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How to pre sell your online course — and make it a success

In January 2018, I pre sold Design Academy’s first course: Design Fundamentals. Up until now, every bit of content I’ve produced has been totally free. This was the first time to see if anyone was willing to pay money for a more in-depth, structured course on learning design for developers. In this article I’m going to show you exactly how you can pre sell your online course and make it a smashing success. 

KEY TAKEAWAYS
  • Why you should consider pre selling your product or online course
  • When you should absolutely not pre sell your online course
  • The strategy of a successful (pre) launch
  • How to come up with an offer and market your pre sales
  • The three crucial things you need to make pre sales successful

I was very happy with how the pre-orders went. Over the course of seven days, 227 people enrolled in the course making over $33k in revenue. In this article, I’m going to show you exactly how I launched the pre-orders for Design Fundamentals, the factors that made it a success, and why you should consider putting your product idea up for sale before it’s production ready.

“But you teach design! Why are you writing an article on marketing?”

Design Academy is first and foremost about teaching developers how to design in a way that’s actually useful, without turning them into a full-time designer. However, it’s also much more than that. The reason I’m working with developers specifically is because I know from experience they’re a minefield of product ideas. From open-source side projects that are good enough to be paid products, to online courses that share what you know about web development and help others who are new to the industry, all the way to ideas that would make a fantastic SaaS.

More often than not, the only thing holding you back is the design and marketing. So with Design Academy I don’t just want to show you how to make your idea look good, I want to show you how you can create a product that sells. That’s why I’m sharing this article (and have many more like this in the pipeline) about the business of products.

With that out of the way, let’s dive into the strategy for pre-orders!

What is pre selling and why would you sell a product before it’s ready?

Pre selling basically means opening up sales for your product before the product is either finished, or in some cases, before it has even started to be created. I’m a pretty big advocate for releasing a product as a pre-order as opposed to waiting until it’s all finished before opening up sales. There are three reasons for this:

  1. It’s motivating. Creating a course or building a product is hard. If you’re working on it but have no customers, it’s difficult to stay motivated enough to finish it. Everything else will take priority: client work pays the bills so that comes first. You’re tired after a day’s work and nobody is waiting for this product anyway, so why not just leave until tomorrow to start? Having people who have paid you money and are waiting for you to deliver is a huge motivation.
  2. It validates your idea. There is no better form of validation than people taking out their credit card and purchasing something. If you just ask people whether they’d buy your product you’re taking a huge leap of faith. People will usually say yes if you ask them “Would you like this?”. However, when you’re asking them “Will you pay for this right now?” You’ll know whether this is something they really want or not. (Be wary of using pre sales only to validate your idea, as this can be dangerous but we’ll go into that in a moment).
  3. It pays the bills. As I mentioned, creating a course or building a product is very time consuming. Way more time consuming than you initially think. You not only have the product itself to make, you also have marketing materials to write, order confirmation emails, support documentation, a website to create and so on. Unless you’re sitting on a pile of savings that you don’t mind digging into, you’re going to need some income to keep you afloat while you’re in creation mode.

That said, this isn’t something you should jump into lightly. I wouldn’t recommend putting every product idea you have up for sale. That’s a recipe for disaster.

There are a couple prerequisites you need to take before releasing anything as a pre-order.

1. You need an audience — and you need to know them well

You can’t have a successful launch (and this applies to both pre sales and a final launch) if you don’t have anybody to sell your product to. That’s obvious.

But you also need to know the people you’re selling to really well. It’s hard to accurately guess what people want, what kind of content resonates with them and how they like to be spoken to.

For Design Academy, I’ve been working with developers for years in my client work. I heard the same frustrations over and over again. They admired good design, they wanted to be able to mimic some of it, but they didn’t want to become a designer.

Not only that, I had the exact same frustrations when I was learning design. So I already had a pretty good idea about how I could relate to them.

