Creating Better Online Courses (That You can Charge More for) with Wes Kao

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Since leaving the classroom in 2016, I’ve missed one aspect of teaching more than any other: connecting with students in real-time, as I teach the material. And while I love creating evergreen courses, today’s guest has a better way to teach online. Wes Kao, a co-founder of both altMBA and Maven, tells us about Cohort-based Courses (CBCs), and I am all in! She’ll tell us how CBCs have better completion rates, allow for much less upfront work, and allow you to charge more. If you want to create an online course in 2022, I strongly recommend you consider them. Plus, in Build Something More, where does YouTube sit with all of this?

Top Takeaways:

  • Most online learning is one direction. The teacher pre-records a video and teaches. But Cohort-based Courses offer bi-directional learning, which is huge in the online space. It allow instructors to get real time feedback and pivot when needed.
  • When deciding what to teach, you need to consider what you’re an expert in. Ask yourself, “If Harvard were asking me to guest lecture, what topic would they invite me to teach?” You should also survey your audience to understand where they are at and what they want to learn.
  • CBCs are best when they are interactive. You should shoot for 75% interactive, 25% knowledge transfer. Think about how your students can learn something, and practice it right now; this allows them to reinforce what they learn, and get real time feedback from you and fellow students.

Show Notes:


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[00:00:58] <teaser sequence>

Joe Casabona: Since leaving the classroom in 2016, I’ve missed one aspect of teaching more than any other: connecting with students in real-time as I teach the material. And while I love creating evergreen courses, today’s guest has a better way to teach online.

Wes Kao, co-founder of both altMBA and Maven, tells us about cohort-based courses or CBCs. And I am all in. She tells us how CBCs have better completion rates, allows for much less upfront work, and allow you to charge more for your courses. If you want to create an online course in 2022, I strongly recommend you consider them.

Plus, we had such a great conversation that we ran out of time and we finished the interview and Build Something More, where we talk about YouTube and where it sits in all of this. Wes was incredibly complimentary of my background and it made me blush a bit because she is a rock star. I loved this conversation. And I know you will too.

This conversation, by the way, that’s brought to you by Ahrefs, Riverside, TextExpander, and Nexcess. You can learn more about them and get all of the show notes and top takeaways over at But for now, let’s get into the intro and then the interview.

[00:02:28] <intro music>

Intro: Hey, everybody, and welcome to How I Built It, the podcast that helps small business owners create engaging content that drives sales. Each week I talk about how you can build good content faster to increase revenue and establish yourself as an authority. I’m your host Joe Casabona. Now let’s get to it.

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Joe Casabona: Wes, how are you today?

Wes Kao: I’m doing great. Excited to chat today.

Joe Casabona: Likewise. So when we first got connected, there were basically all of the proposed topics I was really excited to see and talk about. But I think there are two specifically that I think will be really helpful for myself but also for the audience.

One is to stop feeding the content monster. Something that I talk about in my membership and in my own content is how to be consistent with your content creation process and how to make money with your content. And if we look at social media, Tik Tok, Instagram, YouTube, conventional wisdom tells us like we need to constantly put out videos or content, but I kind of like the angle that we’re going to go with here. And then streamlining the course creation process because I did speak to another course creator and he kind of blew my mind with the way he developed courses versus how I developed courses.

But before we get into any of that, why don’t you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Wes Kao: I’m Wes. I’m the co-founder of Maven, and we are a new company that makes it really easy for anyone to build, launch, and host really live engaging cohort-based courses. So most of us when we think of online courses, we think of pre-recorded, evergreen on-demand courses, the kind that you would find on Teachable, LinkedIn Learning, Udemy.

Those are great for helping learners who want to learn at their own pace. But for a lot of people, there’s no accountability, there’s no community, there’s no one helping you stay on the hook. So there’s a bunch of people who sign up for these courses, myself included, who then watch half a video, and then say they’re going to go back to it and then never do.

So I personally have, I think, a hand lettering calligraphy course somewhere in Skillshare, Gathering Digital dust for the past seven years. So completion rates are super low. 6%ix to 10% completion rate with MOOCs, massive open online courses.

And so cohort-based courses are a different kind of course. They’re a new type of online course that Seth Godin and I created when we first launched the altMBA in 2014, 2015, where it’s the opposite of an on-demand course.

So there are set start and end dates, there’s a set period of time when you’re learning with a group of people. So the course might be three days, a week, three weeks, you might be learning with 15 other people, 100, 500 other people, but you’re going through this material together.

And it’s usually a group of people that are similar level of being operators. So you all might be enterprise salespeople, or you all might be UX designers, or you all might be solopreneur consultants. So you’re learning with this community builds in where you are able to give each other feedback, critique, you’re able to roleplay, debate, discuss, work together and ship work and then get feedback on it.

