Everything I ever learned about creating online courses. Part 1: Product Development

by Tomi Mester in Online Courses
published or updated:

In this article I’ll share some of my best practices for creating online courses. This time I’ll focus on the product development side. Of course if you want to sell courses, you’ll need to learn marketing as well, but I’ll just cover development here.

Disclaimer: I’m not an “online course guru.” (Who is, anyway?) I can’t tell you everything you wanted to know about all the online courses.

My experiences are unique to my field and my niche. I can only share what I learned and I acknowledge that there are many ways to approach this topic. I’ve been doing online courses since 2016, I’m part of online course related mastermind groups, and so on. I’ve learned a lot during the years… But I can’t give you a universal recipe. Just so you know. 😉

Content

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Let’s start with the why. Why should you create online courses?

Because of yourself

This way you can have an online product and break out from selling your time. You’ll sell your knowledge instead. The main advantage with this way is that you can partly automate and scale your income while doing what you love. (Of course, this applies only if you have a profession that you love and you also like teaching.) This way you can be location independent, you don’t need to deal with deliveries, and your maintenance costs are basically your cost of living.

Because of your students

They get more flexible and higher-quality education. They can attend anytime, anywhere. It doesn’t matter where they live or they only have time between 10pm and 12pm. If they don’t get it at first, they can replay what you said and they can ask questions on Skype or email without interfering with the dynamics of the class. And because it’s something you prepared, recorded and edited, the quality can’t be ruined by unexpected things (like you get sick, the sound system breaks, etc.) If you do your job well, it’s guaranteed that your students get the best of you.

Because of the world

I truly believe that for a better world we need a better way of distributing knowledge. Digital education is a new opportunity to reach more people more effectively with better quality education. I don’t believe digital education will replace classrooms. Mentors, good teachers, and inspiring educators will be needed till the end of time. But if classroom and online education can cooperate well, we can bring education to a higher level, globally.

What are the most important criteria that make you eligible for creating online courses?

Ideally you meet two criteria.

  1. You are a great teacher
  2. You are an expert on the topic

Without these two it’s very difficult, but of course you can develop both if you don’t start out that way.

Being a good teacher is more of a soft skill and a personality trait. It’s possible to practice and develop the skill of teaching.. However, there are people who are great teachers by default and others who might not ever get there. And that’s fine. Do you like to explain things? Do people say that you are good at it? That’s a good start and probably you’ll be fine.

The second thing is being an expert. Being an expert means that you’ve spent years doing something. This part doesn’t depend as much on your personality. You can become an expert in anything over time. You just have to love the topic and you’ll naturally get better at it with time. After a few years, you’ll learn enough that you’ll be able to teach it to others who are in the same place you were a few years ago. Simple as that. The easier way to approach this is to create a course where you collect the things you wish someone would have told you before you started to learn your given topic.

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How to choose the main topic of your courses?

When you think of creating online courses, you don’t necessarily need to make courses about your day-to-day job. I know someone who is a coder but loves to learn languages, so he builds language courses rather than coding courses. And that makes a lot of sense!

If you are a marketer who loves to do crochet and macrame, maybe make courses on that. The point is that your topic is not necessarily what you do 8-10 hours a day.

Many people have lots of suggestions on this. The thing that worked for me is choosing a topic that I’m truly passionate about. If you aren’t passionate about anything, then focus on your inner work and try finding your thing before you start off with anything. This doesn’t need any research, you only have to look inside.

If you are not an expert in anything or you haven’t found your passion yet, then it’s not yet the right time for you to start making courses. In this case, start learning something and in the meantime, spend time developing your teaching skills. It’ll take a few years. I know this sounds devastating, since most online course gurus promise you quick bucks. It’s just not true that you can get rich quick this way. Regardless, if you start now, eventually you’ll get there.

What kind of product will you create? A hot dog or sushi type of course?

In my opinion there are two types of online courses, and it’s a decision that you have to make at the very beginning. It’s not that any version is better or worse as an online business. But they need a completely different mindset to be successful.

hotdog vs sushi type of online course
hotdog vs sushi type of online course?

The hot dog type of online course

Hot dogs are liked by many. If you go to the beach, there will be at least 2-3 hot dog stands. It’s cheap to make and doesn’t cost much to the customer. A stand sells ~300 hot dogs a day — or more.

To be profitable as a hot dog type of online business, you need lots of customers and you’ll have more competition. But it’ll be easier to create a product, too. In big cities, there are thousands of hot dog stands. They look the same, they sell the same and most of them are doing just fine.

