder, Jen, is going to.

Well, it turns out, I ended up just shutting up and letting them communicate and collaborate. And what we found was this magical balance of mentor/mentee, totally intermixed peer-to-peer engagement and a lot of lessons that were learned because of that peer-to-peer engagement that we wouldn’t have been able to provide if it was just one directional with us answering a bunch of questions. Those have been some of the most fun sessions actually I’ve ever had. So, that’s been really cool.

Chris Badgett: I love that story there. It’s like the audience is literally telling you, you’re having an ongoing conversation and then you create these on demand things, these cohort things, these office hour mentor things based on just removing friction that comes up. You mentioned the six week cohort, I think I got that right. And then each week has a theme. Is that right?

Craig Zingerlin…: Yeah.

Chris Badgett: So, what are those six themes or some of them, and how did you end up using that theme framework to create that package of training?

Craig Zingerlin…: Yeah, that’s a great question. And so, the six week became five weeks actually, because what I found was that my weeks one and two originally was financial modeling, and then growth modeling, and then starting to think about customer acquisition. And what I realized is that I could actually deliver less content but higher value, people have to spend less time by merging the first two sections.

So, there’s five modules, which I’ve run over a five week program now, and that’s what we’ll do in the fall. So, the way that I had originally visioned these modules was, it’s really hard to grow what you’re not really measuring, right?

If you don’t have goals and you’re not tracking to some kind of metrics, you’re like driving blindfolded, right? You’re probably going to crash into something. You’d be on a straight road and you’re okay for a little while, but once there’s a bend in the road, you’re in trouble.

And so, I always knew that there was going to be this foundational element of this program that was going to be, I mean, literally in a spreadsheet building month over month views of revenue projections and growth rate projections around metrics that are important to your business.

And what are those metrics? There’s usually a revenue metric, there’s usually a user metric and there’s usually a cost metric, so a price metric, and there’s probably either a retention metric or a frequency of purchase metric.

So, if you wrap your arms around all of that, we think about building that framework first where you can clearly articulate, where have you been and where do you think you’re going? And where you’re going also might depend on your funding state, and how big your team is, and what your market is, and what your price is, and all that great stuff.

So, once you build that foundation then that second week we move into customer acquisition because now you’re ready, you’ve got the framework down, you’ve got your tracking in place, you’ve done a lot of that legwork, now we focus deeply on customer acquisition.

And I think a lot about intentionality of customer acquisition, and that helps determine what channels you’re going to be in. And then from there it’s like, okay, well, once you’re starting to acquire customers, how do you activate them? How do you move them through the buyer journey, how do you leverage constraints, and triggers, and sequences and product-led growth and all of that great stuff to move them to purchase.

And then assuming that there’s some success there, there’s a whole module on retention. And I found that retention is likely the most important area of your startup, right? I mean, you run a subscription style business. I mean, you know this, I know this, most founders, even if it’s a transactional business model, there’s some frequency or retention play likely.

And many, many founders that I talk to, even seasoned founders, didn’t really know how to build cohort reports or understand what CAC LTV is and all this nomenclature. And so, we focus on that. And then the last piece, that fifth week now is experimentation.

And so, the theme there is really around coming up with more frequent, rapid iterations of learning. I’m not talking necessarily about statistically significant A/B tests that have volume and scale, I’m talking about getting directional feedback, talking to a lot of customers, doing a lot of customer discovery to understand where you’re going to double down, things that you’re going to slow down on, things that you’re going to try to scale.

And that forms this whole package. What we found from there was that then there’s natural points where we can go a lot deeper. So, when you think about week two, customer acquisition. Well, now we’ve built a whole series of full-length programs just on customer acquisition.

We’ve got an activation program that we’re going to go live with in the fall that’s just focused on that, right? We don’t have anything yet solely focused on retention or experimentation, but we’re going to move there. So, we’re able to supplement that holistic foundational framework level set of learnings with much more tactical programs that help the operator or the marketing person or the product manager do their job better.

Chris Badgett: I love that. So, the six week cohort gets a baseline in everybody with the most important stuff. And then you build off of that.

