how to create an online course for beginners (start to finish) 

I first became excited about online courses after reading The 4-Hour Work Week (my first introduction to them). Who knew that 10 years after online courses appeared on the scene, they would become as popular as they are now?

Online course creation is now a proven business model that many have found success with. And maybe you’re interested in creating one yourself…

But, you feel like you may have missed the boat to actually make money with one. 

Let me ask you two questions.

  1. How many of your family and friends have made online courses? Probably none (or, at least, you could count on your hand how many actually have).
  1. How many of your family and friends have tried out a course or considered taking one? Probably quite a few…

Why does this matter?

Because it’s NOT too late to build a successful business with an online course.

In this article, I’m going to walk you through how to do exactly that from start to finish, so if you’re interested in building an online course, keep on reading! 

step 1 – choose your course topic

Many people stop at this first step. They get hung up on deciding what their course should be about and never figure out a good enough idea to move forward with the process. 

This can be avoided with some proper brainstorming, so grab a pen and paper, and let’s work through this together. 

I want you to write down any ideas you already have (it’s okay if they feel all over the place right now). The important part of this process is writing every option down so it’s out of your head and on paper. 

Here are some things to consider as you brainstorm:

  1. What hobbies do you have?
  2. What are some of your talents?
  3. Do you have any particular skills?
  4. Is there anything that you really enjoy doing that you could most likely like to teach someone else how to do?

Once you’re done brainstorming, how do you determine which topic idea is best?

We’ll consider three things, and I want you to add a mark next to each option for each question below (you may have more than one mark next to a few topics, and that’s okay!):

  1. Which of these ideas is the most interesting or exciting to you right now?
  2. Which of these are you the most qualified to teach? 
  3. Which topic would others be the most interested in?

Here’s a personal example to help you visually see what I’m talking about. I wrote down all my ideas from the four questions above, and now I’ll make a checkmark next to any that answers one of the other three questions: 

  • Organic gardening ✅
  • Website design ✅
  • Celtic flute
  • Watercolor painting ✅✅
  • Indoor plants ✅✅
  • Homeschool ✅✅✅
  • Math – Algebra 
  • Marketing – digital products ✅✅
  • Typing
  • Videography ✅✅

Since homeschooling has three checkmarks, this may be the best option for me to test as an online course. If you don’t have one with more checkmarks, I recommend going with your gut and deciding on the one that stands out most to you. Which are you most interested in? 

Don’t put too much weight on the decision. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and it doesn’t need to be forever. If you test a course idea out before creating it, and you decide it’s not the right fit, then you can switch it up and try out a new course idea. 

step 2 – draft your course outline

Once you know which idea you want to test first, you are ready to create a rough draft for your course. Now, I’m not saying build out your course in this step! I just want you to have a rough idea of what you want to teach because this will provide you clarity and direction for the rest of the process, and it really only takes a few minutes to tackle. 

Here are the parts you want to include in your draft (I’ll use planting an organic garden as the example):

  1. What is your course topic? i.e. how to plant an organic garden
  1. What outcome does your course guide your students to achieve? i.e. plant their first organic garden and reap a bountiful harvest
  1. What are the steps your students will need to take to achieve the above outcome? i.e.
    • plan garden
    • order seeds
    • build planter boxes
    • start seeds
    • transfer seedlings
    • water 
    • weed
    • harvest
  1. Is there anything important for your students to understand or be aware of as they get started? i.e.
    • What does organic even mean?
    • How large of a garden do you have space for?
    • How much will your garden be able to produce?
  1. Are there any common mistakes you see others making when it comes to trying to achieve this outcome? i.e.
    • ordering poor quality seeds
    • starting too many seeds
    • growing vegetables they don’t actually want to eat

Once you’ve worked through each of the questions above, write each of these topics on a separate sticky note (when they’re separated, you can easily move them around and organize them). 

