Updated 2/26/19. Please note that this article may contain affiliate links.
We live in a day and age where the possibilities for making money are seemingly limitless.
The online marketplace has opened up opportunities for entrepreneurs living anywhere in the world. No longer must you suffer through a long commute and endless in-person meetings to make a living (unless you’re into that).
The Internet-enabled global economy makes it possible to work wherever you want and whenever you want—as long as you don’t let this newfound flexibility get the best of you. Certainly, not everyone will have the propensity to successfully act as their own boss.
But let’s say that you have the drive.
Let’s say you have a great business idea.
Let’s say you have some kick-ass skills that you know are worth something to the right client.
What most people new to the idea of freelancing or starting an online business lack is a process.
Certainly, there are many things to learn to find success going out on your own. Suddenly, you have to play a whole host of roles that you’ve never really had to think about before. Roles that are normally handled by full departments of people at the average corporation.
Once you start your own freelance gig or online business, you’ll have to do many (probably all) of these things in addition to the work that you can charge clients for:
- Bookkeeper (I just outsourced this!)
- Project manager (especially if you work with contractors)
- Hiring manager (see note above!)
- Accounts payable/Debt collector (not the most fun of these new roles)
- Business development
And it goes on, and on, and on…
After years of trial and error in my own business, I compiled this list of 150+ online resources to help you get started.
So where, or perhaps, from whom do you learn about how to successfully start an online business?
Enter business coaches and online courses. Ok, and masterminds.
If these terms are new to you, you’re fresher to the world of online business than most. Welcome!
Here’s a quick run-down of what each entails:
- Business coaches: Individuals who work with business owners/freelancers to create accountability and build strategy, often based on their own relevant business successes. In many ways, they’re like consultants.
- Online course: A collection of knowledge focused on a specific topic, taught like an online class you might take at a university. Sometimes includes learning resources (like workbooks or quizzes). Online courses are self-guided but sometimes includes access to periodic group coaching sessions over the phone.
- Masterminds: First popularized in the masterpiece Think and Grow Rich (I recommend giving it a read or three), masterminds are a consistent/scheduled meeting of the minds between people with similar businesses/stages of business growth. The goal is to create accountability and to help each group member problem solve business issues as they come up. Masterminds create symbiotic relationships where members give and get.
A little fine print:
In some cases throughout this article, I will use these concepts somewhat interchangeably—as they are often interconnected “products” or at the very least, different ways to work with the same types of individuals. Many business coaches create online courses, for example.
I’ll also be making some generalizations about these people. There are certainly outliers to the picture I’ll be painting and I’ve even referenced some of them at the end of this article.
So that all sounds pretty straightforward, right? There are many resources that can help you take your fledgling online business to the next level.
But what happens when you place your trust (and savings!) in the wrong entity that was supposed to get you there?
What happens if a coach, course, or mastermind promises to deliver something that can’t be taught?
Jump Ahead to a Specific Section:
You Can’t Teach Hustle
It’s time for some #unpopularopinions.
First, let’s just get this out of the way…
You can teach people a lot of different skills—but you can’t teach hustle.
That’s not to say that people can’t learn hustle. Just that it’s not something that you can go to a class for, sit and take notes, and voila! Suddenly, you’re a hustler.
Here’s the thing:
Building a successful business takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears (more so the latter two than the first).
A Journey from Poor Freelancer to Successful Business Owner
I’m a fairly risk-averse person in my personal life and I will admit that this carries over into how I run my business.
I detailed many of the exact steps I took to take my freelance gig full-time in Your Month-to-Month Guide to Starting a Successful Freelance Blogging Business (geez, that’s a mouthful of a title, now that I’m thinking about it!).
If you have a full-time job, I lay out THREE MONTHS OF SPECIFIC TASKS you really ought to complete before leaving the security of the corporate world. And that’s really underscoring all the work I did to get to that point—I had been freelancing on the side of my “regular” jobs for many years before moving to freelance full-time.
Here’s the other thing:
I did have guidance. I had a mentor.
