In Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers, he popularized what’s called the “10,000 hours rule,” which is a theory about the number of hours it takes to become a true expert in your chosen field. If you ask Ben Collins when he racked up his 10,000 hours of spreadsheet expertise, he would point to his first post-university job. After graduating with a degree in math, he entered the world of finance, taking a job as a forensic accountant who was tasked with rooting out fraud and other forms of financial wrongdoing. “I didn’t love being an accountant,” Collins told me in an interview. “But I’m grateful in the sense that I was spending, seven, eight, 10, 12 hours a day in Excel, which sounds horrible, but it just gave me a huge amount of time using Excel and developing those skills.”
After a few years of this work in London, Collins was offered an opportunity in 2011 by his employer to move to Washington, DC and replace someone who had left the company. Ready for a change, he jumped at the opportunity. Meanwhile, he had grown increasingly interested in the data analysis aspect of his job. “The clients would have huge amounts of data,” he said. “We would be sitting between the clients and the lawyers to try to interpret their data and understand what was happening with the transactions and the finances. So all my time was working with data sets in Excel, and as the datasets started getting larger and larger we started using SQL,” a programming language used to manage data. Slowly but surely, Collins began expanding his programming skills as he learned to write SQL queries in order to manipulate the data. He also started dabbling in VBA, another programming language that allows you to build applications within Excel.
Despite his interest in the data work, Collins still wasn’t enjoying the accounting part of the job, so in 2014 he decided to take a break and see if he could transition into a different, though related field: web development. He already had some programming language experience, and he enrolled in a General Assembly course to improve his skills. There was just one problem: he couldn’t find an actual job. His applications for junior web development roles didn’t go anywhere.
But it was around this time that he began blogging about some of his spreadsheet projects, specifically his work in Google Sheets, a free alternative to Excel. “One of the projects I did was this spreadsheet dashboard that I created for [my wife’s] business,” he said. “It was a sales dashboard where you could interactively filter down to different bits of your data and see the charts update. It took a long time, but [the blog post] eventually caught on in search. That’s what started this whole journey. I was writing lots of different blog posts about all sorts of different things, but it kept coming back to two of these Google Sheets posts that kept picking up whereas the other ones nobody was looking at.”
Because it’s a free product, Google Sheets used to be considered a “poor man’s Excel,” and for the most part established businesses avoided using it. But as Google continued to add new features to the tool, it eventually became a viable stand-in for its Microsoft counterpart. And while there are already thousands of Excel tutorials out there, Collins started blogging Google Sheets explainers just as there was growing demand for such information but not nearly as many online resources to relay it.
So Collins continued writing for the blog as he applied for jobs, and midway through 2015 he received his first email offering consulting work. “A guy emailed me and said, ‘Hey I saw your Google Sheets dashboards, could you help me build one?’” he recalled. “And I thought, well, why not? This would be great to just do to see what it’s like, to start earning a little bit of money.” Before he was even finished with that client, a second one came in, and then it snowballed from there. Eventually, he added a consulting services section to the blog.
Collins also created a pop-up form that urged readers to join his email list. By this point, the blog was only receiving about 2,000 visitors a month, most of them from search, but because of the very narrow niche of his website, he saw a fairly high conversion rate for email subscriptions. To entice readers into subscribing by email, he put together an 80-page PDF listing tips and techniques for Google Sheets; in order to receive the PDF, you had to join the mailing list. In its first year, the email newsletter racked up over a thousand subscribers.
At one point, General Assembly, the for-profit education company through which he took his programming courses, asked Collins to teach a course on data analysis. He jumped at the chance and found that he quite enjoyed the teaching aspect. During his years learning Excel, he had often referred to blogs very much like his own when trying to solve a problem or learn some new technique within the software. “All the blogs I’d followed for Excel as my go-to resources, they all pretty much had courses, and the courses I bought were the ones that taught you how to build dashboards. And since that ended up being the topic for the very first blog post I wrote that really caught on, it made me think, hang on, maybe there are people out there wanting to do this.”
So in the Spring of 2016 Collins began putting together an outline for an online course. “I didn’t do any recording at that stage,” he said. “I just spent a few months building out a whole bunch of dashboards and examples.” But he parked the idea for a while as he got swept up in other projects. “And then around late summer, I said to myself, I’ve had this idea in my head for about a year and I’ve done all this work already, and it’s just going to go to waste if I don’t do something with it.”
Collins sat down and actually began recording voice-overs for all the dashboards he’d created. As the course came about, he started researching various platforms on which he could sell it. “I decided early on not to try and build the platform myself,” he said. He found there are dozens of companies out there that allow you to sell and facilitate online courses. The largest is probably Udemy, a company founded in 2007 that now host over 55,000 courses. “I ultimately decided not to go with them because of their model,” he said. “Someone can take your course, but you can’t interact with the customer outside of Udemy’s platform. You can’t add them to your email list and that kind of stuff.”
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He settled on a platform called Teachable; it offered much more flexibility and control on how you could interact with customers. The downside to Teachable is that, unlike Udemy, it doesn’t do much in the way of helping you market your courses, but Collins felt he already had a marketing apparatus in place with his blog and email list.
Collins launched the course in February of this year. By this point his email list had grown to over 2,500 subscribers, and in the weeks prior to the launch he had teased the course and even recruited some of his subscribers to test it out and give feedback. The course was $149, but for the first five days after its launch he cut the price in half to $75. “I did, in that launch week, just shy of $8,000,” he said. “It was something like 89 sales.”
In addition to promoting the course to his email list, Collins set up landing pages and promoted them across his blog. If you land on the site, either through the homepage or on a specific article, you’ll see promotions across the top and on the sidebar menu. He also set up a nurturing campaign for those who signed up for his 85-page PDF; a user receives a few emails with Sheets-related content and then gets pitched on taking the course for the final one.
The promotions have worked; Collins said he sells, on average, between $3,500 to $4,000 worth of online courses a month, and because the course is entirely self-contained, this is all pretty much passive income. Those who take the course are given access to a private Facebook group, and he does spend some time in the group each week answering questions and responding to discussion threads.
What struck me while perusing his blog is that Collins isn’t a prolific writer; on any given month he’ll only post three or four articles. He told me he purposefully doesn’t try to produce new content every day. Because most of his traffic comes via Google, he puts much more emphasis on quality over quantity. “A lot of my blog posts are long, they’ll be 2,000 words with lots of formulas and screenshots,” he said. “I enjoy doing that more than just focusing on a single topic, and often it takes much longer to explain these complex things. But it’s working. I think that my ideal output would be one post a week.”
Since launching his first course, Collins has stopped taking on new clients, though he still does consulting work for already-existing clients. His goal is to eventually offer enough courses to provide a sustainable income. “For me, the two things I really enjoy are teaching and helping people and seeing them succeed,” he said. “I love the technical side, geeking out on these formulas and the programming and that kind of stuff. If I were to wave a magic wand and say what I would like it to look like in a year or two, I’d love to have 10 or 15 courses, and I’d love to spend my time creating these courses and writing these blog posts about really detailed topics while handling the customer side of things.”
Collins recently launched a second course, and he told me he’s already jotted down ideas for several more. “It’s always a challenge to pick what’s relevant and what’s next,” he said. His email list has now grown to over 4,000 subscribers, and its growth rate is continuing to improve. What started out as merely a side hobby while he searched for developer jobs may soon produce a full time salary. In his quest for a new career he accidentally, without planning to, built one from scratch.
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