Must Read Founder's Five January 17, 2023

Founder’s Five: Michael Ermann, Amber Book

Founder’s Five is a continuing series from Tyton Partners that invites education company founders to shed light on their own success and illuminate the landscape for other education entrepreneurs and investors by answering five basic questions.

Michael founded Amber Book in 2010 as a better way to help architects pass the Architect Registration Examination® (ARE®) which permits architects to operate in 50 states, four U.S. territories, and much of Canada.

Amber Book’s high-quality animated videos and other study materials help architects become licensed as efficiently as possible. The company’s monthly subscription-based program offers 50+ hours of animated instruction, 500+ practice problems with detailed explanations, and 800+ digital flashcards.

Today the company has more than 16,000 historical enrollees, more than 500 firm-wide licenses, and over 3,000 positive reviews. In 2022 Amber Book was named on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest growing companies in the United States.

What is your company’s origin story?

I’ve just started my 22nd year teaching architecture at Virginia Tech. I love architecture and I love teaching and so it worked out well; I have a really cool job. In 2010, I started teaching exam prep courses at American Institute of Architects (AIA) chapters for folks who are studying the architecture licensure exam which consists of six separate tests. There seemed to be a real need and so I started teaching at AIA chapters all around the country. And people would ask for a video version, but I just didn’t know if I could do video well until I came across the benefits of high-quality animation to tell a story and it took off from there.

How will the market be changed by your company’s success?

Our super-secret plan is to make better buildings; to create a better built environment. But people will not pay for a vitamin the way they’ll pay for a painkiller. And so, we use the pain point of the licensing exam as a wedge to help architects make better buildings.

Michael Ermann

For an architect to become licensed, she has to pass six different exams. Each exam has an average 55% pass rate. It’s a huge pain point for people. But we don’t tell people that that’s why we’re doing this because no one wants to pay for better buildings. But they will pay to get through the exam process. I think some of the people at Amber Book would say our goal is better architects. I want better architects too, but for me it’s primarily about better buildings.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you began?

I wish I’d known how much more interesting the legal and accounting side of architecture was; I was very disdainful of it, and as a designer thought it was stupid. And then once I started researching it, I realized how important and how interesting it is. So that’s Number One.

Number Two is when I first started making animations, because they’re expensive. Do I hire one animator for 10 months, or do I hire 10 animators for one month? And it seemed like a no brainer to hire one animator for 10 months; it’s easier to manage one. And I didn’t have a lot of capital, so I couldn’t afford 10 animators for one month anyway. But after the first set of videos, I realized that I paid the same amount either way, but in the slower version I lost nine months of income. The cost of time in this world is super interesting and I wish I had realized that earlier.

What non-intuitive insight have you gained through this work?

People say you’re supposed to work on the business, not in the business. We don’t do that. We just work in the business. And we figure everything else will take care of itself. We’re not trying to run a business; we’re trying to educate people. Because of my background, we’re creating this enterprise as a kind of academic institution and not worrying about the sales.

We intentionally were heads down [initially], just making content and not worrying about other stuff. We didn’t have any marketing spend. We just made content. We had no salespeople, no inbound, no outbound. And people would complain that we took too long to get back to them. But we were just making content.

Beginning about October of last year, we hit the end of the making. We have a complete course. So, we started looking at KPIs, and we went to our first conference, and we had our first team meeting where everyone got together in Arizona because we’re mostly remote.

Until that we didn’t do any of the things that a normal company would do. We didn’t do any fundraising, any marketing, any paid ads, any anything. We were very much like a speakeasy, you had to know the knock — to know about Amber Book. Growth happened organically because architects are sitting next to each other in a firm and someone says, “You got licensed, what should I do?” We are better than anyone else who’s doing this. We see our competition as the good university course rather than other test prep.

What other education company besides your own do you wish you had started?

I’ve started several companies. For instance, I started a company to take facilities managers to Europe and have them see architecture through the eyes of architects, almost like a travel company and we had a lot of interest from Google. I was taking architecture students through Europe because travel is a big part of architecture education and someone from Google Zurich said, “What are you doing?” And I told him, and he said, “I’m a facilities manager at Google. Can we do that?” And I said, “Yeah, we’ll set it up.” But then 2009 hit and he said, “Man, Google has the money. But it’s a bad look right now, if we send everyone around Europe, staying in first class hotels.” So, that one didn’t work. Yeah, [I’ve started] a whole bunch of other things related to architecture more than education.