There is something intrinsically sexy about a guitar. For some it conjures up an image of a long-haired lead guitarist shredding on his axe; for others it is a sensitive soul rendering ballads by a campfire. Either way, there are a lot of aspiring guitarists out there, as evidenced by sales of around 2.3 million of the instruments in the US every year.
And apparently a guitar not only makes you cool, it makes you smart as well! A new study has shown that playing guitar helps to improve intuition and brain chemistry, possibly because guitar students learn by watching their teacher rather than just by reading music.
But although there may be a burning desire to be the next Jimmy Hendrix, it can still be expensive to take up personal lessons with a guitar teacher. And that is where Guitar Compass comes in, offering online guitar lessons powered by WooCommerce and WooCommerce Subscriptions.
These guys are internet veterans, running a website since 2001 and YouTubing video guitar lessons since 2006. But Guitar Compass were not only early adopters of music lessons on the interwebs, they have also proved to be incredibly adaptable to new technologies as they became available.
The driving force behind all this is Jeremy, the son of the company’s founder. I chatted to Jeremy about their recent switch to a subscriptions based model for their guitar lessons and what it takes to run a successful eCommerce business in 2017.
Ali: Do you work full-time on Guitar Compass, or are you running other side gigs?
Jeremy: [Our] parent company is called Watch & Learn, and we do instruction for a few different instruments. I work on the various websites full-time. We have Guitar Compass, which is our only subscription site. Then we have Banjo Compass and Mandolin Compass where we’re selling downloads and books and DVDs. And then we have another site called CVLS.com, which is mainly books and DVDs.
Ali: And where do you fit in to the team?
Jeremy: There are two owners: Bert Casey [my father], and Geoff Hohwald, who started writing instructional books in the early 1980s. Bert did guitar and mandolin and Geoff was the banjo guy. Around 2003, I came on and started doing all the websites for the company.
Ali: Oh, cool. It’s a family business! Are you going to take it over?
Jeremy: Yeah. I’ve been doing it, I guess, 13 years now and they are getting to retirement age. [We think] the subscription side is a look into what the future is going to be.
Ali: Awesome, I’ll have some questions for you on that side of things soon. How many people work with Watch & Learn?
Jeremy: We have 5 full-time employees and about 5 more part-time employees [all based in Atlanta].
Ali: Great. Do you know what was your dad’s inspiration for setting up Guitar Compass, and where did you start before online guitar lessons?
Jeremy: We’ve been running a website called FreeGuitarVideos since about 2001. It started off with free video lessons that were supplemental to some of our audio CDs. Then, as time progressed, we started selling video downloads on it.
We noticed over the last couple years that a) we had built up a big catalogue, so there were a lot of lessons to choose from, and b) a lot more people were using phones and tablets. So we were selling downloads that were .zip files that are hard for people to open either on a phone or tablet.
Combining all these aspects together, a one-price membership and access to all of our lessons started to make sense, so we transitioned to Guitar Compass to move with the times and make it easier for the customers to access what they actually wanted to see.
Ali: The mobile revolution is well and truly upon us! When did you make that transition and has the move to a subscription based model affected your business structure?
Jeremy: We’re in the early stages. We switched in March. It was a drastic change for us, you know, learning the ins and outs of recurring charges. We have the same content that we have always had, and our release schedule is about the same, but learning the ins and outs of a subscription site has been the big adjustment. Accounts, recurring charges, and the technical hiccups that come along with that.
Ali: What sort of technical hiccups have you found?
Jeremy: Initially, we had some login/logout issues with certain users and dealing with a caching plugin. We’ve had various issues with PayPal, trying to get recurring charges with PayPal to work correctly. Then [we had to work out] how to contact people once you get sale payments.
It’s been a learning curve. Then, of course, the technology, the plugins, everything gets updated constantly, so some of that gets better, some of it changes. You’ve got to stay on top of it.
Ali: Definitely. Between PayPal and plugins and updates is quite a bit to stay on top of. Did you have training in website development and management?
Jeremy: It’s been self-taught. I’ve always had an interest, so in 2003, I started teaching myself on the fly here in the office.
Ali: That’s really amazing. I’m just trying to teach myself how to pull together a WordPress website and finding there are quite a few things to get my head around, particularly when it’s all brand new. It’s great that you taught yourself. Do you also play an instrument?
Jeremy: I do. I play some guitar, a little bass, a little mandolin, and basically, I’m not a natural talent at all. I’ve actually used the books that we produce to learn all these instruments. Ten years ago, I was sitting down with our books, learning how to play mandolin from scratch or how to start working on guitar solos and more advanced rhythm ideas.
Ali: Brilliant. Is your dad the talent behind the courses?
Jeremy: He was originally, and in the last 10 years or so, we’ve been real fortunate to have two star instructors, Peter Vogl and Jody Worrell, who are very talented and have done the lion’s share of our guitar courses.
