Online courses are a business. Here’s how to use business thinking to your advantage.
One of the big appeals of online courses is that they have a relatively low barrier-to-entry for first-time instructors. You don’t need to buy property or rent out a store, there’s no physical inventory to manage, and many of the most popular Software as a Service (SAAS) tools, such as MailChimp and WordPress, have free beginner versions.
This makes it possible for first-time instructors to start online courses with little to no initial costs. While this is attractive to many, starting an online course with a budget of zero dollars is challenging. It means a lot more footwork, and a longer buildup before you make your first buck. Instead of investing money in your program, you invest time.
So, if you’re ready to put a lot of time in up-front before you see any profit, here’s how you can use e-learning to start an online business with no money.
1. Start with a simple website.
Unless you plan to launch your course on a hosted e-learning platform (like Udemy, which has its downsides), you will need a website of your own to share your course. Sites like WordPress allow you to assemble simple, template-based in a matter of minutes—so long as you’re OK with having a website that ends in “.wordpress.com.”
This is a fine place to start as you begin blogging and building an audience base. You won’t have any kind of classroom functionality yet, but that’s getting a step ahead of yourself anyway. Right now, your focus should be on learning about the market and growing a subscriber list.
That said, while you can start an online course with no money, there are a few places where you should consider investing some dollars up front, and this is one of them. Buying a domain name for your course only costs $10–15, and upgrading your WordPress account so that it will work with your custom domain name only costs less than $50/yr.
It may seem like a minor detail, but having a .wordpress.com domain name impacts your credibility. Not many people will be ready to give you money for your course if you won’t even put $50 toward a branded website.
2. Create content.
Once you have a website for potential learners to explore, it’s time to attract visitors. A blog is an excellent way to draw attention to your upcoming course, showcase your knowledge, and give learners a reason to take your course.
Blogs aren’t your only content option, however. YouTube videos and podcasts are another great tool for sharing knowledge and establishing a connection with your audience. You can even take transcripts from your audio/video content and post them as blogs on your site. It will help with SEO, and is also better for the hearing impaired.
Other social media channels, such as Facebook or Twitter, can be used to promote your brand, but they aren’t the best platforms for the bulk of your content. Just as working with a hosted e-learning platform means giving up control of your business, relying too much on social media means giving up control of your content.
The best practice here is to create original content on your site, then distribute through social media. You can create some original social media content if you find those channels work for you, and you should definitely use those channels to engage your audience, but except in very rare circumstances, they won’t be your primary focus.
3. Sell digital content.
Now that you’re building an audience, you can start thinking about how to turn that attention into profit. This is an exciting moment, but it also means you have to have something to sell. Fortunately, you’ve just spent a lot of time writing content for your blog (or podcast, or video series), and that can a start.
Try packaging your content into something attractive for your audience, and offer it as a digital purchase. This won’t be an easy sell, and you will need to demonstrate that you’ve added value, but even a nicely designed and edited ebook of your best blog content (with some bonus info for purchasers) can sell for a modest price.
Even if you don’t sell any (or only sell a few), having an item for sale on your site can help to legitimize your business. More importantly, it allows you to employ a psychological trick known as “price framing” which changes your customer’s perception of the value you offer. If your goal is to one day sell an online course for $100, having a digital ebook on your site for $15 can make both prices seem more reasonable.
After all, if the ebook is worth $15, and the course offers a lot more than the ebook, then it makes sense to charge more for it.
And if the online course is a lot more than what a learner can afford, they may perceive the ebook as a great deal.
4. Pre-sell your course.
Finally, with all this content at hand and an audience waiting to learn from you, it’s time to start pre-selling.
This strategy is basically Kickstarter for your course content, but without the Kickstarter. You want to tell your learners what you have in store, describe the course content and structure, announce the pricing, and then offer an early bird discount for people who want to get in at the ground floor.
You can even offer a whole slew of “perks,” such as a free copy of your digital ebook, and a chance to be an early beta tester. Once you start pre-selling courses, your business is turning profit and you can start putting that seed money to work.
Be prepared to do a lot yourself—or get ready to hire help.
As you can see, launching an online course with a minimal budget is difficult, but not impossible. Your options are limited, but then, so is your budget. It’s going to take several months of consistent content creation to build the audience you need, and that’s before you start making any money off of it.
It’s also important to remember that while you can start an online business with no money, you can’t maintain one that way. Your early profits will go toward improving what you have so that you can become more efficient at attracting more customers. It’s definitely a spend money to make money situation.
But while those early days are the most difficult, once you get over that hump you have a lot more to work with. You will have established a core of strong content, built a dedicated audience, and turned a real profit, and that’s a fantastic start.