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12 battle-tested online course launch tips I learned in the trenches

Learn how Austin L. Church went from a failed launch to a profitable online course after learning important lessons. Get these 12 key tips for aspiring course creators.

June 19, 2020 by Guest Contributor: Austin L. Church

Embarrassed—that is how I felt when I told my “students” on March 23, 2018, that I would not be launching my course after all.

Now, fast forward to December 4, 2019, when I did succeed in launching (profitably, I might add) an online course called Freelance Cake

Finishing the course was like wearing roller-skates and wrestling a molasses-soaked bear. It was hard, people. 

My wife and I have three little demolition specialists at home, and due to at least a dozen events and circumstances, last fall became the worst time in recent history to meet an ambitious goal.

But I still launched my online course. How?

This blog post contains 12 things I did right this time around, as well as a smattering of sensible and unusual tips for aspiring course creators. 

So if you have tried and failed to create a flagship product, then keep reading.

And if your online business is still pretty new and you’d like to learn from someone with battle scars, then keep reading, too. 

12 Tips for Creating and Launching an Online Course

Tip #1 - Work from a written plan.

As I mentioned, my 2018 course launch fizzled out. This time around, I was determined to try something different and expect different results. 

I made a plan, which followed these steps:

  • Brainstorming different challenges that freelancers and consultants face, especially those who want to make more money and enjoy more freedom.
  • Organizing those topics into six affinity groups or “modules,” such as “Pricing” and “Pipeline”.
  • Creating a table of contents to guide content creation.
  • Going back and cutting out roughly 50% of the content.
  • Dividing up the content creation into 1-hour blocks 
  • Adding one of those 1-hour blocks to my daily workflow.
  • Using my best energy in the morning, when possible, to knock out that day’s Freelance Cake task.

Some days, I didn’t even have a full hour to work on Freelance Cake. I experienced the tyranny of the urgent: a client’s branding project needed to be shipped; a sick kid needed to be picked up from school. 

The time I thought I would have for my online course disappeared. Yet, the written plan helped me avoid digital rabbit trails, especially my time-sucking, mind-warping inbox.

Having the plan right in front of me enabled me to maximize the time I did have. 

Instead of feeling discouraged or overwhelmed by all the things I didn’t do, I would consult my plan, find the next one or two bullet points, and add them to my physical planner. 

You can follow these steps to replicate my success:

  1. Write out a plan. Word to the wise: Rigid plans don’t work. Flexible plans do. Flexible plans captured in a physical planner are the best of all.
  2. Cut the amount of course content in half. (Chances are, the original amount would have overwhelmed your students, and you can always follow up with a sequel!)
  3. Notice and remove impediments like decisions, distractions, and competing priorities. 
  4. Achieve minimum viable progress. Eat the elephant. 

Tip #2 - Right-size your goals.

Back in 2017 at Tribe Conference, Jon Acuff introduced me to a new concept—“right-size your goals”. His book Finish explores this idea and backs it up with compelling research: 

“When my researcher sent me his report on the 30 Days of Hustle, one result stood out: Those who cut their goal in half increased their performance from past similar goal-related challenges on average by over 63 percent. Not only that, 90 percent of the people who cut their goal in half said they had an increased desire to work on their goal; it encouraged them to keep going, and it motivated them to work harder because the goal seemed attainable.”

Did I immediately take Acuff’s advice? Um, yeah right. This cotton-headed ninny muggins has to do things the hard way.

In June, I started telling readers of my (usually) weekly newsletters that the course would launch in August. As the weeks flew past, I did make progress, 1 hour at a time, and meanwhile, I realized that I had grossly underestimated the amount of work I would have to put in.

Write 23 lessons, edit them, produce the raw audio, and edit and export the cleaned-up versions… How hard could it be? Try over 230 hours hard. 230 is when I lost track.

230 hours of work at a rate of 1 hour per day equals 7.6 months. THAT GOAL would have been realistic. 

I did end up creating and launching the online course in a little less than 6 months, thanks to extra hours on nights and weeks to accelerate my progress.

