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How Darren Cottingham Built a New Zealand Driver Training Site to 3 Million Visitors/Year
- Who: Darren Cottingham
- Website: drivingtests.co.nz
- Course Topic: Driver training
- Site Stats: 3 million visitors/year
Who are you and what course have you created?
My name is Darren Cottingham and I run drivingtests.co.nz. Drivingtests.co.nz offers vehicle and driver training courses. We offer over a dozen courses on driver training including the following:
- Forklift Operator’s Certificate
- Logbooks & Work Time: Heavy Vehicle Drivers
- Driving in Difficult Conditions
- Forklift F endorsement / Operators (OSH) Certificate
- Dangerous Goods D Endorsement (Renewal)
What market do your online courses serve?
We create courses for drivers in all industries. We start at the learner level (car and motorbike) and can help drivers all the way through to driving the biggest trucks, operating a forklift, carrying dangerous goods and more. Our main target markets are New Zealand and Australia (because we’re in New Zealand), but many of the courses are relevant globally.
What’s the biggest benefit of taking your courses?
In the transport industry, learning, literacy and language barriers are rife. When people who struggle with learning sit in a classroom they sometimes find it difficult – attention spans top out at around 20 minutes, so a three-hour classroom course is very challenging.
There is the potential emotional baggage of failures in classroom situations in school. There may be peer pressure or embarrassment about putting their hand up if they don’t understand something. If English is their second language, they might not understand what is being said.
All those barriers can be overcome with online learning. They can do it at their own pace spread over a number of days or weeks. They can repeat modules they don’t understand, watch someone do what they need to do on a video, and use our language and literacy aids (in-page translations and audio recordings).
How did you get into the market?
Originally we created the learner licence mock theory tests in 2010 because there wasn’t anything like it in New Zealand at the time. The only option was to read the Road Code (NZ’s road rules publication), which is impenetrable unless you have a high literacy level, or go to Road Code classes which could be financially difficult for some people.
We created the site thinking that if 5,000 people a month used it, that would be great. We were at 5,000 people per month after 3 months, so there was an obvious demand.
Why did you decide to create an online course in the first place?
New Zealand had a problem with young unlicensed drivers. I thought there had to be an easier way to get a licence.
Did you have any moments of doubt before you created it?
It was quite low risk as the initial learner licence quizzes were done as a side project on the cheap. Ad revenue built up over time so that it became a sustainable business. It was only when I started to think about doing paid quizzes in 2015 that it became more difficult.
If so what made you turn it around and do it anyway?
I’ve had other businesses before, so I know how much work goes into it. You just have to get your head down and do it. I ate the frog … with a side order of frog. It was either that or risk being consumed by a competitor.
What’s your online course like?
We have a mix of media types in the courses. The learner licence quizzes, which are free, are representative of the real learner licence test, so it’s just questions, some with images. The paid courses, though, usually have video or some kind of interactive content followed by questions to assess their understanding.
We use a mixture of live action video plus animation generated in Powtoon (which is gradually getting more and more useful). Some modules have PowerPoints hosted in Slideshare. Other modules were created externally in Adobe Rise 360 and exported as HTML5 content for embedding.
How long does it take you to create a course?
The courses vary in time to produce. The most time-consuming course was our dangerous goods course because I had to ensure I learned all the information before writing it.
There’s both a refresher and a full course and the total time was around 400 hours. I do almost everything in the course (except act in it or record the voiceover on the videos).
The Driving in Difficult Conditions course was also time consuming due to sourcing material, travelling to do filming and I also tried to step up the animation quality.
The simplified course production process I use is:
- Write the script, then get it peer reviewed
- Record any voiceover
- Source any media from video and photo libraries
- Film and animate the rest
- Edit it all together
- Finalize the questions
- Load everything and test it
- Iterate until it’s good enough to launch.
Tell us a little about the process of launching your course and getting your first sale(s).
Almost four years ago, there was news that the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 would be launched and that it had implications for employees that drive for work. This turned out not to be the case, but before I knew that, I had decided we would create a course aimed at businesses to ensure their drivers were compliant with the Act.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been on the bleeding edge of something and we bled quite a lot. It required me to redevelop the website. I had to completely spec the learning management system we’d use and, because we were doing 3 million page views a month on the learner quiz, it didn’t seem that using an off-the-shelf LMS would be possible without it being very expensive; there weren’t the options we have today back in 2015. So, I wire-framed what I thought we would need and we built it from scratch. I thought I would spend NZ$15-20,000, but I ended up continuing development over the following three years and spending over NZ$200,000. I did all the scoping and testing myself and I used a local designer and overseas programmers.
So, it took a lot of time to get to the point of being able to sell. We made our first sale in 2016 and it was really hard going. People didn’t really care about the HSWA2015 and the governing body (WorkSafe) made it a police enforcement issue rather than their issue. Now, though, people are asking us about it; awareness has changed over the last three years. There were a few times where I questioned my decisions.
Do you have a lead magnet?
We do demos either in-person or on the phone. After that we’ll give a limited demo of whichever course(s) the person is interested in. I have a business development manager that is on the phone all day. This was a major expense when I was setting it up, but it is working well now.
