Excel University Origin Story
Excel University wasn't created by a series of perfectly executed steps within an overall master plan. Far from it. It only exists today as a result of "a series of unfortunate events." Before we can understand the origin of Excel U, we need to start at the beginning of the story.
There are two relevant facts about me I need to share.
Fact #1: I love computers and technology.
I've loved computers as far back as I can remember. Here is a picture from my 6th grade yearbook:
Even then, I knew my future career would involve computers somehow.
Fact #2: I love getting stuff done fast.
To me, figuring out the fastest approach is like solving a fun puzzle.
As I'm doing a task, I'm analyzing it looking for the most efficient way to accomplish it.
For example, leaving for lunch early to avoid the crowds, planning the optimal snow blower route for my driveway, buying a fast pass for theme parks, and buying a car just to get the carpool stickers.
It is sorta like a game I enjoy playing ... trying to figure out how to maximize efficiency.
These two facts, the love of computers and efficiency, intersected when I began to truly understand Excel.
At first, I thought Excel was just a tool for formatting reports or adding up a column of numbers. In the beginning, I had NO IDEA what it could actually do.
As I began to dig deeper, I came to realize it was far more than a digital calculator. I saw how efficiently it could get my stuff done, and it blew my mind.
I had worked as an auditor in public accounting and a senior financial analyst in industry. And I was starting to see big efficiency gains in my work. (Yay!)
Life was good. It was fun. I was young and newly married. It was early in my career. Life was fairly easy.
I was offered the Accounting Manager role at a public company, and that's when things got real.
The Real World Begins
I arrived at a great company with great employees. As a company, we were helping to improve the lives of many. It was awesome.
I had a monthly project I was responsible for. It was called a monthly "close" because we had to close the books. This just means I was crunching a lot of numbers, counting a lot of beans, and creating a bunch of reports.
This process took about 2 weeks.
During the first 2 weeks of each month (aka, half my time), I was STRESSED out and cranky … I’d work late nights and weekends and bring the stress home.
Simple. I was overwhelmed … I had more work than time.
I felt a little bit like this dude:
Working a lot and being stressed wasn’t good for my health, personal life, or marriage.
One day my CFO asked me to build a new report. At that moment, I was feeling totally overwhelmed. I ... said ... NO!
Bummer … that was the WRONG answer. Don’t worry … I ended up building the report and things were cool. (Rich, if you are reading this ... again, sorry about that!)
I remember reflecting on this, and thinking this stress is crazy. Something’s got to change.
I needed to figure out how to overcome this challenge.
One obvious option was to quit. That’s no good. Another option was to just accept the stress … and then find ways of coping with it. That’s no good either.
What I did was (1) develop a process to continuously improve my workbooks and (2) learn key Excel skills that helped me automate manual tasks.
By the way, I've since formalized that process and teach it free here: Speed Loop
It totally worked! Soon, I was getting that 2-week process done in a couple of days … without the stress, late nights, and weekends.
I finally felt RELAXED at work. Ahh 🙂
I actually had more time than work.
I felt more like this dude:
By this point, I was so in love with Excel that I wanted to share what I had learned and spread the word.
Spreading the Word
One day at lunch, I was reading the Journal of Accountancy. (Hey ... I'm a CPA, and its a great magazine!)
Under an Excel article, there was a yellow box with an invitation that said something like "If you have an idea for an article and would like to share your knowledge, please contact Stanley at ..."
So, I contacted him.
We had a great phone call.
We decided that I would write about an Excel feature I was using to deliver financial reports electronically. (Stanley if you are reading this ... thank you for this opportunity!)
That article was titled Financial Reports in a Snap, and I remember the magazine arrived to my house on my birthday 🙂
You can read it if you'd like:
It was my very first article, and I was super happy! I've since gone on to write more than 40 articles, and you can check them out here:
I wanted to keep sharing what I'd learned and wondered what it would be like to teach an Excel class. So, that's what I did next.
My first Excel class was for a room full of ... 2 ... students.
Despite the small class size, I absolutely LOVED it!
The students loved it too.
I knew I wanted to keep helping others ... so, I pursued additional opportunities to teach.
First Big Class!
I contacted our state CPA society, and asked if I could teach an Excel course. Kurtis said they already offered Excel courses. But, he decided to give me a chance anyway. (Thanks Kurtis!)
I prepared to deliver a live 8-hour course. This included about 40 Excel files, a 250 slide PowerPoint presentation, and writing a 170 page manual.
