Interviews How Jeff Lenning Built Excel University to 12,000+ Students with 6 Online...

How Jeff Lenning Built Excel University to 12,000+ Students with 6 Online Courses

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  • Who: Jeff Lenning
  • Website: excel-university.com
  • Course Topic: Excel Training
  • Interesting Stats: 45,000+ Subscribers

Who are you and what courses have you created?

I’m a Microsoft Certified Trainer and CPA, and I’ve been teaching Excel for about 20 years. I’ve created 6 online Excel courses.

What market do your online courses serve?

Jeff Lenning PhotoWith a background in accounting and finance, I’ve built my courses primarily for accounting and finance professionals. This is because I’m aware of the reports and tasks my clients commonly work on and know which specific Excel features are helpful.

Over the years, I’ve discovered Excel University appeals to a far wider audience. So, anyone is welcome. The illustrations I use to teach the underlying Excel topics are designed to resonate with accounting/finance, but a background in accounting/finance isn’t necessary to take the courses.

What’s the biggest benefit of taking your courses?

The biggest benefit of taking my courses is that it provides a systematic and structured way for students to learn how to use Excel to get their work done faster.

People to want to learn Excel for many reasons. These reasons include job security, feeling more confident, required training (like CPE-continuing professional education), getting a promotion, and so on. Those are all valid, but you can learn Excel tips and tricks just about anywhere for free.

You can do a web search for specific features and functions, and read through free blog posts, articles, youtube videos, and discussion forums. But, this approach typically results in a random collection of unrelated and often conflicting tips and tricks. There is no structure to this approach as you are learning things in a random order (picking up random puzzle pieces).

There is conflicting advice, for example, some experts say use VLOOKUP, others say INDEX/MATCH, others say XLOOKUP, and others say SUMIFS. This approach also takes too long … you end up reading half an article or watching half a video before realizing it doesn’t apply. Plus, there isn’t a focused objective … you are just learning random things about Excel without seeing the big picture.

My training program teaches Excel topics in a very specific order (and it took me a LONG time to determine this order). The topics are taught in such a way as they are shown how they naturally work with other items (how all the Excel puzzle pieces fit together). And, students are taught when, where, how, and why to use each function (ex, when do we use VLOOKUP vs SUMIFS). Plus, there is a singular focus throughout the entire program: getting your recurring-use workbooks done faster each period (each week, month, quarter).

So, by the end of the training, students are able to have a holistic view of Excel (how all the pieces fit together) and understand how, when, and where to apply them in order to get their recurring-use workbooks done faster.

This focus enables students to reduce the amount of time it takes to complete the tasks they perform each month. This enables them to save time each month. -Jeff Lenning Click To Tweet

For me personally, I was able to take a recurring process (called a “monthly close”) that took 2-weeks to complete each month, and by using Excel correctly, over time, I was able to get it dialed down to 2-days. This is what I teach students to do. Time savings is the primary benefit. The other common goals naturally fall into place as well…but we are focused on getting our recurring-use workbooks done faster.

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How did you get into the market?

During my career as an accountant in a variety of different roles, I focused on getting my work done faster. (I’ve always liked getting my work done the fast way.) This meant figuring out how to get Excel to do my work (so I wouldn’t have to). Over time, I learned how to use Excel to work extremely efficiently.

I was excited about this, and had a true passion for Excel, and wanted to help others do what I did. So, I pitched the idea for an Excel class to a CPA organization, and they agreed to let me teach it.

It was a live, 8-hour course in front of maybe 100 people. I was really nervous at first to stand up in front of such a big group and be the focus. I’m naturally introverted. But, I did the class and during the session, I LOVED seeing the expressions on their faces as they realized that these techniques could help them work faster too. By the end of the day, I absolutely fell in love with helping others learn Excel to save time.

So, over the next decade, I taught hundreds of live, onsite, Excel sessions nationwide.

I wanted to find a faster way of helping more people. So, I decided to take what I had learned about using Excel AND what I had learned about teaching Excel and make it more accessible and more scalable so that I could help more people faster. So, I created online courses.

Why did you decide to create an online course in the first place?

