Behind the scenes of creating, launching and marketing an online program: PART 1
- Your first launch is scary as sh*t.
- Validate your idea by asking your audience first before you build the thing.
- Feel the fear. Do it anyway.
- Leave space to execute on big ideas.
- “Pay what you can” helped me build an intimate + supportive community.
- Give generously. Then give some more.
Last week I pressed send on the final email of my 6-month online mentorship program, Digital Strategy School.
I remember before launching that I had no idea how I would reach the end. I didn’t know what it would look like, or how I would get there. It is by far one of the most terrifying, challenging and rewarding things I’ve ever taken on, both personally and professionally.
I want to share with you the evolution of DSS, because I hope it helps you see that creating online programs, products, courses etc., doesn’t happen overnight. And they certainly won’t ever happen if you don’t give yourself the time and space to create them. In reality? The entire process took about a year.
Here is a peek into my journey of creating an online program: a hybrid online course + group mentorship program.
The Evolution of an Idea
The concept for DSS was a long and slow evolution. Back in the summer of 2013, I was having my first inklings of an idea, and I knew that I could help other freelance designers. I would get emails from designers who were struggling, and I knew a lot of the problems stemmed from the same things I had struggled with: boundaries, expectations, confidence, and project management.
Around the same time I had started working with coaches and mentors, and knew the value that these fresh + intelligent perspectives were bringing to my own business and confidence.
“It must be an ebook for freelancers,” I thought to myself. I knew I wanted to help other freelance designers, and I was too zoomed in to see the possibilities, or I wasn’t quite ready to see them. I was playing small.
Summer of 2013
I literally bumped into leadership coach Cristina Donadio on the street at the WDS conference in Portland. Within moments she asked about my “big idea” (we had just come from Pamela Slim’s workshop which involved telling the stranger beside you about your “big idea”), and asked me a slew of questions, listening intently, and recording my answers on my iPhone with Evernote. She handed my phone back to me and said “there you have it: the outline for your book.” I was stunned. Flabbergasted. I had only just met Cristina, and It was such a powerful experience to feel so heard. (The power of coaching, who knew?) We ended up talking every friday for the next year, and our conversations helped me get tremendous clarity.
I knew that I was onto something, and that this “book outline” was just the start. That inquiry process with Cristina got my wheels turning; I realized I needed to keep asking myself the important questions.
There are so many other resources out there for freelancers – how could I possibly stand out from the crowd?
What do I offer that is different, unique, or more valuable?
I didn’t know yet, but something was brewing.
In December 2013, I registered the domain http://digitalstrategyschool.com, still not completely sure what it would become.
In January 2014, with my ideas still bubbling and brewing (aka, Evernote notebooks spilling with notes and ideas), I signed up for Erika Lyremark’s 1-month group coaching program. I was still in “idea” mode, clearly stalling and hesitating on making time to create my “thing,” because I just didn’t know quite what it was yet; it wasn’t perfectly formed in my brain.
If I just knew a little bit more about X or a little but more about Y, THEN I could start. I wasn’t “ready” just yet.
I’d taken years and years of courses, coaching, thinking, planning, anticipating, and learning. Cristina had once told me that sometimes learning can be another way to procrastinate. Did I really need another “thing”?
I had been afraid to start… but working with Erika helped me realize that the journey is the destination. Whatever I produce would be imperfect, and done was better than perfect. (All things I knew of course, but Erika had a way of framing it that along with my work with Cristina finally clicked, and I saw how I’d been stalling).
Put the word “beta” (in your head) beside whatever you create, and give yourself permission to iterate on it.
THIS reframe alone propelled me into action.
Validating the Idea
Having no idea where to begin creating a course worth taking, I stumbled upon Breanne Dyck’s Transform Your Course (now The Master Class).
I KNOW, I know, another course, right? But I had finally started taking action, and was seriously overwhelmed by the process of putting the structure together. I knew that for whatever I was creating, I was going to need support and accountability with creating the curriculum, structure, and logistics. Breanne’s course was exactly what I was looking for, and I know DSS would not nearly be as awesome without having worked with her.
Initially my idea was to make digital strategy more comprehensive for everyday business owners. (This is still in the works, btw – one thing at a time!)
