5 Insights From Taking A Live Cohort-Based Course (And How I’m Applying Them To My Own)

Cohort-based course transformation
Sketching Billy Broas’ Bridge of Transformation model for my cohort-based course!

I recently joined 40 other entrepreneurs for the first cohort of Billy Broas’ new live online cohort-based course, the Keystone Accelerator.

It’s an 8-week program covering how to market and launch cohort-based courses (CBCs).

Cohort-based courses are online courses where a group of students join at the same time and progress through the course together. Typically, students in a CBC meet online via Zoom for interactive sessions and work on course materials between sessions.

They’re fundamentally different to self-paced video courses because the emphasis shifts from being content-centric to being community-centric.

Students get the benefit of accountability, a peer group and expert teacher(s) for questions, and a community in which to celebrate wins and share challenges. CBC’s provide structure and guidance for students. Consequently, they have much higher completion rates than self-paced courses and better outcomes for students.

I joined this Keystone cohort course because I’m creating my own live training course and I wanted to learn from the experts on how to build, market and sell these types of courses.

We met twice a week for 90 minutes over Zoom – with participants calling in from all over the world – to learn an education-based marketing framework. In addition, I joined weekly peer coaching groups to brainstorm ideas and critique each other’s work in a safe environment.

Here are my top five takeaways from taking a cohort-based course that I want apply to my own course, the Pro Sheets Accelerator:

1. It Is Possible To Have Transformative Experiences Online

I’d never done a live cohort-based course before Keystone. I’d experienced plenty of webinars, in-person courses and self-paced video courses.

But this was different.

Keystone was unlike any other learning experience I’ve had.

It combined the content of an on-demand video course with the accountability, rapid feedback and community of an in-person event.

Accountability pushes you to show up and do the work.

Rapid feedback means you don’t get stuck for long periods and learn quickly from your mistakes.

Community provides a safe space to share wins and challenges and make new friends.

Combining these three factors with world-class content is the best way to facilitate the student transformation.

For first cohort of the Pro Sheets Accelerator, I want to foster a really strong community to maximize these benefits.

If you join, you’ll be in a group of 30 – 40 students, with a private course forum, peer groups and office hours, in addition to the main teaching sessions.

2. The Connections You Make Are As Valuable As The Course Content

I joined a group of 40 super smart, motivated entrepreneurs, all building their own live training courses in wildly different industries.

Some were earlier in their journeys than me, some were further along.

Together, the breadth of experiences, ideas and insights far surpassed what I, as an individual, could have achieved.

Truly a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. 

I learned a lot from the peer coaching sessions, both from giving and receiving feedback. Seeing how other people solve problems, how they think and how they approach opportunities and challenges, was hugely valuable.

Like a wifi network that gets stronger as more nodes are added and interlinked, the new connections you make through a CBC improve your chances of success with your own business.

3. Learning With Others Is More Fun Than Learning Alone

I’m a firm believer that education should be enjoyable and that you learn best when you’re having fun. We should take inspiration from young children who learn through play.

If it’s enjoyable, you’re more likely to succeed.

Instead of watching the clock and counting down until the end of a boring lecture, you’re emotionally present and absorbing information. You’re in the zone of proximal development.

In the past year, we’ve all been starved of human connection and friendship.

Although CBCs are online, you’re still going through an intense shared experience with other folks.

Naturally friendships form as people get to know each other and become more comfortable. You begin to see beneath the surface and really learn from each other.

The Pro Sheets Accelerator will be a fun experience. My goal is for everyone to enjoy the course first and foremost.

4. The Tangential Ideas Are Just As Valuable As The Core Content

The Keystone course I participated in is a marketing course. Its promise is that it’ll teach you how to market and sell cohort-based courses.

But along the way, I picked up tons of other ideas. Ideas that weren’t on the syllabus but arose through digressions, chats with peers or from surprise bonus sessions with guest experts.

Simply from being part of this cohort-based course, I learned about how to run one. I saw first hand how many moving pieces there are and why you need help to run one. Everything from the first onboarding call through to how to structure the live Zoom calls and exercises.

Tiago Forte, one of the world’s leading experts on CBCs who runs the hugely successful Building A Second Brain course, joined this Keystone course and added his perspective to the program.

In addition, we had workshops on the operations side of running CBCs from course director Will Mannon, and on how to create engaging experiences for our students from learning designer Andrew Barry. Both of these added valuable insights outside of the marketing curriculum of the main course.

Encouraging curiosity, fostering peer-led learning and surprising students with guest speakers are all great ways to add value to a CBC.

I plan to implement all of these in the Pro Sheets Accelerator course.

5. Less Is More in Cohort-Based Courses

When it comes to content, less is more.

What this means in practice is that the emphasis of the course shifts from cramming in as much content as possible (a traditional signal of value) to focusing on students’ transformational learning experiences.

The goal of a CBC is for your students’ life to change. You’re guiding them across the bridge from their current status quo to the new, better life.

For example, in the Keystone course, I came away with a much deeper understanding of CBCs and education based marketing. I now have a playbook I can apply to my own business.

What I don’t have is a library of 300 videos on marketing, which I would never have the time to watch, much less implement.

This realization with regards to content – that less is more – was a key shift I noticed in myself during this Keystone course.

For the Pro Sheets Accelerator cohort-based course, my original plan was to focus on making it as comprehensive as possible, covering Google Sheets and Apps Script from top to bottom.

It would have been impossible to achieve and unmanageable for students.

