PHLEARN lets the budding photographer learn Photoshop and Lightroom through online tutorials on its WordPress site. No more trekking to a stuffy classroom: with PHLEARN PRO — a $9.95 monthly WooCommerce subscription — you have access to the teacher whenever you want.
Behind PHLEARN, there is a small group of diligent people who wanted to “make you laugh, make you smile, all while you master your craft.” It worked — what started as a YouTube channel is now a creative community of millions of people, with PHLEARN customers spanning across 149 countries. The founder, Aaron Nace, is still the instructor on the videos and is a charmingly convivial mentor. The person guiding the business itself is CEO Seth Kravitz, who took some time to share more about building up an online school.
Could you explain how the PHLEARN website came about?
Back in 2009, our founder Aaron did something called a 365 project. For 365 straight days, he took a self-portrait and edited it into something silly or funny in Photoshop. People were like, “How are you editing so quickly? How did you do that really cool effect?” He got tired of answering the same questions in written form so he started recording little videos and posting them on Vimeo to show how he did something.
In 2012 he began posting on YouTube. Everything took off in 2014 when the videos started to get hundreds of thousands of views, and it evolved into a professional training company. There were free 15-minute videos on YouTube and then we had three, four, five and ten-hour professional training ones that we sold on our site, and that’s the basis of the company today. It went from being a YouTube channel to a fully fledged company — from Aaron sitting in front of a webcam in his bedroom posting poorly edited videos to working in an 8,000-square-foot commercial space!
What makes PHLEARN unique?
In the world of art education, there is very much this authoritative “follow what I say,” top-down approach. Aaron is more, “Let’s hold hands and run through the valley of Photoshop together.” He wants to be your best friend, that’s his style of teaching. PHLEARN is unique because of his unique personality.
Did you have a marketing strategy for promoting PHLEARN or did everything develop naturally from the YouTube channel?
At first, we definitely did not have a strategy! The videos just started taking off. It wasn’t until 2016 that we started doing paid ads on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and really focusing on SEO to actually rank for whatever somebody might be searching for on Photoshop.
Now almost all of our marketing budget goes toward content marketing. We have a full-time editor-in-chief and three writers. We look at our content as the key to our growth from here on out.
Aaron is more, ‘Let’s hold hands and run through the valley of Photoshop together.’
Is it easy to come up with a pricing structure?
It’s very easy to come up with a pricing structure that’s really cheap and it’s going to bite you in the butt over time. It’s a lot easier to price high and offer discounts than it is to raise your prices from a low amount to a higher amount.
It’s a pretty bad predicament to find yourself in, where you have a ton of customers that are paying you a very low amount and you have to go back to all of them and say, “Hey, I’m raising all of your pricing.”
Why do you use WooCommerce Subscriptions on the site?
Subscriptions allow predictable revenue every single month — not the constant peaks and valleys that come with brand-new product releases. With subscriptions we can budget for the future, hire people and grow, and know we’re not going to have this terrible down period of three months where we don’t have enough revenue to pay everybody. Having WooCommerce run the subscriptions has saved us a lot of money and time.
What are the challenges of upscaling a business?
A lot of that is figuring out who you are and what it is you want to be and not sacrificing your values and ethics as you do it. People always ask how a company goes from five people to 500 people, from 10 million in revenue to a billion? If you look at the history of all the companies that do that, it’s because they got insanely good and effective at one thing. It’s so easy in the early stages, when everyone’s just throwing out ideas, to get pulled left and right constantly. Companies grow because they said, “No, we are this one thing and we do it really well.” Not every person you add can let you do 10 extras — but every person you add can make you do your one thing better, and that’s how you scale up and grow.
Is there any advice you would offer a new entrepreneur considering an online business?
It takes a lot longer than you think to get a company to profitability, let alone sustainability where it could last for years. That means perseverance — the ability to wake up on that 300th day in a row when things are not going well and say, “I’m ready to go work hard and we’re going to just go at it for one more day.” On the 300th day where it’s still a struggle, a lot of people check out and are done. If you look at success stories throughout history, it’s the people that had the ability to stick it out and last.
Companies grow because they said, ‘No, we are this one thing and we do it really well.’
Do you hear stories about people who learned skills through your site?
Yes, in so many random ways that we would never think of. Some of them are obvious — like someone was able to pass their classes — but I also know of a person with disabilities who felt lonely and lost in front of their computer one day and stumbled across PHLEARN. They are now a professional retoucher even though they have limited use of their hands.
We’re here to help and that’s one of the nice things about being in education spaces — you just hear constant stories about how you improved someone’s life.
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