Craig Zingerlin…: Exactly.

Chris Badgett: I mean, that’s one of the challenges of having a education, business or a membership site is people at all kinds of different places. But you developed that common core, now we have more of people with a similar understanding.

Craig Zingerlin…: Yeah, that’s right. And what was interesting, so I had built all these financial and growth model templates and iterated probably a hundred times. I mean, I’ll still make changes to the master framework here and there.

So, when Jason and Jackie on the launch team saw what I had built for Growth U in terms of standardizing the way that we measure with our dashboard and the way that we can project growth metrics forward looking model, well, guess what, that’s all the stuff that you talk about with investors when you’re pitching investors.

So, the launch accelerator companies actually use the Growth U model part of that curriculum for their starting points. It’s not required that they have to do it, but I’d say 80% of the companies start from scratch, basically with building their financial and growth models on top of the curriculum that we developed. And there’s some standardization happening now.

And what I love these types of framework level programs is that there is some standardization that’s starting to happen now. There is a way that we’re finding, if you think about how to acquire customers, for example, you’re going to have more success, or at least you’ll save yourself some time and headaches by thinking about specifically like that intentionality. Instead of blindly just being in every channel and trying every different thing, which we urge you to do a lot of, you approach it from that intentionality level first.

And we’ve done that with a lot of these modules where there’s a lot more that we can extend into and flex into downstream.

Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Tell us a little more about how it works, or just general advice around the B2B side of being an education entrepreneur. So, if you have all this training, you’re working with people individually, but you’re also working with companies that have their people, how do you set up those deals or those relationships so that you can deliver training at scale through your network or [crosstalk] there?

Craig Zingerlin…: Yeah. It’s interesting. For mature companies and for accelerators, for example, they often want some kind of custom program. So they see our offerings and they’re like, “This is great. Can you package together different components and deliver it to us?” And sometimes we’ll do that.

So, I would say 10% of our focus right now is making sure that we capture a wide enough audience with the accelerator and the, call it fully emerged companies. Public companies, bigger companies, who have dozens or hundreds of marketers within their organization that could be viable for us.

There is a little bit of that hand-holding around, let’s make sure that in as fast of a time as possible, we can deliver the most amount of value. And so, there’s a little bit of that.

We generally though have stuck pretty closely to just a really simple monthly or annual model. And we’ll do bulk volume seats and things like that if you’re going to come in and buy. So like accelerators sometimes will buy a batch of seats for their startups.

But really at the unit economic level, we’re selling either an annual plan or a monthly plan. And we approach every deal from that seat-specific view. And again, there might be discounts or whatever, if you’re buying a bunch of seats.

In terms of the volume of the training, we’ve really tried to build a calendar, and actually our latest hire, we brought somebody on to own basically our curriculum development and our training calendar, and our called our development. So, working with the startups really closely to understand what they need moving forward.

And what she’s doing is building out a 12 month roadmap so that we can, in advance, communicate with all of these companies and founders who are interested in even accelerators and larger companies, whomever it might be, partners so that they understand what’s coming down our roadmap and when we’re running live cohort and when the on-demand content is available.

And so, in some ways we’ve got the best of both worlds because we can leverage the live cohorts to drive a lot of demand and use the scarcity… I mean, there’s real scarcity, we’re not going to take a thousand companies at once. There’s an upper limit of what we feel is right in terms of handling those live cohorts.

So, we can drive to a date, but the rest of the time it’s just available. So, we don’t bump up into this scheduling conflict and all this craziness because not everything is live. And that’s the benefit of having the option of on-demand.

So, we’ve moved into this strange hybrid role that not a lot of other companies in our space are really doing this yet. It’s either all live or it’s all on demand. And we’ve just been agnostic in terms of how we approach that. We’re like, we don’t really know where this is going to go so we’re just going to experiment. And that experimentation led us to this hybrid model.

We try to meet those companies where they are, and we try to proactively communicate what’s upcoming. And we’re not going to push them to sign up for stuff that’s not relevant, but they just know that we’ve always got new stuff coming out and at some point it’s going to be viable.