But it didn’t stop there. I also spent 3 years emailing my list as it grew, asking questions and engaging in a lot of conversations with developers to get a deeper understanding about how I can help. These conversations turned out to be vital for me, not only in the development of the course, but helping me to write effective sales copy throughout.

2. You need a solid outline for your idea

The second thing you need is a very solid outline for your idea. I wouldn’t pre sell unless I knew exactly what the product was going to be and had a plan and a timeline for getting it released.

For Design Fundamentals, I’d been planning this course for years. I went through so many variations trying to figure out how a course can teach developers how to design. I didn’t just think, “I’ll sell it now and figure out how to teach later” — I wanted to be completely sure that the course I was pre-selling was going to be effective.

If you pre sell your product, you pretty much have to follow through with it. Pre sales aren’t the same as a Kickstarter

It was the same deal with my other product, Client Portal. I didn’t pre sell that for just an idea. I pre sold for something I’d already built and used for myself for a year. The pre sales were to help fund me hiring a developer to make it into a WordPress plugin that others can use.

If you pre sell your product, you pretty much have to follow through with it. Pre sales aren’t the same as a Kickstarter. If people pre order your product, you’re on the hook for making and delivering it (unless you want the hassle and embarrassment of issuing everybody a refund). So make sure you know this is something you can pull off and that you can tell customers how long their wait will be for their product.

The strategy

So now we’ve got the prerequisites out of the way, let’s dive into the nuts and bolts of the launch. I’ll go through exactly what I did and why.

Step 1: Outline of course

As I mentioned, I started with the outline of the course. This took the vast majority of my time as I went through so many different variations to come up with the best way to teach design.

I started by listing out the modules and penning in as many lessons as I thought each module needed in order to cover it effectively.

I made sure each module and lesson had enough notes attached to give me a loose outline of each lesson. This made sure I didn’t have any gaping holes in the course and it would also serve as fodder for my landing page which we’ll get onto next.

Step 2: Write your sales copy

The next step is to create a compelling landing page for your product. When you’re at the pre-order stage, this can be tricky. You likely won’t have much (if any) imagery to use and you need to show people what they’ll be getting for their money without actually being able to show them.

For this reason, you’re going to need to get comfortable with words. If your landing page can convert as a GoogleDoc, you’re doing it right.

If your landing page can convert as a GoogleDoc, you’re doing it right.

So that’s exactly how I started the landing page for Design Fundamentals: in a GoogleDoc.

–> See the actual Google Doc here.

For Design Fundamentals I used the following structure:

  • Intro (Why developers benefit from learning design, why they struggle and how I can help)
  • Who is this for (and not for)? (This helps qualify the right people for the course).
  • What will I learn? (This is here you’ll be when you finish the course AKA ‘the dream’).
  • What’s in the course? (This is the lesson plan taken from my outline above).
  • Who teaches this? (A bit about me and why I’m qualified to teach design to developers)
  • Call to action #1
  • Frequently asked questions (Overcoming any objections or concerns e.g. refund policy)
  • Call to action #2

The goal of the landing page is to connect with the people who are reading it. You want to genuinely show them that you understand what they’re struggling with. It’s not enough to say ‘developers are struggling with design’, you need to go deeper and say things that they can relate to, like being asked to code a new feature and not knowing how to make it look good, or having an idea for a side project but being embarrassed by how amateur it looks.

The reaction you want to get is “It’s like you’re speaking directly to me” and that comes from a lot of conversations with the people you’re targeting. Often even lifting direct quotes from them and using their exact language in your landing page.

One thing I did early on was the creation of a spreadsheet where I could collate responses to my emails which would end up being translated into the landing page.

When people first sign up to my newsletter they get asked, “What is your biggest frustration with design?” And the answers I get in response to this get inputted into a spreadsheet detailing each common reason at the top, with the exact verbatim below.

