How to get started with creating and selling online courses
Get a step-by-step guide to start profiting from the booming online course market today, with examples and templates you can use to build your own online course.
You love that online course you just completed.
It was engaging and brimming with actionable advice.
You wish that someday, you could sell online courses just like it for others to enjoy.
But you don’t think you have what it takes to start a business, let alone create a profitable online course.
Let’s be blunt: You are definitely capable of creating and selling a profitable online course. The same things holding you back now are the same excuses holding back other would-be entrepreneurs, and they're wrong.
Designing an online course takes far less money and time than it might seem. And they don't have to be perfect to sell well, for that matter.
You know that saying that knowledge is power?
In this article, we’ll go over key facts and figures to show you not only why now is the best time to create an online course, but why you’re fully capable of creating a profitable online course.
First up, let’s talk about why anyone (including you) can succeed with online courses.
Why anyone can succeed with online courses
The e-learning market is expected to reach a value of 325 billion by 2025.
Despite those high profits, online courses have a very low barrier to entry and are in high demand from both individuals and businesses alike.
Achieving success at the level of Natalie Bacon or SmartBlogger isn’t impossible, but does involve overcoming certain barriers.
Let’s tackle the biggest barrier first: yourself.
Many creators think that because they don’t have fancy credentials or decades of experience, no one will want their courses.
But when customers make a purchase, your experiences and credentials are pretty low on the list of considerations, if they think about them at all.
Above all else, customers want to solve their problem. As long as your course is helpful, informative, and engaging, there’s little reason why your lack of expertise should be an issue.
In fact, it may be better if you’re not an expert in your field because of something known as the expert blind spot.
The expert blindspot is when an expert’s knowledge affects how well they understand their students’ learning styles and performance, which in turn affects what and how they teach.
As someone who’s knowledgeable but not an expert, you probably have more insight into what your students need to learn, what they want to learn, and how they learn best. That means you can bridge those three things in an online course.
Which leads us to our second barrier: course topics.
Online courses aren’t just relegated to typical academic topics -- they can cover literally any subject imaginable.
Handspring Gymnastics, for example, teaches online courses about gymnastic training -- something that seems like it would be hard to condense into an online course, but as you can see, fits just as seamless as an Olympic medalist’s triple axel.
(Yes, a triple axel is technically an ice-skating move, but the analogy works better.)
So as you can see, there’s no limit on what an online course can be. Still, if you’re worried your course topic is too niche, test it with your audience before looking for a new one.
The more specialized your course idea is, the more it can appeal to a small but ecstatic group who’ve been waiting for a product like yours all along.
In fact, it’s by appealing to this small group (who then tell their friends) that many products become popular.
If your course idea is something broad, like how to start a business or play the piano, you should still focus first on a niche audience.
For example, you could teach female veterans how to start home-based businesses, or teach metal enthusiasts how to play their favorite rock music on the piano.
To test if your course idea is in-demand, you could launch a series of YouTube videos or host webinars.
If you see regular or growing attendance, you could next try monetizing your videos by using affiliate marketing, creating a membership site for video access, or selling a minified online course.
Either way, before creating a full online course, you want to create a course prototype or minimum viable product first to get market validation.
It should hopefully go without saying that you don’t need to worry about figuring out how long your course should be in the beginning. Instead, create a 30-to-45-minute course and gradually add more content until you’ve covered all of the necessary subtopics in your course.
Creating the course as you gather feedback from your followers seems counter-intuitive. After all, who wants to pay full-price for a product they can’t use immediately?
As long as you're honest about what you plan to create and when you plan to deliver it, most customers would be fine with receiving your course over several weeks and months instead of all at once, especially if they’re getting exclusive access.
Yours can, too. Regardless, this brings us to our third barrier for online courses: perceived profitability.
Even if you’re in a competitive subject area for online courses, they can still be highly profitable.
At the end of the day, there are only so many ways you can teach someone how to play the flute or grow an urban garden. Diaphragm control and sunlight will always be common factors, respectively.
Your personality, unique experiences, teaching style, and course format are all equally important parts of the product that make it stand out.
For example, typical in-person classes are only available at certain times of the day and week.
Students have to mold their learning to the instructor’s schedule and what the instructor perceives to be the best way to learn (remember what we said about the expert blind spot?).
