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.
Reuven Lerner, a software engineer who transformed his offline training business into online courses, is one of them.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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 newest features, if you haven’t heard).