So it’s a lot more interactive. And the completion rates are a lot higher because of that. 75% completion rate with cohort-based courses. So this is what Maven does. I’ve been obsessed with cohort-based courses for the past six years or so now. And I’ve worked with a bunch of different creators like the cofounders of Morning Brew, Alex in Austin, Professor Scott Galloway from NYU Stern and Section 4, David Perell from Write of Passage, Tiago Forte from Building a Second Brain.

And so I’ve had the privilege of working with a bunch of amazing creators who have built up these course businesses that are great revenue drivers for them and also give back to their community and invest back in their community.

Joe Casabona: Wow, that’s absolutely fantastic. And, as you mentioned, completion rates for the self-paced courses or MOOCs. Which fun fact I’m from New York and I’m Italian, and the first time I heard the word MOOC, that’s like a derogatory term for us a little bit.

Wes Kao: Oh my God. I didn’t know. Really?

Joe Casabona: Yeah. Yeah.

Wes Kao: That’s terrible.

Joe Casabona: It’s not like super bad.

Wes Kao: Is it spelled the same way?

Joe Casabona: No, I don’t think so. It’s like, M-O-O-K, and it kind of means idiot. And the first time I heard the term was the Vice President of Technology at the University of Scranton, I was working in the IT department, and he mentioned it, and I almost started laughing. And I looked at my friend, I’m like, “What’s he talking about mooks for?” And then he told me what acronym stood for. I thought it was so funny.

Wes Kao: Wow.

Joe Casabona: But in any case, completion rates are not great for them, right? Because as you said, as my friend Brian and I talk about, people buy these courses aspirationally. Even with, for example, my membership just renewed, the timing was really good because right before it renewed, they released a course with Ringo Starr that I actually did watch. I’m a drummer.

But I’ve had it for a couple of years and I think I’ve taken two courses one by James Patterson, because I’m curious about how he writes like 40 books a year, and then the Ringo Starr one. But I have like a full list, including like Sheila E’s course on drumming and stuff like that. I’m like, “Do I want to watch a course right now or do I want to watch YouTube?”

I had a guest on a while ago now, Chris Badgett, who talked about how these courses can kind of serve as like just in time learning is what he says, where you have a library and you need to know something specific and then maybe you can find that video. But for people who are looking for a transformation or to bring about change now, a cohort-based course is a much better option because of that accountability that you mentioned.

Wes Kao: Yeah. I’m so glad you mentioned Masterclass, because part of my retirement plan is to spend a bunch of time watching Masterclass courses because they’re so many. I get ads for them all the time. I think we all do. But I always see these Masterclass ads. And I’m like, “Yes. Like, I would love to learn this one day.”

The thing about cohort-based courses is the urgency and immediacy of doing it with a group of people of paying a more premium price point than an evergreen on-demand course, the fact that you are committed, there’s start and end dates, all of those things get you to take it more seriously and actually show up for the duration of the course.

And I think that’s really, really important. Because I think if we think back to our own learning experiences, it’s pretty rare that you read a textbook and you just learn something, or you watch a YouTube video and you learn something.

I mean, that works. By the way, YouTube videos absolutely work. I’ve definitely watched many of them to learn different things, but usually more transactional tactical things, not higher order thinking around analyzing the situation, seeing the nuances, putting the thing I just learned into practice, being able to diagnose why I learned a certain sales technique that I tried it and it didn’t work, why it didn’t work.

Because most content that we experience on YouTube, on Teachable, on Masterclass is one-directional. So the expert, the teacher is teaching you this thing and you are they’re absorbing it. But when you go out and put it into practice in the wild, usually it doesn’t work the way you expect when you’re a beginner, just learning that thing for the first time.

So with a cohort-based course, that bidirectional aspect is huge because you’re there live with the instructor. You can say, “This doesn’t make sense,” or “I don’t understand this. Okay, can you go into this deeper?” And you talk to your fellow classmates about it.

We’ve had instructors say that the bidirectional learning environment of cohort-based courses was just as rewarding for the instructor or the creator as it was for the student. So Li Jin who has a course on the creative economy, the passion economy, she was a VC at Andreessen Horowitz, she now runs her own firm, she coined the term passion economy.

She taught a course on passion economy. And she said that her students who are all such sharp operators and VCs themselves or founders in different creator economy companies that they thought of edge cases to her frameworks. They thought of examples of the concepts that she taught them that she didn’t even think of originally.

And from teaching her course, for a couple of weeks, it sparked new ideas for new essays that she wanted to write, new frameworks that she wanted to create because she was surrounded by such a rich environment of creativity and thinking and rigorously challenging each other.

So that bidirectional aspect of courses, I think, is one of the most exciting things to happen to education in a really, really long time. And really takes the best parts of in-person education, right? Because that in-person being with your teacher or being with your fellow students captures that, plus the scale of the internet. So the best parts of online learning.

So now you’re not just limited to people who live in your city or people who are within five blocks of your school, right? You can meet people from all over the world who are just as excited about crypto as you are or just as excited about learning negotiation, or just as excited about learning photography. And you get to all gather together.

