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They earn $1 million a year

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in April 2015.

Students and professionals evaluate the costs and benefits of traditional higher education against more convenient and affordable online options.

The online education industry is expected to exceed $240 billion by 2021according to Global Industry Analysts, Inc.

But where will these billions go? Who will benefit from them and how will you get your share?

Much of that goes to instructors: people who create educational content around their expertise in topics that interest them.

In fact, I’ve made over $5,000 in the last few months from an online course I launched in November.

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The only “qualifications” I have are from my own research and experience; no professional certification is required.

Here are some examples of successful courses you can learn from, as well as what you need to know to create your own online course.

Leveraging expertise: two excellent examples

John Azzi and Eliot Arntz won over a million dollars in 2014 for their course on developing iOS 8 applications and its new Swift programming language.

Their success is due to a combination of strong, helpful content, excellent customer support, and of course, some timely marketing efforts on tech platforms like Reddit and Product Hunt.

The couple had to spend about three months and $1,000 to complete the course in its entirety, an investment that has since paid for itself.

Rob Percival, a former high school math teacher in Cambridge, England, has had similar success. With four courses on various programming topics, he grossed over $1 million over the past nine months.

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Using income from a web hosting company he owned, he spent three months working full-time on his first course, creating over 30 hours of educational content. The problem was, when he published it, no one subscribed to it.

Rob made the difficult decision to allow students to access the course for free in order to gather positive testimonials, and then he continued to sell it to his database of web hosting customers.

Not all of them were interested in the topic of coding, but a large enough percentage were that the course started to attract attention and generate sales from outsiders as well.

What could you teach?

Although the examples above focus on very technical topics, there are online courses on a wide variety of subjects.

Naturally, courses with well-defined outcomes that can help the student earn more money tend to do well, but that doesn’t mean there’s no market for non-technical subjects.

Start by taking inventory of your own skills and experiences, especially if you have overcome challenges or difficulties in the past. Chances are, others are facing similar challenges and can learn from your expertise.

For example, if you use a specific software in your job, perhaps you could create the definitive guide to that software.

That’s exactly what Brett Kelly did with Evernote Essentialswhat Joseph Michael did with Learn Scrivener Fastand what Matt Donley did with it Master Sketchup.

In fact, you might be surprised to learn that good old Microsoft Excel is one of the most searched topics on the online education platform. Udemy.

Test your ideas and don’t be afraid to fail

After reading some of these crazy success stories, I wanted to try my hand at creating a course as well.

The first course I created was about hiring and working with virtual assistants in your small business, and it was a total failure. Even though it took me three or four weeks to fully develop and produce the course videos, it made me less than $400 in the 12 months it was available.

Still, I was determined to give online teaching another try. After having some success with a Kindle book launch, many peers emailed me asking for advice on their next book launches.

It was a non-technical topic, but in high demand.

This course, Kindle Launch Plan, made over $4,000 in its first three months and continues to generate a modest passive income each month. It took me about a month to design and produce, but it has turned into a valuable asset and proven that I can make money with online courses.

Where to organize your course

Once you have chosen the topic of your course, the next question is where to host it. How will customers be informed?

John and Eliot hosted their iOS programming courses above on their own website, which meant they had to set up video hosting, payment processing, and general technical structure.

But they are programmers, so it was not a problem.

Rob decided to host his course on Udemy, one of the largest online course marketplaces with over 5 million enrolled students. Udemy makes it very easy for instructors to get started and handles all payment processing and video hosting.

This is where things get complicated: revenue sharing.

Naturally, Udemy needs to make a profit, but they also rely on great instructors like Rob to create courses for their site.

The current royalty structure is set up so that if Udemy refers a student to your course through their own organic discovery or a promotion they run, they will keep the majority of the revenue, up to 75% in some cases.

The compromise they came up with is that for every client you bring in as an instructor, you keep 97% of the revenue, provided they sign up through your unique tracking link.

When I created my Kindle Launch course, I decided to host it with Udemy because I didn’t want to get bogged down in the technical details of hosting it myself, and I liked the fact that I would keep the lion’s share of the revenue from the students I sponsored.

I still wanted access to their 5 million customer database and figured it was acceptable to share revenue with them on each of those signups since they would likely be additional students anyway.

Don’t forget marketing

I think the biggest mistake people make when creating an online course is having a “build it and they will come” mentality.

Whether you host the course yourself or on a platform like Udemy, you will still be responsible for fueling initial traction and enrollments.

In the million dollar success stories above, both parties had large email lists of potential customers they could reach out to. This means that if you’re thinking about launching a course this year, you need to start thinking NOW on how you’re going to let people know.

One tactic that worked well for me in my course was to recruit a few high-level affiliate partners, people with their own large email lists who I had developed friendships with and helped in the past.

They created an exclusive special offer for their audience that turned out to be a win-win-win for all parties.

I’m looking forward to creating more courses in the future, as I think this is probably more of a portfolio activity. Will you be participating?

Nick Loper is the Side Hustle Manager at SideHustleNation.com, a growing community and resource for aspiring and part-time entrepreneurs. He also hosts the popular Side Hustle Show podcast, which explores new business ideas and tactics every Thursday.

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