Now, my plan is to focus on two areas:

  1. Developing a framework and skillset for doing data analysis with Google Sheets, and
  2. Automating that framework

Yes, they’re still big topics, but they’re focussed. I can build a syllabus that goes deep into these subjects and delivers huge value, in a way that won’t overwhelm students.

The material will be relevant. Students will learn just enough to experience a transformation but not too much that it gets diluted.

Applying These Lessons To Pro Sheets Accelerator

It’s been 4 years since I launched my first online course, How To Build Dashboards in Google Sheets.

Since then, over 40,000 students from 1,000s of organizations have registered for one or more of my online courses.

All of these courses are self-serve video courses.

Now it’s time to add a new experience-based course into the mix, as the next evolution of my education business.

I’m building a cohort-based course called Pro Sheets Accelerator, which will teach you how to leverage the power of data and automation in Google Sheets to grow your business and career.

The first cohort begins at the end of April. I’m super excited to bring together a group of Sheets aficionados for a transformative learning experience. Join us!

Sign up here to hear more about the Pro Sheets Accelerator cohort-based course:

I Left My Corporate Accounting Job 7 Years Ago. Here’s How I Built A Career As An Educational Entrepreneur

Ben Collins Journey to course creator

I remember handing in my notice seven years ago.

My palms were sweaty.

Several times I walked towards the corner office but turned around, on the pretense of needing to do something else first.

Finally, there was nothing left but to do it.

As I walked, robotically, towards my boss’s office, my pulse quickened and a heat rose through my head.

I was so focussed on knocking on the door, on willing myself past that point of no return, that when I entered the boss’s office, my carefully rehearsed words spilled out my mouth in a nervous jumble. Words I’d confidently spoken a hundred times in my head.

In my head I had pictured a triumphant scene – the “I quit!” scene – but the reality was a somewhat awkward, anticlimactic conversation.

The news came as a surprise to my boss. He wanted to understand.

“No, it’s not the work…”

“That’s a generous offer to stay, but I’ve made up my mind…”

“I want to focus on getting a job in the tech industry…”

That last statement sounded hollow and vague, even to me.

Did I believe it myself? What did it even mean? I felt the heat rising in my head again.

What will I do next?

Truthfully, I didn’t know.

News traveled fast along the corridors and soon the whole office knew.

Most were incredulous that I would leave a job without a new job to go to. I projected confidence and recited my spiel about wanting to break into the tech industry because it’s my passion.

But in reality, I felt like a vertigo sufferer on a cliff edge, my head swimming.

I was saved by my innermost kernel: my determination to succeed and make a dent in the world.

It’s my most powerful ally, always there to fight my cause. All I had to do was learn how to channel it.

Two weeks later, the change was real and permanent. I woke up and didn’t go to the office. It was a disorientating feeling that took me years to acclimate to.

I spent that summer cycling around the US with my brother, then I got married in the fall. Yet through those joyous events, I carried an anxiety, not knowing exactly where my career would go next.

The Wilderness Years: 2014 – 2015

Act 1: A Forensic Accounting Newsletter

My first entrepreneurial idea was to start a paid newsletter for the Forensic Accounting industry, the industry where I’d worked for 8 years and just left.

It didn’t exist, it was specialist knowledge that people would pay for, and my experience qualified me to deliver it.

Paid newsletters are in vogue right now, but not back in 2014. But that was attractive. It added a technology angle to this project: I had to figure out how to deliver and charge for the newsletter.

I spent a month working hard on this idea.

I interviewed people in the industry. I wrote the first and second draft editions of the email. I created a business plan and put together a list of 100 contacts in the industry who would receive the first newsletter.

Forensic Accounting Newsletter
Mockup of Issue 1 of the White Wire, a Forensic Accounting Industry Newsletter

I was just a few days shy of sending the first email when I knew something wasn’t right.

I wasn’t excited by this idea. At all.

In fact, I wanted to get away from the corporate accounting world and blaze my own trail. This wasn’t the solution I was looking for.

I clearly remember the conversation with my wife:

“I can’t do this. I’m not passionate about this industry so I won’t be successful. I’m passionate about the technology around the newsletter and the design of it, but not the contents.”

(By the way, I still think this newsletter is a good idea. Just not a good idea for me.)

It was back to the drawing board.

Act 2: Wannabe Web Developer

I didn’t have another entrepreneurial dream at this stage. But I loved the VBA and SQL coding parts of my old job, so I knew what I wanted to do next.

I wanted to become a developer.

I signed up for a part-time web development course with the education startup General Assembly.

I poured my heart and soul into coding for the next six months.

I built a social learning application called UpLearn (which I was pleasantly surprised to discover is still live!).

Crucially during this time, I did what every tech job seeker is advised to do and started this blog to share my knowledge.

Version 1 of benlcollins.com
Version 1 of benlcollins.com

I started the blog as a way to showcase my skills to future employers, not expecting it to become a business in its own right.

The very first post was about building a dashboard in Google Sheets, published on 31 October 2014.

I started applying for junior web developer roles in the spring of 2015. I applied to 10 positions but didn’t hear back from a single one. Nada. Zip. Not even an acknowledgement of my application.

It was hard to take. I was frustrated. I knew I could do it. Why couldn’t they see this?

I became more and more despondent with each passing day. Act 2 of my own career had yielded nothing either.

Looking back now, this period was full of doubt, as strong as any other time in my life.

Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this. Maybe my destiny was to be a lifetime accountant.

