Keep it simple: What I have learned from making an online course

Making an online course means keeping track of a lot of moving parts. But mostly it means making a strict rule not to overthink things.

My current obsession is the making of an online course.

I started the process in mid-January 2024, and have been working on it every weekday morning before I dive into work for clients. It’s now just past the middle of April, which makes three months of more-or-less steady plugging away.

On the surface, I don’t have much to show for all that work:, which has totalled 85 hours and counting. I don’t have a course to sell yet, nor do I have a sales funnel (not that I want one of those).

I do have a landing page, one almost-complete video and a firm idea of what my initial offering is going to be. I’ve also done a bunch of market research, and have a small group of people eagerly awaiting a first look at what I have to offer.

Mostly though, I’ve learned a lot about being my own project manager, and some new skills. I have also discovered that there are some things that can’t be learned quickly.

My top three lessons

1.  I need to listen to myself

I’ve been keeping a rough-and-ready weekly journal of the process on my long-neglected Tidiness Project site. (It has almost no readership, so there’s no pressure to be polished or wise or funny.)

On January 18, I wrote this: 

“I’ve drawn up a six-week plan, deadline March 1, 2024, printed it and congratulated myself on a job well done: I have limited the amount of time I will spend on research, I’ve told myself I don’t have to do a bunch of courses to learn skills. I’m just going to pick a topic, make an email course and see if I can sell it to 10 people.”

Dear reader, you can see that I did not meet the deadline. But I did end up doing a lot of research, I did take courses to learn new skills and I did not just “pick a topic”.

There have been at least three times in the last three months that I have taken a step back and realised that I over-complicated things, or got too ambitious, or taken on too much (more on that later). Each time, I’ve had to go back to the drawing board, make a new, simpler plan and do another iteration of work.

If I had been working with an external project manager, they would have been vigilant about trying to prevent scope creep. But I was working alone, and adding things in always seemed a good idea at the time. Adding things in is also a self-sabotaging process – but each time I have been able to pull myself back from the brink and get back on track.

Top tip: if you are working on a new project that seems big to you (and only you know what that is), check in with your feelings as you go. If you start feeling frustrated or overwhelmed or as if things are falling apart, there’s a strong possibility you’ve over-complicated things. Take a day off. Then go back to your original thoughts and see how what you are doing now compares. And then pare back to what really needs to get done now.

2. Don’t overthink the technicalities

Fairly early in the process I picked an online platform called Thinkific as the place where I would host my online course. My main reason? Thinkific is one of the few platforms that doesn’t tie you into a 14-day trial, and then require you to start paying.

Since I was impelled into online course making by a dip in income at the end of 2023, I don’t have disposable cash right now to sink into a speculative venture. Thinkific is easy to use, reputable and its offering (scaled-back as it is) gives me just enough functionality to test out my idea.

Some of the other platforms I looked at had another drawback: they only offer a partnership with Stripe as a payment gateway (in other words, the means by which I will get people to pay for my course). Stripe is not supported in South Africa. (Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s objectionable first-world nonsense.) Thinkific offers Stripe and Paypal, which does work in South Africa.

But, much further along in the project, I discovered some limitations to Paypal (or at perhaps to the way that Thinkific implements it). I will only be able to offer my students the option to pay in dollars.

That won’t work, I thought. And spent two valuable days wondering if I should dump Thinkific, researching payment gateways and trying to find Thinkific clones in Africa. (See my first lesson: don’t do too much research.)

Then I got a grip on myself and said: if people have to pay in dollars, so be it. I will just have to make that clear upfront.

Top tip: When a seemingly intractable technical issue arises, pause and ask yourself: is there a simple way I can solve this problem? Then do that simple thing.

3. Abandon all ego ye who enter here

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the words “All hope abandon ye who enter here” are inscribed above the gates of Hell. They might as well have been tattooed on my forehead for part of this project

Thing is, when you make an online course, you must inevitably make a video or two. Well, perhaps not – but my course aims to teach digital skills, and to do that online there have to be demonstration videos.

But making videos is a skillset I just don’t have.

I knew from the outset that this would be a challenge, but I had no idea how big a challenge it would be. I took several valuable weeks figuring out technical issues: microphones, and software were big learning curves (I was much aided by my son Jack and his girlfriend Anya).

Then I had to conquer my fear of actually sitting in front of a camera and being filmed. I’ve done that (with moral and practical support from Anya).

And then came Heartbreak Hill.

Having talked to a camera, and having declared that the footage was “good enough”, the video then had to be edited.

No problem I thought, magnificently deploying my learning mindset. I will learn how to edit videos.

I tried two different kinds of software. I watched video tutorials. I did online research. And learned that video editing is hard. Very hard.

I had set April 19 as the deadline to have my introductory video finished, ready to be uploaded. And yet there I was that Friday, tearfully and crabbily still trying to figure out how to make simple cuts in the footage.

It should be noted at this point that Anya knows how to edit video, and offered several times to help. Several times!

So, I finally gave up. Let it go, said the wise voice in my head that I should have heeded much earlier. Please help, I said to Anya. The next morning, she took all of seven minutes to do the cuts I had been trying to make for weeks.

Lesson learned: I had been letting my ego and my pride get in the way of completing a task.

Top tip: Keep your eye on the prize. Which is more important: the thing you are grappling with now, or reaching the outcome? Figure out which it is, and ask for help.

Where am I now?

I need to make two more videos and write some handouts. I need to get into the innards of the payment gateway, and then the initial modules of the course will go to the people who have expressed interest. I’ll listen to their feedback and then do some marketing.

And somewhere in coming months, I will learn how to edit videos (I’m not letting that one get away).

But for now, I’ll be listening to my inner project manager, and working really hard to keep things simple.


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Main picture: Donovan Silva, Unsplash

How to reach me

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your communication needs (writing, editing, coaching and training, social media). I also help small businesses and organisations with project and operational management. 

I write a post every week, some about my professional life and work, and some about broader issues. You can get either of those, or both, in your email, by subscribing here.  

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