If you haven’t heard of Eric Bort, or don’t follow him on Twitter, don’t be surprised. He’s not ubiquitous online like other thought leaders. But his elearning has been seen by millions and it speaks for itself.
This interview, perhaps more than any other we’ve done, will appeal to small business owners or those who are thinking about striking out on their own. The elearning industry is ripe for the entrepreneur, but running a successful business is still challenging, so the experiences and tips Eric Bort shares in this interview should be very helpful — after all, his elearning business is thriving in Louisville, Kentucky.
eLearning Weekly Interview — with Eric Bort, President, Clearly Trained LLC
eLW: I am amazed that more than 80 million people have seen your elearning and you have several big-name clients, and yet most people have not heard of Eric Bort and you do not do any sales — how is that possible?
EB: I think it’s one of those situations where the work speaks for itself. We have just enough high-profile projects out there with a link pointing to our site. That coupled with some great SEO and what I consider to be a strong portfolio of work has larger new clients calling us. We like to form a close relationship with a few high quality clients as opposed to the typical approach which is to take on any and every job to meet payroll. I’ve always loved the idea of delivering something no other company could, in a time line and budget that keeps everything realistic & reasonable.
I may only have an art school background (no business or finance experience), but something I’ve learned about business is that if you’re honest above all else, put passion in your work, and actually care about your projects, not profit, success and profits will follow. When a company like Lowe’s cold calls you and you’re able to have your project manager at Starbucks vouch for your company, you’re doing something marginally right!
Regarding twelve years without a sales person, we’re also focused on diversifying. Being a part of Edheads.org, which brings in around 70,000 visitors a day and exposes our work to over 1.5+ million people per month has always been a nice credibility boost. When clients know you can start from nothing and make something amazing in two weeks flat, projects can sell themselves.
EB: In our area of expertise (custom development) a more common issue like budget is resolved by lowering the level of complexity or total seat time of a completed course. Rapid development environments aren’t out of the question, but honestly – we develop much faster from scratch than we do in the constraints of a template based or automated system. I’ve found clients are either all about rapid elearning development, or never mention it at all. Either that or it’s a department based need. Some departments just don’t need high-end creative work – for others, it’s the only way to train.
For the sake of marketing our company and having a focus, we chose the elearning path – but in the end of the day we’re all Flash developers, programmers, graphic designers and animators. A lot can be done with those skill sets that solve a variety of issues for our clients.
One pattern I have noticed in companies who outsource or take on development internally is that they can end up working against themselves. For the same reason I don’t sew my own pants or rebuild my transmission, the best choice for most companies is to focus on what they do best and leave the other needs to vendors.
EB:Flash has got to be the most adaptable, creative environment I’ve ever worked in. Where else can you create an interactive game that records user data, streams video, talks to other applications and can handle traditional frame by frame animation in the same program. It’s all very user interface centric with a little something for everyone.
Flash has its shortcomings, like typography (seriously, how come I can’t make bullets.. any basic text editor has the option to make bullets) – it’s nothing we can’t work around though.
EB: elearning is a broad area – and I’m pretty sure there’s room for everyone to get into this business. The trick for us was (like a lot of companies) specialization – we really only focus on high-end and custom flash development. Some companies start to dilute themselves – going with the general media company approach (print, video, web, flash, etc.). Sticking to ‘corporate elearning’ has been one of the best decisions we’ve made.
Another thing to consider is having a professional write for your web site. We don’t have a sales person, but we treat our site like a sales tool. Everything from SEO (search engine optimization) to casual writing style were considered to set the right tone – we like working with large companies who are interested in doing something other than glorified PowerPoint style training. We may only get 150 people a day through the site, but so far we’ve started working with over 12 Fortune 100 companies who found us through clearlytrained.com.
Finally, the heart of any company is the employees – hiring the right people, seeking collaboration, ideas and hopefully getting everyone excited about their project is key. I always feel that I get more quality & results from each of my employees that a larger company would get out of 4 or 5 employees. Hopefully it says something when a company with five people and four contractors can handle some of the largest companies in the US as their clients. We’re not into mass production of low quality work – my employees know the next project will be something entirely different, so it’s rare that the job ever goes stale. You might be pulling stock photos one day, animating a character another day, programming a quiz, then working on a virtual tonsillectomy surgery. It’s not that they don’t ever do anything boring, but hopefully the exciting stuff hits often enough to keep everyone happy and involved.
