How to create your first online course – step by step instructions

Updated to Business, Speaking on January 23, 2023.

Sometimes it pays to get advice.

Maybe you want to volunteer overseas, buy a real camera, or take up meditation. You could do it on your own, but it could be frustrating, expensive, or not get you the results you want.

It’s the same with building your first online course.

Sure, you’re an expert in project management, customer service, or conflict resolution.

So far, so good.

But, transforming that expertise into a viable, market-ready course is a very different challenge.

Even if your course is only for internal use, you need to understand the basics of learning theory and the common design mistakes to avoid.

The good news is that the tools to put all the pieces together, including recording your original content, have become easier to use and a whole lot less expensive.

This article will walk you though all the steps you need to take to prepare to launch your first (or second!) online course.

Note: This article was originally posted Sept 2015 and because of the increasing popularity of online learning and course building I thought I’d put a fresh coat of paint on it – enjoy.

Let’s start with why online learning has become so important.


Originally the domain of post secondary schools and big business, online learning has been adopted by virtually every industry as a low-cost alternative to traditional learning in classrooms and hotels.

One recent report pegged the global online learning market to reach $325 billion by 2015.

What’s even more exciting than writing “billion” is that the tools to build, host and deliver your online course are now easier to use and less expensive.

That means a solopreneur (latin for struggling and broke) can take an existing seminar, book, or keynote and in relatively short order have a 4-6 module online course they can deliver remotely to their clients. That ability opens the doors to new revenue streams, a global market and an exciting creative opportunities.

Now that we’ve looked at the ‘why’, let’s look at the step most of us want to skip.


Certainly the biggest failure in my early online course launches was not doing enough research. Let’s be honest – not doing ANY research.

For my first course, my plan was to create a course based on my book Give Me A Break. The book had just come out and it seemed like a perfect idea to have an online version to compliment the book sales.

It was going to be HUGE.

I was convinced anyone with a pulse would love to plunk themselves down for 12 modules of 30 minutes each.

After all, this is meaty stuff. Legions of office slaves were going to gleefully transform their sorry, disorganized lives with the gospel of time management and increased productivity.

I was going to start a movement.

It didn’t matter that I’d never designed an online course, or even tried to sell one. Heck! It would sell itself, sort of like thigh-busters, but for time management.

(you get the picture)

To me, research was like throwing a cold towel on my enthusiasm. After all, I’d taught hundreds of seminars on time management, so why do research?

Doing basic research will test your assumptions, save you weeks of frustration, and likely save you a bucket full of money.

Here’s how simple it can be.


The fastest way to test your market is with a simple two question survey. Sure, you can spend a couple of weeks designing and testing a 20-question survey that breaks out the psychographic and buyer preferences of your list, but unless you have a pretty large list and know how to wade through all that data, simple is better.

A two-question survey is surprisingly deadly at:

  1. identifying your customers’ pain,
  2. what they think is a perfect solution and
  3. the language they use to describe their pain.

Later, in the sales process, when it comes time to communicate the value of your new course, you’ll want to use the language of your prospects. For example, the survey results might give you gems like: ‘frustrated’, ’fighting and up-hill battle’, or ‘desperate to find a better solution’ – that’s the kind of language you can use when marketing your course. More on that later.

The two questions for your survey are:

  1. When it comes to [the area you are an expert in] what is your biggest challenge?
  2. Thinking about that challenge, what would be an ideal solution?

Of course, you’ll preface your survey with the reason you’ve come calling and that responses will be kept anonymous.

It might sound something like this:

subject: can you help me?

[first name]

I know you’re busy, so I’ll keep this short.

After ___ years teaching ______________ I am designing an online version. I’m excited about this new venture and I’m hoping you can help.

I want to ask you just TWO questions about ______________ (less than 2 minutes).


Thank you!


PS Of course all answers will be kept confidential. Here’s that link again [LINK]

With even a small list you can start building market intelligence.


For the slightly more brave, pick up the phone and (gasp) talk with a prospect.

This doesn’t have to be scary – after all, I’m sure you’d be happy to speak with them if they bought your course, so why not speak with them before they make their decision?

A 15 minute phone conversation can return gems. You get to learn about their challenges, test content (“Hey, if my course included something on advanced use of email, would that be valuable to you?”) – you can even test your pricing.

This part of your research doesn’t have to be hard.

Set your sights on 10 calls, book 2 per day, and you’re done in a week. Remember to finish the call by asking if you can follow up once the course is ready.