So that combination of best part of in-person, best part of online kind of mushing it is what I think is so exciting about this new phase of online education.

Joe Casabona: I think that’s just such a fantastic point. Because again, you know, I taught at the University of Scranton for almost a decade. It was right after I got my master’s until I moved away. And that real-time feedback, like you said, is just as rewarding for the instructor.

I remember one time I was teaching my students about WordPress. This was a very captive audience because computer literacy was a course that every freshman had to take. And I tried to make it fun because I was just out of school myself and I tested out of that course because I knew I didn’t want to take it.

And so I talked about kind of setting up your own blog and the importance of creating a personal brand, what we called it back in 2011, or whatever, 2010. And I remember describing an aspect of WordPress where it was like the difference between a post and a page. And I described it in a way that only a person using WordPress for eight years. or whatever it was then, could describe it.

And one of my students raised her hand and said, “I have no idea what you just said.” And I was like, “Great, I’m going to figure out a better way to describe this.” And being able to kind of readjust based on that as well. Right?

When people are registering for online courses versus a college course, it’s probably a little bit different. There are not prereqs, but they are interested in the subject material. But you don’t spend 6 to 12 months developing a course and then putting it out in the world and going, “Is this going to land? Is this going to do well? Which is something that I think a lot of course creators probably do right now.

Wes Kao: First, Joe, I love that you shared that story. That has happened to me so many times. I think there’s nothing that keeps you humble like teaching a group of students and realizing that you are not explaining things very well.

I think actually that everyone should try teaching sometime in their life, whether formally or informally, because it really makes you empathize with your audience in a completely different way. It makes you realize that you assume so much about what they know or don’t know, or maybe you’re using analogies that they’re not familiar with.

It’s just such an eye opening experience that makes you a sharper communicator, a sharper thinker, a more logical thinker. So I love that you shared that example.

And to comment on your second point about spending a ton of time making a course and then no one wanting it, this is a huge, huge problem. The first thing that we teach in Maven Course Accelerator, which is a three-week course free course that I teach on how to build the cohort-based course, the first thing that we teach is course market fit.

And I go through a series of slides where basically I explain out most first time course creators think that they’re going to work on their course, it’s going to be glorious, you’re going to jump on Zoom and have pages and pages of gallery view of students waiting to learn from you and students knocking on your door, “oh, I need you on waitlist.” But what really ends up happening is usually more like cricket and Tumbleweed. No one shows up. No one signs up, right?

Joe Casabona: I’m feeling this right now.

Wes Kao: Getting real, for sure. It’s so important to think about course market fit before you build anything for your course. Think about why are you uniquely suited to teach this? Why is your topic in demand, even if you’re not teaching it, that this is a trending topic overall?

It’s possible that if there’s no other person teaching this topic, that you stumbled upon something first, it’s more possible that there’s no market demand for this. Because there are people who are smarter than us, like all of us, and they probably would have figured out and try teaching a course on this. Right?

So thinking realistically about if you were going to be invited by Harvard Business School to do a guest lecture, what would they likely invite you to teach on? Just looking at your background and external credibility signals, what is that likely topic?

For most of us, it’s not that many topics. Like if you ask a stranger on LinkedIn, like, “Hey, guess what I’m an expert on?” they should be able to pretty much say whatever your course is going to be. So I think that real talk at the beginning, level setting of course creators is great.

It’s something that we do first thing because you want to build a course where students are going to want to sign up, because that’s much more gratifying for you. And it’s way too much work to do if you’re not going to have any students.

So there’s an exercise that I call outside in inside out. So outside in is thinking about what we just talked about here with external credibility, indicators, market demand, and thinking about, from the outside, what are the topics that you might want to teach there.

And then inside out is the opposite. Inside out is looking inwards in your heart of hearts, picking a topic that you could see yourself working on for at least couple months, year, or years? Years sounds like a long time, but you look at your track record, like most people have been working on their careers for years, right? Whether it’s marketing, or design, sales, entrepreneurship, like you’ve been at doing your thing for a while.

So pick something that you like thinking about, that you are personally fascinated by, and continue to go back to. Because you want to pick a topic where you’re going to be excited to teach it and excited to talk about it. And that enthusiasm is contagious with your students.

So imagine two circles in a Venn diagram. Outside in is one, what do people constantly ask you about what questions you always get, who is asking those questions? And then inside out, what are the topics you keep going back to.

So one example is with one of our Maven instructors, Sara Sodine Parr. She’s a lead researcher at Airbnb, and she created a course recently on figuring out what product to build and building something that people want.

So when she did that exercise, her outside inner circle, she thought about all the founders who asked her, “Hey, Sarah, how do I know what my customers want?” and all the product managers who said, “How do I get at the truth of what my users are saying in customer development interviews?” Because sometimes they say one thing, but you know, I give it to them and they don’t actually want that.” So she made a list of all these questions that she got asked all the time.

