7 Lessons I Learned While Testing & Launching My First Online Course

I’ve learned seven essential and inspiring lessons while testing and launching my first online course, Smart From Scratch, on Teachable.

Update, August 2018: This post was published just as I was going public with my first online course. Right before that, I had launched it “in beta”, which means early and to a limited number of students to test and validate the strategy.

Since this post was published, I’ve learned a TON about online courses, and there is some excellent beginner insight here that, as I was editing this post, was really fun to look back on, but also extremely important to remind myself about.

If you’re just starting out with online courses, this is a great place to start.

In October 2016, I opened my first online course to a limited group of founding students. You see, just as you need to validate your business idea, a concept I unpack in my book, Will It Fly?, I needed to validate the idea for my online course. After all, it was my first and I had no idea how people would respond.

In early October I launched Smart From Scratch® to 100 students. Less than a day later, every spot was filled, with the waitlist growing rapidly. I was amazed by the response! From October through today, the feedback and constructive criticism I’ve received about the course has been so invaluable. At each stage, my team and I took that feedback and applied it directly to the course, making further improvements along the way so that by the time we launched it publicly, it would be as good as possible.

And that’s thanks to our founding students. Thank you so much for that!

Now, as I write this, Smart From Scratch is about to launch for the first time to the public. Exciting!

What Is Smart From Scratch?

Smart from Scratch is my online course designed specifically for aspiring business owners who are starting from the beginning. They either have no clue where to start because they have no ideas at all, or they have too many ideas and they need help filtering down to one. The course then helps students test the idea and validate it before actively pursuing it.

If you’ve read my book, Will It Fly?, you will find that Smart From Scratch is very similar. Both enable and inspire you to test and validate your business idea so you know for sure it’s worth pursuing. The difference is that, with the book, you don’t have the hands-on guidance you get from the course. So, if you want a bit more guidance and a built-in community of folks like you aspiring to create your own business, Smart From Scratch is for you.

If that sounds like your jam, you can join the waitlist now or sign up when we launch Smart From Scratch publicly on February 27, 2017!

Why Smart From Scratch?

I’ve both failed and succeeded in building products and businesses. I’ve poured these experiences into the Smart From Scratch course to give you insight into the business strategies that truly work from start to finish.

Before I jump into the seven lessons I learned while testing and creating Smart From Scratch, I wanted to share another lesson I learned before I created the course, but a lesson that has proven essential to the course’s integrity.

That lesson came when I launched Breakthrough Blogging back in 2013. I launched Breakthrough Blogging with the intent of helping people stick to blogging. At the time, I found that a lot of people were dropping out of blogging after doing it a while, so I thought I could try to help.

I started to notice that there were a lot of commonalities between people who were stopping the blogging process. Many of them seemed to have stopped right before I felt that they would’ve become successful. There’s a lot of hurdles and walls that people run into, and I built Breakthrough Blogging to help people break through those walls.

I built it as a membership site reminiscent of YouPreneur, Fizzle, and Internet Business Mastery. After seeing how successful those sites had been, I wanted to create something similar, to be as helpful or more.

But I soon discovered that it wasn’t the right approach. During its launch, it did very well, but in trying to keep up with the content demands each month for paying members, I just felt like I was stretched thin and became less effective over time. Even though the first set of paying members paid a one-time fee, my thought was that people were going to pay a monthly fee after I reopened it.

That wasn’t the case.

I just realized it wasn’t something I wanted to do, but I didn’t realized it until after I started it, which isn’t an ideal place to be. It’s not fair to your community. But I also didn’t want to feel forced to come up with new content all the time. When I started, I had all the content I needed, but then that started to wear out. With the model I created, I needed to charge people monthly, but I also needed to create new things each month to make it worth it for those subscribers. And I didn’t have the time or energy to keep that up.

To attempt keeping up the pace, we came up with random ideas to keep people excited throughout the months, but that ultimately proved a failure. The content slowly died down. The community and the forum I created slowly went away. People started to complain that it wasn’t what they had expected, and they were absolutely right. It wasn’t what they had expected or what I had expected.

I felt terrible about it. I let people down.

Then, three years after I launched Breakthrough Blogging, I offered a full refund to those members because I didn’t meet their expectations.

People reacted in different ways to that. Some people were shocked that I offered a refund three years after the fact. Some said that it was completely unnecessary. But many were very thankful for that I did it and took me up on the offer.