Thanks to incessant networking, I found my own way to get the help I needed to fill any knowledge gaps I had transitioning to a full-time freelancer. Certainly, I didn’t bug him for Every. Single. Thing. I had questions about—but it was nice to know he was there if I needed him.
And regardless of the knowledge I gained access to—thanks to my awesome mentor—it’s not like he was going to do the work for me.
I had to do the work.
I had to bust my ass pursuing clients who wasted more of my time than the scant pay was ever really worth. I had to toil away many nights, weekends, holidays, and even sick days—working hard to grow my little business into something great.
And I don’t mean it to sound like a bad thing—just trying to show that first getting started and pushing through situations as they popped up taught me a number of invaluable lessons that I take with me into my business dealings today.
Especially how to deal with awful clients.
And here’s one more thing:
Sometimes? Business success is just luck: pure and simple.
No skill or drive can compete with the perfect moment, meeting the client of your dreams who’s ready to work with you.
But enough about my story for now.
The whole point of laying out some high-level aspects of my journey from freelancer to successful business owner was simply to illustrate that it totally is possible to make it on your own, without paying thousands of dollars each month for a business coach or pawning your engagement ring to be able to afford a multi-thousand dollar online course from a person who’s greatest success is the power of their own personal branding.
Which makes for a great transition…
When Paying for an Online Course Means Not Making Rent
The spark that eventually erupted into the idea for this article came to me sometime last year, when I was a member of Kimra Luna’s Freedom Hackers Facebook Group.
Like many, I was swept in by the story of Kimra Luna, who went from living on welfare to starting a(n alleged) multi-million dollar online business.
I mean, is there anything that screams “American Dream” more than that? Truly, she inspires many to pursue their dreams—showing them that success is possible even in the most seemingly hopeless circumstances.
But… I found my own Kimra Luna hero worship suddenly come to an end after participating in an intriguing but heartbreaking thread on her Facebook group.
She had just opened up the doors to her latest and greatest online course, Be True, Brand You. The premise was something about how building a great brand would result in tons of business #gains.
Which is all fine and dandy but at the time, the course retailed for many thousands of dollars. I believe it was more than the current course sales page claims (the link is now offline)—a cool $2400.
Many of the people commenting on this Facebook group thread were ravenous to get their hands on Kimra’s course. But the main problem? Nobody had the $$$ required to make it happen.
Nowadays, many course creators offer the option to do a payment plan. This seemingly benefits the student—it’s “cashflow-friendly!”
…Or so claimed a recent Copyhackers program, where the option is to pay $1997 upfront or $197 USD for a year (a total of $2364).
Personally, I think charging such a high interest (a 16.831% difference in cost between the two options) on a payment plan seems predatory… although I understand that course creators offering this option are trying to hedge the risk of someone suddenly stopping payment before the series is complete.
The thing if, if an online course doesn’t cost ~$2k—would a payment plan really even be necessary?
Back to the Freedom Hackers Facebook group.
People were jumping over each other to show off the lengths they were willing to go for a program they weren’t really able to pay for with their current financial situations.
As already referenced, one woman mentioned pawning her engagement ring. I’m sure it was for a relationship long over… but it still made me feel weird. Another person, well into adulthood, mentioned that they would be begging their parents to help cover the cost of the first payment on the course’s payment plan.
Did Kimra not see that her Internet celebrity in the world of online business was driving people to make decisions that would jeopardize their ability to pay rent? Or did she just not care—even though she herself had just gotten off welfare?
And either way—what does that say about her as a thought leader/champion of the people?
Dozens of people commented with similar outrageous lengths they would go to pay for a course they didn’t actually currently have money for. It was turning into a competition to see who was willing to give up the most.
When I commented to express my distaste in the direction the conversation was heading, I was promptly attacked by her loyal followers—and even Kimra Luna, herself. I was asked to leave the group.
Ringing in my head was the thought that you can’t build a truly great business by operating with the same greed many corporations do.
If you’re looking to profit greatly off the backs of people who don’t have a lot to spare, then your business does not add anything positive to the world. Consider that the next time you count your riches.
