Improve your course before even creating it

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1 week to complete

Imagine launching your first course.

Great job! You can be proud.

But there’s an issue. Actually, there are a bunch of issues.

Your students don’t understand that one key concept that seemed rather obvious to you. Many of them give up when they reach module 3 for some reason — and a bunch of them end up canceling. And, oops! — you forgot to cover that important topic….

You don’t want to confuse and lose more students, so you make some changes:

Doing this wastes many months. And it can become very draining, especially when you realize that this could have been avoided. And yet, this is what a lot of course creators do.

We have made this mistake ourselves and seen it happen to others countless times.

But after almost a decade of creating courses online, we learned how to test early to get your course right from the start. In this chapter, you’ll learn how to do the same.

This is chapter 2 of the Online course creation guide

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1. You don’t have to create your course alone

To invent the light bulb, Thomas Edison famously built several thousand prototypes before settling on the right materials, shape, and wiring.

When his friend Walter S. Mallory asked him “Isn't it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven't been able to get any results?”

Edison replied with a smile: ”Results! Why, man, I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won't work!"

The same idea applies to online courses. It takes many iterations to create a great course that is engaging, brings results, and that people want to buy.

But Edison had simple feedback loops, which made it easier to iterate:

If the lightbulb doesn’t work well → Try again with different parameters

When creating a course, the feedback loop is not as quick. To know what changes to make, you need to get:

Positive feedback

  • What students love
  • What they find useful
  • What they engage with

Constructive (aka “negative but actionable”!) feedback

  • What is confusing
  • What is boring
  • What is too hard to understand

Ideally, you’d figure that out as early as possible. Maybe even before you’ve even started writing your curriculum.

For that, you’re going to need some beta students to talk to.

2. What conversations with beta students will look like

During your beta-tests, you will mostly have 2 kinds of conversations:

  1. Listening conversations — to improve your USP, and empathize with your students
  2. Teaching conversations — to test and refine your course’s contents

Those can happen in succession, even during the same call.

👂 What to ask during a listening conversation

During a listening conversation, you are asking questions to understand what is going on in your future students' brains.

This helps you avoid  the curse of knowledge.

The curse of knowledge occurs when someone who knows a lot about a subject forgets what it’s like NOT to be familiar with it.

For example, imagine a brilliant mathematician teaching math to 12-year-olds. Everything seems so obvious to her that she can’t even fathom what those little Minecraft obsessed rascals are struggling with!

Now, do YOU remember what it was like to be a complete beginner in your field?

Maybe. But even if you do, consider that some people will struggle more than you ever did. You ended up figuring it out, after all.

So pretend you’re a police detective or an anthropologist, empty your minds of all assumptions and start asking people simple questions:

  • What motivates you to learn this?
  • What is your end goal? 
  • What are the main obstacles preventing you from reaching this goal?
  • What have you already tried to achieve this goal? Why didn’t it work for you?
  • If you could have a 3 hour-free coaching with an experienced [Practitioner in what you are teaching], what questions would you want to ask them?
  • How will learning [what you plan on teaching] change your life? Describe a specific situation that will be transformed by what you would learn.
  • What are the biggest challenges or hassles you have experienced in [your topic]?
  • What was easy, and what was hard for you?
  • What could’ve made it easier for you?
  • What do you wish you had known when you first started?

💬 What to ask during a teaching conversation

During a teaching conversation, you want to… teach your beta student.

Your goal will be to help them with the problem you decided to solve with your course in the first chapter.

But you don’t need to do it in a very structured way. It’s not a problem if it ends up feeling more like a Q&A session — actually, it’s kind of the point.

By recording these sessions or by taking notes, you will learn what seems obvious to people (what to not blabber on too much about in the final course!) and what seems tricky (be sure to include answers to all questions that came up in your lessons).

3. How to find beta students

To get valuable insights, you actually don’t need that many beta students, about a dozen will be enough.

Obviously, your beta students should fit the target student that you defined in the first chapter.

Next, your strategy to find beta students will depend on your audience size.

If you have an existing audience:

Having an audience is going to save you a lot of time. But be careful, you still have to choose the right people as beta students.

