Free PDF: The top 3 course-selling mistakes to avoid at all costs

How to Start an Online Course Business in 2024 (10 Steps)

What is an online course business? 

An online course business can offer you flexibility, freedom, and profit. 

And in this article, you’ll learn how to start an online course business from scratch in ten clear steps. They are:

Read on to learn more. 

Is an online course business worth it? 

An online course business that sells online courses. Online courses are educational programs that are sold and delivered online. 

Typically, online courses are self-study courses so students learn at their own pace. 

But is it worth it? 

Yes. Here’s why:

  • Passive income: Your students can enroll in your course and learn at their own pace, so you can continue to earn money even when you’re not actively working on it.
  • Scalability: Online courses are highly scalable, meaning you can sell your course to students all over the world, and you don’t have to worry about capacity limits like you would with a traditional class.
  • Expertise: Selling an online course is a great way to establish yourself as an expert in your field. By sharing your knowledge and expertise with others, you can build a reputation for yourself and attract new clients and opportunities.

It does take work to create and sell your course, but it’s possible to be successful, even with a small audience.

Learn the top 3 reasons course creators fail

(and what to do instead to sell out your online course)

Just look at my student Lisa, whois an advertising expert. She started with less than 100 followers and zero direction for her course. But after following my method, she got her first – 12 – sales. 

Want to know how Lisa and many of my students created success with online courses? 

Read on.

1. Find a course idea

Before you do anything else, figure out your niche or your course idea. 

Your niche is essential to your course business success. 

It’s how you will instantly stand out so your students will think of your course no matter how saturated the market is.

To find yours, follow these four steps. 

Step one: Brainstorm your possibilities

Write down all of the potential categories that you could potentially use as your niche. 

That could include skills you have from your day job or even hobbies. 

Then for each category, brainstorm as many different things you can think of that you could teach others. 

You’ll notice that one of these categories will be much faster and easier to brainstorm. Start with that category. 

Step two: Figure out who you can help with that topic

There are three things to think about when deciding who your audience is. 

First, who is willing to pay for your help?

My student, Emily Liou, is a career coach and offers career courses. So the people willing to pay are ambitious people who want to find their dream jobs.

Second, who has the ability to pay?

Let’s go back to our example. The people who have the ability to pay Emily for her course are people who already have corporate jobs but want help getting onto the career path they really want. 

Third, who relates to you?

People are more likely to buy from you if they relate to you and trust you.

For example, they often relate to you because they’ve been where you are or share similar characteristics. 

Mid-level corporate women who want more from their careers relate to Emily. Because that’s where she’d been as a successful corporate recruiter before starting her business.

By answering these three questions, you should be able to fill in the blank.

“I help ____”

Now let’s go to step three. 

Step three: Name the problem

If you aren’t sure what the thing you can help people with is, do a Google search. 

Search for a phrase that describes your type of advice and the people you help. 

So Emily could search for “career advice for mid-level” or “career advice for women.”

Look at the top search results to see the top problems people want solved.

Which of those things can you help with the most? 

Step four: Answer “Why you?”

How does your course help the people in your niche get faster, better, or easier results? 

To go back to our example, Emily can help people switch careers and write killer resumes because she used to be a corporate recruiter for Fortune 500 companies. 

Why are you uniquely qualified to give the advice you’re giving? 

By the end of these four steps you should be able to fill in all of the blanks.

“I help ____ get _____ by ______.”

Want more help on finding your niche? Check out this video:

What are the best selling online courses?

Now, you’re probably wondering: what online courses sell well?

For example, the most popular courses on Teachable are self-development courses. 

Udemy has top-ranking courses on web development and coding. 

But remember, any course has the potential to be successful if there’s a demand for it.

Let’s talk about how to figure that out next.

Question: is there market demand for your course?

To find that out, you need to do market research.