Step 3: Design your landing page

When it comes to the design of your landing page, it has to look good. But that doesn’t mean you have to be an expert designer in order to put something together. In lieu of taking my course, you can either create or buy a super simple typography based theme and use that as your landing page.

A great template for landing pages is Levels Theme. It’s a super simple, 1 page template completely optimised for a simple, tiered pricing landing page.

This landing page for Amy Hoy and Alex Hillman’s course, 30×500 does extremely well. It’s nothing fancy but it has obviously been very well designed and considered.

You can essentially use the same design as your blog posts and turn it into a landing page. If you’re starting content first there shouldn’t be too much ‘design’ that needs to go into it (unless you want to).

Design Fundamentals is a design course so I had to spend a fair amount of time on the landing page but unless you’re selling a design course, you can get away with something much simpler.

I personally used this UI kit from UI8 for my landing page design. I tweaked the fonts, colours, added in my own imagery and had it custom coded.

Step 4: How are people going to pay you?

For Design Fundamentals, I used WooCommerce along with Stripe and PayPal to keep track of orders. Again, because it’s a design course I felt the whole checkout experience needed to be well thought-out. I didn’t want people pre-ordering and having a sub-par experience.

So I designed the checkout from scratch taking heavy inspiration from Smashing Magazine‘s checkout which has a wonderful experience.

I worked with my developer to code and test the system (along with some extra niceties like invoice generation for my European customers). This was a fairly extreme step to take and I wouldn’t really recommend other people designing their own checkout experiences (something like SendOwl would work perfectly fine for most people) but for Design Academy, I wanted to invest the time and money to make it super polished.

And that meant every step of the purchasing experience had to increase the amount of trust customers have in me and further reinforce that they made a good decision. If I didn’t take time to think about the checkout experience, who’s to say I won’t put the same amount of effort into the course itself.

(And just an FYI: when you release a course on design, people get really picky about… well, design.)

But even if you don’t design your checkout experience from scratch, do put a bit of thought into the things you do have control over, like the copy, and the thank you for purchasing page.

You want to ensure that people see preordering as low risk as possible. This isn’t just something you woke up one morning and decided to sell, it’s something you’ve already put a lot of time and effort into.

Step 5: Emails, emails emails

There’s a lot of emails that you need to write when you’re doing a launch. And I’m not just talking about the sales emails. Everything from the purchase confirmation, to accountability emails need to be considered.

Here’s how my email setup worked:

As you can see, that’s a lot of emails. We’ve got:

  • Launch emails
    • Teaser 1
    • Teaser 2
    • Open
    • FAQ
    • Closing 1
    • Closing
  • Order receipt
  • Thank you for buying – join the community
  • Cart abandonment
  • Didn’t purchase – why not?
  • Accountability
    • Week 1
    • Week 2
    • Week 3
    • Half way point – what do you think so far? Survey.
    • Week 4
    • Week 5
    • Week 6
  • What now?
  • Recommend to someone

The most important part of this sequence for this article are the launch emails.

Here’s how I put these together:

Teaser 1

This is where I stated that the course was going to be opening up for pre sales soon. I didn’t want to jump straight in with the pitch without first warming people up to the idea of a paid course. Short, sweet, and to the point.

Teaser 2

This email started with a story about a time when I tried to learn something artistic, but was held back by the lack of honest teaching. I go on to talk about why Design Fundamentals will be different, and end with a note that the pre sales will open tomorrow.

Open

This email started with me announcing that the course was open for pre sales. I reiterated the discount and the reason why it was such a big discount. I then went on to talk about what’s going to be in the course, and I ended with a short summary of why I decided to do pre-orders.

FAQ

This is self-explanetory but I went in to answer some of the most common questions I was getting. Things like, “What happens if I don’t like the course?”, “When will it be released?” and, “Is the content just going to be the same as the free course?”.

Closing 1

In this email I highlighted some of the people who had already joined and showed some of the excitement that was happening on Twitter and in the Facebook group. The idea here was to elicit some kind of F.O.M.O. and showcase the community.