Chris Badgett: I love that. I love the open-mindedness there. This is something you see in the software community, especially where there’s a lot of success. There’s some open-mindedness, some ability to be wrong, but also to not be pragmatic. So you’re like, “Okay, we’re not just doing cohorts or an on-demand library. Let’s do both.” We’re not just doing individuals or company’s, we’re going to do both.

Craig Zingerlin…: That’s right. Yeah. I mean, it’s like we have all these different pillars that we look at in terms of trying to drive growth for this. And the needs of the different folks that fit within the pillars are often different in terms of some of the content that they need.

But it all comes down to, are we providing additional value to whomever the human is that’s consuming our content? And are we saving them time or are we saving them money? Right? That’s generally what it comes down to. And if you think about, if that’s your mental model coming into a conversation, the same logic applies to an accelerator or a scale stage startup to a bootstrap founder.

Now, the bootstrap founder might need to save money and they might also need to save time. The company that just raised $5 million probably is less concerned about saving money. They want to make more money and they want to save time because they are now just trying to scale this thing and they’re hiring like crazy.

And so, the way we’ve built our programs is bottom up from that perspective is like, “We will meet the user wherever they are in their journey. We’ll provide a lot of different options for them. Then we’ll provide some of that one-on-one if they need it.

And we’re totally flexible in our thinking around where this thing is going to go. And we’re upfront about that too. So like we’ll say, well, we will know our 12 month calendar soon, but up until now, we don’t necessarily know when the next live cohort’s going to be, which causes a little bit of anxiety. But now that we will, we can clearly communicate that and then we can backfill the time in between with the on-demand stuff.

And I agree with you. I think that there’s that flexibility in thinking, I hired a team of entrepreneurs as my early team. We’re at five people now, we’ve got an opening right now. We’re in final round interviews. We’re at the sixth person, so we’re a tiny startup still, but everybody on the team at this point is pretty entrepreneurial and flexible.

And we’re looking at data, we’re talking to a lot of customers. I relentlessly, and we’re trying to objectively make decisions based on what’s happening in real time.

Chris Badgett: This is awesome. This is going to be really hard for me not to Joe Rogan or Lex Fridman and go for like three hours with you. Because we’re talking about software, we’re talking growth, we’re talking about education and entrepreneurship.

Let’s shift gears. One of the things I see in successful companies like yours is, I call it the five hats problems. You have to wear a lot of hats. You have to be a community builder, you have to have expertise, you have to be a technologist, you have to be an entrepreneur, you have to be an instructional designer.

The ones that make it work, there are unicorns out there that can wear all those hats. Others do the best they can and then build a team as soon as they can and really address that. I want to shift to the technology hat for a second here.

Tell us the story of WordPress. Why WordPress, and then why did you end up going with LifterLMS for your platform? Some companies are, it’s not uncommon in the software space for people to use WordPress for their marketing site or not, or they don’t want to use it, or they don’t like it, or whatever. So, how did you end up at WordPress and then specifically Lifter?

Craig Zingerlin…: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I had, again, approached platform from a flexible thinking standpoint a couple of years ago. So, I’m not going to mention names, but I had used a very popular LMS that was pretty good in terms of-

Chris Badgett: After or in WordPress?

Craig Zingerlin…: This was not in WordPress. This was a proprietary platform. And there’s a lot of them out there. I mean, I know you track those. These next couple of examples are both well-funded, high growth LMS platforms. I just don’t want to throw anybody under the bus.

The first one was fine from an LMS standpoint. It had all the bells and whistles from an LMS point, but didn’t handle any of the communication side of the business that I needed around email marketing, drips, triggers, sequences, member management, integration for forward-looking community, none of that.

And so, I knew pretty early on that that probably wasn’t going to be an amazing fit. So, then we ended up moving to a non LMS. And actually, I’ll share the name of this. And we ended up using Notion for the second iteration in the platform.

And we use Notion actually internally for a lot of our data capture, content capture, we structure a lot of stuff in Notion, but the challenge with Notion was that it was so unstructured with e-learning that there was no, we couldn’t build accountability for our learners through the Notion platform.