What’s the Value of an Online Course?
The value you place on something is subjective.
I might think that the new iPhone is worth $250 and pass… but you might wait in line and happily shell out that $1000 because of the way it makes you feel.
Like many other online course creators, Kimra Luna’s audience is primarily made up of dreamers. These are people who want so badly to get out of a bad situation (like she did) to find success their own way (like she did).
These willing customers make the assumption that the prominent figure behind a course will somehow rub off on them, sometime during the process of going through a series of recorded video lessons. Ok, and maybe some extra learning resources and group calls.
I’ll tell you what—I’ve never taken a course that has fundamentally changed the way that I run my business.
I have taken courses that provided great guidance into picking up a new skill. A recent example is Making Sense of Affiliate Marketing, where, for less than $200, I got a front-row seat (and documented processes) into the mind of affiliate marketing success story, Michelle Schroeder-Gardner.
BTW, that’s an affiliate link for the course. If you buy it, I make money—empowering me to make more content like this (or, you know, actual helpful stuff).
When it comes to things like online courses and business coaches, I’m a realist.
I know that the only way to find success is to put in the work. Any course or coach that claims that their paid content will do the work for you is just lying.
The High Cost of Desperation
At the end of the day, online course creators need to hold themselves to a high ethical standard when it comes to selling their info products—especially if they’ve built a large and loyal audience.
The people who buy $2k+ online courses tend not to be the same people who make rational business decisions.
Ok, ok, there have got to be some exceptions—just like any rule. But roll with me here for a minute.
Save for the people who have already found some type of success and are simply looking to scale their business to the next level, many people who sink money into business coaches and online courses for their online business are acting out of desperation.
And I don’t mean that as a stigma. I mean it as a matter of fact. If you’re desperate to make something work, wouldn’t you try anything to make it happen?
A lot of business coaches and online course creators take advantage of this fact with marketing/launch “best practices” that include pricing that tops out over $1000 a pop, a super short timeline for enrollment, and “high-value” bonuses that most people never actually care to access.
The idea of scarcity sometimes carries over to how many people can be enrolled in a given program at once, even though, as is the case with online courses, the content is already created—you’re just providing access to it.
All this said, I don’t intend to diminish the value of an honest person’s services and educational content. I just mean to make you think twice about something that costs so much but is only available to purchase for a very short period of time.
The Role of Authenticity
I don’t mean to keep picking on Kimra Luna but I’m trying to paint a picture of why everyone should be skeptical of business coaches and online courses with pricing in the multi-thousands of dollars.
Most popular courses have pages and pages of reviews on relevant search engine results pages and websites that aggregate customer reviews. Kimra Luna’s Be True, Brand You? Pretty slim pickings from which to do some research.
While searching to try and determine if I was being unfair and if her course was really worth the $2000 price tag, I came across this Ripoff Report.
There was another interesting SWOT analysis type article but it’s now offline. Regardless, in both situations, there’s speculation as to her expert knowledge when it comes to teaching the classes. Based on many articles describing her promotional processes online, it sounds like she should really be teaching people about Facebook Ads.
But Be True, Brand You is described as being all about finding your passion and defining your professional personal brand. Is it just me, or is it silly to think that people who successfully complete this course will be sufficiently armed to pay back a $200 monthly fee if they have to pawn wedding rings to afford it in the first place?
To be sure, branding and building thought leadership is important. I preach about it all the time. But it’s a long-term strategy. If you’re a struggling freelancer, it’s not going to pay the bills in the short term.
Kimra Luna promotes her course as the answer to her followers’ pressing financial woes—but how could it be?
And what makes her qualified to teach it?
Which brings us to another perfect transition…
This whole post was finally pushed into action as a result of what I consider to be an unprofessional public exchange.
It happened in The Six-Figure Freelancer Community. Ostensibly, the Facebook group exists to support its two proprietors (Jenny Beres and Alexandra Grizinski) and their online course/business coaching businesses.