I showed up to the hotel and entered the conference room. Plugged in my laptop, got the projector working and ... then ... started to feel really nervous.
I mean ... REALLY nervous.
Participants were arriving. The room was filling up. I was pacing nervously.
I made a quick call to my dad. He talked with me. He encouraged me. (Thanks Dad!)
When it was time to begin, there was maybe 100 CPAs ready to learn ... all expecting me to deliver a great class.
As I began teaching Excel, my nerves calmed down. I focused on the content and the participants. They were asking questions and really engaged. They began to see Excel as I did. A platform for automation.
After teaching this live, 8-hour class, I was tired ... but ... I knew teaching was my destiny.
I had learned how to USE Excel over the years ... and now I needed to face my next challenge. I needed to learn how to TEACH Excel effectively.
I continued teaching live, on-site classes.
- I taught Excel in the evenings at a local tech store.
- I taught CPAs all over the state.
- A large national organization asked me to teach for them, so I started teaching all over the country.
- Then another organization asked me to teach nationwide for them as well.
- And more and more organizations asked me to teach.
- I was an adjunct university professor and taught Excel in an Accounting Information Systems class
- And it kept growing like that. More and more live sessions.
Over the years I've lost track of exact numbers ... but I'm sure I've taught 500+ live sessions.
Teaching these live sessions and traveling so much took a toll. I spent quite a bit of time on the road, away from my family. It was hard. (Wendy, if you are reading this ... sorry about that.)
But, those live sessions were invaluable to me. You see, this is where I received instant and live feedback about my teaching.
I'd receive questions. Often, I'd get the same questions over and over. I began to anticipate them. I refined my presentation to answer common questions before they were asked. This helped me figure out the best way to present topics.
I'd receive criticism. One participant said that "Jeff toots his own horn too much" and it bugged me. Far worse criticism would trouble my heart for days. Even if I got 100 great review, one negative review would consume me. People were brutally honest on those anonymous evaluation forms. I learned many valuable lessons from the good and bad reviews, and adjusted my training accordingly.
Basically, all of these live sessions taught me how to teach effectively.
I know they did because I received several teaching awards, such as "best instructor of the year" and so on. These awards and the positive reviews encouraged me to keep moving forward with training.
A big challenge to these live, onsite, sessions is the travel overhead. They are not an efficient delivery method. I'd fly across the country to New York to teach 10 people. And you know I'm all about efficiency.
I started to get involved with online education and webinars.
Online Education and Webinars
At first, I was doing online webinars for my state CPA society. Then it grew to doing national webinars. Then other companies asked me to do webinars for them. And more and more companies and organizations. I've lost track of exact numbers, but I'm sure that I've done 1,500+ webinars over the years.
There were pros and cons to teaching webinars versus on-site. One common weakness for both: Pace.
Over the years, I've received two complaints over and over.
- Complaint #1: "You go too fast!"
- Complaint #2: "You go too slow!"
You see, with Excel training, everyone arrives with different experience levels and goals.
- Some are already familiar with VLOOKUP; others are not.
- Some students want you to move briskly so that you cover as many topics as possible during the session. Others want to feel like they've mastered a topic before going to the next.
And thus, my next challenge presented itself: solve the Pace issue.
I needed to figure out a more effective delivery format. One where students are able to learn at their own pace. Where they can meet their own individual goals. Where they can skip topics they know and dig in to topics they don't.
I ultimately solved this challenge by creating on-demand courses. But, things didn't go smoothly or as planned. First, I need to tell you about the book project.
I set out to write a new book about Excel.
The idea is easy. The execution quickly becomes overwhelming.
Since I had written several books that accompanied my on-site classes, I figured I could take a shortcut by just cleaning them up a bit and publishing them.
There was a major problem with that plan: I had given the rights away to the organization that printed them for my on-site classes.
So I had to start from scratch.
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It forced me to evaluate the order in which I present topics. By starting from scratch, I was free to take everything I'd learned about teaching and reorganize it all. So:
- I created a spreadsheet and listed the topics I wanted to write about.
- I carefully analyzed them and determined the optimal presentation order.
- Since I had seen the power of introducing a topic and then revisiting and enhancing it later, I did this in the book too.
- I only included Excel topics that were relevant and practical.
- If a topic was "cool" but not relevant, it was out.
- If it was only useful in rare situations, it was out.
- If I hadn't personally used it over and over, it was out.