And then the other circle with inside out, she thought about her own experience, her own career in design over the past 10 years. What were the things that she constantly came back to that she was personally excited about?

And one of them was user psychology: understanding the way people’s brains work. And the other one was getting at the truth of deciphering what people mean when they say certain things.

So she was fascinated by the words people use, what it means. And so her course was about this. And the exercise directly translated into copy on her landing page. So if you look above the fold on her landing page, she’s speaking directly to founders and product managers who want to know what their customers are before building that thing.

Joe Casabona: That’s amazing. I love what you said here about kind of copy on landing pages, looking outside in. Understanding what your external credibility is I think is so important. Because people will say it’s easy to make a course.

First of all, it’s not easy. It’s not easy to make a good course certainly. But my first online course was text-based. I’ll set the stage here. When I made my first online course that I sold on my own, I had two books published by publishers. One was called “Building WordPress Themes from Scratch.” One was called “Responsive Design with WordPress.” So both developery eBooks.

I was working at an agency working on fortune 100 companies, developed custom WordPress solutions on the front end. So knowing that, Oh, all right, well, Joe also has his master’s in software engineering, he put out a development course. Nope. I put out a text-based course called How to Launch Your WordPress Blog.

Which let me tell you all the reasons this is bad. Maybe you know, Wes, but for those listening, all of that is already free online somewhere else. It’s not anything I was remotely known for. I mean, I had a blog, but that’s not what I was in authority on. I just put it together because I thought it was easy. Especially because it was like a text-based course. So I was like, “Oh, yeah, I’ll just find a bunch of blog posts I already wrote, reworked them, whatever.”

I think like three people bought the course. And I spent a lot of time writing and screenshots and putting it all together. So I think the outside in, inside out approach is really good for figuring out what you should make your course for.

And then we’ve touched on this a little bit, but back in November, I talked to Jono Petrohilos, who mentioned the 6 to 12-month course creation process. And you do that, and then you hope, like you said, people will buy it, but it’s actually going to be crickets. Jono said, you know, “Have a webinar, pre-sell the course, developed a course as you go along.”

I’m curious to hear what your approach might be. How much of our course materials should we have ready to go when we launch? What should we do to develop that hype?

Wes Kao: That’s a great question. I think the amount of material you want to have ready by the time you launch your course is one factor to think about. I think the more important underlying question is, how much conviction do you have that this is the right course that you should be teaching and then there’s market demand for it?

Because if you do have conviction about that and you know the material that you want to teach, then you could probably announce your course, and then build it along the way. If you don’t have conviction, then figuring out how to get that conviction, I think, is the most important thing.

So one thing that we have all instructors do at Maven is do a survey to your audience. And the idea here is that you want to get a better sense of whether your hypothesis around your target student, around your topic, around the student outcomes that you’re promising that your course is going to deliver, whether that actually resonates with students.

And we found that even if you are an experienced creator with a huge audience, this survey, surveying your audience still helps. You don’t have to do a survey. You can do in other ways, right? Like I’m not saying like you have to do a Google survey. You can ask around, etc.

But getting your course in front of real people who you expect to buy your course is something that you want to do. One example of this is Pomp (Anthony Pompliano). He is an investor with a Bitcoin Course. He has a million followers on Twitter. He’s very big in the crypto space. And Pomp initially thought that his Bitcoin course was going to be for beginners. And he started creating content, started putting together his curriculum, flushing out his modules, his learning objective.

And then, at some point, we said, “Well, Pomp we know you know your audience really well, but humorous, and let’s just do a gut check. Let’s have you tweet about your course and see if the people who respond to the survey are in fact the people who you expect to take your course.”

And it turns out—he did this survey 60% to 70% of respondents who said that they would take the course actually self-diagnosed as advanced or intermediate with Bitcoin. So our initial hypothesis was wrong. It wasn’t beginners.

And we ended up needing to scrap about half the content to make sure that we were creating a course that was for advanced and intermediate students. So that’s a great example of you really want to do this in beginning basically.

When we saw that, that someone as experienced as Pomp, with as big of an audience as Pomp still benefited from making sure that he was going in the right direction before he went all in, that’s when we realized that, Okay, keeping a pulse on and staying close to reality, staying closer to data points in reality of what the market actually says and does and behaves is really important.

So now we actually bake that into the process of applying to join Maven Course Accelerator. So it’s a free course but there’s an application process. If you’re an instructor that’s interested, we require you to do this exercise because we’ve seen it make such a big difference in saving you time in the long run.

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Joe Casabona: Again, this is applicable to… you know, I have a mailing list. When I was preparing for my Black Friday sale, I basically emailed them and I said, “What’s the one problem you’re trying to solve or some version of that?”

And when I got responses back, first of all, I learned what they were really trying to solve and kind of why people are following me because I’m slowly transitioning into a new niche. And so I wanted to figure out if I’m getting people from that new niche yet.

