Establish a Strong Workplace Culture: Of all the challenges we’ve faced, maintaining a strong company culture has helped Black Spectacles overcome many hurdles. There will continue to be challenges, especially as we figure out how to foster our culture in a fully-remote environment. I plan to repeat the same recipe for success when founding the company in 2010: surrounding myself with strong leaders and making adjustments along the way as needed.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marc Teer, Founder & CEO of Black Spectacles.
Marc is an award-winning architect who founded Black Spectacles in 2010 to provide support and inspiration to architects through world-class educational material and career resources at every stage of their careers. Black Spectacles is the first and only NCARB-approved test prep provider for all six divisions of the ARE® 5.0 exam.
The subscription-based software has established Black Spectacles as a preeminent figure in sophisticated online learning, generating subscriptions from 27 of the top 50 architecture firms in the United States and 49 of the top 100. Additionally, the company was named in the top 30 of Great Place to Work’s Best Workplaces in Chicago 2020. Marc was also elevated to the College of Fellows of The American Institutes of Architects (AIA) in 2020. The honor is awarded to members who have made significant contributions to the architecture profession.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Black Spectacles is an online learning platform for architects and designers. We offer ARE® exam prep and a software curriculum that provides aspiring architects with educational tools to become licensed and advance their careers. We are the first and only NCARB-approved Test Prep Provider for all six divisions of the ARE®.
I launched Black Spectacles in 2010 to democratize learning and remove barriers to career expansion. We are passionate about making our network and expertise available to everyone — with our ARE Community and in our podcast, ARE Live, which are both free resources. Collectively we want to educate and inspire architects to thrive throughout the entirety of their careers.
I had several experiences that ultimately led me to the idea and core purpose behind Black Spectacles. It originated with my own studies in architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and then I continued on to earn my Master of Architecture Degree from Clemson University in 2002. During that time, I noticed a lack of guidance for architects in the early stages of education and career building. Students had struggled to comprehend the latest software tools, and, at the time, ARE test prep companies were implementing old-fashioned print materials and flash cards. Then when I served for a time as the Chair of the AIA Young Architects Forum, I talked with emerging architects at networking events, which again reinforced my opinion that there were many who could benefit from career guidance. As an Adjunct Professor at Illinois Institute of Technology with a keen understanding of conquering the ARE, I saw my students struggling to keep up with software updates. Facilitating the development of fellow architects was something I enjoyed doing through my personal channels and I strived to do it on a larger scale.
After working as an architect for Gensler, I realized an opportunity to fill a void in the industry and decided to create an online education program providing architects with resources on their path to becoming licensed and advancing their careers. Throughout all of these experiences, I looked at colleagues who worked at prestigious firms straight out of school because they had resources and mentors, and thought to myself, ‘How do they have the inside track?’ Black Spectacles was created to be the inside track for architects.
Black Spectacles has since been recognized by Inc. Magazine as the 11th fastest growing education company in the United States, having spent the last decade supporting and inspiring architects through world-class educational materials. In fact, 75% of the top 50 architecture firms currently subscribe to Black Spectacles. We’ve also seen substantial internal growth as we doubled our staff size in 2020 and are looking to do the same in 2021, particularly now that we’re a fully-remote company which allows us to meet talent wherever they may be.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I’ve built my company from the ground up without any financial assistance. In the technology industry, company leaders who advance their company are typically supported by outside funding, and I’m one of the rare exceptions. I never sought out or received financial support, and I’m not wealthy. Instead, I followed the bootstrap approach and built my company from scratch.
I almost bankrupted myself and my family in the process! I quit my previous job while my kids were in daycare and paying a mortgage for our house. It was one of the most challenging and costliest times in my life as my income went to nothing. During this time, I kept an article pasted on my home screen about the misconceptions of overnight success as an entrepreneur. According to the article, successful entrepreneurs had been toiling in their basement for 10 years until they finally established their brand. A great example is the founder of the Angry Birds app who previously created 52 games that were unsuccessful but eventually, he found a winning formula following years of hard work.
