11 January, 2020

Reflections on building my course (Part I)

Given that I have been griping for what now seems like years (and is in fact years) about not finding the time to write, not committing properly to a writing regime, not publishing, the new decade has provided me with a “clean sheet” moment to start afresh and to do what I have been promising myself to do for longer than I can remember. Writing to a prospective audience that does not yet exist, is strangely liberating. I do not have to worry about anything other than the question of whether I think I am going to be not overly uncomfortable with having whatever I write on any particular day out there for posterity, but free from the cold blast of immediate reaction. You know, just in case one day somebody actually stumbles across this digital collection of musings and reads it. So for the record I have tasked myself with writing and publishing something every working day of 2020, inspired by the wonderful David Perell and this quote that he used in a recent tweet:

Today I am thinking about courses and knowledge sharing. Specifically about building an offering around some specialist area of knowledge that I have in the hope of finding an audience who will appreciate what I have to share. I also hope that finding and engaging with that audience will allow me to improve my thinking around my subject, of which I am a constant and life-long student and to achieve my ambition of building a digital platform business, something radically different to anything I have attempted before in my business career.

My topic – which happens to be financial literacy primarily in a business context for business owners and entrepreneurs, but could be anything – has been clear for some time, indeed I have been informally talking about my subject for years, always informally or occasionally formally as an invited speaker to some event. I read avidly around my subject: the map of reading looking a little like a drop of ink on a piece of blotting paper, highly relevant in the centre and with changing degrees of direct relevance as the ink stain of my interest diffuses from the central subject. I can find a link to finance, capital and money in the strangest of literary rabbit holes.

So last year I took the plunge and created a 10-part course developed from a 7 point plan that I had jotted down on a piece of paper whilst attending a breakout session at an entrepreneurial forum in Hamburg in 2014. I had transcribed that scrap of paper to an Evernote note – which functions as my digital brain – tagged it and promptly forgotten about it, until late 2017 when I started thinking more specifically about creating a course and a digital business. My thinking, which slowly evolved into an ambition to do just that was occasioned by a desire to establish a business from my new-ish home in Ireland after 30 years of living and working in Germany. The idea was to find something which would not limit me to Ireland as a market – one I neither knew well or had any form of business network. I wanted, if you will, to be in, but not of Ireland. Creating a digital business with a potentially global customer base, tapping into the wealth of resources in local digital expertise, whilst creating a virtual team to deliver sounded (and still sounds) like an enticing proposition.

Creating the content was a doddle for me. I love every second of the thinking, planning, writing, researching and creation of the knowledge that I wished to share with my audience. However I soon found the hurdle in creating this sort of business from scratch is invisible but huge. Almost all businesses that appear to have very low barriers to entry (i.e.: you can set them up with minimum capital or infrastructure and that can theoretically be productive and profitable from the first moment) – usually knowledge-based businesses that require little to no official qualification, certification or regulation – have significant competition, are hugely inefficient in terms of matching supply and demand and have hidden barriers to entry. These barriers are practical rather than institutional or capital-based. The key is always to find an entry point and understand the norms, both technological and cultural, that enable the seasoned practitioners to thrive. Just because there isn’t a visible gatekeeper at the entrance to the market, doesn’t mean there are no barriers to trading.

The barriers in this case are a) technological and b) marketing. The world is awash with individuals attempting to set up an apparently low or no-cost digital market stall to hawk their expert wares to a hungry public. The ability to create a low-cost stall through providers like WordPress or Vix to name just two that I know of or to hire a freelancer through Upwork or 99-Designs is constrained only by possession of smartphone or laptop, a credit card and wifi hotspot. However, for a non-digital native, the true complexity lurks behind the simple facade and it is bewildering. In fact it was so bewildering to start with that I suffered from immediate overload, shut down and kept postponing actually getting started, as the task seemed too daunting. I was acutely aware of the fact that I didn’t even know where to start asking – to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, the unknown unknowns were overwhelming. Dave Allen in his bestselling book “Getting Things Done” points out a valid truth that we automatically postpone activities if there is any lack of clarity or indeed faulty logical in what the Next Step is. I had a vague idea of what the end might look like, but defining the next step appeared impossible – given my lack of knowledge on both the technology and the way-to-market.