Ali: Do you pay them for the courses or do they get a percentage of the royalties of when you sell subscriptions?
Jeremy: We do both. We give some upfront to make it worth their while to come down here and to plan the courses. Then they also get ongoing royalties. Some of the courses they filmed 10 years ago they still get a cut of, and some of them we’ve even had to re-shoot as video has gone from SD to HD.
Ali: I can imagine that you’d maybe need to update some fashions as well.
Jeremy: Well, yeah. We’ve had some unfortunate hair styles over the years.
Ali: No doubt! How long has your dad been teaching guitar? I guess he would have started offline before moving to online guitar lessons!
Jeremy: I believe he started in the mid-1970s. It was in-person for 10 years and then the books and the audio cassettes started in the early 80s. Then around 1990, they did the first video lessons on VHS, and 10 years later taking it to the internet was the next step. Now, I guess 10 years after that, the subscription site is the next step for us.
Ali: That’s fantastic. It’s essentially the same product – guitar lessons – but it’s moved with the technology that’s become available.
Jeremy: Yeah, the same basic course materials stayed the same. It’s just the technology that has changed and the delivery system that has [periodically] changed.
Ali: I took in-person guitar lessons back in the 90s and it was such an expensive exercise. I’m pretty excited that something like Guitar Compass is available now. What is your favourite style of music to play when you’re just doing something for your own entertainment?
Jeremy: Acoustic blues is my sweet spot, I would say.
Jeremy: I’m not the only one. It seems to be very popular with our customers as well.
Ali: I’m very glad to hear it. What would you say is the most popular lesson or range of lessons?
Jeremy: As to be expected, beginning guitar is always the biggest just because that’s where most people are starting. Beyond that, really, blues guitar is where we see most of our clients heading.
Ali: Oh, that’s awesome. The more people that play the blues, the better. And how do you decide on which pieces of music to teach in your lessons?
Jeremy: Most of the instructors are still teaching in-person lessons as well, so they really call upon what their students are struggling with, what they’re asking to learn. It’s a very good resource for us to have.
Ali: For sure. It’s great that you have those instructors who are still really connected to students so they can translate that into the online guitar lessons. How do you find your customers? Do you have an advertising strategy?
Jeremy: Yeah. I would say the bulk of our customers come from an organic search – searching for blues guitar lessons, acoustic guitar lessons, how to play guitar. Then, we’ve [also] had a pretty long-standing [and] successful YouTube channel that we use to direct people back to our site as well.
Ali: Does that mean YouTube is your social media strategy?
Jeremy: Yeah, it has been the most successful outreach for us, as far as any of the social networks go. We posted our first video on YouTube in 2006, so we have hundreds up there now. It has really opened up the doors to a lot more competition, but it has also given us a good source of outreach and a way to find new customers who aren’t necessarily using Google as a search engine.
Ali: That’s true, a lot of people just search directly in YouTube when they want a “how to” video. How did you decide on using WooCommerce?
Jeremy: I had some previous experience with WordPress doing smaller blogs personally and [for the] business. We were switching from a pretty complicated eCommerce software and design [and] we needed to go mobile-friendly and mobile-responsive with our site at the same time. Switching to WordPress, WooCommerce, all at the same time appealed to me, and partially because I am self-taught, the amount of information out there on WooCommerce really appealed to me, [knowing] that I’d be able to figure it out on my own as I go.
Ali: How many customers do you have for Guitar Compass?
Jeremy: [In October last year], it was up to 200 actives and we’re hoping to approach 1000 as quickly as possible. We’ve just reached the one year anniversary of our transition and launch as a subscription site. We’re now seeing steady growth throughout the year instead of the seasonal highs and lows that used to affect everything we did.
Ali: How did you decide on the price point for your lessons?
Jeremy: It was a combination [of things]. [Firstly], we viewed our competitors’ pricing – usually, everyone else is coming in at around $15 or $20 a month. We felt we could offer a better product at a lower price and kind of take over the market, so $9.95 seemed like a good starting point for us. [Secondly], by looking at our recurring customer downloads over the years, we saw that spending about $10 a month was a fairly common price point for a lot of people.
Ali: When you’re doing recurring subscription revenue and recurring revenue, setting the price point is such a big decision, isn’t it? Because once it’s set, you can take it down if you want to, but putting it up is problematic.
Jeremy: Right, right
Ali: Interesting. What sort of feedback have you seen from customers? Have you seen any changes from moving to this subscription model?
Jeremy: Yeah, I think it takes a lot of the stress out of the process. I think the overarching [benefit] for the transition to the subscription service was that it allowed us and our customers to focus on the main goal of learning how to play guitar.
As a company, we previously had to worry about marketing and delivery for each video lesson we produced. Will people want to buy this video? It’s something that the student needs to learn, but will they choose this over a different video with a more exciting title? [And there was] the technological issue of delivering hundreds of different .zip file downloads [when people wanted to] watch on phones and tablets.