But you know what? Most people didn’t take me up on the offer to accept the refund. I suppose they understood I tried a thing but failed at it, and that’s as human as anything. They were empathetic. Even so, I still felt like I needed to create a clean slate. I needed to reset, pivot, and tackle courses the right way.

That’s where Smart From Scratch comes into play. I am now doing it the right way. Before we created Smart From Scratch, we had established very specific goals for the course. We launched a beta course to a limited group of students so we could get honest feedback that we can then use to further enhance the course for future students. We were honest with what we wanted to accomplish.

Smart From Scratch is a course created to help people solve a very specific problem. It has a very clear objective in mind.

And, unlike Breakthrough Blogging, it is only a one-time fee and not a monthly membership model. Students of Smart From Scratch know exactly what they are getting into, and know what the expected outcome will be. For me, because of my previous experience with Breakthrough Blogging, everything needed to be as clear as possible—for both us, and for my students.

For me, in the way that I teach, the way that I’ve taught online for a while, creating courses to solve specific problems was going to be the best way that I could serve my audience.

And that’s the genesis of Smart From Scratch!

Want help to test and validate your own business idea? Join the waitlist today.

Now let’s get into it!

Here are the 7 Lessons I Learned While Testing and Launching My First Online Course

Lesson 1: It’s Not Easy

Believe it or not, creating a comprehensive course with clear objectives isn’t easy. I didn’t want to make the same mistakes twice, so we put a ton of effort into the prep and beta periods for Smart From Scratch.

Using Will It Fly? as a base definitely helped make the process a little easier. As did using Teachable as a platform. But each of the videos within the course required outlines, and they needed to be done well. The course design mattered. The structure of the course needed to make sense for the students. The material needed to truly inspire.

There are two things that really helped me through this:

  1. Inspiration from my peers. People like Amy Porterfield, David Siteman Garland, and Michael Hyatt all helped me immensely. I took their courses to help get me into the mindset of a student. Taking their courses also allowed me to see how truly helpful I could be with my own course. I realized that Smart From Scratch was something my audience was asking for. If I had let the fear or uncertainty get in my way, it wouldn’t have been possible. But thanks to my peers, I was able to see through that.
  2. Founders group. As I had mentioned before, the founding members for Smart From Scratch were so integral to creating what the course has become. I would recommend that anyone who launches a single course or product in the future to have a founders group to help you validate and “beta test” your course before launching it publicly. I kept the price as it is today ($197) and still those founding members signed up because they saw a value in it. That was awesome validation.

That leads me into the second lesson I learned while testing and launching Smart From Scratch.

Lesson 2: Be Open to Feedback

If you’re not open to feedback—in anything—you’re not going to have room to grow and improve.

This needs to be said again and again: the feedback that I’ve received from the founding members of the course has been so incredibly vital. From the positive feedback to the eye-opening criticism. All of it has been so helpful. It’s afforded me the opportunity to hold back from selling the course publicly so I may collect feedback early, so that I may tweak it, refine it, and make the course better to sell later. From a business perspective, that’s such a huge deal, and for that I’ll be forever grateful for their amazing insight throughout the process.

I want to give a huge shoutout and thank you to all the founding members who have helped me make Smart From Scratch possible. You folks rock.

Lesson 3: People Like Structure

During the course creation process, one of many things I validated was this: people like structure. With Smart From Scratch, they benefit from a structured, hands-on, step-by-step process toward testing and validating their business idea. But all of the base information could be accessed by reading Will It Fly? and content on SmartPassiveIncome.com. With YouTube and the wide and wonderful Internet, so much information is out there.

But the difference is the structure. Sometimes it’s easier to consume and learn information if it’s structured, like in a course with built-in accountability and community.

In 2008, when I created the LEED guide, 98 percent of that information was available on the GreenExamAcademy.com website I created shortly thereafter. People didn’t need to pay for the guide, but they did. I added a few bonus things, and other charts, and worksheets, and exercises at the end, but most of the content was the same. Only two people out of tens of thousands of book sales have ever complained about that. Of course, for those people I just refunded their purchase. For the rest of them, the structure of the learning process is what they seemed to want.

With structure, I found, through surveys, that people liked:

  1. Convenience. They wanted to pay because of the convenience of the tangible, hands-on physical product. It’s easier for some.
  2. Paying it forward. I was so pleasantly surprised by this, but it’s true (direct feedback proves it!): folks who benefited from the LEED guide wanted to pay me back for the free information that I provided. Some people had already passed the exam, yet they still purchased my book because I finally gave them a chance to pay me back. That just shows you the value in providing over the top free information to not only get yourself in front of people, but to really build a relationship with them and have them understand that you’re there to help.

