Online Course Case Study: the $10,000 Launch

by Tomi Mester in Online Courses
published or updated:
revenue of my online course launches from the last 1.5 years

I’ve been working on my 6-week online course for 2 years. And my latest launch reached the $10,000 dream target in revenue. (Note: this article was originally published in July, 2019.)

In this article, I’ll share everything that I’ve done in the last few years — everything — to give you ideas and inspiration for creating your own online courses.

Disclaimer

For some people, $10,000 sounds like a lot. For others it’s nothing.

In either case: I don’t write this article to impress anybody. Or to brag. Because there’s nothing to brag about with this result. I mean, it feels good, but it’s not extraordinary. And that’s the point: this is not an extraordinary story. This is something that anyone could do.

Nonetheless, I see many talented entrepreneurs giving up before they ever publish their first online course. Or struggling when their first launch didn’t work out as it was supposed to…

Dear (Aspiring) Course Creator! I wrote this article for you. To give you ideas. To show you what worked for me. And most importantly to boost your motivation.

This is real

As I said, this is a case study of a real project.

My website is called Data36.com and it features data science articles and tutorials for beginners. The course in question is The Junior Data Scientist’s First Month 6-week online course.

data36.com and the JDS course

But let’s get back to the time when I didn’t have either of them.

Starting from scratch

0 readers, 0 online courses, 0 revenue

When you start an online business, you have an empty paper in front of you. You can put anything on it that you want. And that’s intimidating. Drawing the first line is always the hardest.

For me, the first step was to start my blog.

In 2016, I set my WordPress website up and started to write articles. I’d been working as a data scientist for 5+ years then. So I had a lot of insights, many good stories, and tons of best practices… And I was eager to share them. At that time, the blog was a hobby project for me and nothing more. I wasn’t selling anything. My focus was on writing useful, long-form tutorials every week — and on getting visitors to read them. Just for fun.

Note: Here’s a more detailed article about How my tech blog went from 0 to 20,000 monthly readers within 18 months.

That turned out to be the foundation of everything I do now:

  1. First of all the blog slowly became my #1 marketing channel. More and more people read it and Google started to index it. In 1.5 years, I reached the 20,000-monthly-unique-visitor milestone. As I write this article (the blog is ~3 years old now) this number is above 100,000.
  2. The blog gave me important insights, too. I started to understand what interests readers and what doesn’t. What they need and what they don’t. How my learning materials can be unique compared to others’. How to entertain and educate at the same time… And many more things.
my blog traffic (September, 2016 — July, 2019)

I was slow, I know. I put 1.5 years into creating free materials (in my free time, next to my full-time job) without creating any paid materials. But I never regretted not going faster in the beginning. The return on my investment wasn’t money. It was insights and experience — which were much better than money.

Okay, so I should create an online course…

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In September 2017, I quit my full-time job. It was for multiple reasons but I was generally excited about it because with that I had the time to go all-in for my blog, Data36.com. Monetizing the blog wasn’t a must — I could have made a living from freelancing projects and live workshops, too. But creating online courses sounded more exciting to me. (By the way, in the beginning, I covered all my expenses with these side-gigs.)

Next question was: what should my course be about?

There wasn’t an easy answer. Data science education (especially the online version) is a very crowded market. And there were quite a few great competitors already.

To give my course a good chance, I had to make it unique. More specifically, I had to solve a unique problem for people that other data science courses don’t. So I went into research mode. My most useful resources were these three:

  • Feedback from my blog readers. After all, I had thousands of them every month. I didn’t survey them, though. I looked at their data instead: Which articles were the most successful on the blog? Which emails brought the best click-through rates? What topics made readers excited?
  • I brainstormed with more experienced course creators. I looked around in my network and I reached out to professionals who were already doing the same thing that I intended to do. You would be surprised: the course-creator community is very supportive and helpful. A few Skype sessions and coffee meetings later, I had tons of great ideas in my notebook.
  • I looked at the negative feedback of similar online courses. I wanted to learn what students miss from other courses. So I took popular online data science programs and I went into the negative feedback sections. And there I found exactly what I was looking for…

The concept of the course

Here’s what I learned from my research.