And so, then we moved to another much bigger LMS that does everything. They do all of the email marketing, all of the payments, all of the course curriculum design, all that. So, they do everything, but they didn’t do any of it well.

And so, we had email deliverability issues. Their website was hard to build, that was proprietary, it wasn’t open source, we couldn’t hack anything on our own, it was these archaic templates that we had to use. That company raised a boatload of money.

I couldn’t stomach it anymore in terms of not having the option of at least building a module if I needed a module or having direct integrations with third parties that we needed. And that was a closed system.

So, I’ve been working actually with WordPress, frankly, since WordPress and Drupal put one of my startups out of business, right? I mean, in 2004/2005, I was running a startup.

And we built this enterprise CMS and it was incredible. It was like, you could right click into it using Server-side JavaScript on the backend. It was amazing, but it was thousands of dollars in open source, just eight hour launch.

Chris Badgett: Yeah.

Craig Zingerlin…: Open source, just eight hour launch. And so, at that point, I started using WordPress extensively and had done a lot of consulting projects on WordPress and other open source platforms.

So, I had this feeling that there’s probably other, and by the way, I tried other live cohort-focused LMSs, nothing really was providing enough value against the frustration that I was feeling with whatever constraints the platform had. I’ve kicked the tires with almost all of them.

So I eventually said, “You know what, I’m just going open source. So, let’s go to WordPress. My co-founder Jen and I both could do WordPress. I have engineering friends and old co-founders who could help if we get in a pinch.” And then we started testing LMS’s and we burned through a number of LMS’s on WordPress that just didn’t really have all the functionality that we wanted.

And then we stumbled on Lifter. And I mean, there was definitely a little bit of a learning curve when we came on, but pretty fast out of the gates, we replicated the curriculum, we built the programs and it just worked.

And it integrated with Stripe, and it has all the features that we want, and it’s open enough and your support team has been fantastic. And so, the Lifter platform on top of the open source WordPress platform gives us a lot of flexibility. We can at edit templates, we can build additional modules if we need to, we can do direct integrations, whatever third parties we need and we can let the other third party platforms do the heavy lifting.

So, we use ConvertKit for all of our email stuff, we use Lifter on top of WordPress, we use Notion for a lot of our other stuff, and then other open-source products and Google Docs for some of the curriculum development.

And it’s just simple and it works. And I think what’s been interesting about Lifter is that you’re not trying to build every single bell and whistle that some of your proxy competitors might be doing, but you do the learning management side really well. And I think that was where we saw a lot of the value.

Chris Badgett: Wow. That’s awesome. Well, thanks for sharing that. I’m going to share that clip with my team in team meeting today because that kind of stuff really makes them excited.

Craig Zingerlin…: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And I know we’ve asked you guys a bunch of questions, so I know my team has been… I’m like, “Just reach out. They’ll push back if we’re asking too many questions.” But the support’s been really great. The prices very reasonable.

The add-on modules that you have are great. I mean, we feel like if something goes wrong or if we really need something that you’re in our corner and you’re accessible, and that accessibility is one of the core traits of companies that we love to work with.

The fact that you and I are both founders and we’re having this conversation, the fact that we can reach out and we might hear from you, the fact that our members will see me on all the weekly live mentor sessions, I’ll hold office hours, that accessibility, I think, is a core operating principle that a lot of high growth startups actually share. Right? It’s that accessibility, making your community feel that they’re loved and that you’re there.

Chris Badgett: I appreciate that. And I can definitely feel the resonance with that. And in our world, and if you’re watching this and you’re a software entrepreneur, at LifterLMS, we see that accessibility, the support, basically the human element, we see that more as a feature than a cost center.

And that is just a mindset we’ve had since the beginning of the company and it has made all the difference for us. So, if you’re watching this as a software entrepreneur, yes, you have to invest in it, but putting the human inside with all the tech and the automation and everything else is still a very important piece of business.

Craig Zingerlin…: I would a hundred percent agree. And that’s how I had been early at our agency and we scaled the agency. We grew out really, really big, and that was our operating thesis there.

