Five big lessons I learned from launcing and running an online course business for five years

In early February 2018, I passed the five-year mark of being an “online” business owner. It took me a few years of offline business before I took the leap into the online space. I honestly didn’t see the opportunity in front of me for a more leveraged income in my first few years of business, despite being asked multiple times if I would ever go online. “Nope” was always my response which was both narrow-minded and limiting.

Oh, the lessons we learn!

Fast forward a few years and I was sitting in a hospital for the 3rd week in a row. The first two weeks were spent with my mum in the cancer ward. She had contracted yet another infection during her breast cancer treatment and had dropped to a scary 36 kilograms. Once she was stabilised and gained a kilo she was able to come home. Just a few days later I was back again with my sister and a what we now know was a particularly nasty rheumatoid arthritis attack. She underwent a scary knee surgery and at just 22 with no clue of what was going on it was a rough ride and I lived in the chair beside her bed.

Sitting in that cold sticky plastic chair watching my baby sister with tubes up her nose and drains in her leg, eating cold sandwiches from a vending machine I thought about how I was going to keep everyone afloat both physically and financially. It was time to do something different. I started mapping out my first course. I was on the road to being an online business owner.

Hospitals suck but not as much as Reactive Rheumatoid Arthritis in a 22 year old! Oh my heart...  

Death changed everything

Building my first course with no technical knowledge and limited tools (there were very few options for membership platforms, video hosting, payment processors etc.. back then) was like trying to catch Jell-O while you’re drunk. I was fumbling big time. I had the bones ready to go when my mum passed away on January 5th, 2013. In that week my offline business tanked big time. When you’re a one to one coach and the only revenue generator in your business sh** goes pearshaped fast when you’re not present and I was totally absent.

Throwing myself into launching my course was a great distraction to avoid grief. I worked day and night to get that bad boy launched. I hit the “go” button and my sister I went to the movies to celebrate. It was a huge flop. No one bought it.

Fast forward five years …

I am so glad I stuck it out. I am so much better leveraged as a business owner. I am no longer locked into one on one client work and I have reached women in business that I never thought possible. I know now that I can be absent from my business for a bit and not be forced into living under a bridge in a cardboard box because not working means no income. I took two extra weeks off after Christmas because I could. I still had money coming in without me being totally present in my business. Prior to that, I lived the online dream by working for a few weeks from Thailand while my sister fetched fruity cocktails and pineapples filled with sweet rice – YUM!

Fruity cocktails and online courses in Thailand

So let’s move on to what you came for… the five things I have learned in five years as an online business owner.

#1 This is NOT an easy (or quick) business

Let me clarify that point by saying that no business, in my opinion, is easy. They take time, patience and often learning an entirely new skill set. There will be times where you’re done. You’re out. You’re over it. You can’t make this work. Pushing through those challenges is what will move you to the part when you actually make money.

Online business for me at times has been really lonely and frustrating. I have cried trying to figure out a piece of software or building a landing page. There are still moments when I feel my blood rising and I know I am about to do my nana. Sometimes you just have to walk away, cool your jets and remind yourself of the end goal.

Find your tribe and surround yourself with people who want to see you succeed and stick at it. Too many people give in far too early.

#2 It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Very few online courses launch to immediate success. We’re all (me included!) bedazzled by the claims of others that they have just done their first six-figure launch while sipping coconut juice on the beach of some tropical island after working two hours a week. If you’re an honest person it is hard to not to fall for the hype, because it has to be true right? Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. The takeaway point here is that this is not an instant business and you can’t judge your progress alongside others. Your market might be different, the hours and money you have to invest might be different, your skill level might be different and the list goes on…

Stick with it and remember that this is a long game. Invest the time and the energy and you will reap some pretty damn amazing rewards.

Just another day of content creation for courses at Profit Lovers HQ

#3 Don’t believe everything you see (or read)

A little more to my point above; don’t believe everything people say about their online course success. I did. Actually, if I am completely honest I made up a lot of stories up in my head too. When I saw others with their lovely professional videos in their lovely well-decorated homes I “assumed” it was because they were making big coin. I had zero clue they were in hotel rooms and were wracking up the credit cards to make it look like they were successful. No one ever said, “this is my home and I make bucket loads so I can afford that dude behind the camera”. I made all that up to prove they were awesome and I was crap.

Finding out what people actually earned and how many had no real clue about business finances was shocking to me. A man once flashed his man junk at my friends and I while we were eating tacos in the park. That was less shocking than the complete lack of business acumen many online business owners have. I also had no idea that a lot of six-figure online course owners were making next to no profit. Once again, this was flashing-man-junk shocking.

An online business is still a business and you need to treat it like one if you’re hoping to see regular paydays in the future.

#4 Uplevel as you earn

You don’t need the best of everything when you start out. There are places you should invest money and places where it is a bit pointless when you start. I spent a lot on the moving parts of an online course and nothing on marketing. As a highly experienced business owner, I have no clue what I was thinking when I did that. It was bat excrement crazy to waste what little money I did have on stuff that just wasn’t necessary. If you’re thinking “If I build it they will come” you’re wrong. They won’t. No matter how pretty your online course site is no one is seeing it without a big ol’ chunk of marketing to draw them in.

I read a post on Instagram from Denise Duffield Thomas recently about how her $40k spend on polished professional video was not the best investment of money. It was a really interesting post as I always loved her videos when they were raw and rough. I lost interest when they were polished but assumed I was the minority. Denise does mention that the polished videos were viewed less than the unpolished. She is now focusing on investing in high-quality video for launch content only and I have to say I can’t wait to see her return to the more casual approach.

Uplevel your tools as you go instead of waiting until you can afford the best of everything. Having the prettiest website or the most polished video isn’t a guarantee of success and who knows.. maybe your audience, like Denises’, will prefer the budget option anyway.

Denise DT's post on her experience with polished video - You can check her Insta out here

#5 Be outcome focused

I have to say that I often wonder what people do with their time. I know so many online course creators mucking about with stuff that just doesn’t matter instead of doing the real work. They’re stuck in the minutia instead of the end results. I guess I have the experience to thank for learning that lesson. I was desperate to make an income online and I didn’t have a plan b. It only took a few months to figure out that tweaking fonts, and creating yet more content were a pointless endeavour if no one was actually buying my course. I wrote myself a note a piece of copy paper that said: “Is what you’re doing right now going to improve sales?”. It was a constant reminder to focus on the important stuff. I remember I wasted two days finding just the right stock images. TWO DAYS! I could have found on brand stock images in 20 minutes.

If your outcome focused you’re always looking for the results and trying to tweak to improve. Here is the thing though.. you need to launch something before you can track the results. You need an opt-in page up and running before you can improve your opt-in rate. You need to send an email before you can work on improving open rates. You need to test different freebies before you can test what your ideal customer is really interested in. You need to send people to a sales page before you can improve the number of buyers. If you’re not tracking and measuring these numbers you’re not outcome focused. The numbers will tell you everything you need to know so spend your time there instead of fussing over the right font.

So there you go…

My biggest lessons from a roller coaster ride of online courses. As you can see it wasn’t always good times. It wasn’t always fun. Would I do it again? Yes! I sure would! Every late night late, every tear of frustration, every moment of self-doubt, every failed launch was all worth it because it got me to this place. I hope my lessons inspire you to create and launch your first course or to stick out the one you have until it works!