Instructors should think seriously about their strategy and approach to Udemy. Many new instructors have an idea and the skills to produce one course, hoping to make money with that course. That is fine if your ambitions are very limited (keep your day job!) and you are willing to accept that the likelihood of success is low given that you are competing with more than 180 thousand other courses and 65 thousand instructors in the marketplace. The more successful instructors on Udemy have not merely published a good course, they have built a business. These super stars have pursued very different strategies that produce very different results. Lets learn from them.
The average instructor has published approximately 2.77 courses. Many of those have published one course and given up. But, the “super star” instructors who have built a successful business, have averaged 46.4 courses. I am going to take a group of highly successful instructors who have obviously developed a genuine sustainable business on Udemy and look at their numbers and their strategies. I am going to average the numbers of Angela Yu, Frank Kane, Phil Ebiner, Chris Haroun, Scott Duffy, Colt Steele, Jason Dion to get a picture of how these instructors have performed as a business. These are all superstars and are definitely NOT average! I consider myself a moderately successful instructor but not in the same category of success as these instructors.
Study their numbers, which are all from their public profiles. I arrive at the dollar earnings by multiplying the number of reviews by $11.5. Obviously, this is an estimate and will vary depending on the category and the number of free coupons or courses an instructor has given away. This is the multiple from my own data and I give away virtually no free enrollments.
Study the stars by the numbers:
What is Their Strategy
Highly successful instructors, people and companies behave differently than the less successful. So, what do the super stars do?
1. Dedication and Expertise
First of all, these instructors know what the hell they are talking about, and you can tell. Frank Kane came to Udemy after a successful career developing data analytics at Amazon. Chris Haroun is a successful and popular Stanford Un. Business professor and investor. Jason Dion has had a career (and still works at a full-time job) in information technology and security. Their expertise is the foundation of their business. They didn’t just pick a topic they thought would be popular. They focused on topics within their known expertise.
Second, each of these instructors have been developing courses and building their business over a good number of years and they did not have immediate success. They stuck with it, got better at presenting and structuring courses, and their own marketing. Persistence in any field of endeavor pays off.
2. Presentation and Personality
If you really want to know why these instructors are successful, I challenge you to take each of their names and search for their courses in the Udemy search bar. Watch the promo video of each instructor’s most successful course. Why do they sell?
If you want to be a great basketball player, you don’t watch videos of your neighbor shooting baskets! You watch video of Steph Curry, Michael Jordon, and other greats. You analyze exactly how they hold the ball, the fractions of a second it takes them to release the ball when shooting 3 pointers. Great quarterbacks study film of themselves and other quarterbacks and they know that on average they have 2.5 seconds to get rid of the ball. Analyze the best. Be a student of success!
If you watch these promo videos you will see that these instructors do two things. First, how do you feel about them? Yes, I said FEEL. Take one of their topics and then scroll to the third or fourth page of the search results. Now watch the promo video of an average instructor in that category. How do you feel about them? Which instructor would you most like to have dinner or a cup of coffee with? I will bet it’s the one who gets the best business results. I have had a meal or a cup of coffee with each of these instructors (Udemy Live!). They are smart, entertaining, and fun to be with. You can feel that in their promo videos. And that is one of the primary reasons people buy their courses. They are “likeable.”
Another instructor once said to me “I know my subject, I don’t have to be an entertainer!” OK. But it is a well-researched fact that we buy products from salespeople who we like, who make us comfortable. We trust them. The best university professors are entertaining. We remember their entertaining stories, the things that made us laugh or cry. Learning is biased by emotion, as is purchasing. This is true for Udemy instructors also.
These super star instructors also sell the benefits of their courses. How will this course make a difference in the student’s life? We buy benefits, not features. The investment a student makes in a course is not the price, but the time required. We need to know, and we need to be reminded, how this is going to pay off for me. You have to tell them and tell them again. These instructors make the benefits clear to the student and they remind them of those benefits.
3. Super Stars have a Brand Strategy
Many years ago, there was something called “portfolio strategy” in the corporate world. Harold Geneen at ITT was a classic case of creating a corporation with a highly diversified portfolio of business units. It was a bit like a mutual fund. The research has clearly demonstrated that this diversification strategy depleted shareholder value rather than enhancing shareholder value. Successful corporations build an identifiable brand around similar products reflecting similar expertise. When I say “Johnson & Johnson” what comes to your mind? Integrity and healthcare products. When I say Pepsi or Coca Cola, what do you think about? Refreshing drinks and snacks, relaxation, fun. That is brand. None of these examples make computers or microprocessors, build airplanes or drill for oil. Those would be out of their brand.