If I wanted to create something unique that people really need, my course should be:

  • 100% hands-on and help participants to practice data science
  • true-to-life and feature real-life data science problems
  • a longer (1- or 2-month), more in-depth program
  • I should offer personal help, too (e.g. 1-on-1 Skype sessions and email/chat support)

(Note: Obviously, what I’m writing here works in my niche, for my audience, in my unique business case. For your own course, I highly recommend doing your own research to get great results!)

And that is how The Junior Data Scientist’s First Month 4-week online course was born. As the name suggests, I took my real-life work experience and created a course that leads students through the exact same problems that junior data scientists encounter when they start at their first company.

the landing page of the JDS course

It was a real aha moment and I fell in love with that concept. (Nothing shows that better than that my initial research took weeks — but when the idea was finally born, I drafted the whole curriculum in one — very intense — day.)

Another important aspect of my online course was that I didn’t want people to enroll in it every day. I wanted to create study groups so participants could move on together, learn together and even help each other. Thus I always open registration only for a short period of time and only 3 or 4 times per year. After registration ends, the course begins and students get the learning materials in drip format for the next few weeks.

I knew that this would mean that I’d give up on some revenue because those who missed the registration periods probably wouldn’t want to wait 2–3 months until the next class launched. Still, I felt that this was the best for the course, for me, and for the students.

Later, I found out that this is an actual online course marketing strategy that’s called the “launch strategy.” Online course gurus claim that it converts much better than the so-called “evergreen strategy” (when one can start the course anytime she wants).

Note: If interested, go and google “evergreen vs launch.”

The first launch and building the course content

Before my first launch, I had ~1,000 subscribers on my newsletter list. So I emailed them to tell them I was creating a new course. (Here’s the full email.) And I asked them to reply if they wanted to sign up.

Got it? I didn’t even have a sales page or a proper registration form!

Also, I hadn’t recorded any videos yet. I wanted to invest more time only if I saw positive responses. It’s important that I was really straightforward about that in the email… I said that this was a test version, and I even wrote: “it’s good if you know that most of the videos will be recorded only during the course, so they might not be studio quality yet.”

In exchange I offered a very discounted $60 price.

Well, one thing’s for sure: I’m not a good salesperson…

Regardless: people replied! In less than 4 hours, I got 10 sign-ups. I sent them a payment form and that was it. My first ever test launch was sold out in 4 hours… I made $600 — and even if that sounds like a very small amount — I can tell you that I was just as excited about it (if not more) as I was about the $10,000 revenue 1.5 years later.

My first 10 students pre-paid me. So it was my turn: now I was liable to deliver a great course! And that liability turned out to be a great motivation booster…

I won’t lie: that November was super tough. It was very intensive work 24/7. Creating new tasks, recording solution videos (and re-recording them when I accidentally muted my mic), editing, publishing… Every single day for 4 weeks. I barely saw my wife — and not at all the rest of my family and friends. I slept ~5 hours a day on average.

class curriculum

But it was worth it. Students were happy, and by the end of November, I was proudly done with my first ever 4-week online course.

Except that I wasn’t done at all. It was just the beginning, and it took a long journey to move that $600 per-launch-income to $10,000…

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Polishing the content

After the first test-launch, I launched the course 3 more times to gather more feedback. Remember? I had 1-on-1 Skype sessions with participants. And I listened.

Based on what they said, I tweaked the course into an even more comprehensive 6-week version and I also added a final test task.

Sounds easy…

But it wasn’t painless at all. Because these changes required me to re-record all my videos one more time. Creating tasks, recording videos, editing, publishing. 18-hour workdays again. There went May and June 2018.

But I was really happy with the outcome. I fixed all the issues and I recorded and edited the videos with much higher production quality. (I reinvested my previous income into studio equipment and I also hired a freelance video editor to help me.)

After 6–7 months of hard work, I was finally satisfied, even more, proud of the data science course I built.

But still not done.

Next challenge: let my audience know about my course.

Marketing

I wasn’t a big fan of marketing. But I had to admit that it’s inevitable for any online business. If you have a great product that helps people, it’s your responsibility to let them know. So I invested more and more into building my marketing processes (and my marketing knowledge).

As I said, the foundation was there already. I was lucky to have monthly 20,000 (later 40,000 and 100,000) readers on my blog.