I found help with the first step through a friend in Germany with whom I started a small mastermind group of seasoned entrepreneurs who wanted to tackle this digital business phenomenon and we assisted each other in stumbling through the first steps. I had come across a course-creating expert, Danny Iny founder of Leveraged Learning in Canada whose book “Teach and Grow Rich” was an excellent primer on the evolving market for true teaching in a digital environment, and so we more or less followed his recipe. Danny recommends not getting too bogged down with technicalities or perfection (always good advice at any time) to start with but to the float the basic idea of the course to potential prospective users, capture their response and then adapt the concept. Then he suggests co-creating a pilot course with a handful of those prospectives, charging them a deeply discounted price for the privilege of their insights, constructive criticism and feedback, which is what I did.

With the help of my friend and few supporters from my business network who had encouraged me to transform my experience into the course in the first place, I managed to cobble together a small group of 7 paying guinea-pigs who signed up for a live 10 part course in german, hosted by me via GoToMeeting (initially, later Zoom). The course design and a three page summary of the purpose and content of the course was prepared by my partner’s agency, which received 20% of the proceeds of the income from those participants sourced from his network. This then became my first affiliate marketing relationship. The three-pager and a QAD landing page was all the marketing material we started with and was communicated to the participants as part of the acquisition phase. I created the actual course presentations in Keynote on a just-in-time basis, locking myself away in a fabulous co-working space close to my offices in Wuppertal, Germany every Thursday morning from 0830 to the end of the day, in time for the one hour (+/-) course at 1730. As my flight back home to Dublin was at 2100 from Dusseldorf airport, roughly a one-hour journey all-in, I had a hard stop at 1830 which proved invaluable as a disciplining force to avoid overrun.

Those one hour course elements broadcast between February and the beginning of April were exhausting: it was a strange and initially uncomfortable experience talking to my laptop in an empty conference room at a group of people whose expressions I could not see, talking through my presentation and hoping that they were still interested and indeed still there at the other end. The material was dense and the concepts required concentration, although I hoped I was making it fun to learn. The one hour sessions were recorded by the service provider and the presentation shared after the event.

I then repeated the whole pilot exercise after the summer break between September and early November with the support of a business network partner, Dr. Sabrina Starling and her “Tap the Potential” SME entrepreneur coaching network, who marketed the course to her clients. I was pleasantly surprised by the positive response (which is certainly a testimony to the strength of Sabrina’s relationships in her community) and the course ended up almost double the size (13 in all). It required me to translate and modify the original pilot program from a german to a US context, making some structural changes based on my experience of delivering the material and feedback from the first group. Of the pilot course guinea pigs all but two were from my affiliate marketing partner, one from the Small Giants Community and one from an enterprising employee at a start up venture in London and who had heard me talking as a guest on a UK podcast over the summer.

The feedback was very encouraging – the entrepreneurs and business owners confirmed to me in individual chats and conversations during and after the course that the material helped them widen their perspective on the job that they were doing and allowed them to move up to a 30.000 ft level for a time and to see their business and their own lives as economic agents in a different way. I was also greatly encouraged by the response that certain aspects of finance had been demythologised during the course and that certain core concepts around intrinsic value, business valuation and reading financial statements had become much easier to understand and valuable as a result. Quite frankly, that was the best result I could wish for as a teacher. Providing context and deep comprehension of how things connect is, I believe the key to ensuring that the material then has a chance of influencing habits and leading to lasting change.

As I headed into the end of the year, I had a decent level of feedback, I knew that the material was interesting and valuable to most of the participants, I had a hundred ideas of how to improve both the narrative and the delivery as well as recognition that I could and probably should split the course into (at least) two offerings, namely a Basic 101 and a Master course. What was missing was the ability to turn it into a professional download version and the infrastructure to supply course material, homework and tests. Follow my discovery path in the next post on this subject.