As an entrepreneur, I hung on long enough to successfully grow the company, hire the right staff, and enjoy profitability over time. Black Spectacles took off in May 2014, when the company partnered with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Chicago to offer online test prep services. Our initial partnership evolved quickly into an even larger partnership with the national AIA organization the following year. Our work with AIA put a lot of wind in our sails, and then we really continued listening to the needs of the people using our services, and we worked really, really hard to get new products and new offerings off the ground constantly. In 2018, Black Spectacles agreed to be the first company to allow NCARB to review its courses and therefore become the first participant in NCARB’s Approved Test Prep Provider Program. This was another big milestone that really helped us establish credibility and grow our business.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
In 2014, we decided to advertise our test prep products in partnership with AIA Chicago for the first time. The moment the e-newsletter was distributed, my family and I were hopping in the car for a long road trip and I was driving. Within minutes, we were receiving a ton of interest and a surge in sales and customer support tickets, which signaled to me that something was broken on our website.
At the time, I handled customer support and website maintenance so I had to switch seats with my wife while I addressed everything I could from my laptop while in the passenger seat of the car. It was funny timing, but also an exciting and unexpected experience that I now look back on as one of the greatest business lessons I’ve learned. Up until that point, our business had only seen mild success and within minutes of advertising our new test prep product, I realized I had found a solution to a problem that people were clearly really struggling with. While the first product we had built was good, it simply wasn’t a “big” enough problem that we were solving for people.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
First of all, Black Spectacles was the first to develop a fully-online test prep approach and that was the primary key to our explosive growth. Our test prep materials are created by architects, for architects so students are gaining access to real-time practitioners in the field. Early on when you start any sort of business, you ask yourself, ‘what is our key differentiator?’. We got our start as a software learning platform, and at the beginning, we had to decide who would be teaching the programs. I had a lot of really great relationships with architects and firms, and we thought it was really important and different to have architects being the ones teaching architects.
Our competitors often used teachers who don’t practice day-to-day, but we think that’s a really important piece to learning architecture and design. We’ve pulled in architects from some of the best firms around the world to teach our customers and that makes a difference. When we started our business, that was our early judgment, and our instincts proved right. People want to hear and learn from others who are actually working in the field. Today, 50% of candidates who take the ARE use Black Spectacles, and 75% of the top 50 architecture firms subscribe to Black Spectacles. Even more revealing is the fact that the pass rate for those who used our company’s prep services is 75% in 2019 while the national average of the 2019 pass rate is 54%.
We also stand out due to our subscription services, which are available in several tiers, including individual, firm, school, and AIA chapters.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I think one of the most important elements to preventing burn out, especially in the tech industry, is communicating with your superiors, whether you’re feeling stressed, overloaded or just frustrated in general. We’ve established a healthy company culture by scheduling one-on-one, bi-weekly meetings between staff and their manager to talk about any issues that arise. These meetings, which have become virtual since the start of the pandemic, have been excellent for discovering problems and working through them so they’re nipped in the bud. Building trust stems from frequent communication.
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?
I joined the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) — a support network of thousands of entrepreneurs — in 2016. Many people talk about how it was a life-changing organization and based on my personal experience, I can confirm that it is! They provide a variety of multi-dimensional learning opportunities that changed the trajectory of my business. Through EO, I was put into a forum with several other CEOs, who had a significant impact on both my personal and professional life.
As part of EO’s mentoring program, I was specifically partnered up with Bud Arquilla and he helped mentor and teach me a variety of things. The most powerful lesson he taught me was how to have my team develop our company’s core values, which we did over the course of six weeks in 2018. That has since been the most impactful thing we’ve done as a company, as we use those core values to guide us in everything we do.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
What separates a good company from a great company begins with its people. Bringing together a group of intelligent, hardworking, dedicated, and respectful individuals is key to company growth. In the technology industry, the greatest hurdle is finding the right leaders to scale the growth of the company. We’ve been fortunate enough to gradually build our team with successful leaders over the years, resulting in a 739 percent revenue growth from 2015 to 2018. Despite hurdles presented by the pandemic, we doubled our number of employees in the past year. And our pipeline for finding new candidates has exploded once we made the recent decision to become a fully-remote company permanently. We’ve founded highly skilled candidates to fill some of our recent positions, including Director of Marketing, who are based throughout the country. We are no longer restricted to geographic locations during the job search process as we grow our business.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Find a Big Problem to Solve: When I started my business, I didn’t really understand that you don’t have a great company unless you’re solving a really big problem for people. I thought I was onto a big problem with software learning in the beginning, but I’ve since learned that it was tiny in the grand scheme of things. Once we got into test prep, it took our company from good to great. Within minutes of launching, we realized that people were desperate to get their hands on a great solution to their problem, which in our case was passing the ARE test.