While online courses provide a more efficient way for me to help others, it also provides a more effective learning environment for students. You see, over the many years of teaching in live onsite sessions, I would get two primary complaints on my review forms at the end of the day.

Complaint #1: I went too fast. Complaint #2: I went too slow. You see, everyone learns at their own pace, and given the varying experience levels (some already know PivotTables, some don’t; some already know VLOOKUP, some don’t) and goals of attendees, it was impossible for me to teach at the exact right pace for every live student.

The online courses solve this issue. Students can work at their own individual pace. They can rewind and replay lecture videos as desired, or, skip the practice exercises if they already know a specific function. It is the most effective way to learn Excel.

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Did you have any moments of doubt before you created/launched your first course?

My online courses, and indeed Excel University, came about as a “series of unfortunate events.” It is a long and winding story, but in summary, yes … I had many doors close and many struggles. Many moments of doubt and just feeling like giving up.

One example is that two organizations I wanted to partner with on this project initially said yes, but then after a year or so ultimately said no. I was deflated. But, instead of giving up I just decided to forge ahead without them.

As I reflect on the journey now though, I saw that as a door closed in my face, another one opened in its place. And, typically, it was a much better path. In fact, had these doors not closed, Excel University as we know it probably wouldn’t exist. So, I am grateful for the journey now.

I would say the thing that helped motivate me to keep moving ahead was taking the long view. Always staying focused on the long term, not the short term. -Jeff Lenning Click To Tweet

I made better decisions in the long run, even if they sacrificed something in the short term. And now, many years later, I look back and know without a doubt that those long-view decisions were absolutely the right ones.

What are your online courses like?

My courses include lecture video, practice files, written narrative, quizzes, and additional resources (links to blog posts, pdfs, etc).

The lecture videos switch between a short PowerPoint slide to introduce a specific topic, and then I switch to Excel to demonstrate.

How long did it take you to create your first course?

I’m not sure about the exact time it took to develop my courses, but I will say that the first course took a long time because I had a huge learning curve. But, the process for each subsequent course has become far more efficient as I’ve got everything dialed in now.

When I was building my first course, I first had to figure out what to say (the agenda). Next, I had to figure out how best to teach it (build the Excel exercises). Then, I had to figure out the “branding” (colors, graphics, icons, images, style, etc) and then build out the PowerPoint accordingly. Next, I had to record the videos, plus, the solutions videos.

I had to figure out which software to use, which hosting provider to use, which video dimensions to use, how to embed it, and all of that techie stuff. Then, I had to write all the quiz questions and exam questions. Enter all of this into the LMS. This took quite a long time as I had to do the actual tasks PLUS figure out how to do each task along the way.

But, the process gets tighter and tighter the more you do. And, I’ve learned to batch tasks which really speeds things up. In other words, instead of doing everything for Lesson 1, and then everything for Lesson 2, I batch by task type. So, I create an agenda for all lessons. Then, I create all Excel files, record all videos, and edit all videos. Next, I upload all the videos. Then I write all the quiz questions, and so on.

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Tell us a little about the process of launching and getting your first sale(s).

Just as with this entire experience, the first course provided me with a huge learning curve. I had to figure it all out as I went along. But, in essence, I got the LMS hosting going, and uploaded my content to the LMS. I turned it on so it was available.

Then, I gave free access to some folks to have them basically pilot test it. They really liked it, and their encouraging feedback motivated me forward.

At that time, I had my blog going, but I can’t recall how many subscribers I had … it was fairly small though. I wrote a blog post to announce the course. When my first student signed up, I was so happy!!

Do you have a lead magnet?

I do offer a couple of lead magnets … namely, a free sample course and a free on-demand webinar.

The free course brings in some, but not many, immediate sales. Sometimes, they love it and then immediately enroll in a paid course. But, mostly, they get familiar with my teaching style and get onto my list.

The free webinar also results in some immediate sales, but mostly, it builds my list.

The weekly emails I send to my list are mostly content (Excel tips) without any sales messages. Three times per year, I do have a “launch” or promotion enrollment window. And, so three times per year I do “sales” types of messages in my emails.

excel-university.com Webinar

What’s the traffic strategy that works best for you?

I would say overall the name of the game is building your list and thinking long term.

