In short, an online learning (or e-learning) business is one that facilitates teaching and learning using digital resources – whether that's interactive digital worksheets, video tutorials or audio. A growing number of people with a skill set and expertise in one area are deciding to share what they know and monetize their knowledge. That's sometimes as an additional revenue stream to their main job (eg, a photographer creating photography tutorials on the side) or by making it their primary business.
Online learning accelerated in a big way during the pandemic. For instance, educational platform LinkedIn Learning saw a 46% increase – or an additional 750,000 hours – in the time users spent learning in March 2020. And enrolments for courses on global online course provider Coursera more than doubled in 2020 and increased by 32% in 2021.
All in all, the e-learning market is expected to be worth $458 billion by 2026. This boom is largely fueled by people's desire to reskill for the future, especially in the face of an ever-evolving labor market. Fortunately, e-learning resources are now more accessible than ever, in part thanks to the relative ease of launching an online learning business.
Today, any individual with the right expertise can position themselves as an educator. All you need is a core content idea that's in demand, an intuitive format, a rigorous curriculum and a considered pricing strategy. OK, that sounds like a lot – but the barriers to entry are far lower than they were even five years ago.
What content will you focus on?
A quick browse through online learning platform Udemy shows that content categories can run the gamut from data science and interior design to makeup and beauty. However, it's important to find your niche – or risk being crowded out by hundreds of other competitors offering courses on the exact same topic. Once you've decided on your core content idea (and it should be pretty clear to you what your specialism is), the next stage is creating the course outline, designing a curriculum and, of course, creating the lesson plans themselves. You also need to decide what particular format – be it video, PDF or even podcast – is the best one for your content.
Who's your target audience?
You'll need to define your target audience to ascertain if there'll be enough demand for your online course. Creating some customer personas at this stage will help. They'll help shape your decision-making on several key factors like the age range of the people you're targeting (which will influence the tone of your content), their spending behavior (which will guide your pricing strategy) and where they're based (to determine if content localization is required).
What's your business model?
There are three main e-learning business models: the night-school model, where learners pay a one-time fee to access individual courses; the academy model, where learners receive ongoing access to your content in exchange for a monthly subscription fee; and the combined model, where learners pay both a monthly subscription and a one-time fee, typically for exclusive or premium content. Of course, this also largely depends on the depth and breadth of your curriculum, as well as the learning platform you choose (see the next point).
Which platform will you use?
If you're new to the e-learning industry, it's probably easiest to build your business on an existing online learning platform (see right), which offers ready-made infrastructure to help streamline the content-creation process. But, if you have the tech know-how, you can also consider building your own dedicated website.
How much will you charge?
Once you have your content strategy down, it's time to consider your pricing. Expensive fees could dissuade potential students, so ensure that your course delivers enough value to justify your premium pricing. On the other hand, low prices would drive up sales – but they could also cast doubt over the quality of your offering. Additionally, be sure to research the market to ensure that your prices are competitive. Of course, many online learning platforms have a fixed payment structure – for instance, some pay creators monthly royalties based on the amount of minutes their classes have been watched.
How will you get the word out?
Finally, you need to spread the word to grow your customer base. That means making sure your online course is easily discoverable on search engines such as Google (keyword research is key). You might also consider putting promotional videos on YouTube, which is especially popular with people who are looking for educational content. If you're using an online learning platform, you might have the opportunity to grow your presence through channel referral links or by encouraging students to follow your profile.
Three major learning platforms
• Gumroad. Founded in 2011, this online marketplace enables users to sell digital services such as courses, books and memberships. You can choose to set up your store on its platform or embed it on your own website.
• Skillshare. Classes on this online learning platform typically take the form of educational videos, which span categories like creative arts, design, entrepreneurship and technology. It also has an app so users can learn on the go.
• Udemy. One of the biggest players in this space, with more than 183,000 online video courses, 49 million users and 64,000 instructors, Udemy also has an enterprise solution, Udemy Business, aimed at companies upskilling their workforce.