When I’m doing this, I send out a request for a call by email. Once I get confirmation, I avoid a lot of annoying back-and-forth about time and dates by sending a link to my calendar booking tool.


The world of webinars has gotten a whole lot simpler with the addition of tools like And for a tiny monthly fee and small learning curve, you can be up and hosting your first webinar.

Here’s the value.

Imagine if you ran a local ad and 40 people came to a hotel room you booked and for one hour you got to deliver your best material. Good, right?

You have their complete attention. You can try new material, test their response and – even better – build rapport with your audience and build demand for your new course. Wowsie!

The world of webinars has gotten a whole lot simpler with the addition of tools like

That’s what you can get from a webinar with just a bit of preparation and some email announcements. Plus you get to avoid hotel rental, advertising and the $40 charge for an urn of stale coffee.


Please don’t skip this step…you have competitors.

I know, I know, you’re special. And your solutions are brilliant. But, face it, there’s other solutions out there. Your job is to find the online solutions already selling and study them.

You can start by asking Mr. Google, but also look at online course hosting sites, like and

You can quickly discover what courses are selling well on sites like and

Some of the elements to look at include:

  • What’s the main benefit they promise (is your’s better?)
  • What deliverables (lessons) do they promise (are your’s better?)
  • What’s their price point? Do they offer discounts?
  • Do they provide live support?
  • Is there a guarantee?
  • How many modules are there and how long are they?

You don’t have to compete on every element of their design, but your price/value combination (what I get for my money) should be competitive and you do need some competitive advantage (which could be your reputation).


When it comes to creating your first online course, I’m convinced that you have to pilot before launching.

Running a small pilot launch (you will charge a reduced fee) will save you a lot of heartache later. Here’s why.

Even after running a 2-question survey, phoning a dozen prospects, hosting a webinar and researching your competition, you have no idea what will actually work. Of course, the research you’ve done will guide you in many ways, but it’s very hard to predict the ideal length of a module or precise way to best teach a lesson.

Until you run a pilot.

Lisa Martin runs a one-person consulting, training business in Vancouver, BC (that’s just North of Los Angeles for our American friends). Her goal was to sell an 8-week leadership program, based on her strong industry experience and unique training framework. But, first she ran a pilot course.

Lisa Martin

With a relatively small email list, she invited people to a free webinar. From there she invited webinar attendees to a 15 minute “strategy call.” On the strategy calls she followed the 3-part formula of:

  1. tell me about yourself,
  2. I’ll tell you about my program,
  3. we’ll see if this is a fit for you.

In her first round, 22 people registered at $497. Following the pilot, Lisa had debriefing phone calls with each student and then reworked her content to prepare for her course launch at full price. The whole process was completed in 60 days.

You can’t afford to not do research like this – in fact, in Lisa’s case, research pays.

Compare Lisa’s approach to what most first-time course builders do:

Get a great idea, tell all their friends and family (who, of course, say it’s a great idea), head to their basement to build a slide deck, all the while not doing research, building a list or nurturing their existing list. Ta Da! They reappear 3 months later proudly announcing that their new 12 module (completely un-tested) monster is going to make you a better leader, resolve your marital problems and solve acne. Whaaaahoooo!

Which is, dear reader, pretty close to what I did for my first online course. The only difference was I had even grander delusions, involved more people and wasted $60,000 on the failed effort.

Thank you very much.

If you do that I will come to your house and slap you with a Mackerel.

Here’s a smarter process:

  1. Load dates into your calendar. If you’ve been teaching this same content for some time and have field tested it on dozens and dozens of audiences, then give yourself four weeks for this whole process, plus one week for wind-up and designing your marketing. If you don’t have that street cred, double your development time for more time in research (see above). Put the dates in your calendar.
  2. Do the damn research. Re-read my section on research above and the example of piloting your course and then adjust your calendar milestones. Mind Map the content. Do this over multiple sessions and use an online tool like Mind Meister. This is a critical step: do not build until you have explored all possible content and discarded low-value or unnecessary content.
  3. Mind Dump for each module. Now I move to my word processor to create detailed notes for each module. Keep in mind the learning-level of your ideal students and don’t forget to start each module by reinforcing why this content is important (ABS – always be selling).
  4. Add learning points and exercises. Just like any of my live seminars, I build in activities to enhance the learning and to keep the student engaged. You have lots of activities to choose from, including: journaling in workbook, practicing a technique, answering a quiz, a self-rating exercise (on a scale from 1 to 5, how are you doing at….), or completing a graph, etc.

    online learning

    Designing slides is the luxury you enjoy after the grunt work of research and design.

