This Math Teacher Found a Way to Make $1 Million/Year. Here’s How He Did It
Editor's note: This post originally ran in April 2015.
Students and professionals are weighing the costs and benefits of traditional higher education against more practical -- and affordable -- online options.
The online education industry is poised to surpass $240 billion by 2021, according to Global Industry Analysts, Inc.
But where will that those billions go? Who will cash in, and how can you get your piece?
A large portion of it goes to the instructors: the people who create educational content around their expertise in subjects that interest them.
In fact, I’ve earned more than $5,000 in the last few months from an online course I launched in November.
The only “qualifications” I have are from my own research and experience; there are no professional certifications required.
Here are a couple of examples of successful courses you can learn from, plus what you’ll need to know to create your own online course.
Cashing in on Expertise: Two Great Examples
John Azzi and Eliot Arntz earned more than $1 million in 2014 for their course on iOS 8 app development and its new Swift programming language.
Their success was due to a combination of solid, useful content, excellent customer support, and of course, some opportune marketing efforts on tech-friendly platforms like Reddit and Product Hunt.
The course took the pair about three months and $1,000 to fully complete, an investment that has since paid for itself many times over.
Rob Percival, a former high school math teacher from Cambridge, England, found similar success. With four courses on various programming topics, he’s netted over $1 million in the last nine months.
With income from a web hosting company he owned to support him, he put in three months of full-time work on his first course, creating more than 30 hours of instructional content. The problem was, when he released it, no one was buying.
Rob made the difficult decision to allow students to access the course for free in order to build up some positive testimonials, and then he went on to sell it to his database of web hosting customers.
Not all of them were interested in the how-to-code subject matter, but a large enough percentage were that the course began to attract attention and sales from strangers as well.
What Could You Teach?
While the examples above focus on very technical topics, there are online courses on a wide variety of subjects.
Naturally, courses with well-defined outcomes that may help the student earn more money tend to perform well, but that doesn’t there’s zero market for non-technical subjects.
Start by taking inventory of your own skills and experiences, particularly if you’ve overcome some challenges or struggles in the past. Odds are, others are struggling with those same challenges and could learn from your expertise.
For instance, if there is a specific software program you use in your job, perhaps you could create the definitive guide to that software.
In fact, you might be surprised to learn that good old Microsoft Excel is one of the most sought-after subjects on the online education platform Udemy.
Test Your Ideas and Don’t Be Afraid to Fail
After reading some of these crazy success stories, I wanted to try my hand at creating a course as well.
The first course I built was on hiring and working with virtual assistants in your small business, and it was a complete flop. Even though it took me three or four weeks to fully outline and produce the videos for the course, it’s earned me less than $400 in the 12 months it’s been available.
Still, I was determined to give online teaching another shot. After having some success with a Kindle book launch, I had a lot of peers emailing me and asking for advice on their upcoming book launches.
It was a non-technical topic, but one that was in high demand.
That course, Kindle Launch Plan, earned more than $4,000 in its first three months and continues to earn a modest amount of passive income each month. It took about a month to outline and produce, but has turned into a valuable asset and proved that I could make money with online courses.
Where to Host Your Course
After you decide on a topic for your course, the next question is where to host it. How will customers find out about it?
John and Eliot above hosted their iOS programming courses on their own website, meaning they had to configure the video hosting, payment processing and general technical structure.
They’re programmers, though, so it wasn’t an issue.
Rob decided to host his course on Udemy, one of the largest marketplaces for selling online courses with more than 5 million registered students. Udemy makes it very easy for instructors to get started, and they handle all the payment processing and video hosting.
Here’s where it gets tricky: revenue share.
Naturally, Udemy needs to make a profit, but they also rely on excellent instructors like Rob to build courses for their site.
The current royalty structure is set up so if Udemy delivers the student to your course through their own organic discovery or through a promotion they run, they’re going to keep the bulk of the revenue -- up to 75% in some cases.
The compromise they’ve come up with is for any customers you as the instructor drive, you get to keep 97% of the revenue, provided they sign-up through your unique tracking link.
When I built my Kindle Launch course, I decided to host it with Udemy because I didn’t want to get bogged down in the technical details of hosting it myself, and I liked that I would keep the lion’s share of the earnings on students I referred.
I still wanted access to their database of 5 million customers, and reasoned it was OK to split revenue with them on any of those sign-ups because they would likely be incremental students anyway.
Don’t Forget About Marketing
I think the biggest mistake people make when creating an online course is having a “build it and they will come” mentality.
Whether you host the course yourself or on a platform like Udemy, you’re still going to be responsible for fueling the initial traction and enrollments.
In the million-dollar success stories above, both parties had large email lists of potential customers they could reach out to. That means if you’re thinking of launching a course this year, you need to start thinking now about how you’re going to let people know about it.
One tactic that worked well for me on my course was recruiting a couple of high-profile affiliate partners, people with sizable email lists of their own who I’d developed friendships with and helped in the past.
They created a special exclusive offer for their audiences that turned out to be a win-win-win for all parties.
I’m looking forward to creating more courses in the future because I believe this is probably more of a portfolio business. Will you join in?
Your Turn: What skills could you teach in this rapidly growing online education market?
Disclosure: We have a serious Taco Bell addiction around here. The affiliate links in this post help us order off the dollar menu. Thanks for your support!
Nick Loper is the Chief Side Hustler at SideHustleNation.com, a growing community and resource for aspiring and part-time entrepreneurs. He also hosts the top-rated Side Hustle Show podcast, exploring new business ideas and tactics every Thursday.