“Don’t Confuse Difficulty with Value”, With Douglas Brown and Matt Tidwell of ThinkThru

Don’t Confuse Difficulty with Value. Just because something is really hard and challenging doesn’t necessarily make it valuable. In the same way, just because something is “Simple” doesn’t make it “Cheap.” While trying to solve problems and build systems and solutions for clients, we often look at these really elaborate situations with platforms, automation, multimedia, and […]

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Don’t Confuse Difficulty with Value. Just because something is really hard and challenging doesn’t necessarily make it valuable. In the same way, just because something is “Simple” doesn’t make it “Cheap.”

While trying to solve problems and build systems and solutions for clients, we often look at these really elaborate situations with platforms, automation, multimedia, and lots of rules.

It can get complicated to put all of that together, but the reality is it doesn’t make it any more valuable than something that’s super lean and super simple. If somebody had told me that the sophistication of a solution didn’t drive its value that would’ve been really helpful because at the end of the day we need something simple that works, that’s automated that’s repeatable and simple to use.

As a part of my series called “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started My Consulting Business ”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Tidwell, Founder and CEO of ThinkThru, a Nashville-based learning and development agency. Focusing on customer education, he helps brands leverage their internal expertise to expand industry recognition, product adoption, and revenues. Most recently, he launched Course Factory, a platform to help anyone produce educational video content and scale their online education business with a dedicated creative team.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I am a naturally curious person, and I’ve always been driven and wired to want to solve problems, but what initially led me to this career path was working in an evidence “closet” at a consulting firm after graduating from college with a degree in Music Education of all things.

In that job, working in the evidence closet, I would spend hours labeling hard drives and uploading data that was to be processed by our firm, and it was a Senior Manager who saw something in me, and pulled me from that position. He put me to work on a team called “Process Innovation.” On paper, I didn’t feel that I had any of the qualifications to actually do that job, but what I did have was a natural aptitude for solving problems, and a desire to help people. That move from the evidence room to the Process Innovation team was the biggest shift from where I started, to where I am today.

In my role on the Process Innovation team, I was able to focus exclusively on how people adopt new technologies, how people assimilate information and what really makes project implementation successful. All of that really set me up for success in launching ThinkThru, as our agency focuses exclusively on Customer Education, Training, and designing great customer learning experiences.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

One of the most interesting opportunities that has appeared since starting ThinkThru, has been our involvement with statewide human trafficking prevention. Last year, we launched a project with End Slavery Tennessee and other agencies throughout the state to train over 20,000 Board of Education employees in public schools.

If you had told the me six years ago that I would be delivering educational content in public schools, training educators to identify potential victims of human trafficking, I would never have understood how it could happen.

But the teams that do this work day-in and day-out are simply incredible human beings. The work is fulfilling, and I am grateful to be a small part of an initiative that is making a positive impact and helping make schools safer for children.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are two people that come to mind when I think about people who have helped me. The first might sound cliché but that would be my dad. Most of my work ethic comes from him, he worked two or three jobs at a time, to make life happen. He spent most of his career in public service as a police officer, and once he thought he could make a bigger difference in the community by running for mayor. Eventually, he went back to the private sector and traveled the world helping law enforcement professionals understand new ways of investigating crimes, and trained police agencies in almost every continent.

He taught me what it meant to serve and give back to my community, how to be a father and a husband, and he is the backbone of who I am today.

The second person that comes to mind is a former manager, Michael Griffin. He was the one that pulled me out of the evidence room and thought that I had a knack for solutions design work.

Working with him completely changed how I view the role of processes and systems in the workplace, and more importantly the strategy and thought that goes into leading innovation. He really took a chance on me career-wise and pulled me out of that evidence room and put me in front of some of the biggest, smartest people and companies in the world.

He really gave me the confidence to know that I could provide value at that level, that “people are people” and if you can be thoughtful and design quality work, you deserve a spot at the table.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I really follow and seek advice from a lot of the influencers in the space today.. the Gary Vee’s of the world to Grant Cardone and Tony Robbins.

I think a lot of people can benefit from their perspective, but I believe it was Tony Horton from P90X who said, “Eighty percent of the challenge is just showing up.”

I feel like a lot of people simply don’t “show up” in the world. I think you see that in the workplace, and I think you see that in families. If we can just show up, just “do what you say you will do,” regardless of how you feel, you can accomplish so, so much more. So, just showing up is a big part of how I operate.