There are a few ways you can do this:

Asking people

The easiest form of market research is asking people directly what problems they’re facing. You can do this in Reddit forums, Facebook groups, or even in person. 

If you know someone in your network who would be interested in your course, interview them over the phone about what they need and potential solutions.

Online research  Search for your course topic on Google and see what the top search results are saying.

You can also look at forums like Quora and Reddit to see what people are already asking.

But want a fast track to market research? Here it is:

The coaching detour

One of the best ways to figure out if people are willing to pay for your course is to offer coaching or consulting.

You see, if someone is willing to pay for coaching, your course probably has an audience. But not only that – when you coach, you help people one-on-one. You learn everything about what they need, while also getting paid. Win-win!

And as you coach them, you develop a methodology, which you can use to outline your course. 

But how do you make your course stand out? Let’s find out. 

3. Figure out what’s unique about your course

The course industry is worth $200 billion and it keeps growing. So your course needs to stand out.

The key is to have a great brand. And I don’t mean a logo or website – that comes later. 

Your brand is what you are known for and what your course can provide.

The first element of your brand is what I call your “super” skill. 

So, what are you good at? 

If your course is on losing weight, you need to show why your course is the best method to achieve that goal. 

It could be because of your educational or work background (being a former physical trainer). Or it could be an aspect of your personality (being super methodical so you create effective workouts). 

Answer this:

How are you the best at what you do? 

Next, is your backstory.

Yes, you need to have an amazing course but in the end, your audience will buy from you because of the connection they have with you. 

So think about what elements of your story and experience make your course what it is. 

Finally, what quirks about you or your process make you stand out? 

For example, one of my clients was a high-powered corporate lawyer while being a single mother. That element helped her connect with people and build an audience.

So think about the unique sides of your story that can help you sell your course. 

Next up, how to build that audience.

4. Build an audience

Here’s the truth: you don’t need a massive audience to launch your course. 

In fact, many of my students start with little or no followers when they start selling courses.

But you do need an email list so you can start building that audience. 

Because here’s the thing: 

Social media followers are great but they aren’t nearly as effective as email for selling. 

Studies show that email generates $42 for every $1 spent.

Plus you own your email list. Your social media accounts can disappear tomorrow if the platform decides to erase it. But your email list will always be yours.

So how do you build an email list? 

Well, you need a lead magnet. A lead magnet is a freebie that encourages people to sign up. 

It could be a video masterclass, a PDF guide, an audio download, and so on. Whatever it is, it needs to be valuable to your ideal course students. For example, if you’re a health coach, you might offer a simple exercise for people who want to get fit.

Once you have a lead magnet, you need to get it out there to build your email audience. 

To start out, you might promote your lead magnet in social media groups or other online communities you’re a part of. (Note: “promoting” doesn’t mean posting about your lead magnet and disappearing. Instead, build real relationships with people and then offer your lead magnet if it helps them.) 

Or, you might pitch podcasts to be featured as a guest on them. 

Learn the top 3 reasons course creators fail

(and what to do instead to sell out your online course)

If they accept, you can send over your lead magnet as a link to put in the show notes of your episode. 

And when you’re further ahead, you might run paid ads or build your website’s SEO to get traffic to your website. 

Important note: you can build an audience while you’re creating a course. You don’t have to spend years building your audience – even a tiny email list is enough to launch your course if those email subscribers are the right people. 

Now you how to lay the right foundation for your course. 

Next, let’s look at how to design and build a course from scratch.  

5. Create your course

So how do you create your first course? 

I recommend starting with a “First Steps,” self-study course. Let’s talk about it. 

Designing a “First Steps” course

The easiest course to create first is a First Steps course – a course that helps your customers achieve that first step in their journey towards their ultimate goal. 

For example, my own “First Steps” course is called “Your First Paying Clients.” This was the first course that I ever made. It helps new entrepreneurs find and book their first clients. Compare this to an A-Z course. A-Z courses teach people how to achieve their ultimate goal. 

