My learnings & mistakes as an online course creator

Kevon Cheung

When I started writing and creating online, I wasn’t even thinking about building online courses. The thought only came when I had to start monetizing what I had. And as a content creator, it was natural for me to structure my knowledge into a learning experience for people.

During the first 6 months of getting online, I made $0 intentionally. I wanted to build a presence and credibility first. Then it took me another 10 months to get to selling online courses at $1,000 per student.

How did all this happen? I’m writing down my journey so you, the new creator, can pave your own path.

Build in Public Mastery Cohort 3 Celebration
A community-led approach helps students take action and progress 10x better.

A note about online courses

I’ve seen too many people jump into creating courses because it seems like everyone is making a ton of money from them. So this is what I want to say first:

  1. If you don’t have an audience or network to bring in students, creating an online course won’t solve that. So if you’re new online, this shouldn’t be the first thing you do. You’re much better off writing high-quality tweets and articles first.
  2. A good online course should be relevant for a long time. And this means you have to figure out the topic (niche) you want to specialize in first. When people recognize that you’re a credible source of knowledge, that's the time you create online courses to scale.

Why did I start creating online courses?

My first 2 free projects online, Building in Public Definitive Guide and Making Twitter Friends, have been quite successful because they got me to go from a nobody to someone who is now recognized for the topic. I was lucky they both became the go-to resources for a niche topic and they keep bringing in new, interesting people to me.

Since then, lots of people have been asking me questions about how to start and what to do.

Kevon became one of the go-to for Build in Public
These screenshots were taken much later, but they showed an amazing circle forming around me.

And because I already have a group of like-minded people who were keen on Build in Public, my first thought actually went to creating a paid community to gather them. Courses didn’t even cross my mind.

But quickly I saw that putting people together didn’t help them understand what Build in Public was about. Most of them didn’t have a foundation. So my mind shifted to building a course to create a learning journey for them.

And 4 months later, I shut down the community because it required a lot of ongoing attention but the return from a $5/mo membership couldn’t justify the work I put into it. I could then be 100% focused on my course which I enjoyed much more.

The first scrappy course: 30DaysInPublic

I absolutely knew nothing about creating online courses, so I started studying how others did it. 30 days challenge was a trend well-received because it provided accountability and a learning curve in a short time frame. I took the idea and started running.

I had 25 paid community members at that point, so to test the idea, I went to all of them and asked if they would be my guinea pigs. It would be for free as part of the community benefits.

Most of them were enthusiastic about it, so I quickly set a start date in 10 days to push myself to come up with the curriculum. I started writing 15 email prompts that would go out every 2 days. The idea was to get them to write in an authentic way sharing their stories regularly - I imagined the writing would lead to internal development which would be the best way to start Building in Public.

30DaysInPublic as the first version of the course
One email every two days during the challenge.

And we also had 1 casual weekly live call to catch up on how things were going, challenges, learnings, etc. We were already a tight group because they were the founding members of the community. And this initial group was having a lot of fun writing and publishing their stories. We got on the calls to discuss and share our progress despite that it had no structure.

🔥 Takeaway: you need two things in the early days: an in-demand problem and a group of people that you’re close with to test it out.

Made $880 and $1870 in the next 2 cohorts

The 1st pilot cohort went great so I immediately started using the testimonials to promote the next one. I priced it at $40 and got 22 students, making me $880 for another 30 days.

I ran it again the next month and increased the price to $85 and got another 22 students. It resulted in $1,870.

Because I’m someone who cannot deliver a mediocre product or experience, so whenever I have an opportunity, I want to upgrade what I’m offering. I added 15 videos to the 15 emails and also upgraded the casual weekly calls to structured live workshops.

The product had a growing revenue line, but I knew something was off.

Students were dropping off from the 30 days challenge
Oops. Students didn't have the accountability to keep up!
  1. Students were dropping off in the middle of the 30 days. You can see from the table above that only half of the group got to keep up after 5 days. I also couldn’t feel their excitement about finishing the challenge, which meant that word of mouth would be limited.
  2. Some students never showed up: no writing, not at live workshops, nothing. And I wondered why they signed up.