With an online course, however, you can appeal to students who don’t have the time, preference, or checkbook to take a traditional course.
Allowing self-paced learning in your online course instead of timed assignments is a win for your students’ education, too, because research has found that those who practiced self-paced learning outperformed those who didn’t.
With more flexibility than a traditional course and generally better outcomes, it’s easy for you to stand out from the competition.
Let’s take a look at some people who did just that.
First-time movers who found their groove with online courses
Thousands of ambitious entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds are turning their expertise into profitable online courses.
Take Justin Jackson as an example.
Justin has created several online businesses, including Transistor, a podcast-hosting and analytics platform, and MegaMaker, which offers a private community, online course, and digital downloads for creators.
In 2016, he decided to become a solo product entrepreneur, and this turned out to be a year of massive growth for his business.
His total revenue for 2016 came in at $146,000. Then, in 2017, his revenue increased to $190,000 despite the fact that he was only able to work for one hour on many days.
He calculated that his website made a total of 2,513 sales in 2017.
Needless to say, Justin was pleased with these results. He wrote:
“The fact that I can do this work, and support my family of six, is still incredible to me.”
Now, she makes $1,000 each month from it without any ongoing promotion and considers it a side-project at this point.
She had almost no technical background when she got started. Instead, Regina relied solely on her own experience and personal take.
Her course launched after just a few days’ worth of development and brought in thousands shortly after that.
The best online courses aren’t high-level lectures created by people with three decades of experience.
Instead, they’re from people who’re in the trenches. People, like you, who’ve developed a unique approach to tackle a set of problems that others can benefit from.
Outside of that, there are the tools of the trade to consider. When you’re picking what tools to use to create an online course, there’s one that can make or break your online course sales.
Here’s what it is, and what the most important components of it are.
3 must-have components of the best online course platforms
One big misconception about creating online courses is that they are time-consuming and require ongoing maintenance.
With the right platform, you can shave off hours each month by skipping the rigamarole of installing and updating plugins, processing payments, or granting users access to your course content.
(With all of that extra time, you could focus on creating even more stellar online course content or building connections with your audience. Nice, right?)
There are three key components that make online course platforms fall to the right (or wrong) side of that experience. Let’s dig into them now.
1. Ease of use
Time spent designing, updating, and managing your website and product page is time you could have spent on more impactful activities, such as marketing and interacting with your followers.
Therefore, you should look for a platform with an intuitive design and which integrates well with other features and services so you can achieve maximum functionality with minimal time and effort.
But aside from a snazzy interface, your platform should minimally have:
A sales and landing page builder so your customers can sign up to your email list or purchase your products
Email marketing functionality so you can build relationships with your audience and guide them towards making a purchase
A coupon or promotion feature, since discounts are a viable way to grow your profits
An upselling feature to encourage your customers to purchase another product as they’re checking out
A bundling feature to cater to customers who want to buy multiple products at a lower combined price
Payment plans to encourage more sales from customers who would rather pay in installments
Affiliate marketing tools so you can reward your existing customers for attracting more customers on your behalf
Fortunately, most major course selling platforms will come with these features already included or easily integrate with services that do.
However, what each platform offers in terms of exclusive features, it often lacks in other areas.
For example, you can’t go wrong with hosting your courses on WordPress if you value limitless website customization.
However, WordPress plugins tend to get expensive and require lots of ongoing maintenance and monitoring. Therefore, WordPress may not be a good fit if you don’t want to devote a lot of time to designing and maintaining a fully customized website.
Likewise, online course and membership platform Kartra comes packed with features but has a steep learning curve and an even steeper subscription price and extra fees.
Speaking of those . . .
2. Beware extra fees
When purchasing an online course platform, most people think they’ll need to pay the monthly subscription price and call it done.
Unfortunately, many platforms will charge you additional fees on top of your monthly subscription payments and transaction fees from payment processors like PayPal or Stripe.
Kartra, to keep with our earlier example, charges extra fees for sending additional emails or using additional bandwidth.
Even if you do earn 97% of your revenue, it still may be a mere fraction of what your earnings should have been given how frequently Udemy runs steep promotions and discounts.
Udemy also limits creators to selling online courses, which leads us to our final consideration: your expansion strategy.
3. Expansion strategy
Right now, your sight is set on creating a phenomenal online course.
