Udemy Instructor Strategy: The Business Strategy of the Super Stars

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Udemy Instructor Strategy: The Business Strategy of the Super Stars

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: 

 

SuperStars.JPG

 

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?

 

 

Lawrence M. Miller
Author/Instructor
55 Replies

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. 

 

Lawrence M. Miller
Author/Instructor

Seven Habits & In Search of Excellence are my favourites from your list @LawrenceMMiller 

 

Sharon Ramel
Spiritual Guide, Shaman, Priestess of the Blue Rose

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. 

 

Thanks,

 

With kind regards,

Vlad.

@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. 

 

Lawrence M. Miller
Author/Instructor

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.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2014/10/27/heres-how-one-new-college-grad-made-66000-in-one-...

 

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.

 

Lawrence,

 

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

 

Thanks!
Jason Dion

 

 

 

Jason Dion
Lead Instructor @ Dion Training Solutions

@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. 

 

Lawrence M. Miller
Author/Instructor

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. 

Sharon Ramel
Spiritual Guide, Shaman, Priestess of the Blue Rose

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. 

@Fervent True.

 

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.

Course Length.JPG

 

 

 

Lawrence M. Miller
Author/Instructor

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.

@FrankKane Interesting that "bias for action" is one of the principles in In Search of Excellence. 

 

Lawrence M. Miller
Author/Instructor

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!

True

HI

Thanks for the shout out Lawrence! 

What a great post - really interesting data @LawrenceMMiller 
Thanks for sharing this

Great analysis!

@FrankKane and @PhilEbiner are the only ones on this list that publically share their earnings.

 

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. 

@JohnBura You are right about the public sharing. Just for clarification, the earnings numbers in my table are estimates based on my data that says you are likely to earn approximately 11.5 times the number of reviews you receive. It is only an estimate. And, of course, you are right about other sources of income. Most of these instructors have their own sites and there is no way to tell what they have earned on those sites. 

 

Thanks

Lawrence M. Miller
Author/Instructor

I've never heard of a "contract with Udemy" other than the one we all sign. And I talk to a lot of the top instructors regularly. I get paid like you get paid.

 

Also keep in mind that the number of enrollments is different than the number of students. If you have a lot of courses in the same topic area, you get students buying 10-15+ of your courses. I have students enrolled in 20+ of my courses.

I was going to say, we certainly don't have any extra contracts. We just don't give numbers anymore publicly for our own personal reasons. One is that you can get quite close with estimates like Lawrence's.


*Brains behind Jason Dion*

Best post! Very inspiring @LawrenceMMiller Thank you for sharing! I am sure everyone will benefit...

@LawrenceMMiller  Do you mind if  I translate this great article into Japanese and share it in Udemy Japan community? Since it is very helpful, I would translate it by myself (I am ex-TED subtitle translator), not by machine translation.

 

Best regards

Shigeru Masukawa

@Shigeru_M Help yourself. I don't mind at all.

 

Lawrence M. Miller
Author/Instructor

Thanks @LawrenceMMiller  You are generous!

I have just posted Japanese translated version in Japan community. Thanks again, Lawrence!

 

Best regards

Shigeru Masukawa

Larry, you're giving away the secrets!

 

 

If you haven't gone to https://www.teachinguide.com/ , it has some good metrics. The top instructors according to the site make 300k per month. 

How do they know? Udemy doesn't publish instructor revenue data. I would believe 300K / month in gross sales, but not net to the instructor.

Hi @JohnBura and @FrankKane,

As far as I know, they also have gross estimates based on the sales details. Nothing concrete as such.

 

That's just what the site says. I do think some of it as an estimate. Having said that, since you post your earnings now and again, Teaching Guide does accurately guess your income (ish). My income on Teaching Guide, however, is not accurate.

Believe.

There are definitely 300k+ instructors (instructor share).


Thor Pedersen - IT , Project Management, and Cyber Security trainer

That site is not sure accurate anymore, I am estimated at 8k and I am consistently over 20k on Udemy. 
It is only based on student numbers, not enrollments, my enrollments per student are higher than the average instructors. 
75k students, 250k enrollments. 

 

It is so individual it is hard to give proper metrics.

The $11.5 /review is also way off for me, mine is more than double. 

 

This is all of course only on Udemy.


Thor Pedersen - IT , Project Management, and Cyber Security trainer

Great analysis and findings, thanks for sharing.

I may not have been paying attention, but when did Udemy Teaching Guide become a paid service for Instructors ?!!!

What's being discussed is a third-party website that has no affiliation with Udemy itself; it was always a paid service. Udemy's own teaching center remains free.

Ok, thanks !

So many of you have bought this paid service ?

 

You can free preview it. I didn't buy it because I didn't see any additional data that I needed. 

 

Lawrence M. Miller
Author/Instructor

Great post as expected @LawrenceMMiller ... thanks for sharing

Really nice write up but I feel it's lacking some key details. I first heard about Udemy as a student by searching for courses that would teach me web development. This is when I came across Colt Steele's course - which was around 5 years ago. 

