On this installment of our exclusive interview series Ruulmates on the Mic, we welcome Nicole Baldinu for her insightful tips on how to grow and find success as an entrepreneur. Nicole is co-founder and COO of WebinarNinja, and CourseNinja. She is also co-founder and producer of The $100 MBA Show, a “Best of iTunes” podcast with over 200 million downloads. Nicole is also the co-host of Nicole & Kate Can Relate podcast.
Can you tell us more about your journey from a career in education to dabbling in film and videography, to co-founding the $100 MBA and WebinarNinja?
That journey comes down to choosing to be less “safe” and more free. My parents came from Italy to Sydney, for the same reasons most people emigrate: better opportunities for themselves and ultimately for me. Growing up in that context and with financial instability and all its stresses, making the safe choice—becoming a teacher—made a lot of sense. A university degree and stability was my only goal, coming from that background.
But next thing I know, I’m doing something I like, but don’t love. I was ready to move beyond that survival mindset. So to feel creatively fulfilled, I got into film and freelance videography, which didn’t end up being my lifelong career path, but gave me a set of useful skills and a taste for entrepreneurship.
From there the $100 MBA and WebinarNinja were a natural evolution, because both companies are still rooted in education. Omar (my cofounder and the host of The $100 MBA Show podcast) are teaching people how to build their businesses and offering great teaching tools. But it’s on our own terms, and I get to be creative instead of following a well-trodden path.
What was your biggest challenge when building the $100 MBA community and how did you overcome it?
Unsurprisingly, getting new people into the community was a serious uphill battle at first. We did the typical things to build buzz, like blogging—and some atypical things like a launch video with a puppet that feel pretty cringeworthy now—but after a good burst of initial signups we plateaued hard. We were trying to be creative and edgy, assuming we could rely on the strength of the offering. But we were not great at communicating the value of what we do.
Then came the podcast. It was a slog, since podcasts take a lot of time and effort to build, but it worked. We got ‘Best of iTunes’ 5 months after the podcast launched, and our first sponsorship deal. We finally saw momentum.
It was a grind, but we were slowly but steadily growing our audience. Webinars, of course, changed everything. Once Omar started hosting webinars and presenting concepts from The $100 MBA, our growth really took off.
How do you think webinars can help small businesses grow and what are some best practices for hosting successful webinars?
It all comes down to authentic connection. If you consistently run live webinars, you’ll find that the same people start showing up repeatedly, even for the same content! And that’s because live webinars build trust and relationships, being interactive and in real time. An Instagram account or YouTube channel just can’t do that, at least not in a way you can leverage as easily.
The key is to keep the webinar focused on delivering on a promise, a clear outcome. In traditional education, they start lesson plans with this initialism, “SWBAT (Students Will Be Able To),” because that keeps the focus on empowering whomever you’re teaching. Take that attitude into a webinar, engage with your audience, call people by their names, engage in Q&A, and above all don’t waste their time. The audience will reward you.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting their entrepreneurial journey, and/or making the leap in their career between different paths?
There’s no way around it: making big life and career transitions is scary! But ‘scary’ is also a sign that you’re doing something worthwhile. There are steps you can take to make it easier to take those leaps, and more likely you’ll be successful. Once you make the decision, then:
- Get a taste as soon as you can. Create or access a “minimum viable” version of what you’re after. I did a 2-day film course followed by a 4-week course, then started doing freelance videography. I didn’t get a 4-year degree in film; I got enough education to get started—and then got started! And eventually I ended up in the right place, even if it wasn’t predictable at the beginning.
- Change your environment. Get out of your literal and figurative comfort zone and surround yourself with people who will support and inspire you. I moved to New York City, for example. Not everyone needs to go quite so far, but when you’re creating a new life for yourself, it helps to create it in a new setting.
- Just-in-time learning: learn by doing and immediately put your new knowledge into practice. Traditional education has conditioned us to learn and learn in theoretical or abstract ways for years before actually doing anything. Do the opposite.
- Embrace the discomfort. I had to be OK with being a complete beginner again, at a time when other people are advancing into middle or late stages of their careers. I had to be OK with accepting very low pay while I built a portfolio. This is the price of real change.
- Consistency and commitment: Once I was on the path, and things got hard and money was stressing me out, I could have tapped out and returned to the classroom at any time. But I didn’t. I had to keep reminding myself that part-time effort produces part-time results, and stay the course.
As an educator for 13 years, how has that experience informed the way you approach teaching business and entrepreneurship?
There are some fundamental principles of teaching that apply whether you’re in a classroom, on a podcast, or on a webinar. Things like identifying clear learning outcomes (that SWBAT thing), breaking content into digestible sections, and of course being fun and engaging!
You also have to recognize that people learn in different ways. If you want to appeal to the widest appropriate audience, you should address different learning styles; some people learn best auditorily, or visually, or by reading. If your content can take different shapes, you’ll reach all the right people.