I’m not really a marketing or sales type of person. I’m basically a CPA and Excel nerd who enjoys sharing what I’ve learned about Excel because I absolutely love it.

So, what I do for marketing is just teach. I help people learn Excel free through my blog and related youtube videos.

As people search for Excel tips, they stumble across my blog posts. If they like what I have to say, they may subscribe to the blog or sign up for the free webinar/course.

Then, they’ll receive weekly tips as I write my weekly blog.

If they continue to like my stuff, and then feel like they want to dig deeper, they may register for a paid course sometime down the road. I’ve had students on my list for two years before jumping in to buy a paid course to dig deeper into Excel.

What online course platform are you using?

I use Moodle LMS. It has everything I need from an LMS standpoint, although it would be convenient if it also had the shopping cart/e-commerce piece integrated. I started with Moodle because it was free and open source.

What other tools do you use to run your online course business?

  • CourseMerchant to do the eCommerce piece (integrates with Moodle).
  • Active Campaign for emailing my blog posts and broadcast campaign emails.
  • WordPress for the blog.
  • QuickBooks Online for accounting.
  • Zapier to keep various systems talking with each other.

Do you have any big mistakes you’ve made along the way that you’d be willing to share?

As I scan my memory, there are tons of little mistakes … but, I really don’t count them as mistakes because they were training for me. I learned from them and then moved ahead.

But, the biggest mistakes I make, the ones I regret, are when I reply to an email while I’m feeling emotional about the sender’s email. In most cases, the email I reply with while I’m emotional is much different than the one I wish I would have replied with the next day. So, even though I pride myself on providing a super-fast response time to email, what I do when I receive an upsetting email is to wait … I just think about it during the rest of the day, sleep on it, and then reply the next day.

I always try to focus on doing what the best I can for the student within the parameters I’m allowed. Whenever possible, I side with the student … always. Even if I sacrifice something in the short term, I stay focused on the long term. The long term success is about reputation … and people saying wow that was a great course and Excel University is a great place to learn. So, I sacrifice time and cash in the short term and stay focused on the long term.

Please share some idea of revenue.

My launches typically average about $50,000 to $75,000.

Please tell us a little about what the money you’ve earned from your course has done for you.

The best thing that the courses have allowed me to do is to be able to focus 100% on what I love … Excel. Many CPAs have a “busy” season … which is basically doing tax returns or audits. Even though I’m a CPA, I don’t have such a busy season. My schedule is predictable, stable, and there are no external/urgent deadlines imposed on me.

Besides this freedom in my schedule, I’ve also been able to work on Dave Ramsey’s baby steps. Not having credit cards, automobile loans, or a home mortgage further allows me to focus on what I love … teaching Excel … without the short-term cash flow issue that could divert attention and energy away from this.

Jeff Lenning Book

In addition to revenue are there any numbers you would like to share?

Here are a few numbers and stats from my business:

  • 12,000+ students in my LMS (paid + trial)
  • 45,000 subscribers getting weekly emails
  • 12,000+ webinar registrations last year

What has creating your courses done for you personally?

I’d say that it helps me feel independent and thus more secure. That is, instead of relying on a company to keep me employed, I am the quarterback. Instead of receiving 100% of my income from one employer, I’m receiving income from many individual students. I’m not worried about an employer one day deciding to downsize me out of a job. This helps me feel more secure.

Do you have a story of a transformation from any of your clients?

I have many, but they all follow this pattern: I thought I knew a lot about Excel, I realized I wasn’t using it to its full potential. As a result of my lack of Excel knowledge, I wasted a lot of time doing things manually. After I learned from Jeff, I now get my work done much faster.

You can read more about specific successes on the site.

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What advice do you have for people just starting out?

For me, my passion for Excel and how it can save so much time is, I believe, one big reason why people take and love my courses. When I talk about saving time with Excel, I’m excited and I let that shine through my videos.

People say that I have too much fun teaching. But, that is exactly why I think the courses are successful. -Jeff Lenning Click To Tweet

So, I would say that your passion for your thing is what will drive the success of your course. If you truly love your topic, then you will be excited when you talk about it. Your personality will shine through and you’ll want to let people see that.

Learn more about Jeff Lenning and Excel-University:

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