I knew that the growing revenue was just a temporary spike based on demand, but if I didn’t do anything to level up the product experience, this 30 days challenge would fail very soon.

🔥 Takeaway: different topics require a different learning format. You can't just take what's working for other course creators and duplicate it.

Redesigning it to a cohort-based experience

My hypotheses were:

  1. The videos and emails didn’t map to a structured learning path. It was bits here and there.
  2. It was boring to just get a prompt in email and then write alone
  3. There was no accountability in the course design

So to tackle all these problems, it was time to redesign it to become a live cohort-based course with 1 weekly live workshop and 1 weekly feedback session for 4 weeks.

This was cohort 1 of Build in Public Mastery. But, of course, I didn't even come up with the new name at that time.

There would be no more emails or videos so students had to participate real-time if they wanted to learn. I imagined this would increase attendance, accountability, and progression. It was indeed an extreme shift going from an asynchronous format to a completely synchronous format.

Was it the right call? Let's see.

Students were already signing up at that point, but they came for the old version. When I hit 6 signups, I closed the door and asked all of them “Hey, I am redesigning the course and it will be a live experience. Are you still in? Happy to refund if this is not what you want.”

And no one dropped out. It was predicted because I was offering a lot more for the same price ($85). A live course like this would have been at least $300+.

Build in Public Mastery Cohort 1
Live calls are not just for learning. It is also for bonding and sharing.

The course went super well. I had 100% attendance. The students bonded, asked tons of questions, and learned from one another. The accountability and community touch worked out.

As I was sticking to $85, I made $510 from 6 students but the more important thing was - discovering a better way to teach Build in Public.

But, of course, there were still glitches I had to fix. I realized I had too many lectures in the live workshops so it was me talking 70% of the time. I didn’t like it. Deep down, I knew that live lectures or presentations were a waste of everyone's time. All live sessions should be interactive based on activities.

I also saw my own weakness in designing lessons and facilitating them online.

🔥 Takeaway: my early course format was half email and half live, it didn’t work. Instead of trying to do everything, it is better to stick to one structure

I leveled up myself and the course again

Knowing my own weaknesses, I joined Maven Course Accelerator Cohort 3 to step up my game. These weren’t skills that I could just figure out myself. And I was grateful I gained a ton of skills and confidence when I got to see how other experienced instructors and facilitators did it.

Maven Course Accelerator was a game-changer
If you're running courses online, you have to be part of the Maven community.

I knew how to design engaging lessons and I also acquired all the tricks and ways to create an encouraging and welcoming learning environment on live calls.

Me being me again, I went ahead to redesign the course based on these learnings. This was actually a bad move for creators because we should be creating more to enlarge our surface area online, not to keep refining one thing. But this is who I am.

I started by redefining what transformation I wanted the students to have, I mapped a new learning structure, I took out parts of the course and made them into videos, and finally I designed live workshops based on fun, breakout activities.

It was a once again a complete overhaul that took me a whole month to do.

With all these upgrades, I was finally confident enough to increase my price from $85 to $500. It was a big step up because I got to a point where I knew the course could transform students’ lives. Once they learn the mindset and ways to Build in Public, they can go on to build successful online businesses with their following. They can live the life they dream of.

I saw the happy faces in the cohort. I saw students go from lurkers online to confident entrepreneurs sharing their stories and opinions. I was told how some of them started getting opportunities by showing up on Twitter. After 6 months of tweaking the one live course I had, I reached a point where I was happy about where the product stood.

🔥 Takeaway: many people advise to charge more, my belief is to charge low to maximize early feedback. When the right time comes, charge based on the value you can provide.

A live course is an ongoing product

There was a lot of hype around building courses to make a ton of money. “I made $10,000 in 6 weeks selling this course” was everywhere.

For me, I never believed stories like that. I didn’t want a course that generated sales from its launch and then die down. I wanted a course I could run 3 times a year and the experience transformed students’ lives.