Each of these super star instructors have built a brand. When you have ten or twenty courses in the same field of expertise you have built brand advantage. If I publish a new course in my area of management/leadership I immediately send out an announcement to my 157K students, and because I have built trust with them, many will buy my new course. When I send out any promotional announcement to my Udemy students and to my own mail list I am exploiting the network I have built around my brand. Each blog post I write is intended to strengthen my brand.
What is your brand strategy? How are you going to build your expertise, develop a cluster of courses within that area, and build your network of students interested in your topic? That is your brand strategy.
4. Super Stars are Internals, not Externals
I am not talking about their bellybuttons. I am talking about how they respond to external events. You will rarely if ever hear any of these successful instructors posting complaints about a bad review on the Udemy Community. And it isn’t because they don’t get bad reviews, we all do. It is because they don’t waste their energy complaining about external events or things they can’t control.
In psychology there is something called “locus of control”. My first career after college was working in youth prisons in North Carolina. I had a prison population of 350 convicted felons. I interviewed most of them. What I learned was that none of them belonged there. They were all there because of someone else. Someone else was to blame. The judge was unfair. The police, their lawyer, and always the infamous “other guys” who got them in trouble. The other guys got all of these guys into trouble. Inmates, a reliable sample of unsuccessful people, are highly external in their locus of control, genuinely believing that others are responsible for their failure. Highly successful entrepreneurs, business executives, or athletes, have great faith in their ability to over come difficulties. They recognize their own failures, learn quickly, and move on to the next challenge. They process feedback well. They have an internal locus of control. Super stars don't blame others, they practice continuous improvement based on processing feedback.
I love it when I see a post in the community that says something like “After three years on the platform, Udemy has failed, and I am quitting.” OK. But the truth is that it isn’t Udemy that has failed, they have failed to succeed on Udemy. And they will continue to fail if they are predisposed to blame Udemy (the other guys) rather than study their own performance, learn, and rise to the next challenge.
These are just four characteristics of highly successful instructors. Study them. What other characteristics can you identify?
Suggestion: If you want to build a successful business on Udemy, be a student of success beyond Udemy.
There have been a number of very good books that report studies of highly successful people and companies. There are great lessons for every instructor building a business in these books. For example...
Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Collins and Porras
In Search of Excellence by Peters and Waterman
Seven Habits of Highly Successful People by Stephen Covey
Secrets of the Millionaire Mind by Eker
and there are many others.
Dear @LawrenceMMiller ,
First of all, thank you for this article - as well as for many other articles you've written for the community. A lot of things to take action on.
In terms of books, I believe that "The Black Swan" by Nassim Taleb has a fantastic relevance to building a business on Udemy.
In short, he says that for scalable businesses, the difference between super-stars and regular people is very, very underestimated. That is, top 1-3 (maybe 10) performers in a given category get 99%+ revenue, and other thousands of people get less than 1%, distributed among them.
And on top of that, he says that "luck" is one of the ingredients, like the luck to be the first mover in a certain topic, etc. 🙂
For some people it might be quite discouraging. And Nassim generally feels like an angry person - I hope he is not like that in real life, but his books are way too sarcastic. But personally, I found his ideas to be very useful and actionable - to really build proper expectations (or, to be more precise, to avoid building wrong expectations), and play the long game.
With kind regards,
@Vlad_B I have the Black Swan but I have never finished reading it.
I think in any business there is a pyramid with a few at the top, some in the middle and the majority at the bottom. There is always some version of the Pareto Principle (80/20). I think online course publishing is very similar. It is a bit like... there are a lot of people who play the guitar and think they can sing, but only a very few get a record contract and only a few of them make significant money. The same in book writing/publishing. At Udemy, I don't think the top ten superstars get 99% of the revenue, however. I think there are probably 20 to 30 who have made more than a million dollars. I suspect that there are several hundred who have made $100k + and then a few thousand who have made a few thousand. But, I am just guessing.
In judging one's own success I think you have to be clear eyed about your expectations. If you have a full time job and you can make a couple thousand a month on Udemy that is a very nice additional income for most people.
It's not "luck" to be early or first in a category.
When Apple first introduced the programming language Swift, Nick Walter spent all weekend making the first Udemy course on it.
That's not luck. No way. That's striking at opportunity.