A long-time group member (and apparently, someone who knew at least one of the founders in person), decided to announce his departure:
Totally childish right? And everyone knew it, defending the two ladies who founded the group:
But that wasn’t enough. One of the two of the group’s proprietors decided to get in the last word, even though, at this point, the group member was long gone:
I chimed in that I thought it was tasteless, since he wasn’t there to defend himself from what was becoming a very long comment thread of jeers.
I was asked to leave.
Is it just me or am I a magnet for Facebook group DRAMA?
Both of the group admins got extremely defensive over this particular (now) ex-member’s claim that they were frauds. He made it sound like they didn’t have the experience (or bank deposits) to back up what they were charging members for.
I decided to reach out to one of the few people who agreed with me that the rebuttal was tasteless (I’m not immune to confirmation bias). Sierra DeVuyst had this to say about the subject and it really resonated with me:
“You can fool losers, but you won’t trick the people that are winning.”
She admits that its a paraphrase of Gary Vee but I’ll take it.
I have yet to see any proof that these two are qualified to be teaching other freelancers how to make six figures…
In fact, try searching “six-figure freelance academy” (the flagship online course product’s name) and you won’t find anything not owned by the brand it relates to—except a little spam.
I think what I’m ultimately trying to get at with this article is that you, as a consumer, need to be smarter than the average online course/business coaching scarcity-induced promotional tactic.
This means seeking input besides the customer testimonials provided by the course creator. It means connecting with non-biased students who’ve actually taken the course. You need to specifically find out what about the course helped them to bring more money or efficiency into their business.
Look for concrete examples—otherwise, the people to whom the course is a sunk cost may just be trying to justify a bad decision. Confirmation bias, or trying to justify the decisions you make, is a real issue when it comes to seeking the truth (if you don’t have a process in place to dig it out).
I actually joined the aforementioned group initially for a sense of camaraderie. As evidenced by experience in writing freelance-focused articles for clients like WPMU DEV, AND CO, The Write Life, and GoDaddy—they’re kind of my people.
But as a result of this weird exchange, I decided that this clearly wasn’t the group for me.
The group’s leader was so willing to push me out for simply disagreeing with how she handled a particular situation. Their loss—I’ve achieved six figures in revenue in less than two years of doing this thing full-time. To date, I’ve never paid for a business coach…
…but I have paid for a few (reasonable) online courses.
Yes, I’m a Course Creator
Before I come off as a hypocrite, I’d like to mention that I myself am a course creator. I’ve also provided coaching for a number of blogging clients. But I’m not in it to make millions—although a little passive income would be nice!
For real, though, my online course creation doesn’t make me much but it allows me to build my audience and test ideas for something bigger (more on that in a moment).
That’s why I started my first real foray into course creation on Skillshare.
My most popular class so far? How to Write a Kick-Ass Blog Post. The cost to access it (and several thousands of other really useful classes)? $15/month or $8.25/month if paid annually.
I’ve also created a Skillshare class based on my own success with How to Negotiate a Six-Figure Freelance Salary. Again, you can access that without having to spend hundreds of dollars.
Check out an up-to-date listing of all of the Skillshare classes I’ve taught.
For the average new freelancer, I think that this point of entry is a lot more reasonable when it comes to seeking specialized help.
Of course, if you as a course creator are not benefiting from having a marketplace like Skillshare literally bring you new students and followers, you’ll have to charge more to cover your own production and marketing costs.
I’m also creating a course for Teachable that will cover the in’s and out’s of creating a WordPress website: with considerations for customizing your theme, choosing plugins, and even what to write on that damn About page you keep stressing about.
And I won’t be charging anywhere near $1000 for it.
So sign up for updates (and to apply as a beta tester in exchange for free access) if that’s of interest. I’ve finished most of it but it will likely be a few more months until it “officially” launches.
Look guys, I know that I’m starting to develop a reputation as a complainer—although I prefer to think of myself of someone who calls it like it is. But, I hope that you can understand that at the end of the day, I’m just trying to help other freelancers find success—not get taken advantage of.
The same motivation is the reason why I volunteer my time to organize and run monthly Freelancers Union events in Denver.