Maybe I could find a way to be happy doing that.

Maybe I should call up my old work again.

But before that happened, the universe sent a lifeline my way…

I got my first inbound client request.

Gaining Traction: 2016 – 2017

Act 3: Freelance Data Analyst

My first client messaged me after reading my Google Sheets dashboard post. He asked if I could build something similar for his real estate business. “Yes, of course!” I said.

Soon a trickle of inbound client work was coming from my website. Projects were all across the board: from Google Sheets dashboards, to SQL data analysis to corporate training with Tableau.

It was just enough work to postpone the job hunt and call myself a freelancer.

When General Assembly announced they were looking for instructors for their new Data Analysis course, I applied.

I taught lots of different data analysis courses for General Assembly in 2015 and 2016, from 10-week part-time courses to 2-hour intensives.

Act 4: Freelance Google Sheets Developer

In 2017 I narrowed my focus to data analysis with Google Sheets and Apps Script.

No more Excel, Ruby on Rails, SQL or Tableau.

I doubled down on the Google Sheets niche. My website traffic increased and the client requests kept rolling in.

Career Venn diagram

Hardly anyone else was writing about Google Sheets at the time, so it was a huge opportunity.

I was intimately familiar with the cottage industry built on the back of Microsoft Excel – consultants, course creators, bloggers – so I reasoned there was a good chance something similar would exist for Google Sheets years from now.

And I intended to be at the forefront of that industry.

Act 5: Course Creator

For years, I’d contemplated the idea of creating an online course, inspired by the Excel gurus like Chandoo, who made their living teaching spreadsheets.

In mid-2016 I committed to creating a Google Sheets course. Just one. I would give it a try and see what happened. If it was successful, then I could do it again. If not, then no problem, I could keep going with my freelance consulting.

I chose Dashboards as the first course topic. I’d seen good traction on those posts on my website so I knew it was something people wanted to learn.

It took me about six months – alongside my existing consulting work – to create the dashboards and record the lessons, making many mistakes along the way.

I finally launched the Google Sheets Dashboard course in February 2017:

Version 1 of the Google Sheets Dashboard course
Version 1 of the Google Sheets Dashboard course

I made $7,000 in the week I launched the course, to an email list of around 2,000.

To me it was a huge success. Certainly enough to convince me to create a second course.

I recorded and launched a Data Cleaning course – now part of the Data Analysis course – between March and May 2017. I was incentivized to finish this one because my second son was born at the end of May.

Building a Business: 2018 – 2020

By the end of 2017 I was making a modest salary from my business. But it was still some way short of my old corporate earnings.

I still struggled with the process of working for myself. In my previous jobs, I’d always had a boss (or drill sergeant) telling me what to do next.

Now I was on my own.

And I clearly needed help building good work habits so I could scale my business. I felt like I started from scratch with each new client project. I had no systems in place. I didn’t have a consistent pricing methodology.

After much encouragement from my wife, who has her own entrepreneurial experience, I hired a business coach.

My new business coach was immediately helpful.

She brought discipline to my work.

She taught me how to evaluate opportunities. How to sell my work. How to write convincing marketing copy.

And she helped me start a weekly Google Sheets tips newsletter in April 2018, which has grown to be one of the fundamental pillars of my business.

If you’re thinking about hiring a business coach, do it. It’s one of the best investments you can make for your business and yourself.

In 2019, Google invited me to be part of the Google Developer Expert program, as recognition of my work on Google Sheets and Apps Script. This has been an amazing community to be a part of. I’ve enjoyed working closely with other members and Google team members.

Act 6: Growing The Online School

Between 2018 and 2020, I released a whole series of online courses. They sold well.

My email list had grown to around 30,000 by mid-2020, largely because of people signing up to my free Advanced Formulas course and my Introduction to Apps Script course.

Most importantly, I’ve kept up my weekly newsletter habit, started in 2017, so that my audience is engaged and familiar with me and my course offerings.

But my courses looked amateur because I’d created all the graphics myself. And I knew the recording quality could be improved.

So my big goal for 2020 was to update the entire catalog.

At the beginning of 2020 I hired a design firm to create a new brand for this site and my courses.

I then embarked on a journey to overhaul every course in my catalog. I thought it would take me six months.

But the pandemic hit…

Work hours were reduced as I shared child care with my wife, who also has a career to sustain.

In the end, it took me a year to complete the course updates (not full time). I uploaded the last video for the Automation With Apps Script course in late February 2021, complete with the professional branding.

Ben Collins Courses

The Future: 2021 onwards

Now, in March 2021, my business is at an inflection point.

These are always fascinating times for an entrepreneur.

You’re reinventing yourself again. Starting over. Shedding your skin.

My existing online courses generate a six-figure profit annually, more than I used to make at my corporate job at a top law firm.

But it’s time for me to grow again. Online education is evolving and some students crave more than on-demand courses alone can provide.

With the shift to zoom-first work culture in the past year, live training courses, often called Cohort-Based-Courses (CBCs), have exploded in popularity.

It’s not hard to understand why. Traditional on-demand online courses only work for the most motivated students, ones who have the discipline (and time!) to sit down and work through the content.

What the on-demand courses lack is accountability and community, two aspects that deliver huge benefits to students.

And that’s where these next-gen cohort courses come in. They offer you that accountability and community, as well as direct access to the expert teachers behind the videos. They’re a step closer to in-person training, combined with the convenience of remote learning.

