This blogger generated $80,000 last year selling online courses

Ben Collins

When Ben Collins launched his blog about Google Sheets, which is basically Google’s version of Excel, he didn’t intend for it to become a full-time business. He was just documenting his learning process and hoped the blog would serve as an online portfolio for when he went out to seek full-time employment.

But he was surprised to learn that there was an actual audience for his blog posts, and within six months he had thousands of visitors flooding his website searching for how to perform specific actions within Google Sheets.

Eventually, this led to his first paying client, and before he knew it Collins had more incoming business than he knew what to do with. But he wanted to create something a little more scalable, so he started developing an online course for those looking to master the Google Sheets platform.

Within months of launching this course, he was generating thousands of dollars a month in passive income. I interviewed Collins about how he designed his course, how he marketed it, and how he decided to price it.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find a transcript of the interview.

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Simon Owens: Hey Ben, thanks for joining us.

Ben Collin: Hi Simon. Thanks very much for having me on the show.

So the reason I brought you on is because you’ve built an interesting career selling online courses, mainly through your blog. What is your blog about?

So my blog is about Google Sheets and how to do data analysis and how to do your job better if you use Google Sheets and the G Suite platform. It’s like Microsoft Excel, except it’s in your browser and it’s great for collaboration and sharing and any kind of cloud work that you do. It’s part of a whole suite of tools that Google produced for office productivity.

I’ve been using it for going on 10 plus years now. In fact, it kind of weirds me out when a client insists on using Microsoft Word because I’ve completely forgotten how to use that.

Yeah, I can relate. I still have one client that I work with in Excel, which luckily keeps me sharp on the Excel side.

So how did you become an expert on Google Sheets in the first place? You took a circuitous path to it.

I certainly did, yes. So I’ll give you just a brief background. I did math at college, became an accountant, a forensic accountant, in fact. And that basically meant I spent every day in Excel for about eight years and really taught myself a lot of Excel stuff, including some programming, just so I could do my job better.

In Malcolm Gladwell speak, you put in your 10,000 hours.

Exactly. Yeah. And then a few years ago I began learning how to use Google Sheets. I wanted to help my wife with some of her business needs because she was using Google Sheets, and I found that a lot of that Excel knowledge transferred over. And then I started writing about Google Sheets myself because there wasn’t a lot of content online about it

I left my job around this stage. I had sort of one or two ideas at first that didn’t pan out. And then I thought about actually trying to become a developer and pursued that for a while. But during all this time I was writing about Google Sheets and data analysis for my blog. And that started to catch on a little bit in search and led to some clients.

So you started blogging about it. What kind of articles were you writing? You were only writing like maybe a few times a month, but they were very informative, meaty posts. Right?

Yeah. The frequency was a little higher initially than it is right now today. But there’s still the same type of post — big long tutorials. And the very first one I ever wrote was about how to build a little business dashboard in Google Sheets. That was the one that actually started generating traffic and was my number one post for the first year. And that led to some clients.

So people would want to use Google Sheets to do some tasks. They would go to Google. And even though there were probably tons of blog posts and videos on how to do stuff in Excel, because that was the most widely used program, not as many people were using Google Sheets. And so you probably didn’t have a lot of competition in search results for these kinds of tutorials, so you got to be at the top of search results.

Yeah, I think so. And I think your point about the Excel blogs is really important because I’ve been using those Excel blogs for years myself and learn tons from them, and I knew there were online courses and a whole consulting industry around Excel education. So I knew it was possible to make this work. And then I realized there was really very little out there for Google Sheets, that there was this opportunity to fill that hole and become a resource for Google Sheets. So that was part of the motivation and inspiration to keep the blog going. I’m sure as anyone who’s ever started blogging can attest, you sort of have to put in a lot of work writing for a long time before you start to really see any traffic. You’ve got to keep patient and keep writing.

How long after you launched the blog did you start really noticing a good amount of traffic coming in?

Maybe after about six months after I wrote the very first post. I started at the end of 2014 and it was probably about midway through 2015 that it was getting enough traffic to make it a little bit more interesting. There were blog comments and it started to lead to questions from people, and then that first client came along.

