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Co-founder of WebinarNinja and The $100 MBA with Omar Zenhom.
Nicole is also the producer of the iTunes Best of 2014 Podcast The $100 MBA Show – which is now in their 900s episodes.
Nicole joins us in this episode telling their business startup journey.
To listen to my conversation with Nicole Baldinu:
You can listen right here on the Healthy Numbers website click here
You can listen to the full interview on iTunes click here.
You can listen to the full interview on Stitcher click here.
You can read the full transcript here:
Ingrid: Hello and good morning. Here we are talking to Nicole Baldinu. Good morning, Nicole.
Nicole: Hi, Ingrid. Good morning. How are you?
Ingrid: Great. We’re both here in Sydney which is quite nice. Sometimes we’re talking to people in other time zones, so it’s quite nice that we’ve got our sunny Sydney morning. Nicole, let’s just kick off. What business are you in? What is your business please?
Nicole: We have two businesses, one is the $100 MBA which is an online business training and community, as well as a podcast. Then we also have a webinar platform, a SAS product called WebinarNinja. We’ve got two businesses.
Ingrid: Okay, two. Quite different aren’t they? They are obviously both technically based, but they provide different services, don’t they?
Ingrid: So when did you start each of these businesses?
Nicole: So, I haven’t been an entrepreneur for very long, actually. I used to be a teacher, an English teacher and language teacher in my former life. I left in 2011 and then in 2012, I kind of started my entrepreneurial journey via film school, so I was studying to do video freelancing work in New York at the time. Then I hooked up with Omar, who’s my husband and co-founder, and in 2013, we launched the $100 MBA. Which at the time was just a video training and community before the podcast in 2014 is when we launched the $100 MBA show podcast. In April of 2014, we also launched WebinarNinja at the same time.
Ingrid: It’s not that long ago, is it?
Nicole: It’s not, but it feels like a lifetime.
Ingrid: Indeed. Why did you start the business? What was the reasons for getting into these business?
Nicole: It’s funny because, honestly, as a former teacher, I never ever thought this would be my path or my journey. I left teaching after over a decade in the classroom, really. I was looking for something just more creative in life, and I never thought that entrepreneurship would solve that, but it really has. Particularly, to your question, why did we start those two businesses was really to solve pain points. With WebinarNinja, we wanted to solve the pain point of doing webinars.
With the $100 MBA, Omar was a drop out from Wharton Business School, basically. He had started an MBA at Wharton Business which is a very prestigious, expensive college in the US. After a semester, he dropped out because he really wanted to be an entrepreneur and his marketing professor actually asked him like, “What are you doing here?” And he said, “I want to be a great entrepreneur,” and he’s like, “Well, you don’t get an MBA to be a great entrepreneur. You can get an MBA if you want to work in middle management at a Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, something like that. He’s like, “You’ve already got experience,” because Omar was already building businesses on the side. We thought, “Well, you know, you don’t really need a piece of paper and you don’t need to spend that money to get the fundamentals of business,” so we started the $100 MBA to just be a way for people to get those business fundamentals without going into debt, basically.
Ingrid: That’s fantastic. The pain points that you were solving, that’s why you started the businesses. What then what did you want? You personally wanted some creativity was one of the things from the business. What else did you want from the business from day one?
Nicole: I think, as a teacher, you might think you have a lot of freedom, a lot of people say, “Oh, teaching is great! You’ve got all those holidays over the year, you’re basically master of your own domain once you close the door to the classroom. No one knows what’s going on in there, you can do whatever you want,” but I actually feel like while that’s true, while there can be a lot of flexibility, I actually felt it’s extremely constricting. The fact that you have a time table that you must stick to, for me, felt very restrictive and a curriculum that you had to adhere to, which was the great thing about setting up our own curriculum with $100 MBA, we could determine what we felt was actually important to teach people when it comes to business.
I was definitely looking for freedom, in terms of not having to abide by a very strict time table. I definitely wanted the flexibility to work when I wanted and to create whatever I wanted. I guess, it sounds a bit cheesy, but I really wanted control over my destiny. I think, once you become an entrepreneur, you begin to create things that didn’t exist out there in the world. That’s an amazing feeling, really.
Ingrid: That’s such a lovely definition of entrepreneur, isn’t it? This idea from nothing comes something and that is what entrepreneurship is, isn’t it?
Ingrid: So this is a question that I like to ask people because it’s a different answer, almost everybody has a different kind of context to this. But when did the business become real, when did it actually feel like you were in business and particularly, for you, because as you said, Omar had some experience in running businesses, but as a teacher coming to this entrepreneurial space, when did it feel real for you, like you were in business?
