How to go from zero idea to selling your first online course in five simple steps

Love the idea of making money from an online course but don’t know where to start? Here’s how to go from zero idea to a finished course in five steps.

Online learning has been growing in popularity for years. In 2020, it surpassed $250 billion, and is expected to increase to over $300 billion by 2025. And that’s not just universities and large course creators – a growing number of small businesses, freelances and everyday people are earning money from courses too.

So how much are they earning? According to research, the average course creator earns between $0 and $50,000 per month from online learning, with most making between $1,000 to $5,000.

What difference could £3,000 a month more make to you?

So how much could an extra $1,000 (around £750) or $5,000 (£3,780) be worth to you? Think what difference that could make to your outgoings – the pressure it might take off your monthly bills, enable you to give up a job you no longer love, or upgrade your lifestyle.

The joy about online courses is that you don’t need too physically deliver them every time if you don’t want to. Most courses today tend to be pre-recorded or written, with students completing them in their own time.

If you wish you may include live lessons or Q&As (I personally love these interactive elements as it gives me a chance to get to know my students and offer insights into how they can solve their problems), but these aren’t a given, and can be scheduled for when it suits you.

This means that you can create an online course, then let it run by itself. Students sign up, pay you money, and you get on with living your life, watching the sales clock up, and feeling satisfied knowing you have created something of value that is helping people.

But how do you get to this place? And is it really possible for YOU to create an online course? To help demystify the process and make it feel more accessible to you, I thought it might be helpful to take you through the steps of creating an online course and explaining how simple they can be.

So let’s get started with something every course needs – an idea!

1) Come up with your course idea

Of course in order to sell a course you need to have some kind of expertise people will pay money to learn. But don’t worry – you don’t need a PhD or to be already selling your skills to create an online course.

There are two types of ‘experts’ who can create an online course:

  1. Someone with a qualification or professional experience in a subject
  2. Someone who has solved a problem others are struggling with

To give you an example of this in practice, a dermatologist may create an online course to help teenagers suffering from acne.

But let’s say you aren’t a dermatologist, however you created a skincare regime that drastically improved your own acne. You then shared it with friends and they also had a positive experience. You may then decide to share your regime with others as an online course.

Equally, an experienced social media manager may create a course on how to successfully sell using Instagram Stories. As may a business owner who worked out a system that worked for them.

As long as you can help someone solve a problem, you can create an online course. (Just ensure you are always honest in your marketing and don’t make claims that are untrue.)

To find your course idea, think about what problems you can help someone solve. The problem needs to be painful enough that people are motivated to overcome it, and are prepared to invest in the outcome they want.

To help inspire you, here are some course ideas that people we have worked with have come up with:

  • Learn to play your first song on the guitar in a week
  • How to stop menopausal night sweats
  • Get your first freelance design client
  • Halve your wardrobe and double your outfits
  • Double your social media leads in 30 days
  • Master ‘holiday Spanish’ in 14 days

The people who came up with these courses are a mix of qualified experts and people who found solutions for themselves and are able to show others how to get the same results.

2) Name and price your course

The next step is to choose a name and price for your course.

When it comes to naming your course, we prefer simple, explanatory course names that describe the outcome people are looking for (like the examples above). This makes them easier for people to search for, and makes your marketing job simpler too.

And when it comes to pricing, it’s important to consider how much you want to earn from your course – and how many people you can reach with your marketing. One common mistake we see new course creators make is pricing too cheaply with the rationale that ‘the cheaper the course, the more people will buy it’.

However, the opposite is usually true. As much as we all like a bargain, when it comes to making a purchase what we really want is value. We want to buy what we need at the best possible price. And we worry that something that is priced too cheaply may not be great quality or deliver the best outcome.

So it’s important to price for the value your course offers, and what your target audience would expect to pay for a course that gave your outcome. You also need to consider your status or expertise. Someone with excellent qualifications, decades of experience or a large social following, for example, would usually charge more for a course than someone with fewer qualifications, less experience and a much smaller (or no) following.

And finally you need to consider how many people your marketing can reach. The average conversion rate for people buying courses is 1 to 2%. That means of 100 people who see your marketing, it is possible that one or two of them will buy.

And note: that is 1 to 2% people who SEE your marketing, not people on your list or who follow you on social media.

That’s why it’s important to consider your pricing. To give you a demonstration of this, consider how many people you need to see your marketing to sell places on your course if your conversion rate is 2%:

  • You need 250 people to sell 5 places.
  • You need 500 people to sell 10 places.
  • You need 1,000 people to sell 20 places.
  • You need 1,500 people to sell 20 places.
  • You need 2,500 people to sell 50 places.
  • You need 5,000 people to sell 100 places.

Now look at how much money you would make reaching those numbers if you charged £9, £29, £49 and £99 for your course:

As you can see, if you charge £9 for your course, you would make just £45 if five people bought it (and 250 people need to see your marketing to potentially make those sales). But charge £99 and you will make £495.

And it takes the same effort to market and sell a course, whether you are charging £9 or £99.

So make sure you properly consider your pricing before going to market, and ensure that you will stand a chance of making the money you need and deserve by charging the right amount!

3) Plan your course structure

Once you have a course idea, name and price, next comes the part that most first-time course creators are most scared of: structuring it.

As a rule, when planning your course structure stick to the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid). Remember that people don’t usually (depending on your course) want to learn lots of theory. They usually want to solve a problem as quickly and easily as they can. So give them just enough information to help them get the result they want, and no more.

And to identify what this information is, you need to remember that your students have bought your course for an outcome. So you need to know:

  • Where your students are now
  • And where you want to get them to

When you are clear about this information you can start planning the journey they will need to go on through your course, and what you will need to teach them.