Two weeks into the course, I realized quickly that my “perfect participant” wasn’t who I thought it was. Breanne and the group helped me realize that I wasn’t creating something that people were asking for. I had been resisting the obvious: designers needed this information, and were in fact asking for this information. I knew that digital strategy was something I did with my clients that gave me a huge competitive advantage over other designers. I had agency experience with several small agencies, and I also had years of experience on my own.
And I knew exactly why I had avoided this idea for so long…
I was terrified of selling to my peers.
Conquering the Fear
This was the part I was completely unprepared for: FEAR. Like I had never experienced before!
For years in my design business, clients came to me. I never had to reach out or ever market myself; all of my work came through word of mouth. I’d helped hundreds of clients launch their digital products, but I never had to do it for myself. I was in completely new territory.
Now I had to market my idea, and my peers were part of this new market! I had MAJOR imposter complex. Some of my peers had been in business for longer than me! Who was I to offer mentorship, or think that I had something to teach?
Proceeding anyway was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done.
Confession: The stress, fear, and anxiety was nearly crippling. I found myself on an emotional roller coaster from “what on earth am I doing??” to “this is the best idea EVAAARRR!” and back down again. I couldn’t turn my brain off and sometimes had trouble sleeping; my mind was racing with nervous excitement.
I had such bad acne from the stress that I often didn’t want to leave the house. Most people had no idea I was going through this, and many people might be thinking, what on earth is the big deal??
I had never put myself in such a vulnerable position in a professional capacity before. I was so nervous about what my peers would think. (If only I had hired Tanya Geisler back then, I might have had my head on straight! Better late than never…)
Putting yourself out there in such a big way is scary, especially for someone who identifies as mostly introverted. Suddenly I was asking for other people’s attention, time, and money. Woooah Nelly! This was honestly the hardest part of launching. Not creating the material, not the technical bits or the logistics…
Making the ask was the hardest part of the launch.
This might be part of why you’ll hear people recommend to start with a smaller product offering before going big. THIS IS WHY. There is much more at stake with a higher price point: more pressure and more value to deliver.
My heart pounded when I posted this to one of my design-related Facebook groups, but it turned out my community was really supportive and totally on board!
Now I knew that people were interested, and I had something to offer. Make no mistake, I was still terrified at this point, but willing to get out of my comfort zone if it meant creating more impact with my work, which is ultimately what I was craving.
I continued working through Breanne’s course materials and solidified the outline and the learning objectives. Now that I had a growing interest list I knew I needed to take action.
Running the Beta
I set up a page with more detail where people could sign up if they were interested and within a week had 30 signups. This was the beginning of my “list-building” efforts. Yes, I only started putting effort into building an email list in the summer of 2014! (Previously I had a signup area buried at the bottom of my website where occasional signups would trickle in, much to my confusion.)
I then personally invited a dozen or so participants to sign up for the beta version of the course via direct messages and personal emails (Tara Gentile calls this The Living Room Strategy). I offered them a “Pay what you can” price for the Beta, with a suggested value of $1,000, and started a Facebook Group for the beta testers. The beta included four 1:1 mentoring sessions, 4 group coaching calls, a FB group, and access to the content as I created it.
Everyone I invited said “yes,” and the beta began with 10 people and grew to over 20 before the end of the year.
Realistically, this was an alpha, since the content wasn’t created yet, but everybody was getting tremendous value from the Facebook group, and it really helped me shape the content for the participants.
“PAY WHAT YOU CAN”??
Yes. Pay what you can. Consider it “an experiment in generosity,” — it was a chance for me to gain experience in a mentorship capacity, which I had never done in a formal setting previously. I also hadn’t done anything quite like this before, that I didn’t know how to quantify the value.
Crazy? Maybe. But I also don’t think I would have been able to create DSS without having done this Beta. It allowed a small group of people to experience a tremendous amount of change, get access to a lot of my time and attention for an extremely reduced rate.
The participants were asked to pay an amount that they could afford monthly for 4 months, knowing the suggested cost was $1,000.
I used Gumroad for this, as it was the only service I could find that allowed the user to specify their desired monthly amount.
How did that break down in revenue?
(Numbers shown in Canadian currency)
This is an approximation, as some students made later contributions, and some needed to put theirs on hold temporarily. The total revenue for 2014 for the Beta group was approximately $10,000 US.
Did the Beta revenue cover the time that I invested into the content, the Facebook group, and the students? Not even close. But this Beta was me “paying my dues,” validating my program concept, and building a community.
What’s up with all those zeroes?
