John Bura dips into his vast pool of experience as he describes how he has managed to be relatively consistent with his business, Mammoth Interactive.
“You need to keep looking for new business,” he says.
The e-learning space is a constantly changing landscape and if you are not regularly searching for new and fresh opportunities, it becomes difficult to compete effectively.
John Bura has successfully navigated these waters over a very long time and he gives us valuable insight as to why it is so difficult to achieve consistent upward momentum as well as offering some actionable tips on ways you can go about adapting your strategy and optimizing your course-selling business.
John Bura | Why it’s Hard to Be Successful in E-Learning.
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You may like to read the previous section of this interview with John Bura: John Bura | Reinventing Yourself in A Changing Market.
Here is the next section of the John Bura interview.
Jerry Banfield: What you’ve said means, be yourself and stand out. Present your own unique style.
From my experience, sometimes just watching other people’s courses will give you an idea of what you don’t like or what opportunity there is. I bought that YouTube course I mentioned. It was terrible and then that motivated me like, “Oh, this is what I could do to make a course that would be better.”
John Bura: Absolutely.
For instance, a lot of machine learning courses, they’re almost just PowerPoint slides and pre-typed out code and I get why. It’s because it’s so difficult. It’s really hard. But this course that we’re making we’re typing it out from scratch and that’s a differentiator.
But it’s way harder to do that. I have years of experience doing that and the cool thing is that I’ve scaled it. I have two other course instructors that do that and I could hire 20 people if I wanted to and get them to do that.
Going back to why my company’s investable, it is because I can do it. I’ve already proved that I can scale it up once. I can do that production again. The question is how big and scalable the market is. I hope it will be really scalable in the future.
Jerry Banfield: Yes. The online learning market is just huge. It seems like we’re transitioning away from university learning for a lot of topics to just learning online.
No. Maybe not doctors per se or certain professions, but for the average person. I think the market potential is huge. From what you’ve said it’s all about finding the best way to teach what you know in an engaging format because people have seen so many PowerPoint slides. Sure, they can be good to communicate information but I did most of my courses with no PowerPoint slides.
I’d make a 10, 15-hour course. There might be one lecture with a PowerPoint slide and there’s just literally me talking but for people who don’t like PowerPoint slides, my courses were great because they just listen. For coding, I think that’s a really great way to teach it also. It’s to just get in there and do.
There’s always an opportunity to just show what you’re doing essentially and to refine the creative process where you’re teaching and creating.
I made courses before where I’m literally doing something I needed to do anyway and just filming the course while I’m doing it. If you’re going to code an app just make a course while you code an app. Then if the course doesn’t sell, so what? You made that the app. If the app doesn’t sell well you got a course.
John Bura: Exactly. I know that a lot of these course producers use their courses to spring job to another company. If you produce five courses on Python, go to your job interview and say, “Hey, look, I made 50 hours of Python content.” Then they’ll ask you some questions. If you did a good job though you’ll be able to answer them.
You see what I mean?
Because as an employer, I want to know you can get things done and if you spent your free time producing a product then, of course, I’m going to hire you over all the other people who didn’t. That’s another thing.
Sometimes you don’t get to pick what you will be successful at. I wanted to be a game developer then sometimes it just didn’t work out the way I wanted it to. I produce courses now and that’s just what it is. Sometimes you don’t get to pick your success and maybe eLearning didn’t work out for you and there’s another opportunity somewhere. But it’s not like if you produce a course, no one’s going to be able to take that away from you.
One thing I like to say is like there are stats that can’t be taken away from you. If you produce five courses, you produce five courses. No one can take that away from you. It’s five courses to the positive side even if they didn’t sell because success is hard. It’s really hard for anyone even me. Big companies, it’s hard for it to be successful. They don’t show it but it is.
Jerry Banfield: On putting your advice together, what’s the thing to do? Just create online courses?
When you combine that with having it as a portfolio to get jobs, yes. Your courses are a guaranteed return. If your courses don’t sell, you’ve got a great portfolio to get a job either teaching or if you’ve made Python courses, I bet you can get a job doing Python. Who has Python courses that’s applying for a job? I mean, that’s probably top tenth of a percent of applicants. Therefore, online courses seem like the best resume builder today. Even if your courses aren’t that good, someone will respect that you made 10 courses on different subjects.
