In 2013, just for fun and with almost no forethought, I announced the company’s first Black Friday sale. I figured that I love shopping for Black Friday deals online, and maybe other SQL Server people would get a kick out of it too.
The first year was mostly for fun, but it turned out people loved it. I put more and more thought into it in over time, like starting the sale earlier (because a lot of corporate folks wanted the ability to get in on it, but getting pricing approved at midnight on Black Friday wasn’t gonna happen.) Gradually, November training sales turned into a pretty big deal:
- 2013: $52,780
- 2014: $84,577
- 2015: $167,728
- 2016: $181,457
I’m sure 2016 could have been higher, but when sales opened at midnight, the web site fell over due to the load, and stayed down for almost two hours. That night, I resolved to take our web hosting to the next level for the next Black Friday sale. We’d been on a $600/mo Premium plan at WPengine, and that was more than enough horsepower for most of the year – but not Black Friday. Takes money to make money.
When I was planning my Epic Life Quest goals for this year, I asked myself, “What would a really ambitious and challenging November sales goal look like? And what would it take to hit that goal?” I figured selling $500K in training would be really, really hard to pull off.
So I went to work.
I added new courses and instructors.
I planned my all-new 2018 training class lineup to coincide with the Black Friday sales. I’ve been gradually building a larger training library over time, and this year I split our 4-day performance tuning class into 3 separate 3-day classes, all with hands-on labs. I also added a ton of other value-adds into the courses, like looking at the students’ production server data by way of an app we built to collect their data. In all, the classes were bigger & better, and I wanted to combine the Black Friday excitement with this new class excitement too. I had about 3-4 days of work in setting up all these 2018 online classes at once, and I had to do it all in advance because…
I added a new 2018 Live Class Season Pass. With our self-paced recorded training videos, our Everything Bundle has traditionally been our biggest seller. There’s a chunk of the market that just wants to swipe a credit card once (or do one purchase order) and get all of their training approved at once. I figured, “What if they’d do the same thing with live training classes?” I priced the Season Pass as the same as 2 3-day classes – and then students could attend lots of classes all year long, continuously upping their game. Since I had the entire 2018 class lineup set in stone and visible online, people could justify buying a Season Pass.
I added guest instructors. Edwin Sarmiento ran the first guest instructor class earlier this year, and it went really well. Our marketing tools plus his content combined to be a profitable relationship for everybody. It organically snowballed from there – we ended up with guest courses from Andy Leonard, Anthony Nocentino, Drew Furgiuele, and Steph Locke too.
I planned changes to the recorded video classes. Eagle-eyed readers will spot that I’m not doing the Senior DBA Class anymore. That will be moving into the recorded videos only rather than being a live class. More news on that as we approach the launch of that.
I built a marketing calendar & launch sequence.
Back in September, I had to design a marketing calendar: the things I wanted to communicate, and the dates I wanted to communicate them. For this year, I wanted to build a several-part launch sequence using the “Building a Killer Email Launch Sequence” guide by Startups for the Rest Of Us. It was going to be about a week of emails & blog posts leading up to an open-for-registration launch day.
I looked at the other events on my calendar:
- Nov 1-3 – PASS Summit (it’s hard to get marketing news out during this time because there’s so much noise)
- Nov 4-12 – Vacation (I’d already planned to be in Cabo)
- Nov 20-22 – Thanksgiving lead-up (hard to get marketing news out here too because less people are paying attention)
- Nov 24 – Black Friday
So I decided to split the launch into two parts:
- Oct 24-31: email launch sequence
- Nov 1: instructor-led training class sales open
- Nov 16-22: subscription training launch sequence
- Nov 24: Black Friday doorbuster sales on subscriptions (Everything Bundle)
Then, I started working on my launch sequence for the instructor-led training classes:
- 8 days before launch (Tuesday): Learning SQL Server is painful. Describes the pain points of traditional training, gets the students interested in a new way of solving it.
- 6 days out (Thursday): Let’s mix things up with a new way to learn.
- 5 days out (Friday): Here’s what our early-access students said about our new courses.
- 2 days out (Monday): Announcing my new Mastering class series – and registration opens Wednesday.
- 1 day out (Tuesday): private series of emails to past in-person training class buyers and Everything Bundle owners offering them special coupons with more savings.
- Launch day (Weds 11/1): Registration is Open Now – at Black Friday Prices
- After-launch automatic emails – to people who clicked on the products, added to cart, etc, but didn’t finish checking out
When the first email/post in the sequence went out describing the pain points, it generated 45 comments and hundreds of email replies. I didn’t see this much conversation coming in advance, but it was really useful to help refine the product even further (plus hone the remaining marketing sequence steps.)
I upgraded our WordPress hosting big time.
WPengine looked at our load last year and talked to me about my business goals for this year. (Total kudos to their sales staff who accommodated my request to work only over emails, and not phone hookups – my calendar was a hot mess at the time.) Based on their recommendations, I stepped up to a highly redundant setup with multiple powerful database servers and multiple auto-scaling web servers spread across two Availability Zones.
It ain’t cheap – over $6k/mo for the Black Friday configuration.
Yes, I can hear you screaming, “Brent, you know databases, web apps, architecture, and WordPress! You work on this exact same stuff in the Microsoft stack all the time! Why don’t you build all that and host it yourself?!?!” And it’s true – I adore doing this kind of thing, but I simply don’t have production-quality MySQL skills, nor do I want to be on call when there’s a load balancer problem, or hassle with upgrading anything.
It’s just an opportunity cost thing – it comes down to what my time is worth. I only have so many hours in the day, so if there’s something I can offload to an outside firm who does an amazing job at that, then I need to do it. There are some things I can’t offload – like designing my new courses, helping guest instructors craft abstracts – so I need to keep my calendar focused.
Besides, if you look at it as a percentage cost of doing business, it’s not that bad – if I could sell $500K of training in one month, then the web hosting costs are ~1% of it. Gotta keep things in perspective.
Dang, that was a lot of work.
I split the launch calendar in half between live instructor-led classes and self-paced recorded video classes because historically, the live instructor-led classes have been the minority of our Black Friday sales. I figured I’d take the lessons I learned from that first launch sequence, and use those to adapt the launch sequence for the video sales.
The work totally paid off: in the first two days of the live class launch, we’d already cleared $200K, higher than we’d ever sold in November before – and we haven’t even launched the new/improved video recordings.
I might just make that Epic Life Quest task! But first – vacation and recharging in Mexico.