I’ll give a plug to my last company, Sandboxx. Sandboxx.us. The founder, Sam Meek and the co-founder, Shane McCarthy and Swamy, the three of them built a tech platform that really doesn’t need customer service, customer support, what we call customer happiness. But they built that team and they’ve been called the Google of the military space.

And the way that we approached growth there was, to your point, this is a profit center, right? There’s so much value when a user can reach out to you and know that a human is going to reply and that it’s not an inconvenience.

In fact, the person on the other end is hired to help you. A lot of startups look at that as a cost center and they don’t want to have that human connection because it costs money, but really what I’ve seen over, and over, and over, and over again is that if you treat it as a profit center, it likely will be a profit center.

Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. There’s another user of LifterLMS out there that some folks may recognize the name of. His name is Jay Abraham. He teaches a lot of business and marketing stuff. And Jay said a while ago, I heard him make this comment once about how one of his tricks or keys to success or whatever was to take something you’ve learned from a completely different industry and then apply it to yours.

I find I learned so much in a software/entrepreneurship niche that’s relevant to education entrepreneurs. You mentioned want to wrap us out on this area of what’s called product-led growth, which is really emerged in the software space.

It’s like a V2 of what we know of as freemium. In software world, Dropbox is free, but then you hit a certain storage limit and you pay. So this freemium model in software. If you were advising an education entrepreneur, not a software entrepreneur, how can they use product-led growth or think about free in today’s online business world?

Craig Zingerlin…: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’m a huge fan of product-led growth. I have Romley’s book right here, so I’ll plug that. I’m friendly with Romley and Wes and I speak at the product-led conferences and some of their cohorts and vice versa.

I do think that there has been, so I’m going to preface this by saying that if you look at my Twitter, I will often take issue with folks that are just a hundred percent product-led is the only way, and you don’t need marketing, and you don’t need anything else. I firmly do not agree with that.

So, I think product-led growth has to fit within a framework within your startup that is an accelerant and helps to be a catalyst but it doesn’t work in a vacuum. You still need to do marketing, you still have good engineering, you still need to have good customer support and all that great stuff.

So, that out of the way, I can tell you how we’re leveraging product-led growth. We have a, and again, I think the nomenclature is interesting because product-led is something that those of us that have been in the industry for a long time have been doing pretty much from the start, right?

Does it fall within activation? Does activation fall within product led? The concept is that you’re trying to get the product to do some of the work for you that forms a loop so that the output of a user using the product is ideally more users using the product or more revenue from that user who’s using the product, right? So, you form these loops, and if you’re strategic about that, it can be a total game changer for you, right?

Because what you’re able to do is iterate more quickly through that feedback cycle and go a lot wider than what you might have been doing, if you, for example, had to have everybody come through a signup for a demo form and have a human actually give a demo every time. That’s a great model for some businesses, but it’s not a great model for every business.

The way that we’ve approached product-led growth is by putting a ton of free stuff out there that gives a lot of value for free, it creates some buzz, it allows us to drive lead generation really cheaply and efficiently.

And that includes, we’ve got a free growth 101 course. So, growth 101 is basically a subset of mastering growth, and there’s a lot of value in growth 101 just in and of itself.

What I didn’t want to do was just create a course and then build a bunch of constraints to try to upsell into our bigger program. So, like cut off all the good stuff. We’ll give you a lot of the good stuff.

Chris Badgett: Just to clarify real quick. Growth 101 and then mastering growth, is mastering growth the six week cohort or is that?

Craig Zingerlin…: Mastering growth is the six week cohort. Yeah, that’s like our original flagship program. I took a subset of mastering growth, made it a lot more bite-sized, didn’t include a bunch of stuff, but tried to add the really valuable stuff to growth 101 so that if you take growth 101, you’re still going to get a playbook. You’re still going to get a lot of the assets that you’re going to get in mastering growth, but you’re going to get it for free.

That is product-led for us. It’s free, the product is selling itself, there are some natural constraints that lead the user to want to consume more content that’s paid. There are natural triggers and calls to action that drive to other endpoints that are not free.