The sushi type of online course

On the other side, there is sushi:

Sushi is a niche food. Quite a few people like it, but not as many as hot dogs. It’s also rather in the premium food category. There’s a story about this sushi restaurant in NYC which is only open for two hours a day. From 6-8 pm they can serve a limited number of people, they are wildly expensive, and there are miles-long lines in front before they open. Obviously they have many fewer customers, but they are unique because of their branding and positioning.

And the most important thing is this: anyone can make a hot dog in 30 seconds, but to be able to make great sushi, you have to study for years before even selling your first uramaki.

Of course the hot dog vs sushi question is a spectrum. Not every online course can be sushi. (Let’s take the example of cooking courses: the problem is that there are many cooking books and courses on the market for a low price or even for free already. The game is already set, so it’s very difficult to create something so unique that you can sell at a higher price point, as a premium cooking course. It’s not impossible, but it’s difficult.)

Offline vs. Online courses

Before creating online courses, I had taught offline for at least 3 years, so I can truly compare them. Even though I see the pros and the cons of classroom teaching, I have to admit that by now I’m fully convinced of the advantages of teaching online.

offline vs online courses
offline vs online courses

Still there are 3 things that are difficult to achieve online (not impossible though). So these are the things that classroom courses are still better for:

  1. Accountability. Many people go to classrooms because they can’t pause the video and navigate to another window just to get lost in Facebook. It holds them accountable. You are almost forced to learn once you are in a classroom.
  2. It’s really inspiring to have a teacher in front of you. The personal relationship and connection is often a dealmaker or dealbreaker, and having the chemistry with a teacher can improve your learning experience a lot.
  3. Anything that requires cooperation is very hard to do online. For instance, to develop presentation skills you need an audience.

Note: You can mix online and offline elements to use the advantages of both! One of my friends, for instance, teaches presentation theory online, but they practice in a classroom.

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Launch vs. evergreen?

I won’t tell you which is better, but I’ll tell you the differences.

The launch model means that your online course is not always open, students can’t join whenever they want. Registration is only open for a certain period of time (e.g. for 1 week). This way participants form a group and they’ll learn together. And you as the teacher can work with them more easily.

launch model
launch model on Data36 — you can enroll only a few times a year

Evergreen courses are always open, everybody can enroll whenever and go forward at their own pace.

Which one do you choose? It really depends on you and the topic of your course.

I personally prefer the launch model for a few reasons:

  • I can 100% focus on my courses and my course participants in given parts of the year. I launch my course 3 times a year. During the rest of the year I can work on other things.
  • It’s much easier to form a community and help people work together. Because they start together and go forward together, they’ll run into the same issues and questions.
  • It’s much more fun! I love the live elements of launches. Opening the registration, welcoming the course participants, opening the new lectures and so on. You need to be there, sure, but in an ideal case, you want to be there anyway because you love your job, right?
  • It’s better marketing. The fact that people can’t enroll anytime will help them to call the shot and decide whether they want to start with your course or not. In evergreen courses, they can procrastinate forever. But the FOMO effect kills procrastination and it’s a win-win situation.

Note: There is another technique, which is called “deadline funnel” — it’s a hybrid of the launch and evergreen model. I won’t go into detail here. It’s a more advanced technique, if you want to learn more about it, check out deadlinefunnel.com. (Affiliate link.)

What exactly is your course about?

Once you have picked the main topic of your online school (e.g. cooking, gardening, programming, data science, etc.) there are still way too many options to choose the specific topic of your first course. Will you go with a beginner or an advanced course? Which part will you talk about? E.g. in my field, data science, I had to decide whether I want to create my first course about SQL, Python, statistics, business or something else…

If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming that you are already an expert in your field and you have good teaching skills. And you are 100% sure that you want to create an online course. Great!

But how do you decide what exactly in your expertise is interesting enough to create a good online course about? What will people find valuable enough to pay for?

Here’s my recipe to figure it out!

It’s basically a research process that ensures that you won’t spend weeks or months on creating something that nobody wants. It also helps you to monetize your teaching efforts from the very beginning — while learning what parts of your knowledge are worth being put into a course and taught on scale.

This research process has four steps.

Step 1. Consulting

The first thing I would do if I started now is not offline courses nor online courses, but consulting. If you already have 3-4 clients with whom you work as a consultant right now, your best practice is to take notes on the questions that come up often, and also watch out for their wow and aha moments!

Note: If you want to create a course about your hobby, these “clients” could be friends, too, who you are not consulting with but simply help.

For example if you are an online marketing person and your friends always call you for WordPress advice, it might be smart to take notes about the most frequent questions you get and start to collect them for your first WordPress Course. People asking you shows that there is demand for the information. Also that they think you are the expert they can trust.

In these 1-on-1 situations, you can find out what people are curious about.

It’s even better if you can already charge for this — since it also shows that people are happy to pay for your knowledge.