I’m working on a new cohort course, called Pro Sheets Accelerator. It’s a five-week course, meeting twice a week for a 90-minute live session, plus office hours, community and a capstone project.

I’m really excited to bring this to life and share more details over the coming weeks.

My online, on-demand course library, now fully updated, remains available for students who prefer to learn that way. But this new live format course offers more opportunities for students to learn, grow and support each other.

Shifting my energy to this live cohort course model feels like a tipping point that will propel me forward to bigger things.

It took me years to get to this point, to find that sweet spot where my skills and experience matches what the market is looking for. Along the way, I’ve built an engaged audience of folks who can benefit from my work.

The first cohort of my live training course, Pro Sheets Accelerator, is just the beginning of this next Act.

My mission is to create a world-class online school, teaching productivity, data analysis and workflow automation, using Google tools.

Onward and upward!

Ben Collins, March 2021

2020 In Review And A Look Forward To 2021

Best wishes to all of you for 2021!

Let’s hope for a brighter, happier, safer lap around the sun this time.

Winter snow
We had a December snowstorm! Lots of fun with the young ‘uns 🙂

This is annual review number 6!

As always, I’m super grateful when I sit down to write this because it means I’m still working for myself and building this business.

2020 was a difficult year for the world.

I’m fortunate to have my health and so do those close to me. I can’t imagine how difficult 2020 has been for those who have lost someone. My heart goes out to you.

My wife and I have taken the virus seriously. Given my history of pneumonia in the last two years (see challenges of 2018 and 2019) I can’t afford to take this virus lightly.

We’re extremely fortunate that we already work from home, so that didn’t present a significant challenge when the whole world went remote. However, going from full time childcare to no childcare was certainly a challenge.

I’m looking forward to 2021 and the promise of a vaccine. I haven’t seen my UK family since January 2020 and I miss them (and the UK) terribly.

I’m cautiously optimistic that 2021 will be better, and make up for the annus horribilis that was 2020.

With that, let me present my review of the year:

Did I Meet My 2020 Goals?

Overall, given the circumstances – I probably had 50% fewer working hours this year because I spent that time with my kids – I’m really happy with what I achieved and feel positive about how the year went from a work perspective.

  • Publish more high-quality tutorials than in 2019 (target > 17) – Yes! I wrote 26 new tutorials this year.
  • Hit 50k newsletter subscribers and send out a tip every Monday – Yes and no. I sent a newsletter every Monday and hit 40k subs, which I’m super happy with. This is after removing 8k inactive subs, so I actually got pretty close to my original goal.
  • Update my existing Google Sheets courses – Yes! I re-recorded all of the Google Sheet course videos. I’m updating the Automation with Apps Script course at the moment, which will complete the update process.
  • Create one new Google Sheets course – Yes! I launched the Google Sheets Essentials course this year.
  • Run 10 in-person workshops – No. Obviously not 😉
  • Re-brand my digital assets – Yes! I was thrilled with how it turned out. Details below.
  • Find a VA to help with the business – Yes! And she’s been an enormous help. Thanks, Jo!
  • Live-blog Google Next 2020 again – No 🙁 Obviously, this didn’t happen since the conference was cancelled.
  • Work through this book: Data Science on the Google Cloud PlatformSort of. I started the book and worked through another BigQuery book, but it’s still early in that journey.
  • My overall number 1 goal for 2020 is to be healthy – Yes! Apart from my whole family having the flu in February and a grotty headcold in August, I’ve been healthy this year.
  • Fitness goals: be active 5 times/week (a mix of spin classes, runs and at least 1 run/hike up the mountain) – Sort of… my R knee is still not healed from the running injuries last year, so I’ve been confined to hiking and occasional yoga classes.
  • Keep up the weekly brainstorming hike with my wife – The pandemic put a dampener on this. We’ve managed a few hikes together but since childcare is limited in the current circumstances, we haven’t had the opportunity to do this weekly as we’d hoped.
  • Read 30 books – No. I read ~20 books, but the last one I read was 650 pages of small print, all about life in Stalin’s Russia of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. That counts for at least 3 or 4 normal books by my reckoning 😉

2020 Highlights

2020 felt like a long year. Events from the start of this year feel like they happened years ago. I feel like I aged 10 years!

But despite the terrible toll the pandemic exacted on us all, there were plenty of highlights throughout the year.

In no particular order:

1) New Brand

I hired the super talented team at Left Hand Design to do a rebrand for my business and courses.

I wanted something simple, bold and geometric, and I think Left Hand Design did an outstanding job.

Over the course of a couple of months, they created new family of logos, new color scheme, fonts and styles for my entire online presence. They created new images for my courses and a new slide deck template for the lessons.

I also need to credit my wife, Alexis Grant, for the green dot over the “i”, a wonderful addition!

This new brand represents a huge leap forward for my business.

benlcollins logos

benlcollins logo

benlcollins social logos

benlcollins typography

benlcollins colors

Google Sheets Essentials

2) SheetsCon

SheetsCon

In March this year I ran my most ambitious project to date: SheetsCon, a 2-day online conference for all things Google Sheets.

When I planned the conference in late 2019, way before any of us had heard of Coronavirus, I envisioned an online conference so that people from all over the world could participate, free of charge.

SheetsCon ran on Wednesday 11th and Thursday 12th March. My sons had their last day at preschool on the 13th March, because it shut down the following week. We all went into lockdown that weekend.