Were you expecting to build a business off of it or did clients just start falling into your inbox?

Yeah, there was no business intention there. I started the blog partly as a portfolio piece. I wanted to write technical topics that I knew about to showcase that I can understand the technology, and that was really sort of the original motivation. A lot of the initial posts were a mix of these Google Sheets posts and some web development tutorial things on totally different subjects like Ruby on Rails and that kind of stuff. I actually took these ones down eventually once they were out of the date. But yeah, there was not really a business goal behind the blog when it started.

And who are these people who reached out to you? Like what were they wanting?

So actually the very first client was a small real estate broker in Arizona and he had about five or six people who worked for him, agents that would handle the calls and set up the meetings and show people around the homes. Each day they would submit a bit of data about what they’d achieved, in terms of how many meetings they’ve had and how many showings and deals and things. And he wanted to build a dashboard around that. So actually the first job was was to build a dashboard in Google Sheets.

Did you have a light bulb immediately go off in your head that this is a new business for me. I need to spend all my free time blogging and then use it as kind of a lead generator for clients and let those two things feed each other?

A little bit. But it was also still a sort of slow process to get to that point. It took me about another six months to say, you know, I’m going to go for this now. Initially I still thought, okay, I’ll do these client projects right now, but I don’t know if I just got lucky on a few of these or whether it’s really sustainable.

But the interesting thing is I actually went and did some teaching in person with a group that I’d taken a course with previously. Also right around this time is when my wife and I had our first son. So there were a lot of moving pieces in play right at that point. But I just thought if I keep the blog going and I keep writing and I keep learning and then trying to teach people, then it’s only going to be a good thing.

So you had a lot of traffic coming in from Google. What else did you do to try to start building an audience and trying to have a recurring audience? What was some of the marketing stuff you were doing? Were you trying to build out a newsletter? How were you trying to build a longterm sustained audience?

Yeah, so I didn’t really think about that point for about the first year at least. And then I put up a pop up form to collect newsletter sign ups. It didn’t explode or anything, but it started to trickle through. And then at the same time I started to read more about what you needed to do for digital marketing, and I talked to my wife a lot because she was in the space.

In January, 2016, I sort of sat down for a couple of weeks and wrote an ebook about some cool tricks and tips for Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel and launched that, and that definitely bumped the email signups from a trickle to a slightly more consistent handful each day.

So to translate, you put the ebook behind a wall so that in order for them to receive the ebook they had to give you their email address and in return you would email them a PDF.

Exactly. That was it. It’s interesting because it was tips and tricks for Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel, and back at that stage, I was still very much aiming for more broader data analysis topics for the blog. So it would cover Google Sheets primarily, but it also had Excel and SQL, Tableau. I was very broad still in my focus.

How did you start thinking about then creating an online course?

So again, the idea went back quite far. I used to read these Excel blogs, and then I saw that they all had courses. And although I hadn’t ever paid for one of their courses, I had signed up for one or two free ones and realized that this was a thing that people did. It was a revenue stream for these people who run these online blogs. And I was really interested in the idea. And then when I started the in-person teaching for a company called General Assembly, teaching a data analysis class, it really got me interested in the idea of teaching again. And so way back, probably, mid 2016, I was mulling over this idea of creating this course.

And then in early 2016 I said to myself, I’d like to create the course and I’ll just spend a month creating it and launch it. And it took a lot longer than I expected, as you might imagine. But I started the process around April or May, 2016, and it was this Google Sheets dashboard course because that’s what the clients had been asking about. And so I sat down and I created all the materials for the course, some draft dashboards. But then I got busy again with other work and it sat on the back burner for three or four months. And then it picked up again in the Fall and I finally launched the first course in February of 2017, so just almost two years ago.

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And what was the appeal of the course? Up until then you had to do a lot of custom work working with individual clients. This could be something where you could have more passive income?

Yeah, I think there are a lot of factors actually. So I liked the idea of the passive income. It’s scalable obviously. And then I really, really enjoy teaching and seeing that transformation that people go through when they understand the topic and then can apply it. That really motivates me. I love creating and researching topics.

What went into creating that first course? Was it a series of videos? Was it worksheets? What do you put into a course to make it actually valuable to someone?

