A true serial entrepreneur, Jonathan Levi has been involved in a fair share of business ventures over the last 10 years. Some of these ventures have been wildly successful, others not so much, but collectively they have all helped Jonathan acquire the skills and knowledge to build the successful online course business that he runs today.
In fact, whenever we’re asked by our community of online course creators for examples of successful courses built on Thinkific, we often point straight to Jonathan’s SuperLearner Academy – the online school where Jonathan teaches speed reading and memory skills to thousands of students from all over the world.
We recently interviewed Jonathan to learn about his journey, how he built his business, and to share some tips with other course creators. With over 80,000 students in 186 countries, it’s safe to assume that Jonathan knows a thing or two about teaching online and building a successful online course business.
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Searching for his next big opportunity
When Jonathan first start toying with the idea of creating and selling online courses, he had no idea that the market for online courses would grow to be as big as it is today. In fact, when he created his first course, his main goal was simply to make enough money to cover his living expenses while he searched for other opportunities.
“I got into online courses as a side thing”, Jonathan recalls. “I had left business school and I was working on this startup idea and it kind of wasn’t going anywhere. I decided to change locations and drop this startup idea and look for new things. I had sold a company previously so I wasn’t in dire straits, but I did want to have some income coming in from the side to cover my living expenses so that I could mill around and look for that next big opportunity.”
A big source of inspiration for Jonathan was seeing other entrepreneurs create and sell online course successfully. He had recently taken a growth hacking course taught by Mattan Griffel, for example, and after watching Mattan’s business evolve from selling courses in an online course marketplace to selling them on his own platform, he could see the potential. “I saw that and was like, wow, they built a whole business around basically starting in one small marketplace website and then creating their own. That’s pretty cool.”
Naturally, the next step for Jonathan was to decide what to teach.
By this point, Jonathan had already spent several years learning various speed reading and memorization techniques, and people in his network were beginning to ask him about these skills regularly. To Jonathan, this was a clear sign that others were interested in learning these skills from him. Now he just had to figure out how to organize his knowledge into an online course that others would be willing to buy from him.
Launching his first online course (after some serious market research)
Putting his marketing skills from previous ventures to good use, Jonathan decided to do some market research to validate demand for his course topic before he created it. “I did a little bit of market research, as any good entrepreneur would”, Jonathan explains. “I reached out to my target market, talked to people, and saw what their concerns were.”
Jonathan also began learning as much as he could about the process of creating and selling online courses as he could. “Then I took the skills that I teach every day – accelerated learning, speed reading, and memory – and I was like okay, let me figure out what this online course thing is about. What does it actually take to create successful online courses? How do marketplaces work? How do you beat the algorithms to be the top ranking course? What is good pedagogical design? I remember I opened like 45 tabs and I just read everything there was to know about online courses.”
Once Jonathan had a good understanding of what his target audience wanted to learn from him, what lessons to include in his course, and a plan for launching his course successfully, he got to work on creating his first course. He published his course on Udemy (an online course marketplace) on December 26, 2011.
To his surprise, Jonathan’s speed reading and memory skills course became one of the tops courses on Udemy within 30 days. “I remember I hit publish, and then I went on a ski trip. It was in January and I was in Switzerland with some friends, and I happened to get to Wi-Fi and I looked on my phone and I was like, ‘Oh crap, we already made $2,000!’”
Fast forward to 2017, Jonathan’s course is still one of Udemy’s bestselling courses, with 4,400+ student reviews and 38,000+ students enrolled:
From a single online course to a thriving business
While Jonathan was enjoying the steady passive income that came from having a top selling course on Udemy, he was also reaping the benefits of an often over-looked advantage of publishing a course in an online course marketplace: exposure. By having a course published on a marketplace, Jonathan was receiving free exposure to thousands of students from around the world.
“We grew our audience very organically on Udemy”, Jonathan explains. “For a long time this was just a side project for me. I was flying back and forth to East Africa and looking at opportunities to serve the developing world with different tech solutions, I was volunteering at different startups, and it just gave me the freedom to work on things that maybe I wouldn’t have worked on if I didn’t have a few thousand dollars coming in every month.”
As the number of students enrolled in his course grew, so did the number of requests for additional training and resources. “People started demanding a podcast, and then they started saying well why don’t you have a book?” Jonathan recalls. “So we did a book, and then we did another course, and then we did a podcast.”
Intent on riding this momentum, Jonathan decided to dedicate more time and effort to growing his business. And although he was grateful for the income he was earning from his courses on Udemy, the limitations of having his courses in a marketplace were becoming more apparent.