Sidenote: Do you know what the auditory version of water torture is? Listening to the sound of your own voice and editing low-quality audio. In the dark. At 11:17pm.

Oh, the things we must do to serve our audiences.

My original launch date was in August. If I had taken Acuff’s advice to heart, I would have been right on track the entire time.

Your homework here is straightforward: 

  • Take the approximate launch day you have in mind, and double the number of days.
  • Or, cut your content goal in half. For example, if your table of contents has 40 lessons, launch a lean version of the course with only 20. 
  • Better yet, do both. If you do end up finishing earlier than expected, use the time on researching and implementing launch tactics.

Tip #3 - Ask for help.

This course launch tip will confuse some of you because you’re already good at calling in reinforcements. Allow me to be blunt: I am not. 

My mom tells me that I insisted on tying my own shoes at the age of three. That “I’m going to figure it out on my own” attitude shows tenacity—and stupidity.

Thankfully, now, when I press forward with blind mule-headed persistence, my perceptive wife Megan will gently say, “Who can you ask for help?”

“Oh yeah. Help. That. Umm… I suppose I could text some people.”

People love to share what they know, especially the insights borne from their own stubbornness, stupidity, and mistakes.

When I pivoted Freelance Cake from a video course to an audio-only course, I texted my friend Matt who shared an article about voice recording in a home studio

Another friend, Gabe, actually helped me set one up and told me exactly which free software tools to download and how to use them. (If you’re curious, he recommended Audacity.)

I actually listened to them, and I constructed a janky home recording studio for $30.

My advice? Ask for help early and often. You will move faster, experience less time-waste and frustration, and bless your friends and colleagues in the process.

Tip #4 - Commit to minimum viable progress.

I have learned to distrust any process that requires big blocks of 2, 3, or 4 hours of interrupted work. Waiting for them would have been the same as postponing the launch of Freelance Cake indefinitely.

Minimum viable progress was much more effective for me. Instead of adding vague tasks like “work on Freelance Cake” to my daily to-dos, I would identify the tiny sliver I could do the day before and add that to my planner. 

As the project gained momentum, meaningful increments of progress began to look different:

  • In the early stages of Freelance Cake, I would commit to finishing the rough draft for a single lesson or editing longer lesson drafts for one hour.
  • Later, I committed to recording myself reading one long lesson or two short ones. 
  • As I approached the finish line, my daily milestones became even more specific: 10 minutes of audio edited, a single launch email written, or even a punch list of final changes sent to my identity designer.

You can accomplish nearly anything, one hour at a time. Once you put in enough 1-hour blocks, finishing your course will begin to feel inevitable. I want you to have that g-force experience!

So what does minimum viable progress look like for your course? 

Go through these steps to gain clarity around the rough number of 1-hour blocks you will need to finish:

  • How many different phases does your course include? (For example, Freelance Cake included planning, writing lessons, editing lessons, recording raw audio, post-production on that audio, production of all supporting materials, set-up of my online course platform, Podia, and finally, the launch.)
  • Give yourself 5 minutes to brainstorm for each phase.
  • How many 1-hour blocks do you have available each day? On which days will you take a break—e.g., Sunday?
  • How many total discreet 1-hour blocks will you need? Count them.
  • Take that total and multiply it by 1.5.

Why, you ask? Because “estimate” is a synonym for “guess”. You have just guessed at the number of hours you need, but like all of us humans, you have fallen prey to the planning fallacy

So trust me, and give yourself another 50%.

Tip #5 - Choose your trade-offs.

If you commit to minimum viable progress, then you will have one less hour to invest elsewhere. The time blanket will only stretch so far. Something will be left uncovered. 

You must make trade-offs regardless, so you might as well be intentional about them. Choose your trade-offs, or someone else will!

While I was working on Freelance Cake, I stopped a number of things:

  • Blogging
  • Spending time on my socials
  • Reading as much fiction at night
  • Adding new project leads to my Balernum consulting pipeline at the same rate
  • Answering unimportant emails and text messages

(That last one was a radical move for a recovering people pleaser.)

Though I do believe I could have done a better job choosing and communicating about my trade-offs beforehand, I still managed to get the most important things done each day.

