May 13, 2020
Six months ago, I had an idea for an online course. Today, I've made over $7,000 teaching online.
Here's what worked.
I've been writing online since 2014. I would condense and simplify pieces of information I learned into helpful articles. At the time, I wrote for myself––I needed to keep my skills sharp.
I repurposed the knowledge I was paid to learn at work into content for others. After five years of writing online, I hadn't made a single dollar. All of the content I produced was free. I saw other creators making millions teaching online. Why couldn't I do the same?
I realized I hadn't been giving away my content for free. I was building an audience and establishing credibility.
Writing online is difficult. Clearly explaining technical content is twice as hard. You have to understand the subject deep enough that you can explain it at an entry-level. Many fail at this.
Over the past six years, I created my niche with front-end web development. I started a small newsletter where I'd share my latest writing with my audience. I'd distribute my content to social media. Occasionally, a post would go viral on Reddit or Hacker News.
Slowly, I became credible in my niche. My tutorials and blog posts helped others learn. I established myself as an "expert". I say expert, but you can do this.
Most people spend the majority of their time online consuming instead of creating. Be a creator. I focused on writing about topics I found interesting. Along the way, I built an audience.
When I learned something new, I would share it––with my newsletter, on Twitter, everywhere. I gave value to my audience. The content I created for myself was now a reference for others.
Over time, this grew into a hub of inbound traffic to my website. Today, over 80% of my traffic comes from organic Google Searches.
Without an audience, you cannot sell a product. Be helpful on the internet and you will create an audience.
At the beginning of 2019, I became obsessed with a specific technology called Next.js. It allowed me to create websites faster. I rebuilt my website using it and documented the process along the way. I continued to write about Next.js that year. In September, I realized I'd found my niche.
It's impossible to measure your success if you can't track it. Whatever your metric is (post views, number of likes), you need a baseline to improve.
I use Google Analytics and Search Console to monitor the performance of my site. I'm able to see which articles perform best and how people find my site. To my surprise, almost all of my highest ranked articles were about Next.js. I'd found my market.
Creating demand is hard. Filling demand is much easier. Don’t create a product, then seek someone to sell it to. Find a market—define your customers—then find or develop a product for them.
The idea of creating an online course seemed daunting. It would take six months, at least. Based on my analytics, people were interested––but would they buy it?
After researching teaching online and marketing, I had a eureka moment. To figure out if people would buy the course, I would launch it. Now. Why should I treat this course any different than a software product? With software, you can start small and rapidly iterate over time. I applied the same methodology to the course.
First, I defined the content. I created an outline for the course I wish I had when starting to learn Next.js. Working backward, I made a list of 15-20 main concepts to cover. Then, I created a website to market the course and allow people to pre-order. The main benefit of your course should be explainable in one sentence or phrase. How is it different, and why should I buy it?
On November 3rd, I launched the course.
I placed a small bet––only 15-20% of the content was finished. If this launch failed and no one bought the course, I'd cut my losses and walk away. Instead of wasting the next six months, I wanted validation now people would pay for this.
I intentionally priced the course high at $199, with a launch price of $99. With ten pre-orders, I'd have $1,000 of revenue. No cards were charged––I wasn't stealing their money. I was validating my idea and confirming I had a market. With no idea how long it would take to create the course, I set a launch date of April 2020.
Two days after the launch, I had my first sale. It was breathtaking. Someone on the internet spent $100 on a digital asset I created. I couldn't believe it.
The next day, another sale. And another the day after. In the first week, I made seven sales for $700 in profit. I was motivated to continue working.
You'll need to make two platform choices: how to accept payments and where to host content. For payments, I'd recommend Gumroad, Paddle, or Stripe. Depending on your volume of sales, there are different processing fees. This article goes more in-depth about how fees compare across platforms.
The second decision is where to host your content. For e-books or a small number of videos, I'd recommend Gumroad. If you have a large video course, YouTube (with private videos) worked well for me. Another option is a fully-managed online course platform like Teachable.
Writing online was effective at growing my site, so I took the same approach for the course. I wrote three articles to attract inbound traffic from social media and search engines. I released a 26-minute introduction video on YouTube. Not only did this promote the course, but it further established my credibility. The video has over 2,500 views, almost all from organic searches.
Providing value by giving is the fastest way to grow. If your audience has learned from you, they'll want more. Only after you've provided value can you sell a product. To give back, I ran a Twitter giveaway for the course. Initially, I planned for five winners. The response was so overwhelming that I ended up giving away ten instead.
I spent $0 and reached 7,331 potential customers. Here's the full statistics on that tweet.
My first attempt at advertising was through Google Ads. Again, I started with a small bet of $5/day. The initial results were promising.
Comparing impressions against Twitter shows how valuable of an asset it can be. I continued advertising with Google, increasing the daily spend to $20/day for another week. Here are the final numbers.
I also tried Reddit. I iterated over a few ads with this approach.
I'd optimize each ad by targeting specific subreddits. For example, /r/reactjs had twice the click-through rate for the same cost-per-click.
Even though I was new to advertising, it played a critical role in growing the course. Now, I needed to launch.
For months, I worked closely with early customers to get feedback on the course. Feeling confident, I soft-launched with 95% of the content finished.
After a week with no issues, it was time for the real launch. I posted to Product Hunt, Reddit, Indie Hackers, and everywhere else I could. By the time I had launched, I had $2,000 in pre-orders.
Ten days later, I broke $3,000.
When I started the course, my original goal was $5,000 in total. I thought that seemed aggressive. In retrospect, I aimed too low. Never underestimate the power of teaching online.
Since launching in February 2020, I've surpassed $7,000 in revenue. I'm averaging ~$1,500/month, putting me on track to make $18,000 this year.
There's never been a better time to become a creator. Blog posts, YouTube videos, courses, podcasts, streaming––if you have something others find value in, share it. Publish that article. Make that video.
Stop waiting for a once in a lifetime idea and start teaching others online today. The opportunity outweighs your fears. Even if your audience is small, teaching others will improve your understanding of the subject.
My story isn't unique. Here are some other creators that inspired me.
Never underestimate the power of teaching online. I hope this helps and I'm happy to answer any questions for others wanting to teach online.