Keeping Things Lean and Growing My Online Course Business

Tell us about yourself! What's your background? What's Hack Pacific?

Hello! I'm Harry Chen, and I'm a full-stack web developer. I worked at Microsoft, General Assembly, and Bombardier Aerospace, and freelanced for a few companies in the past. I previously co-founded Nvest, a social platform for stock recommendations, and received $30,000 CAD seed funding from the University of Toronto Early Stage Technology program. I studied mechanical engineering in college and self-learnt web development online from scratch.

At Hack Pacific, we want to make online learning as effective as in-person learning. The three biggest complaints from online learners are: "My questions never get answered", "I can't connect with my classmates", and "I don't get feedback on my learning".

Together with my co-founder Xiao, we are experimenting the perfect way to make online learning both effective and affordable. Today, we offer courses in areas like web development, mobile development, data analysis, and machine learning. In the future, we think most subjects, like biology and music, can be taught online.

We launched in October 2016, and our monthly revenue since then has averaged $1,500.

Hack Pacific Courses

I've taken some online courses in the past. Can you elaborate on what differentiates Hack Pacific from alternative online courses?

Here's how we're different from all other massive open online courses (MOOCs):

  1. Synchronous + Asynchronous: We enforce a synchronous learning schedule for each cohort, so students are motivated to keep learning with their peers with the same timeline.
  2. Instant Q&A: Whenever students get stuck, they ask us via Slack or our Q&A platform. Typically, we can reply in under 10 minutes, even at night and weekends.
  3. Office Hours: Each cohort meets twice a week via video conferencing to go through key concepts, check on their progress and answer their questions.
  4. Assignments: Students have 6 to 9 assignments/projects to complete because we want them to put theory into applications.
  5. Feedback: Besides receiving feedback from coaches, students will review and give feedback to each other's work.

Our students are mostly adults who have full-time jobs and want to self-educate themselves after work. They come from different industries and share an urge to empower themselves with new skills.

What motivated you to get started with Hack Pacific? What were your initial goals? And how'd you come up with the idea?

I used to teach at General Assembly in Hong Kong. I saw that Hong Kong and Southeast Asia have a shortage of technical talents in the rapidly growing technology sector. Together with Xiao, we started a new in-person coding bootcamp in Hong Kong. We both were living on personal savings at the end.

Very quickly, we faced two problems. The rent is too high, and, more importantly, we don't want to be constrained by the physical location. That's when we started looking into online courses. We knew that online courses are attractive to learners, because they are relatively cheap and accessible. We also know that most people don't complete online courses. We were pretty confident about our insights, but we still needed validation.

There were two ways to test it out: 1) help existing online courses become engaging, and 2) host online courses ourselves.

We started with the first route. We spent 3 months building out a Q&A system allowing students from any courses to come and ask us questions and get an instant response. In the end, we couldn't validate our values of instant Q&A, because most online courses already have their own Q&A site, and students go there even when there's no response.

So two months ago we started to pursue the second path: to build our own courses. We really wanted to validate that students are looking for more than the curriculum and free videos. We wanted to see if students will pay for the instant Q&A, feedback, and community that most online courses don't offer.

What did it take to build out your first course, and what kind of tech did you use? How long until you were ready to launch?

To test our hypothesis, we tweaked our existing website (which was built with Rails and Angular) to launch our first online course in front-end web development. In an attempt to spend as little engineering efforts as possible to validate our idea, we were able to pull together a bunch of existing resources to achieve the level of student-teacher engagement we wanted.

We use Gitbook for hosting our curriculum. Slack for chat. Zoom for video conferencing. Google Calendar for scheduling. Our own Q&A platform (built with Rails and React) for question answering. And Typeform for registration and payment with Stripe.

We curated free and open materials into a fixed schedule as our curriculum. We didn't want to develop our own materials, because that's not within the scope of our experiment. Again, we were only interested in testing out whether students will pay for engagement. We wanted the course to be intense and effective, so we designed the schedule to require 20 hours of work a week, for 10 weeks.

