How Reuven Lerner turned offline education into online courses
Reuven transformed his training business into an online course paradise for programmers. Check out his amazing story and advice for new course creators.
Disembarking from everything you’ve ever known about how to run a business takes a special kind of person.
It takes someone willing to face down challenges and stay standing -- someone who has the bravery of a comic book character while maintaining the humility of an everyday person.
In other words, it takes an entrepreneur.
Here’s a little more about him:
- He works as a trainer with international -- and big-name -- companies around the world, including Apple, IBM, PayPal, and Cisco.
- Reuven regularly teaches seven (or more) courses in-person, educating other developers and programmers.
- He also created one of the first 100 websites in the world.
- Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for Rent Like a Champion, an online hub where sports fans connect to rental crashpads for weekend events.
But despite his background, Reuven’s adventure into online courses wasn’t always an easy ride. He sat down with us to share what he’s learned and offer valuable insights for those looking to follow in his footsteps.
Like most epics in business, his story begins with his audience.
How Reuven learned to listen to his audience
Reuven’s first dabble with online courses was indirect, but invaluable for planting the seeds that would later sow his online business. After releasing his book Practice Makes Python in 2014, he created a series of videos to guide students through each exercise.
The result was a more complete product, and for this long-time educator, it was the start of something great. “It was definitely designed to be the first of many,” Reuven recalls.
From there, he started to develop online courses as lead magnets to build up his email list, creating content that was delivered directly to subscribers on a daily basis and sending out a weekly newsletter.
(P.S.: Want to learn how to bulk up your own email list to sell more products? Then check out our guide on using email marketing for online courses.)
He still offers his email courses, in fact.
“My goal is that within the next year or two I'll be able to stop training more or less every day of every week,” he says, “And I'll be able to train in person -- say two weeks of the month -- and the rest of the time I'll be able to just work on developing new courses.”
To further that goal, though, he needed to dig in deeper into the online course world than email campaigns.
Unfortunately, his first official online course -- launched nearly two years ago -- wasn’t a smooth sail in the beginning.
“I figured everyone out there records courses. I am going to do something way better. I am going to do a live course.” Reuven, however, didn’t see the kind of returns or engagement he wanted with that approach.
Only a handful of people signed up the first time. That trend continued through the next two attempts, as well.
That’s when he decided to put the issue to his audience. “I finally surveyed my list, and I asked them, ‘So when would be a good day and time for us to do these live courses?’”
At the last second before sending out his question, he was struck with an inkling, and he amended his survey -- one of our favorite marketing techniques for online courses, by the way -- to include a final option for a recorded session instead of a live series.
“It turns out that more than 80% of the people on my list chose that option,” he recalls.
It was a surprising -- and necessary -- revelation for him. Like Arthur lifting the sword from the stone, Reuven discovered the power he needed to reinvent his business:
Listening to his audience.
And listen he did. As a result of that survey, Reuven finally understood what his audience wanted, and like the world-class trainer that he is, he didn’t hesitate to switch gears and start delivering it as quickly as possible.
Breaking his courses into the online world (and format)
Reuven was both blessed and hindered by his background as a live educator. On the one hand, because his courses had already been tested with live audiences, he didn’t need to create a curriculum from scratch.
From where he stood, all he needed to do to translate his offline courses into the digital world was bust out his tried-and-true curriculum, record his online course videos, and start marketing his products.
But it wasn’t quite that simple.
“I had a different problem, which was how do I translate as best as possible frontal learning in a classroom with interactions and turn that into an online format?” Reuven explains.
(Rachel Simmons, another successful creator who took her offline business online, ran into a similar conundrum as Reuven.)
“And so whereas most of my courses are three or four days long when I'm doing them personally, clearly, having that much video is out of the question for an online course.”
Figuring out just how long his online course needed to be -- and how it needed to be structured -- wasn’t as clear-cut as he hoped it would be.
“I got some feedback from people saying, 'This is fine except for the fact that it's four hours of one video.' There were no pauses. It was just an uncomfortable experience for people even if they liked the content.”
He realized he needed to take more of a sushi-roll approach to online courses than a burrito-based strategy. Instead of wrapping everything up into one massive file or lecture, he needed to cut that same content down into digestible bites.
Figuring out where to make those cuts required him to look through his students' eyes and divide his material up into many smaller pieces while providing room for learners to complete exercises between them.
And, he needed to distill his overarching course material, too.
Instead of creating one gargantuan masterclass that covered everything under the programming sun, he decided to get tactical about it. What could he teach people in a reasonable amount of time that would provide them with an actionable payoff?
Students aren’t paying for information, after all. They’re paying for the outcomes.
“So, what I did was I said, 'Okay. I'm going to make an online course that's not 'Intro to Python'; it's not a whole four days. It's going to be focused on one topic, 'Intro to Objects.'”
As a result of narrowing his approach, his first course -- and many more action-oriented courses -- finally flourished.
He just needed to get a handle on one more aspect of his online courses after that, and it’s an aspect that many creators will agree is a tough one to wrangle:
The marketing mojo.
The marketing conundrum (and how he solved it)
Reuven is amazing at a lot of things -- technology, training, and education -- but there’s one part of the business that’s never felt like a natural fit for him.
“I think as a developer and as a trainer, I'm missing the marketing gene or the marketing thinking,” he laments, “I'm basically saying, 'Oh, you really should learn objects. Why don't you come and take my course on objects?’”
And while his courses may deliver on the value of objects and prepare students for the programming world, that’s not enough in such a competitive subject area for online courses.
“It's lacking the urgency, it's lacking the push that people need.”
Though we think he doesn’t give himself enough credit. He’s not too shabby of a sales copywriter at all. Just check out these value propositions and CTA on his Intro Python: Fundamentals online course.