But then I was able to use their responses, again, like you said, in the sales page. And I put together a membership offer saying, “Yeah, you’ll get these things. These are the things I’ll put together for you.” I like what you said too about kind of your conviction: if you know the material, you can build it along the way, right?

Harvard Business School is not going to ask you to give a talk or a guest lecture on a topic that they think would be interesting for anybody to give. They’re going to know or they’re going to reach out and say, “Hey, I’ve seen your work on podcasting, or I’ve seen your work on creating online courses. We want you to give a guest lecture about that because you’ve proved you have the pedigree in that area.”

Wes Kao: Yeah. When you’re teaching a course, it’s really not the place to explore interests for the first time. It’s really the place to lean into your existing credibility and expertise. The world is really not your oyster when you’re about to create a course.

And some people might think, Oh, that’s kind of sad.” But I actually think it’s really optimistic and good that the world is not your oyster when you’re creating a course. Because if it were, then you would definitely have analysis paralysis about what topic you should teach.

I mean, even when your topic is already defined and kind of set, like let’s say marketing, within marketing, there’s so many different types. There’s product positioning, SEO, growth marketing, content marketing, funnel marketing, b2b marketing, b2c marketing, product launches. Like even though it’ll say marketing, in general, is your area of expertise, you can probably get two or three layers even more specific.

So I think it’s a great thing if some of the blanks are already filled in about what someone might invite you to guess lecture on or what your track record says that you are good at, because it helps narrow down your topic for you.

Joe Casabona: Plus, people are looking to learn from you so they don’t make the same mistakes that a beginner might make. And if you’re learning along with whatever course you’re teaching, you could be making those beginning mistakes because you just don’t have the experience.

One example is I put out a blog post based on one of my books on Smashing Magazine, a well-known Web development publication. And I was like, “You know, top 10 ways you can customize WordPress.” And one was a method that is strongly recommended against. And that hurt my credibility a little bit, but I picked it because I needed a 10th one. And that’s how I learned it all those years before writing the book. And so when you truly become an expert and you have that experience, this is part of what people are paying for when they take your course.

Wes Kao: Yeah, absolutely. I think there are definitely channels where you can share your learnings as a beginner. I think Twitter is a great one. There’s a lot of people on Twitter who are just one step ahead of you who are sharing what they recently learned. They’re sharing their journey, seeing and learning as a beginner.

So there’s different roles you can play in relation to your audience. One is the curious beginner that’s sharing everything that they’re learning, and the other is the credible expert that is sharing what is proven, what they have personally tried. So I think free channels tend to be better for sharing as a curious beginner.

If you can make it work as a curious beginner to charge a premium for your course teaching that topic, then by all means, definitely go for it. I think one of the things that I love about cohort-based courses right now is that there’s so much innovation in this space. There’s so many creators.

Creators are by nature innovative creatures that break rules. And so I’m here saying that it’s hard to make a course as a curious beginner and charge $500, $700, $1,000, $2,000 for it. But I’m sure by the time this comes out, there’s going to be a creator out there who’s doing it. And that’s going to be awesome.

So whatever I’m saying here is they’re general principles, general guidelines. So if you’re a creator listening to this, and you want to break any rule, I love it. Definitely do it, report back to me on how it goes. And then we will share those learnings with other creators who might benefit.

Joe Casabona: Yeah, that’s a really good point, right? Things are evolving. But again, based on my experience, based on your much grander experience, if you’re selling a course, people… I think the way I’ve always put it is, when I was doing web development client work, I could get in a room with somebody and I had a lot easier time selling a five or $10,000 website to one person than I did selling $150 courses. Yeah, that’s right. $150 courses. Because when people met with me, they saw that I knew what I was talking about, they saw that I could solve the problem they were having.

When you are creating that landing page, that marketing copy, maybe that YouTube video to help… In my experience, YouTube doesn’t really help build your mailing list. But maybe that’s something else I want to get to. …you do need to be an expert I think and you need to show them that you can solve the problem that they’re looking to solve. So I think what you’re saying is absolutely true.

I’m the curious beginner in my membership, but my membership is like 10 bucks a month, more or less, for people to just kind of watch me try things, and then they don’t have to try it. And then they could maybe go and try it. But if I’m doing a cohort-based course, I’m going to charge a lot more for that.

Wes Kao: Yeah. I would say that I just thought of an exception, which is, if you yourself as an instructor are not the sole provider value or the sole instructor, then a curious beginner approach could work, if you’re curating a bunch of guest speakers, for example.

So if you play the role of a host almost and then you curate the smartest minds in the space and bring them all together and set them up for success to teach certain workshops, and you make sure those workshops are good, and you create that infrastructure for people to gather, that I could see working.