Nicole: Yes, that’s a good question. I often think like maybe the typical answer might be when you start making money, but I kind of started to think that I got that a little bit with the freelancing when I was doing my own freelancing video work, but I actually, reflecting on that, I feel what I’ve come to realise it’s been actually through WebinarNinja that I’ve realised is when things didn’t go well. We would iterate and we would change things and we would work to improve our process, improve the product, that, to me, actually felt like we were really in business because when you set about to iterate on something and then you put that out there and, “Oh, okay, that works,” then you look back and you go, “Oh, this is how far we’ve come. We’ve continued to change and improve things and we’re still here. We’re still in business.” That, to me, felt very real. Does that make sense?
Ingrid: It does, it totally does. It’s so interesting because everybody’s idea of being in business is a different point in time. It can be the beginning, or it can be further down the journey. As you say, it’s as the iterations take hold and continue and you look back. It’s a lovely answer. Thank you.
You said earlier that you developed the businesses because there were pain points for people, how do you know what your customers want and when you do those iterations, how do you know that the product is serving what customers want? How do you know the business is viable and it will continue to be so?
Nicole: Yes. With WebinarNinja, we actually presold it. We created the very first version one, we’re at version 5.0 now which is our biggest update. With version 1.0, it was a dinky little WordPress plugin that Omar had put together with the developer. He was actually using that for his own webinar, so we were doing webinars for our community, the $100 MBA members. When we were using our little plugin for our webinars, people said, “Oh, what are you using for this webinar?” I said, “Oh, just something I slapped together,” and it’s like, “Well, can I buy it?” We’re like, “Oh, okay.” That was a really clear indication that there was something that we had there that people wanted.
We still weren’t really sure, so we actually just decided to, before investing any of our own money into this, or setting about investing the time to work on it, we just presold it. We set up a landing page, gave some details about it, “Would you be interested?” We did this twice and in both times, it sold out in 24 hours. The first one was 150 members and then the second one was 200. We knew we were onto something.
Then, over the course of the years where we’ve done customer surveys, we’ve gotten feedback from our members, we just continue to improve and to change it. We know that people are very passionate about the software and so you know that it’s something that they really, really want because there are the very extremes like, “I love it!” Or, “I don’t like it because it doesn’t do this, that, and the other,” so you know that it’s definitely something that people need. We work really hard to figure out what is it that will make the perfect solution for our audience. We’re not going to be for everybody, but for the audience that we cater to.
Ingrid: That’s great. My next question was about funding the business. So preselling is a big part of not actually developing something that nobody actually wants. How do you fund expansion, or is it always presold? Is that one of your major ways of funding?
Nicole: We probably done things very differently in some ways. We’ve been bootstrapped since day one. I’m not going to lie, it’s not an easy road. Preselling, that can fund that next stage, but preselling will only go so far. We’ve actually grown slowly, we’ve grown organically, we’ve tried to really stay as lean as possible. This means not hiring until we absolutely have stretched to the limit that we can’t handle. We were answering our own customer service tickets at the very beginning until we hired our first hire and now we’ve got six agents. Staying lean, bootstrapping it, and just having that long term path of growing slowly, growing organically, that’s how we’ve done it to this point. Whether that’s going to continue, that could change, but right now, we’re not interested in outside investment or funding because we really believe we want to retain control over our product. There’s pros and cons to both.
Ingrid: There is, and even borrowing money or putting things on credit card, the interest, the cost of getting finance, is great whether it’s having somebody else involved in your business, or whether it’s actually having to pay a financial institution those interest rates. Those are payments that you don’t need if you are able to be lean and to provide the service yourself.
Nicole: Yes, we’re really against that. It’s one of our kind of mantras and values and what we kind of preach is debt is horrible. If you can avoid it at all costs, that’s what we really believe in.
Ingrid: There’s so many examples of people two, three, four, five years worth of total bootstrapping to keep control for themselves and not get themselves into that level of debt.
How do you find new customers? So you’ve said you’ve grown organically, how do you know who they are and where they are?
Nicole: The $100 MBA show, even though WebinarNinja as a product, as a software company, has outgrown in the show in revenue. We do monetize the podcast. The actual podcast, though, is our biggest lead generation. We’re actually still more well-known when Omar attends conferences or when he’s contacted for interviews, he’s really known for the show. That is a big way that people find out. We don’t market the software, we don’t sell the software on the show, but we definitely, because it’s a podcast giving business lessons, there’ll be anecdotal inserts there that come from our personal experience from the lessons that we’ve learned in building WebinarNinja.