How to Be an Ethical Course Creator (or Business Coach)
If you’re a fellow online course creator and you’re worried that you might be taking advantage of your audience, I’d encourage you to consider my tips for being an ethical course creator:
- Teach a specific skill—not hustle. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: you can’t teach hustle. People have to do the work. Furthermore, just because something worked for your business coach doesn’t mean it will work exactly the same for you. All that said, business coaches and online course creators can make a difference in teaching people skills that aren’t typically covered in regular classrooms—I think that’s their competitive advantage to traditional education and consulting.
- Speak from experience. Don’t lie about experience you don’t have. Show proof or link to off-site testimonials so that there is no question.
- Offer a minimum 30 day no questions money back guarantee (note that Kimra Luna’s Be True, Brand You neither offers a refund or money back guarantee over any period of time). If you’re worried that people will take advantage of you, consider adding a level of completion limit. For example, if someone has made it through 75% of your course, they are no longer eligible for any refund. Make sure this policy is clear to all who purchase your course.
- Don’t charge so much that you’re putting a loyal follower in a position where they might purchase from you at the expense of paying for rent. Anything over $1000 is excessive for a non-accredited program being marketed to the struggling freelancer demographic. I don’t understand how some people can charge prices comparable to a semester of community college.
- Offer options for different budgets, based on different levels of hand holding. Make a bare-bones option available—perhaps an ebook that covers the same material you walk students through for a higher price on video. This will give people access to you at a budget they can afford, while pushing those who want the more “done-for-you” help towards paying an additional fee for that convenience. Spending a little extra effort to create multiple tiers that help people with low budgets will pay off in good karma that positively affects your paid offerings in terms of loyal brand reps and potential sources for testimonials.
- Use psychology to your advantage to push those to buy who would do so anyway BUT don’t abuse your powers of persuasion to convert those who are desperate and struggling. It’s a fine line, so ask a trusted group for feedback before heading straight into a stressful/pushy three day launch.
- Consider a monthly pricing model. Erin Flynn offers monthly and yearly access to her client and processes lessons, part of a platform that she regularly updates with new learning resources. You get a discount based on what you can afford at the time and your trust in her ability to keep delivering quality content—but can also choose to just pop in for a month at a time when you can justify the cost. In many cases, this type of pricing model and production schedule encourages many students to stick around in anticipation of your new content.
- Underpromise and over deliver on value. Or, in other words, don’t play up lame bonuses that aren’t worth their “retail” value. Make a truly awesome course that’s packed with value and bonuses are hardly necessary.
- Masterminds should be free. You have it in your power to connect with and organize a monthly (or weekly!) meeting of the minds. A good mix of people who are on the same level—and those just above it—would make for a nice group structure.
- Offer unlimited access to content. If someone buys a course, they should have access to all future related updates. Additionally, they should be able to decide for themselves how your course fits into their busy lives—without the stress of a deadline.
- Cut the shit on excessive email drip campaigns and pressuring time limits. Or, just them use sparingly—ok?
- Value yourself and your time but not at the expense of putting a loyal follower into a place where they might not make rent. I’m not saying you shouldn’t make money with online courses or as a business coach. Just be real and be fair. Don’t take advantage of someone who is struggling and doesn’t know better when it comes to pricing.
- Every once in awhile, give back. If you’re starting to feel like you’re making too much money… why not offer to give some back? Melyssa Griffin is a course creator I have a lot of respect for and it only went up as a result of her semi-recent fundraising initiative. She offered discounted access to her popular courses in exchange for donations, not taking any cut of the proceeds. She ended up raising $119,227 for charity as the result of her efforts.
…and I’m curious to hear what you’d add to my list of ways to be an ethical course creator.
So—drop me a line on Twitter. I’ll retweet the best ideas!
Or, better yet, challenge me. Share your opinion.
What do you think of the current state of affairs with online course creators like Kimra Luna or business coaches who charge thousands of dollars per month?
If you’d prefer a quick walkthrough of this article, check out this awesome presentation that Canva made for The Blogsmith:
Also published on Medium.