So you have to solve problems that the people are trying to solve and then you have to have a clear idea of where they are before they take your course and where they’re going to be after they’ve taken your course and make sure that they get where they want to get to. And I didn’t really understand a lot of that when I first created that first course. So I was kind of lucky that the topic turned out okay.

I approached it from, okay, I’m going to teach you everything about X rather than saying, okay, here’s a business problem, we’re going to try and solve it, and it just so happens that X is the tool to do it. So it’s really coming at it from the eyes of your customer or your students and seeing it from their perspective and saying, okay, what would be really useful for them to learn? And so when I created the first course in 2016, when I was preparing these topics, I had my background to rely on. I’d built hundreds of dashboards by then for both my old finance job and then for clients with Google Sheets, and so I had a pretty good idea of what people wanted to do and what they struggled with.

So for that course I took the approach that we’d learn how to build these five dashboards, starting with a very simple one through to a complex one. And we’ll just walk through the building of them rather than doing any kind of lectures about theory and that kind of thing. So that’s how I sort of approached it.

And It’s mainly videos of your computer screen of you showing them how to do it with your voice?

That was it entirely for the first course. And it ended up being about 75 videos that were between five and 50 minutes long. I think it was about nine hours of content, which is why it took me forever. The very first time you do it, you have to learn how to do the recording. It sounds fairly simple, but to record your screen, to have the right resolution and the right aspect ratio and all that kind of stuff, it takes trial and error. Then you have to get the audio right and nothing’s ever perfect, but you have to get it to a good enough quality. Then you have to learn about the platform you’re gonna host your lectures on.

So there’s a whole raft of things you have to learn about, which takes a little time

What platform did you choose and what went into your thinking behind it?

So initially I was thinking about publishing on Udemy because that was the only one I had heard of and they’re the biggest. But then I started to research it a little bit more and found out that their business model is different from a self hosted platform. And I think Udemy works quite well if you can really get a lot of students. But if you don’t get very many students, then they discount so steeply for holiday sales that you might create this fantastic course and they’ll sell it for only $10. They’ll reduce the cost down to $10 and keep half of that. And I just thought about all the effort I put in and then I was only getting $5 each time someone signed up? That seemed crazy to me.

So even though they had the scale of a huge marketplace, I decided that I’d rather actually try and build my own student community. So once I realized that distinction, I went looking and found Teachable and they’ve had really great performance. It’s sort of like a Wordpress where you can design a site and upload stuff and create landing pages.

So what did you ultimately end up pricing your course for?

So the very first course was priced at $150, and then I did a discount when it launched, down to $75.

How did you land at those prices?

I just looked around at other courses that were comparable. I looked at a lot of the Excel courses and programming courses and they range from about $49 up to, say, $300 or $400, and so I picked somewhere sort of vaguely in the middle. I mean it was all a bit of an experiment at first. Early on in my online career I used to get very hung up on a price point or whether I should use my name, Ben Collins, or come up with a brand name, and I’ve realized now that really you’re better off just making the decision and then moving forward. In a few months you can change it if you need to. It’s very fluid and flexible. So I don’t get too hung up about trying to make a decision.

Take me through the launch of the course itself. How did you market it and what kind adoption did you see out of the gate?

I had an email list of 2,500 when that one launched in February 2017. Really the only marketing I did was a series of emails to my list. I did three or four over that launch week. And I hadn’t really done much research behind the strategies of launches at that stage. They were basically telling people about what was in the course, what was in the lectures.

It did pretty well for that first launch. Well enough that I felt like this is worth continuing and doing another one. It didn’t flop. It wasn’t a spectacular success, but it was enough to keep going.

Where did you see the adoption? Was it mostly out of the gate, or was it a slow, steady trickle as time went on?

There were a lot of conversions during that first launch week when I blasted it out to my email list. I knocked it down to $75 that first week, so I had about 100 people sign up that first week. And then going forward, the sales were pretty slow at first, but I’d see a few sales each week, and that’s just slowly built up. It was actually a bit more than that. I put it in the sidebar of my website and would occasionally mention it in blog posts and in emails. The sales, they kept going. They weren’t crazy high or anything, but it was still a nice side income.