- Hire the Right People: It took me a few years to realize this key element, and I failed with a few hirings in the beginning. But within the past five years, I’ve learned how to hire people who have contributed to building the company.
- Establish a Strong Workplace Culture: Of all the challenges we’ve faced, maintaining a strong company culture has helped Black Spectacles overcome many hurdles. There will continue to be challenges, especially as we figure out how to foster our culture in a fully-remote environment. I plan to repeat the same recipe for success when founding the company in 2010: surrounding myself with strong leaders and making adjustments along the way as needed.
- Keep the Lines of Communication Open: We have one-on-one meetings every two weeks with everyone in our company, which has created lines of communication that are always open. This consistent communication has created a healthy working environment. It sounds simple, but that’s one of the secrets to our success. We just talk a lot!
- Listen to Your Customers: When we first started, we only offered video lectures. Our subscribers wanted practice exams and coaching so we tried some new techniques and listened to their needs. We developed our core purpose and values which has helped our business grow.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
Having a core purpose and core values in place from the very beginning really helped us and continues to help us build a successful business. Some business owners focus on revenue first, however, my approach is to focus on a purpose first. It has been my personal experience and my observation of other companies that the ones who focus on a core purpose usually outperform in many ways — not just financially. This is why Black Spectacles is a purpose-driven company that believes if we stay passionate about helping architects navigate their careers then revenue and success will fall into place.
What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
In my opinion, being a purpose-driven company is the starting point for boosting growth. I look for folks who align with our company values and who believe in starting with the purpose first. Secondly, I surround myself with people who can be a good coach and manager and help people achieve their goals. I think one of the main reasons employees either lose motivation or quit their jobs is because they don’t like their manager. Our goal is to have world-class managers with excellent soft skills. In addition to industry knowledge and domain expertise, that will help us boost growth and be successful.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
I always think of the analogy of starting and growing a business to climbing a mountain. You’re so focused on getting to the first base camp, and once you do, you’re excited, but then you keep looking at the mountain, and there’s still so much more ground to cover. It’s a process that has to be repeated over and over, slowly climbing the mountain and getting to the various base camps. Black Spectacles started with nothing and we’ve built something valuable over the past 10 years on our way up the mountain. We’re still climbing and we view turbulent times or obstacles on our path as an opportunity to really assess what we’re offering. Like many other companies, we saw a slow-down in business due to the COVID-19 pandemic but it also made us really aware of the impact on jobs in architecture. We began asking ourselves as a company, ‘Is there a way we can help architects connect with work and continue to put their best professional foot forward by expanding our offerings?’ That mentality and thought process has helped us identify new areas of growth for the company and certainly accelerated a new offering that we may not have otherwise offered for years to come.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Structuring and building a team! I had never built a marketing department or a sales department or an engineering team before, so when figuring out how to do that, I relied on my network of mentors and peers to help me. That’s been the hardest challenge: figuring out what the organization is supposed to look like at each stage and figuring out the right way to build a team without having done it before.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
As an online education platform, we’re very focused on converting website visitors into subscribers. We have achieved higher conversion rates by communicating who we are and what we do for our customers front and center on the landing page. We also have a live chat tool on our website, that is active during our business hours, which allows us to engage with website visitors and lead them to the information they need in a helpful and timely manner.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
My advice is to always stay true to your core mission and ensure that any new offerings you roll out are a reflection of the core mission. That consistency is key in building a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
Make sure your approach to customer experience is something to be designed and iterated upon. Each quarter, we have what we call a “process day” where we ask our employees to spend some time documenting one of their key processes so that we can assess and potentially refine it. Each department, including customer experience, is consistently iterating on the way they do things meaning nothing is ever set in stone or done just because it has always been done that way.
What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
Today’s consumers want to know what companies stand for. Because of that expectation, I think it’s smart to share your company values on any public channels that you engage in. It goes well beyond social media. With anything we do — whether writing a tweet, producing our content videos, or developing new copy — we always have to consider our reputation. I think you have to stay true to yourself and your company’s purpose and core values and ensure everything you do aligns across the board.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I have spent a lot of time at 1871, a well-known technology and entrepreneurship center in Chicago. While there, I’ve met with lots of early-stage startups, and I often noticed that their most common mistake was not finding a significant, “big” problem to solve. Lots of people spend years trying to solve problems that no one cares about. In order to avoid this losing endeavor, my advice is to make sure you understand the problems your target market or customer have and try to build something around solving that specific problem.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!