Mine is my course “Employee-to-Entrepreneur.” It’s a step-by-step program that shows people how to become successful entrepreneurs and leave their day jobs. 

Your First Steps course will be smaller and probably lower priced than an A-Z course would be. You can create an A-Z course later as you build your audience.

Outlining your course

Now that you have your scope, think about the goal of the course. 

What is the one thing that your course helps your students achieve? 

Then, think about the milestones your students need to go through to achieve the goal. 

Each milestone becomes a module in your course. You can break up modules into smaller lessons to make it even easier. 

Remember, it’s not about the amount of information you pack in – too much information is overwhelming. 

The value of a good course is a clear path with well-organized steps.

My advice? Include 4-8 modules. Each module should have no more than 3-7 lessons.

For more on this, check out my video on building an online course:

Formatting your course

Honestly, the format of your course doesn’t really matter. 

Most six-figure courses are made up of video and text content. 

But since it’s a self-study course, you can choose whatever format you want. 

You could have slideshows, video tutorials, screenshots, PDFs – you name it.

But the content is the main value.

You’ll also need a place to host your course. 

For that, you have three options:

  • Your own website: If you have a website, you can host your online course on there. WordPress has plugins like AccessAlly to create courses easily.
  • Online course platforms: Teachable and Kajabi are examples of course platforms. You can create courses from scratch using simple drag-and-drop tools. 
  • Online course marketplace: Udemy and Skillshare are examples of course marketplaces, which host different courses on their platform. You might make sales by being promoted to their existing audiences. However, you don’t own your audience and you have limits on your pricing.

Before you finish your course content, I have one piece of advice…

Don’t create the entire course before selling it

Creating a course takes a lot of work. 

You don’t want to spend hours on something that won’t sell.

Instead, create a few modules and slowly release them to your students once you’ve launched the course. 

You can make and improve the later modules as you go.

Next up: pricing.

6. Decide on your course price

There is no average online course price because there are so many different types of courses. 

But there are some common pricing models: 

  • Free: Free courses are typically only used to generate leads and grow an email list. 
  • One-off price: Self-study courses tend to have a one-off price. This helps with marketing the product as it has one set value.
  • Subscriptions: Subscriptions are more common for group programs or live courses. However, it takes extra effort to maintain subscription-based memberships.

So how much should you charge for your course? 

It depends on your niche, your audience, and the content you’re selling. 

Courses on entrepreneurship tend to sell higher than courses on knitting. 

That’s because the information on building your own business is perceived as more valuable. 

Likewise, a course for mid-level corporate employees can sell for higher than a course for college students. 

Why? Because students have less available funds. 

The format matters too. People tend to pay more for video-based courses with PDF workbooks. 

Courses with live sessions or coaching support also sell for higher. 

So let’s talk numbers: 

  • A simple video training series with about 4-10 videos, each under 15 minutes, can be sold for anywhere from $47 to about $147.
  • A 4-6 week group program or course with weekly audio/videos and PDFs can sell for anywhere from $197 to $497. 
  • Longer courses with audio, videos, and PDFs for around $1,000 to $3,000. 

For most First Steps courses, I recommend starting at $500. This is a good sweet spot between high-value and accessible for most audiences.

You can always increase the value of your course as you grow your audience.

Next, let’s take a look at how to launch your course – and sell it. 

7. Launch your course

The key to a successful online course launch? Strategy. 

Here’s a strategy that works. 

Step one: Pre-launch

Remember I said you can build an audience while you create your course? 

Well, you can build your audience in the pre-launch stage. 

Simple ways to build an audience include: 

  • Blogging 
  • Guest posting
  • Podcasts
  • Social media
  • Networking

Step two: Launch trigger

Once you have a small audience, you need a launch trigger. 

This is an event that starts the launching process. 

I used a live challenge to launch my course and grow my audience.

