Thinkific CEO Greg Smith reflects on layoffs, the year ahead in BC Tech call
The edtech exec spoke honestly about the challenges and triumphs during COVID and beyond.
One can imagine that, weeks ago when BC Tech booked Greg Smith to speak at its monthly ScaleUp roundtable, that it wasn’t envisioning the talk shifting toward layoffs. Last week, Thinkific CEO Smith announced that the company was laying off 100 people, and it made for something of an elephant in the room.
To his credit, Smith addressed it with minimal prodding from BC Tech’s vice president of marketing and host Erika Borgerson. “It’s not something we absolutely needed to do—we have a healthy cash balance—but we’re a better company going forward with a better PNL (profit and loss), and it allowed us to lean into growth drivers,” said Smith over Zoom. “When you go through hyper growth, you develop a mentality of throwing heads at every problem, and it allowed us to recognize some inefficiencies.”
The talk, titled From Startup to Scale, gave Smith a chance to reflect on the beginnings of Thinkific. In its early days, the company was one of the recipients of the province’s Tech Co-op Grant Program, among some other incubators and funding routes.
“One of the first big attractors from that was the free office space—I got so much from that,” said Smith with the ironic chuckle of someone who now operates almost fully remotely. “It was the coaching—being around peers who are also growing, having that organic, water cooler conversation.”
He cites names like BuildDirect founder Jeff Booth and Rhino Ventures’ Jay Rhind as having helped him in those early days. There was also a fairly memorable and prophetic press release sent by BC Tech. “It tagged all of us in hyper growth as the future of the province,” Smith remembers. “When it went out, we started getting inbound calls from offices of employment in other countries in Belgium and stuff. We were 10 people at the time, but it ended up being somewhat accurate about the future.”
Smith also talked about the growth that Thinkific, which helps customers create, market and sell online classes, saw during the pandemic. “We had an influx of customer demand—the world was shutting down and in a lot of ways our team balanced that with being able to help where we could,” said Smith, noting that the company did free accounts for schools and set up entrepreneurs funds. “We ended up saving a bunch of businesses by giving them quick access to micro capital.”
Part of that pandemic growth was becoming what’s referred to as a unicorn, though Smith admitted that, “with stock markets and the way they’re treating tech stocks, I don’t think we’re a unicorn these days.” He added that he had mixed feelings about the milestone. “We tried to make it a non-event. The IPO was great, but we’re here for the customers,” he said, before admitting that sometimes, it can be important to celebrate wins.
“It’s important to take a step back and celebrate those events personally as entrepreneurs. It’s good to do that kind of thing. My wife sent me an article a couple weeks after the IPO about the ‘Happiness Hangover.’ If you don't take the time to process it, it can be a negative. Founders are rarely in it for those milestones—we’re in it for the product and the stuff we create in the world.”