How to Create A “Best of Breed” Online Education Course


Step into the industry of creating online education with lessons and insights from Danny Iny (@DannyIny). Danny is the founder of Firepole Marketing and Productive Inbox, host of the Business Reimagined podcast, and best-selling author of multiple books, including Engagement from Scratch! and The Audience Revolution. Danny Iny is also the creator of the acclaimed Audience Business Masterclass and Course Builder’s Laboratory training programs. Danny’s courses have graduated over 3,000 value-driven online entrepreneurs.

In this episode we discuss:

  • The core phases of a great online course, which are conception, application, and feedback/integration.
  • How to start with the end in mind when designing online training.
  • The differences between online education that offers information versus transformation.

We hope this episode helps you learn about the shift and opportunity in the online education industry.


Josh:    0:00-0:50            Welcome to the Work the System podcast where we help entrepreneurs make more and work less using systems and I’m your host Josh Fonger. Today we have a special guest. It’s Danny. Danny is a leading voice in the world of online courses he’s been featured or contributed but two publications including the Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur, Inc, Forbes and Business Insider, has spoken at places like Yale University and Google and is the author of books including Teach and Grow Rich, leveraged learning and most recently, Teacher Gift which I have right here. Thanks, Danny Iny. Danny is on a mission to reimagine business and transform education. As the founder and CEO of Mercy, a business education company, Danny has dealt innovative training programs that have raised the bar for online education. All right, Danny, I’m excited to have you on the show.


Danny: 0:51-0:52          I’m thrilled to be here. Thank you for having me.


Josh:    0:53-1:02          So why don’t you tell us the, tell us the backstory. How did you become an expert at building online courses?


Danny: 01:01-02:37        For sure. So thank you for asking. So the really quick version is that I built a startup company in 2007. it all fell apart for a combination of me being young and not knowing what I was doing. And then terrible time the markets crashed. And I walked away from that with a ton of debt, feeling totally demoralized. I was like, what am I gonna do? And, you know, I built this business, I had hired a lot of people, I had raised a whole bunch of money. I was like, what can I do that doesn’t require all that? It’s like, I’ll start a blog. I’ll teach stuff online. Right? I don’t need to hire people for that. I can do it on the side. It was like the casual rebound business. But we strike the right chord in the market. It was what people wanted when they wanted it. And it just kind of blew up. And so here we are a decade later. I have a couple dozen people on my team. So yeah, turned out different from my thought, but I love it. But the narrative of that business’s growth is that you know, I stumbled onto a strategy for building online business and people notice what I was doing. And they said, Danny, can you teach me? And eventually I said, Yes. And so I started teaching them. And they did what I taught them and they got results. And they asked me the next question, you know, what is the next thing I need my business. And I taught that. And after a few iterations of that a couple of years in, people started coming to me and saying, you know, Danny, I’ve taken a lot of online classes, a lot of online courses, and I don’t get any results. They sit on the shelf, I don’t do the work. They’re confusing, whatever it is. But when I take your courses, I get results. Can you teach me how to build courses the way you do? And that was about 2013, when we pivoted our way into the world of online courses, and that’s become the focus of everything I do.


Josh:    02:38-03:15        Well, that’s very interesting. I, I had a similar thought, I guess I went in different paths. I thought, well, since people don’t get good results with courses, why don’t I just go do coaching? So I’ve always been coaching, consulting, group coaching, events. And I don’t know if I didn’t tell you this before the show, but we’re actually releasing a bunch of new line products the next few months. So, but half the questions I asked, you’re gonna be very much just about my Of course coming up. So, so tell us about what is, you know, most important now. So what has changed in the last five years? And for those people who actually do want to build courses right now? What do they need to be aware of? What works?


