We recently had the pleasure of interviewing Janelle Allen from ZenCourses.co. She has an inspiring story about how she left her corporate job to become an entrepreneur and build something of her own. Big thanks to Janelle for sharing this with us. Enjoy!
Tell us a little about you and your background, Janelle.
My background is in writing, consulting and Instructional Design. At my core, I’m a serial entrepreneur. In 2012, I left my corporate job as an online course consultant to start a company, Learnwise, where I help big corporations create online courses. But after getting so many questions from entrepreneurs who were overwhelmed with the idea of making a course, I decided to create a resource just for them. So I built Zen Courses to help entrepreneurs beat overwhelm and create courses that matter. I’m also the host of The Zen Courses Show, a podcast for and about solo entrepreneurs making online courses.
What can you tell us about the value of online courses in today’s world vs. the world 10-15 years ago?
That depends on the market we’re talking about. Online courses have been around for at least ten years, but it was always within corporate and education markets. But they’re new to entrepreneurs and small businesses. I think the value lies in reaching more people and educating people in a variety of modes. That always been the true mission behind online courses: to teach more people in ways that work for their lifestyle. Ten to fifteen years ago the technology to create courses was simply too costly for the average entrepreneur. Now, the added business value for entrepreneurs is additional products and revenue streams.
In what ways can an online course serve learners better than a run-of-the-mill eBook?
Engagement, interaction and accountability. I love reading, but while I’ve downloaded countless ebooks from online friends, I can count on one hand the number of I’ve actually finished reading. eBooks are passive. You sit and absorb what someone wants to share with you, then you’re expected to close the book and take action on your own. On the other hand, a course is active. Yes, you still receive information, but you also engage with that information in a different way. Plus, you interact with the instructor and, if there’s a group component, other people in the course. All of these things encourage motivation and accountability. Of course, this is dependent on whether the course is designed for these things. There are a lot of examples of courses that feel like ebooks.
What are the biggest mistakes you see people make when building/marketing their online courses?
- Think about your learner first. Every single decision should stem from the question: “What should my learner be able to do after completing my course?” Answering that question helps you figure out your learning outcomes, content and supporting activities.
- Make your course actionable. People expect to be able to do something when they take a course. They’re much less forgiving with courses than ebooks. So courses shouldn’t just be dry PowerPoint/Keynote presentations. They need to have activities, worksheets, etc. The key word is action.
- Save technology for last. I tell my clients all the time that technology is a distraction. Start by focusing on your learner’s needs and outlining your content. Those things will tell you what tech you need. For example, if you find out that your audience wants a group component, then you know you need that technology. I’ve interviewed some very successful course creators who put all this tech into their courses only to find that their audience wasn’t even using it.
- Validate before you start. I’m a big fan of just starting, so I get it. But marketing should start before you create your course. Have you built an audience? Have you surveyed them to see what they want to learn most? Have you done a pre-sell to validate that people will actually buy your course? Don’t want to pre-sell? Maybe create a mini-course and see if people buy that? These are hard questions, but they’re so necessary. They’ll save you a ton of work, expense and heartache.
- Don’t get stuck on pricing. This is a big one for a lot of people. I’ve seen people obsess over pricing before they even create their content. Don’t. Think about your audience’s budget (are they struggling or do they have expendable income?). Research what your competitors are charging. Then pick a price. The nice thing is you can always change it later. You can also offer payment plans if you go with premium pricing.
Why might it be better to have help building an online course vs. going it alone?
A lot of people focus entirely on marketing your online course, but my experience has been that people are really struggling other aspects. We have questions like: “Where do I start?” “How do I organize my content?” “How do I find time to create all this stuff?” These are big questions and most people just go it alone. I think that’s why there have been some less than stellar courses out there. Because it’s all so new and overwhelming. That’s why I believe entrepreneurs need to hire course designers or take a course on building better courses. It just helps you manage everything, stay on track and–most importantly–stay sane. We hire web designers and graphic designers, but most of us don’t think to work with a course designer.
What advice would you give someone who’s not sure they have an idea they can monetize into a course?
First, I always encourage people to clarify their mission and value before monetization. When we think about money before value, it’s never sustainable. That being said, the answer is to validate your course idea beforehand: build a loyal, niche audience. Engage with them. Pay attention to their problems and what they ask you about often. Survey your audience to see if they’re interested in your course. If they say yes, create a course meant to specifically solve their problem. Pre-sell your course. If it doesn’t sell, ask why, iterate and try again.