Closing 2

This was a very short email just giving people a heads up that the pre sale window was closing and when it reopens again, the course will be double the price.

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I made sure I had a killer offer for the pre sale customers. Bare in mind, these people are taking a risk by pulling our their credit card before I’ve ever made anything. So I offered 50% off the course which brought it down to $149.

The students will be my biggest selling point, so the more successful they are, the more successful the course will be.

I also promised that, as founding members, they’d get more access to me than other students. I’d give them detailed feedback throughout the course and we’d work closely together to make something great.

That’s quite a lot to offer for $149 and involves a lot of extra overhead on my part — essentially they’re getting free consulting which in reality would cost a lot more than $149.

However, this has benefits for me and Design Academy too. Not only do I want to gather fantastic case studies to showcase on the website and in further promotional materials, I also want to get a close look into how the first students get on with the course.

I want to see where they hit roadblocks, where they drop off completely, and which parts they love. All this data will help me refine the course to make it more useful to future students.

The students will be my biggest selling point, so the more successful they are, the more successful the course will be.

Step 6: Don’t forget any promotional material

Since I’m only pre selling right now, I didn’t want to go all in on the launch. I’m not going to fully market the course until it’s finished so I didn’t need much promotional materials.

However, one thing I did create which I was really glad of was an image thumbnail that would automatically show when I share the URL to my course on social media.

This is something I didn’t even think about until my developer asked if I had one to give her.

So I created a little card that could be used to promote my course. It simply had my headline in a large font and an image of a few website designs.

It was pretty simple but I ended up being so glad I created this because every time I shared the course, or anyone else shared the course, it looked super professional.

If you’re not too hot on design, you can use a tool like Canva and create something fairly simple. It’ll look miles better than whatever random image Twitter will pull from your page and you can use it everywhere!

Step 7: Test and launch

Once you’ve got to this stage, you’re ready to launch your pre sales! At this point, I only wanted to launch to my network. I’ve been building relationships with other influential people in this space for a while, but this isn’t the time I wanted to call in any favours or get in front of too many audiences. I wanted to keep that up my sleeve for when the finished course was released.

So I did a simple test of my checkout, a run-through of my emails and launched the pre-orders.

The first email went out on 22nd January and sales opened on 24th January.

At this point, the only thing I could do was sit and wait. This is the point where you’ll start to doubt yourself and your abilities. “What if nobody buys?”, “What if the checkout doesn’t work?”.

In the end, the launch ended up breaking my expectations entirely. My goal was to make around $10k and by the end of the few days over $33k had rolled in.

But the important thing to note is that the landing page, the custom checkout, and the launch emails weren’t why it was successful. They’re important and it’s worth spending a lot of time getting these right. But the main reason the launch was successful is because of the things I’ve been doing for the last 3 years.

Bear in mind, I only launched to my list (and posted 1 tweet). If I didn’t have that list of people interested in learning design, I probably wouldn’t have made anything.

This is important because I don’t want to give you the impression that you can just follow the above steps and have a $33k (or higher) pre-order sale.

There’s a lot more that goes into it. So here’s my advice for anyone just starting out who wants to have a successful launch.

 1. Start before you’re ready (like, right now)

For many people, having a product is a pipe dream.

It’s that thing you want to do some day. When work quietens down a bit, or when you have a bit more time.

The problem with time is that we always find ways to fill it. We’ll always have an excuse to not start right now.

Maybe it’s fear. Maybe it’s the amount of work that needs to be put in before you’ll get anywhere. Whatever the reason, putting off starting is the worst thing you can do.

For Design Academy, I bought the domain name back in July 2015. I spent 45 minutes putting up a basic landing page with nothing but some text and an email opt-in.

At the time, I was working full time on client work. I had about 6 clients at any one time, I knew I would not be able to build a course but I wanted to be growing my list while I attempted to ramp down my client work.