One of the biggest limitations of selling a course on Udemy, as Jonathan began to realize, is the price limit they impose on courses sold in their marketplace (see their most recent update to course pricing here). Udemy is also known for heavily discounting courses in order to boost course sales. So even if an instructor prices their course for $200, for example, the majority of their sales actually occur in the $10-$20 price range.
“It started to grind on me, all these little things that you can’t do when someone pays $10 for a course”, Jonathan explains. “You can’t fly around the world to interview an expert because that doesn’t fit into the model.”
When another successful online course creator showed Jonathan what he was earning by selling premium courses from his own website in comparison to what he was earning from Udemy, the next step for Jonathan became clear. In order to scale his online course business, he would need to create premium online courses that were hosted on his own website. This would give him full control over his branding, his course pricing, communication with his students, and other important features needed to give his students a better learning experience.
“What if I could offer a no-holds-barred ultra-premium course? Where if tomorrow one of the world’s experts tells me that I can interview him for thousands of dollars, I say yes, because it’s worth it?” Jonathan asked himself. “Or if tomorrow, I need to hire a new staff member to help me do customer service because we want 24-hour premium service, I can do it.”
With that in mind, Jonathan got to work. And on December 26, 2015 he launched his premium online course, Become a SuperLearner – The Master Class, on Thinkific:
Although Jonathan didn’t know it at the time, the timing of launching his premium online course on Thinkific could not have been more perfect. Just a few months later, Udemy announced a major change to their pricing model, forcing a $50 cap on the price of all courses sold in their marketplace. Literally overnight, Jonathan and thousands of other Udemy instructors watched the revenue from their course sales plummet.
“Udemy had this huge crash when they changed their pricing model”, Jonathan recalls. “And suddenly, it went from being 25% of our business, this Thinkific website – our own premium academy – to being 50%. That was meaningful.”
Experiencing this sudden drop in revenue from his courses on Udemy revealed a major risk associated with depending a marketplace to promote and sell your courses for you. Today, the majority of the revenue in Jonathan’s online course business comes from his premium courses, and he relies on his own marketing efforts to build his brand and sell his courses.
“I like Thinkific because I call it the Shopify of online course platforms. It’s limited but it’s limited in a good way. It takes a lot of decision-making out that I don’t want to be making, and it just works. It works really, really well. The uptime is really solid, and above all the support has been phenomenal. Sometimes it takes you guys a long time to integrate a new feature, but you actually integrate new features when I ask for them. I still feel like you guys give a damn about me as a customer, and work to constantly improve my experience and experience of my students. So that’s huge.”
– Jonathan Levi
Creating a content marketing system to sell premium courses
The next challenge Jonathan faced was convincing people to purchase his premium course, which was significantly more expensive than the price of his original course on Udemy. “It’s a whole other animal to take people who at one one o’clock in the afternoon have never heard of you, and by three o’clock in the afternoon are paying hundreds of dollars for a program they never even knew existed”, Jonathan explains.
For Jonathan, the solution to attracting and converting prospects into paying customers was to create a multi-channel content marketing ecosystem. By consistently publishing various types of free content (blog posts, podcast episodes, etc.) that attract and help his target audience, he is able to earn the trust of potential customers before inviting them to purchase a premium course.
“We see all these things as the top end of the funnel. So I get you into my ecosystem and as opposed to just ads, I’ll bring you in via ads, via podcast, via book, via blog, via Audible, via Amazon, or via Udemy. It’s a great way to qualify buyers, and instead of paying for leads I’m getting paid for leads”, Jonathan explains. “The amount of warm traffic that we drive is phenomenal.”
Related: 5 Steps to Creating Free Content That Attracts Your Ideal Customer (Video)
Marketing premium online courses (by creating free content, using paid advertising, hosting webinars, etc.) requires a significant amount of time and money to implement and maintain. But when you sell premium courses for several hundred or several thousand dollars each, as Jonathan soon discovered, you can afford to experiment with different marketing and advertising initiatives.
“There are a lot of strategies and innovations that I’ve worked on”, says Jonathan. “And this is the beauty when budget is no longer an issue because you’re selling premium level courses.”
When you sell your online courses at low price points in a marketplace, your ability to invest time and money into marketing your online courses is significantly limited. When each course sale is only worth a few dollars to your business, it is very difficult to generate a positive return on investment (ROI) from your marketing and advertising efforts.
Jonathan’s course creation process
Jonathan’s online course business has grown and evolved significantly since he created his first course back in 2011. With that in mind, we asked him if his process for creating online courses has changed, and if so, how.
“The content creation process has not changed at all. I sit down and write an outline, and then I write lecture by lecture, one by one”, Jonathan explains. “I have a lot of techniques that I use to make my content evergreen and modifiable and modular.”
