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60 Comments

I've made $75M+ selling online courses over the last 10 years. AMA!

Hey everyone,

My name is Ryan Deiss, and I launched my very first "course business" from my college dorm room way back in 1999. (Yeah, I'm old.)

Since that first product (which was an ebook on "How to make your baby food") my partners and I have launched hundreds of products and dozens of media/publishing startups in niches such as:

  • Entrepreneurship/Business Growth (Scalable.co is my latest)
  • Digital Marketing (best known for digitalmarketer.com)
  • Home and gardening
  • Outdoor and "survival"
  • Health and beauty, and...
  • Finance and investing

I've seen the good times, the bad times, and experienced my fair share of ugliness (including almost going bankrupt not once by twice).

I'm happy to spend a little time today sharing what I know about launching and scaling "course businesses" or just online businesses in general.

  1. 17

    Creating courses on various subjects, how did you get comfortable enough to create a course on a subject you perhaps didn't know well.

    Do you research it enough until you feel comfortable? Or do you strive to become a subject matter expert first, then figure out your USP?

    1. 10

      I never create a course on something I don't know very well. Part of my problem with the "course business" is the name. If we call it what it is (Publishing), then the model becomes much easier to understand.

      In publishing, there are authors and there are publishers. With self-publishing the publisher and the author are the same, but that's a relatively new idea.

      All that said, for the vast, vast, vast majority of the courses I have published, someone else was the expert and they were either paid a royalty (usually 10% on net sales), a flat fee (usually $500 - $10,000 depending on the scope of the project), or they did it for free to have access to our audience.

      Names matter.

      You aren't "course creators," you are publishers. If you start thinking like a publisher, you'll find that a new world of opportunities opens for you.

      1. 1

        I totally agree with you given what you've built

        But for those that are the authors, you describe that as self-publishing, right?

        Anything different or unique about self-publishing vs publishing that you feel is relevant here?

        1. 2

          There aren't any big differences, I would just encourage all the authors and experts out there to think about themselves as publishers FIRST and talent second. If you see it as two jobs, you'll 1) be more realistic about the actual work required, and 2) allow yourself to one day pivot into a pure publisher role where you can create transferable and exit-able value.

      2. 1

        Interesting take on 'publisher' vs 'course creator' differentiation. I think this makes more sense.

        I automatically thought you created the course, but I see now how the brand plays a significant role in this.

        Would you suggest then building your brand before 'course creation'?

        1. 4

          Product first...then brand.

          Until you have the ability to create value for a known audience, a brand is just a logo and style guide.

      3. 1

        This is great insight, i'm working on the model for my own publishing business aka courses but I need some experts for some specific topics on the curriculum and was struggling to find the best way to pay them or give them proper remuneration for the work done. is the % model based on net sales over a lifetime or for a defined period of time?

        1. 1

          All publishing contracts should have a start and end date. 2 years is typical, and after those two years you can either renew the contract under the same terms, tweak the terms to be more appropriate (for example, require that they update or redo the course), or cancel the contract completely.

          We structure our contracts such that the talent "owns" the content (meaning they can repurpose it) but we own the name/branding around the course, itself.

          In other words, if things don't work out and we don't continue, we can have someone else redo the course and the course lives on, while they have the opportunity to still teach the same subject, just under a different name.

          It's a super-fair deal, and in 10+ years of doing this, I have yet to have one go sideways. Even when we have parted, we have parted as friends.

    2. 1

      This is a really good question. I am interested in Ryan's answer :)

  2. 6
    1. If you create so many courses on different topics - how do people see you as an expert in every one of them? Did you think about focus on one topic for example?
    2. Why do you use different domains instead of start for example ryancourses.com and put all of them there with monthly payment?
    3. How long it takes to make one course?
    4. How would you recommend anyone to start? Do you have a checklist for every course? Share please.
    1. 2

      Answers below...