It was simple. A five day live challenge called “Weekend Empire.” Each day, I would share a valuable strategy to help new entrepreneurs build their businesses on the side of their day jobs. 

To join, people would enter my free Facebook group.

There I could interact with my audience and see their results first hand. 

The result? An $8,000 launch with a 2.3% conversion rate when I finally sold my course. 

Step three: Launch

After the launch event, you can announce your course. 

Typically you announce it to your email list and social media platforms with a link to sign up. 

If your live challenge involves live videos, you can announce it live to your audience too. That’s a very effective strategy for many course creators. 

Consistently promote your course launch, especially if it has a short sign-up window. 

Mine used to be two weeks to create urgency. I posted every day to promote the launch and engaged with my audience as much as I could. 

Step four: Post-launch

So your course is selling. Now is not the time to relax! 

Post-launch is all about delivering on your promises to your students and being a support. 

Go above and beyond to ensure your students achieve great results. 

Those great results will then help you market your course for the future. 

Let’s talk more about marketing your course business next.

8. Market your course

There are loads of marketing strategies for course businesses out there. 

In the beginning, just focus on one or two.

Mastering one or two marketing strategies will increase your chances of success and save you from getting overwhelmed. 

These marketing strategies are great for beginners:

Email marketing

Every successful course creator needs an email list. 

The people who sign up to your list might not be ready to buy but they do want to hear from you. 

They want the valuable information you provide. And that builds strong relationships over time. 

The key is to market your lead magnet (like we discussed in step four) and create an engaging email funnel. 

Your funnel is a string of emails that introduce your subscribers to you and advertise your course. 

You can schedule these emails to automatically trigger whenever someone downloads your lead magnet. Long term, this is one of the most sustainable ways of marketing your course.

Social media marketing 

Social media marketing is an excellent beginner strategy because you can start with what you have. 

As long as you have a smartphone, you can create engaging, valuable content that builds an audience. 

The key? Go to where your audience is. 

For example, if your course niche is parenting, Facebook and Instagram are ideal. 

If your niche is career and entrepreneurship, LinkedIn might work. 

Think about who your audience is and where they hang out on the internet. 

You can also build closer relationships with your audience by engaging in Facebook groups, Reddit forums, and other community hubs within your niche. 

By creating helpful content and engaging in groups, you slowly build a following who are interested in buying your course.

Partnerships 

Partner with people who serve the same audience as you but who aren’t direct competitors. 

This could be an influencer with a different profession or someone who doesn’t sell their own courses but agrees with your philosophy.

Approach them to create a mutually beneficial partnership. 

You can either do this by promoting each other’s products if you have similar-sized audiences or by paying them a commission. 

The commission route is called affiliate marketing. Offering 50-75% of the course price is standard for affiliates. 

Ultimately, there are a ton of ways you can make partnership content that sells your course: 

  • Joint live streams
  • Webinars
  • Email takeovers
  • Social media takeovers

Next, how do you create the best course? That’s what we’ll look at in step 9. 

9. Iterate based on feedback

Once you’ve successfully sold your course, you might think the work is done. It isn’t!

To make your online course the best it can be, you need to continuously iterate as you get customer feedback.  

Learn the top 3 reasons course creators fail

(and what to do instead to sell out your online course)

After all, your course needs to be extremely valuable so that people continue to buy from you. 

Here’s the thing: testimonials are really powerful for your course sales. 

Research shows that consumers are 63% more likely to make a purchase if the website has reviews.

However, while some people will offer their feedback , you most often need to ask for it. 

That’s why you need to stay engaged and in contact with your students. That relationship will help you improve your course and make more sales in the future. So what should you ask when you ask for testimonials? 

Here are some questions to get you started: 

“What was it like before you started the course?

“How much closer are you to achieving your goal after completing the course?”

“What was your experience of taking the course? Were you happy with it?”

“What can be improved about the course?”

“What were your results? Can you be as specific as possible?”