But the concept is that there has been a value in the 101 program for it to be pretty good standalone. It doesn’t necessarily have to be as robust as our paid side because we need to monetize. We’re a company. But it has to stand alone and have enough value.

And I think that’s an important component of product-led growth is that what some of these fast growing, product-led companies like Miro, or Loom, or some of these mid-market SaaS companies, they really figure out how to leverage constraints after they’ve hooked and engaged a user.

And they’re leveraging constraints that will block the user from doing certain things, but they do it in a graceful manner and in a smart manner so that when you bump up against that constraint, it’s okay, you’re going to get your credit card out now.

And so, that’s a very thoughtful process. So, the risk with all the buzz around product-led growth is people just think, “Okay. I’m just going to build freemium and then they’re going to bump up against this hard stop and they’re going to stop getting value.”

That’s not how you do it. You have to understand how to provide value for that thing that you put out there so it stands alone and there’s value in that in and of itself. And so, that’s one of the takeaways that both through reading the product-led books and speaking to the community and just being in the seat that I’m seeing. And that’s how we’re using it at Growth U.

Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. So, you’ve got a free mini course called Growth 101, right?

Craig Zingerlin…: Yep.

Chris Badgett: And then I also noticed you had a dollar trial. Start one week trial for a dollar. Real quickly, I love of that idea of just like, hey, I think that’s a great way to reduce risk and have a serious person take a drive by. Tell us just the structure of that.

Craig Zingerlin…: Well, we had started out with a free trial, and what we realized with a free trial was that people weren’t really coming in and consuming the content and then they were churning. The ones that actually did convert from the free trial often were churning. By putting that $1 barrier in, we get the credit card.

And there’s something psychologically that happens with the user. When they get the credit card out and they know they’re going to be billed in a week, it actually pushes them to get in and consume content.

And it forces us to make sure that our onboarding is getting better, and better, and better over time. Our version one of onboarding was horrible. I mean, it just was totally broken. And I’d give us like maybe a C, C+ right now, maybe B- right now. We need to get to an A. But the trial is forcing us to up our game there.

And psychologically the user had put their credit card in. They want to get value, they want to experience value. We found that our retention is a lot stronger. We don’t convert everybody that comes in on the trial, but it democratizes it a little bit.

It lets it, if you want to come in for a week and kick the tires with our on demand Facebook course and you consume the whole thing, you get a bunch of value and then you decide to not let it renew, totally fine. We are willing to take that risk because we think there’s so much value in the comprehensiveness of our offering that the vast majority of people that come into the trial, the vast majority of people that come into the trial convert.

Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Well, that’s Craig Zingerline from growthuniversity.io. This has been a ball. I want to do another one with you down the road because there’s so-

Craig Zingerlin…: I would love to.

Chris Badgett: I wanted to get into all things entrepreneurship, tech, being a… This is a great example. Thank you for being a shining example of an education entrepreneur. You’re really demonstrating this, a deep connection to your customer, to the subject matter, the material and a method of just continuous improvement and removing friction as you go with your online education business is really awesome.

Craig Zingerlin…: Thank you.

Chris Badgett: Craig, thanks for-

Craig Zingerlin…: I feel the same about what you’re doing actually. I mean, you’re all over your website with your videos, and your training, and your courses to get people online and engaged with Lifter. So yeah, I share the sentiment.

Chris Badgett: Well, I appreciate that. For anybody who wants to connect with you, what are the best ways? You’ve got social media, you’ve got free course on your website, what should people do?

Craig Zingerlin…: I would go kick the tires with the Free Growth 101 program at growthuniversityio. I’m also just [email protected]. If you’ve got growth questions, I do 15 minute office hours all the time, free. I just love to help founders. And you can find me on Twitter @CraigZingerline and you can see some of the fun stuff that I post about everything from product-led growth, to activation, to entrepreneurship, founder struggles and all that great stuff.

Chris Badgett: And that’s a wrap for this episode of LMScast. Did you enjoy that episode? Tell your friends, and be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss the next episode. And I’ve got a gift for you over at lifterlms.com/gift. Go to lifterlms.com/gift. Keep learning, keep taking action, and I’ll see you in the next episode.

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