Everything you wanted to know about creating a $300k+ online course

UPDATE: launching this course started out a side project, but turned into a source of full-time income. There’s a part one and I’ve recently launched another course.

In part one I covered how I built my freelancing course, Creative Class. I talked about software, my online course setup and what was involved in creating it. It made $100k+ in the first 6 months. Then it did a LOT better…

Now, with over 2,200 students, it’s grossed $400k in 18 months. It’s incurred $25,806 in expenses and has taken hundreds of hours of work.

As I mentioned in part one, this is just how I created and sold my online course, not how anyone else should do things.

Mostly what I want to stress is that you can do this. Prior to creating courses, I didn’t know how to create a course. But I worked at it, tested things, and measured what worked. It’s not rocket science (which doesn’t technically exist—it’s aerospace engineering), it’s just starting small, launching quickly and iterating.

If I can do it, so can you.

Multiple launches

As my friend Nathan Barry says, “You’ve got to keep launching.” That means for any product you’ve made, especially if it’s evergreen (meaning it’s always available), you’ve got to find ways to launch it as often as possible.

Since Creative Class is evergreen, I’ve had to brainstorm and experiment with various ways to launch it. And luckily, with each new launch, it’s done even better. Here are the 5 best “launches” I’ve had so far:

1. Releasing a free email course that relates to the paid course

I created 7 new lessons for my course that were delivered by an email automation sequence in MailChimp. I spent as much time writing and tweaking them as I did for the paid ones. This was important because even though it was free, I wanted the value and quality to be as high as the paid product.

At the end of the email sequence, the full course is pitched. I’ve sent over 118k emails with this automation sequence. The release of the email course generated $35,825 in the month it was released (Feb 2015).

2. Launching a community

I wanted to launch a community (a Slack channel + monthly live, online hangout) for the course at the start, but I put it off in favour of launching a minimum viable product (MVP) first. I’m glad I did that because when I was ready to focus on the community for the course, I already had a critical mass of students ready to participate.

The community costs an extra $90/year but I offered existing students (~800 at the time) free access. This helped populate the Slack channel on day one with hundreds of eager freelancers. That way when new people paid to get access, they weren’t just talking to themselves.

What I’ve found is that people come for the course and stick around for the community.

The Slack channel is my personal favourite part of my course, because I get to see students interacting with each other, hiring each other, and solving problems with each other — based on the teachings from the lessons. The live monthly calls also give me a chance to answer questions from students and chat with an expert in a specific topic on the call.

The month I launched the community (May 2015), the course generated $38,892, which is my best revenue month to date.

3. Relaunching the site

When I told the people that I was redesigning and reprogramming my course, they all thought I was crazy because it looked pretty good and worked perfectly. But as a designer/programmer, I wasn’t happy because the brand was no longer consistent (it had grown with many more moving parts) and the code-base wasn’t as good as it could be (it worked, but it was hard to scale and adapt).

I spent a month redesigning every single screen, interaction, email and file. I spent another 2 weeks rewriting, editing and working with my editor on every piece of content in the course. I spent yet another 2 weeks reprogramming a new WordPress theme from scratch for the course, one that could be more easily updated and added to.

The focus of the redesign was simplicity. If it was “pretty simple” for version 1, I wanted version 2 to be “ridiculously simple”. So I took out elements that were just there to look nice and I tried my best to balance space with what would fit on any given screen.

The site relaunch (July 2015) brought in $34,532.

I also starting using the plugin I co-created, WPComplete, to let students mark lessons as read.

4. Removing evergreen discounts

Although I’m happy that the course itself is evergreen, I also had evergreen discounts for the course (in my mailing list, through other promotional outlets, on social, etc). My friend Kathleen Edwards made me realize how silly that was, since it removed any urgency to buy (pro tip: surround yourself with smarter-than-you friends).

So, when I redesigned the website, the sales pitch included the fact that any/all evergreen coupon codes would disappear in a week. This strategy also helped with the $34,532 number for July.

5. Releasing a podcast

I decided that I since already have, use and know my podcasting equipment, it wouldn’t be that much extra work to add a podcast about freelancing to the course. I decided on a short (~10 minutes per episode) weekly podcast that’s just me talking. That way I don’t have to worry about guests or scheduling or editing — I can just record, tweak the audio and release.

The podcast, The Freelancer, launched in September 2015 and went to #1 on Product Hunt on the day it came out (a Sunday, so the competition on PH wasn’t as high as a weekday). It got into iTunes coveted “New + Noteworthy” and hit the top 5 in business podcasts. It’s currently averaging 2,500 listens per episode and about as many unique downloads.

I released a $100 discount with the launch of the podcast, which generated $23,508 (Sept 2015).

For more details on starting a podcast, I wrote a whole article about it here.

Here’s where a lot of other online product makers go wrong: they spend months creating something, write one email and a social media status update, then ultimately can the product because it wasn’t a successful launch.

What I’ve found, when you stick with getting what you’ve made in front of the right people in as many ways as you can think up, is that your best revenue months could be ahead of you — months or years after launch. Sometimes things require a bit of traction and work to get off the ground.

Small things matter

After my course launched and started to do well I realized that the momentum wouldn’t stick unless I kept working on it. So I reached out to a lot of folks with much larger courses and audiences than mine to figure out what they were doing.

