Marc Teer is an architect, and the founder and CEO of Black Spectacles, an “e-learning platform for architecture professionals” that aims to help aspiring architects earn their license, get employed by the best firms, and rise to the top of the profession.
Since his early days studying architecture and beginning his professional career, Marc Teer felt that he hadn’t received enough guidance. This feeling pushed him to “ensure other architects would have the influence and connections that [I] didn’t.” He saw other architects go to work at prestigious firms straight out of college, since they had mentors and resources, and he wanted other architects to receive the same treatment or “inside track.” So, Black Spectacles was born.
In 2010, Marc Teer founded Black Spectacles. The company worked for its mission to “democratize learning and remove barriers to career expansion.” At the company, thousands of architects receive software learning and ARE prep that help earn their licenses. The company is also the only one offering “NCARB-approved test prep for all six divisions of ARE 5.0.” With a passion to make their “network and expertise available to everyone,” the company has cultivated an ARE Community and launched a podcast called ARE Live to help architects. These services are both free.
Ten years later, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) elevated Marc Teer to the position of Fellow.
Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Marc Teer: Black Spectacles is an online learning platform for architects and designers. We offer ARE® exam prep and a software curriculum that provides aspiring architects with educational tools to become licensed and advance their careers. We are the first and only NCARB-approved Test Prep Provider for all six divisions of the ARE®.
I launched Black Spectacles in 2010 to democratize learning and remove barriers to career expansion. We are passionate about making our network and expertise available to everyone — with our ARE Community and in our podcast, ARE Live, which are both free resources. Collectively we want to educate and inspire architects to thrive throughout the entirety of their careers.
I had several experiences that ultimately led me to the idea and core purpose behind Black Spectacles. It originated with my own studies in architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and then I continued on to earn my Master of Architecture Degree from Clemson University in 2002. During that time, I noticed a lack of guidance for architects in the early stages of education and career building. Students had struggled to comprehend the latest software tools, and, at the time, ARE test prep companies were implementing old-fashioned print materials and flash cards. Then when I served for a time as the Chair of the AIA Young Architects Forum, I talked with emerging architects at networking events, which again reinforced my opinion that there were many who could benefit from career guidance. As an Adjunct Professor at Illinois Institute of Technology with a keen understanding of conquering the ARE, I saw my students struggling to keep up with software updates. Facilitating the development of fellow architects was something I enjoyed doing through my personal channels and I strived to do it on a larger scale.
After working as an architect for Gensler, I realized an opportunity to fill a void in the industry and decided to create an online education program providing architects with resources on their path to becoming licensed and advancing their careers. Throughout all of these experiences, I looked at colleagues who worked at prestigious firms straight out of school because they had resources and mentors, and thought to myself, ‘How do they have the inside track?’ Black Spectacles was created to be the inside track for architects.
Black Spectacles has since been recognized by Inc. Magazine as the 11th fastest growing education company in the United States, having spent the last decade supporting and inspiring architects through world-class educational materials. In fact, 75% of the top 50 architecture firms currently subscribe to Black Spectacles. We’ve also seen substantial internal growth as we doubled our staff size in 2020 and are looking to do the same in 2021, particularly now that we’re a fully-remote company which allows us to meet talent wherever they may be.
Jerome Knyszewski: Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Marc Teer: I’ve built my company from the ground up without any financial assistance. In the technology industry, company leaders who advance their company are typically supported by outside funding, and I’m one of the rare exceptions. I never sought out or received financial support, and I’m not wealthy. Instead, I followed the bootstrap approach and built my company from scratch.
I almost bankrupted myself and my family in the process! I quit my previous job while my kids were in daycare and paying a mortgage for our house. It was one of the most challenging and costliest times in my life as my income went to nothing. During this time, I kept an article pasted on my home screen about the misconceptions of overnight success as an entrepreneur. According to the article, successful entrepreneurs had been toiling in their basement for 10 years until they finally established their brand. A great example is the founder of the Angry Birds app who previously created 52 games that were unsuccessful but eventually, he found a winning formula following years of hard work.