It’s also good to know the four main types of different lessons you might teach:

  1. The high level lesson – these are teaching a concept and are typically at the start of your module.
  2. The deep dive lesson – these are more in more depth and are where you’ll do your theoretical teaching. 
  3. The hands-on lesson – these are where you are practically demonstrating how to do something. 
  4. The practical application – these require your students to practically apply their learning.

For each lesson on your course, think which of these lesson types is best suited.

To give you an example of how you might structure a course, here’s what a marketing consultant planned out for students wanting to double their client list:

  • Profile your ideal client
  • Find your ideal clients
  • Define their problems and how you help
  • Create your messaging
  • Write a marketing plan
  • Test and revise your plan
  • Retain loyal clients

This course gives her seven modules, with lessons within each module. You really don’t want too many more modules than seven, otherwise your course may seem too hard work or too long, and put people off who are time poor or looking for a quicker or easier result.

4) Build your course

Once you have planned your course, you need to create it. There are many different ways you can create an online course today, and the good news is you don’t need deep pockets or technical expertise.

The first online course we created was an email course. And every week we sent out an email with that week’s lesson(s) and exercise.

Today we deliver our courses using a learning platform called Thinkific. Thinkific does everything from helping you build your sales page, taking sign ups and payments, sending log ins to students and delivering your course content. They even have a free entry level plan so you can build and sell your first course without paying out, if you wish.

Our courses today tend to be a mix of written and video lessons, with workbooks and exercises, and live Q&A sessions on Zoom.

Other people deliver their first courses as a series of live videos, and sell the recordings of the course later to new cohorts of students.

Here’s a quick list of the technology we recommend students use to build and market their courses:

  • A way to email people – email marketing like Mailchimp and Mailerlite have free plans
  • A way to deliver your course – Thinkific has a free option. You can also deliver live via Zoom or by video
  • A way to sell – Thinkific has a sales page builder which is available even on their free plan
  • A way to enrol students – Thinkific will do this for you
  • A way to take payments – PayPal and Stripe are the most popular. They’re free to sign up but take a %
  • A way to grow your list – create a freebie and use the free landing page builder in Mailerlite
  • A way to record classes – you can record a Zoom meeting and upload to Youtube as an unlisted video
  • A way to connect software – Zapier is brilliant and you get your first zaps free

We’ve chosen these options because they are market-leading and have a free or affordable plan.

5) Market your course

Once your course is ready to sell, it’s time to plan your marketing. It’s important to consider your full marketing journey, and work out how you will:

  • Find people who have the problem your course solves
  • Entice them to find out more about your course
  • Help them evaluate whether your course is right for them
  • Nurture them until they are ready to join your course
  • Encourage them to sign up when the time is right for them
  • Onboard them successfully and give them a positive first impression

It’s important to create marketing elements that meet the need of each stage of the marketing journey and nurture people through it for as long as they need to make a decision (and this is usually longer than you think).

Most course marketing campaigns include finding people through social media and guest blogging. They may include encouraging the right people to join your mailing list with a valuable freebie. And you will always need some kind of sales page to help people decide whether your course is right for them. Other important elements are email marketing, social media nurturing and possibly a webinar.

What matters most is not how fancy your marketing is, but whether you have the right messaging and nurture people through their decision making journey. This is probably the part that most course creators get wrong at first, and frustratingly leads to fewer sales than they hoped.

Too many first-time course creators go straight from ‘Here I have a new course’ to ‘Buy now!’ and miss out that all-important nurturing sequence in the middle. It’s also important to really get in the head of your students and share content that engages them and answers the right questions for them. Get this right and you’ll start to see the sales trickle in satisfyingly, like this:

Ready to earn money from your first online course?

if you’re excited about the possibility of earning money from an online course but would like help bringing it to life, we run a four-week course that guides you through the complete process.

Create and Sell Your First Course is currently open for enrolment. The next cohort officially starts on 25 April, but you get instant access to module one when you join, so you can get a head start on your course idea, name and content before we start – as soon as today if you wish!

Over the four weeks of the course we’ll also have a weekly group video Q&A call in which you can get answers to your questions and any support and encouragement you need. 

Plus we have a bonus group call two weeks after the course ends, so you can get help if you’re catching up, or have questions once your marketing is live. 

(We teach you a way to sell your course BEFORE building it, so it’s entirely possibly to start selling within four weeks of starting the course, if you want to.)

“By far the best investment I’ve made in my business”

Here’s what previous cohorts have said about Create and Sell Your First Course:

“Create and Sell Your First Course is an excellent way to launch your online business. I completed the course and, simply by following the instructions, have launched a brand new online course and filled my first cohort easily.” Emma Rundle, copywriter

“Working with Hannah has been fantastic. She puts so much into her course and goes above and beyond.” Rebecca Wilding-Jones, career coach

“The 14-day marketing plan the course gives us was a dream… In fact it worked so well I’m going to use it for other campaigns, not just my course!” Sally Smy, fashion stylist

“This course is by far the best investment I’ve made in my business to date.” Frances Cushway, career coach

“This course is such good value. It is packed with practical content, clear “how-to” videos and literally holds you by the hand through all the steps you need to take.” Aileen Edgar, tutor

Why join now?

If the last two years have made you realise you need a secure new income stream, or you’ve simply had FOMO watching people launch their online courses, then there’s no better time to bite the bullet than now! We only run this course a couple of times a year, and every few months you wait to start is money you’ve let slip through your fingers. 

Just think: how much money could be earning this time next year with an established online course? Create your course now and you’ll have an asset you can sell over and over again, with minimal extra effort. 

Photo by Jenny Ueberberg