From designing a website to perfecting a sun salutation or baking sourdough bread, taking an online masterclass became mainstream during the coronavirus pandemic and they continue to be big business.
Many are “side hustles” by the class teacher, who uses the cash from ticket sales to supplement their normal income. So, with living costs rising, do you have skills or specialist knowledge that could be turned into a lucrative masterclass or webinar?
The subject doesn’t have to be related to your job. It could be linked to your hobbies and interests. Maybe you are a singer, yoga expert or ultramarathon runner, or have just published your first novel?
There are lots of platforms out there that will help you with the pricing, marketing and payments, or you could try to sell the course yourself, using services such as Zoom and Eventbrite.
It was, of course, video-conferencing platforms such as Zoom that were big winners during the pandemic, when video calls replaced work face-to-face meetings and lots of social activities moved online, and going through all of that has perhaps inevitably transformed the way we learn.
During that period, “everyone learned how to learn online”, says Lucy Griffiths, the author of Make Money While You Sleep, who has made a seven-figure sum selling online courses since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
“Whereas before, people might have gone to night school, now they want to learn things at home,” she says. “You can also sell to corporates. You can approach companies’ HR departments and offer courses and training that will help their employees.”
How much can you make?
The amount of money online course creators can make is surprisingly high.
When he was in his early 20s, in 2018, the web developer Adam Janes created a seven-hour online data visualisation course, split into 60 bite-size recorded segments. Since then he has made $76,000 (£62,800) from selling it on an online learning and teaching platform called Udemy.
“It took me about five months to make the 60 videos, working on it three days a week while I was living in Thailand, with zero expenses,” he says. “The course teaches people to make fancy interactive charts and graphics on web browsers – like the ones you see in interactive journalism stories.”
In the UK the course is listed at £59.99. However, Janes says most people pay a discounted rate of $10, with Janes receiving between $3 and $5 and the platform – which controls the pricing of the course – taking the rest.
Janes chose to host it on Udemy because he was aware that a large number of web developers were already using the platform to develop their skills. “With Udemy, you don’t need to already have a pre-established audience – if you make a good course and you just put it up there, organically you get traction. More and more people start buying it, and Udemy does the promotion for you.”
He did do some marketing himself, by asking popular web development bloggers if he could write guest blogposts about data visualisation programming, which he learned about while studying at Harvard. “Nobody said no because it was free content for the person running the blog. And at the end of each post I wrote: if you want to learn more about this, here’s a link to my course.”
In the first month 644 people signed up to the course, and it quickly attracted five-star reviews. Since then, about 21,000 people have bought Janes’s class. It now takes up very little of his time – he estimates he spends approximately 20 minutes a week answering questions from students, and makes about $1,000 (£830) a month from it.
He advises anyone wishing to create a course to find a “niche”.
Griffiths agrees: “The more niche you can be, the better. Try to appeal to a specific demographic, like a makeup course for women over 50, whose skin has changed since the menopause. You want to really talk to a pain point, your customer’s problem – whatever they are struggling with.”
She also recommends keeping each segment of your course short. “People are really time-poor. If you say: ‘It is going to take you less than an hour to learn this subject,’ that’s actually a selling point.”
Finally, when selling your course, it is worth mentioning how much experience you have or your qualifications, she says.
Kathryn Burrington started teaching mandala art – a complex geometric patterned design, usually in a circle – online during lockdown when her work as a travel writer and guided walk leader disappeared overnight.
“Even though I hadn’t taught art before, I’ve painted and drawn mandala art for years because I’ve always been obsessed with patterns.”
She thought the class would appeal to people who wanted to be distracted and learn a new hobby during the pandemic.
“I think being creative is very good for your mental health and doing mandala art in particular is a form of active meditation. It’s very calming and soothing.”
She signed up to a basic plan on Zoom, costing £11.99 a month, and decided to host her course on Obby, a platform she knew sold art and craft classes.