  1. Should any of these topics be covered in the same lesson? Put them in the order you think is the best flow.
  1. Group your lessons into modules (this is optional). 

Rule of thumb: the maximum number of modules should be 10 with a maximum number of lessons in each module being 10 as well.

What I recommend: create 3-5 modules with about 5-7 lessons inside each module. 

Note: If you feel like your course may be too large for 5 modules and 7 lessons inside each, then consider pairing it down to have a smaller achievable outcome. People tend to like courses that have a more narrow and specific end outcome, and they are also much more likely to be successful.

step 3 – write your marketing message

In simple terms, a marketing message is what your course is about and why your target customer should buy it. 

This message is a tool to allow you to sell your course to the right people who want it and to make money with it. We want to build your course to sell. In order to do this, you first need to know who you’re marketing your course to and what problem it solves for them. When you’re crystal clear on these parts, crafting a course to help them achieve the desired outcome is much, much easier. 

Here are a few questions you want to answer as you write your marketing message: 

  1. What problem does your course solve? What would prompt someone to buy your course? i.e. they want to eat organic, but it’s too expensive, or they want to plant an organic garden, but they don’t know how.
  1. Who is it for? This doesn’t need to be super specific (like age), but we want a simple idea for who may want this course. i.e. someone who wants to plant an organic garden. (additionally, is this for someone who lives in the country or someone who lives in a high-rise downtown?)
  1. What is the big promise? What is the end outcome of your course? This needs to be very specific and tangible. i.e. this course will help students plant their first organic garden.

step 4 – validate your idea

I’m just going to put it out there… the validation process is KEY to building a successful online course. What I don’t want you to do is to create a course (outline, script, film, create resources, and so on) only to hear crickets when you try to market it. That is simply Too. Much. Work. 

When you do the validation step first, you’ll find out IF your product idea is in-demand BEFORE you go through all the work of building it out. I promise that this step will save you so much time and headache in the long run.

My recommendation is that you do a beta launch with your course to not only gain your first few sales, but to also gain a proof of concept for your course idea as a whole. Then you’ll be able to move forward with full confidence that you’re not wasting your time.

Here are three options for beta testing your product idea…

1) host a live paid workshop

This is a simple and affordable way to test your course idea. The workshop topic will be the same as your course idea, and you’ll host it live in a 30-60 minute workshop. This is an affordable learning experience for your target customer, you’ll earn some income upfront, and you’ll gather valuable feedback afterward before building out your full course.

I used this method when I beta tested Creator Fast Track, my signature YouTube course. I ran the program as a live workshop for $35 initially. After 100 people signed up and I received so much positive feedback, I realized my course idea was, indeed, in demand, and I moved forward building it out. I found this method to be super effective (and simple).

RELATED: Can’t pick a niche? Do THIS instead

2) create and sell a mini course

Now, I don’t recommend this option as much as the other two, but it’s still viable. Essentially, you’ll create a bare-bones course (a simpler version of the full course idea you have in mind), and you can sell it as a mini course to test the demand. 

This option will take more time upfront and is more of a gamble, since you don’t know if people want it or will pay for it. After testing some products out this way, I’ve found that the mini course method is quite difficult to sell. 

3) offer your course as a live experience

The last option, but one I’ve used and find effective, is to deliver your course as a live experience for the first round of students. 

The reason I like this method is because you don’t have to build out your course right away. Rather, you’ll sell the course idea upfront, and then you’ll deliver one module a week as you create each part of the program. Alongside the lessons, you’ll be able to provide live support in the way of Q&A calls, coaching calls, or a community option. 

You can teach live on video each week, but to ensure higher quality lesson videos (and less pressure on you to perform), I recommend pre-recording and editing the lessons each week while building in the live aspect. 

set up your beta launch

Once you’ve decided on which beta testing method you want to use, it’s time to set up your systems for a successful beta launch. Here are three key pieces you need:

  1. A sales page for them to register 
  2. A hosting platform for your course content (I recommend Teachable)
  3. An email delivery system for onboarding your students

RELATED: How to listen to your audience when you don't have an audience

step 5 – create course content

You’ve beta launched your course idea, and you found out it IS validated. Congratulations! Now it’s time to get to work creating your course content.