Now, you don’t need to ask well, what can you do? Well, go to my Udemy profile, you can see what I can do. I do this marketing and that marketing. As long as you follow the policies then you always have those courses up there and don’t make anybody mad, then you’ll have that up.
If you’ve got your own self hosting it could be a really good resume. That’s something that would be good to know about. Building a business system. Let’s say I’m just starting out making online courses, where do I put my first course? How you did it and what you think might be different today.
Where do I put my first course? You’ve got 10 courses. There is a time to use self-hosting. At what point do you hire people? How do you go from making your first course to what are some of those concrete steps?
John Bura: Nowadays you don’t even need to go to Udemy. You can just go into Teachable. There’s a highlighted instructor which I can’t remember the name of but she sold like $1.6 million in a year and her courses are like $5,000. People like them. People like them. You can just do the math.
Jerry Banfield: I could take notes.
John Bura: I know. I know. Unfortunately, though if you go to Udemy then you have to stick to the 10 to $30 dollars. In the United States, education’s super expensive. For me like 10 to 30 buck. 50 bucks.
Unless I’m going to get help along the way, and that’s the other thing that you can charge money for. If the course is 5 grand and perhaps you can answer questions every day, and if you want to do that then yeah, then you can do that. You want to experiment.
The other thing about the App Store and everybody else is that you can actually start under a business name. So you can be like, Big Mushroom Games or whatever. You know what I mean? That could be your studio name and if Big Mushroom Games fails, you can just start a new company like Fast Hedgehog Games or whatever. If that one works then you can go forward.
On Udemy, you have to use your real name so you don’t get that iterative approach that you can do in other areas.
Lots of people who write use a pen name and it would be great if you could use a pen name for Udemy too because that’s what you want to do when you first start out is use a pen name. Use a company name. If you aren’t sure about the quality of your product just make a Teachable site with a pen name or a pen company first before you use your real name. You can be like appstarsuccesstraining.com or something. Something like that and see how it does.
If it doesn’t do very well you can just literally start something else. Sometimes you don’t know what will be successful.
Jerry Banfield: How do you get a Teachable?
For those that are not familiar, it’s a self hosting platform. I am using Thinkific. I’m looking to move to LearnDash. You can find links to some of the stuff in the description of this interview video.
You’re saying a good place to start is just do your own Teachable to begin with. You don’t have to worry about all the marketplace policies and quality of videos and using your real name and verifying your identity.
How do you get people to find and buy your Teachable courses? How do you even get validation? Because on Udemy you’ve got that organic search traffic. You put a course up, Google is going to rank that, people will find it in organic search even if it’s way down there but Teachable, you put a course up, how do you get anyone to find that?
John Bura: Yes. That’s something that’s interesting. If you really don’t want to do the marketing work, I would just put it up on Udemy. The cut they take is good.
But if you have like a YouTube channel or if you want to start a YouTube channel or you want to just do something, getting a free course plus a paid course is the most tried and tested and true way of doing this email marketing and that’s what I would do.
Jerry Banfield: A free course. That’s a really important point so let’s make sure we got that.
John Bura: Yes. Free course.
Jerry Banfield: That’s a very good individual tip for those that have hung around at this point. That’s really good. You said if you don’t want to do any of the marketing, you just want to put it up and have a chance to make sales you use something like Udemy. Put your course on there.
If you’ve already got some kind of your own following or email list or YouTube channel, put it up on Teachable and then you can sell it to your Teachable audience there. You said, use free courses first to get people in the door or see if there’s any interest and then you can up-sell the paid courses.
John Bura: Yes.
Jerry Banfield: Nice. That’s a very good simple actionable tip. Now we’ll do something more challenging. Most of the people I work with on a regular basis like in my partner program they’ve got courses up. They are making thousands a month and their big challenge is, how do I do better?
In fact, some have been just stuck and I’ve struggled to help them.
“Jerry, I make 5,000, 10,000, 15,000 a month every month and I just can’t get any higher than that. My Udemy income is flat. It might spike for Black Friday.”
I helped them find niche opportunities like get your course on StackCommerce, make this kind of a course, but they’re stuck where they’re at. They’re struggling to find any growth to be where you’re at where you’ve got the pre-sales, you’ve got employees and they’re not sure how to transition it.
They’re trying to hire people and sometimes they hire people but the income barely goes up to cover the amount that they hired or they’ll hire a video editor but they won’t make any more sales. So, it’s like, “Well, now I’m making less money and I have a video editor.” What do you do at that point? What do you do to kind of get to where you’re at from that point?
