I’ve released 3 online courses commercially for myself, 3 online courses commercially for others, a free online course for another company and several free online courses for myself. Here are some lessons learned.
Who to host with?
When we start building our online courses one of the hardest decisions to make is where to host the course. Should you host it yourself through some wordpress plugins, or go with a hosting provider like Udemy or Teachable, or put it on a subscription service like Linkedin Learning, or write your own system?
I’ve done them all.
They all have issues and risks, so I think it really depends on how hands off you want to be.
If you want to be completely hands-off then choose Udemy. Udemy handle all payment processing, refunds, invoicing, and technical support, they also handle all VAT and recognise that they are the seller on record, the student is their customer, they provide a platform for you to release courses to. The only queries I received from people on Udemy were technical questions about my courses: “I can’t get this working”, “I don’t understand this”.
The other completely hands off approach is to offer your course to a subscription based site like Linkedin Learning, Skillshare or Pluralsight. Because these are subscription sites you are not involved in payments at all, you are offered a share of the total revenue based on how many views your content receives.
LinkedIn Learning will actually help you record your course. They offer an advance for course creators, then work with you to script your videos and review the content. For first time trainers they fly you over to their offices and record the course in professional booths. The content is then edited by their team and uploaded to the site. This is the most hands off option available to you. Be aware that you are giving more of your intellectual property rights to Linkedin Learning and Pluralsight. You also have to ‘pitch’ your course to these companies as they are more selective as to what they allow on their platform.
Teachable is more hands on. They can handle VAT and payments, they also provide the option to setup your own stripe account or payment gateway to handle more of the work yourself. I’ve found that they have a tendency to delegate to the instructor more frequently than I’d like. The first point of contact for any support query is the instructor, and very often I have to tell the student ‘Teachable handle that, please email email@example.com’. Teachable seem to view themselves as enabling a relationship between the instructor and the student, so even though they are the seller on record they don’t seem to feel the same responsibility to the student as Udemy or the instructor does. Teachable have a Teachable Payments service where they will collect and handle all VAT on behalf of the instructor.
I haven’t used Thinkific but it seems more like a hosting service, they provide a SAAS for building a course and a mechanism for you to take payments so you are the seller on record. This means lower fees and more responsbility.
Then the next level is to avoid using a SAAS hosting service and instead set up a self hosted wordpress site with various plugins to handle courses and payments. I tried this but I found it clumsy, time consuming and… I’m always nervous about self hosted wordpress solutions because you really need to keep on top of updates to avoid security issues. If you have an out of date plugin or version configuration you almost certainly will get hacked. Keep that in mind because you need to factor in the admin of monitoring and keeping your site up to date.
The next level after this is to write your own course hosting system. This is an extreme option and only available to people with technical skills. I would not recommend this to most people.
Perhaps you are thinking you could just hire someone to write your own custom course system. You could. But I wouldn’t. Use one of the existing solutions and focus on the teaching and adding value.
How to decide?
Consider what factors are important to you:
- How much of the percentage revenue do you want to keep?
- If you want more revenue then you will be looking at doing the payments yourself, or Thinkific or Teachable.
- How much admin do you want to have to do?
- If you don’t want any then the subscription sites are the best bet. If you only want to do course maintenance then Udemy. If you want more then Teachable and Thinkific. And then for ultimate responsibility you can do it yourself.
- How much ownership of the course do you want?
- Pluralsite and Linkedin Learning require exclusive access and Linkedin Learning ultimately own the video course. Other platforms you own the course and can do what you want with it.
- Are you going to keep the course updated often?
- If so, avoid hte subscription sites and go for the other platforms that provide GUI for you to manage the content.
You’ll have to do the research to see which works for you. I advise you not to focus on the money, and instead look at how the system fits into your business and your teaching values.
With all the providers you will have to do your own marketing to drive traffic, and you will be supporting the students.
An Evaluation Approach
Before choosing a provider, actually use them as a student and customer.
- Find some free courses that are offered through their platform and take a course or two.
- If possible, purchase a course to see what the purchase process is like, make sure you are happy with the emails and receipts that are delivered.
- Ask for a refund and see what the refund process is like.
- Ask for support through the official channels.
Additionally, actually use them as an instructor.
- Create a simple test course that you can upload to sites as a free course.
- create a free tier account.
- Try and upload the course and explore the options open to you.
- Try and join your course so you can see what notifications you receive and can see what the student management functions are like.
Honestly… share of revenue is not as important as how much time will it take you to conduct your business on their system.
How I decided?
I tried the Wordpress plugin route but it did not suit my approach or business needs so I ruled that out.
If I want to build my professional brand and don’t care as much about the money then the big subscription sites like LinkedIn Learning or Pluralsite are great. You are more hands off, and you get a lot of support in the editing and course creation. This becomes less important the more experienced you become in creating courses.
For all my self-managed courses, I hedged my bets. I used multiple platforms.
I used Udemy and Teachable at the same time. Over the years I’ve become disgruntled equally by both platforms due to terms and condition changes and technical issues. I’ve taken all my courses off both platforms then added them back on again, and removed them again etc. The amount of issues I’ve had with each are too long to mention. The important point is that no platform will be perfect. You are boosting someone else’s business and they are more concerned with their business than they are with yours. By putting my courses on both platforms I was able to switch off sales on one platform when they had issues and push people toward the other platform, and issue free coupons on one platform to allow people to migrate.