All in all, it took us about 2 weeks to put up the first online course after the initial thought.

What marketing strategies have you used? How have you attracted users and grown Hack Pacific?

In the beginning we tried everything. We did SEO and paid ads on Google and Facebook. We wrote blogs and were active on Twitter and Facebook. We also experimented with live events on an array of topics.

The most successful was our "From Finance to Tech" series, which featured CEOs who left a career in finance to chase the dream of tech startup success. We did three of them with an average of 100 turnouts each. That's how we grew our newsletter subscription list. We also tried a referral discount system with our friends and families, but it didn't work.

Now, we are focused on our newsletter, SEO, and content marketing, since most of our site visitors come from organic search and referral links. 50% of our customers sign up to our courses without any direct interaction with us. The other 50% would conduct some short conversations through email about course details before they sign up.

We make as much information available as possible on our course page, so visitors can get everything they need. We're also using Intercom's live chat service on our site to make enquiries easier for our visitors. The caveat with providing live chat interaction is visitors are more likely to skip reading on the webpage and ask you directly.

How does your business model work? What's the story behind your revenue?

Today, we manage all the online courses for Hack Pacific ourselves. In the future, we want to become the platform where other teachers can join and leverage our toolsets and community of students.

We are already planning to onboard other teachers to teach subjects like mobile development (iOS and Android), machine learning, data analytics, and artificial intelligence. These teachers act as our partners. They will be receiving 85% of the sales (less transaction costs), and we take 15% for acting as the marketplace.

Our course tuition is $300 per student. We process registration through Typeform with Stripe. The first class started with 5 students only 2 weeks after we first put up the online course, and our next classes launch in January 2017. Our monthly revenue run rate is ~$1.5k. We had a growth in sales during our Black Friday promotions.

Our expenses are mainly server and service costs: Heroku, AWS, Gmail, Intercom, and Typeform, which totals around $100 a month.

What are your goals for the future? And what lessons have you learned from the past?

In the coming months, we hope to increase our site traffic and revenue by 10% on a monthly basis. We are preparing to launch an Android course at the end of January 2017 with iOS following right after.

If we could start over again, we would have skipped the in-person bootcamp and went with the more ambitious online education platform instead. And we wouldn't begin development of a product before validating its value proposition. We learned that the MVP needs to be beautiful and convincing, but also built in the most minimal time possible.

What's been most helpful to you on your journey? What do you think your biggest advantages have been?

I think the biggest advantages we have is we are both technical. That means our development cycles were relatively short, and we got to test many ideas very quickly. Being lean and elastic are very useful traits for a startup these days.

What's your advice for aspiring indie hackers?

Ask anyone building a product what it's like and they'll usually tell you that it's really, really hard. You cannot imagine how hard it is until you are doing it.

Ideas are worth nothing unless you make it. Test your ideas quickly and keep improving. We often test ideas by putting together a registration form and a landing page.

Think long and hard before raising capital. No one knows your company better than you do. So ask yourself why you need that money, how are you going to spend it, and could you have done it in other ways that don't require giving up equity.

Where can we go to learn more?

Feel free to leave a comment or ask a question below:

Harry Chen , Creator of Altcademy

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  1. 3

    Cool product. I'm still learning to program, so I'll look into enrolling.

    I'm also a fan of the new-ish annotations!

  2. 1

    Great interview! Why did you develop your own platform rather than using something like WordPress + LearnDash or other LMS?

    1. 2

      Most LMS are designed for universities (because they are the biggest client with $). Therefore, all these LMSs are tailored to grading and course registration, etc. It's not the ideal environment for actual, effective learning.

      We built our own learning environment because we have our way of teaching and learning. It allows us to conduct different small/big experiments in how to teach and learn online.

      Obviously, the caveat is that you have to invest with your development time. But, having a unique, good learning environment is a good asset too (great IP if you want to sell the business).

      Anyways, both of us are devs, so I guess we ultimately decided to build our own.