 

Udemy has changed since then - 

  1. There are far, far more mentors producing courses
  2. When competition was scarce, it gave a far higher chance of a new course becoming popular
  3. Those that did reel in students established a name for themselves. This is common on particular topics where a particular mentor is known for their courses 
  4. By establishing a name, it is far more easier to produce more sales for new courses. Mentors often promote to their existing userbase to generate sales and is why new courses from existing successful mentors see fast sales upon release
  5. Udemy brought in new rules stating your course can only be published on the Udemy platform. No other platforms can be used, which was another avenue to generate a brand

 

The pricing model has since changed - 

  1. Mentors tend to get less revenue after the recent change to the pricing system
  2. When I started I was making around $5 min per student. That figure is often now around $1.50.
  3. Combine the revenue cut with the increase in competition, it's no longer comparable to when someone like Colt or the more established mentors made a success for themselves
  4. Similar student enrollment figures while receiving less revenue means more work for less money. If student numbers remain the same or increase, then it's likely you will need to provide more time and dedication towards answering questions and supporting students. This can make it less appealing - hence why some people give up after creating a course or two.

 

I'm not arguing with what you have said. You've given some very useful advice - but I do not agree that it's now all in a mentors hands. New mentors coming to Udemy today will be fighting a very uphill battle to make a comparable success to those that are already successful. 

 

@GianniBruno011  I agree with most of your points. Of course Udemy has changed as it has grown. Every marketplace becomes more competitive and mature and there are advantages to those who have built their brand on Udemy. 

 

Just to clarify a couple things: You must be exclusive to Udemy to be in the Udemy for Business catalog, but not in the general marketplace. 

 

It is not correct that we receive less per enrollment now. I monitor my data very closely. Last month my average revenue per enrollment was $3.11. It was about the same a year ago. This differs depending on a lot of factors for each instructor. But, what really matters is not how much you receive per enrollment, but how much you receive in total revenue. A  good measure is the average growth rate from year to year. In September the average monthly revenue grew 52% as a two year average. That is close to the growth rate of Udemy overall. 

 

I agree that many people give up after creating a course or two. That is why the strategy needs to be to build a brand with a good number of quality courses in your category. It is more difficult for new instructors today. 

 

Lawrence M. Miller
Author/Instructor


@LawrenceMMiller wrote:

It is not correct that we receive less per enrollment now. I monitor my data very closely. Last month my average revenue per enrollment was $3.11. It was about the same a year ago.


Actually, it is very much correct. Revenue share has dropped and you can read about it here. Udemy also introduced a withholding tax at source for students enrolling from India. This was introduced over a year ago and is taken at point of sale, meaning a 20% tax in processed prior to the revenue being posted. Yes, this is to do with regulatory compliance, but it still reduces revenue considerably and appears to be solely at cost to the mentor. 

It may impact you less if your students are mostly based elsewhere. I teach software development subjects and my courses tend to be popular with students based in India, since technology is one of the leading sectors in the country.

 

This is also confirmed by my sales data. Most organic sales from India generate roughly $1.70 per enrollment. This was closer to $5 when I started teaching.

 

 

@GianniBruno011 I am very familiar with that change, the change from 25% and 50% to a common 35%. We have had endless discussions about that change. How it affected each instructor is somewhat different depending on their mix of marketing channels that bring them customers. If you are tracking the outcome of that for your own revenue than it may be different than mine. But, overall it was not simply a "reduction" as you stated. 

 

I can't speak to the withholding tax because that change didn't affect me. 

 

Again, the "bottom line" is the net amount of revenue we receive. For many of us that has been going up each year. 

 

 

Lawrence M. Miller
Author/Instructor

Thank you very much

Hey there,

I've got to say, this is a goldmine of insights for anyone looking to make a splash on Udemy. Your deep dive into the strategies of these Udemy gurus is not just impressive but incredibly useful.

As someone who's been in the course creation game for a while now, making millions for my employers, I found your article resonating with my experiences. The emphasis on the need for instructors to go beyond just producing a single course and instead building a full-fledged business on the platform is spot on. It's a competitive world out there, and your article nails the fact that to stand out, you need a robust strategy and a truckload of dedication.

 

The way you broke down the success factors - expertise, consistent content creation, engaging presentation skills, and building a solid brand - is exactly what I've seen work in the field. And let's not forget the importance of an internal locus of control, as you mentioned. It's all about focusing on what we can control and continuously improving, rather than getting bogged down by external factors.

 

Your piece serves as a fantastic reminder that success on platforms like Udemy isn't just about knowing your stuff; it's about how you package and present that knowledge, how you connect with your audience, and how you market yourself.

 

Taking inspiration from your analysis, I'm doubling down on my efforts to create my own courses on Udemy. With the lessons from your article in mind, I'm excited to translate my past success into this new venture. It's about leveraging my expertise and experience but also adapting to the unique dynamics of the Udemy marketplace.

 

So, thanks for the great read! It's articles like yours that give seasoned pros like me the extra insights and encouragement to take the plunge into new opportunities. Keep up the fantastic work!

Cheers!

@CoreyGrayCoaching Surprised to see this post surface again. I'm glad you found it helpful. I see that I wrote it more than two years ago. I am sure that all of the number have changed dramatically. My number ("moderately successful") have doubled in the past two years. I would assume that is also true for the more successful instructors. However, the conclusions and advice haven't changed at all. I think my points are still valid, even if the data isn't. 

 

Good luck in your new career on Udemy. 

 

Lawrence M. Miller
Author/Instructor
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