Definitely through the show, we get customers that way. We’re very big on content marketing, so a lot of free content, a lot of free courses. We have a seven day course on starting, running a webinar. That’s all free, great content. Blog posts, Omar gets on other shows, conferences, being able to get on stage has helped a lot. Those are our main models. We’ve recently, in the last year, gotten more into pay traffic, paid marketing via Facebook ads, but really it’s been very organic, very slow, and a lot of free valuable content.
Ingrid: When you talk about bootstrapping, that doesn’t cost dollars, it costs your time to create that, it costs time to be at conferences and to do the podcast, but there’s no actual dollars coming out of your bank account for those sorts of things, so it’s only when you actually get to paid advertising that that starts to actually cost you dollars, doesn’t it?
Nicole: Yes, yes. I’ve seen Omar really grow as a podcaster. We’ve published over 900 episodes and if I listen to day one, I’ve been producing the show since day one and day one to episode 900 is radically different. He’s been able to really refine his communication. You would know as a podcast yourself how much you’re able to refine your communication skills which is everything in business. Being able to be clear about your message, and he’s been able to work on that. It’s really worth the time to do that.
Ingrid: Oh, my gosh, 900 episodes! Isn’t that fantastic? I’m just so proud of my 50th episode! Oh dear. I think this will probably be 52 or 53. Thanks Nicole for that, very encouraging to think that I could be at 900. As a facilitator and trainer, I’ve always asked good questions. I listen to how people ask questions. For 20 years, I’ve been listening to how people interview and how people facilitate so that I can be a better facilitator and interviewer. I totally understand how over 900 episodes Omar probably is the King of podcast, wow.
Let’s talk about numbers and money because that’s one of my favourite things. It’s also something that people really struggle with. Our audience are people thinking about getting ready to start a business. How much do you charge, how do you decide a pricing strategy? What did you think about, how did you decide a pricing strategy for your business?
Nicole: I guess I took more guidance there from Omar. One way is, obviously, to look at the competition and to see where you can price yourself according to other people who are offering a similar service. With WebinarNinja, we really look at the return on investment, the value of being able to run a webinar like most of our audience, most of our members are authors, speakers, coaches, they run workshops, they’ll sell a course. The fact that they can run webinar and then make a sale is huge. They can make that money immediately back just from running one webinar. We’ve looked at more the value of the service and what you get by putting in that investment.
Ingrid: Thank you. Looking at competition, really looking at the value, I think, as you say, what is the value of what you’re providing and what are people prepared to pay? People are paying it, then clearly it’s a pricing strategy that’s working.
Nicole: Yes, and one thing that I’ve really learned over the years cheaper is not better. Never pricing yourself just to outbeat the competition, that’s definitely something that you don’t want to do because there’s always going to be someone that comes out. It’s amazing how many people think, “Well, I’m just going to sell it cheaper and then everyone’s going to …” Then, what’s interesting, is when you do price yourself really low, it’s the calibre of your audience, then you’re dealing with a very different calibre of people. It’s also what you want to deal with, as well, as a business owner.
Ingrid: Yes, and I heard somebody that sometimes with this whole webinars and online programmes, it’s this race to the bottom. Who can beat, what are the cheapest ones around? As you say, who do you attract them when you have that? Just really briefly, though, Nicole, is it like a monthly fee, do people pay a year in advance? What is that model?
Nicole: We’re a subscription service, just like you’d be signing up for Netflix, for example, so you pay in advance. We have monthly plans and annual plans. Our lowest plan starts at $49, for example, and it depends on your number of attendees. It’s a very reasonable investment, as I said, given how much you’ll get back if you actually start doing webinars.
Ingrid: That’s terrific. Thank you. So, early days, I know you’re only a few years into the business, ? You don’t have to tell us what it is, but have you given thought to an exit strategy?
Nicole: To be honest, I’m going to be very boring, no. Not yet. We’re just very involved. It’s kind of our little baby. We’ve seen it grow and it’s continuing to grow and I think we’re still very much too close to it, too involved, we deeply care about it before we can let it go.
Ingrid: Not letting it go just yet.
Nicole: Not just yet.
Ingrid: At this stage, if you look back, and I know the two businesses, is there anything you wish you’d done differently at the beginning?
Nicole: I’ve thought about this question, it’s going to sound weird, but I have to say nothing. What I’ve learned, and I feel like I was very naïve at the beginning and I’ve learned a lot in the last five years, is that you can do something differently and you’ll have a different result. Everything that we’ve done up to this point has gotten us to this point and I’m proud of where we are. That’s including all the failures, all the mistakes, all the wrong, what could be perceived as a wrong decision, because we wouldn’t be where we are now.