The next cohort was in Feb 2022. I decided to increase my price to $599 and also put up a $400 add-on to help students with auditing and crafting their Twitter presence along with strategy calls. It worked. A number of students wanted more 1:1 help on top of the course and chose this option.

A customized service added to Build in Public Mastery
As the value and experience of my course increase, I also have to increase the price to make it worthwhile.

This was the first time I started providing different learning experiences within the same course. Some came for the curriculum and live workshops. Some got more 1:1 help. I believed it was the right way to do it because everyone had different needs.

I also made some refinements to the live workshops, rethinking some of the mediocre activities and slow lessons. I have surveys for onboarding, every week, and offboarding. And this time on all the surveys, there was no feedback on how to improve the course content. Everyone was happy! This was huge.

On the final survey, I asked the famous net promoter score (NPS) question. Out of 13 students, I got 9 responses back: six 10s, one 9s, and two 8s. This blew my mind and reassured me that the hard work I put in refining this course for 10 months (from May 2021 to Feb 2022) was worth it.

I had some very interesting findings during this cohort:

  • Most students didn’t watch or read the asynchronous content I put on the learning platform. They only joined the live workshops. They were all “busy with other things” so had to prioritize. It was good that I made the video content and live workshops independent resources.
  • One student went through all the self-paced materials but couldn’t join the live workshops. He was happy to make progress himself. He didn’t have the urgency to take action and wanted to take a slow approach. This reconfirmed that everyone has a different way to learn.
  • “Come for content, stay for community” is true for live courses. While the curriculum is important, having the right people in the course is super important. I kept telling students that they weren’t here to just learn from me, a lot of the learnings could come from your peers.”
  • A lot of courses online got up to hundreds of students. I had 13 students in this cohort and was a good size to know everyone, bond, and cater to all of them. I believe under 25 students is a good size for anyone running online courses. We cannot compare ourselves to the super big names in the space who have a team to help out.
🔥 Takeaway: don't only offer 1 version of your course to everyone. Create branches to cater to each student's needs.

Next step: 2022 April onward

I spotted 3 areas to level up.

1. Instant access x 12-month journey

Big influencers have a huge audience to promote their courses to.

For creators like me that have a limited following or email list, it is important to reduce friction. My hypothesis is that when I only run the course 3 times a year, I’m missing out on a lot of students who want to learn now instead of waiting for the next cohort which can be 2 or 3 months away.

I also know that 3-week is a crash course type of timeframe. Students need time to practice and refine their work. I want to make it a worthwhile journey for them and 12 months is a good window.

I now let students join anytime and get instant access to asynchronous content and my help, then they can join the next live cohort (I run it 3 times a year) to learn with a group.

This way students can get more time and resources to practice what they learn. All this at the same price.

2. Writing relatable copy for the site

When I looked at my course website, I was quite embarrassed.

The information was all there, but it didn’t do a great job connecting my student’s problems to what I could offer to help them. I read a copywriting book to level up in this area, and I ended up rewriting and redesigning the entire website.

"How can I show potential students I understand their problems? How can I show them a taste of the course? How do they know this is the right course?" These were the questions I answered.

Writing relatable copy for the course site
I only get to understand my students in and out after teaching the same topic for a full year.

3. Serving more people

The reason I had to increase my price is to make the course a sustainable product for me to run. But I know not everyone can afford such a course fee. A lot of people deserve to build their online presence and following with the Build in Public techniques.

One of the things I love doing is helping people, so why not find a way to do that?

Now I offer limited scholarships in each cohort. The 2 types of people I want to help are:

  1. Creators who live in a part of the world with lower purchasing power.
  2. Creators underrepresented in entrepreneurship, including women in tech, migrants, ethnic minorities, non-binary, and others

If you're interested in applying, you can send me an email to kevon@publiclab.co to get more info.

🔥 Takeaway: creators without a huge following have to reduce friction in the signup process and capture interests at the moment

Will these ideas work? I don’t know. It is all about experimenting.

You can also see the latest version of Build in Public Mastery. There are a lot of developments all the time!

When the time comes, I will update this post and share more with you! Thanks for reading up to this point!

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