What I learned from these conversations is that:

1. Making something “as great as it can possibly be” means that your work is never done

This is why I redesigned, rewrote and reprogrammed Creative Class from scratch. This is why every month I reach out to random students to see how they’ve used the lessons, what they think of the course and what could be improved upon. This is why I spent weeks on 3 onboarding emails.

Making the course as great possible also means making it as great as possible for me, the creator and guy who keeps it running. This is also why I sign-up for the course myself every few months to re-evaluate the onboarding process. I want to make sure it’s both great for the new student but also that it covers everything it needs to.

If I was constantly getting emails with technical questions or support, charging a few hundred dollars per student wouldn’t be worth it. I don’t remember the last tech support email I received from students, probably because I’ve spent so much time iterating on, testing, and fixing the onboarding process and lesson flow.

I also added small touches, like making all the metadata in the audio lessons match up, so if a student added them to iTunes, they’d appear on an album (with Creative Class album art).

2. Quality partnerships matter

It’s not just a matter of getting lots of people to sign-up as affiliates to your course. I’ve had affiliate programs for other products I’ve sold and it’s generated close to zero dollars for both parties. What’s more important is the quality of those partnerships and also how your course fits with their audience.

The best partnerships I’ve had so far have been ones where the work went beyond generating an affiliate link. They’ve shown the relationship between myself and them, they’ve illustrated why they trust my course and why they think it’d benefit the audience they’re in contact with. They’re also specific in tailoring the pitch to the needs of their audience.

3. Success stories need to be illustrated

The final piece of the puzzle that I learned from people with massively successful courses is that they’ve made their pitch heavily about the stories of people who took their courses and saw benefits or successes. It’s a much easier sell when potential students can read about other students who used the material, applied it to themselves and gained something.

Luckily, from day one, I have several points after purchase where I find out from students what they’ve learned, what they’ve applied and how they’ve benefited. So from there I’ve been able to have my editor interview and write some amazing success stories of my own students, like this one and this one.

My brief foray into ads/remarketing

I’ve seen a lot of other people have success with paid ads, so I figured even though I feel pretty negatively about them, I needed to give them a shot (if only to validate my feelings about them).

I hired 2 experts, spent $3,000 over two months on Google ads and remarketing and made a total of $400 in revenue from them.

While I can’t know exactly why it failed so badly, my guess is that my course (and brand in general) is like cilantro. At your core, you either love what I do or hate it. And, like cilantro, my course isn’t for the masses. It’s for a very specific type of freelancer with a very specific palette. I talk about unicorns and pirates. My sales video shows my hand/foot tattoos (and I’m never wearing socks or shoes in it).

Pirates! Tattoos! Oh My!

Screw ads, back to what I know

It didn’t take long to realize that ads weren’t right for my course. Plus, I never felt great about running them. So I turned instead to what I know best: content marketing.

The problem was that I didn’t have time to write an extra article a week for my course (since I already write an article a week for my own mailing list). So instead, I decided to pay writers whose work I loved, to write articles for me. I post them every Monday on the site.

This keeps my brand and course on my audience’s radar (since 10,000+ folks have signed up for the mailing list for these) and generates a few sales a week. This mailing list is also great to announce new features and launches too because it’s full of freelancers who are interested (otherwise they’d have unsubscribed) but haven’t pulled the trigger on the paid course.

I freakin’ love content marketing. I get to pay freelancers that I admire to write articles for me, and those articles generate eyeballs and revenue for me. It’s a win-win.

What went horribly wrong

Making a mistake with a customer’s money (like taking it without asking), is a worst-case scenario for any digital product maker. And that’s exactly what happened to almost 2 dozen students of my course one day in August 2015.

The service I use for charging credit cards decided to charge the course price ($300 total) as a monthly fee (i.e. $300/month). I couldn’t turn it off, I couldn’t stop it from charging students another $300, all I could do was wait for the service provider of that system to fix the problem.

Even though it was a software glitch in a piece of software from a service provider that I have no stake in (other than being their customer), as the person who made and sells the course — it was entirely my fault. It doesn’t matter if their system messed up, I’m the person facing the customers, so I own the mistake. This didn’t bother me, because if I do something wrong, I’m happy to own it. It was just frustrating that internally it wasn’t my fault, but I nevertheless had to take credit for the problems my customers faced.

My reputation is all I’ve got. More important than my bank account statements, Twitter followers or mailing list numbers — my reputation for the work I put out into the world is the most important thing to me.

This is why I apologized to customers, even ones that hadn’t noticed the extra charge yet. I acted as quickly as I could and why I upgraded their accounts for free. I like my reputation and I’ll do whatever it takes to keep it. In the end, the type of business I want to have and be known for is one that values trust and openness over profits. It’s the main reason why I work for myself and not a big company (because I get to control it).

To summarize

Creating a stream of passive income is a whole lot of constant workI’m always required to figure out new ways to launch the same course to new people.

The main takeaways:

  1. To continue making money with a product, you’ve got to keep launching it.
  2. Making something as great as possible means your work is never finished.
  3. Finding and fostering good partnerships is important to making sales through other people and their audiences.
  4. Illustrating your customers’ success from using your product goes a long way to building trust and generating sales.
  5. Sometimes you have to experiment and fail with how you promote your product(s).
  6. Mistakes happen. It’s not as much about what went wrong, but how you fix it.

While I continue to learn much about making products and online courses, the advice I give to folks who are thinking about making their own course hasn’t changed:

Start small, launch quickly and iterate based on what you’re seeing or hearing from your customers.