But I was lacking in two things that I had to fix as soon as possible:

  1. a waitlist subscription form (and an automated email drip for subscribers)
  2. a good sales page

I ticked #1 off first. It was easy and an immediate conversion jump. When I didn’t have registration weeks (most parts of the year), I added a waitlist subscription form to the course landing page, so people could subscribe and get notified when the next registration week was approaching. Good! I also wanted to keep them in the loop, so I set up a 12-week long email drip, with exclusive content in it. It’s a mix of educational and motivational emails. It’s good because I can give subscribers practical tips on how they can get prepared for the course. And they can get a taste of my teaching style.

screenshot of the waitlist subscription form

#2 was harder. Writing a good sales page is extremely difficult. I didn’t know anything about it, so my first step was learning. I took a sales copy course and I read a few books, too. And slowly but steadily I found out a thing or two. I won’t go into too much detail but here’s my top take-away. You are not the one who writes your sales page. Your students write it. Remember that I mentioned that I had Skype 1-on-1s with almost all my participants? That became handy. I made notes and listed all the patterns: common questions, misunderstandings, doubts, and issues my students had. And when I rewrote my sales page, I addressed all these things on it.

And that literally doubled my conversion rate!

Note: I’m a data scientist, so I wanted to do this properly. I ran an A/B test to compare my old and new sales pages. Here’s the old version and here’s the new (and current) one. And here are the results of the A/B test. I doubled the conversion rate with a 99%+ significance rate.

Was it worth learning a little bit of marketing and sales copywriting? Most definitely.

Pricing

Pricing. Uhh. One of the trickiest things for any online businesses. It’s especially difficult for online courses. Because who would ever buy a $97 (or a $497 or a $1997) course if there are tons of competitors on Udemy for $5?

Guess what: people who want great stuff.

Don’t get this wrong, this is not about Udemy. (In fact, I’ve even bought a few great courses from them.) But the truth is that most $5 courses cost $5 because they are worth $5 (or less).

Currently, I price my 6-week course at $497 and I honestly think that it’s worth at least that much. Luckily, it seems that the students who buy it agree with me.

This requires self-esteem and being aware of the real value that you offer. (And a great course, obviously.) That didn’t come naturally for me. When I launched my course, I sold it for $60 and I was worried that I overpriced it. Luckily, it sold out fast. So I felt that I could raise the price. For the next class, I priced it at $80. As I got more and more very positive feedback (and I literally had zero refund requests), I raised my price step by step:

  • $60
  • $80
  • $100
  • €100 (what was I thinking changing from $ to €??)
  • €200
  • $250 (luckily, changed back from € to $!)
  • $347
  • $497

My online course mastermind group still says that it’s underpriced. But I’m not planning to raise the price any more. Might be a bad decision but it’s mine: for me it’s okay to slightly underprice my course — because it feels good to overdeliver compared to the investment (from an individual student’s perspective).

So 10k, huh?

Yes, this is where I’m at right now. All these things together built up into my most successful launch so far. Which brought 23 students for a $497 price. (You do the math.)

But I have to say:

Earning $10,000 is not just about earning $10,000. It sounds strange but it’s very emotional, too. It feels like my hard work is starting to pay off. I’m honestly flattered by all the students who trusted me by buying and enrolling into my course. (And I hope that they will profit multiples of what they have invested. In fact, I know that a few of them have already been hired as junior data scientists, which is the best feedback of all.)

Also, $10,000 is opportunity. It gives me the ability to re-invest that money and create even-higher-quality learning materials, a better and more user-friendly website, more articles and so on…

The next few things that I’ll do in 2019:

  • creating a vault and adding a few bonus videos to the course (e.g. recording conversations with alumni students who are working as data scientists now and ask them about their path to getting their first job)
  • creating free cheat sheets and other learning materials for everyone who reads the blog
  • creating another flagship product (another 6-week online course — I’ve done the research for it already. It’s going to be super exciting!)

<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>

FAQ #1: The tools I use to create online courses

The #1 most frequently asked question I get regarding this article is that which tools I use for my online courses. So I put together a list here.

Conclusion

So that was it. As I said in the intro section, this is nothing extraordinary and you can get similar and even better results! It will take time and a lot of hard work. But it’s definitely an exciting and fulfilling ride. So go ahead and take it!

If you liked this article and want to read more like this, join my newsletter list. I’ll notify you when I publish something new.

Cheers,
Tomi Mester