Last Updated on November 16, 2020
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About Justin Pincar
The entrepreneurial bug bit me early! I loved selling lemonade as a kid, and in college I ran a mini convenience store out of my dorm. After graduating, I landed at a small company that was almost immediately acquired by Boeing. I quickly realized that the corporate world wasn’t right for me, so I left to join a Silicon Valley startup, and a year later that one got acquired by Google. After spending the next eight years helping various new companies grow from their founding team to their first dozen employees, I finally decided it was time to take the jump myself, and I started Achievable.
I learned about the science behind learning while building out Cerego’s educational platform, which allows instructors to create rich, engaging, and personalized courses. Their team and technology was amazing but the business was focused on user-created courses, which could be hit or miss depending on the savviness of the author. I suggested that with a vertical approach, where we produce and sell our own premium content, we could launch top tier products and compete with traditional publishers. They decided not to pursue the idea, so a few months later I spread my wings and started Achievable. My mission: modernize the test prep industry by producing easy-to-study courses backed by learning science, achieving better scores in less time.
How did you get your first several customers or users? How many users or customers do you have now?
We had no marketing budget to run ad campaigns, so when we launched our site, it was no surprise that no one showed up. We did the only thing we could: we rolled up our sleeves and hit the phones. Our first cold calls were embarrassingly terrible – we’d built a solid product but we had absolutely no idea how to sell it. Despite hundreds of rejections we persevered, and bit by bit we improved our pitch. No less than two thousand cold calls later we managed to talk our way into a pilot with a marquee client. The pilot results were overwhelmingly positive, resulting in our first contract and our first real revenue.
How does your company grow and acquire new customers?
These days we do have the budget to run ads, but it turns out that they’re not a very effective channel for us. Despite being relatively unknown, we actually get most of our customers organically. We built a simple double-sided referral program that encourages users to share our course with their friends and colleagues, giving a discount while receiving a reward. We also run a very generous partnership program for tutors, influencers, and online community leaders, who promote our courses and earn a revenue share on the traffic they bring.
Our most exciting customer acquisition strategy is unheard of in the test prep industry: our entire textbook is accessible and searchable for free on Google. It’s a risky move putting our material out there for free, and our competitors wouldn’t even dream of this approach. Our content is top notch, written by award-winning tutors, but we believe that the test prep content itself is ultimately a commodity. The true value we provide comes from our personalized learning platform, and that’s what our customers pay for and why they choose us.
What actionable tips and tricks do you have for new founders who are looking to get their first thousand users or dollars?
- Don’t give away your product or service for free. Opt for a deep “early access” discount instead, as your users will be much more engaged if they have a bit of skin in the game. They’ll also be more willing to give you honest feedback to improve your offering, and will be more forgiving if there are any issues. Free users tend to not value the product for what it’s worth, and as such, they most likely won’t be your champions and won’t lead to more users.
- Reach out to your network. And by your network, I mean every single person you can get in front of, both physically and online. You’ll get some early customers from it, but more importantly, you’ll end up making a lot of new connections and getting great advice. You’d be surprised how many folks will turn out just wanting to help you achieve your dream.
- It only gets easier, so stick it out. Starting is the hardest part since you have literally nothing, and everything seems like a daunting task. But from here, every single customer, every single piece of marketing collateral, every word you use to describe your business – they all build up and add to your arsenal. You’re always better armed than you were the day before. How do you walk a thousand miles? One step at a time.
What is something you’ve learned that would not be obvious to somebody who hasn’t worked in your space before?
You can compete with a goliath competitor if you focus on a niche. It’s tempting to try to offer a general product or service to cast a wide net because there is a larger pool of customers, but that’s not a good strategy. When you’re starting out you won’t have the resources to compete over such a large area, and it’ll be hard to differentiate yourself. Instead, pick a tiny niche and dominate it. I’d say Kaplan is the de-facto leader in test prep – everyone knows the brand and they have courses for every test. There’s no way we could compete outright. So we started with a tiny test, almost too small for them to even care about: the FINRA SIE, which has less than 100,000 people passing it each year. And instead of even targeting that entire market, we differentiated ourselves by focusing on millennials and customers looking for a top-notch smartphone study experience. We built the foundation for our business starting with these small segments, expanded to an adjacent test (FINRA Series 7), and expanded our customer targeting to anyone looking for more modern prep. Now that we have a stronger brand and more resources, we’re tackling larger markets like the GRE and USMLE – but if we had tried to start there we would have never stood out through all the noise.
What’s the craziest thing that’s happened to you (good or bad) on your founder journey?
After about two years working on the business, we essentially had to throw away all our progress and start over. We started out as a B2B company, selling test prep to finance companies. The sales cycles were painfully long, but we knew that once we landed a contract it would bring in stable revenue for years to come. And after several thousand cold calls, we were able to secure pilots with several of the big players. What we didn’t expect was that the entire regulatory landscape would change. We only had one test at this point, and the governing body decided that instead of the employer sponsoring the exam and preparing their employees, it would be up to the individual people to study and pass on their own. So *poof* just like that, all our corporate training contracts and all our revenue disappeared overnight. After we stopped panicking and collected ourselves, we began to realize that our immediate loss was a long-term opportunity. We would have to rebuild our entire platform and marketing efforts from scratch, but so would our competitors. They had the industry connections making B2B growth slow for us, but we’re a more modern company and would be more competitive in the B2C world with a better product, better customer service, and better SEO. So we buckled down and started fresh. After a few months we emerged from the dark with Achievable v2, rebuilt from the ground up specifically for consumers. It’s over a year later now and I’m so glad we didn’t throw in the towel – despite resetting our revenue to zero, we’ve since regained a solid customer base and are seeing consistent growth.
What are your favorite books?
Getting More: How to Negotiate to Achieve Your Goals in the Real World, by Stuart Diamond. This is hands down the best business book I’ve ever read. Most negotiation books focus on short-term wins, usually at the expense of the other party. Getting More teaches you that negotiations are not zero-sum games, and that if you’re thoughtful and creative you can actually generate more value. Through dozens of real life examples you’re shown how to expand your options and incorporate the big picture, getting what you want now while giving what your counterpart wants, building strong relationships for the future.
Anything you’d like to plug?
Study with Achievable (https://achievable.me/) and reach your target GRE score! Our proven course uses advanced learning science to continually personalize your experience, helping you get higher scores with less study time.
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