What I Learned Building My First Online Course

I thought creating my first online course would be hard. It was anything but. Here are 3 of my most surprising lessons.

Eight months ago I launched my first online course. 

Now, I should say, I never thought I was someone who would launch an online course. I have an all-consuming day job and for some reason, I just didn’t think of myself as qualified to lead one. 

Turns out, I was wrong.

Teaching an online course has turned out to be the most rewarding professional experience of my career. 

Also, the most surprising. 

I thought I’d quickly share what I’ve learned in doing this, and how, in this moment where the world has gone virtual overnight, you might find my story to be the spark you need to translate your own experiences and expertise into an online course. 

Lesson #1: It’s about the people you’re bringing together

I should probably start first with all the myths and roadblocks so many of us have around online courses. But I’ll get to those (and how wrong I was) in a moment. 

The absolute best part of running an online course are the people I’ve met. 

Part of me would like to think this is because my online course called The Community Design Masterclass attracts people with a unique interest, passion, or program they want to share with others. These are awesome human beings. 

But, it’s bigger than any individual course. The people who raise their hand to take online courses are, by definition, more motivated, curious, and open to new ways of doing things than your average person.

And when you can pull in people from around the world because it’s virtual, the variety and diversity of the folks joining means it’s even more interesting and inspiring.

I would have never fully appreciated just how important and awesome people are if I hadn’t stumbled into a different way to build my first online course. Specifically, I chose to build it “live” by bringing together an initial group of people before I created any content.   

As a result, I surrounded myself with people who brought me energy, sparked my creativity, and offered me more ways to learn and grow faster than pretty much anything else I could have done from the comfort of my own home. 

But that’s not all. It turns out, people are the trick to building your first online course quickly, efficiently, and–wait for it–with the highest quality, most valuable content possible. 

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Lesson #2: Don’t chase perfection to start; Figure it out as you go

One of the reasons I put off creating an online course for years is that I thought my course content needed to be complete and perfect before I could share it with even one person. 

In talking to people with online courses, I kept hearing them emphasize content that would take:

  • Six months of diligently writing reams and reams of online course content late into the night or extra early in the morning 
  • Hiring a professional videographer or team to record beautiful videos of me giving my lectures or lessons 
  • Organizing all of it perfectly and launching with a big bang 

Boy, was I wrong. 

Early on, I decided that I would experiment my way into building an online course by bringing people together with this shared interest in community building before I created any course content. 

I didn’t want to get caught up in my own tendency towards perfection and I certainly did not have six months or thousands of dollars to build the super professional course materials I initially thought were a must. 

As I was planning this approach, I heard about a course creation strategy advocated by folks like Danielle Leslie of Course From Scratch and Jeff Walker of the Product Launch Formula that confirmed what I was doing. 

I would build this course “live” with people and create course materials each week as I went along. Here’s how I did it:

  • I called my course Community Design, and emphasized delivering the result I knew from interviewing my ideal members they were highly motivated to get from it: to create a virtual community so valuable that they could charge for it and so well-designed that it essentially ran itself. 
  • Then, I sketched out five topics that we’d cover over five weeks. This was just a rough outline that I put together in a few hours. I did not create a single article or presentation before I announced my course. 
  • I laid out the simple structure for each week: 
    • On Tuesdays at 9am, I’d do an hour long “Topic Session” for that week using a (not yet written) Apple Keynote presentation shared over my screen on Crowdcast (or Zoom). In this Topic Session, I’d introduce the topic, share a case study, and lay out a challenge (or homework assignment) for the week. 
    • On Thursdays at 9am and then again at 4pm (so we could cover all time zones), we’d do “Office Hours.” Office Hours were done live and recorded over Zoom. In our time together, participants had the opportunity to not just ask questions but workshop their ideas and get feedback from everyone. 
    • Then, throughout the week, members would post the results of their challenge to our Masterclass, where I also answer questions and provide feedback.
  • As we finished each session, it became our course content. We took the recording and simply added it as a lesson in our course community.

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Now, if this sounds like a lot of work, it wasn’t. Not only was it easy and fun (the live sessions flew by!), but the course materials got really good, really fast. 

