This week, a purveyor of online cybersecurity courses asks for help persuading potential customers his business numbers are real. –Dan Beyers

The entrepreneur
Certified public accountant Ralph Sita Jr. started his career selling accounting software systems to companies. He soon found himself spending a lot of time training people on how to use the product after every sale, so he rented space to set up a small classroom for the training. As his software sales grew, he needed more network technicians trained to work with him. He saw a business idea for an IT and network training facility and joined with friends in the computer industry in June 2001 to launch brick-and-mortar training school TrainACE. TrainACE offers weeklong training courses at classrooms in Greenbelt, Md. and Ashburn, Va.

After nearly 15 years in the space, Sita and TrainACE employee Ryan Corey saw how competitive the training landscape had become, driving prices for courses down. Sita and Corey had heard from students and industry professionals that IT training should be free. They saw a new business opportunity to offer free training, but still make money.

The pitch

Sita

“We launched Cybrary, offering free open-source cyberecurity courses online. We have since built a highly engaged, interactive community. Our mission statement is to build a community, provide free education for everybody, everywhere, all the time.

“We’ve had a steady uptick in users since launching in January 2015, with nearly 500,000 members worldwide now. We pay instructors and contractors to create the content on our site. We are planning to launch interactive hands-on, practical certification tests later this year.

“We work with top companies in the industry – Cisco, AlienVault, Talos, Recorded Future, Tripwire, and many others – to create content CH4NN3LS on our site. The content has to serve our community and includes things like blogs, white papers, videos, articles, interviews, webinars, and virtual recruiting tools. We charge companies a monthly fee to create channels on our platform. We started this revenue model in February and it’s going very well so far.

“The average user is on our site for 80 minutes a month. Our users are spread throughout the world, with 40 percent coming from the United States. We organically are adding 1,200 to 1,300 new users every day. We are continuing to develop our product and add content. We want to bring on companies as channel partners faster. We are a small team, and our biggest challenges has been convincing companies that our numbers are real – they are having a hard time believing our success. They are doing double the due diligence on us. We have grown so quickly and to many companies, our growth sounds too good to be true. How do we overcome that and close sales faster?”

The advice

Elana Fine, managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business

“You can overcome your skeptics and strengthen your sales pitch by making sure you’re tracking data on the retention of your partners. With subscription models, customer retention is really important. When you are talking with potential customer companies, communicate how long your partners have been working with you and the success that they have seen so far. This information is just as valuable for potential partners as the information about the users on your site.

“The other thing to think about is whether there is a saturation point for Cybrary. If you have too many partners, it may become too overwhelming for users. You might want to think about limiting partners to offer a level of exclusivity. Sometimes you want to grow thoughtfully – you want to make sure you’re not diluting the content and just bringing on too many channel partners at once. You want a plan that is most beneficial for your users and partners.”

The reaction

Sita

“We have data and case studies to prove out our model and every customer we approach gets a thorough explanation of the metrics they should expect. Fortunately we are nowhere near our saturation point for ‘too many channel partners.’ The members of our community are able to sift through and decide where the best content resides; our user base polices everything we and the other members do.”

Looking for some advice on a new business, or need help fixing an existing one? Capital Business and the experts at the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business are ready to assist. Contact us at capbiznews@washpost.com.