  5. Finally! Build your slide deck. Remember, this has to follow the previous steps, jumping into designing slides is a luxury you get to enjoy after the grunt work of research and design. I like to open a new slide deck in Keynote (or Powerpoint on your PC) and copy the text for each slide into Presenter’s Notes. That way I have a reference and I don’t get lost as I jump from slide to slide.

You’re going to add a voice-over to your deck, so don’t over build your slides. Just like when you present live, you don’t want to duplicate what you say in the bullets – just provide a reference point. So, if you are going to say “Leadership is about accountability, listening, and coaching for performance” then your bullets are simply:

  • accountability
  • listening
  • coaching

6. Record your video. Two ways to go here:

  • For my BOSS program (Business of Speaking School), I batch studio videos of me welcoming the student to that module with a quick outline of what we’ll be covering. Then I record the ‘back end’ video where I voice-over my slides. The go-to tools for recording voice-over videos are Screenflow (for MAC) and Camtasia (for PC).
  • You can also just record over your slides.

Upload your videos to either vimeo or wistia to host your videos. These tools give you more control over YouTube and are well worth the small monthly cost.

online learning

A workbook can add value to your course and in many cases it doesn’t need to be complicated.

7. Build the workbook. While definitely not required, workbooks add value to your online course and assist in the learning. Do this last and don’t over build it. In many cases, you just need a numbered title for the topic, followed by blank lines. Pages and pages of fill-in-the-blanks get old pretty quickly.


This is a big topic – how to choose the ideal online learning platform. My first courses were nothing more than glorified webinars with the recordings parked on a private page on my website. You buy the course, we send you a link. Pretty simple and it worked. Of course it was lacking all the bells and whistles of a LMS (Learning Management System) that most corporate clients would insist on, but it got me in the game.

Here’s a quick run-down of your options:

  1. Run the course completely live. People register for the series of live webinars, you send handouts and log-in information. After each lesson you add the recording to a private page on your website. Super simple and free (you will pay for a webinar tool and to host your videos on vimeo or wistia)
  2. Upload your course recordings onto an online learning course platform like Thinkific. You can organize modules, drip feed, run quizzes and even manage payments.

    online learning

    Tools, like Thinkific, make it easy for you to spend more time on research, planning and design.

  3. Build your course and load it on Udemy or Lynda. You get passive sales and, if you promote your course, you get most of the income.
  4. Invest in an LMS. Don’t go this route unless your clients demand it and you’re prepared for a much bigger investment of time and money.

This is an important decision because it will affect how the course content is created. And you can always move content later. So, in the spirit of “Just ship it!”, do your comparison shopping, phone around and get advice from people who’ve been there and then make a decision and get started.


You need to survive your first product launch before you can fully grasp the number of moving parts that will need your attention. At the end of the day, selling your course is critical for your income and to get feedback. I’ve heard more than on online course creator describe this as being more than half the job.

If you wait until your course is finished before you plan your launch, trust me, your launch will be more like a limp.

The basic parts for a launch include:

  1. Strict calendar dates. All of your promotions hinge on deadlines for cart-closing. Think these through carefully and try to avoid other emails going out at the same time (like your regular blog announcements), short weeks and any other distractions for the final three weeks of your launch.
  2. Shopping cart and follow-up sequence (thank you emails and delivery of product).
  3. Webinar(s) to educate and sell. Plan for at least two free webinars, scheduled at different times of day and days of the week, before the cart-close date.
  4. Emails to: educate, get webinar registrations, and sell the product.

You can make this a lot more complicated by involving affiliates (other entrepreneurs that promote and sell your product in return for a 30-50% commission), podcast interviews, and separate websites for your products. All of those options can come with time. First you need to do a launch.


It’s like that great line from Liam Neeson in Taken, “Listen very carefully…you’re going to be taken.” You are going to be taken, absorbed, fixated, and slightly overwhelmed. So, apologize to your family, drink lots of water, exercise everyday, and know this is the way to Rome.

If you’re going to reach more people, build a bigger audience and even create new sources of revenue you need to get your courses online. Initial results may be short of what your dreamed for. That’s okay – you’re in the game and your product is helping people. That’s a good thing.

Roll with it and know that next time will be even bigger and better.