- I focused on the topics I frequently used to save time.
One publisher was interested in working with me, but ultimately rejected me. (Don't worry ... this too was a blessing in disguise because publishers keep the copyright.)
By going the self-publishing route, I was able to keep the copyright and use the content however I wanted (including, for a path I couldn't yet see.)
Rather than write a single mega-book, I decided to break it down into smaller books. The first covered the foundations of Excel. I wrote the first sentence on March 1, 2011. It was published as Excel University Volume 1 on July 23, 2012 and I sold it on Amazon.
I was handing out copies to the many people who supported me through this journey. Parents, clients, colleagues, and so on.
With my shiny new book in hand, I went to give a copy to Laura. She helped me tremendously over the years as an instructor. (Thanks Laura!)
I handed it to Laura. She congratulated me and then asked "I bet you want to teach this, don't you?"
"Yes" I said 🙂
Now for my next challenge. Figuring out the most effective way to teach it.
One obvious option for teaching it would be on-site sessions.
- But, I'd been down that road.
- This delivery method isn't very efficient.
Another obvious option was webinar.
- But, I'd been down this road too.
Both of these options suffered from the pace problem (too fast/slow), which I desperately wanted to solve.
As luck would have it, I stumbled across an online class offered by an Excel rock star named Daniel. I took the class, and found his delivery format to be absolutely brilliant. (Thanks Daniel!)
He recorded the demo videos in advance. Each Monday, he would release the next video. By providing recorded videos instead of live webinars, people could work at their own pace. Pace. And that is when it clicked. He solved the pace issue.
So, I saw the way forward and began to record my lecture videos.
You'd think recording some Excel videos would be easy. Well. Um. No, not really.
I had literally zero experience with audio, video, editing tools, video resolution, aspect ratio, rendering, hosting, variable bit rate, streaming, and on and on.
- There was a HUGE learning curve here.
- The first set of lecture videos took FOREVER.
- Not only did I have to create them, I had to learn HOW to create them.
Oh, and by the way ... audio quality is way harder than you think. There is all of this environmental noise hitting the mic that you don't think about.
- Air conditioner.
- Lawn mowers.
- And on and on.
It was quite frustrating because I'd have to stop and restart often because of this noise.
I was so frustrated by the environmental noise in our office space, I decided to come in at like 5 am to record. Imagine it. It's pitch black outside. I arrive early before anyone else. Before the lawn mowers, cars and traffic. I get all set up and hit record. This annoying crow starts cawing loudly. I couldn't help but laugh, and cry.
This was so inefficient. I moved my recording equipment into a closet. Literally. It was a tiny closet with no air circulation. This helped control the noise. It still wasn't perfect, but it definitely helped.
I finally got all of the videos done.
Now I needed to figure out how to deliver them online, along with the Excel files, quizzes, handouts, and so on.
My game plan was to partner with the organizations I'd been teaching with all along.
Yes ... and then ... No
So I contacted them.
They loved the idea, said Yes, and we signed contracts. Things looked so promising!
As it turned out, my idea for this scheduled, on-demand, delivery format didn't really fit into their business model. Which, in hindsight, makes complete sense. Their systems and processes were designed to deliver on-site classes and webinars. This new format didn't really fit in.
After about a year or so, we both realized this was not a good fit.
I felt sad and discouraged for a while.
But, as with this whole crazy adventure, this rejection turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
You see, it caused me to go it alone. I didn't see it at the time, but this new path allowed me to have total control over the course and delivery format. I didn't need to fit my course into legacy systems. It has enabled me to offer a unique and effective training experience.
At that time, the idea of going it alone was overwhelming. But, it led to the LMS I use today.
Learning Management System (LMS)
It was about this time I had the fortune to meet up with Jen. She had taken one of my webinars, and I was immediately drawn to her spark and sense of humor. She suggested that I use a proper LMS to deliver the online class. (Thanks Jen!)
This turned out to be a wonderful option and it had all the tools I needed.
So, I built the entire online course. Lecture videos. Homework. Quizzes. Solutions. Handouts.
The course was finally ready to launch.
I initially launched the course and received wonderful feedback.
But, I quickly discovered a new challenge: CPE credit.
License holders such as CPAs are required to get Continuing Professional Education (CPE) credit to keep their license current. For example, 40 hours of CPE per year.
The CPAs taking my course wanted CPE credit for it.
Although the organizations I wanted to partner with could issue CPE credit, I wasn't authorized to issue it on my own.