John Bura: Well, I can tell you that that is a problem everywhere. Sometimes my Udemy income goes flat too and it’s because the marketplace is only so big. Oftentimes you get a certain slice of the pie and that pie is only so big. It only grows so much. There’s only so many people that are willing to buy your course and that’s why I think that if we got people investing in the content side that whole pie would grow for everyone.
If I got 10 million dollars of funding and I wanted to put it into Udemy courses and I put people to Udemy then I think that person making 15 grand a month would probably maybe see 20 grand a month because I used investment dollars to help grow the platform.
But it’s tricky. I don’t have an answer for that. The only answer I have is you have to think outside the box. You have to try new things but if you’re doing it in your spare time it’s really hard to do that.
I spend most of my day trying to find new business and then I am doing courses and I have a YouTube channel. I have got a whole bunch of things on my plate here. But finding new business is tough.
You’ve got to create an email, make sure there are no spelling mistakes or silly errors and furthermore you don’t want to say anything that’s not correct. There are a lot of things you got to do and it would be easier if we just had like recurring revenue on Udemy or something like that. But it’s hard. Subscriptions are hard.
Everyone I know that’s tried to go to recurring revenue has always almost switched back to the lifetime access, and for me my answer to that is just, “Hey look, if you want to buy lifetime access, I am going to let them.” If they want to buy a subscription, I’m also going to let them too.
I’m not going to really push people to that but I say, “Look, if you buy this amount of stuff from me the subscription every month is the best way so I can continue doing this.”
But the answer to your question, that happens at all levels. It happens to me too. It’s kind of happening right now in Udemy. Just flat.
I would love to have 10x growth a year but it’s tricky.
Jerry Banfield: Yes. That happened to me as well and what I can trace is that I stopped doing my main value proposition. I stopped looking for new business and I went so much into experimenting and trying new stuff that I got away from the basics of what’s important.
That helps just to know like this is a common struggle. This isn’t like just you. Everybody else is not instantly going like rocket ship to the moon.
John Bura: Yes. So, is there any other question from the audience before we wrap this up?
Jerry Banfield: Let’s see. There’s a couple.
“As a student, what’s the best way to effectively learn from Udemy courses? Like taking notes, following books. Could you please elaborate.”
So, I think what he’s looking for is kind of, how do you learn something new quickly? Which I imagine is really important if you want to teach some trending subject. First you need to learn it.
What’s your process for kind of consuming courses and content to the point where you can do an over-the-shoulder, ‘I’m going to teach you how to do this‘, course?
John Bura: Sure. So, I think it was in that Avengers movie where the Hulk -- It’s like a meme. The Hulk says, “The trick is, I’m always angry.”
The trick is you always have to be learning. In fact, remember that success is a wheel not a destination. So, you always have to be learning. I’m learning new stuff all the time because if you stop learning it’s going to become harder just like if you stop working out or you stop doing cardio, the next time you go for a run it’s horrible.
Your mind works the same way and you always have to be learning and it gets harder as time goes on. Whenever I have to learn something new, I’m noticing it takes like a little bit longer for me to learn it and that’s really annoying.
It’s a skill like anything else.
Jerry Banfield: What you’re saying is just constantly learn and be learning all the time and the more you do it the easier it becomes.
I don’t bother taking notes usually when I watch video courses myself. I just watch courses. What I do is I immediately try and apply them. I’m learning during this interview and I’ll try and apply some of the stuff right after.
I try and apply it as soon as possible.
“How’s the length/hours of a course related to the number of users that buy it?”
John said earlier, a lot of the best sellers on Udemy are just really ridiculously long courses.
Do you have anything else you want to add to that about the length and hours versus people that buy it?
John Bura: Yes. 50 hours is probably too much. You don’t want to produce a course that is over 50 hours.
Jerry Banfield: Because you did one that was 80 before, you said.
John Bura: Oh, we’ve done one that’s a hundred or 120. Five is the minimum.
Jerry Banfield: Five hours minimum, you say?
John Bura: Five hours minimum for sure.
Jerry Banfield: Why five hours minimum?
John Bura: Two hours is like, I can learn this on YouTube. But five hours is a good nice number. Ten hours is good. I think the sweet spot is between ten and twenty in my opinion and then thirty hours is also good too.