      1. I'm not the expert, I'm the publisher. My goal is to build value at the brand level (I.e. DigitalMarketer) because that is a sellable asset, not at the individual level. In other words, I don't want to be the jockey and I certainly don't want to be the horse. I want to be the owner.

      2. The world doesn't need anymore "one-stop shops for all your online education needs," so we niche and verticalize around clearly defined audiences and market segments.

      3. Most of our courses start out as live, cohort-based programs, so they're made as they're delivered. I'm a big fan of building courses live the first time, because audience feedback is critical. Once the core foundation is built, it's fairly easy to go back and re-record. Between recording and edits, a 6-module course can be professionally shot and edited in 4 - 6 weeks.

      4. We don't have any formal checklists, but as a general rule we start off promoting a webinar so we can test the basic hook/concept of the course. If people won't register for a free webinar, then it's unlikely they'll purchase a course on the same topic. If the webinar is a success, we will then promote the course (delivered live) to the folks who signed up for the webinar. If no one buys, then it's back to the drawing board. If some do, then congrats, you just got paid to produce the course.

      1. 1
        1. But you have to know what are you talking about. So you don't record courses for marketing, fitness, finances, beauty etc. You've got people for all of these topics, right?

        2. You don't have a processes for that? I thought it requires some process, automations to keep moving all of this stuff.

        3. Do you build small projects as a top level funnels for your courses?

        1. 1
          1. That is correct. If we aren't the expert, we find someone who is.

          2. I'm sure we do have a process, but I'm not sure what it is. We have project managers and curriculum development folks, but they are running their own playbooks for this. I do know that Andrew Barry at curiouslionlearning.com has great stuff on this, so I would follow his lead.

          3. Yes. Once the main course is built, it's common for us to splinter off a "chunk" and offer that as a stand-alone entry point to the main course.

          1. 2

            Thanks for the shout-out Ryan!

          2. 1

            Thanks.

            1. How do you convince them to record for you? How would you at the beginning of your journey?
              They can easily build their websites and start by their own.
            1. 1

              If you already have a brand and an audience, they'll do it for free to get access to that audience. If you don't, you'll have to pay.

              "Back in the day" I paid a guy $500 to create a course (just test and images because this was pre-YouTube) on how to roll your own sushi. He thought I was nuts because it only took him a few hours, but I had that course up to $500 a week in sales within a few weeks.

              I couldn't repeat that exact same model because SEO was much easier and less competitive back in the early 2000s, but the publishing model remains the same.

  3. 4

    Thank you for doing this AMA.

    What's your favourite medium to deliver your courses content?

    For video courses, did you always "show" your face?
    In an industry like "Health and beauty", I think it'd be paramount to be an authority figure, with people expecting you to show yourself and your face.
    Is it how you did it?

    Stop me if I'm wrong but I assume that you first delivered quality content (written?) before doing courses (video)
    Is that so?

    Last but not least, I could see that both scalable.co and digitalmarketer.com have been built with Elementor - Wordpress.
    Have you ever considered moving outside of WordPress or are you so satisfied with their platform that it never crossed your mind?

    Thank you :)

    1. 1

      We let audience preference determine the medium, but most of the time it's a combination of talking-head video and screen-capture recordings. For the big, conceptual stuff that doesn't change very often, I prefer head-on. For the more tactical stuff that changes all the time, screen-capture and image/text is better because it's easier to update.

      As for WordPress, it works, so I don't question it. I was an early investor in Teachable and am very close with the guys at Kajabi, too, and both of those platforms are amazing. We've just always built in WordPress, because when I started none of the above existed. :)

  4. 3

    Thoughts on “validating” courses? e.g. you plan on building multiple courses… what heuristics do you use to tell if one is gonna be a winner?

    1. 2

      Start with a webinar that has a title/subtitle nearly identical to the course you're eventually wanting to produce. If no one signs up for the webinar, or if they signup but don't showup, then it's unlikely they will purchase a course under the same name.