So, I needed to get that authorization. As it turns out, this is not a simple thing to do.
Here in the states, there is an organization called NASBA (National Association of State Boards of Accountancy) that sets the CPE "standards" for organizations and programs. These standards are in place to ensure that CPE sponsors and programs are of the highest quality.
So, I applied to be a NASBA CPE sponsor.
My application was rejected. My program didn't meet all of the standards.
I felt sad. Frustrated. Angry. Disappointed. Defeated.
To be honest, I felt like giving up and just offering the classes without CPE credit.
But, here's the thing. I'd been teaching CPAs and accounting professionals for years. And, I really wanted to be able to issue CPE credit for them. I set the short-term emotions aside and focused on the long-term.
I updated my program and re-applied.
This second time was a success!
From start to finish, getting NASBA approval took me about 18 months or so.
It was a long process for me, but now I'm able to offer CPE credit.
I started the Excel University blog around this time. Some of my initial posts were written to supplement the online course material.
I kept blogging and sharing tips online.
The Excel University blog kept growing, and more people were checking it out. I started noticing that people online can be wonderfully encouraging, and equally negative. I've received many encouraging comments, but also some negative ones:
- "Your blog post was inappropriate and even irresponsible as an educator."
No need to rehash the criticism and negativity I've had thrown at me over the years. Some of it turned out to be useful as "constructive criticism" but most of it not.
I've just had to wrap my head around the fact that when you put yourself out there, people feel free to criticize you. It reminds me of a quote that goes something like this:
- To tear down is easier than to create.
It is just another challenge. How do you keep pressing ahead while experiencing setbacks, rejections, and criticism?
If you are going through this right now, here's what worked for me. I allowed myself to be present to the pain. Feel it. I couldn't simply not feel the emotions. So, I felt them. While I did, I tried to mentally stay focused on the long term ... the big picture. This long-view is what has enabled me to persevere.
Also, one more thing I've noticed: when one door slammed shut in my face, another door opened. And often, in the end, it was a much better path. So, keep moving ahead and pivot as needed.
The next several years were all about creating additional courses. I have a lot to say about Excel!
- I wrote Volume 2 to talk about functions and formulas, and created the course
- I wrote Volume 3 to talk about PivotTables, and created the course
- I wrote Volume 4 to talk about optimizing workbooks, and created the course
I've nick-named these first four courses the "Undergraduate" program (like the first four years of college).
I still had more to teach.
But, the process of creating a new course took FOREVER. I would plan the book. Write the book draft. Review and update. Send to copy editor. Review comments. Incorporate comments. Send to another editor. Review and integrate comments. Create the exercise files. Create the videos. Write the quiz and exam questions. Create the handouts. Create the CPE-related materials. And on and on. Seriously ... it was a long and difficult process.
So, for the next two courses, I decided to skip the book writing step and rely on existing books from other Excel experts. This saved me a TON of time and enabled me to get the courses launched faster.
- Masters 1 covers Power Query, Power Pivot, Power BI, and table/graph design.
- Masters 2 covers VBA/Macros
After completing these 6 courses, which are available for 100+ hours of CPE credit, I realized that Excel University appeals to a wider audience than CPAs.
So, I created a training program that is more affordable and excludes the CPE-required components ... its called a Campus Pass.
Here We Are
And, just like that ... here we are.
It was not a simple journey or even a straight path.
When I took my first step, I did so without knowing what Excel University would become.
At each point along the way, I just followed my heart and passion and focused on my overall goal: help people learn how to use Excel to get their work done faster.
I feel really good that Excel University is able to help so many people now.
It's hard to keep an exact count, but my best estimate is that I've trained over 100,000+ students ... wow!
Here's a world map, and the green shaded countries represent Excel University student countries.
It is hard to believe we have the technology that enables me to help so many people all over the world. Hi everyone!
Where do we go from here?
Although it may sound like we have arrived at the end of the story, we are far from it.
We are literally just getting started.
I have many upcoming projects planned. They are all designed to help me carry out my mission:
- Help people learn how to use Excel to get their work done faster
I like to help people get their Excel-work done faster because it means they are getting it done in less time. This time savings can then be used in other ways. Perhaps on more important projects. Or maybe it means not having to work late-nights and weekends. Perhaps it just means feeling more relaxed at work and less stressed.
It's all about efficiency.
So my friend, this has been my crazy adventure.
This is the origin story of Excel University.