As an entrepreneur, I hung on long enough to successfully grow the company, hire the right staff, and enjoy profitability over time. Black Spectacles took off in May 2014, when the company partnered with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Chicago to offer online test prep services. Our initial partnership evolved quickly into an even larger partnership with the national AIA organization the following year. Our work with AIA put a lot of wind in our sails, and then we really continued listening to the needs of the people using our services, and we worked really, really hard to get new products and new offerings off the ground constantly. In 2018, Black Spectacles agreed to be the first company to allow NCARB to review its courses and therefore become the first participant in NCARB’s Approved Test Prep Provider Program. This was another big milestone that really helped us establish credibility and grow our business.
Jerome Knyszewski: Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Marc Teer: In 2014, we decided to advertise our test prep products in partnership with AIA Chicago for the first time. The moment the e-newsletter was distributed, my family and I were hopping in the car for a long road trip and I was driving. Within minutes, we were receiving a ton of interest and a surge in sales and customer support tickets, which signaled to me that something was broken on our website.
At the time, I handled customer support and website maintenance so I had to switch seats with my wife while I addressed everything I could from my laptop while in the passenger seat of the car. It was funny timing, but also an exciting and unexpected experience that I now look back on as one of the greatest business lessons I’ve learned. Up until that point, our business had only seen mild success and within minutes of advertising our new test prep product, I realized I had found a solution to a problem that people were clearly really struggling with. While the first product we had built was good, it simply wasn’t a “big” enough problem that we were solving for people.
Jerome Knyszewski: Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Find a Big Problem to Solve: When I started my business, I didn’t really understand that you don’t have a great company unless you’re solving a really big problem for people. I thought I was onto a big problem with software learning in the beginning, but I’ve since learned that it was tiny in the grand scheme of things. Once we got into test prep, it took our company from good to great. Within minutes of launching, we realized that people were desperate to get their hands on a great solution to their problem, which in our case was passing the ARE test.
- Hire the Right People: It took me a few years to realize this key element, and I failed with a few hirings in the beginning. But within the past five years, I’ve learned how to hire people who have contributed to building the company.
- Establish a Strong Workplace Culture: Of all the challenges we’ve faced, maintaining a strong company culture has helped Black Spectacles overcome many hurdles. There will continue to be challenges, especially as we figure out how to foster our culture in a fully-remote environment. I plan to repeat the same recipe for success when founding the company in 2010: surrounding myself with strong leaders and making adjustments along the way as needed.
- Keep the Lines of Communication Open: We have one-on-one meetings every two weeks with everyone in our company, which has created lines of communication that are always open. This consistent communication has created a healthy working environment. It sounds simple, but that’s one of the secrets to our success. We just talk a lot!
- Listen to Your Customers: When we first started, we only offered video lectures. Our subscribers wanted practice exams and coaching so we tried some new techniques and listened to their needs. We developed our core purpose and values which has helped our business grow.
Jerome Knyszewski: Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
Marc Teer: Having a core purpose and core values in place from the very beginning really helped us and continues to help us build a successful business. Some business owners focus on revenue first, however, my approach is to focus on a purpose first. It has been my personal experience and my observation of other companies that the ones who focus on a core purpose usually outperform in many ways — not just financially. This is why Black Spectacles is a purpose-driven company that believes if we stay passionate about helping architects navigate their careers then revenue and success will fall into place.
Jerome Knyszewski: As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
Marc Teer: As an online education platform, we’re very focused on converting website visitors into subscribers. We have achieved higher conversion rates by communicating who we are and what we do for our customers front and center on the landing page. We also have a live chat tool on our website, that is active during our business hours, which allows us to engage with website visitors and lead them to the information they need in a helpful and timely manner.
Jerome Knyszewski: Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Marc Teer: My advice is to always stay true to your core mission and ensure that any new offerings you roll out are a reflection of the core mission. That consistency is key in building a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand.
Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?
Marc Teer: Find Black Spectacles on social media here:
Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!