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Earn money on the side by creating and selling an online course

4 min read
Len Markidan  •  Apr 16, 2018
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There’s no shortage of tips out there on earning money on the side as a designer. The problem? Most of them are awful.

Enter design contests.

Create a profile on Upwork.

Sell logos on Fiverr.

What do all these have in common? You’re one of many.

The nature of marketplaces is that they commoditize supply, which means that your skills and talents—that you’ve spent years painstakingly developing—don’t matter at all to the buyers; they just care about getting the best deal.

“There are people out there who would love to learn from you.”
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You’re competing with hundreds (or thousands!) of other designers for the same projects, many of whom are located in parts of the world with far lower costs of living. It’s not a fair playing field, and it puts tremendous downward pressure on the prices you can charge.

These tactics are stressful and uninspiring—and they woefully undervalue your worth as a skilled professional.

Related: 10 tips on scaling your side gig while maintaining quality

Today, I want to share a better, more profitable, and infinitely more scalable approach to earning money on the side as a designer.

Teach others what you know

You’ve spent a long time building expertise in something that many, many, many people would love to learn about.

Why not teach others what you know by creating and selling an online course? As a $46 billion market, building a course is one of the surest ways for expert designers to earn money online.

And it’s not as complicated to do as you might think. I’ve broken the process down into four simple, easy-to-follow steps:

Step 1: Come up with a profitable idea for your course

There are three sources of inspiration I recommend for this:

Look at what’s already bringing you revenue.

Course creator Justin Jackson shares a terrific and often underused approach with his students: “My biggest tip is to ask yourself: ‘In what areas am I already being paid for my time and expertise?’”

What are people paying you for? In your case, it’s easy: People are already paying you for your expertise in design, so it’s a natural starting point for creating a course.

Do you have a particular design niche that you’re especially skilled in? Start with that.

Survey a handful of prospective students.

Ask questions like “What’s your biggest challenge with [topic idea that you’ve brainstormed]?” and “What would solving this problem allow you to achieve?” (so that you can understand just how much of a burning pain the challenge is for them).

If you don’t have an audience in the form of an email list or social media following, just ask the kinds of people who you’d hope would take your course.

Some other questions you can ask:

Find a gap in the marketplace.

Go on sites like Reddit and Quora, and, in the communities focused on your topic, search for terms that suggest that people are looking for a solution.

With more than 500,000 members between the two subreddits, r/Design and r/Graphic_Design are great places to start.

Search terms that I’ve found particularly useful: “how do you,” “how do I,” “I’m struggling with,” “any tips,” and “please help.”

Simple searches like this can quickly generate potentially profitable course ideas:

Here are a few more idea generation approaches to get you started:

Step 2: Plan your course content

When students pay you for a course, they’re not just paying you for information—they’re paying you for an outcome.

So when planning your course content, start with that successful outcome and work backwards from there.

What is the result you want your students to achieve?

When you build your course outline, the answer to that question goes at the very top.

[Grab a free course content planning template here]

Your first course module will reaffirm to the student why they’ll be doing what they’re doing for the rest of the course.

After that, break the end result down into the various steps that need to be taken to achieve it, and plan to build one module for each big step.

Step 3: Create your course content

The four primary content formats you see in online courses are video, audio, digital downloads (PDFs, worksheets, etc.), and text.

Each has their own pros and cons:

The “gold standard” format is video, and here’s why: It’s multi-sensory (students both see and hear the content), and so it can be more engaging, more interesting, and more “sticky” than other content formats.

One report by Forrester Research suggests that when it comes to delivering information, justone minute of video is worth 1.8 million words.

For that reason alone, you should include at least some video content in your course.

The complete guide to creating an online course has expert tips on how to produce content in each of the four formats.

Step 4: Name and price your course

The two last things you need to do: choose a name and price for your course.

Naming your course

After studying thousands of course names at Podia, we found that the most effective ones tend to have three things in common:

  • Effective course names are targetedTwitter Logo, making it clear exactly who this course is for. If we’re building a course on knife skills in the kitchen, then “Knife Skills 101: Learn To Cut With Confidence” is a much better name than “Knife Skills” because it tells the prospect what level of skill the course is designed for.
  • Effective course names are results-orientedTwitter Logo, conveying the result that the student can expect. “Knife Skills 101: Learn To Cut With Confidence” is also a better name than “Knife Skills” because it tells the student what specific outcome they’ll get at the end.
  • Effective course names are unambiguous and don’t use fluffy language or jargon that confuses the student and makes them think too hard about what the course is about. “Knife Skills 101: Learn To Cut With Confidence” leaves no question as to the course topic, whereas something like “Blade Mastery” might sound “cool” but isn’t clear.

Pricing your course

Course pricing can be an endlessly complicated topic, but it doesn’t have to be. For your first course, use a simple model of goal-based pricing.

What is it that you want from your course?

  • Do you want to reach the highest number of people? Offer it for free, and use it to generate leads for freelance design work.
  • Do you want to make the highest total number of sales? Price your course low enough to make it a “no-brainer” for your prospects (under $30 in most markets).
  • Do you want to earn the highest total revenue? Go high. It’s a lot easier to earn $1,000 selling a $1,000 course to one person than by selling a $20 course to 50 people.

You’re ready to sell!

There are plenty of ways to earn side income as a designer, but few of them are as scaleable, profitable, and personally rewarding as teaching others what you know.

There are people out there who would love to learn from you.Twitter Logo And if you follow the steps above, you’ll be able to find them, serve them, and earn a healthy side income from your passion for design.

Header illustration by Mackenzie Child.