“It meant I didn’t have to advertise it or handle people’s payments. They brought clients to me, and the payments were all taken through the platform.”
She charges each student £18 a class, and receives 80% of that, after Obby takes its fees. “It went well, straight away. People loved it and I got brilliant feedback. And now I’ve taught hundreds and hundreds of people.”
A student asked her if she would consider giving a corporate class, and she has since started offering this, charging well-known multinational companies £300 for an hour-long online class that all their employees can join. “That’s where the money is. Those classes are much more lucrative.”
She also now takes direct bookings through her website, mandalameadow.com, which reduces the amount she pays in fees.
At the height of lockdown she was making up to £1,500 a month from her classes but nowadays she says her monthly income from teaching mandala art fluctuates from £50 to £1,000, depending on how many corporate clients she attracts. “It really does vary – and it did drop off when the world opened up again.”
However, she still gets a lot of satisfaction from her side hustle, and is proud of the way she managed to support herself during the pandemic.
“I was able to finish paying off my mortgage in lockdown. And I didn’t get a penny from the government.”
Consider offering your masterclass for free
Matthew Shackleton is a veterinary physiotherapist who had just launched his business, Shackleton Veterinary Physiotherapy, treating lame domestic and zoo animals, when the pandemic hit and decimated his income.
“I was not able to go out and treat animals unless they were very severe cases – for example, paralysed.”
He decided to offer two free hour-long webinars, aimed at zoo keepers, on how to spot the subtle signs that an animal is lame and manage their treatment. “Keepers can sometimes really struggle to notice subtle lameness because they look after such a variety of different animals.”
He publicised the free webinars on his business Facebook page and a few Facebook groups for veterinary professionals and zookeepers.
“It all kind of snowballed from there,” Shackleton says. More than 200 people came along to each webinar, and they were so well received they led to a large number of paid opportunities to give hour-long talks to zoos around the world, as well as veterinary conferences, universities and vet schools.
“At the start I had impostor syndrome and would charge £50, but as time went on I started charging £100 to £150,” Shackleton says. “It was really helpful to have that extra money during the lockdown.”
Since restrictions have lifted he has also been invited to give in-person workshops at zoos, and can now command fees of up to £1,000 for a day of his time. However, most importantly, he says, giving so many guest talks has generated a huge amount of interest in his business as a veterinary physiotherapist.
“It’s raised my profile with vets and catapulted my business with domestic animals forward. Plus, off the back of those talks, I’ve gone into some very large zoos and have ended up treating a lot of animals that, historically, hadn’t received physio before. A big chunk of the income from my business, which is now sustainable, has come about because of those free webinars.”
How much does it cost to create an online course?
There are a plethora of platforms out there where you can host an online course.
Another popular site, Kajabi, charges $119 a month but zero transaction fees.
Look at the types of courses that are already on offer on the different platforms. Ideally, you want to find a website that already attracts the sort of people who would be interested in buying your course.
Alternatively, you could host and promote the class yourself, for example, by offering a live class over a video-conferencing platform – and then record it, and sell the recording later, for example, via a payment plugin on your website.
This is particularly worth considering if you have a large following on social media or can promote your course to a few relevant professional or networking groups, and so are confident you can attract an audience by yourself.
If you are certain your class will last less than 40 minutes, a Zoom meeting with up to 100 participants will be free. Otherwise, you need to sign up for a personal membership plan, costing £11.99 a month, or your class will end automatically after 40 minutes.
Overall, you should expect to pay at least 10% to 20% of what you charge your students in fees to websites that host and promote your course, and process your payments.
Do I need to pay tax on my income from online courses?
You are allowed to make up to £1,000 a year from casual self-employment without declaring the money to HM Revenue and Customs. If your turnover from self-employment is more than £1,000, you need to register as self-employed and fill in a tax return.
However, on your tax return, you can then opt to take advantage of a £1,000 tax-free trading allowance. This enables you to earn the first £1,000 of turnover from your self-employment tax-free, instead of deducting expenses or other allowances.