Ingrid: Very nice. It’s a lovely approach to take to it because there’s no point wishing all of that sort of thing. Having said that, though, is there anything you wish you’d known from the start that might’ve actually main that journey just a little bit easier or a little bit different?
Nicole: I think definitely knowing how hard it is. I’m going to have to be honest. We’re very real, as well, our approach is also to be very real about what it is it to be an entrepreneur and to get yourself into starting your own business. It’s so rewarding, but it is so hard. I guess I didn’t know how hard it would be. Hard is a relative word, how hard you prepared to actually work? How much can you withstand, what are your limits? I think, at some point, also, I think I’d really wish I had that … It’s going to sound wrong, it’s going to sound a bit strange, but not caring what other people think so much. I really think if you can let go of that, then I think you can take challenges on a bit more easily and you can just really move forward with your vision without being hindered by any doubt. Doubt is just such a killer and I think you get into that if you really spend too much time worrying about what people think. Does that make sense?
Ingrid: That’s so insightful. I’ve never heard anyone put it quite like that. Yes, that not caring, that doubt, is just so crippling, isn’t it? By listening to others, it just embeds that doubt, doesn’t it? I haven’t heard anyone put it quite like that in a call. That was lovely.
So, obviously Omar has been a great assistance to both of you. Who else? You can even name names, but is there anyone outside of the two of you: who has been of assistance to you or to the business and that could either be a role played or it can be an actual person, if you wouldn’t mind.
Nicole: Obviously he has been the person closest to me to actually show what is possible and we’ve kind of supported each other. We kind of conveniently alternate who is having a bad day so we can lift the other person up. He’s been very influential. I think having friends in the space like a good friend of mine is Kate Erickson, who you would’ve met at We Are Podcast. Particularly friends who work with their spouses, like I do, like Amy Port who’s Michael Port’s wife from Heroic Public Speaking. These are really great friends of ours who I’ve been able to share and talk about the challenges that we go through, the ups and downs and wins and they just get it, you know?
Then I’ve got friends who are friends from high school days who are in completely different spaces and, really, I think, to this day, don’t understand what I do, but have still been very supportive
Ingrid: I actually have this theory that nobody really understands what anyone does, to be honest. Sometimes, someone tells me what they do and I think, “Really? I have no clue what you’re talking about” Unless you’ve actually done the job itself, I’ve never been a teacher, I’ve done training and that, but I’ve never actually worked in a school. I actually don’t really understand what teachers do.
Nicole: It goes back to that question that you asked before, like what you wish you’d known from the start, you just reminded me that one of the things that is that people are just … It might sound wrong, it might sound bad, but really people are just very much concerned about their own world, their own life, and that’s not to say that you’re not helpful and that you don’t care about other people, that’s absolutely not what I’m saying. But at the end of the day, really, it’s like that’s when you realise, “Oh.” You’re not aware because maybe you’re just concerned about your own world in some ways, and not in a bad way. That probably came out wrong. You know what I mean? That whole idea of looking out for number one sometimes?
Ingrid: We just get these little blinkers, don’t we?
You can get feedback from your customers about what your products and your clients and like you said, you talked to some of the other business people that you’re involved with, but who gives you really useful feedback? I think you’ve probably covered it, but is there anybody we haven’t talked about?
Nicole: Well, definitely not friends and family. It’s amazing how many people start out and ask their friends and family. Really, it’s only your potential customers, your audience, that are going to give you that feedback. We learn from running webinars, just really asking for engagement, asking very specific questions to hear from people, starting maybe a Facebook thread, Facebook conversation asking what people are struggling with. Earlier in the year, we ran a very detailed survey that we got over 1000 responses to which is incredible.
Nicole: Yes, I mean, something like that takes a lot of time and takes a lot of thought, but it’s so worth it, actually talking. I think maybe people don’t spend enough time talking to, even if you literally have five customers, five clients, the sooner you start to talk to them and really get to know what it is that they’re struggling with, what it is that they want, how they’re using your product or service, that kind of behaviour, that they may not even be able to tell you but you need to kind of infer. The sooner you start to do that, the better it is.
Ingrid: Yes, and I think that, over and over, we’re hearing that message to just really be close to the clients and understand what it is they’re looking for.
Nicole: Yes, you have to.
Ingrid: Okay, so with $100 MBA, you do actually help people who are getting started in business and already in business, but what is one thing, we’ve talked about how hard it is. What’s something that you would suggest because a lot of the people listening to this haven’t started. They’re just sort of people who are doing something there, got a hobby that they want to monetize, or maybe they’re finishing up their training in a health profession, Pilates, yoga, physiotherapy, and they’re thinking about what would you say to someone thinking about starting their own business?