Some of those were friends I wanted in the Beta because I knew they would have a lot to contribute to the group.
Some of those were people who said they would love to be part of the Beta, but didn’t have the means to pay me right now.
Some of those people offered to pay me in other ways (services, resources, etc)
Some of those were people who never offered a contribution.
I accepted everyone regardless of their contribution.
Yes. I even gave one-on-one sessions to those who didn’t pay a cent.
I was able to gain the mentoring experience I wanted, grow my confidence, and earn some income while I produced the content for the program. Many of those “freebie” people went on to recommend the course to friends and contributed in other ways, and some of the paid participants didn’t take me up on all of their one-on-one sessions. I was more curious about whether or not I could help people create the change they were seeking.
(I would likely recommend a minimum contribution if you’re thinking of doing a “Pay what you can.”)
I spent the summer, fall, and winter working with the beta students, creating content, mentoring, and running group calls while I learned about where the students were in their “strategic” process and experience.
Making Space for Big Ideas
Once I hit my revenue target in 2013 and was in a more comfortable place financially, I decided that instead of setting a higher revenue goal, I wanted to earn the same amount of revenue but spend less time working.
What if I could use that extra “space” to really pursue a project that would pay off in the long term? A short-term sacrifice for long term gains.
I reduced my client workload significantly to give myself the time and space to develop the content for DSS. Client work and DSS were 60% and 40% of my time spent respectively in 2014. I was willing to take a short term hit while I worked on the program. The later third of the year shifted to mostly DSS work.
From the time I started the Facebook Beta group to the time I hit send on the final email of the Pilot program was approximately one year. I spent a full year at reduced client capacity so that I could invest in my own big idea, and I cannot recommend it enough.
Big ideas need time and space to grow, and that doesn’t happen overnight.
Growing the Community
The Facebook group became the essential hub where all of the students could talk, share, vent, and ask difficult questions. I used an IFTTT script to archive all Facebook group posts to Evernote, and I would regularly review them.
The interactions with the students helped me solidify the content, and understand their challenges even better. Running this Beta was the key to creating a program that successfully solved real problems for designers. I gave 200% to this group of people. I never turned down a request for a meeting (even if it went beyond our agreed upon sessions), or a chance to review someone’s proposal or documentation, and I was completely honest with everyone about my revenue numbers, my process, and my opinions.
Working with this group of incredible people so intimately helped me find my footing.
They were so supportive and appreciative, and would even send me love notes emails…
“Marie – thank you for your generosity. I am on the verge of tears – I am totally blown away as there is some amazing stuff in here. Thank you for your mentorship and guidance. You are the best!”
That came from a girl who I know would not have been able to pay the full suggested price, but got so much value out of the program. Not only that, but I learned so much from working with her. The Beta was better for having her in it, so not only do I have no regrets about accepting people at every price point, but I believe the Beta was even better because the content and level of access to my personal time was so generous for the price point (She went on to recommend a student who joined the program when it launched in January).
They were gaining confidence in their processes, and earning higher revenues on their projects. I grew close to each and every one of them as I got to know them and their businesses more personally.
I slowly transitioned from totally terrified to completely in my element.
I remember thinking, this is what I’m meant to be doing. Nothing has ever felt so right!
I could see that this group was experiencing massive changes in their businesses. Our work together, the resources, the content, and the Facebook group were creating a major impact.
“I would have never been able to have the capacity to think of these ways to expand my business and offerings without your help in DSS”
“You have this delightful way of making the person you are talking to feel like you are thrilled to be speaking with them, and you’re such a good listener.”
“Thank you so much for elevating the field and for being generous with your advice”
The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and I knew that DSS was only going to get better as I completed the content.
The beta run gave me the confidence, testimonials, and experience I needed to prepare for the big launch.
Knowing that I work well with deadlines and accountability, I needed to commit to a launch date for the pilot, even though the course materials weren’t finished. In September 2014, I decided that DSS would launch mid January 2015, and after much deliberation and insight from other coaches and mentors, decided on the pricing, format and timeline:
$650/mo for 6 months, for a total of $3900.
I had NO IDEA if I would be able to get any signups at this price point. The nervousness of the summer was back again. It was time to launch this thing FOR REAL.
I knew I had am amazing group of people thanks to the Beta, but would I be able to replicate the same excitement at the higher price point? Would people still feel like they had gotten their value?
Launching the Pilot.