We can only control our contribution and how we participate. We really have very little control over most outcomes.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

When people think of training, normally they think of that as an HR function for example like how do we onboard employees, and do compliance training, or now the focus is on upskilling employees to fill the massive void in skill sets within organizations.

But there’s a tremendous opportunity in the world with the internet and education outside of the traditional place it holds in companies. At ThinkThru we focus on the role that education plays in customer experience, brand authority, and product adoption. We’re a full service agency that produces training programs, assists brands in navigating the development and launch of new training initiatives, and implements technology to deliver those programs.

So, we live at the intersection of marketing, product, sales, product development and training all at once.

Brands and organizations that seize this opportunity to make a difference through customer education can not only improve customer acquisition and retention, they can also build immense brand authority, create new revenue streams, and build lifelong ambassadors of their products and services.

We’re a team of educators, multimedia designers, creators, tinkerers, and problem solvers.

By partnering with clients to deliver meaningful education and experiences, we hope to make the world better, more enjoyable, and empower people with the tools and knowledge to advance in their careers.

There’s tremendous opportunity in the world to teach new solutions, train customers virtually on your products, and create positive experiences.

As an example of what this looks like in practice, look at the training provided by software and tech companies. Take a look at Microsoft Certified Developers, or Security Engineers or any of those other Microsoft certifications.

By going through those programs Microsoft is not only teaching the industry in a specialized domain of expertise, but they’re also teaching you the Microsoft platforms that empower those solutions.

So, you’re innately building loyal customers because you’ve educated them — not only how to do their job, but how to be successful and how to make a difference in their immediate sphere of influence. And, you’ve shown them how to do that on your particular product.

That is a level of marketing or branding with customers that is rarely repeated in any other area at that level. Customer education is uniquely positioned to change the psychology and the attitude of the buyer as well as actually make them better at their jobs. In turn, it creates an amazing feedback loop where you have people hearing immediate feedback from customers on your products and services to improve.

Ultimately, that increases the sentiment of the customer to your brand, it can increase their favoritism to your brand or their affiliation with your product, because you’ve not only given them a proper tool, you’ve actually made them better at their job and allowed them to expand their potential and careers.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

ThinkThru is unique because our agency is 100% focused on the recipes that make companies successful when launching customer training. For brands that are looking to leverage customer education as a growth strategy, revenue stream, or as a customer retention strategy, we bring a team and processes to produce custom content, interactive learning experiences, and implement the platforms brands need to deliver this content.

One story that comes to mind is our work with a client that specializes in forensic investigations and mobile device examinations. They were wanting to launch online training to scale their instructor resources around the world and give law enforcement officers and Military personnel more access to on-demand specialized training.

We adapted their instructor-led materials to an engaging online format that still allowed people to simulate scenarios and product usage and solve actual case problems, but they didn’t have to fly somewhere to be in a workshop or in a conference room at a hotel to actually do it.

They could do this training from the comfort of their own lab, their own home, their own office, and they could still solve the cases, perform critical functions with the product, and still have a meaningful learning experience.

And what that ends up doing is…yes, influence more of their customers to buy more products and licenses over time, but what we’re really doing is helping to make better police officers and we’re helping investigators make better decisions when it comes to investigating suspected criminal activity.

When you first started the business, what drove you, what was your primary motivation?

From a practical standpoint, anyone that starts a business, the one thing that motivates you more than anything else is “not going out of business.” But, from a human perspective, helping more people solve more challenges with education and looking for unique opportunities to partner and evolve the role of education was why I woke up.

So, the motivator was how do I make a difference in the world, and how can I help more people solve more things that are meaningful problems that need to be solved? And, how can I scale that aspect of my life, because that’s really what makes me happy, is working with people to solve problems that need to be solved, and seeing others be successful.

What drives you now? Is it the same? Did it change? Can you explain what you mean?’

What drives me now, is slightly different. Now, my personal role is more the challenge of bringing a diverse group of people who are uniquely positioned in their own way to solve meaningful educational challenges for brands.

If I can bring the right people together and ideate successfully, it’s better than anything I could’ve dreamed up by myself on a whiteboard in a brainstorm session. That’s really what’s getting exciting is how our team’s skill set has shifted and seeing the results of client sessions now.