The timing of an online conference in March might have looked prescient from the outside, but I can promise you it wasn’t planned that way because of Covid.

SheetsCon stats

The event was a massive success; we had almost 7,000 registered attendees, 3,800 of whom attended live, and 89.5% of whom said they’ll return in 2021.

Watch the 2020 SheetsCon replays for free here.

Read about what happened behind-the-scenes to make SheetsCon happen.

It was a huge amount of work. I’m glad I didn’t realize that when I embarked because I might not have done it!

It’ll be easier in some ways in 2021 as I have a blueprint to follow. However, I’m looking to make it bigger and better.

See you there, on 24th and 25th March 2021!

SheetsCon Swag Bags

3) Online Courses

I only added one new course this year: Google Sheets Essentials.

Google Sheets Essentials Course

But I also updated every course in my catalog*, to reflect the changes in the Google Sheets and Apps Script environments.

This was a huge project to re-record over 300 videos and create new templates. It occupied me for most of the year!

* at the time of writing, I’m in the process of updating the Automation with Apps Script course, which is the final one to update.

4) Website

benlcollins site traffic

  • I published 26 new posts this year, which was really pleasing. I had a burst of creative energy in November and December.
  • The traffic to benlcollins.com continues to grow and now reaches around 200k+ users each month for about 350k+ pageviews. Wow!
  • Across 2020, the site saw over 2 million users and nearly 4 million page views 🤯
  • Traffic has increased steadily across the year, although it’s mostly plateaued in the second half of the year
  • I want to keep growing this traffic in 2021!

My favorite posts of the year are the ones that nourish me intellectually.

This year, my favorite ones to research and write were:

5) Google Sheets Tips Newsletter

2020 email growth

My email list has grown from around 30,000 at the beginning of the year to over 38,000 by year end, after removing over 8,000 inactive subscribers part way through the year (the steep drop).

Email continues to be my main marketing channel, and the list grew steadily throughout the year. I get about 40 – 50 daily signups for the Google Sheets Tips newsletter, which goes out at 11am every Monday.

I sent 51 Google Sheets Tips newsletters this year, only skipping the Christmas week.

2020 saw formula challenges #3 and #4, with formula challenge #5 straddling the Christmas holiday break.

As a surprise, my dad printed me a physical copy of tips 1 to 100! Thank you!

6) Community

I’m grateful to all of you who read this website, open my Google Sheets tips newsletters or learn from one of my online courses. It’s a great privilege to share my teachings with the world. I love my work and hope to serve you for years to come. Thank you! 🙏

I’m also extremely grateful to the Google Developer Expert Workspace group and the Googlers I’ve gotten to know over the past few years. It’s been a real pleasure to learn from you all and I’m humbled to be included in such a wonderful and knowledgeable group. Cheers to future collaborations!

7) Dream Office

I set up my dream office in 2020.

New Office

Office door decal

Lego Saturn V rocket

8) Non-Work Highlights

Being a dad!

Spending lots of time with my two young sons this year and watching them blossom, despite the difficult circumstances. Yes, it’s been frustrating and challenging at times, but it’s impossible to put into words how much I love these two little guys and want to do my best for them.

(We even made spreadsheets together 😉)

We had a wonderful week at Deep Creek Lake with my wife’s family in August. It was relaxing and we got to be mostly normal for a week, and socialize with more than just my immediate family four. We enjoyed time on the lake, some great hikes, fires and BBQs!

Locally, I’ve done tons of hiking on our local trails. I can walk miles in either direction along the Appalachian Trail from my doorstep, so I’m really fortunate in that regard. Most recently, I had a great hike up the mountain during the December snowstorm and rounded out the year with a 19-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail with my wife.

Challenges In 2020

Oh boy!

2020 was an incredibly challenging year for everyone. I’m grateful that I, and those close to me, have remained healthy this year.

Aside from staying healthy and isolating, the biggest challenge for my wife and me was the lack of childcare.

We had no childcare in April or May, some in June to August, and then about 28 hours/week since September-ish. Since we both have our own businesses and are ambitious, it’s been a tricky balancing act.

Looking Forward To 2021

I’m super focussed on doing just a few things as well as I can, so I condensed my entire 2021 plan onto a single whiteboard.

Obviously, this only covers the big ticket items, and not things like the blog posts. I find it incredibly helpful to have it written down though. I look at every day to keep me focussed.

New Initiatives

My big initiative for 2021 is to create a cohort-based course for Google Sheets and data analysis, tentatively called ProSheets.

It’ll consist of two live classes and office hours each week for 5 weeks, with a project to finish. You’ll be in a cohort with other students going through the same transformation, so you’ll have a peer group to be accountable with. You’ll leave the course as a pro with Google Sheets, how to solve business and data analysis problems from end-to-end, and have an amazing group of peers to continue learning with. More details to come in early 2021!

To make this new course as successful as possible for students, I’m joining two training programs myself in early 2021. They are: 1) the Keystone Accelerator course, a course/mastermind with other ambitious creators looking to start cohort courses, and 2) the Scaling Intimacy workshop, all about how to create memorable online experiences. I’m super excited about both and can’t wait to put these lessons into practice.

2021 Work Goals

  1. Run 3 cohorts of this new live cohort based course
  2. Run SheetsCon 2021 in March
  3. Improve the SEO and site speed of benlcollins
  4. Publish 30 long-form blog posts
  5. Publish a comprehensive guide to REGEX in Google Sheets
  6. Hit 60k newsletter subscribers
  7. Send a Google Sheets tip email every week for the next year
  8. Create one new on-demand video course
  9. One technical project, related to Sheets/Apps Script/Data in some way. This is partly for my own intellectual curiosity and learning but will also lay the foundations for future blog posts and courses.