      Names and promises sell courses...not the course, itself. Never forget that.

    2. 1

      Oooh good question. I look forward Ryan's response.

  5. 2

    Hey Ryan, how do you find the content creators for your courses? And how do you "convince" them to join you? Why do they choose to join you and not do something on their own?

    1. 1

      We look for people who are already producing the kind of content we're looking to publish (bloggers, YouTubers, podcasters, public speakers, authors, etc.) and then we pay them.

      I wish it were more complicated than that, but in my experience, cash is still the best incentive.

      Most subject matter experts have a day rate, so once you know how they value their time, it's pretty easy to price the cost of producing the course based on the number of days it will take to create it.

      But this is just a general rule.

      If the subject matter expert has a bigger brand than you, you might have to pay them more, or even pay them a royalty on top of an advance. (I talked about how we pay royalties in another question in this thread.)

      Alternatively, as your brand grows, many people will be happy to produce courses for free just to get access to your audience. I did this for Hubspot a few years back, and many marketing experts do this at DigitalMarketer.com.

  6. 2

    I've got so many questions as you seem to have seen everything regarding courses :)

    1. Have you ever done Tiktok ads to sell courses/webinar ? If so, was it profitable ? May I see any of those ads ?
    2. Same question but for Instagram.
    3. I've read your answer on SEO saying what people really want, Google can not answer to it but... have you made google ads in the past ?
    4. If you were to start an agency which would only focus in helping people selling more courses given they're already selling some (no matter what the topic is, could be gardenning courses) , what would you do ? Change the name of the course and go all-in with ads ?
    5. I have not nought anything from you (sorry huh) but may I ask what your funnel is ? I have not seen any upsell while trying to buy a playbook. Do you have upsell/cross sell anywhere in the process ? Maybe post-cart upsell ? Or you're sending a lot of emails once someone has bought once ?
    1. 3
      1. No, but we plan to test. Our primary channels are Google, FB/IG, and YouTube, which makes sense given they are still the dominant traffic players. We don't rush to jump on every new platform. We let our audience dictate where we go, and right now Tiktock is still a minor play, but I do believe this will change in the next 12 - 18 months.

      2. Yes, IG is huge for us...especially ads.

      3. Yes, Google is good, but FB, IG, and YouTube are better for us from an ROI-perspective.

      4. It depends. If conversions are high but traffic is low, I'd go all-in on ads. If conversions are low, then I would absolutely fix the offer and the copy before I spent a penny on ads. Anytime you're optimizing anything, work from the end of the customer journey backwards to the beginning. Focusing on traffic and awareness when conversions suck is just pouring water into a leaky bucket.

      5. There's a good chance you've purchased something from me and just didn't know it. :)

      ...but all joking aside (and yes, that was a joke), a typical funnel for us is a free lead magnet that leads into a lower-ticket offer (usually $20 - $50) that then ascends into a free trial for a membership or into a higher-ticket program. We also do a lot of followup marketing to drive people into webinars where higher-end programs are sold, and once you get above $5k, we've found that it's best to drive leads into a sales team that can generate sales via a consultative sales call.

  7. 2

    Hey Ryan, big fan of what you did with Digital Marketer. I’d be curious to know how does your typical day looks like 🙂

    1. 2

      I wish I had a typical day because we're always starting new stuff. What I can tell you is that while I still produce content at DM, I have been out of the day-to-day of that business for 4 years.

      When I am working on a new project, though, it's usually split 50/50 between product creation and marketing, and on the marketing front, my focus is almost entirely on copywriting and offer creation. (I let either our team our outside experts handle traffic channels because that stuff changes so quickly.)

      1. 1

        Hey Ryan you mentioned you're always starting new stuff. Do you think you have the 'shiny new object' syndrome entrepreneurs tend to have and are often juggling multiple projects at a time?