But in either case, you need to fill… if you imagine a jar, and there’s a line drawn in that jar, that’s a threshold for value that people must have, students must get from your course. So you need to exceed that threshold. So you can put different things in there. And for most instructors, it’s their own credibility and frameworks, community, interactivity, like that all adds to the jar and then reaches that line.

But if for some reason you want to take an approach where you’re the curious beginner and you’re bringing together all these other experts, those experts also go in that jar of credibility, the jar value, right? And so you still hit that line, you’re just hitting it in a different way. But you have to hit that value threshold.

People have to feel like when they finish that, if you ask them, “Would you do this yet? Do you feel like it was worth the money?” you want them to have a resounding yes.

Joe Casabona: Yeah, absolutely. I think the culmination of curator and expertise is something that my friend Jennifer Bourn does really well with her Profitable Project Plan. It’s like a 10-month cohort-based course for like 2,500 bucks, but she does curation there too.

So she talks about her expertise and then she brings in experts—Full disclosure, I’m one of them in the next round—where she interviews them about something that also adds value to her students. So I think that’s a really good exception. I’m really glad you brought it up.

This has been such a great conversation. I feel like we’re running out of time. There are two other things I want to mention.

While we’re still on the topic of courses, I’ve always been a big fan of learning by doing. Again, when I was teaching in the classroom, there was this cool new thing called the flipped classroom, where you would kind of do the assignments, the homework assignments in class with the teacher and then your homework, quote-unquote, would be to read whatever the next chapter, watch the next lecture, whatever. It was kind of something that break up the monotony of like an hour-long lecture.

Something that you talked about that kind of reminded me of this, you talked about it on the Smart Passive Income podcasts—I’ll link that in the show notes, along with everything we talked about over at—was the state change method. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Wes Kao: Yes. The state change method is in reaction to monologues that are very hard to stay away for on Zoom. So if you imagine your student or even co-workers in a meeting, sitting on Zoom meeting to stare straight ahead for an hour straight as someone monologues, it’s pretty hard not to get distracted and lose focus, tune out.

So the state change method is basically the idea that every three to five minutes, you should introduce a state change of some sort to zap your audience awake. So a state change could be asking people to chime in their answer into the Zoom chat box. It could be switching from Screen Share to gallery view so we all see each other’s faces.

It could be having someone else speak for a little bit. So it’s not just you as the only person speaking the entire time. It might be putting people into breakout rooms. It might be doing a guided exercise, which is something where everyone stays in the same main Zoom Room, but I set a timer for one minute. And we all silently work at our desks for a minute to brainstorm a thing. The minute is up, I then give you another prompt, we all work silently there.

So these are all ways to infuse energy back into your workshop, your lecture, your meeting, whatever it might be, and to make sure your audience is engaged.

Joe Casabona: And that’s, I think, something especially to keep in mind when you’re talking about cohort-based courses, right? Because developing these MOOCs or these self-paced courses, the conventional wisdom is to keep the videos to five to six minutes, right? Because that’s how long you’ll hold someone’s attention for. And maybe that’s all the time they’ve allocated for, you know, to watch a quick video on how to do X, Y, or Z.

But the cohort-based courses, we haven’t really talked much about format. I suspect that’s really up to the instructor. But the ones I’ve seen have generally been 40 to 60 minutes long. And there’s some sort of main topic you’ll talk about, there’s the state changes, and then there’s maybe some kind of work on your own time or Q&A time.

Wes Kao: Yeah. I think the big thing about the format for cohort-based courses is that they’re best when they’re interactive. So I like to aim for 75% interactive, 25% knowledge transfer. Knowledge transfer meaning facts, lecture or something where I’m telling you about a thing that you need to know in order to do the exercises, or do the breakout, or think about it on your own.

So, you know, a lot of times it ends up being more like 50/50, but aiming for the 75/25 split I think is great. It’s what I call a rubber band exercise, where you stretch the rubber band to an extreme, knowing that when you let go of the rubber band it’s going to bounce back. It’s going to be a little looser, though.

So I aim for 75 and really, you know, end up at about 50/50. And that really challenges you as the creator of the instructor to think about, is there a way where my students can practice this, can feel the lesson, can experience the lesson instead of me just telling them the lesson?

You telling them lesson is kind of the most basic thing. Like, if nothing else, you will default to just telling someone something. But when you challenge yourself to think, is there an exercise where I can get people to feel what I’m trying to show them, where my students can talk about it amongst each other, where they can have a chance to share different opinions?

It’s actually great if you introduce a concept and half the class thinks one thing and the other half thinks another thing. That’s great. It means that people are actively thinking, they’re bringing their point of view, they’re are advocating for their point of view, better understanding the other side. Those are all fantastic.

So I think as a creator embracing debate, embracing discussion is something that might be new to us. I mean, it is for me. I tend to want to be right or I tend to want to share something that people think is useful or smart forever. And so people debating something that I’m sharing feels a little bit uncomfortable at first.