Step 2. Live presentations

The second step is sort of scaling Step 1. Whatever you learned there, you’ll show it to more people.

At Step 2, whether you’ll go with an online webinar or a classroom presentation, try to find something that doesn’t require too much effort from you (no video recording, no editing, no copywriting), just a draft on slides that you can talk about. Again, you want feedback and don’t want to spend too much time with things that won’t pay off.

The beauty of a live presentation is that you can interact with your audience, get their facial expressions and their questions live, but there’s still not too much time invested.

You can test how your course works.

If you haven’t charged anything for consulting, at this point, it’s crucial to test whether people want to pay for what you offer. If people don’t pay for it, there is no point in putting the effort into developing an online course. (Except if you are okay creating things for free — which also has its beauty!)

Note: There could be many reasons behind people not paying for your live presentation. Maybe everything’s on Youtube for free already in that specific topic. Maybe there is no need for an expert at all, people can learn by themselves. Or maybe you failed in the messaging/marketing. Or you haven’t found the right audience. Whatever is wrong, it’s better to know at this step. Maybe you can fix it. Maybe you can’t. But being aware of it is definitely better than wasting your time for nothing.

Step 3. Online course pre-launch

Once:

  • you’ve validated that there are people interested in your topic,
  • you have done your research and have a good enough curriculum for your course,
  • people liked it when you did it live,
  • people paid for it when you did it live,

it’s time to start thinking about turning it into an online course.

Again, online courses require much, much more time than an offline course because of scripting, recording and editing.

Thus a great (and safe) strategy that I use all the time when creating a new course is that I actually sell the course before recording and publishing it.

It’s important that I’m always very transparent about it. I call it “beta version” or “early access version” and I usually offer a 50% discount to those who enroll. The relationship will be more personal, because I’m going to record it while teaching them and I react to the students’ needs much better. They know that it’s not the final 100% fine-tuned version. But that’s fine — it can be a win-win situation.

This is again a potential exit point: if no-one buys, it’s possible that it was a great presentation live, but it’s not working on video. It happens. It happened to me, too, several times. It can be a bit hard to accept, but in the end I was happy that I didn’t kill a bunch of time on recording, editing and fine-tuning a course that nobody would buy anyway.

Step 4. Optimize

Usually, I launch the course online 2-3 more times before publishing the final version. Even if it becomes an evergreen course after all, throughout the first year I still go with the launch model and open the registration for a limited period of time only, because this way I can have a group which gives me feedback after each lesson and course. I use the feedback to optimize the content, but also landing pages, marketing copies and everything. Sometimes I just need to re-record some parts or add some new elements, or edit a bit, but there is always something to optimize.

For instance, after around 18 months of testing online, I completely recreated my flagship course and I can tell you, it got much better. It was a lot of work, but it paid off, for sure.

From Step 1 (consulting) to Step 4 (a ready made online course), this process — for me at least — usually takes 1-2 years. So it’s definitely not a quick process.

Step 5. Scale

Now that you are sure your course is awesome, all the fine-tuning in marketing is done, you know who it is for and what’s the right wording to sell it, you can lie back and watch how it scales. How it brings in more happy students — and how it makes money for you. Whether you do the evergreen or the launch model, from this point there is much less effort needed from your side.

Note: I don’t believe that it can ever be fully passive income. But more about that in another post.

Pricing

One last question: how do you price your online course?

Time to get back to the hot dog vs. sushi metaphor. Let’s say you want to make $15,000 within a year (or even with one launch). It’s basic mathematics. If your product costs $5, you’ll have to make 3,000 sales. If it’s $50, you have to sell 300 and if it’s $500 you only need 30 people to buy it. I know this sounds basic, but so many people fail to do the math.

Remember, a sushi kind of online course — that’s unique and can be positioned as a premium course — can always be priced higher than a hot dog kind of course.

For instance, I have a $20 course on my blog that hasn’t sold 500 copies ever since I created it (I published it in 2018). Compared to that, I also have a $500 product, too — and every time I launch it more than 40 students enroll. Just do the math. For smaller creators, it’s easier to make a decent income with a higher-priced product with just a few participants than finding thousands of people to enroll.

Note: and to be honest, I enjoy working closely with 40-50 participants much more than trying to work closely with 400-500, which is close to impossible.

<promo> If you are looking for the best online course platform to publish your online courses, it’s Teachable. I’ve been using it since 2017 and I can only recommend it. Try it out here. (Disclaimer: these were affiliate links.) </promo>

Conclusion

This was my take on how to develop an online course. There are many more approaches out there, but as the title says, this is what I’ve learned about the topic. I hope you found interesting bits and pieces in there.

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Cheers,
Tomi