It took three years for me to make my first sale on Design Academy but over those three years I had slowly built an email list of 4,816 people (now it’s over 7,000). That’s not a particularly huge number for the time frame (so don’t ask me for hacks on how to build an email list quickly) but it’s 4,816 more people that I’d have had if I didn’t spend those 45 minutes putting up my landing page.

So if products is something you want to get into, find one hour to make that first step to making it a reality. Put up a landing page with an opt-in. Go, go!

2. Say yes to opportunities if they come your way, if they don’t, find them

Putting up a landing page is the first step to building your audience, but you also need people to sign up. Just because your website exists, it doesn’t mean anyone will find it.

Building an audience doesn’t need to be an all time consuming task. It can be. And you’ll certainly build your audience much faster if you can dedicate some serious time to it.

But if you’re in the situation I was, where you have bills to pay, clients or a job taking up the majority of your time, you need to be taking small, consistent steps to build your list.

There are three things that have really helped me build my list over time:

  1. Guest posting
  2. Conference speaking
  3. Appearing on podcasts

Essentially, putting yourself in front of other people’s audiences.

I got my first guest post invitation from writing a few articles about design on Medium. I shared these with my small network of Twitter followers (about 500 at the time) and a few Slack groups I was a part of.

One of the editors of a popular web development blog, SitePoint, happened to be in one of the Slack groups I was a part of. She liked my writing style and asked me to contribute to the blog.

Of course I said yes. Despite the fact that I was amidst a ton of deadlines. I ended up having to write the article in the evenings and weekends. And when you’re new to writing, one article can take an extraordinary amount of time and effort.

However, this really paid off. I put a link to Design Academy in my author bio, the article got published and I started getting a few subscribers.

Then, a conference called State of the Browser saw some of my posts on SitePoint and invited me to submit a talk topic for their next conference. I said yes, submitted it, and (you guessed it) it was chosen.

Speaking at a conference was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do and I nearly backed out a number of times. But guess what? From that conference, I got approached by Vitaly Friedman from Smashing Magazine to speak at their conference the next year.

This is when things started to really take off. Every time I wrote something or did a talk, my subscriber list grew.

I didn’t have anything to sell. All I had was an email opt-in. I was still super busy but I was making progress.

Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to know the importance of saying yes to opportunities, even if you’re busy. Even if you don’t have anything to sell. Even if you’re not sure you’re even targeting that specific audience.

I have a friend who really struggled to get over the mindset of waiting until you’re ‘ready’ to say yes to things. Every time he got offered an interview or a guest post, he’d say no. He wanted to be more put together. He wanted to be ready.

But he was never ready. And guess how much he’s made from products to this day? $0.

“But opportunities don’t just fall into my lap. How can I say yes when nobody is asking me to do anything?”

The problem with my story is that it assumes people with large audiences are looking for people like you to contribute in some way. It involves other people being responsible for whether your list grows or not. And we don’t have control over other peoples actions. Only our own.

Building a network is a snowball effect. The more you do it, the easier it gets.

So if we can’t control opportunities that come to us, we need to go out and find our own. Because believe it or not, my inbox isn’t full of requests for me to guest post or speak at conferences. The more I do it, the more requests I get. But it’s by no means guaranteed, and I still have to make outreach a big part of my strategy.

The smaller your network, the harder your outreach is going to be. Your first connection is going to be infinitely harder than your 50th. Building a network is a snowball effect. The more you do it, the easier it gets.

Getting your first guest post, or your first podcast, or your first conference talk is always going to be the hardest. Your second should be a little easier. By the time you reach your 20th, it should be easier still.

For now, you can start by creating a spreadsheet of people you’d like to reach out to. For guest posting, it helps if you can link to something you’ve already written. For podcasting or conference talks, make sure you come up with about three topics you could speak to.

Then just spend 30 minutes per week reaching out to a few of them and see if they’d be interested in having you contribute.