You want to be first in a category? Find one with no courses that you know is going to be popular and make a course. That's not luck. I didn't say it's easy to find one, but when you do, that's skill and effort that got you there.
And yes, Taleb is an angry person in real life. Check out his Twitter.
Great article, and good analysis. The one thing your analysis doesn't account for, though, with some of us "super stars" is the fact that because we have multiple courses, we can also upsell and cross-sell. This leads to a higher actual earnings per student/enrollment.
For example, I personally do twice a month promotions using my coupon codes to my existing mailing list (which is far more effective then the internal Udemy promo emails I am finding). When I do that, I can easily earn $3000 to $6000 during one of those promotions because I have such a large mailing list of willing buyers (50k students on my mailing list and counting).
When they buy with my links, I get 97% of the sale, so the numbers work out even better for us as instructors.
Based on your numbers, you are estimating we make around $3.50-3.60 per student, but for instructors who can promote their own courses, we can see that as high as $7-8 per student (on average).
All that said, you are right about everything you wrote in terms of what it takes to succeed:
- Build a brand
- Focus on what you can control, not external events
- Build a team and expand further based on your personal goal
@JasonDion Very good point. Cross selling, or "mining" your list increases the value of each student. The larger you student body, the greater the ability to increase that value. Another argument for multiple courses and building your brand.
Great post @LawrenceMMiller . I always love checking out what the top instructors are doing. The free previews are gold, as is the way they set out their CLP's. We can only grow by learning from the best.
Not sure about the math of the reviews; x 3 for mine.
Superb post Lawrence. I’d only add that Angela Yu’s a great example of how “number of courses” isn’t always the best metric to pursue. She’s got “just” 8 courses, but her courses tend to be Goliaths. Enormous, extensive, insanely detailed courses.
That being said, I don’t know if she had many more courses earlier and kept consolidating or killing the ones that didn’t work.
I think the Total Content and Average Content Per Course will likely be a good predictor of success, too. Obviously on the assumption that the content on offer is high quality.
Thanks for the analysis, @LawrenceMMiller!
Good analysis of Angela Yu. She presents very well. She speaks slowly and articulately, something I need to work on. I put together almost an entire course, and when I went back to review my videos, I'm horrified to see that I mumbled my whole way through.
@LawrenceMMiller , One of the things that strikes me about these big players is that they present well on camera, but their production is not exactly high-budget. It's not like they're in a sound booth with audiobook-quality audio, and they don't have "Masterclass" lighting. It's a matter of getting it done and providing value to the market, like you said.
One thing I learned early on, and I think I got it from TJ Walker's courses, is that it's far better to have short, easy to digest videos to keep the course moving along. I can't believe how often TJ Walker releases a video that is only 45 seconds long. This is great for those of us with short attention spans.
I once scrapped a whole 15 minute video and cut it up into 3 minute chunks when I saw that, and I found my course flowed a lot better.
Sometime ago we had a discussion about course length. I compiled the following chart of the top three selling courses in a topic and courses from the third page of a search for the same category. You can see that the average length of courses for the top three in these categories was 18.7 hours, while the third page courses averaged 9.2 hours. Web development courses, thanks largely to Angela and Colt Steele averaged 52.5 hours. Course length is one factor in success because it generally represents "value" to students.
Well said; the insight about internal vs. external focus is spot on. Complaining about things you can't control is a waste of time. Doing things about things you can control is what leads to success. At Amazon we called this "bias for action" and it was one of our core principles.
It's worth noting that timing plays a role as well; it's not enough to teach what you're an expert in, you have to be in the right place at the right time to find an opportunity for a course in that topic to take off. I think most of the "super stars" in your list had a first-mover advantage in their topics (or at least an early-mover advantage,) and they cemented that lead by creating comprehensive, engaging courses that are difficult to displace. Topic selection remains a critical piece of the puzzle.
Stephane Maarek is a good example of that; I think his numbers rival Colt Steele's now. He focused on a very popular topic (AWS certification) when competition was still low, and just went to town on it. He is very focused on the student experience and they love him for it, and he'll top the charts for a long time because of that.
What's even more interesting is that "In Search of Excellence" isn't one of the books they made us read as managers at Amazon. Maybe Jeff didn't want us to know where he lifted that from!
I have long thought that some of the superstars that don't share have contracts with Udemy. Greater exposure for less revshare but more consistent money.
This list doesn't include off of udemy profits either which could be quite a bit.
This is a very comprehensive list on how to be successful.