There are many ways of making money online, whether you do it as your main activity or as a side project. And today, we will be talking about the method that I am most familiar with – publishing online courses.
I have been doing it as a side activity for a number of years while being employed full-time as a software developer. And even though experienced software developers, myself included, earn pretty well, I have occasionally managed to exceed my salary by selling online courses, relative to the amount of time I’ve put into it. So, it definitely can be a pretty solid way of earning money.
But before I delve deeper into the matter, I need to say that being an author of online courses is not for everyone. To be successful, you absolutely must have the following attributes:
- Have an advanced in-demand skill. Industrial skills, like coding, are a perfect fit for this. But this doesn’t have to be related to any industry though. It might be hobby-related too (e.g. martial arts). But if you neither have any serious industrial qualifications nor any advanced hobby skills, you will need to develop either of those before you can start selling online courses. Before you can teach others, you need to have something to teach.
- Be OK with putting your writing, your voice (or even your face) in front of thousands of people. Filming screencast or “talking-head” videos is an integral part of most of the online course types. Therefore, if you are camera-shy or you don’t like how your voice sounds in recordings, this activity may not be for you. You can do text-based courses too. However, in this case, you absolutely must be OK with putting your writing in front of a large audience.
- Be OK with taking criticism. To earn from your course, you need to get it to be seen by as many people as possible. This is why it’s inevitable that you will find at least a handful of people who will write negative reviews about your course. Some feedback will be constructive. But you will almost certainly get some completely unreasonable criticism too. So, it would help if things like these don’t upset you too much.
- Have a sufficient amount of spare time. If you have a full-time job or a business, a course with a total content duration of an hour may take you a week to do. And that’s if you can dedicate at least two hours per working day and half a weekend to it. Just be aware of this before you start.
Of course, making money is not the only reason why you should consider teaching others via online courses. For example, I try to follow a win-win-win model as much as possible:
- The first win is my own profit.
- The second win is giving something of value to a specific person or organization.
- The third win is the overall positive impact on society.
For example, when I share my knowledge of software development with others, I benefit financially, they benefit by gaining new knowledge, and the overall society benefits because there are now more competent people in it.
But today, we will be talking specifically about making money.
How to make a start
There are several online platforms where you can publish your courses. And, perhaps, the best two to explore are Skillshare and Udemy. Doesn’t matter what skill you want to teach – whether it’s coding, painting, building model railways, or anything else. These two platforms are universal enough to support anything.
The barriers to entry are very low compared to other platforms. All you will have to do is stick to the rules of what can and can’t be in the course, produce content of sufficient duration, and ensure that both the audio and the video are of sufficiently good quality.
On Skillshare, there is one additional restriction. All courses must be project-based (more on this later). On Udemy, however, you can use any format you want. As long as your videos meet the minimum requirements, the platforms will allow you to publish them. It’s up to you to ensure that the content is good enough that people would want to buy it.
Also, you must invest in a sufficiently good microphone and camera. It doesn’t have to be expensive though. Blue, for example, has a range of good microphones, starting at around $50. Logitech has a good range of reasonably cheap webcams that produce good quality pictures in Full HD. They start at around $100.
It’s not a massive price to pay upfront, but it will pay off big time later. Yes, you can get cheap headgear for as little as $15, but you will later regret it when the users will keep giving you one-star reviews for audio quality.
To earn as much as you can on mass-market platforms, like Udemy or Skillshare, you will need to attract as much audience as possible. But luckily, these platforms allow you to do it relatively easily.
A trick to building the audience
Many of these platforms allow you to change your course from free to paid at least once. Some disallow you to do it more than once. Some will allow you to change it more than once but will penalize you if you do. For example, Udemy will permanently disable marketing notifications on your course in this situation. But even Udemy allows you to do it once with no penalties.
But in any case, if you make your course free when you publish it and keep it this way for some time, you will attract many followers. The algorithms on those platforms will usually help you. The users who have enrolled in similar courses in the past will see your newly published course on their feeds.
So, within a couple of days, you will get an influx of learners. This will also be your opportunity to address any issues in review comments and feedback messages so that you can maintain the average rating of the course as high as possible.
After some time, when you have enough users enrolled and your rating is good enough, you can start charging for your course. If you have a large user base and a lot of positive feedback, then new users will happily pay for it.