How has it built over time? Has it turned into a fulltime living yet?

In 2017, I probably did about half and half with the courses, in terms of time with the courses and the client work. The courses contributed a decent amount of revenue, but it wasn’t enough to pay the bills.

And then in 2018, I did more client work in the front end of the year and then slowly did less and less client work. I’m mostly working on the courses now. Right now I have five paid courses and two free courses. And last year, in 2018, the courses made around about $80,000. You have to caveat that figure a little bit in that there’s a slight delay when I actually get paid that money, and obviously I have costs that come out of that.

This year I think I’ll move almost entirely over to the courses.

When you’re thinking about developing a new course, what goes into deciding about what that next course is going to be about?

I sorted of alluded to it earlier, when I said my first approach was ‘here’s everything to know about tool X.’ I was lucky it worked well because people wanted to learn about tool X, but I’ve come to realize that the best way to think about the next course idea is to find out the real-world problems that people are trying to solve, and find enough of those real-world problems to group around a subject and then take that subject and say, ok, let’s go create a course around X.

For example, the next course I’m working on is about how to automate your workflows in G-Suite. I could have called it ‘how to learn Apps Script,’ this coding language, but I’m trying to go more from the angle of how to automate and solve your business problems. There’s a subtle difference that becomes a more powerful proposition to people, because it’s not saying, ‘hey, come learn this for personal development,’ it’s saying, ‘hey, let’s learn this so we can be better at our jobs and make our business more efficient.’

You mentioned that you had two free courses. If you were already having success with the paid courses, why bother with the free courses?

I needed to keep growing my list so I can continue marketing and scaling the business. The ebook I mentioned was doing pretty well, but it wasn’t blowing up. And I’d seen a Javascript instructor create a free 30-day challenge course that had gone viral in the course world. It had a few hundred thousand people sign up for it. It was so impressive and inspiring that I thought that maybe a free course would be a good idea.

I launched on in December of 2017, and that’s had 7,500 people sign up now. And the one I launched in December 2018, just about three weeks ago, that’s had 3,000 people sign up. And so they’ve really helped grow the list and grow the audience. And a percentage of them will hopefully convert to paying customers down the line.

What’s your blogging like now? How often are you blogging? How has it evolved over the last few years?

I still focus on the longer, very in-depth tutorial style articles. It’s almost like how I build a course, but in text format. So I still take that approach mostly, and I write some other posts, like year-end reviews and the occasional little essay or news piece, but not too frequently.

In terms of frequency, I still probably post maybe three times a month. I’d like to do a bit more, but it’s hard to find the time to do. I definitely focus on quality over quantity, though. There’s a website called Backlinker.com that I followed for a number of years, an SEO blog. He writes very long posts, and I think he’s only published like 30 or 40 over the last three years ago, but he still has phenomenal traffic. So I kind of have the view that you can take the model of posting every single day, or you can have great success with these very long, very in-depth articles.

You mentioned that part of the motivation around this was to have passive income. How much do you feel like you could take a step back from it? How much are you working a typical 9 to 5 schedule?

It’s definitely not a finely-tuned machine at the moment. I’m still working hard. One of the focuses this year includes learning things like marketing funnels.

But actually, my intention is not to create a passive income I could walk way from. I actually really enjoy the teaching and the research and the discovery. I don’t really see myself trying to create a job that I can walk away from and relax. I enjoy what I do every day, and so the motivation is to build this, to scale this, and to keep helping people, and keep learning things myself.

You blog about a very narrow niche. Is that the kind of thing that you think does well with online courses? Is that part of the reason why you succeeded?

I think that when I niched down on Google Sheets and the G-Suite platform is when things really took off with the web traffic. These tools are so specialized, and if you’re an organization that uses tool X, you’re not going to be interested in someone who writes about tool Y as well, because you’ll go find an expert on tool Y if you’re really interested in that.

So I think focusing on a narrow niche is a good idea. That being said, you don’t want to pigeonhole yourself into not being able to break out and cover something more interesting if you want to. If you become established in a niche, you can broaden out your content and still see a lot of success, as opposed to the other way around, where if you start out too broad, you might find it hard to gain traction.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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