What’s the traffic strategy that works best for you?
My background was in SEO, so I managed to get good rankings fairly quickly. Back in 2010, this was fairly straightforward using techniques that might be considered a little shady now. Now we have to work a lot harder to maintain our positions. We focused a lot on content creation to get backlinks, although that’s getting hard now because of the number of requests from low-quality outreach companies.
What online course platform are you using?
We developed our own. While this does require technical knowledge and is expensive, the volume of users we had to our learner licence course meant that we had to. We could have taken something like Moodle and modified it, but that would probably have been about as expensive and it comes with a lot of bloat. Also, we had the need to integrate with some in-house systems.
Do you like it?
Yes and no. We developed it, so it’s always a work in progress that we are constantly thinking could be a lot better. We built it so it interfaces well with our iOS and Android apps.
Are there any features you wish it had?
As we produce our own courses, we didn’t bother with making the software SCORM compliant as it would have made it a lot more expensive to create; I wish I had now, but it’s not a major disadvantage. We’ve got a pipeline of about 600 hours of development already scoped, so this list could be really long.
What made you decide to use your chosen platform over others?
We needed to be able to control quite a few backend things related to practical assessments, plus the flow of information to other systems. When you make your own learning platform you can construct a workflow that is the most efficient for your business rather than having to adapt to another system’s workflow.
What other tools do you use to run your online course business?
Here’s a list of the tools we use to run the business:
- Powtoon (animation)
- Vimeo Pro (video hosting)
- Slideshare (media hosting)
- Adobe Premiere (video editing)
- Paint.net (image editing)
- G Suite (email, calendar, spreadsheets)
- Microsoft Office (PowerPoint, Word and other office stuff)
- OptinMonster (popups and lead capture)
- WordPress (our resources section)
- Mailchimp (email lists)
- Audacity (audio editing)
- Lucidcharts (wireframing)
- New Relic (server monitoring)
- Amazon AWS (hosting)
- Amazon SES (transactional emails)
- Cloudflare (caching, DNS)
- Google Analytics (analytics)
- Google Search Console (SEO)
- Google Adsense (ads)
- Google AdX (ad trafficking)
- Chrome Developer Tools (code analysis)
- GTMetrix (technical SEO)
- Grammarly (spell checker)
- Redmine (bug tracking)
- Slack (developer communication)
- Xero (accounting)
- Eway (payment gateway)
- Upwork (outsourcers)
- Pipedrive (CRM)
- Plus we have a fairly good semi-pro camera, a couple of nice voiceover mics and other related equipment for filming
Please share some idea of revenue.
I can’t share revenue details as we were recently purchased by another company and I’m prohibited from talking about it, but I can tell you that we have over 3 million unique visitors to our websites per year.
Please tell us a little about what the money you’ve earned from your course has done for you.
I got it to the point where it was fairly passive by early 2018 – ad revenue and course sales rolled in nicely and the business development manager generated course sales. I got a bit bored, though. At the end of 2018 I sold the company to a large transport company that also owns a large training company specializing in practical training.
I’ve stayed on because I enjoy it and now get to develop more courses. I like seeing that this become more of a global offering along with the 17 driver trainers our sister company has. The sale was a culmination of over 8 years of really hard work … long hours and personal sacrifices, so it was a relief and has given me some financial security.
In addition to revenue are there any numbers you would like to share?Good quality content really is the key to getting to three million unique visitors a year. -Darren Cottingham Click To Tweet
I found that focusing on a niche and really dominating it helped. I have a spreadsheet of article ideas and publish one a week now (I used to do many more per week).
We have over 400 articles in our resources section and another 250-300 within the site content. I use this to help capture emails for people in courses, but the most successful strategy is to capture emails from users of the learner licence courses. We’d easily get 1,000 a month who then get an upsell to a cheap course to help them with learning to drive.
What has creating your course done for you personally?
The ultimate goal was to sell the business and I achieved that. Fortunately, the company that bought it is amazing to work for. I’m proud that I started this little thing in my spare room and now it really could become a big thing.
Do you have a story of a transformation from any of your clients?
Driver training is a difficult thing to quantify because it’s the accident you didn’t have, or it’s a compliance requirement (e.g. for forklift training). You can’t get meaningful stats without running a control experiment and that’s part of the sales challenge we have. However, we have many instances of great feedback from clients who have had a positive benefit among their drivers.
What do you wish you knew before you started?
Everything takes a lot longer than you think it will. Expect to be working 80-hour weeks for a while if you are bootstrapping it. I started this company on the faintest whiff of an oily rag as a side project, running it from a spare bedroom, doing as much as I could myself, getting it to a point where the ad revenue was sustaining the software development. You’ll need an understanding partner (or, in my case, a string of partners that tolerated it for a while).
There are only three functions in business: production, sales, and admin.Figure out the stuff you are best at and do that as much as possible. Focus on the thing you’re second best at and improve your performance. Outsource everything else that you are bad at or can’t do. -Darren Cottingham Click To Tweet
Small markets can work for you – New Zealand only has 5 million people – but you must dominate in that market as there’s no room for multiple strong players.
Learn more about Darren Cottingham and his driver training courses:
- Website: drivingtests.co.nz