        And if so, how do you go about managing your focus across projects because it seems like you've made it work 😅

        Cheers

        1. 1

          I absolutely suffer from shiny object syndrome. It’s both a blessing and a curse. The two things that help us stay focused and get things done are:

          1. Single-threaded teams. Anytime we try to take on multiple simultaneous projects as a single team, we fail. So now our rule is one project per team, and 3 - 6 projects per team per quarter.

          2. We hold strategic planning meetings quarterly (NOT annual planning meetings), and I describe that process here: https://scalable.co/library/the-scalable-planning-process/

  8. 2

    Is there anything you learned from Digital Marketer that you consciously decided to do differently for Scalable? (I'm sure there's a lot, but any core philosophy changes or maybe big, needle moving tactics?)

    1. 1

      Yes, great question!

      At DM, the model early on was to produce a lot of different courses on every conceivable subject. This was good because it gave us multiple entry-points into the DM universe, but it was challenging to maintain. At Scalable, we're going the "less is more" route and focusing on three primary accelerators that all funnel into a higher-ticket program.

      The "lot of littles" model can still be effective, and in consumer markets it's probably still the best option.

      But for Scalable, we were very intentional about doing less but better.

  9. 2

    Advice on building a list of serious, higher earning founders/investors/executives?

    Most B2B infoproduct businesses attract newbies. But Scalable looks like it successfully attracts 7-8 figure business owners. I've only seen that from news-based B2B newsletters like Web Smith's 2PM, which seems closer to what "bigger" people would want.

    Thoughts?

    1. 2

      It's all in the messaging. If you fish with crack, you're gonna catch crack-heads. We try to be intentional about our messaging such that it attracts who we want while simultaneously repelling those who aren't a fit.

  10. 2

    What do you think is the best way to gather an audience to sell to, today? How would you do it if you were starting today?

    1. 6

      Nobody likes this answer, but you can't think about audience-building until you're clear on how you're going to monetize. Assuming you have something to sell, and assuming that "something" is expensive, the best way to build an audience is through paid advertising to a super-high-quality content piece that leads into a consultative sale. This works in B2B and B2C (although no one in B2C believes it).

      If you go this route, your hyper-responders will subsidize your audience-building efforts, and eventually, you reach a tipping point where the "normal" people on your list start monetizing.

      Assuming you also have a solid organic strategy (social or SEO depending on the market), that should start to snowball just as your high-value hyper-responders begin to fizzle out.

      1. 2

        Thank you Ryan! You made me think of the way I'm doing things 😁.

        When you say it works with B2C too, do you think the $100 - $150 dollars price range is expensive enough - monthly recurring revenue?

        1. 2

          I prefer a customer value in at least the $1 - $3k range. $100 - $150 is going to be very difficult to bootstrap unless your traffic is virtually free. Even at $100/mo, you'll likely have to wait 90 - 120 days to return your acquisition costs, which is fine for a funded company but nearly impossible for a bootstrapped startup.

          A helpful question to ask is, "Of the people who would purchase my $100 offer, what are the 10% who would pay 10X more, and why would they pay it?"

          Answer this question, then start with that offering and downsell the $100 offer.

  11. 2

    What do you consider your biggest mistake and what would be your advice to avoid it?

    1. 5

      Sooooo many, but most of them revolve around people. As a general rule, I have thrown people at bad systems, and then wondering why margins and productivity suffered.

      Another classic mistake is ignoring your customers once the business starts to take off. I screw this up ALL the time. In the beginning, it's easy to talk to your customers because you're doing everything...marketing...selling...customer care. But as the business takes off, and especially once you start hiring people, the gap between you and your customers tends to widen. Don't let that happen. Do things like...oh, I don't know...AMAs. :)

      Oh yeah, and pay your taxes. I didn't know I was supposed to do that and got upside-down $250k to the IRS. That sucked, and it cost me 2 years.

  12. 2

    Hey Ryan,

    Cheers for this AMA. Q's below.