But then you realize that if people are debating and they’re thinking for themselves, that’s really when they’re actively learning, they’re actively thinking about whether something makes sense for their own situation, for their own life, how to apply this once the course ends. So I think embracing letting go of control a little bit when you are engaging with your community brings a whole bunch of benefits.

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Joe Casabona: Something that I stole from one of my teachers when I started teaching in the classroom was the guided debate. I would basically have my students read… or I would introduce a topic, I would have them answer five questions in groups, and then we would have a debate. That format worked a lot better than me just talking at them for an hour about something and then hoping that they memorize it.

I think that 75% interactive, 25% knowledge transfer is something I wish I had when I tested a cohort-based course back in October called Beyond Eight, which was basically designed to get people beyond the… Most people who start a podcast make it to seven or eight episodes. And so this was designed to get people past those eight episodes to have a more consistent show.

And I didn’t promote it too much. I basically promoted like to my social media. I got a few signups. And it was kind of a mix of people who had already launched and people who were waiting to launch. And so we didn’t do as much interactive stuff as I think I should have. They got access to certain areas of some pre-recorded videos that they could watch on their own.

But if I had to do it again, I would make the outline a lot clearer and I would have that interactive stuff. I would also announce the date and time before people signed up. I was just kind of like, “What works for you guys? Like noon on Thursdays maybe?” And some people who were full-time employed and that just didn’t work for them.

So I would probably announce ahead of time so that people know that they could attend or not. And then I would definitely add more interaction because it was kind of just like, “What do you think of those videos? And now I’ll talk at you. And now you’ll ask questions.”

Wes Kao: Yeah, I think those are really, really good learnings. I think it’s a really positive attitude as a course creator to reflect on what would you do differently, what do you want to do next time? There’s always going to be something.

It’s kind of like starting a business. Like there’s always something you can improve. You’re never done, right? Or like improving your writing, there’s no upper bound for how good of a writer and how good of a communicator you can be.

But somebody will look at their course and think, “Oh, well, I built the content. I’m done.” Or like, “Oh, I ran it once. I should be done.” And it’s really not like that, especially if you want to grow and make it something increasingly successful. So I love that you have learned so much from all the courses that you’ve built over the years.

And then touching on your point about letting people know the date and time etc. The thing about cohort-based courses that makes it so different from other types of online learning that are static or asynchronous is the live component. That’s the thing that’s rare. That’s the thing that’s scares.

So if that’s the thing that scares then, you really want to do as much as possible to utilize that. And when you think about it, if someone could read something on their own, or if you’re just talking at someone, you might as well record that and let them watch it on their own time.

But if you’re all going to get together live and block off the time in your schedule to meet up together, what are the things that you can only do if you’re alive? So group discussion, debate, role playing, critiquing each other’s work, those are the kinds of things that you can only do really when you’re live all together?

Those are usually the things that when I ask students and alumni after a course, “What do you wish you had more of?” they usually say, “Oh, I wish there was more time to talk about this thing, because you know, my group had really gotten into it and we could have used more time.” Or they say, “I wish there was more time to meet other people outside of the structure activities because, you know, I saw that so and so is in a similar field, and it would have been really nice talk to them.”

So that community aspect, the networking, meeting other people, talking about ideas, those are things that I think curious people, the kinds of people who tend to take courses really thrive on and feel energized by. So as a creator, if you give them that, it’s really win-win for both you as instructor and then for your students.

Joe Casabona: That’s such a great point. And my last question around cohort-based courses is, because of that real-time component, some people might think that it’s less passive than a self-paced course. Right? I’ve been saying for years, no course is passive. When I was teaching that computer literacy course-

Wes Kao: Yeah, you’re [unintelligible 00:45:41]. Louder for the people in the back.

Joe Casabona: Yeah, exactly. Right. Because you need to be there for your students, right. And even when I was teaching computer literacy, I had other teachers at the school say, “Oh, well, that one’s pretty much on autopilot.” And I’m like, “Nope, I put the most work into this course because programming hasn’t changed in 30 or 40 years really. The languages have, but the concepts haven’t. But like computer literacy… Facebook was new… Or not new. But Twitter was brand new pretty much.

Teaching students how to behave on social media isn’t something that existed in 1995. So I need to teach that. And I would need to teach them about TikTok and privacy or whatever. So that part of course creation is definitely… there’s no passive courses, but there’s real time associated with it. Do you need, I would say, a lot of time, but do you think you would need maybe more time for a cohort-based course than self-paced course? Or does it depend?

Wes Kao: I think where and when you’re spending the time is the biggest difference. And there are pros and cons with both evergreen courses and cohort-based courses. So with evergreen courses, you’re spending a ton of time upfront creating material, scripting, recording, making sure that you sound and look the way that you want, editing, splicing.

So a lot of the effort is upfront in creating this asset that you feel good about publishing and putting out there and then having everyone buy this product as a final standalone product. And then there’s ongoing marketing to drive students to your course. So that’s with evergreen courses like Udemy or Teachable courses.