But at some point, you’ll probably want to expand what you teach and how you teach it.
After all, offering only one kind of product limits your sales potential and can be risky since your earnings are tied to just one kind of digital product.
Expanding to other digital products, such as memberships and digital downloads, can both diversify and increase your earnings while giving your customers even more helpful products to buy.
Unfortunately, many platforms only focus on one kind of content. They may serve that content particularly well, but you’ll start to feel the walls of that limitation when it’s time to grow.
So what happens when you decide to expand to selling digital downloads or memberships and online courses?
Memberful charges transaction fees on top of each sale that you make, while ClickFunnels’ plans start at $97 with limitations on the number of pages, visitors, and funnels you can have.
If you want to sell digital downloads, on the other hand, you’d need to pay for a tool like Gumroad, which charges $10 per month and takes a 3.5% + $0.30 transaction fee.
As you can see, even though selling multiple digital products can grow your overall earnings, a significant percentage of your sales boost can be consumed if you pay for separate platforms.
There’s a different way, though. One that saves you time, expense, and frustration while letting you sell memberships, online courses, and digital downloads all in one place without additional fees.
Let me show you what I mean.
How to create your first online course on Podia
Podia comes with all three essential considerations for an online course selling platform: ease of use, no additional fees, and the ability to expand your offerings seamlessly.
Best of all, you can give it a no-strings-attached test drive with a 14-day free trial.
After you sign up for your free trial, go to your Podia dashboard and click the “Products” button in the header.
Now the magic can officially begin -- you get to pick your digital product!
After you click the purple “new product” button, a pop-up box will appear where you can pick if you want to create an online course, digital download, or product bundle.
Click “online course” and then come up with a memorable name for your online course, or check out some of the creators from our examples page for inspiration.
Now that your course has officially been born (so to speak), you get to start building the course itself.
First, you’ll want to create sections and outline what students will learn in each, as in Swiss Innovation Academy’s 100 Service Design Principles course.
After creating each section, you can add in applicable files, quizzes, and links for each section.
Once you’ve uploaded all of your course videos and files, you’ll want to set a price for your course by going to the “pricing” section of your dashboard.
Besides picking your price, you can also offer a payment plan and coupons for your online course.
If you have multiple products to sell, you could bundle them together to drive sales, as the Western Australian Center for Applied Machine Learning and Data Science did for several of their products.
To do so, click the “products” button in your dashboard and click “product bundle” instead of “online course”.
Next, you’ll want to connect Stripe or PayPal so that you can accept payments for the products you just put up for sale.
To connect your payment processors, click “settings” in your dashboard and add the relevant information.
Once you’re in your settings, you can also change your website's name, domain name, currency, and much more.
This brings us to the most fun part of all: designing your website using the Podia Editor.
With the Podia Editor, you can create a totally customized but modern-looking site which includes your bio, customer testimonials, FAQ, and subscription box, among other features.
Three key elements you’ll want to give special attention to on your website include graphics and visual design, sales copy, and testimonials.
Firstly, you’ll want to include graphics and colors to pull in your audience’s attention, as Fraser McCulloch did for his “Keyword Strategies for Web Professionals” course.
After that, you’ll need convincing sales copy to persuade your visitors to make a purchase -- Stacking the Bricks’ “Landing Pages that Sell” course sales page is an excellent model of what compelling copy looks like.
When combined together, these elements -- eye-catching graphics, persuasive sales copy, and customer testimonials -- can help you not only get your first sale, but drive them over the long-term, too.
And there you have it.
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Start your online course with little time and investment
There’s a reason e-learning is expected to be worth 325 billion by 2025 -- it’s an easy industry to enter and thrives off of humans’ innate drive to educate and improve ourselves.
But aside from the profit potential in creating an online course, there are three key reasons why you should consider creating an online course:
Thousands of everyday people have found success by selling online courses
You don’t need to be an expert in your field to launch a profitable course, but you do need to know what their problems are and what they need to know to solve them
There are hundreds of platforms out there where you can host and sell your online courses (just make sure they’re easy to use, don’t charge extra fees, and will grow with you as you expand)
When you have a concrete topic in mind or just a few ideas, there are numerous ways to test your online course idea from creating YouTube videos to a mini-course prototype.
Whatever you choose, there’s probably a few excellent course ideas within you -- bring them to life today.