If you only put your courses on one platform then consider the risks if that platform:
- changes terms and conditions in ways you don’t like
- puts limits on how much you can charge
- stops processing tax in the way that you need
- has technical issues that impact your course
I have experienced all of the above on both Udemy and Teachable. Other platforms will have similar risks.
Why is this so hard?
Ultimately, course providing SAAS platforms are not good enough.
There is a lot of manual effort involved in uploading and getting the course ready for publication.
This manual effort helps ‘keep you’ on the platform, even when there are issues, because the cost of moving is something that most people can not bear.
None of the platforms offer an extensive enough API to automate the course management process.
The Teachable API has capabilities to get information about the courses and students. It is possible to add users, and enroll them into courses but that is the extend of the maintenance. You can not use the API to create new lectures, upload new versions of videos, add new sections, change descriptions, delete lectures etc. All of that maintenance has to be done by hand on the platform.
Udemy offers less features through its API. The official API is for managing questions and messages, not for managing the course.
Thinkific is similar to Teachable, it does not support amending course content or uploading videos.
All of these platforms have internal APIs for uploading and amending the course details, but because these are internal they are not documented, can change without warning, and using them might be considered as reverse engineering the system and would be against the terms and conditions.
Its almost as if the course providers don’t want to make APIs to manage courses available because they know it would then make it easier to move your content between providers.
What I recommend Lessons Learned?
- Create small courses
- Organise your courses offline then copy and paste into the course system
- Add your course to multiple platforms to avoid relying exclusively on one
- Experiment with self-hosting, subscription services and SAAS
- Create evergreen courses that don’t require much maintenance
- If you create tech specific courses then create a new course for different versions rather than updating the same course all the time e.g. create a course for “Using tool X version 1” and a different course for “Using tool X version 2”
The ability to jump between platforms as necessary will help reduce your stress when platforms change their terms and conditions at a moment’s notice.
Major Lesson - Organise your courses offline
Do not rely on the course platform as the single version of your course. Do not rely on the course hosting service ‘keeping your videos safe’.
I keep a folder on my hard drive for each course, all videos, descriptions, meta-data are stored in the folder.
This allows me to copy and paste the content into the course platforms and I always have a backup.
For example, Udemy add a watermark to your videos on their platform this is notionally to prevent piracy but all it means is that when you find a pirated version of your course you can see that it came from Udemy rather than wondering which other platform they ripped it from. This also means that you can not rely on the Udemy version of the video as a backup video.
I maintain a folder structure like this:
The folder structure organises the course.
All content is stored here, anything that would be uploaded to the platform is added to the folder structure first and then uploaded to the course system.
I write all my descriptions using markdown, I can then convert this to HTML and copy and paste it into the editing fields for the online course systems.
If I want to update my course, I update the offline version and then update the online version.
I use the metadata.txt to track any additional information e.g. urls for the different course providers, last updated date etc.
This seems like a lot of work, until:
- the course editor crashes when you are editing your description and you have to start again
- you accidentally delete a course or section because the GUI is hard to use
- stuff gets deleted from your course… and you’re sure it wasn’t you
Also, if you are hosting your course on different sites as I recommend then this makes the process faster.
It also means that you have less fear of migrating to a new platform because migration is a manual process but it just means. Uploading all the videos and copy and pasting in the HTML.
What I do now?
I’ve actually pretty much given up on ‘selling individual courses’ at the moment.
The market is heavily saturated and dealing with SAAS issues killed my desire to create courses.
I have some courses on the subscription site LinkedIn Learning which is a low effort platform and keeps my brand out there.
The only course I have on sale is now on Udemy. I took my courses off sale from Teachable this week due to technical issues and reverted to Udemy.
And I’ve created my own custom LMS. I can do this because I’m technical and can code. Also, because of my offline course management it was pretty simple to automate scanning through the folder, uploading all the videos to Vimeo and then creating pages from the
description.md. All I had to do after that was add a login, which I did by using the Patreon OAuth API, which means all people who support me on Patreon get access to the courses and Patreon handles all payments.
This option is not available to most people. And until online learning SAAS providers create APIs for the full course admin solution most people will probably have to stick to a single SAAS provider.
I thoroughly recommend maintaining your course offline, so you always have a backup, and you view the SAAS system as a ‘version’ of your course, rather than your course. Then… if SAAS provider ever do create APIs, it will be easier to move, and if a SAAS provider ever does something you don’t like you can adapt faster.
Will I ever use a SAAS service again?
I might. I am constantly receiving emails from new SAAS services asking me to move my course or they will migrate my course for me.
For me to consider a SAAS it needs to:
- offer a fully featured API that supports all course management activities
- handle VAT and all taxes internally
- see itself as having a relationship with the students who are buying and taking courses, not just enabling instructors to sell courses
I have this option because I am technical and can do it myself.
If I didn’t, then I’d either use a subscription site like Linkedin Learning.
Or I’d just pick Udemy, opt out of their constant ’lowest ever sale price’ sales, create small very focussed high value evergreen courses, sell them cheap, and do good marketing.
Your needs and target market may be different than mine. You might find Teachable or Thinkific a suitable SAAS. Just do your due diligence during evaluation, don’t get sucked in by the ‘commission’ and ‘fee’ levels. Look at the teaching experience and protect yourself by maintaining your offline version of your course as the main version.