Other 2021 Goals

  1. See my UK family!
  2. Have another healthy year
  3. Exercise regularly: 4 hike or bikes each week, 2 yoga/strength
  4. Go camping again! I used to do a lot of camping but it’s been a few years since I last went 🙁
  5. Take my boys out on lots of adventures and camping trips.
  6. Read 30 books (same target as 2020)

Thank You

Finally, my biggest thanks are reserved for you, dear reader.

It’s an extreme honor and privilege for me to help you through my writing and teaching.

My work to create the world’s best resources for learning Google Sheets and data analysis is just getting started.

Best wishes to all of you for 2021!

Cheers,
Ben

Happy Holidays!

christmas tree

Previous years

Dream Home Office Setup

New Office

How it began

Growing up, I vividly remember sitting in my dad’s home office after school, waiting for him to get home from work.

The office had a tall ceiling and a single window at the back that opened into a tiny access courtyard between our house and the neighbor’s house (it was a semi-detached Victorian).

My dad sat behind a heavy wooden desk, with a big, boxy desktop computer sitting atop. On one wall was a bookshelf, full of computer books and boxes of floppy disks for illustrious programs like Microsoft Windows, Lotus 1-2-3, Borland Quattro Pro, and many others I’ve forgotten.

I would pull the thickest manual off the shelf and ask dad to explain it to me the minute he got home from work. I’m sure it’s just what he wanted to do at the end of a long work day. Sorry (but not sorry) dad!

I’ve wanted my own work space, reflecting my personality and overflowing with books, ever since.

Working From Home

I’ve worked for myself for 5 years now, so I’m used to working from home.

For the first couple of years, I worked from a small desk in the living room and then the basement of where I lived at the time.

When my wife and I moved to Florida in 2017, I rented a 1-person office in downtown St. Petersburg. My youngest son was only a few months old so I needed a quiet space to record videos. (I launched my first online course in 2017.)

I customized that rental office to make it my own. The first investment was a Fully Jarvis standing desk, which I still use and love today.

Last year, we moved to Harpers Ferry, WV, and it was a chance to set up a new office. The only change was the better scenery out my window and a couple of pieces of artwork on the walls.

This year, 2020, we moved out of the rental house and into our own home, so it was finally time to build the dream office. This is iteration three of my home office.

An Investment In You And Your Business

I’ve come to realize that the environment in which you do your work is important.

To do my best work I need to clear my mind out first. If there’s clutter everywhere, which is most days since I have young kids, then my mind is using energy to think about it. In my head, I’m doing a virtual Maire Kondo where I sweep it all away and out of sight.

My office is one space I have control over though. I can set it up to be clean and minimal.

Today, I’m much more sure of who I am and what I do than at any previous stage in life. And that translates into being able to create a workspace that facilitates the work I do now.

Global HQ for Collins Analytics LLC

My 2014 MacBook Pro is 6 years old and showing its age.

I don’t do a lot of heavy-duty computing, but I do work with large video files. And of course, I have a lot of Chrome tabs open at any given time.

The time from deciding I needed a new computer to actually purchasing one was about 12 months!

I spent a LOT of time researching options and looking at other’s setups.

But it wasn’t until I saw this Mac Mini and Ultra widescreen setup that I found what I was looking for. This was the perfect setup for me.

Here’s my current home office setup:

New Office

I’m using the new  Apple Mac Mini with the M1 chip, powering 2 monitors: an ultrawide Dell U3419W (supported by a Fully Jarvis monitor arm) and an Acer R240HY.

The microphone is a Blue Yeti on a Blue Compass arm, and the light is an Elgato Key light.

Everything sits on Fully’s Jarvis standing desk, which I’ve had for years and love.

Apple Mac Mini

So far, it’s a fantastic combination! Super fast, quiet and tons of real estate.

That’s a Lego Saturn V rocket on the window ledge, one of the greatest Lego models of all time.

Lego Saturn V rocket

Office door decal

How To Become A Freelance Google Sheets Developer

You’ve decided you want to be a freelance Google Sheets developer. Great!

But how do you get started?

I get asked this question a lot, so I’ve compiled my email answers into this blog post.

But first, let me share my story, so you hear it from the horse’s mouth:

My Journey As A Freelance Google Sheets Developer

I quit my corporate accounting job in late 2014. I was unhappy because I felt like I was living someone else’s life. Deep down, I knew I wanted to do something technical and creative.

After leaving corporate accounting, I spent six months learning to code and looking for tech roles.

Following the advice for job hunters at the time, I created a blog (this website) and began writing about about lots of different technical topics including coding, data and Google Sheets. Without planning it, I was learning in public.

The first post was about how to build a dashboard in Google Sheets. It was by far the most popular post for search traffic that first year.

And it led to my first client, which was fortunate because I wasn’t getting anywhere applying for tech roles. (And I really mean that, I applied for a bunch of web developer roles and data analyst roles and was yet to get past the first interview. Things worked out in the end though.)

First Client

My first client was a small real estate company using Forms and Sheets to collect data from their sales agents. They’d seen the dashboard tutorial on my website and asked me to create something similar for them.

I charged them $400 and the project took around 10 hours. (Actually, it could well have been 20 hours because I didn’t track my time when I first started.)