Here’s the template I use for podcasts:

Hey {name}!

I’d love to put myself forward to be a guest on your podcast. {Something personal – preferably I’ve met them in person, or we have a mutual friend. If not, something to show I know who they are/what they’re about}.

I’ve been teaching design principles to developers for the last 2 years and recently launched a design course, Design Fundamentals, earlier this month which already has over 350 students enrolled.

Specifically, I help developers who want to build and launch their own products — without having to hire a designer. So I teach a mixture of visual design principles and the business of launching and selling a successful product.

For {podcast name}, I’d love to come on and talk with you about either:

  • How developers can learn design — without turning them into a full fledged ‘designer’
  • How to design and market your side project and turn it into something profitable
  • Why developers struggle with design and some tips and tricks they can use today to improve their design skills
  • When you should open source vs. sell your side project
  • Any other way you think I could help your audience 🙂

And if you’d like to see how I fare on other podcasts, some of my favourites that I’ve been a guest on are Startups For The Rest Of Us, User Defenders, and Laravel News.

I’m not a fan of pitching on podcasts, and try to learn as much as I can about the audience of a show and how I can best help them. I’ve found the best way to grow a business is to be genuinely helpful – no strings attached.

If you’re interested in having me on, great! If not, no worries! I appreciate the time you put into making your show.

I try to reach out to ~5 people per week. Any more than that and I risk those emails becoming too templated. I want to spend at least 10-20 minutes researching the person and finding a connection and tweaking the entire email to make sure everything is fully relevant to them/their audience.

Can you set aside a couple of hours a week to do this? Try it and see how far you can get!

3. Spend a lot of time understanding the people you’re trying to help

I was once asked in a podcast interview what my superhero power was. I’m rubbish at coming up with cool answers to this kind of thing and the only thing I could think of was “Eh… Reflective Woman?”. I cursed myself for being so lame.

Looking back, that’s actually been a pretty accurate and useful superpower to have.

I could have released a design course 3 years ago. It would have probably helped a handful of people but completely missed the mark with the vast majority of students.

Why? Because I’d have followed the typical ‘how to learn design’ process that was often more geared towards an already accomplished designer rather than someone just starting out.

I knew the way design was taught didn’t work for the vast majority of developers, but I didn’t yet know how I could do a better job.

Creating a course that’s genuinely useful has taken years of talking to potential customers and thinking long and hard about all the little design details that I take for granted.

“How do I know that colour looks good?”

“Why does this button look so much better than that button?”

“How did I know the line height was off?”

These are hard questions to answer properly. It took far longer than I expected to realise how I really learnt design. (Hint: a ton of tiny, seemingly insignificant breakthroughs which add up over time).

So if you’re going to teach something, or sell something that’s going to make someone’s life better, make sure you truly understand their needs.

As you’re building your list, have conversations with your subscribers. If you can, get on a call with them and find out about what they do, where they want to be, and what holds them back.

As long as you’re respecting people’s time, and not coming across as too pitchy, people are generally pretty ok with sharing their experiences to help you. Just make sure you document as much as you can — the things your subscribers are saying will be a gold mine for writing your sales copy!

And that’s how I launched the pre sales for Design Fundamentals.

Remember, there isn’t really any such thing as an overnight success. Making $33k in less than a week sounds great. Making $33k in 3 years? Not so much. But the reason I love products is because with everything you do, you’re building an asset.

Design Academy keeps getting more valuable every day. The course I make will hopefully continue to make a solid income, and the more courses I release, the more content I put out there and the bigger my list grows, the better it becomes.

Starting is the hardest part. Pushing through those times when it feels like your audience isn’t growing and nobody is listening. That’s where most people give up. So if you’re interested in selling products and haven’t started building your asset yet, start now. It doesn’t have to take three years like it did for me. If you put the effort in, you could achieve the same in less than a year.

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Download every single email that I used in the pitch for Design Fundamentals pre-orders

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