Here is what you can do to find beta students:

  1. You can simply ask your audience through your existing marketing channels (email, social media and so on) if they are interested in being a beta student for your course. You will need to pre-vet them, through a form or by talking to them to make sure they fit your Ideal Student Profile, or are at least close to it.
Example of Twitter post

  1. Look for the people who interacted with your posts about the course, responded to your survey or with whom you talked to during the previous chapter
Example of DM

  1. If some people in your audience ask you how your course project is going, and they express interest in it, then you’ve got an easy conversation! Instead of scheduling it for later, you can start having it right now by asking them if they’re available to go on a Zoom ot Google Meets call.
Example of Conversation on Instagram

If the 3 previous ways of finding beta students don't get you enough beta-students, check the "Help! I have a small audience" tab.

If you have a smaller audience:

Your approach will be more manual, but no worries! There are plenty of ways to find beta students online:

  1. Look for the people who interacted with your posts about the course, responded to your survey or with who you managed to talk with from your actions in the previous chapter.
Example of email you could send to someone who answered the survey you send during chapter 1

  1. Look at the people you know personally and who might be a good fit to be a beta student. If they have the problem you want to solve, it might be the right time to pick their brains about it and help them out.

  1. Make a post on social media groups, forums, Reddit, Slack or Discord groups with people that may be interested in what you are creating, and reach out to the people who engaged with your post.

  1. If friends or colleagues ask you how you are doing, talk about how your course project is going. If they express some interest in it and they seem like a good fit to be a beta student, then you’ve got an easy conversation! Instead of scheduling it for later, you can start having it right now by asking them if they’re available to go on a Zoom or Google Meets call.

  1. Starting to create content online can also help you find some beta students, but is going to be very slow compared to the previous methods.

<p class="warning">⚠️ What about cold outreach?

Cold emailing or calling potential beta students can work, but it can be a struggle.

The reason is simple: cold emailing usually works best if you have nailed down your value proposition. And at this stage, you simply… haven’t. That’s precisely why you’re doing all this!

You would be better off finding people who are actively looking for a solution online on sites like Reddit, Twitter or Quora.</p>

When interacting with potential beta students, tell them how far you are in creating your course, and make what they will get out of talking with you clear (what value, what skills, time saved…).

What if no one wants to become your beta student?

If you have tried all the different ways to find beta students multiple times, and you’re still having a hard time finding beta students, it might be because of these 3 reasons:

  1. Your idea is bad and no one cares about it
  2. You are trying to get in touch with the wrong people
  3. You don’t actually care that much about that idea

In each of these 3 cases, there are solutions!

Reason 1: What to do if your idea is bad and no one cares about it 💩

Go back to the PURE acronym from chapter 1 : 

  • Is the problem Painful?
  • Is it Urgent?
  • Is it Recognized by your target students?
  • Is it Easier for you to solve it than it is for them to solve it themselves?

If your idea fits all those criteria, people should be eager to talk to you about a solution.

You might just find out that your idea is terrible and no one wants it. That’s okay! At least you didn’t waste a bunch of time building it.

But don’t give up yet. There are two more potential explanations below…

Reason 2: You’ve been trying to get in touch with the wrong people 🤷

In this situation, you have 2 solutions:

  1. Maybe you are not looking for beta students in the right place, so you might need to look elsewhere.
  2. But If you think that you are already looking where your ideal student should be, your USP or target student might need some refining.

Once again, it’s best to figure this out now, before you invest more time into the project.

If you think that you really tried everything, return to the “Choosing what course to create” template you completed during the previous chapter and see what other options you came up with.

Reason 3: You don’t actually care that much about that idea 🔥

Hey, look: being rejected sucks.

If you don’t care that much about the idea, it might be tempting to say “why am I bothering to reach out to these people who won’t even talk to me ?”.

Fair enough. But then, the worst thing you could do is to skip this step and still go ahead with the project.

Seth Godin popularized the concept of the Dip, which looks like this:

Every project starts with a burst of enthusiasm. 

But then it gets hard and boring, and you’re not even sure anymore if it’s going to work. That’s the Dip.

