Mike Johnston marches to his own drum in the online education industry

KANSAS CITY—Mike Johnston brought the beat to Big Kansas City with a live demo of just how legit a drummer he is. Not that his craft needed validation. Johnston started playing the drums when he was five, and with drumming instructors such as Pete Magadini and Steve Ferrone, he was sure to get the hang

Mike Johnston Big Kansas City

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Mike Johnston Big Kansas City

Mike Johnston brought the beat to Big Kansas City with a live demo of just how legit a drummer he is. Not that his craft needed validation. Johnston started playing the drums when he was five, and with drumming instructors such as Pete Magadini and Steve Ferrone, he was sure to get the hang of it.

However, the thrill of performing in front of 20,000 fans eluded him, and he found more fulfillment collaborating with other drummers on the tour bus.

“I realized that just because [performing] is the world’s dream for me, doesn’t mean it’s my dream,” Johnston said. “I got my thrill from teaching, not playing in front of people, so I quit to teach private drum lessons.”

He began teaching at music stores, but the problem of capacity nagged him when there was a line of students but no available time. Johnston decided a change of venue was necessary and put drum lessons on YouTube. After three years of building credibility through social media, Johnston launched MikesLessons.com to provide live and recorded lessons, making it the most successful educational site in the world.

Johnston will be the first to say he isn’t from a business background, but his experience crafting his brand as a drum instructor gives him a unique perspective applicable to multiple industries. Some of what he shared:

Pave your own way
“Do things the way they’re not telling you to do it in the magazines. I’ve never looked at a business magazine, I don’t get the business lingo, but you don’t have to do it the way it’s always been done.”

According to Johnston, people in his field usually spend a considerable chunk of cash on advertising, but he saw a different avenue to build his brand.

“I spent three years on YouTube and social media to build trust, and I didn’t charge anything for it,” he said. “I was waiting for organic marketing to take place, and as soon as people started asking for more, I knew that was the time to direct them to MikesLessons.com.”

Remember the “I Wish” Principle
“The moment you say ‘I wish’ out loud, you need to act,” Johnston said. “If you’re wishing for something to exist then there’s a good chance others are wishing for it too.”

Johnston remembered the first time he wished drummers would sell a lesson only featuring the mambo rather than an entire DVD of lessons he wasn’t interested in. This idea led him to break down his site lesson by lesson so students could pick and choose what they wanted to pay to learn.

Change the way you teach or lead
Just because you understand a concept in a certain light doesn’t mean your students or employees will, too. Offering multiple avenues of explanations and making sure a listener retains the information is key to making sure they have the best learning experience you have to offer.

It also is important to allow freedom of expression and practice in a business. “Learn all the techniques for everything and allow the people around you to explore those and find their own path,” he said. “That’s where the creative process will grow. The art form is to do whatever you want with the knowledge you have.”

It’s seriously time to rethink your social media approach
Johnston looks at his four avenues of social media—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram—as avenues leading to different fan bases. “It has to speak to those specific audiences.” I want people to know that I made this content for you. Don’t treat all of these outlets the same because they’re individual things with individual fans.”

And for goodness sake, take a good picture
“The one thing I see in branding is a lot of horrible pictures of people who want to become professionals at something,” said Johnston. “Please spend the money to look professional. Every single picture I take, I treat it like it could be on the cover of a magazine.”

Rethink your competition
“Your competition may not be who you think it is. That is hilariously misunderstood in the business world. Look at the world. What are people choosing over your industry before they know your industry exist? I want the 10 million kids who didn’t know drums existed to know that is an option.

To reach the kids who are typically directed to a football team or a soccer club, Johnston goes to elementary schools and gives drum clinics to expose the option of drumming to kids looking for extracurriculars.

Watch more movies
“Pop culture can determine your industry very quickly,” said Johnston. “Movies can tell an entire population what their new hobby is, and you have to be ready for the moment when Hollywood says your industry is cool.”

One example he gave was the cult-classic “Karate Kid,” which led to the explosion of interest in karate lessons and left the karate industry a little unprepared to handle the influx. Johnston pointed out that as Hollywood gets ready to release “Whiplash” later this year—a film based around drumming—he adjusted his business and lesson plans to accommodate the windfall of interest.

Johnston’s bottom line is a desire for every business leader and educator to take control of what they can actually control.

“I’m not meant to play this instrument, so what. It doesn’t mean I can’t play it, it means it will take more work than everyone else. The only thing you can control is the fact that you can outwork [the competition].”

Credits: Photo by Kaitlin Motley.


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