Please Don’t Make an Online Course

I’ve made millions of dollars in online courses.

You won’t.

Please don’t make another online course.

I had the first mover’s advantage. You don’t.

I had been a well paid, corporate technical trainer for a number of years. I had an “A-list” of clients that included Afflak, Northrup Grumman, Blue Cross and any number of federal government agencies. I got on a plane most Sunday nights and returned on Friday. I was teaching programmers within these organizations “rich internet applications” and the very beginnings of mobile.

The road warrior lifestyle agreed with me.

I flew (mostly) first class. I stayed in nice hotels. Someone cooked my food, made my bed and someone else drove me around. For a single guy in his mid-thirties, it was almost perfect. Good money, little responsibility and friends all over the country.

The FAA was a frequent training client, and I was getting ready to start class there on a Monday morning when it happened. I felt weak. I could hardly get out of the chair. I was light headed. They brought me to the emergency room. When they drew blood, I almost passed out. I would find out later I had been almost imperceptibly losing blood for years. The diagnoses were anemia and colon cancer.

Cancer. I was 35.

Two weeks later I had a colon resection and six weeks after that a round of chemotherapy. I was in the category of those diagnosed with colon cancer who were likely to survive. Today, I remain on the correct side of the dirt. Chemotherapy was bad, but not as bad as I expected.

Most days I felt normal. Some days I spent dozing off in front of the Price is Right. I was always nauseous, but never threw up. Not once. Most of all I was bored and restless.

Too sick to travel, too well to do nothing, I’d spend hours floating around on the internet.

I discovered Udemy. I enrolled in a couple of classes. They were atrocious. (One of them is so legendarily bad the Udemy staff STILL talk about it. But it sold…) Having previously taught online, I thought to myself, “I can do this. I might be the first one on Udemy who knows what they’re doing.”

I finished Javascript for Beginners in about three weeks. I knew the material well. I was more or less repurposing material I taught live and bringing it in to the video format. I added some labs and soon was uploading the last video in the course.

It did well and Udemy took notice. Six months later, now done with Chemo and billed “NED” (No evidence of disease — the new term for remission), I now had four courses up, a paid assistant and was running and gunning. Some months I was making $20K or more. My best months I made over $50K. Being there first had its advantages. This went on for quite a while.

It was a fun ride on the gravy train.

Searching the term HTML on Udemy.com. 1.5 million results. There are literally HUNDREDS of HTML courses — Maybe thousands.

Then things started to change. Udmey became more successful and more good instructors were coming on the platform.

My basic programming courses continued to do well, but newer courses would sometimes fail to find an audience. I’ve amassed about 300,000 Udemy students over the years, but it’s nowhere near as profitable as it once was.

During the first few years Udemy was seeking the right pricing and promotions formula. They settled on $10 a course and started promoting others who were more interested in selling $10 courses. I became interested in other aspects of the business.

We had a number of distribution agreements with other vendors who put our courses directly into corporate LMS systems. We’ve done well in that part of the business — and now that far exceeds what we do in Udemy. We invested in our own platform at LearnToProgram.tv.

For a couple years we cruised along. Then things started going down hill.

And quickly.

The market was getting crowded. I am not a believer in infinite markets and that “competition is good.” A guy who learns from you is someone who isn’t learning from me.

In my analysis, courses have become a commodity. Ask most new instructors what makes their HTML course different, they’ll tell you it’s the “quality of instruction,” or “their communication skills.”

I’m going to call bullshit.

Because I used to say the same thing. Your courses are the pretty much the same as everyone else’s. And so were mine.

Some time in the middle of last year it clicked: No one wants to take a fucking class.

A class is work.

A class is study, assignments, boring lectures. It’s torture. I hated all the academic aspects of college. But I really liked the result of getting a degree.

The hundreds of thousands who had purchased my courses didn’t want to take a course. They wanted the result that course brought. Learning Javascript was great, but being a Javascript developer was even better. What did my students really want? They wanted to be professional developers.

And we could facilitate that transition.

Ryan Deiss said something in a key note that really hit me hard. (And generally, I can’t stand marketing folks. Actually, generally, I can’t stand anyone.) I’m paraphrasing here, but, Deiss said that you should think of your company as an organization that serves a market instead of selling a product. It was simple genius.

We were a company that served new developers who wanted to be professionals — not a company that sold courses.

And, that, of course, changed everything.

We now sell live and online bootcamps that take people who want to be developers from never having written a line of code to job ready professionals.

We’ve gone from selling $10 courses to $2,000 life transitions. (And the price goes up soon. And then up some more.) We’ve differentiated ourselves with a comprehensive bootcamp product that includes unique elements like a live instructor mentor, and a capstone program in which you build a portfolio which will lead to employment.

In our program, participants earn 8 separate certifications. It’s now the furthest thing from a course on HTML.

In the meantime our distribution business in the corporate vertical continues to thrive.

The lesson here — Differentiate. Don’t be another guy or gal with a diet course, yoga course, or course on Python programming. You’re a commodity. Change your perspective and do something different. You’ll be glad you did.

Now, go out there and don’t make a course. Good luck.

Mark Lassoff is the founder of LearnToProgram.tv, which provides online and offline bootcamp style developer education. The company has enrolled over 925,000 students in over 60 individual courses. Mark lives in coastal Connecticut where he’s redecorating his condominium. Want to help?