Mass-market platforms are not all there is
For me personally, registering on Udemy and Skillshare was just a start. Even though I have earned some money on those platforms, it wasn’t a lot.
However, being present on those platforms opened other doors for me. Various publishing organizations, such as Packt, Apress, and Manning saw my courses and got in touch with me. So, I started doing courses for these organizations.
Based on personal experience, it is better to get in touch with specialist publishing firms, rather than sticking to mass-market platforms like Udemy and Skillshare. On the other hand, if you have no online presence, getting on specialist publishing platforms will be hard. So it still makes sense to start with the mass-market ones.
But once you get going, there are several ways you can monetize your courses.
On Skillshare and Udemy, this is the default monetization strategy. The platform sells your courses and you receive a percentage commission from every sale.
The percentage will be substantial. Depending on the platform and your preferences (e.g. marketing on your behalf or pure self-marketing), the commission will be anywhere between 30% to 70%.
Specialist publishing houses also employ this model sometimes. But unlike the mass-market platforms, they will usually also pay you an advance when your course is published.
The amount would be deducted from your future commission earnings. So you will not receive any commission until it has covered this amount. But if your course is selling well, then you will still be able to earn way more than your initial advance. And if it’s not, then you still get your advance.
This is when you make a course for a publishing firm and just sell it to them. Or it may be that you provide a course outline to a publishing firm and if it likes it, you will create a course for them for a one-off payment. There will either be no payments for you afterward or there will be a small commission (around 5%) if you also agree to actively promote the course to your audience once it’s published. But this still isn’t a bad strategy. In many cases, you may be offered a very substantial amount upfront for the course that would have taken you months to earn otherwise.
Selling your time
Some of the courses require interactivity. For example, you may be asked to conduct a mentoring session. In this case, it’s like doing a job. Your pay will be based on the number of hours you taught. But, once again, such payment may still be fairly good.
Quality control of somebody else’s content
Professional publishing houses will not just publish any random material. They will ask a third party to verify the material. And you may be a person that they ask to do this.
There are several different tasks that fall into this category. You might be asked to verify that all code samples in a programming book work correctly. Or they may ask you to test-drive the whole course as a student.
One thing to be aware of is that not all types of this work are paid for. Sometimes you will simply get free access to some training material. Also, even if it is paid, this type of work is not always paid well. So it is crucial to read your contract, estimate the time you will spend on it, and decide whether it’s worth it.
Types of online courses
Online courses come in all shapes and sizes. Here is a list of the types I have personally been involved in.
This is probably the most common type of course. You come up with a specific module on a subject that you will want to teach. Then you will teach this module step-by-step via a series of videos and, sometimes, some textual documentation.
For example, if your subject is related to software development, you can provide samples of code students can copy. And in the videos, you can explain how this code works.
Most courses on Udemy are of this type.
Project-based course is where the participants have to build something by the end of the course. It’s their project that they have to complete. As the instructor, you simply give them pointers.
For example, each participant will need to write an app by the end of the course. But it’s not your task to tell them all the steps. What you do is explain what tools they can use and how those tools work. It will then be up to them to use those tools and come up with their own app.
The projects on Skillshare are of this type.
Text-based interactive books
Some publishers specialize in text-based rather than video courses. These types of courses can be thought of as interactive books. For example, the course may teach you a programming concept in the same way as a book does. However, instead of having to set up your own development environment and hand-type all the code samples from the book page, the learner can practice everything directly in the browser.
Many software developers favor this format. This is the format Educative specializes in.
Visualization of book chapters
Some publishers of educational books also publish video courses that complement the content of their books. For example, a book on software development will show you some code samples, while there will also be a video that shows how these exact code samples actually work.
Packt is one of the organizations that do this. When you buy a book from them, you will often receive access to an interactive video course. This is very useful to the readers because it will help them to consume the material better.
Coaching and mentoring
Coaching and mentoring are when you actually talk to real people via video conferencing software and teach them in real-time.
Sometimes this comes as a part of a bigger course. For example, some organizations will ask you to create the content for a project-based course, but then they will also ask you to occasionally mentor the participants. On other occasions, it’s a stand-alone activity.