For our students, the question was always about which video they should purchase. Will it be the right skill level? Have I learned this before from a private lesson or another video? Staring at a list of over 500 lesson titles is daunting and doesn’t provide much clue of where to start and get the most bang for your buck.
The subscription service has allowed everyone to focus on actually learning how to play guitar and not worry about everything else. If a lesson is too hard, the student is just a click away from something more suitable. As teachers, we’re allowed to focus on important music theory concepts that are there for guitarists who are trying to create their own music. We don’t have to just rely on the star power of playing famous songs or solos. From a technical side, the WooCommerce Subscriptions and Memberships plugins allowed us to put streaming video on the site that students could access anywhere without having to deal with large video downloads.
Ali: That’s so good to hear. You can just focus on your core mission – teaching guitar – and students can just focus on learning. So what are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in setting up Guitar Compass?
Jeremy: [When] transferring sites, [it was] the sheer [volume] of content. We have over 600 lessons available on the site. [Getting] the page hierarchy correct and getting all the links set up correctly took a lot careful planning. Then, when we made mistakes, it took a lot of time to go back and get it right.
The other thing is trying to figure out the right amount of content to release on a weekly basis for recurring customers to be happy. Then also for prospects who are on our mailing list but haven’t signed up yet, how much to break out each week and get them interested and have them make the next step.
Ali: Who makes all those decisions?
Jeremy: It’s mainly me. Then I have weekly meetings with the owners and we discuss different ideas and float them around.
Ali: So it’s mainly you coming up with the strategy?
Jeremy: Yeah. I’m essentially a one-man operation with people helping in editing, people helping in shoots, people helping in management, but it all flows basically from me.
Ali: Wow, that’s amazing. What is your vision for the future of Guitar Compass?
Jeremy: You know, I feel like we’re on the right path. It’s been exciting switching over. I like the subscription delivery model and it’s a matter of staying up to date with technology, whether video gets better, if there’s a way to be more interactive. It’s just making sure that we stay at the top of the delivery method for guitar instruction.
Ali: And since you have 600 lessons or so on offer, how do you manage bandwidth and capacity for your site? Even just hosting that many lessons must take some specialised plan.
Jeremy: We use two different video services for different types of content. We use Wistia a lot for our free lessons and marketing. Then for our premium content, we’re using VimeoPro. For a long time, video hosting was the main thing keeping us back from switching to a subscription site.
[Over] the last few years, [various] people have pitched it to us [as] an idea and we just ran the numbers and bandwidth and video hosting was going to make it hard to really turn a profit. The prices have come down just tremendously on that in the last 2 years. What Vimeo is offering now [was] unheard of 5 years ago.
Ali: So as technology has changed and new opportunities with services like Vimeo become available, you’ve adapted and moved on with that. Are there any entrepreneurs or business owners that you look up to?
Jeremy: Through this series [Small Woorld], I discovered HDpiano a few months ago and it was really great to see someone with the same basic model as us that has had success. That’s been really interesting for us.
On a larger, more varied scale, a lot of the courses on Lynda.com set the bar for level of instruction quality. I probably follow more guitar channels on YouTube than any sane person should.
Ali: That’s great. What do you wish someone had told you before you started, maybe before you switched over to subscriptions on Guitar Compass?
Jeremy: There’s a lot of great information out there. I went through this great series with Chris Lema. The advice I wish I would have listened to is just to stay away from PayPal. If I could have simplified the charging process from the get-go, it would have made life a lot easier. People told me this but I don’t know how I could have really understood beforehand about the amount of tracking and planning that goes into a subscription site.
Your churn out rate and your active and inactive customers, it’s just a whole different approach to keep up with everything and keep it synced with an email marketing service or newsletter. It’s something that you’ve got to experience to know how to plan it out.
Ali: Do you have any general advice for entrepreneurs who are starting out?
Jeremy: To me, [it comes down to] content quality. If you’re selling information, your content quality is going to trump everything else. Your email marketing might be flashy, you might be on top of keeping up with the stats and the business end, but if your content isn’t good, you’re not going to make it very far. You’re not going to have recurring customers. Focus in on that first and then the business side second.
This interview really opened my eyes as to how an in-person service can transfer to the various mediums and make the most of the latest technology as it becomes available. Jeremy’s adaptability and self-taught tech chops is a testament to what can be achieved through eCommerce generally, and with WooCommerce specifically.
A couple of years ago, a Quora user asked: how many people in the world play guitar? The responses (guesses) varied from 50 million up to the very specific number of 821 843 750. So, maybe we don’t know for sure how many people actually do play guitar but with access to such an affordable subscription option for lessons there will probably be a lot more.
Talking with Jeremy about what’s on offer at Guitar Compass has certainly made my own fingers itchy for a guitar! It has been many moons since my last attempt to learn, but it might be time to give it another shot, and get that sweet sweet brain chemistry boost. Guitar Compass might just have their next customer right here.