8 things I wish I had known about building online courses

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I launched my first online course a few years ago. I made many mistakes and false assumptions before then, and have learned many lessons since then. This is what I wish I had known.

  1. Money is a side-effect of impact: A friend of mine had made $100,000 in one hour selling an online course. Since I had a big list too, I thought I might have the same success. I was wrong. People don’t just magically give you money. Once you learn how to have an impact, then you start making money.
  2. You don’t need tiered pricing: Yes, in a perfect world, you have differently-priced options, each offering different levels of impact. But, it’s a shitload of work to get to this point. If you’re just trying to get started, go ahead and have one price. You can build up tiers later.
  3. You don’t need a member portal: When I opened my first course — all about white space — I had spent 7 months wrestling with WordPress membership plugins, and designing a course portal. It just made things more difficult for everyone. Now, I’ve scrapped all of those WordPress hours, and all of my courses are static HTML pages that I’ve hand-coded, with videos embedded. Yes, there could be a value to an interactive portal, but it’s not necessary, especially on your first go.
  4. You don’t need a custom forum: Thankfully, I was smart enough, when wrestling with WordPress membership plugins, to put off my plans for a private community. I’ve since learned that Facebook Groups are fine. There are plenty of people who make millions with courses, who use Facebook Groups. Most of your students use Facebook everyday, it’s better than having to log into a separate website, and they’ll actually see the notifications.
  5. You don’t need a landing page: Wantrepreneurs love to talk about landing pages. To make your first dollar selling online courses, you don’t need a landing page at all. Making a landing page will just be one more thing that puts your nervous system into overdrive, and distracts you from making an impactful course. Identify the most interested members of your email list, get their buy-in directly, then send them a SendOwl (or PayPal) link. I made $5,000 selling a beta-version of my flagship course this way.
  6. Work from hands-on to hands-off: Sure, you can build a whole course from scratch over the course of many months, then launch it. But, you’d be making all sorts of assumptions, and just making it harder to motivate yourself. The ideal progression is: Coaching > Hands-on group class > Self-study course > Book. You go from more intimate, with a higher price-point, to more self-service, with a lower price-point, along the way integrating what you’ve learned. For the courses I have in “alpha” stage, I take applications, then invite about 6 students to do a group course where I share videos, rough Google Docs, and then we do a Hangout once a week where I can work with them more directly.
  7. Your students are your R&D department: Deciding what course to build is tough, especially at first. But, once you have paying students, it gets much easier—because your paying students will ask you questions that are obliquely related to the course their taking. These are suggestions for new courses, from paying customers. I can’t stress enough how different a paying customer is from a random reader of your content: One has demonstrated that they will pay money to invest in their development, the other—you have no way of knowing.
  8. The more specific the outcome of your course, the better: My courses are actually not optimal ideas for courses. D4H Video teaches a framework for understanding visual design, and White Hot Course teaches a framework for understanding white space. I would make more money if I had a course that specifically taught you how to start working as a freelance designer. See how the outcome would be more clear? But, since “your students are your R&D department,” my courses give me ideas for new, more specific courses. They were worth building.

If you’ve been thinking about building an online course, hopefully this takes down some mental obstacles for you — I know it would have done so for me.