It turns out when you bring people together and build your course content “live” with them as you go, they will tell you what makes sense, what’s easy to follow, and where they get lost instantly

This not only gave me confidence that what I was sharing worked, but when it didn’t, I could quickly fix it. 

For example, I found out within minutes of presenting my Week Four Topic that one part was confusing. I heard it in the questions being asked in the Topic Session, the feedback we got online in the Masterclass, and again in questions during Office Hours. 

Because I saw this quickly, I tweaked the lesson and got things back on track.

This would have been impossible if I would have followed the conventional thinking and built my course materials ahead of launch.

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Lesson #3: Charge what you’re worth

This is probably the most relevant lesson to this moment of unprecedented change (and overnight comfort with virtual learning). 

The vast majority of people assume they can’t charge for something they are offering for the first time. They decide they need to either offer it for free because “it’s a beta” or charge a significant discount to what they ultimately want to charge because it’s new.

I started in the same place. But it turns out neither are true. 

When you create your first online course live using this approach, you can charge for it. In fact, you can charge a premium–say, $499 or more–for it, even if you’ve never done it before. 

Now before you think I’m peddling some get rich quick scheme, I’m not.  

Think about it this way. People are willing to pay for results and transformation when it comes to the things they truly want or need in their life. 

Whether it is a plan for their career in times of change and uncertainty, a new set of practices around their health or wellness they can’t seem to make happen on their own, or important interests around personal finance or a new hobby that gives them peace and calm in a trying time, people are willing to make an investment in programs or products that move from where they are to where they want to be. 

And when you offer your first online course live, your solution looks a lot more like the personalized consulting, coaching, and hands-on work that your ideal member is used to paying for from a consultant, a therapist, a trainer, a workshop, or even a book.  

Of course this won’t be everyone, especially not at this time. But that doesn’t mean you should sell your online course to everyone at a discount or for free because it’s either new or because people are struggling right now. 

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Instead, ask yourself these two simple questions to help you decide what to charge for your online course:

  • Without your online course, how else are the people you want to serve getting results?  Is it through 1:1 consulting or coaching? Books? Something else? What do these cost? 
  • What would a new practice, a better plan, and a supportive community mean to your ideal member? Would they be able to save their job at a difficult time or manage anxiety or stress better? Could you translate your results into something quantifiable for them? 

I was shocked when I did this. 

Almost instantly, it reminded me that people would pay a consultant hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month for the kind of expertise that we’d be sharing in Community Design. Plus, if people were able to create something *they* could charge for, well, that was revenue they wouldn’t otherwise be generating.

But your live online course is even MORE valuable to your members than a consultant or coach can ever be. Why? Because every person brings their stories, experiences, and ideas. This means each member gets more from your online course than they would get from working with you alone. 

Then, once you get your initial people fantastic results, you can continue to charge a premium. In future cohorts, it isn’t so much charging for the same hands-on coaching and community building you did in your first course, but because you’ve created a program that works for people (and scales beautifully from here). 

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So Fun, We Kept Doing It Live

Going into my first course, I thought I’d make recordings of my five Topic sessions, set up a dedicated community for everyone who ever took the Community Design Masterclass to come together, and call it a day.  

My understanding going in was that this setup was the only viable way to scale an online course once I had one. And, don’t get me wrong, it certainly is a great way to grow an online course (which you can do with three different kinds of online course options on a Mighty Network). 

But doing these Community Design Masterclasses with a live community of interesting people was too fun to stop. It had become fuel for my day job: 

  • I felt more connected to my passion for community building than I was before.
  • I was inspired by the creators, small business owners, and entrepreneurs rapidly adapting to the world around us by creating their first virtual community or program.
  • I was energized by the people who are diving head first into creating a community or course with no following or email list, then using these specific techniques to have more success than they thought was possible. 

So, with a partner, Jessica Shambora, I’m continuing to stick with this live course model for my own selfish purposes– running a new one every now six weeks, as we added a whole new chapter based on popular demand. 

Our online course has made me better. And while we may change this in the future, right now, I’m where I need to be. 

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