My top 4 tips for starting an online course

Lessons from 10 students to 1,500 students.

Next week, our team at Forte Labs finishes up our Herculean effort of teaching Building a Second Brain, a 1,500 student 5-week course.

My Twitter feed is filled with people talking about taking online courses on how to create online courses. Today's online courses are like blogs of the early 2000s, when bloggers started making money. Everyone is trying to get in before the market moves on. 

The profit margins on premium online courses are high. With less than $1,000 and a large time investment, you can get an online course off the ground.

People are always looking to us for advice on how to create courses.

Having helped launched multiple 6-figure courses, I have three pieces of advice.

1) Don't try to model the top course creators without an audience.

You can be the best teacher, but marketing a course is the most critical factor of success.

We have a 1,500 student cohort because we have a 45,000 person email list. But it took eight years to get to where we are today with online courses.

Teachable estimates that 1-3% of email subscribers will convert to purchasing.

Do the math with your email list and the price point of your course.

Email subscribers are critical. Your Twitter following is not what is going to drive sales. 

The critical breaking point is about 5,000 email subscribers. We worked with a creator who had never sold a single product to his audience with an email list of 6,000. He priced his first course at $1,000 and did a 6-figure launch on his first try. People don't see that he spent more than three years building up that audience by consistently creating valuable content.

The good news is that if you already have a large email list, monetizing that audience with a course is now the easy part.

I shared in this blog post my various strategies for growing my online audience.

2) When you don't have an audience, go personal.

When I started my course on applying for Fulbright fellowships, I didn't even have a website, but I had previously taught about international development at UC Berkeley. Before I had an online following, I spent a ton of time reaching out to former students, alumni groups, professors, and answered a ton of reddit questions to share about my course. Now 3 years later, most of my students still come from my Berkeley connections and word of mouth.

3) Make your course as niche as possible.

My favorite online course I ever took had six people in it called "Sacred Birth Energy." We were all pregnant during the pandemic, mostly women of color, led by a magical doula. It was a perfect space for navigating pregnancy together.

Instead of more classes on writing or productivity that reach hundreds of students, I think people want more targeted courses for smaller groups.

I don't want to take another generic writing course. I want to take a course on "Writing fiction for processing Grief." I would pay so much money for a course like that.

4) Just ship it

I see a lot of people paying to take courses on how to create a course. The way to learn how to teach a course is to just do it.

For years, I said I wanted to teach a course on applying for a Fulbright, but with a full-time job, I never had time. I was paralyzed by having to get it right.

I scaled the scope way down to make it achievable. Before I made a website or a curriculum, I wanted to test the idea. I made a Canva flyer about my course and posted it to one Facebook group. Three people showed up to my intro call, and one person signed up and paid $300.

Even though it was one person, that was all the accountability I needed to show up every week and figure it out as I went along. By the end, I had a replicable curriculum I could build on. The next cohort, I started a website, newsletter and brought on a partner.

If you want to downscope and test an idea, try selling group coaching.

With online courses, it is a world of abundance out there. Marie Forleo said something like, "Imagine if people thought, '"I can't open a yoga studio because there is already one."' Just like how people prefer different teachers for yoga, some people will want to learn from you because of the uniqueness of who you are.

If you have an idea for a course, go for it.