Create A Student Learning Loop In Your Cohort-Based Course

I recently finished teaching my first cohort-based course, the first edition of Pro Sheets Accelerator.

Pro Sheets Accelerator is a live cohort-based course, where students go through the experience together over the course of 5 weeks. We had 37 students in this first cohort.

Rather than watching pre-recorded course videos alone, students met multiple times a week to learn together in a live setting on Google Meet. In addition, we had office hours, guest sessions, a community platform for Q&A, weekly recaps, templates, and replays of the live sessions online.

If video courses are all about the content and information, then cohort-based courses are all about community, accountability, and transformation.

The Cohort-Based Course Student Learning Loop

Student Learning Loop
Cohort-Based Course Student Learning Loop

The Student Learning Loop is a mechanism in your course to facilitate student transformations.

Cohort students pay a premium so they expect a premium outcome. They want to be transformed by the experience.

As the teacher/facilitator you have to create the mechanisms that enable students to have these transformative experiences.

There are countless videos on YouTube teaching your topic, so instead, you have to create an environment where students can undergo a transformation. Watching a YouTube video shows you a new technique. Attending a live session and participating gets you implementing a new technique. For many folks, this makes a big difference.

Let’s walk through the full cohort-based course Student Learning Loop, using specific examples from my Pro Sheets Accelerator course.

Student Learning Loop Phase 1: Learning

Learning happens in the first half of the Student Learning Loop, represented by the blue arc in this diagram:

Student Learning Loop Phase 1
Student Learning Loop Phase 1

The goal here is to get students into the zone of proximal development. To take them outside their comfort zones and stretch their abilities, but not so far that you lose them.

There’s a sweet spot where the majority of your students will be fully absorbed and learning.

There are two components in this phase:

  1. live sessions
  2. community forum for Q&A

Live Sessions

Pro Sheets Live Session
Pro Sheets Live Session 2

How do you conduct an engaging live session teaching technical topics via Google Meet or Zoom?

The key is to make it active with frequent state changes.

You can break up long slide monologues with demos, exercises, and breakout rooms.

A typical 90-minute Pro Sheets Accelerator session looked like this:

  • Ben introduction to reinforce the journey and introduce the first new topic (10 minutes)
  • Ben live demo in a Google Sheet or Apps Script (10 minutes)
  • Student exercise (or breakout room) to practice themselves (20 minutes)
  • Topic consolidation and Q&A as a whole group (10 minutes)
  • Ben slides to introduce the second new topic (5 minutes)
  • Ben live demo of second new topic (10 minutes)
  • Second student exercise or breakout room (15 minutes)
  • Topic consolidation and Q&A as a whole group (5 minutes)
  • Closing discussion: recap what we learned today (5 minutes)

Frequent activities keep the students engaged, which makes for an effective learning environment.

Community Forum For Q&A

Hands up if you’ve thought of great questions after a live session?

Of course you have! We’ve all been there.

Not only that but some students aren’t comfortable asking questions in front of a group. And sometimes students miss a live session but still want to ask questions.

So it’s critical to have a place for students to ask questions about the materials asynchronously, outside the live sessions.

I use the community platform Circle to host the Pro Sheets Accelerator community. It’s an amazing tool that let me create a welcoming space for students to ask their questions.

Here’s an example of the asynchronous learning process from Pro Sheets Accelerator:

IFS, SWITCH, and CHOOSE Functions Example

We covered the IFS function, SWITCH function, and CHOOSE function as part of session 4, in week 2. For many students, these were new functions so they were definitely outside their comfort zones during the live session demo and exercises.

After class, students practiced using these functions in their own work and could ask questions in our Circle forum:

Pro Sheets Circle Forum SWITCH function answer
Pro Sheets Circle Forum SWITCH function answer

In this particular example, a fellow student helped answer the question.

This peer coaching is another example of the value of cohort-based courses. Everyone is both a student and a teacher, bringing their own unique skills and experiences to the table.

Student Learning Loop Phase 2: Assimilation and Application

The second half of the Student Learning Loop happens when students incorporate information from the live sessions into their own workflows.