1) outline course lessons

It’s time to script your lessons and decide what to include in each with detail. These are the 4 key points I recommend you include:

  1. What (What will they learn in the lesson)
  2. Why (Why is what I’m teaching them in this lesson important?)
  3. How (How can they do what the lesson is about? Whenever possible, demonstrate how to do what you’re teaching in a tutorial. Essentially, show don’t tell). 
  4. Common pitfalls (what are some common mistakes people make that your students should avoid when it comes to the topic you’re teaching on?)

How much should I write in my outline? Should I script it?

Great question! Write a bullet for everything you want to cover in your recorded lessons, but don’t try to script every word. It flows much more naturally when you write a detailed outline rather than scripting.

2) plan additional resources

Additional resources are meant to help you help them to do the work. How can you do some of the work for them?

For example, inside Creator Fast Track, I have a resources section included in each module to help them work through the information. One of the resources early on is an assessment spreadsheet to help them decide on their channel idea. I’ve added all the things to think about with each of their ideas, and as they go through and fill out the assessment, it will automatically score their channel ideas to help them decide which one to run with. 

You may have a mix of spreadsheets, examples, articles, swipe copy, or templates to help them out.

3. Film video lessons

You have some great options when it comes to filming, so if you aren’t keen on talking head videos, that’s okay!

You can absolutely do a talking head video, but you can also do some tutorial videos with you showing yourself doing the work. You could also create a slide deck and work through the slides as you teach (with your video included in the corner of the screen if you’d like!). I recommend a mixture of styles!

Your camera choice matters, your audio matters, your background matters, and your outfit matters… I have a ton of information on how to create quality videos. Here are some different articles specific to filming:

4. edit video lessons

If you choose to outsource the editing, it can become quite expensive because it can take time to do. But if you choose to edit yourself, then you’re looking at adding that additional time to your calendar. I’ve done it both ways, but you’ll need to decide… which do you care more about, time or money?

Softwares that keep the editing process simpler:

  1. iMovie on Mac
  2. Adobe Premiere Rush on Windows
  3. I use Adobe Premiere Pro

I do recommend creating an intro for your video lessons because it will appear more professional. This would be something you could hire out if you prefer. 

5. create additional resources

In step 2, you planned out the additional resources that you wanted to create, including a mix of spreadsheets, examples, articles, swipe copy, or templates. Now it’s time to create these resources. 

If any of them are written, I recommend using Google Docs to draft the content, and then you can copy and paste that information into a design tool such as Canva to fancy it up. Sometimes making it more visually appealing works (if it’s a list or something simple), but if it’s swipe copy or a template of any sort, sometimes it’s easier to keep it in Google Docs and share the link for them to copy it and make it their own.  

Create your course! Build it out in a course platform

You’ve done all the hard work, and now it’s time to upload your course content into a learning platform. I recommend Teachable because it is easy to use as the creator, it is user friendly for the students, it appears professional, and I find it fairly reasonable in the pricing category. They also have a free plan that you can start with, and you can use that until you’re ready to scale. 

Want to know step-by-step how to set up your course in Teachable? Here’s a video tutorial to help you out (start at 42 min)! 

There you have it. You have all you need to get started creating your first online course. But, remember, you need to be willing to put the work behind it!

Gillian Perkins

Hi, I’m Gillian! I’m a marketing strategist who helps online entrepreneurs 10X their sales with FB ads + sales funnels. I love combining tech, analytics, and psychology to create powerful marketing systems. When I’m not helping my clients scale their businesses, I’m spending time with my husband and two little boys, exploring new places, or seeking out choice espresso.