EB: We show up kind of late — starting at 9:30. When you’re the boss and you like spending time with your family in the morning, it’s nice to have a fairly relaxed starting time. I don’t know anyone whose brain is very creative at 8am after a 40 minute commute.
If we know what we’re working on everyone moves forward and keeps production going. Apparently I’m addicted to buying whiteboards — I think I’m up to five 3×4 whiteboards, two calendar whiteboards, and one giant whiteboard where I write out anything from a schedule and concept designs to basic slide by slide to do lists. They tend to migrate throughout the office but mostly reside in a central location. This is my way of not bogging anyone down with meetings (I think we’re up to one official meeting per year at this point). Everyone knows what project they’re on — and I snoop around the office throughout the day with a surprise attack critique to make sure the overall project’s look and feel are headed in the same direction.
As a small business owner I’m not just the creative director, I handle the phones, client relations, coffee making and toilet paper restocking. It’s the little things that count — and playing support team and motivator for everyone else is top on my list. I’m probably one of the more annoying bosses out there, constantly coming up with new ideas — contradicting myself, pushing time lines before they need to be pushed, but you have to have a sense of humor. I’m not opposed to anyone rolling their eyes at me – it’s the end result that’s important above all else. Treat the clients right and do your absolute best, that’s what I ask. I need each employee to have a brain and use it. If your idea is better than mine by all means let me know – it’s definitely a group effort with each project.
Our day winds down at 5:30. I’m pretty sincere about getting out at 5:30 — if you can’t get something done in a 40 hour work week you’re probably doing something wrong. Either that or your employees are spending too much time on Facebook. That’s the nice thing about having great clients and interesting projects – it keeps everyone on their toes trying new things, from design to programming to usability. Nothing really gets stale around here, and that’s how I like it.
EB: Surgery Squad is a concept that’s been rolling around in my head for around 7 years — virtual surgery games, short and to the point — that the average person could explore to learn more about a condition before going under the knife. Some people find it entertaining, some people throw up or pass out, but either way we’re out to create a unique, community driven experience. The real background to SurgerySquad.com is to give my team a place to push themselves. Imagine not having a client and being able to do as you please — do something amazing or never seen before with no real development boundaries. Surgery Squad is a bit of a proving ground for us — where we push ourselves to create in one week a full surgery interaction from start to finish, and launch it live on the site. So far we’ve had a great response with over 100,000 unique visitors in around 3 months, a 6+ minute average stay time and low bounce rates. Our only problem is that we can’t launch new surgeries fast enough for the fans of the site. We’re currently adding to our staff to help address this so we can get in position to grow quite a bit in 2011. My hope is to some day soon hit the 100 surgery mark on the site to have a little something for everyone.
EB: My daughter (3) always asks me to play the robot game (simple machines on www.edheads.org) that I programmed and did the robot voice for. She probably just thinks of what I do as fun games but has no concept that I did them. I do tend to slip my kids, friends and other interesting names and easter egg type references into our projects. Hopefully some day she’ll drag me into school for a show and tell session, I would love to make something just for her!
EB: Seeing I thought about this for five minutes or so and couldn’t come up with a single thing, I’m going to say no. That’s probably going to be interesting though these days — someone not into social networking, email at nights, smart phones or touching a computer over the weekend. Now that’s cutting edge! In all honesty, I spend all day every day on a computer — any device that lets people get in touch with me easier any time of the day takes away from my family time. And I love nothing more than spending time with my kids. That might be sappy sounding, but, it’s what I need after staring at a monitor 40 hours a week.
EB:The fact that I’ve recently seen a movie at all is what amazes me. Between work, newborn baby, and a 3-year-old I’m generally stuck to Netflix at best. I went out by myself and saw Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows the other week.. so by default it was the best movie I’ve seen recently.
EB:Crazy might not be the word for it, but the most amazing place I’ve ever been was Maui, Hawaii. Swimming with giant sea turtles, amazing views, volcanoes, great coffee, and everything that’s not in Louisville, Kentucky. I’d love to go back there, but it would have to be for longer than a week which is how long the jet lag lasted.
EB: I’m a bit of a homebody… willing to travel if asked but the last conference I spoke at was in 2004, so it’s been a while. I would love to attend the eLearning Guild conference this year — so I’m looking into that. For now though the best place to find me is at ClearlyTrained.com.
Eric is the Managing Editor of eLW Mag. He works as an elearning specialist focused on iPad apps and media strategy. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and their five children.