Both the office hours and the community forum help students do this effectively.

This is the second half of the Student Learning Loop, shown in green:

Student Learning Loop Phase 2
Student Learning Loop Phase 2

Student learning doesn’t stop once the lesson ends.

In fact, it’s really just the beginning.

True learning happens when students apply knowledge from the lessons to their own specific situations. Students benefit enormously from rapid feedback, so they don’t get stuck for long and learn quickly from their mistakes.

There are three components in this phase:

  1. live office hours
  2. more questions in the community forum
  3. replays of live sessions

Live Office Hours

In Pro Sheets, we had live weekly office hours. These were 90-minute, drop-in, unstructured sessions where students could ask whatever questions they wanted.

They were a place for students to ask specific questions from their own domains.

We used a Google Sheet to collect questions, which then served as a repository of that knowledge for future reference.

Pro Sheets Office Hours Sheet
Pro Sheets Office Hours Question Sheet

More Questions in the Community Forum

Throughout phase 2, students have lots of questions so the community plays an integral part in the assimilation and application of knowledge.

Students deepen their knowledge by asking and answering each other’s questions in the community forum.

Students also share their work wins with the community to get the validation they’re on track, which builds their confidence and reinforces the learning experience.

QUERY Function Example

For example, in week 2, I covered how to use the QUERY function to solve a challenging data analysis problem. The students were given a dataset of fires in New York State and asked to answer the question:

What is the average fire length in days, by county?

It was a challenging question because it required a query on top of another query (akin to a sub-query in SQL).

And here’s one student sharing their answer with the community:

Pro Sheets Circle Forum QUERY function answer
Pro Sheets Circle Forum QUERY function answer

Replays and Templates

I use Teachable to host my on-demand video courses so it was a natural place to also host the video replays of the live session recordings for the Pro Sheets Accelerator course.

Teachable allows me to present the video recordings in a syllabus, with links to all of the template files.

Students have lifetime access to these video recordings and templates, so they can watch the live session replays and review topics as many times as they want.

This repetition helps cement the understanding.

Pro Sheets replay on Teachable
Pro Sheets Session 1 replay on Teachable

Completing the Loop

Some students will progress through the loop multiple times a week, on the back of every live session. Others might progress at a slower pace and go through the loop once a week, whilst for others, it might happen a couple of times throughout the whole course.

Students undergo a transformation when they go through the learning loop. They return to work with new abilities and newfound confidence.

And that is the north star outcome we’re aiming for as course creators.

Evidence of A Transformation

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” – Peter Drucker

Pro Sheets Accelerator Cohort 1
Virtual high-fives during the final live session

I used Google Forms to conduct pre-course and post-course surveys, so I could measure and understand the transformation occurring at different stages of the Student Learning Loop framework.

In the post-course feedback form, I asked lots of questions, including what was the most valuable thing about the course, what they liked about the Circle community, the project, and the office hours. Here are some of the answers for Pro Sheets:

“It was great to work on a project during the week knowing that if I got stuck I could ask for help on Friday [office hours].”

“I’m really enjoying the course. I find myself thinking about the subject matter at odd hours, so it’s really taking root in my head.”

“Everyone in Circle was SO HELPFUL! And I loved seeing other peoples’ projects and questions. I got so many new ideas and perspectives. I also loved that in Circle we could build off of each others’ ideas. Like, the “Adding Notes” topic – you started with the basic idea but then so many people chimed in to make improvements. I have that script in at least 3 of my sheets now!”

“The workflow and BAR models are very useful concepts that I knew in a practical sense but needed to see more concretely. I feel like I moved forward on Array formulas, queries, custom functions, and Index-Match-Match.”


See also: 5 Insights From Taking A Live Cohort-Based Course

My Twitter thread on the life cycle of Pro Sheets Accelerator, from conception to the post-course survey.


What’s next for Pro Sheets Accelerator?

This fall, I’m running the Pro Sheets Accelerator course again.

Hop onto my mailing list if you want to stay in the loop on both these courses.

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.

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 heat rose through my head.

I was so focused 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 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 many 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:

UpLearn Rails App

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 acknowledgment 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 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 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