Although the dashboard was basic, it delivered huge value to the client.

Cultivating Inbound Leads

I kept publishing content about Google Sheets and Apps Script. The website picked up more search traffic through 2015 and each subsequent year since.

I realize I was lucky with my timing since Google Sheets growth was exploding and there weren’t many resources online.

The search traffic brought more inbound leads: people contacting me for help with their projects.

Once you have a reliable source of leads coming into your business, you can focus on being more efficient and expanding beyond the feast to famine freelance cycle.

After a few years of freelancing, I stopped trading time for money (which we discuss below) and eventually moved to creating online courses and teaching online (but that’s a story for another day).

Freelance Google Sheets Developer
Yeah, this is a 100% truthful representation of the freelancer life ?

Your journey won’t look like mine, but there are universal actions you can take to get there quicker than I did. So, turning our attention back to you, here are some actionable steps you can take today to start your freelancer journey:

Freelance Google Sheets Developer Playbook

This short guide is broken into a few sections dealing with different aspects of freelancing.

The most important lesson to takeaway is that you need to spend as much, if not more, time on sales as on the hard, technical skills.

With that in mind, let’s begin with the most important thing you can do for your freelance career: get clients!

1. How To Get Clients As A Freelance Google Sheets Developer

This is the most important thing you do.

Not your Google Sheets skills. Not your business skills. Not time management. No, the most important thing is getting clients. (And then making them happy of course.)

This will determine whether or not you succeed, so focus heavily on this from day one.

Specifically, here are some ideas to get your first clients:

  • Email all your friends/family/contacts to tell them you’re doing this and ask for work referrals.
  • Offer to do pro-bono (free) spreadsheet work for small orgs/non-profits to gain some experience and testimonials.
  • Look for freelance spreadsheet work on sites like Upwork and Fiverr. Choose one and build a portfolio/reputation there.
  • Look for Google Sheet jobs on job sites like Indeed (hard to find ones where this is the main skill required though).
  • Keep your eyes on “spreadsheet” companies that build solutions on top of Google Sheets (e.g. this list on Product Hunt). They occasionally hire part-time and full-time spreadsheet developers.
  • Create a (simple) website and share your work/ideas/knowledge. This will help you figure out what you want to do and demonstrate you can do it.
  • Add a “Hire Me” page with details of your work and testimonials. Make it easy for someone to contact you through a form.
  • Create a white-paper or short ebook that’s helpful in your industry and share it with your network. Ask them to share with their networks. You’d be amazed at how shareable a high-value asset like an ebook can be. Creating content is a high leverage activity (i.e. the reward > the effort, at least over the long run).

Spreadsheet tea mug

2. Fees: What To Charge As A Freelance Google Sheets Developer?

“What should I charge?” is probably the second most frequently asked question (after “how do I get clients?”).

The answers and advice are across the board:

“Do it for free to get exposure.” (But how will you pay the bills?)

“Charge what you’re worth.” (Super helpful when you’re starting out!)

“Whatever number you have in your head, double it.” (Ok, that’s not bad advice as most freelancers undercharge).

Consider Both Sides

Most of us, especially when we’re new to this game, think about fees based on what it takes to complete the project, i.e. how many hours it will take.

Maybe it’ll take me 15 hours, which, at $100 / hour, is $1,500. Bingo! Invoice for $1,500.

That’s fine, but it’s only one way to think about it.

The other way is to think, “what’s the value of this to the client?”

Suppose they’ve asked you to automate their reporting pipeline and they’ll save 3 hours a week. Now that analyst’s time can be repurposed to do more meaningful work.

From the client’s perspective, this is hugely valuable.

They’d probably happily pay multiples of $1,500 for that solution.

So you have to think about both angles: your side, in terms of how much time it’ll take you to do the project, and then from the client’s side, and what’s the value there.

Hourly Pricing

The rate is dependent on many factors: your experience, the niche you’re working in, the market you operate in etc.

Just remember, you’re competing with people who answer questions for free in forums and folks who charge $5/hr on Upwork.

It’s hard to compete on price and you can’t work for $5/hr if you’re living in the U.S.

Assuming equal spreadsheet skills, you can differentiate yourself by being super reliable, a pleasure to work with, a great communicator, knowledgeable about the client’s industry, etc.

And then you can consider consulting rates for Google Sheets work in the range of $50/hr – $150/hr.

Project Pricing

As you improve your systems and grow your business, you’ll become more efficient at solving problems (for example, you have templates for contracts, NDAs, etc. or a gallery of solutions that you can partially re-use).

It makes sense to ditch hourly rates and move to project rates. This way, your efficiency is rewarded. If you do project pricing though, you have to define the scope of work carefully and precisely, to avoid scope creep.

For example, rather than say “Includes planning calls” in your scope, say “includes two 30-minute planning calls” so you set expectations with the client. They won’t ask for more and neither party will expect anything different.

Most Google Sheets development projects will be one-off, but you may get lucky and land a client on a monthly retainer basis, where you’re paid to keep their Google Sheets humming along each month.

Think about the “both sides” idea discussed above. Work out the hours you think it’ll take and use that as your lower pricing bound. Then think about the value to the client and come up with an upper bound. Pitch the client with your bid somewhere between these two bounds.

