In an era of side hustles and slashies, we’re always on the lookout for new ways to make money online. So could creating an online course be the answer to boosting our income, while also giving us the flexibility of working from home? Freelance author, journalist and editor Annie Ridout shares her success story – and the golden advice that can get you started on your own.
I have worked as a freelance writer for years and I’ve always been able to cover the bills, but there’s rarely been much surplus money to work with. So earlier this year, while I was pregnant with my third baby, I decided to launch an online course.
At the time, it was an attempt to set up a passive income stream to cover me when my baby was born. I had no idea that it would be so lucrative.
I had just written a book about setting up as a freelancer after having kids and knew that a common challenge for business owners is how to secure press coverage without spending thousands on an agency (that may not deliver). Teamed with my experience in pitching to editors as a journalist, and having picked up PR tricks while promoting my digital magazine The Early Hour, I decided to write a ‘DIY PR’ e-learning course.
It was four weeks long, with personal email feedback on the weekly homework. I sold all 10 spaces, priced at £200 each, in just two days.
The following month, I upped the price to £295 and designed a second course: Becoming Your Own Boss. This one teaches people how to set up a freelance career or business using creative and practical exercises. There are tips from me and other business owners, a module on confidence (a common barrier to going self-employed), one on money and ensuring your idea is financially viable, and then steps for getting started.
This sold out too. In the second month, I’d sold 30 spaces in total and earned around £7,000. This figure increased in the third month. I couldn’t believe how popular these courses were but the income wasn’t yet passive, as I was having to set aside a day a week to give feedback to the course participants.
So I made the courses self-paced, with no feedback, and reduced the price to £97. At this stage, they started flying out. I launched a third course - How to launch a successful online course - and this is now the most popular one. Business owners want to sell their skills and knowledge without doing one-to-one consultations. It’s about putting in the work at the beginning then kicking back a bit while the money flows in.
After the initial success of my courses, I kept thinking: this is a bubble and it will burst; it won’t keep going. But I made £10,000 in June, £12,000 in July and nearly £15,000 in August (the same month that I gave birth to my baby). This meant that I was able to set aside a huge chunk of money to supplement the pitifully low maternity allowance I’m entitled to as a self-employed mother; around £500 a month.
And something else happened. Now that I was earning such good money – and had proven that this wasn’t a one-off; it was happening month after month and actually increasing over time – my husband, Rich, started reassessing his own work-life. He’d been grafting as a builder, making documentaries on the side, and was missing the kids. So he decided to quit his job to help me run the courses and raise our children.
This meant that when our son was born a few weeks ago, I was able to re-open the online course shop after one week off and keep the business going. Rich works on the marketing side and our business meetings happen in the kitchen, over a morning coffee, while the older two kids entertain themselves and baby snoozes in his bouncer.
I’m not sure that this set-up would suit everyone; some couples thrive off time apart, but we’ve found that being able to earn this amount of money, while working part-time from home and spending loads of time as a family, has alleviated a huge amount of pressure. Now that we’re not worried about money each month, we’re more relaxed.
There are other women building businesses around online courses. Author Suzy Ashworth moved to Mexico with her husband and their three kids after one of her online courses – The Limitless Life Experience, which helped business owners to thrive at home and work – generated £261,000 in sales in 2018. She also founded a hypnobirthing business that generated £50,000 a year, 90% of which came from online courses, which she sold prior to the family gap year. Her latest program, Message Mastery, is proving to be hugely successful too.
Sarah Akwisombe, founder of the No Bull Business School, is also earning a very good living from the online courses she runs with the support of her husband, Jason, such as her Money + Manifesting School. The success of their business has enabled them to buy their “dream house”, as they are now on higher salaries, which has helped in terms of securing a mortgage. They also enjoy a flexible work-life.
Akwisombe is keen to point out that there’s a lot of hard work involved, though. “I think you really need to learn how to teach and make sure that you have a specific demographic in mind,” she tells Stylist. “And do your research on software, as it can be a pain in the ass to change later.”
She’s right: putting in the work at the start – such as getting the tech in place, and your messaging on-point – will lead to a smoother experience for both you and your customers.
For me, it’s not just the earning potential that makes running online courses so appealing, but also that you can work from anywhere in the world and choose your own hours. I’d say it takes a few days to write and design each course. I spend around half a day creating the video content with Rich. But the main bulk of my time is spent promoting them and trying to sell spaces. We do this through PR – pitching to be included in articles, Facebook ads and social media.
Once a course is open for sales, the admin is minimal. Very occasionally someone will have an issue with logging in, which I’ll need to fix. And I spend around half an hour each day on what is probably called ‘customer care’, but that sounds dry and I actually really enjoy answering queries. It includes responding to emails and DMs, comments on Instagram posts – all about what the courses entail. I feel like I’m forming relationships with people during this time.
There’s also content to be created alongside the courses. This includes tips pieces, an email newsletter for the mailing list I’ve set up, and social media content that isn’t about the courses, because I need to keep it balanced rather than just using my platforms to ‘sell, sell, sell’. This amounts to an hour or two a day. But I might do half a day on Monday then have Tuesday off – it’s flexible and depends on what needs doing. As someone who thrives on change and new ideas, this way of working massively suits me.
How to launch your own online course
Annie Ridout offers her hard-earned advice for anyone who wants to follow in her footsteps and launch their own online course.
Hone in on your idea
First, you need a subject. What is your area of expertise? What do people come to you for advice about? Can this be packaged up into a course? You don’t need to be a professional baker to run a bread-making course, but you do need to know how to make a banging loaf – and teach others how to do the same.
Run a free trial
Initially, I ran the courses from my Wordpress website – for free – before investing in a fancier, more professional custom-built website. This is a good way to test your idea for a course out. You can create password protected blog posts, and this is where you store your course content, accessible only to those who’ve paid for the course.
Work out your payments
You can use Eventbrite for your sales landing page, as somewhere to guide people, and they can process all the payments. You don’t see the money for quite a while, though. Paypal is also an option. Or if you set up a website specifically to host the courses, Stripe offers low fees for processing payments.
Sell your spaces
If you have an online following already, it might be easier to start selling spaces. But ultimately, it’s your knowledge and the quality of your course that matter – not the size of your Instagram following. Word-of-mouth is very much still in action, and word will spread quickly if you create something of value.
Create a buzz
Facebook ads can work well for helping you to sell spaces. There are loads of people whose full-time jobs are running social media ad campaigns and you can hire them to help you. Or for free PR, create a story around your courses – and pitch it to local and national papers, magazines, blogs, podcasts. Get yourself out there.
Aim for repeat custom
If you are thinking of running an online course business, rather than just a one-off course, ideally you want the same people returning for your next course, and the one after. So treat your customers well. Answers their questions, give them a discount code. Be friendly. All common courtesy, really, but it’s too often forgotten.
This piece was originally published in September 2019
Images: Getty, Unsplash / Lead image design: Alessia Armenise