Our stuff that is between ten and thirty hours probably sells the most.
Jerry Banfield: So, you say ten to thirty hours sells most.
People say on Skillshare these little short courses are doing well because people want to see a course and know that they can finish it all in one sitting. But the dynamics on Skillshare are so much different than Udemy.
Do you see any short courses doing well on Udemy where people think like, “I’m going to buy this one-hour course and watch the whole thing right now?” Out of your courses do you have any shorter ones that sell good or are they all longer?
John Bura: Alright. It is time for another failure. I like short courses myself but you’re right. On Skillshare it’s a different dynamic and I think people are just like, “Hey, I’m going to learn this in an hour. I’ve got an hour. I can be watching Netflix or playing Overwatch but hey, web development it is.”
I had this idea to call them compact courses, and we had so many meetings about this. The word compact. Because, car makers sell compact cars. They are smaller cars and like it’s a hard sell and for years millions of dollars have been put into the word compact.
So, we have these nice compact courses where you get to learn something in like 30 minutes to an hour and they didn’t really work on Udemy unfortunately. That’s another thing I really wanted to work because if we can make compact courses work it would be awesome.
You are getting people to pay $10 for an hour of content versus $10 for 30 hours of content. That’s much better for the production side. Totally failed but I still love the word compact.
I think we got the marketing right on that one.
Jerry Banfield: So, it totally failed in the sense of the amount of effort and the sales was a total failure.
How many shorter courses did you make compact? Did you make like 5 or 10 or 20?
John Bura: No. I think maybe five total. They just didn’t work unfortunately.
Jerry Banfield: Do you think if you had made one longer course out of those five or similar five shorter courses that would have made much more money?
John Bura: I think so. Absolutely.
Jerry Banfield: So, you’re saying overall from your experience the short one-hour courses at least for you and what you create doesn’t work. But you said you like to watch shorter courses.
John Bura: Yes. Sometimes if I go on Udemy and it’s like 24 hours I am like, “There’s no way I’m ever going to finish that.”
Give me a nice two hour course to finish. But I’m a little bit different. I guess not everyone’s like that.
Jerry Banfield: I think there’s a balance and ideally there’s no reason especially if you’ve got a lot of free time. You can’t create both. Now at that point you’re at it certainly makes sense to just focus on doing what works. In fact, it seems easier to start with short courses and then if you get short courses successful then maybe make a long one. It depends on your audience.
A lot of people buy courses just because they want to — It’s almost like buying a book. Like, “I‘m going to buy this self-help book than have it sitting on the shelf, then I’ll learn something. I’m going to buy this 25-hour web development class. I’m going to watch the first video and that’s it.”
John Bura: That’s true. At the same time though, some people will buy that 25-hour development course and they’ll do one of the projects in there and they’re like, “Yeah. Totally worth it. Whatever. It’s totally worth my 10 to 20 bucks.”
We have that as well and we intend to make practical projects in our courses. Improving your career for a few hundred dollars and dozens of courses like this, it’s totally worth it even if you don’t watch all the courses. Because, I mean, I never watch all the courses.
The course that’s a spring rock in my career, I didn’t watch the whole thing. But it did. I mean, I’m here today and not only that my freelancing skills were sought after after that point.
So, you don’t have to watch the entire course. As long as you get something out of it and it’s like anywhere between ten and thirty bucks. It’s totally worth it.
Jerry Banfield: So, long courses if you can do them are definitely the way to go. People will buy them and even if they don’t watch 30 hours. They might watch an hour.
“Hey, this is thirty hours. It’s got to be worth 10-20 bucks.”
John Bura: Exactly.
Jerry Banfield: Right. Well, I think we’ve got all the questions from the audience answered and we’ve talked two hours and 15 minutes. Once I get this up in the podcast, I’ll send this out to my email list.
We’ve covered what’s new in e-learning. We talked about Kickstarter. We talked about how you’ve sold all these courses. We’ve covered the Udemy IPO. Is there anything left?
John Bura: I don’t know. I think this was a really good podcast. This is a good interview. It was great to talk about all the things in the e-learning world.
I guess the last thing I’d like to sum up with is, I would love it if I could take my business through investments to the next level. We do have something really special here at Mammoth and all of us are a super hardworking group.
We really, really want to take this to the next level, all of us, so hopefully we get that grand slam next year.
Read the final part of this interview in our next post.