Miranda Lievers is an entrepreneur devoted to the intersection of small business and technology. As co-founder & COO of Thinkific, she’s helped over 50,000 business owners earn over half a billion dollars with online courses to date while educating tens of millions around the globe. Before Thinkific, Miranda helped scale a team from 40 to 1600 people, jumped ship from corporate life, grew her side hustle to 7 figures, and decided to get her MBA just for fun.
“One of the things I’ve found to be most entertaining [about the recent news] is that I was more connected to the tech industry 10 years ago through Twitter and other things than I am lately. We have been so busy building Thinkific that we haven’t lifted our heads to see what’s going on in the industry and now we are a big and important member of the Vancouver tech community.”
How would you describe what you do in your job or an average workweek to a 5-year-old or a 95-year-old?
I run a company that helps people grow their companies by creating and delivering cool courses and other learning products online.
How do you define the culture at the highest level? Would that definition change when we are talking about an organization? If so, how?
I think about culture as how we collectively think, act, and interact and the shared spoken and unspoken values and norms that create the space that we are in.
If you could create the ideal organizational culture with no restrictions like cost and time what are the first three things that come to mind for you?
How I think about culture is that fundamentally, culture is created by, with, and for the people that are a part of it. One of the fallacies around nurturing culture is that it’s created by one person who decides what they want it to be, rather than an intentional and constant iteration of all the people that are part of the culture and who are intentionally working together to continue to refine and build it over time.
I’d like to tell you a story about the evolution of our culture.
Five years ago, when we were just 16 people, we did our first values exercise in which we thought about the values that were true to Thinkific at that point. One thing that I am quite grateful for is that we didn’t want them to be inspirational, but rather wanted them to be true; true to who we were then. We went through the process of having lots of different words on the walls and everyone contributed to boiling it down to a set of our first core values. We labeled these original values as ‘draft’ and left them for a year.
Thinkific Values, November 2021.
Fast forward to today and these values are the same core values we have five years later. Around the same time, we did our first employee survey and eNPS, but what I like most is the qualitative feedback on blockers; to know what’s working and what’s not, and to understand what needs to be changed, what needs to be different. Then, we listen and work on things that need attention and improvement. After 5 years, we continue this cadence each quarter and we figure it out, we try, we listen, we triage, and understand what we can tackle, and what we can make a little bit better.
So, when people ask me what is amazing about Thinkific culture and what makes up our culture there is nothing that touches our team and our people that didn’t come directly through that original survey or that wasn’t touched by it.
If we go back to the early days, people shared what they wanted to learn and understand: what the goals and strategy of the company were. We introduced OKRs (objectives and key results) based on their feedback. They wanted more feedback, so we moved from yearly feedback to twice per year, and then they wanted more so we did it quarterly. They wanted to feel more connected with the community such as through volunteer programs, so we added those.
What it means now… Without any restraints what would I implement?
No individual can dream or imagine how incredible a culture can be or how it can evolve. It’s a million times better than anything I could have imagined. Culture is not about the caps, vacation policy, or any perks. It’s about a group of passionate, committed people who want to be part of a group.
When you think of poor organizational culture, what are the first things that come to mind?
- Misalignment – where motives and motivations are different and often self-serving as opposed to in service to the collective or the organization.
- Unsafe – where it’s not ok to show up as yourself or be vulnerable or where it’s not ok to make mistakes or show weakness because there are personal repercussions.
Tell us about a time when you were able to create and build culture successfully? What was the hardest part of building culture?
The missteps: I think that in any growing team there are a lot of missteps along the way.
There were times in which we didn’t stay true to our core values/who we are. Looking back there are times or moments when we didn’t show up as whom we would like to have shown up as and when those moments happen usually someone gets hurt and that’s the hardest thing.
When young and growing people try to figure out who they are and what they do, I think that some people along the way joined us for not that long. I wish we could invite them to join us now with who we are today as we continue to get so much better and our culture continues to evolve.
What are the most impactful things you do to translate the organizational vision for the team?
I think that this question is interesting in terms of going remote and growing fast.
I think of three main things:
- Repetition – Keep it simple and continue to restate what may seem obvious, but that is not to someone new.
- Storytelling, Transparency, and Vulnerability – Be human, tell stories and also tell stories where people make mistakes, and you can help people learn from stories.