So I think now, I’m chasing “how do we have the best process in the world to get the best results,” not necessarily “how do we survive, and make every last dollar.” It’s more about the process of how we get there, not necessarily about solving everything.

The inquisitive mentality of how we help clients won’t ever go away, nor will the push to see where “we can take customer training experiences.” That’s just the fabric of our company.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

During quarantine, we needed to fundamentally shift some of our service offerings and business process.

As many organizations went remote, everyone faced the connectivity, content, and engagement challenges with training. So, we said how do we help the most people level up their content creation experience, because the quality of content matters, especially when you’re trying to capture peoples’ attention and teach them something.

Video and multimedia is a great medium to do this, it’s just difficult to do at scale, quickly and affordably. But, with more remote content capture tools available like cell phones, zoom calls, webcams, and live streaming there’s no reason why everyone who needs to create amazing content can’t.

So, we created a new platform called Course Factory.

Course Factory is the platform that we built to help people get training videos produced, and it’s not another drag-and-drop builder experience. You actually get a dedicated account manager that works with you to execute your vision with unlimited requests, unlimited revisions and a full creative agency on the other side of the screen.

I don’t think there’s anything like it in the education space, focused on engaging educational media, and I hope that we make the world a better place, as more customers find out about it.

Does your company have a sales team? If yes, do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

Yes, we do, but a fair amount of the sales responsibility still falls on me as we’re growing. But as a company, and leader of a smaller team, I take the mindset that every person at our company should be selling, and that’s a very organic, real way of getting the word out about what we do.

So, we incentivize everyone from our graphic designers to our editors to our instructional designers, and we give them the opportunity to “make commission” on everything that comes in the door. By giving everyone a pseudo-sales role, they’re always thinking about how to try and communicate what we’re doing. Our secret sauce is enabling everyone to be a salesperson regardless of what their job title is.

Literally, the worst mistake anyone can make is to think that pipeline development is not a priority. For years, I was buried in day-to-day work, and I only thought about how we keep our existing customers successful. All it takes is one of those big contracts to go away, and years of not having a pipeline to end up with a huge financial risk.

My only advice on sales would be to be very clear on “why you’re selling what you’re selling” and “how your service (or product) really helps people.”

A founder has a great, and very unique, perspective of the company so they can adapt why they’ve invented a process or service quickly on the fly with customers. But when you have a team that needs to replicate your message, if it’s not crystal clear, the luxury of being able to adapt a message on-the-fly may not be there. You have to communicate with extreme clarity and precision when you expect others to sell on your behalf.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

Because we really do operate a lot like a creative agency, I would say our best strategy for getting customers and attracting the right customers has literally been to produce incredible work and go above and beyond our contracted agreements in terms of customer service.

I don’t think any amount of Facebook ads or lead magnets or downloads or whatever make up for agencies or teams that put out less than exceptional work or treat clients like another number or record in their CRM.

There are plenty of people who would disagree, but every single company that has spent a meaningful amount of money that has changed our company’s position or our ability to hire a new person, or really impacted our financials in significant ways… every company has either…heard about us from another agency or they have seen work examples in the real world.

They’ve seen other competitors’ training or through case studies and things that we’ve published, they realize that the programs were produced in collaboration with ThinkThru. Then they come to us and ask, ‘how can we do this for our company’ or ‘how can we make it unique and different than xyz company.’

So, I think having great work is the only way to really build that rapport. We have attracted new clients based on our portfolio.

Based on your experience, can you share a few strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

As an agency, our relationships are long-term (in many cases). So, we are not a very transactional company because the business of launching something brand new into the world takes a significant commitment, and we stand by the work that we do and the partnership with our clients.

Great customer experience and great customer service starts with first, “doing what you say you will do.” As an agency, our mission is to not have a great sales team or great proposal or pitch, but to actually translate that proposal or pitch into the real work that’s delivered, which is an entirely different challenge.

We are very lean in terms of in-house systems and technologies for support, but the one thing that we focus our attention and energy on is making a commitment and actually delivering on that commitment. And when we can’t, we are very honest and open and transparent about why we missed a deliverable or why the timeline shifted or while the scope is expanding.

And, we do it with empathy, with honesty and we tell folks that we’re sorry when we mess up. We do everything we can to be proactive when we see that things are about to go off the rails.

Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started My Consulting Business”. Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Don’t Confuse Difficulty with Value

Just because something is really hard and challenging doesn’t necessarily make it valuable. In the same way, just because something is “Simple” doesn’t make it “Cheap.”

While trying to solve problems and build systems and solutions for clients, we often look at these really elaborate situations with platforms, automation, multimedia, and lots of rules.

It can get complicated to put all of that together, but the reality is it doesn’t make it any more valuable than something that’s super lean and super simple. If somebody had told me that the sophistication of a solution didn’t drive its value that would’ve been really helpful because at the end of the day we need something simple that works, that’s automated that’s repeatable and simple to use.

2. Know Your Numbers (pricing)

I still struggle with this, I struggle with applying a number to an hour or a number to an outcome or a number to a product. Pricing has always been something I’ve struggled with, and you can mess up pricing a lot.

You can fluctuate pricing as much as you know, you can test your market and your customers and all that stuff, and you can look at what competitors are charging, but if you don’t know the number that it costs your agency or your consulting business to operate, you will make the same mistakes I did. And it’s very easy to magically have no more money left over after you’ve put your blood sweat and tears and holiday time and vacation time into solving something for your client with not very much left to show for it.

3. Stop trying to do it all yourself and learn how to get out of the way

Founders or consultants who are wired in the same way as me, drive personal value, or even our self-worth based on the amount that we can get done. And, it is unsustainable (and unhealthy).

I’ve had to start radically shifting my life and I think realizing that it’s not just about what I do that keeps the company running, it’s about the total outcomes we produce. We produce better outcomes with great people and a plan that keeps work distributed and moving.

So, I think learning how to get out of the way and realizing that it’s not about what I do that makes the company valuable, it’s about how we deliver and solve challenges as a team.

4. Speed Wins 100% of the time

Getting solutions to market faster, is more important than getting the solutions perfect.

I use that loosely, and I know that everybody has different opinions, but the notion of having a “great idea” and then launching it, letting the world receive it and love it is completely gone for me.

Going faster, testing a lot more, moving quicker to an idea and then building it out is much more valuable than taking your time and having this thoughtfully executed, beautifully road mapped project plan.

5. Building A Business Is Different Than Being A Freelancer

I wish somebody would have told me how difficult it was going to be to actually build a business and the differences in building a business versus being a freelancer.

The world really sensationalizes being your own boss, living your own life, working from anywhere on your own schedule, and on your terms…being a millionaire and sitting on the beach, while money just rolls in.

It’s easy to get swept up in all that. If somebody had just said, “Look- this is probably going to be the most difficult thing you’ll ever do, are you sure you want to do this?”

That would have made me think one more time because it’s very, very different when you’re a freelancer/agent for hire, and when you’re building a business. I’m not saying you can’t have a wildly successful freelancing business, or service.

I just think those two things do not equate. And, maybe is just the mindset and the risks that are really the variable. The pricing is different, the strategy is different, the growth is different, and the results can be different too.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

As a society, going to school for higher education is still out of reach for so many people, and the value that some people are getting from higher education isn’t equal to the amount of the investment that they are making.

I know that teachers are doing great things, but as a society I think we are placing too much emphasis on collegiate degrees versus results. At the same time, we are inherently limiting opportunities for people because of those requirements when there are highly-talented individuals that should be getting the chance.

I would love to see more brands finding creative ways to source talent and not only source talent, but leverage their internal expertise that they already have. Leverage their in-house experts to put great quality education out into the world. I feel like brands are uniquely positioned, and they have specialized knowledge and IP that if shared, they could really, really benefit people who now have access to the Internet and the potential for highly specialized education.

That would be a way to modernize and build a digital-first apprenticeship type of model. I think that could really be a unique way to source talent, to upskill the workforce, and really lessen the burden of financial debt on society at large, and that’s a movement I’d love to support further.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Gary Vaynerchuk and the work that he’s published. There are lots of opportunities to give up or doubt, and sometimes it just takes that one YouTube video or Instagram post to make you realize that you are not alone in this game.

He (and his team) do so much to support, motivate, and inform business owners, especially in their mindset. Hearing his undercurrent of “pursue happiness” and treating “empathy as a superpower” have really molded how I’m growing in my business journey.

There’s many other things I should say I’m sure, but I’ll keep it brief for now. His team is incredible and a big part of my journey is informed through his content.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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