The proof is in the pudding. Freelance Cake launched. 

Choosing your trade-offs is magic. Explicit or implicit “no’s” will help you carve out space in your calendar.

And if you really want to be deliberate, then add a recurring appointment with yourself for working on your course. Don’t schedule anything on top of those blocks. Don’t apologize. Shoot, don’t even tell the people who asked for your time why you’re unavailable. 

These questions will help you:

  • What am I committed to not doing well while I create and launch my course?
  • What commitments and obligations do I need to change?
  • What am I now saying no to?

Tip #6 - Launch before you’re ready.

Freelance Cake wasn’t finished when I went live with it. Several lessons were missing altogether, and most of the supporting materials were simple text files, not beautifully designed and branded PDFs.

No one complained. I repeat, none of my students emailed and said, “How dare you sell us something that is only 75% finished!”

Now, I did dutifully grind through audio editing for the final six lessons. My project manager came to my rescue and turned the raw content into beautiful resources.

But I didn’t wait. I knew I had to finish before Christmas, and I reasoned that even my most eager students probably wouldn’t reach the end of the available materials before I could finish the course.

Several factors helped me overcome my perfectionism:

  1. When I finally did circle a launch date in the calendar, I shared the date with my email list. Keeping my word became more important than perfecting the audio.
  2. I pivoted to a more comfortable medium. Creating “good enough” audio was easier for me than creating “good enough” videos. That one strategic choice removed tons of friction from my path. 

Ask yourself this question: “Would a different path offer less resistance and help me launch sooner without affecting quality?”

Tip #7 - Create a product you’re proud of.

Speaking of quality, don’t compromise. Don’t put something out into the world that you would not want to use.

In his book Let My People Go Surfing, Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia founder, talks about producing climbing hardware that he would trust with his life.

If Freelance Cake were a really shoddy course, I wouldn’t die. My students wouldn’t either. However, I also wouldn’t have served to the best of my ability.

We must show respect to our audiences by giving them our best. 

Various tools have made it easier than ever to create digital products like courses. You can create an entire video course with only your phone! Yet, if you are lazy or complacent in your delivery, your students will notice. 

Didn’t you notice in high school when your teachers weren’t bringing their best effort? 

Love your students by giving them your best, and if your best wasn’t good enough for some, well, you can humbly receive their feedback and use it to improve the quality of your course.

Rule of thumb: Assume that your students are very clever and perceptive, and you will be fine.

Tip #8 - Recruit beta testers.

One way to improve quality before you launch is to invite some of your biggest fans or most loyal followers to go through your course. 

Freelance Cake is a much more valuable course because beta testers shared critique like, “Hey, you mentioned this resource in the lesson itself, but you never link out to it in the notes.” 

Or, “You overwhelmed me with too many statistics here. How about you share the three most important ones and make the rest available as a download?”

Uh… genius. Thanks for the free consulting!

Take these tips to heart:

  • Either give your course to your beta testers for free or give them a big discount.
  • If your beta testers do pay, like mine did, then give them lifetime access to the later improved version of the course.
  • If you later lower the price (for whatever reason), refund your beta testers the difference
  • Treat your beta testers like royalty, and prepare for them to amaze you with their thoughtful, helpful, and detailed feedback.

Beta testers will take your piece of Swiss cheese and turn it into a beautiful Cuban sandwich. Or a Freelance Cake.

Tip #9 - Have more fun.

Often when we’re working on a big goal, the work takes on a certain gravity. We may not be putting women on the moon, but we’re overcoming the Resistance (a la Steven Pressfield), and we’re making our contribution to a better world.

This is serious stuff, right?

In the past, I became too serious with product launches. I stopped having fun, and honestly, both the product and the launch suffered for it.

With Freelance Cake, I gave myself permission to act like the host at a dope party. At the best parties, the host has more fun than anyone.

And that let-your-hair-down, kick-up-your-heels freedom is both attractive and infectious for your audience.

Several of my launch emails were, frankly, ridiculous. 