Still, his greatest marketing lesson has been on the value of variety. Less may be more when it comes to course content, but for products?
More is definitely, well, more.
“I found that having more courses not only meant that people were buying more because I had more to offer, but I think they took me more seriously,” he explains of his storefront.
From Reuven’s point-of-view, it’s the difference between a mall kiosk and a full-fledged store.
Sure, the kiosk might have more targeted sales because the inventory is so limited, but that limitation also holds the audience back from finding the best product for their needs.
When Reuven’s audience looks at his offerings, though, they feel like they have options.
For instance, if a prospective customer was interested in learning GIT but not ready to commit to a full course -- or its price tag -- they could opt for his ‘starter edition’ instead.
“I sometimes get emails from people saying, 'I really want to learn Python. I see that you have five courses up. Which one should I get? Or in what order should I learn now?'" Reuven elaborates.
“And that means I've got the customer, now I just need to figure out what's the best fit for them. That's a much easier sell.”
It also helps his upsells (one of Podia’s features, if you haven’t heard).
“If you have many different courses -- intro, intermediate, advanced -- then you have the opportunity for an upsell because if people really like your intro course, they will beg you for an advanced course."
Sometimes, those customers will go so far as to the bet the house on all of your courses. At least, that’s been Reuven’s experience.
“They'll say, ‘You know what? I'm just going to buy all of it,’” and Reuven, of course, responds like any creator would, telling them: "That is a fantastic idea."
But Reuven, never satisfied with idling his engines -- he swears he has spare time, somehow -- doesn’t stop at just offering a plethora of online courses. He also drives leads with his podcast, “The Freelancers’ Show.”
“I do a podcast for freelancers every week, and we address the product [online courses] because they're a lot,” he muses. Freelancers aren’t always willing to buy into online courses -- either creating them or taking them -- so he assuages their concerns in real-time.
And, of course, he capitalizes on sales opportunities.
“I do occasional sales. I do a birthday sale on my birthday. And I did a Black Friday sale, which a lot of people do.” People including Justin Jackson -- who made over $100,00 on Podia -- and every other retailer out there hoping to sell more on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
But while offering multiple courses, using his podcast, and cashing in on sales seasons has him covered for the marketing angle of his products, the development of them -- even with his 20 years of educational experience -- still requires some elbow grease.
Luckily, he’s got some great advice for people who want to earn their stripes without also finishing a Ph.D. in the process.
Reuven’s advice for your first online course
This polymath-extraordinaire has some great, battle-tested words of wisdom for educators and newcomers alike when it comes to online courses.
#1. Be more than a subject matter expert
This may come as a surprise for those with less traditional instructional backgrounds, but it’s true: while you should be the expert in what your course is about -- and you are, even if impostor syndrome rears its ugly head -- you need to be the expert at explaining it, too.
“So in the education biz, we talk about content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge. And content knowledge is knowing the thing itself, and pedagogical content knowledge is knowing how to explain that thing.”
They’re separate skills, he says. If you’re a developer, you can’t just lead with “This is a string…”
“No one is going to buy that,” he continues, explaining that it’s necessary to think of it from a learner's perspective and ask questions such as, “But how do we use it? Why do we use it? How is it special? What pitfalls should you avoid?”
He also recommends thinking about the metaphors and models you should use to explain it to people and the best kind of examples to help the knowledge stick.
And, for the best results, Reuven encourages creators to use that approach with developing exercises, as well.
“Thinking about not the information, as much as how you're transmitting the information, is important.”
As for how to narrow in on your instructional approach, Reuven says practice and experience are the only way to go.
#2. Do pilot tests before recording
For Reuven, it takes roughly 20 experiences of teaching a subject to feel like his delivery is smooth.
“You want your online course to be super smooth and enthusiastic because they'll see through it if you're not super smooth and enthusiastic,” he adds.
If your first time teaching the subject is when you sit down to record your course, Reuven warns: “It doesn't flow well.”
Fortunately, he doesn’t recommend that everyone else needs 20 deliveries under their belt before they start their course. Instead, he says to go for webinars -- which are also, incidentally, an excellent way to launch an online course.
But if webinars aren’t your speed, he also advises taking your teaching offline with user groups, meetups, and conferences.
“What's going to happen is as you explain things, you're going to discover holes, you're going to discover where you're rusty.”
You might also realize that you’re trying to pack too much into one course, which is his last piece of guidance for prospective creators looking to dip their toes into online education.
#3. Narrow down your subject area
“Teach less and make it better and more specific,” Reuven advocates. “My online courses are a few hours long. I think the longest one I have is my GIT course, which is nine hours of video. That’s huge.”
At 80 videos and with 21 supplemental files, he’s not exaggerating.
“But you should not try to cover an entire subject,” he continues, stating that beyond the fact it’s nigh impossible in an online format -- think about it, how long did it take you to learn your skill? -- your customers appreciate a more specific goal than broad knowledge.
To make it easier, he suggests plotting out where your customers will go and how your business will develop with them. After they take one action-oriented course, what else will they need to learn? What other goals can another course help them reach?
The closer your products are to your audience’s specific needs, the better those products are going to sell and perform.
It’s as simple as that, though as Reuven proved, not always the easiest conclusion to arrive to on your own.
That’s where we come in.
With a no-fuss, straightforward price, free migration, and limitless possibilities, you don’t have to hack it all together yourself and take the long road to sell your online courses.
In fact, you can get started for free today to see why this offline educator made it his home in the online sphere and how you can, too.
“You can be sure that I've told people,” Reuven concludes, “I love Podia and what you guys are doing.”
The feeling is definitely mutual, Reuven.
(P.S.: Want even more expert tips from Reuven? Then check out our new article where Reuven breaks down how to create an online course people will actually finish.)