If whatever you’re trying to sell, whether it’s a course or physical product, if it’s structured in a way that makes people’s lives easier, you’ll win.

Lesson 4: Embracing the Community

The fourth lesson that I learned while testing and launching Smart From Scratch was really just how amazing a community can be. The SPI community is so great, so it really shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. Going through the course and working with the students, hearing feedback in multiple ways from surveys within the course, reading the messages in the groups and in emails—really inspired me. It really showed me how lovely and supportive our community of entrepreneurs can be. And it proved to me why Smart From Scratch needed to exist.

All of your feedback and stated wins along the way really fired me up and motivated me. It makes me want to continue creating courses so we can continue engaging with each other on that level. It is, without a doubt, one of the more enlightening and rewarding experiences I’ve had.

I would encourage everybody to visualize, before you come out with your course, before you launch your founding program, to think about the students. What is it going to be like for them? What kind of messages would you receive from people who are benefiting from your content? How are you actually changing their lives and how can you use that as motivation going forward into the launch of your new course?

Lesson 5: Creating Ways for the Students to Interact

One thing I wanted to be sure we did for the Smart From Scratch experience was to give students a means to interact with one another. I wanted for them to be able to ask questions, get feedback, and talk to me throughout their learning journey.

So we created a Facebook group for the founding students, and that’s something that will be offered for future students of the course as well. The Facebook group—which is something you can create on Facebook for free—has been amazing for helping people to get through it together, for asking questions, getting feedback, and staying encouraged to go through the course. Creating a forum is something I did in the past, but having it on Facebook has been very effective and easy to maintain.

I was worried that there were people who were going to say that they couldn’t get access to Facebook. And that may be the case sometimes, but it’s not the norm. Giving people a safe place to communicate with one another is essential. And Facebook makes it easy because you can set up notifications that go straight to your email.

So, if you create a course, remember to create an easy way for your students to interact and communicate with each other—whether that’s on Facebook, in a forum, or elsewhere. It’ll make a huge difference.

Lesson 6: Office Hours

Having office hours throughout the course to answer questions for students is a super high-value proposition. For Smart From Scratch, the office hours were key because we were able to get the founding students together to answer specific questions, whether they asked them through chat or directly on camera (via Zoom), which I tried to encourage people to do. I found that only a very small percentage of people would often attend these office hours, so I’d try to mix up the hours, having them early in the morning, sometimes later in the evening, and mid-afternoon because there were some people internationally who don’t often get a chance to participate. Offering different times for your students is a way to ensure you give as many people as possible an opportunity to talk.

Even doing it twice a month can be a huge win for your students. In the beginning, I did it a little bit more often because it was the founding group, but moving forward I will be doing it at least once a month.

Getting people together so that they can ask questions and interact with the group is highly encouraging. Even people who are sitting on the sideline listening to these questions and listening to my answers are still getting a lot of benefit because a lot of them have the same questions.

Like I said, I try to encourage people to visit for office hours, chat with others, and ask questions because it’s part of the practice of building a business. You have to get uncomfortable in order to succeed, so it was a good arena to have people safely do that without being criticized.

Now onto the seventh and final lesson I learned while testing and launching my first online course!

Lesson 7: People Are Busy

Finally, the seventh lesson I learned while testing and launching Smart From Scratch, is the realization that people lead busy lives. I mean really busy. With that in mind, it’s hard to expect everybody to go through all the videos when you want.

There are still people the Smart from Scratch founding students who have yet to get through all the videos in the course and it’s simply because life gets in the way. All I can do is my best to encourage them. I am able to do that through all of the lessons I mentioned here, including community, Facebook group, and office hours.

One thing that I didn’t do for the founding group, but plan to do for the public launch, is to send emails to students while they take the course. Through taking courses myself, I’ve learned that this can be really rewarding and motivating. Especially if the email can answer questions your students may have, or feature a success story that may motivate them. I plan on doing that for the public launch, and I can’t wait to encourage you! I want to be a cheerleader, and I feel like I need to do that more the next time around.

I hope those lessons give you some insight into the creation of your own online course. And, as always, I am here if you have any questions.

Please click here to register and join me for my upcoming live training to help you learn more about creating your first profitable online course!

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  • Pat Flynn

    Hi, I’m Pat, founder of SPI and host of the Smart Passive Income Podcast. Let’s continue the conversation over in our communities.

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