For example, I wrote one that was a fake interview with my mom. I imagined what it would be like for her to ask me a scattering of questions about the course but to meanwhile get distracted by everything else she wanted to ask me about.

I had a blast writing the email, and everyone who read it got a laugh. My readers responded by saying they enjoy the emoji, photos, and gifs. 

Think about it: The best educators are usually quite good at entertaining their students. The entertainment lets the lessons sneak in while the students are distracted. 

These reminders helped me relax during my launch:

  • Make your mess your message. Your audience will relate to messes better because their lives are full of them.
  • We may like seeing Mary Poppins on screen, but we prefer to learn from flawed, fallible weirdos. Unleash your weirdo.
  • Have more fun with your course and your launches. Put yourself into your content and your communication. 
  • If you get people laughing, you’re making deeper connections with them.

Tip #10 - Write down your brand strategy.

I recognize that clear brand strategy may be new territory for some of you. 

My team at Balernum creates brand strategy for our clients, and I’ll pull back the curtain on some of our process. We help clients gain clarity around eight elements of their brand:

  • Vision (though we have found it’s more helpful to talk about the mountain in the distance where you want to end up)
  • Mission (what you’re committed to doing each day so that you can reasonably expect to reach the mountain)
  • Values (These aren’t posters on the wall; they’re the core operating principles that help you make on-brand decisions in good times and in bad, before you answer an email and after you make a new hire. A good rule of thumb is to think about 5-6 habits or practices that you can’t imagine not still being true 10 years from now.)
  • Brand Personality. 
  • Brand Goals & Business Goals
  • Audience
  • Positioning
  • Messaging, including your value proposition

If you do nothing else, at least spend some time developing a clear value proposition for your online course:

  1. Set a timer for 10 minutes.
  2. Write down every differentiator that is or will be true about your course. (Examples include your expertise or credentials, killer case studies, a simple yet effective process, plug-and-play templates that took you years to perfect, or a dozen interviews with other experts available nowhere else.)
  3. Find 4-5 courses from competitors and see what claims they’re making. Can you find their value propositions? If so, write them down.
  4. Cross-reference your differentiators with theirs and figure out which differentiators aren’t truly differentiators because everyone is making that same claim. A classic example is “great customer service.” 
  5. Once you have eliminated the overlap with other courses, you will have insight into what truly makes your course unique. Pick the 3-5 most beneficial things about your course and use them to write your value proposition. 

Here’s a plug-and-play template to get you started with that last one:

My course helps BLANK with BLANK by giving them BLANK, BLANK, AND BLANK. Other courses only offer BLANK, but COURSE NAME is different because it BLANK. 

You’ll probably end up with a long paragraph like this one I wrote:

Freelance Cake is a business growth course for freelancers and consultants. The creator, Austin Church, has consistently earned six figures as a freelancer, and his funny (and true) stories make the course entertaining. The lessons come with homework . . . 

Once you have aged your copy to improve the quality, you can whittle it down into a more succinct statement. That value proposition belongs on your course sales page, in launch emails, and as the primary reason you’re breaking up with your toxic frenemy. JK.

Keep in mind that your course’s secret sauce probably won’t be a mix of best-ever, one-of-a-kind, discovered on a mountaintop in the Himalayas ingredients. 

Rather, your sauce is the unique combination of a bunch of different ingredients, some common and some uncommon.

Let me explain with another Freelance Cake example:

  • Other freelancers have consistently earned six figures.
  • Other freelancers have created online courses.
  • Other freelancers tell good stories.
  • Other freelancers have created worksheets, templates, and checklists.
  • Other freelancers give you ways to learn while on the go—e.g., listening to a podcast.
  • Other freelancers have a clear framework.

But over time, as I combined those different elements, Freelance Cake became something very special.

How do I know?

I’ve been getting emails from students, and those emails have made my heart swell with unsolicited testimonials like this:

“By sending one of your emails to an old client, I've gotten more work from them, and they've just agreed to a monthly retainer package. Hurray! So I would easily say I've more than made back the cost of the course by sending a single email.”

Hooray, indeed!

Fair warning: Creating a clear brand strategy will take time and effort. So if you know right now that you are going to ignore this step, at least craft your value proposition. 