Danny: 03:16-07:35        Yeah, so, you know, the landscape of online courses has evolved a lot since the early days. And whenever you have any kind of new opportunity, it goes through. It’s called the diffusion of innovation. So you have, you know, innovators at first and early adopters on the mainstream market. Most people have seen a bell curve that looks like that. So the early days, where you have innovators and early adopters, this was like, you know, 2000 to 2010 2015. That’s when it’s a brand new market. It’s totally unregulated. The people who are because it’s so nascent and unfamiliar, the people go into it tend to be those early adopters, innovators, they’re interested in being on the bleeding edge, they’re willing to tolerate a lot of less quality than otherwise would be there. Right? It’s like the early days of the smartphone. So the first smartphone was a brick, it weighed a ton. It had a battery life that lasted like 25 minutes. It ran for apps, maybe, and it cost a fortune. And early adopters were okay with that, you know, most buyers are not. So that’s kind of where the landscape started. And about five years ago, we kind of started moving into this place of maturity. And what happened was a polarization. So the world of online courses kind of split in two directions. On one side, you’ve got information. So to get your head around what information is in the world of online courses, think about the analog equivalent to that, which is a book in a bookstore, right? That’s like the archetypal information product. So you go to a bookstore, you find the book that purports to have the information that you’re looking for, you take it to the register, you pay for it, not a lot of money, because it doesn’t cost much to replicate information. And once you give them the money, you walk out of the bookstore, nobody owes you anything, right. You got what you paid for. Right? The author doesn’t owe you anything. The bookstore owner doesn’t owe you anything the publisher doesn’t owe you anything. What you do with that is totally up to you. And if you do nothing with that, that’s totally on you. And that’s fine. Right? Information is very good for broadening our horizons and showing us what’s possible. Information is very good for integrating new knowledge into existing expertise. But information is not good at imparting competence, right? We don’t get good at things by reading books. We learn about things by reading books. If we want to get good at things, information, doesn’t cut it, we need education, we need transformation. That’s the other direction that the world kind of split into. So the real world analog of education would be a university course. So you enroll in a university course you pay a lot of money. And there are a lot of reasons for that, some of them are market forces and educational inflation, but it also costs a lot more to deliver a meaningful education, right, you’ve got the instructor, you’ve got the TA you’ve got the grounds, the infrastructure, etc. and the expectation is they will help you get to the finish line, right? So you have to show up. If you don’t show up, you can register, pay your money and disappear. Nobody will care. But if you show up and you’re doing the work, it is reasonable for you to expect the institution in which you are enrolled is going to put on the table, whatever you need to help you get to the finish line to help you succeed. And that’s education. And that’s what justifies paying a premium for. So in the world of online courses, now that we’re kind of getting to this place of maturity, we’re getting to this place where information is cheap, and accessible and pervasive and very hard to compete with. Right if you’re an aspiring screenwriting instructor, right, you know, you’re not going to compete with Aaron Sorkin, who wrote a few good men in the West Wing and who has a course on masterclass you can get for 100 bucks, right? If there’s no way you’re going to be competitive with that, not with the content, not with the marketing or production budget. Like there’s no way you’re competing. That’s on the information side. But on the education side, right for all the aspiring screenwriters students people are like I want to get good at screenwriting. Maybe they take Aaron Sorkin’s class on masterclass. And they’re like this was interesting. I learned something. But I’m not fundamentally a better screenwriter than I was a few hours ago. I want to get good. Aaron Sorkin is not going to help me, Aaron Sorkin’s busy writing whatever his next big project is, right. So that’s the opportunity for a lot of experts to come in and build things that are really meaningful, not the bargain basement, 50 bucks, 100 bucks for a course, but 1000 $2,000 for a course, where you can justify putting on the table, the kind of experience that will actually lead to transformation.


Josh:    07:36-08:03        So how do you let me ask this question first, because I don’t want to lose half the audience who’s like, well, I’m not gonna do an online course. I’m a chiropractor. I’m a dentist, I you know, whatever. But now that they’re home and we’re recording this during the Coronavirus pandemic here, with our social distancing, what kind of person should create an online course and what kind of person should not have certain people who like this is a really great idea or another was like, no, you shouldn’t do it.