    Do you use a basic template for creating a course that you apply to a variety of topics or does each topic needs it own content strategy?

    How many people does it take FT to produce a course and whats the typical length of time it takes to make one?

    What are the best distribution channels for first-time course sellers?

    1. 2

      Answers below...

      Q: Do you use a basic template for creating a course that you apply to a variety of topics or does each topic needs it own content strategy?

      A: We don't follow a set template, but the general process goes something like this:

      1. Figure out the transformation/desired end result you are going to deliver
      2. Figure out the starting point for the average customer
      3. Map the steps from the starting point to the end result (these are your modules)

      My tendency is to think too big, so one product becomes 2 or 3 (or in the case of the certifications at DigitalMarketer.com...8).

      And that's fine. Modules are atomic units of content. They can be bundled and splintered based on what's going to be best for the customer.

      Q: How many people does it take FT to produce a course and whats the typical length of time it takes to make one?

      A: One. We are fortunate to have a team of producers, designers, and learning specialists, but the first time we do anything it's one person (the subject matter expert) and Zoom. All our courses are done live at least the first few times because there's no substitute for 1) real-time feedback and 2) selling something before you have to deliver it.

      Q: What are the best distribution channels for first-time course sellers?

      A: Your own media...ideally an email list. If you don't have that, try to leverage someone else's...even if you have to give them the vast majority of the revenue. (I have produced and sold courses and given 100% affiliate commissions to build audiences.) If you can't or won't do either of the above, then your only other option is to invest heavily in the communities where your market is already hanging out. This is easier in B2B, but it's not impossible in B2C.

      At the end of the day, though, networking and "making friends" is still the best way to get started. I'm an introvert and it kills me to "work a room," but I did it and I still do it because I like food and shelter. :)

  13. 1

    Hi, Ryan

    Im alex and I read a lot of digital marketing on growth topics. I work also in the industry. How do yoi recommend me to start a course with CF app?

    1. 1

      Please excuse my ignorance, but I’m not sure what you mean by “CF app.”

      1. 1

        Sorry, Clickfunnels.

  14. 1

    Hi Ryan,

    Thank you for doing this AMA. Here are my questions:

    1. Why do you say building an audience is not important? How do you sell to people that do no recognize your brand? Why would they buy from you?
    2. I understand that you use webinars to estimate if some course topic would sell? How do you get people to sign up for your webinars? Do you just do paid ads? How do you know who to target?
    3. What do you think about interactive courses? I am considering building a course on IT evergreen topic. I don't have an audience. I have a huge experience on the topic but I don't have an online presence or strong personal brand. My USP would be that I offer a unique interactive experience (cloud resources are provisioned for each user in the background, web terminal to perform exercises, interactive guide, together with standard video and text). I would market it with slogans like "Learn by doing" and similar. What do you think?
    1. 1
      1. I don't think I ever said that building an audience wasn't important, but if that's what came across, I apologize. Building an audience is absolutely CRITICAL, but I don't believe it's the first step. Start by offering something of value to your existing network (even if it's tiny) or a related community. Once you've made a few sales and understand how to best communicate your value, then you can start building an audience because you'll 1) know the best words and phrases that get people to take action and 2) have some capital to invest in audience-building through paid and organic channels.

      As for why people will buy from you if you don't have an audience, while it's always more difficult to sell to someone who doesn't already know, like, and trust you, if you solve a big enough problem, consumers will always take a risk on someone they don't know if no one else is promising to solve that problem.

      1. Yes, paid ads and/or endorsements from existing influencers that I have either made friends with and who are doing me a favor, or who I have offered compensation in the form of an ad or paid email.

      2. Interactive courses are fine, but innovating on the delivery mechanism of a course is likely not enough to make someone buy. Course creators geek out about new methods of teaching and delivering content. Real people...the people you are selling to...are just looking for a solution to a very real and very painful problem. So focus on finding innovative solutions to painful problems, NOT finding innovative solutions to problems that are already being solved.