- Modeling – Lead by example. It is impossible to ask your teams to surface when they make a mistake if you do not surface when you make a mistake.
“The Psychology of Free: If you don’t value it why would your customers?” In an Instagram post, you tell the story about how giving your valuable service away for free (in this instance it was photography services) resulted in one in four hundred people using your service. What would you say organizations and individuals CAN DO to use free to their benefit? When should you give it away, now?
It’s about understanding what you are giving away and how you capitalize on that as an acquisition model without degrading or taking away from actual revenue. And so, when we think of Thinkific, we had a much more featured free plan and people could use a lot of the functionality and not just dip their toes but could add multiple courses and students.
I think it’s about understanding what the goal of free is and how to go about it without going too far. If the goal of free is de-risking for a customer and helping them get started with limited barriers, then it’s like ok great let’s do that. What do they need to do that? In the context of Thinkific for example, they only need to create one course so let’s allow them to create one course. They don’t need to integrate with other tools as maybe that’s something they don’t need to do to get past the de-risking. When you start to layer on too many reasons to pay or upgrade you are devaluing your paid plans.
If we go back four years, we had a more robust free plan and now we are still freemium and still have a free plan, but it’s set up in such a way that it totally de-risks and makes it easy for people to get started quickly. The goal is so they see the value and naturally move on to a paid plan.
Thinkific Plans, November 2021.
Recently two companies (Coinbase and Basecamp) made public announcements regarding their desire and initiative to not weigh in political and sensitive topics. This is being seen from two extremes as either a smart move or a cowardly move.
How do you think organizations can navigate the increasingly challenging world where taking a side on an issue may alienate the opposing group? How do you see these moves by these organizations?
I won’t comment too much on the actions of others, but I can share how we think about this internally and it has sparked some conversations at Thinkific.
I am grateful that we have solid values, which have endured over the last five years. They are even more true today than they were when we made them. We have values around choosing ethics, integrity and striving for equality. We have the Think in Color Summit (3rd annual) that is designed to showcase, inspire, and create a community for women of color and other underrepresented groups.
We can use our platform and our voice to raise communities up and to lean into our values regarding equality, ethics, and integrity. We need to figure out, like many companies, how that plays out as we grow. For example, at what point do we take steps to say we won’t allow these types of messages onto Thinkific sites. We are looking at how we better lean into our values while creating transparency for our customers.
Tell us a story about being a more junior team member where you had an experience with good culture? What was it like? How did it make you feel? What did you learn from it?
A long time ago, when I was at TELUS in tech support in the late 90s, I was doing dial-up tech support when we launched high-speed internet access and it turned out the internet was a thing. Therefore over a short period of time, our department grew from 40 to 1600 people. While we were part of a larger organization, we operated like a funded startup because we operated fundamentally faster than the rest of the company. They didn’t know what to do with us and they didn’t really understand the internet at that point anyway so we did our own thing.
Within the context of that very specific team and the end growth and rapid scale, there was an awful lot of trust to pick up the ball and run with it because we were growing so fast that there wasn’t time for anything else other than growth and scale. So very early on I was given trust and autonomy because we were moving so fast and that was an incredible learning opportunity. I found myself in my early 20s in a situation where I’d been promoted a couple of levels and now, I am meeting with the VP, and I am doing presentations that are getting visibility with the executive suite. All of that was because of a level of trust and autonomy afforded by the specific culture on that team and that was incredible.
Tell us a story about being a more junior team member where you had an experience with bad culture? What was it like? How did it make you feel? What do you learn from it?
I was working with the same company in a different province and on a different team. My partner and I wanted to move to Vancouver and I was able to get a transfer to make a lateral move into a contact center in the Vancouver area. While my position was lateral, pretty much overnight it felt like I had been demoted about four levels. It was an eye-opening experience with a very legacy team. The average tenure on the team was many many years, and the environment was extremely adversarial. It was incredibly toxic for everyone involved. The stories I could tell are pretty awful.
I learned all the things not to do when building a team. There is so much from that experience that goes into how I think about culture and teams today. When I go over the history of Thinkific, we set out to build the company that we wanted. It didn’t make sense to us to treat our teams any differently than we ourselves, as leaders, wanted to be treated.
Thank you to Miranda for spending some time with us and sharing her experience and expertise. If you’d like to connect with Miranda you can find her on LinkedIn or on Medium. It’s invaluable! We wish you and your team all the best in the future.