Danny: 08:04-12:59        It’s a really good question. And there’s two ways to answer that there’s who kind of has what it takes to build a good online course. And then there’s what kind of business does an online course fit into? So in terms of who should and shouldn’t build an online course, the major criteria for building an online course is that you have real expertise in your field, right in the early days of online courses, when there weren’t many. And so it was a very, you know, nascent, untouched market. There was a truism in the space that if you read five books about a topic, you know more about it than anyone but a real expert, and that makes you a de facto expert. This was offensive to a lot of real experts. And I’ve always had the perspective that there’s a difference between reading five books and understanding five books. But if you want to teach about something, you need to really know your stuff. So that’s the big criteria, right? If you’re thinking, you know, I think there’s money in teaching people about Bitcoin so I better read some books about Bitcoin and then create a course. Don’t do that. Like you’ve gonna actually know your stuff. Now in terms of what kind of business a quart fits, of course fits into, there are different ways for a course to fit into a business. So the way that people traditionally think about it is that the course is the product like this is the finger selling, it’s going to be 1000 2000 $3,000, whatever it is, I’m going to sell a whole bunch of it, that’s my business. And for that, you need to have an expertise that delivers a meaningful transformation. Right. And so it’s a, it’s usually a very good opportunity for coaches, for consultants, for speakers, for authors, for experts. For a lot of other businesses, that may not be the way to go. But that doesn’t mean a course doesn’t fit. So if you conceptualize the lifetime of a customer with you on a timeline, and it starts way back when they just discover who you are, and there’s a whole length of time where they are getting to know you and learning about you and eventually you get to the point of purchase. And then there’s a whole another length of time where they’re getting the benefit of what they’re getting from you. Right, so case in point you said you know you’ve got people watching this who might be current practice, right? So you could potentially create a course on how to relieve your own back pain or something, which is the product that you’re selling. So maybe that’s the thing that you’re selling. But maybe you say, you know, no, I’m a chiropractor, I like being a chiropractor. I’m not looking to get into a different kind of business. But there is a whole window of time window of things that have to happen before someone becomes my customer. They have to learn, they have to know understand and believe certain things about the efficacy of chiropractics, about the relevancy of it to their particular situation, about what it looks and feels like about you as a practitioner, they trust. An online course can be a very good way of delivering all that learning to them. Right? So it can essentially take the place of some of your marketing, right, you deliver more value, it’s a lot easier for people to raise their hand and say, Yeah, I’d love to learn about how to feel less pain during the day than it is for them to be lean. I’d love to read a whole bunch of stuff about your business, right like you lead with value. That becomes a part of your funnel, that’s one option. The other option is after purchase and retention, right? So let’s say again, you’re a chiropractor and I say this, I might be getting things wrong, because I don’t know how chiropractic works. But presuming a chiropractor works with someone for a length of time, you’re gonna keep coming back every few weeks, every month, whatever the rhythm is, and there’s stuff I want you to do between sessions. And if you don’t do the stuff between sessions, you’re not going to get as much value, you might not appreciate the experience, I might lose you. Or you might be calling me at all hours in the day bothering me with questions that are pretty straightforward. Maybe I create an aftercare course that you know, as an active customer of mine, or I guess patient of mine, you have access to this course that you can follow on the off weeks when you’re at home to get the most out of our work together. So it can be the offer, it can be pre purchase, it can be post purchase, and it can also be an add on to what you’re already selling. And I see this a lot with speakers. I see this a lot in the b2b space. So let’s say you’re a high price consultant or speaker, you’re brought into a corporation to deliver a talk and you inspire them. And you show them a new solution, a new possibility, right, but then you’re going to leave, and they’re going to forget all of it. So maybe you don’t want to replace what you do. But maybe after you deliver the talk, and they’re all excited, you talk to the manager and you say, you know, if you want this change, to really be implemented in the organization, I have a course that all of your direct reports can go through. And then it becomes an add on, it’s kind of like, would you like fries with that, except that it doesn’t have to be a small amount of money. And the example of that, that I really like in the business world is Disney Studios and theme parks. So while Disney is a movie company, right, this is what they did. The theme parks were an add on to that. But the theme parks grows like twice what the movie studios do each year. So it can be a huge part of the business especially over time. So those are all the different ways to think about how course can integrate into a business presuming you have the expertise to create one.