Once you do, communicating about why people should care about your online course will be like walking downhill instead of uphill. 

For all my overachieving peeps out there, here’s an in-depth post I wrote on the biggest branding mistakes.

Tip #11 - Find tools to simplify your life.

Friends of mine use Teachable, Kajabi, and Podia. After research and weighing the pros and cons, I went with Podia for two reasons:

  1. A purpose-built platform smoothed out the runway for my course launch.
  2. Podia’s support team was so responsive and helpful that they deserve my money and my enthusiastic stamp of approval.

A few highlights to punctuate that last thought:

  • With relatively little effort (meaning, logging into my domain registrar and emailing support), I was able to use my custom domain, freelancecake.com, for my Podia page. 
  • Podia has invested heavily in their knowledge base and in a variety of resources to help online creators create, launch, and promote their work.
  • The integration with ConvertKit has enabled me to keep the majority of my effort and follow-up in my email marketing tool of choice. With that said, Podia has built-in email marketing functionality for the folks who want it.
  • Once I figured out the drag-and-drop visual editor for my course sales page, I was off to the races. I am NOT a developer (or a designer, for that matter), but I was able to use a template with a lot of negative space to achieve an aesthetic that I am proud of. 
  • The pricing is fair—one flat monthly fee and zero transaction fees.

And the list goes on. You can check out Podia or not. 

You do you, and my point stands: Creating and launching a course is hard enough without clunky tools or software adding more friction.

So don’t be cheap. If your goal is to sell your course, then focus on long-term ROI. Invest in the right tools to make your life easier now.

[ Editor’s note: Interested in Podia? Get started with Podia today for free with our no-obligation, no-holds-barred trial. Or, better yet, check out our live weekly demo.

See why Podia is the best platform for selling online courses

Join a live demo to see how Podia's all-in-one platform can help you grow your business. Every Tuesday at 4PM ET.

Now, back to Austin. ]

Tip #12 - Do a premortem.

You already know what a postmortem is: pondering what went wrong and pulling out insights you can use to do better.

A premortem happens, ahem, before your launch. When I did a premortem for the Freelance Cake launch, I framed the exercise like this…

Imagine that two years have passed since you launched your course. The launch was a complete failure. Tell the story about the factors that contributed to this failure.

In essence, I handed the microphone to my anxiety and said, “Have at it!” By ruminating on everything that could go wrong, I was able to admit my fears and insecurities. Boy was this eye-opening! 

I later turned the premortem into something even more helpful: Freelance Cake Guidelines & Affirmations.

Every launch is imperfect, and many soon-to-be-successful products never attain their full potential because their creator gives up too soon and moves on.

Launches aren’t one-time events. You can use what you learn to make the product and the next launch better. And just-okay courses can get better and better over time.

What is the best goal for your online course launch? 

Get your course out into the world so that you can get real market feedback from real paying students. 

  • Is my course answering a real need? 
  • Has the course achieved product-market fit? Why or why not? 
  • Does it have gaps? 
  • Was it too cheap or too expensive or just right?

You can let your initial disappointment (usually due to false comparisons and unrealistic expectations) fester into crushing discouragement. You can give up and Eeyore your way into a dark wood of despair.

Don’t do that. Do a premortem!

You’ll be able to anticipate your mental hangups and prepare for them. Once you recognize what could go wrong, you can plan for it. You can hedge your downsides.

My mind space during and after the launch was so much healthier and more balanced because I did a premortem. 

(Plus, I later flipped each of the discrete saboteurs in my premortem into a loose plan to keep the momentum going. It was a win all-around.)

One last suggestion: Use a pen and physical journal for this exercise, and think like a journalist. You are reporting on a debacle. The richer and more detailed your premortem, the better prepared you will be for a successful launch.

What the heck should you do now?

I recognize that I just gave you the firehose treatment to the face. (Just imagine what it’s like to be married to me!)

I’ve done you a solid and turned this firehose of a post into a handy dandy checklist plus the exercise for creating a solid value proposition for your course. 

Head on over to this page to get the download link for the cheatsheet.

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