When you’re in the Dip, you have to answer two questions:

  1. If you push through, will you eventually succeed? Here, the answer resides in the customer's needs. If you’re solving a real problem, your business has a high chance of making it.
  2. Is it even worth it? Here, you have to look inside yourself: do you care about this idea enough to carry it through the Dip?

If you think that you are not going to enjoy the rest of your course creation journey, now might be the time to call it quits and find another idea.

But if you think your course idea has potential, keep on reading!

4. How to prepare and conduct your conversations with beta students

4a. Prepare

You might be nervous about your first conversations with beta students because you don’t have a neat and well-structured lesson prepared for them. 

But, hey, it’s a beta. If you focus on understanding their needs and solving their problems, they won’t care if you don't have a perfectly scripted lesson for them.

The best way to prepare is to send them 3 questions to answer before the call: 

  1. What are you struggling with most at the moment?
  2. What outcome do you expect at the end of the call?
  3. Are they OK if you record the session with them to use it to better prepare your course? (you can use the recording software that we recommend on the checklist page, in the Material & software tab to do it)

From this, you can prepare follow-up questions to dig into their situation, as well as some things to teach them.

4b. Frame the conversation

It’s useful to set expectations.

You can use this exact script :

Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

My goal for this call is to learn  as much as I can about your situation so I can help you fix [the problem they mentioned].

I’ll start with some questions I have for you, then we can discuss some techniques that should help you, and we’ll leave some time at the end to answer any questions you might have.

Sounds good?

4c. Ask your questions and present your solution

To help you have better and more engaging interactions, here are a few tips to apply during your conversations:

  • Ask them what they already know and have done in your topic, this will allow you to avoid blabbering about things that your beta students already know.
  • Reward them early, by helping them achieve a meaningful result early on, they will be hooked.
  • Create a safe space to make mistakes, this is important because being in a non-judgmental and supportive space will help them become more confident.

You can record the conversation with them, or you can take notes during the call, which will be invaluable resources for the rest of your course creation journey.

Pay special attention to the interactions during which your beta students have “a-ha” moments during the conversation: these will be key elements to add to your course.

You won’t be able to help them with absolutely everything during a single session, but you can focus on a single smaller topic and really dig deep.

4d. Debrief

At the end of the call, ask them:

  • What was the most useful thing they learned?
  • What questions are they left with?
  • What part are they not 100% sure they understood?
  • What are their next action steps?
  • How do they feel about their problem, compared to before?

A little reminder:

Positive feedback

  • What students love
  • What they find useful
  • What they engage with

Constructive (aka “negative but actionable”!) feedback

  • What is confusing
  • What is boring
  • What is too hard to understand

<p class="warning">⚠️ A common pitfall to avoid when talking with beta students

It might be tempting to ask for their opinion about your course idea, but this will do more harm than good. Asking for opinions is just fishing for compliments. The most impactful conversations happen early in the process, while you're still figuring out the contents of your course and are free to make drastic changes without rewriting anything.</p>

<p class="warning">⚠️ Another issue is to jump into teaching too quickly (or teach too much)

If you spend the whole time talking, you won’t learn anything you don’t already know! Be sure to ask a lot of questions upfront and leave enough time at the end for a debrief.</p>

Before you start looking for beta students, write a quick outline of what you think your course curriculum will look like on a piece of paper or in your notes app of choice.

Also, prepare your sessions with beta students by using the strategies in part 4.
By using the strategies above, get on a call with at least 12 beta students and take notes or record your sessions with them. (ask for permission if you want to record your sessions)
As you start having your first conversations, you can start listing what you think the most impactful and useful things to teach in your course.

For example, which examples created "aha" moments for your students, or which questions were really common?
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In the next chapter, you will learn how to teach effectively through online courses.
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Created by

Alexandru Golovatenco

Alex has enrolled in dozens of courses on marketing, development and design. He ended up with varied skills — and also a collection of best practices for teaching online.
He wrote the guide you’re reading.
Produced by

Stan Leloup

Stan has been creating courses for a decade. He built a 7-figure online course business called Marketing Mania.
He is also the founder of the website you’re on: SchoolMaker.