Josh:    13:00-13:21        So what is working now? And we don’t need to get two weeks into the weeds with technology, what’s working now in terms of delivering this transformation? Because let’s just say get information. Now you want to move to education transformation. What are the components? Are there live components coaching components? What are the pieces that make it transformative?


Danny: 13:22-  Yeah, I love that question. And the answer is that it depends on what you’re trying to teach and what outcomes you want people to get. So the way you want to approach this instructional designers will talk about backward integrated design, which is basically Stephen Covey’s start with the end in mind. So before you set out to build a course, you don’t think I’m a chiropractor case in point. So I’m going to build a course about chiropractic, what are all the things I know about chiropractic? So you don’t start with that? You start with the outcome when they’re done the course. What do I want my students to feel to remember to do? What do I want them to know? And not only how not only what do I want them to know you also want to ask yourself, how well do I want them to know it. And that’s where a lot of course, builders kind of skip a step. Because, you know, if I were to say I want to teach a course about Hamlet, right? Well, what needs to go into that course it depends on how well I want you to know Hamlet, if I want you to know the story at a high level, I could probably deliver that in like 20 minutes, half an hour. If I want you to be able to recite Hamlet, it’s gonna take a lot more. If I want you to be able to perform Hamlet, that’s even more, right. So it’s how well do I want them to know it? And then when you think about what do I want them to know? And how well do I want them to know it, you can kind of reverse engineer well, what needs to go into the experience that will allow them to absorb that information. And you know, when you’re designing a learning journey, there are three steps in the journey. The first step is consumption. That’s where they’re exposed to the new ideas. So I watched the video, I listened to the audio, I read the transcript, I attend the lecture. And that’s important. That’s where you start. And if you’re doing an information only course that’s all you’ve got. It’s consumption but most learning happens in the next two stages. The second step is application, I take what I’ve learned. And I go and I do something with it. And that can be theoretical, right? I’m doing worksheets and assignments, or it can be practical. I’m doing things out in the world in my business. And then what cements that learning is feedback,  that allows for integration. And that feedback can be just a consequence of what I’m doing, right, I’m doing a skateboarding course. And so I go, and I try to skateboard and the feedback comes from the concrete when I fall on my face, or it can be more nuanced in the way that you would get from a coach from a peer from a feedback structure. But most of the learning most of the development of competence actually comes from application and then integration through feedback. So you want to think to yourself, what do I need to teach? What do I need to convey? But then how can I create those opportunities for application and feedback? And that will take time it will take money, it will take effort, which is why you want to be selling a course that justifies that investment, right? If you’re selling $100 course, you can’t justify it and meaningful investment in your student. If you’re selling 1000 or $2,000 course you can say, yeah, I’ve got I’ve got resources that I can plow into creating a transformative experience.


Josh:    16:10-16:24      So how do people stand out? Since, there’s thousands and thousands and thousands of courses nowadays, out there? How do you actually stand out to? Because last thing people want to do is build a course and have no one buy it. So how do you? How do you make sure that people actually buy it and stand out?


Danny: 16:25-17:55      Yeah, so actually, there aren’t that many courses out there. And this is a hard thing for people to get their head around. Because I imagine most people who are watching this, like you’ve heard of online courses ages ago, you’ve been in the world of online courses for a long time. But it’s a little bit like being in a nightclub and you’re 10 feet away from the speaker and it’s so loud, you can barely feel yourself thinking, right? And it’s like, how can anyone not hear this? But 10 blocks down the street nobody knows this is even happening. Right? So when you’re very in the courses world, it feels like they’re everywhere. But they’re actually not, right? And especially at one distinguish information from education transformation. Right? So at this point there is a lot of information out there, you can go to Udemy. You can go on masterclass and go and creative live, you can go on LinkedIn learning or highbrow, there’s a lot of them. Right? There’s a lot of places you can get information. There actually are not a lot of good education courses right now. And so if you find a market that is like, I want to get this outcome, and you deliver it, you do a good job of like, you know, I can get you that outcome. It’s not at all a saturated space. At this point, there’s a lot of opportunity. And in terms of how you get the word out, I mean, it’s, it’s, you know, it’s the basic blocking and tackling of marketing. Who is your customer? Where do they hang out? How can you reach them with the budget that you have, in terms of what you can afford on a per customer acquisition basis? And we do work with our students on that kind of stuff I do talk about in the book, but there is no one right answer of like, here’s where everyone should get their customers that depends on the industry. It depends on the niche, etc.