The $100 MBA covers a wide range of topics, from product development to risk management. In your opinion, what is the most important skill an entrepreneur should possess?
There are so many “must-have” skills, but if I have to pick one, one that I’ve personally had to cultivate and that’s served me the most, it’s adaptability. You have to be flexible, able to pivot with the situation and be responsive to changing circumstances and customer needs. Adaptability equals resilience; if you can adapt, you can move past setbacks and failures that would be dead ends for the less flexible.
What do you think sets The $100 MBA apart from other business education resources?
The combination of our “teacher powers” with our practical experience. We know how to teach, as former educators, in a way that works. But unlike classroom teachers who teach theory or more abstract things, our lessons are based on what we’re actually doing in business. We’re learning in the real world as we teach, and that immediacy makes The $100 MBA much closer to practical training, while retaining the benefits of traditional pedagogy.
Can you share a success story of someone who has used The $100 MBA to grow their online business?
I think of a personal stylist and image consultant, Cassandra Sethi. She has this incredible eye and created a company called Next Level Wardrobe. I spoke with her recently, and she was telling me how when she started her business, one problem was just how much content there is out there for new entrepreneurs. As she put it, she was getting “endless” advice, and not all of it was useful.
That’s kind of the defining downside of online learning; we have access to so much content that you can drown in it, and it can be hard to tell what’s legitimate and what’s not. It becomes really difficult to spend your time wisely. But when Cassandra found The $100 MBA, she finally had a resource that— while extensive—gave her strategies that were easy to digest and implement quickly in her business.
In the end, it was a “bang for your buck” situation, or more accurately, “bang for your time.” By getting down to brass tacks with our kind of fluff-free lessons, we helped Cassandra know what to do and how to start doing it. She went from a solopreneur to now, as of the last time we spoke, her business is booming, she has a team of stylists all across the USA, and she’s been featured in the Wall Street Journal. She’s really made it, and she attributes part of that to a business education resource that just cut to the chase.
How do you balance your role as COO of WebinarNinja and co-founder of The $100 MBA?
It can be a challenge, as both businesses are demanding. They’re also very different types of businesses, so I have to apply that adaptability.
When you publish a daily podcast, you learn how to be tight and efficient so you almost never miss a beat. And with a software company like WebinarNinja, you need a whole other set of management strategies that are often more “hands on.”
I’m sure to time-box everything I do, and avoid context-switching as much as possible. I work on one thing at a time, and I theme my days so I’m almost never multi-tasking. Of course reality doesn’t always cooperate; if something comes up, it comes up. But we have such a great team and solid systems in place that I can mostly stick to the plan.
WebinarNinja operates with a fully remote, distributed team. What is your advice for successfully managing a remote team? What are some of the challenges that you’ve come across?
First, you have to get a grasp on what operational aspects overlap between in-person work and remote work—and which aspects do not.
Remote teams require much more—and more consistent communication. You have to over-communicate, or you’ll inevitably under-communicate. The onus is on leadership to establish the standard and cadence for communication across distance, time zones, cultural differences, and the distractions inherent to working from home. You can’t control the space like you can with an office, so you have to completely rethink your ideas about teamwork and getting (and keeping) everyone on the same page.
It comes down to the right tools and systems. You need explicitly clear SOPs and processes that are as hands-off as possible, because you may not be available to help personally. Making sure everyone has what they need to succeed in their role is a heavier lift when the team is across an ocean. Or multiple oceans!
You also have to be very intentional about the culture you create, lest the culture create itself in your absence. Everyone you hire, every project you take on, and everything you do has to be constantly, consciously aligned with the overall vision and mission of the company. You have to guard that vision, because it can fall away if you’re not actively supporting it. That includes creating opportunities for every team member to be in contact with each other, so everyone feels a part of the team and no one is siloed by the asynchronicity.
What are your goals for the future of The $100 MBA and WebinarNinja? Where do you see them within the future landscape of work?
After almost a decade doing this, I see both brands as mainstay resources for independent creators and entrepreneurs. As more people find that they can move beyond traditional work placement and career opportunities, they need support. They see the whole world of possibilities out there, but they’re often not equipped to navigate it on their own, especially if they’ve only had traditional education. We fill that gap.
Between the education we offer with The $100 MBA, and the tools we offer with WebinarNinja (and now CourseNinja, our platform for live online course creators), I see us continuing to create ways forward for the other Omars and Nicoles out there. We have been making and will continue to make entrepreneurship easier and within reach of basically anyone who wants to fashion their own future. That’s always been the mission, and we’ll keep refining and creating ways to support that.
Rolling out the red carpet
We are infinitely grateful to Nicole for sharing her valuable experience and tips on creating amazing tools to support entreprenurship for anyone with passion. You can contact Nicole through her LinkedIn page or find her on Instagram and Twitter with the handle @nicolebaldinu.
Would you like to share your insights and show newcomers the way to a successful, autonomous career? Contact us via email at email@example.com and let us know about you, your work, and your passions! We’ll be sure to get back to you as soon as we can.