“If someone was thinking of taking the course, would you recommend that they do so or not? Why?”

The answers to these questions will help you make small tweaks to the content and format that will improve the experience for future students.

That’s what I did with my seven-figure course Employee to Entrepreneur. Ultimately, it took me almost three years to perfect it.

But today, it’s THE course on how to start an online coaching business. 

Want to get to that level too? Let’s talk about how to scale.

10. Scale your course business

It’s possible to scale your business to six, multiple six, or even seven figures and beyond. 

An online course is one of the most profitable digital products you can sell. 

It’s also the closest thing you’ll get to “passive” income. 

Now, no income stream is truly passive. There’s always some work involved. 

But online courses are pretty close. Once you’ve created the course, you can continue to sell it without too much effort.

How do you do that? 

You need a scalable marketing strategy to bring in consistent traffic to your email list. 

Once people are on your email list, you can nurture them with your tailored email sequence.

The email sequence becomes automatic and boom! Consistent evergreen course sales.

Note: this only works if you’ve validated your course idea and are making sales. You should have at least one successful launch with this course before you think about scaling. 

If you attempt these strategies too soon, you might not get the results you want. 

Instead, focus on the beginner marketing strategies I mentioned in step eight to build your audience before you move on to scaling. 

Here are the marketing strategies I recommend when you’re ready to uplevel:

Paid ads

Paid ads are fast and effective. My students in multiple industries have had successful promotional campaigns with Facebook, Instagram, and Google ads.

You can get the lead magnet for your email list in front of hundreds or thousands of targeted people within your niche. 

There is a tech element so you’ll need to educate yourself on Facebook Pixel to make ads work (or work with an ads manager). 

The caveat is that ads become less profitable over time.

This is because you have to keep paying to make ads work. And the cost of ads is rising. 

So as your business grows, you’ll pay more and more into advertising to drive your traffic. 

Instead, SEO is much more sustainable.

SEO 

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is creating content and optimizing your website for Google search. 

It’s one of the most profitable and sustainable ways of driving traffic to your lead magnet. 

By creating good content using specific keywords within your niche, your website will slowly gain authority and you’ll get more clicks on your articles. 

That organic traffic is completely free. So unlike paid ads, the profitability only compounds over time.

Embedding your sign-up form for your lead magnet onto your popular pages will slowly grow your email list. 

Techniques to improve your SEO include: 

  • Using targeted keywords in your titles and headers
  • Creating high-value, shareable blog content
  • Adding alt text to your website images
  • Having a clean, well-organized website
  • Guest posting on high-authority websites (like Forbes or Psychology Today) to get backlinks

One caveat is that SEO takes a long time to build. 

Luckily it doesn’t take as much content as people think. 

I made SEO into a six-figure marketing channel by publishing just one high-value article per month. But it took two years to do this. 

You have to create consistent content that Google categorizes as useful to climb the ranks. 

Once you get to the first page of Google for keywords in your niche, driving traffic to your lead magnet becomes automatic. And that’s how you scale.

Next steps

And there you have it! That’s how to start an online course business step by step. 

Learn the top 3 reasons course creators fail

(and what to do instead to sell out your online course)

As your course business scales, you can achieve high profitability and freedom. 

But there are some mistakes that beginner course creators make that can delay that goal. 

Download my free guide to the most common course creator mistakes so you can avoid them too. 

Read more:

How to Sell High-Ticket Courses

How to Market an Online Course: 60 Proven Ways

How to Launch Your Online Course (+ Checklist)

About Luisa Zhou

Luisa Zhou has helped thousands of students build and scale their own profitable online Freedom Business. Fun Fact: She used to work as an engineer for the Space Station and holds a B.S.E. from Princeton. Click here to learn more about Luisa.

Hope you enjoy this blog post.

Want to know the 3 deadly course- selling mistakes to avoid at all costs?

Want to know the 3 Deadly Course-Selling Mistakes to avoid at all costs?

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