Josh:    17:56-18:05      Then I wish we had more time because this is an important topic for people to hear about, what’s one question that I didn’t ask you, but I should have,


Danny: 18:06-20:18        You know, we you touched on the fact that we’re recording this in the middle of a pandemic. But we didn’t talk about like, what will the effect be of that pandemic, because some people are thinking, you know, right now the whole world is shut down. It’s just a matter of time before it opens up again, then everything will go back to normal. And what we’ve seen from every major crisis in recent and not recent history, is that we do eventually get to a new normal, it’s not the same as the old normal. There’s a great anecdote out of Simon Cynics new book, the infinite game, he talks about Victoria Knox, the Swiss Army Knife company, and how they reacted after 911. So after 911, of course, the one of the first things that happened was you can’t carry a Swiss Army knife on a plane anymore. And this was disastrous for their business, right, their sales just dropped to the floor. And it would have been very easy for them to say, well, you know, this too shall pass. Let’s just wait for things to get back to normal. And they have a lot of inertia, a lot of muscle memory, pushing that. This was a 130 year old company. But instead they said, you know, I think the world is going to be different, let’s adapt. And they diversified into kitchen knives, they diversified into luggage, they diversified into watches, they diversified into fragrances. So you too, can smell like the Swiss Army if you so choose. Right. And because they adapted in this way, their sales are up, they’re doing great. And I think it’s going to be a lot of the same. So, you know, online courses were already kind of a phenomenon that were taking the world by storm. And this current crisis is accelerated that a lot. You know, there are two reasons not to do a learning experience online. One is that it is genuinely better in person. And sometimes that’s the case. But the other much more common reason is I don’t like this online thing. I’m not used to this online thing. I’ve never tried this online thing. And that’s what’s really held things back and why the advance of online courses has been like, inching forward, you know, quickly but still relatively slowly and all of that reason resistance has been just like wiped away overnight. Right? overnight, everyone’s been like, no, I guess I have to do things online. So even after this passes, you know, some things will happen in person, but a lot more will be happening online. So this space is seeing a lot of growth, and it’s only going to accelerate. So this really is the time.


Josh:    20:19-20:27        Oh, that’s inspiring. That’s helpful for me to hear as well. Hopefully everyone else. Well, then where can people find out more about you? And the great work you do,


Danny: 20:28-21:03      Well, thank you very much for having me on. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege. Anyone who wants to learn more about me my work my new book, Teacher Gift, it’s on Amazon, you can go there, I heard a speaker somewhere, say it and I’m borrowing the line. The best way to buy books is in bulk. So feel free to go buy lots of copies, but the book is just out. We’re gonna be doing a whole bunch of cool stuff around the launch. So if you want to just see what we’ve got right now, if there are bonuses or stuff like that, go to teach your gift book dot com and don’t go hopefully be some cool stuff there. And if not, it’ll point you to Amazon and you can get it there.


Josh:    21:04-21:56      That sounds good, right? So we’re streaming this live, so people are watching it live and then some of you will watch it. And a few weeks, we post it up on all the channels. But Danny, thanks again for sharing your wisdom everyone make sure to check out his information, especially if you are thinking of ever building a course. He’s a true experts been around a long time. And I remember the first time I saw you speak at an event must have been like, seven, eight years ago. So he’s a true Pro, not just starting out. And I make sure to stay tuned next week everybody to the podcast, we’ll be sharing another guest expert, maybe one of my previous clients or my consultants sharing with you how you can make more and work less in your business with systems. And if you want to leave us a review, we’re going to give away one of those copies of that book right there behind me work the system or give away one copy a week to whoever writes us a review and emails a copy of that to info at work the system dot com. Otherwise, thanks again everybody and we will catch you next week.

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