  15. 1

    Do you think that for every person's problem to be solved, there is a thirst for knowledge to be filled?
    Do you think learning by consuming is taking action?

    Hugo

    1. 1

      No, I don’t believe that knowledge is the solution to all problems.

      While the adage, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime…” may be true, it’s also cruel to force a man who is literally starving to death to learn to fish before he’s allowed to eat.

      The Lesson: Sometimes we have to give people what they want (the fish) so we can earn the right to give them what they need (how to fish).

      This is why I believe the best teachers are also doers, and they never stop doing just because they start teaching.

      As for the question, “Is learning by consuming taking action?” I would say that yes, learning is a form of action. That said, learning without execution is nothing more than the happy distraction we call “entertainment.”

      And there’s nothing wrong with entertainment…you just shouldn’t lie to yourself and say you’re “taking action” when you have no actual plans to implement the things you’re learning.

      1. 1

        Thanks for the time you take for responding! Sounds interesting!

        I ask this second question "Is learning by consuming is taking action" because i feel at certain times, learning is a dangerous disguised form of procrastination or even worse: A way of thinking that we move forward when we only create movement.

        Thanks!

        1. 2

          I 1000% agree, and was more or less saying the same thing that you were saying. :)

  16. 1

    digitalmarketer.com - what a great domain! How much did you pay for it?

    Secondly, I see that a third of your web traffic to this site derives from search. With this in mind, what are your 3 best SEO tips?

    1. 2

      Honestly, we're not the best at search. Our bread and butter is paid.

      What I do believe has helped us, though, is 1) a great domain (I paid $10k for digitalmarketer.com back in 2011), 2) lots of age (that site has been posting actively for almost a year), and 3) leveraging paid to drive awareness to organic content to get it the initial boost it needs.

      We recently brought on a new General Manager to head up DM who specializes in content marketing, so keep an eye out for improvements in this area. And who knows? Maybe in a year or so I can come back and do an AMA on SEO. :)

  17. 1

    What are your thoughts on Gumroad as a platform for creators?

    1. 1

      I love it!

      We have homegrown solutions because (again) I'm old and solutions like Gumroad didn't exist when I got started, but I wish sure wish they did.

      In the early days, it's all about speed to launch, NOT selecting the best tech stack. There is no one perfect tech stack, and even the best ones will have to be changed and swapped out as your business scales. So just pick the one that will get you launched the fastest, and only evaluate tech stack on the basis of 1) customer experience, and 2) your ability to monetize.

      If moving to a new tech stack doesn't pay for itself in 90 days through increased conversion, retention, or expansion, then stick with what you have.

      Swapping between different tech solutions is the digital business equivalent to organizing the file cabinet to distract from the fact that you don't have any customers.

      1. 2

        love this point

        focus on the transformations that you talk about above first and then worry about your tech stack for delivering a validated course approach

        1. 2

          You really helped me to crystalize this concept, so thank you for that. :)

  18. 1

    Do you create courses based on SEO keyword research then once you have the titles you create the content? Is it possible to launch a successful one with a influencer social following to shill/promote it?

    1. 2

      We leverage almost no SEO research to build our courses. I'm not saying we shouldn't, we just don't. In my experience, the best courses speak to a super-deep core desire, and people rarely tell Google what they really want. If you want to create a great course, you need to scratch an itch that can't be scratched by a Google search.

      1. 2

        How do you find those people with super deep desire? I mean in both how do you decide on a persona and where do you actually find real people afterwards?

        1. 1

          While it's harder these days, in the past I leveraged events and gatherings to actually meet people face to face. You'll never discover the real problem or the DEEPEST core desire in a survey. Those kinds of discoveries only happen when you 1) are the customer or 2) live and work with them very closely.

          Nobody likes this answer, so nobody does it. That's why it's still such a massive competitive advantage.

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