Nicole: Well, you have to start because it’s a long road. You just have to start. It’s so basic, but there’s just no other way around it. It’s just taking that one action immediately, buying that domain name, signing up for an e-mail marketing service, writing up that first blog post that you don’t think you’re a very good writer, but I’m going to do it anyway, jumping on and running some Q and A webinar, jumping on a Facebook live and just putting yourself out there. But realising that it is a long road, I think that can’t get drilled in enough.
Ingrid: Yes, and just to get started, yes. That’s terrific. Thank you.
Three characteristics that you think that you have that makes you successful in your business Nicole?
Nicole: I’m not afraid of change. I think I’ve always been like that, even as a teacher, I started teaching here in Sydney, but really quickly moved to Japan and then later to Dubai, and then to the US. I think not being afraid of change was one of the things that I think was carried over into entrepreneurship and being adaptable to all the new environments, whether it was a foreign country, whether it was a brand new situation, being adaptable has been one thing that I thought at first was a flaw, but I realise, “Oh, no, actually, it’s not a bad thing.”
I think I’m generally a positive person. I generally have a positive outlook on life, like things are going to be okay, without being blissfully ignorant or silly about it, but I do like to always think that thinking positive is the best way, even when things area really, really rough, I think I always have that.
Ingrid: Yes, because there’s something in there, isn’t there? There’s a diamond in there somewhere.
Ingrid: Those are your characteristics. What do you think are essential for someone, that budding start up, or that person thinking about getting started? Is it the same as what you have, or is there other things as well?
Nicole: I think we talked about it before in terms of communication, really being an excellent communicator and refining your communication skills, whether it’s through writing, podcasting, videos, whatever it is. The better you can communicate your message, the better you can talk to your audience really, really clearly, the more advantage you’ll have.
Ingrid: The more they will understand what the offer is, won’t they? Oh, Nicole, I think you and I could talk all day about business. Is there anything else that you would like to add or that I haven’t asked you that you think is important or that you’ve been served that you’d just like to add before we finish up?
Nicole: I think having the perseverance, again, it comes to that long road and I haven’t read the book, but Omar just finished it and it was one of my favourite episodes on the $100 MBA show], he did a must read of Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. I don’t know if you’ve read it?
Ingrid: I have.
Nicole: Yes, I mean, just the perseverance. Steve Jobs, for all his flaws and his brilliance, he really, he had such a belief and perseverance. He really didn’t care what people thought. And to his detriment, I get that, to his detriment. I think the thing that I learned is that perseverance. If you want it bad enough, and if you really have a vision, if you really want to help people and solve that paint point, then you just have to persevere through getting it wrong sometimes, just not getting it quite right, making those mistakes, but eventually, eventually, you’ll get there. Not to be too motivational.
Ingrid: I think what you said earlier about having good people around you as well that when things aren’t going, that aren’t going as well as you’d like them to, or that things haven’t worked out, that you’ve got a sounding board, that you’ve got a community, or you’ve got one person that can help you stay on track when things aren’t going well. By the way, if you haven’t read Elon Musk’s biography, oh, my gosh.
Nicole: Oh, I have, yes. I love that one.
Ingrid: The determination, his perseverance. That pre-Christmas when he was down to his last five cents or whatever it was, holy moly. That ability to keep going spurned on by his vision for what he’s trying to achieve. Yes, he and Steve Jobs are a bit special.
Nicole: Yes, I think just reading biographies, you realise how all these great companies and these great people, if you read their biographies and you … I always go back to Elon Musk’s struggles. I always think about that. Cannot even compare to Elon Musk and what he’s creating and what he’s built so far, but still to realise someone like that has had significant struggles and challenges is just so important for you as an entrepreneur.
Ingrid: And that’s why, Nicole, we appreciate your time today to tell us your story because in your own way, as you just said there, the Elon Musks are so over there in terms of who they are, but here’s someone new who, three years ago, four years ago, was a school teacher and here you are with these two worldwide businesses. It is possible with all of these skills in place and with the perseverance. We appreciate you telling the story. Thank you so much.
Nicole: Thanks, Ingrid. It’s nice the way you said that. I just needed that little reminder. There’s always that, you never look back enough because you’re always so in the thick of it, but just to remind yourself even those little steps that you keep moving forward, it’s just so powerful. Thank you, thank you for today. I enjoyed talking to you.
Ingrid: Thank you.