The so-called “liveProjects” available with Manning are of this format.
Pitfalls to look out for
If you do decide to earn money by authoring online courses, you also need to be aware of the negative aspects of this activity. So here are some common pitfalls.
The release gets pushed back or canceled
If you sign a contract with a publishing house, don’t expect that the dates written in there will be the actual milestone dates. Definitely don’t rely upon being paid the pre-agreed amount on a particular date. You may find yourself in a situation where the course is paused for several months. This is quite common.
Sometimes it’s even worse. A course that you have already spent hours on gets canceled. But, based on personal experience, this happens rarely. With me, it happened only once. And I was lucky that I haven’t actually started creating any content on that occasion.
But there is also a way to prevent it. You can opt to do courses that are based on your own ideas. In these cases, you will have to complete a proposal. And once it’s accepted, all the dates in the contracts will be final, unless you are the one who is not able to keep up with them.
Unexpected extra work
If you are working for a specialist publisher, don’t expect that you will do only a particular amount of work. Sometimes, there will be an unexpected request coming your way. For example, the publisher may ask you to come up with questions and answers for a multi-choice test.
But this situation can be fairly easy to deal with. There are certain rules that I follow.
If I receive a commission on the course – I will do the extra work without any questions. After all, it’s in my own interest to ensure as many sales as possible.
If it’s a one-off payment, then it depends. If it’s a relatively small request and the course hasn’t been published yet, I will do it. But if it’s a big request, then I will either refuse to do it or will ask the publisher to amend the contract and increase my fee.
It goes without saying that, once the course has been published and a one-off payment has been made, I will absolutely refuse to have anything to do with the course. At this point, it has been reviewed and accepted. I have already done everything I have been contracted to do and I have received my payment. So this content is no longer my responsibility.
Some publishing houses will still try to ask you to do some extra work at this stage. I have received queries along the lines of “A user doesn’t fully understand how this bit of code works. Can you help?”. Or “Can you promote this course on your personal social media?”. Or “Some user complained about the audio quality. Can you re-do it?”.
Personally, whenever queries like these come my way, I just explain why it’s no longer my responsibility. But I also usually offer to do the extra work, as long as the publishing house can pay me extra. Sometimes publishers agree.
Fortunately, based on my experience, these things are fairly rare. Also, this did not cost me any future projects with the same company. So it pays not to be a proverbial “nice guy”.
Underestimating the amount of work
It’s not always easy to accurately estimate the amount of work you’ll have to do for a particular project. And this is because there aren’t any metrics you can rely on.
For example, when starting to do visualization of book chapters, the activity was really easy for me to do. Every exercise from a book took three to five minutes of video footage.
After I’d been doing it for a while, when I was signing yet another contract, I was told how many exercises I would have to do for a new book release. And I assumed that the exercises were similar to the ones I’ve done before. So, based on the number of exercises, I’ve decided that the fee on offer was reasonable.
But I was wrong. For this particular book, each exercise took me between 10 and 20 minutes to film. I had to do way more work than I thought I would have.
The moral of the story is that you will sometimes spend a lot of effort for way less pay than you expected.
Videos take a long time to do
To ensure that you sell your course to as many people as possible, you need to ensure that your videos are as professional-looking as possible. But in reality, you will occasionally say the wrong thing, or pause for too long.
Being able to film a whole video lecture in one go is exceptionally rare. Most likely, you will have to edit it and cut some parts out.
Some publishing houses will do it for you. But others won’t. And it goes without saying that you will have to do it yourself for the self-published courses. Or pay someone to do it for you.
If you choose to do it yourself, then be aware that the total time you will spend on a particular video is at least four times the duration of the video. And that’s if you don’t have too many blunders. It may take you even longer than that, sometimes much longer.
Creating content for online courses is a good way to earn money on the side. But this activity is not for everyone. Before you can do it, you will have to have some in-demand skills.
Not every type of online course can generate passive income. There are many types that won’t. For some of them, you are only paid once.
Online courses won’t give you easy money. They will require time and effort. But they can pay off substantially.
Also, there are some other benefits to doing them. you will undoubtedly take your communication skills to a new level. And you will become more confident and less camera-shy.
So, here is an extracurricular activity for you to consider. If you want to give it a go, I sincerely wish you all the best!