Pricing Strategy Tips

  • You might start with a few small free projects to generate leads and portfolio pieces.
  • Then start charging an hourly rate on the lower end, say $40/hour.
  • Raise your rates every 6 months or so early on, until you find the optimum level that keeps you busy and maximises your earnings.
  • Once you have some experience under your belt, try project pricing so your efficiency is rewarded.
  • Push yourself to pitch higher than you’re comfortable with. If the client rejects your offer you can always go back with a lower offer.
  • When you propose your opening bid, price it high enough that you have wiggle room. The client may counter with their offer and if you’ve priced low to begin with, you won’t have room to go down.

3. How To Be A Good Freelance Google Sheets Developer

Once you’ve got your first client, you want to make them happy. Happy clients return for more work and refer you to their network.

Follow these few simple steps and you’ll be way ahead of your competition:

  • Always be polite and courteous in your communications. If you feel like emotion is clouding your decision, walk away from the email or say “I’ll get back to you” and sleep on it. Inevitably, when the fog lifts, you can see the correct decision.
  • Always be professional and do what you say you’re going to do.
  • Stick to deadlines and be on time with your submissions. (If you can’t hit a deadline, let the client know as soon as possible and they’ll generally be understanding.)
  • Be honest with your clients, e.g. if you need more time, it’s going to cost more.
  • Have a bias towards over-communicating rather than under-communicating. Clients appreciate being kept in the loop.
  • Have a bias towards action and don’t expect to get everything right first time.

Remember, you’re serving the client, not the other way around. Focus on delivering value to the client, not treating them like an ATM.

4. Implement Systems To Increase Efficiency

Set up systems as soon as you can. It’ll be hugely beneficial for you.

Pre Engagement Phase

The pre-client phase is one area where it’s easy to lose a lot of time. (I’m speaking from experience.) It’s a great area to implement systems to save yourself time and headaches. For example, consider:

  • Using a service like Calendly to schedule calls, rather than back and forth emails.
  • Creating a standard work template and pricing structure so you can easily see whether clients are a good fit.
  • Setting a minimum project price and let potential clients know relatively early in the process, so you don’t waste time with people who won’t pay you.
  • Set up a robust Customer Relationship Management (CRM) workflow (doesn’t have to be an expensive tool, a Google Sheet also works). Whenever clients dry up, you can email former clients to see if they need help.

During the Project

  • Use a time tracking system (e.g. Toggl) to track your time. This will be super helpful for costing out future projects as well as the current one.
  • Batch your time so you avoid too much context switching. For example, schedule all calls on Tuesday afternoons. Open and reply to emails twice a day in 30-minute blocks, then keep your email shut in between (not always possible).

After the Project

Create a standard post-engagement workflow. You have the opportunity to leave the client feeling happy and help your future business prospects.

  • Check the client is happy and whether there’s anything else you can do for them.
  • Systemize your payment process to make sure you get paid in a timely fashion. I use Harvest App to create and send invoices.
  • Ask for testimonials. Use a Google Form so they’re all together in a Google Sheet and you can access them anytime.

5. Niche Down By Industry

Focussing on a specific industry has many benefits:

  • You develop industry knowledge, which improves the quality of your work product.
  • You develop a reputation as an expert in the field, the “go-to” person for this type of work.
  • You develop a network and get referrals.
  • You can more easily systemize your business e.g. client onboarding.
  • You can even productize your work e.g. create a Google Sheets template for that industry. This is great for lead generation and could potentially be a revenue generator.

Don’t stress too much about a niche to focus on when you’re just getting started though, unless you have prior experience that gives you a clear advantage.

Otherwise, see what type of work you like doing and what’s popular with your clients. I did Excel, SQL and Tableau consulting and training, as well as Google Sheets work, for the first 2 years, before really doubling down on just Google products. And I worked across all industries to begin with.

Many small businesses, nonprofits and mom-and-pop stores could use help with their data, which in all likelihood exists in spreadsheets!

6. Scale

Finding clients and doing high quality work will always be the two most important aspects of your business.

As you scale, you grow from the feast-to-famine freelancer model to a more predictable monthly take-home as a small business.

You’ll need to systemize more parts of the business so you can focus less of your time on repeatable tasks (like invoicing) and more time on high-value, unique tasks like finding new clients and hiring staff members.

Freelancer To Business Journey

Freelance Google Sheets developer → sole-member business → sole-member business with an assistant → sole-member business with contractors → agency business model with full-time people

At some point you need to decide if you want to do the work or run the business. You can’t do both.

I love my work, so I’ve deliberately kept myself as a single-member LLC with one assistant, so I can keep doing the work.

But it’s an equally valid path to hire contractors, and eventually employees, who carry out the actual spreadsheet work, whilst you run and scale the business.

Some ideas to think about:

  • Find other contractors with complimentary skills so you can refer work to each other, or collaborate together on projects.
  • Outsource non-core tasks. For example, hire a bookkeeper to do your accounting for you.
  • Get rid of clients that are hard work (because they pay low rates, haggle over everything, don’t respond to you etc.). Marie Kondo your client list! Does this client bring me joy? If not, let them go!
  • Culture also becomes a critical part of your success as you start to hire people.

It’s simple in theory but hard to execute: hire great people, give them a compelling vision for the business and get out of their way so they can do great work.

Resources

Check out Andy Conlin’s How To Be A Freelance Google Sheets Developer talk from SheetsCon 2020.

This is a useful article from the Excel consulting world from the perspective of the client hiring a freelancer.

Good luck!

Ben Collins, December 2020

P.S. Share your own freelance journeys and tips in the comments below! Everyone has a unique journey and value to add.