The production quality of Jonathan’s courses, however, has improved over time. “The second course I did, I hired someone to film, and I used a professional studio. So that’s a huge jump in quality, and a huge jump in user experience”, Jonathan recalls. “The next course I did I hired someone to film and edit. And that was the next jump.”
Today, Jonathan has a professional studio that is ready at all times for him to create new content and courses. “Now, I’ve gone all the way to the other extreme, which is a ready plug-and-play studio. Everything is configured in such a way, like down to the millimeter. The microphone never moves. The lighting never changes. The room is acoustically sealed. All the windows are triple glazed and everything. So I have that level of consistency.”
Jonathan is not alone in his course creation process either. By hiring a full-time video editor, Jonathan is able to focus on the things he does best: creating new content, serving his customers, and growing his business.
“We hired a full-time video editor as well. We have standards and procedure. So for all of our titles we have the colours specified, the time specified, different camera angles. We record in 4k, so that any time I make a mistake we can cut camera angles, or make it seem like we cut camera angles.”
“We far outpace our Udemy sales with Thinkific. We have dedicated people for marketing and advertising. We hired a full-time video editor. We’ve got a proper business and the majority of it, at least 60% at this point, is revenue from our ultra premium stuff.”
– Jonathan Levi
Creating courses that foster student success
An important reality that Jonathan keeps in mind as he creates his courses is that people can learn anything online for free. This means that, as someone who sells online courses, there needs to be a very clear benefit for purchasing one of his courses.
“People can learn anything online for free. You can learn everything I teach on YouTube. So why do people pay me hundreds of dollars? Because I craft a learning journey, I take the guesswork out of learning, and I take some investment in their success”, says Jonathan. “It’s the environment that people are paying for. And I know this, so I very deliberately craft structured learning journeys that build on themselves.”
When you sell an online course, you’re selling an environment and a learning journey. You’re not just selling information.
“My whole model is built around automating absolutely everything”, says Jonathan. “We market to people even after they have bought the course. I check in with them, I send them automated emails, saying like, ‘Hey how’s it going? Let me know if there’s any problems.’ We have worksheets, we have a Facebook Community, we have premium service and support. In our Master Class level products, I personally answer the questions. And we have guides, quizzes, daily training logs, all kinds of different games. It’s a really active learning experience.”
In building out a personalized automation machine for his courses, Jonathan can ensure that no student falls behind even if he’s not actively there to help. He also wants to make sure everything in his courses are clear, or sees that something is lacking in his own process. “I view every question as a minor failure. So any time a student has to ask a question, that means something is unclear in the course”, says Jonathan. “And obviously, every refund is a major failure for us.”
Advice for first time course creators
As we wrapped up our conversation with Jonathan, we asked him to share a few words of advice for other course creators who are working hard to build their businesses. Here are some of his best tips for other people who are building an online course business:
1. Figure out your differentiating factor – why would someone pay you?
“Everything that you are teaching can be learned online for free”, says Jonathan. “So figure out why someone would want to pay you to learn something that they can learn for free. And that can mean premium service and support, it can mean hand-holding, it can mean direction, it can mean innovation in the way that you teach it.”
2. Have a marketing plan and do market research
“Just because you build it, doesn’t mean they’ll come”, says Jonathan. “Have a marketing plan in place. Do the market research to know that there are people out there who are going to pay for this stuff before you invest time and money and effort. And know how you’re going to reach those people.”
3. Create a MVP (minimum viable product)
Don’t try to create the perfect course with the highest production value the first time. Create a minimum viable course. Launch it. Obtain feedback from students. Then, re-invest the revenue from your course into improving it, creating additional resources and training for your students, or creating more courses.
“I was embarrassed by the first version”, says Jonathan. “It was recording with a webcam and a blanket taped on the background. The microphone was my MacBook with a towel over it to try to reduce the echo.”
4. Offer different tiers in your sales funnel
Create different levels of training for your audience. Then, create a sales funnel to guide our audience from your free content to your inexpensive or introductory level courses, and from there, to your premium and more comprehensive courses.
“If there’s anything really to be learned from what I do, it’s to have tiers in your funnel. I think it makes a lot of sense to have people come in at entry levels of the product. And if you look at guys like Tim Ferriss or Lewis Howes, they’re doing the exact same thing”, says Jonathan. “It’s basic microeconomics, right? Try to capture willingness to pay at any possible place.”
Thanks for sharing your insights with us Jonathan!
To reach out to Jonathan or to learn more about his courses, visit JLE.VIHow Jonathan Levi built a successful online course business @entreprenewer #teachonline Click To Tweet
Tyler Basu is the Content Manager at Thinkific. When he’s not creating content to help people create and sell online courses, you can find him writing articles and interviewing lifestyle entrepreneurs for Lifestyle Business Magazine and other online publications.
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