So on the other hand, with cohort-based courses, because of the live component, you don’t have to have everything figured out per se with each cohort. You definitely want to add value. But you don’t have to have every word scripted to a tee like you do when you’re filming something that has to be a tight five minute video. And because it’s live you can also get tighter feedback loops on what your students find helpful and what they don’t find helpful.

So with cohort-based courses, there’s a lot more flexibility to test your material, if you will. And go with the flow too. Once you’re actually in the course, and if your students are on a roll talking about something, you have that flexibility to continue on that path as opposed to a pre-recorded video that’s five minutes. Like even if people wanted to learn more about the thing, too bad, like at the 3 minute, 30 mark you are now switching to a different topic, right? And so you moved on.

Joe Casabona: Email me if you want to learn more, right?

Wes Kao: Exactly, yeah. There’s more than organic ability to follow people’s interests, follow your students’ interests and see where it goes. With cohort-based courses, they do take time to run each time you want to run the course.

So if let’s say you want to run your course four times a year and it’s a week or week and a half, four times a year, then you need to block off that week or week and a half when you’re teaching your course at that time.

I think the upside of that is even though it takes more of your real-time attention to run the course, you’re usually able to charge 10 times more for a seat in that course. So whereas a Teachable course might cost $200 or Udemy courses, you know, $10 to $20-

Joe Casabona: Almost always $10 no matter what you set the price at.

Wes Kao: Yeah, yeah, discounted to $10. A cohort-based course is anywhere between $500 to $5,000 per student. On average, I see a lot of $500, $750 per student. A lot of instructors have $1,000 to $2000, altMBA is $4,500, David Perell’s Write of Passage is between $4,000 and 6,000 per student.

So the time that you’ll spend the spending that four times per year, one week, you know, or x number of weeks, you make up for it because your price point is so much higher. So you make more in terms of revenue and it’s a higher profit margin.

And then the other aspect too is because you’re able to charge more, you can have a smaller volume of students. So you can have something like 15, or 30, 50, or 100. Whereas if you want to make a living selling $10 courses, you need thousands s of people to make sometimes the same amount.

So there are definitely pros and cons. And there are a lot of instructors who do both So I highly encourage if you have a MOOC, consider a CBC; if you have a CBC, consider turning parts of it into a MOOC. It’s all your content. It’s all the ideas in your head that your audience finds valuable. You’re just giving it to them in different formats and different channels and different media so that you reach your students, your audience where they’re at.

Joe Casabona: Right, right. And a technique I know that some folks do, maybe this is something that I want to do, because I’m more used to the MOOC or the evergreen course is that people who sign up for the CBC will have access to whatever the recordings of the lectures for as long as they want.

And new people who sign up might be able to go back—this is not something I’ve decided yet—but might be able to go back into the archives of older stuff to kind of see what we talked about. This is stuff that is possible when you’re creating the content, maybe can add more value. But again, like you said, it’s your content, it’s up to you.

I’m definitely integrating my evergreen courses into any CBCs I’ll do in the future because that’s good content that I can show them. And then we can do the activity, right? You watch the How to get sponsor videos. Let’s build your pitch deck today and I’ll give you feedback in real-time on your pitch deck.

Wes Kao: I love that. Yes, that’s exactly it. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, especially if you have high-quality content that you’ve already put thought into and created.

The other thing is, if you already have a pre-recorded course, you’re kind of 60% of the way there to building a cohort-based course. Because if you’re building cohort-based scores for the first time from scratch, a lot of the heavy lifting is in thinking about who’s your target student? How do you want to position this? What’s the narrative arc of what students should learn first, then second, then third, for it to all tie together and make sense?

So if you’ve already done that with a series of pre-recorded videos, and you’ve blocked off, okay, well, it’s basically three parts, right? The first part we’re doing this, the second part we’re doing this, or we’re doing that. When you turn that content into a cohort-based course, your main challenge at that point is thinking about how do I make it more interactive? But the baseline content is already there. So you’re way further ahead than people are starting from scratch.

And I loved your example here of yeah, people can watch any of your videos on creating pitch deck, and then you actually all create one together. And then you might take a couple to do live critique to say, “Here’s what works, here’s what doesn’t.” And then you might have students critique each other. And then everyone takes another pass at their own deck, integrating that feedback, and then presents it again.

And your students get really rich examples of how everyone else interpreted the prompt, or how everyone else put that advice into play, or how people improve their work. And all of our brains work so differently, you know. I love seeing how, “Oh, like, I did this with my deck. I would never have thought to do this other thing.” But me now seeing that Billy did this and Susie did that, that helps me realize that those are now options that I can also do for my deck in the future. And so everyone is just learning from each other and from you.

Joe Casabona: Yeah, absolutely. Well, gosh, this has been such a great conversation. I didn’t even get to my question about YouTube. Maybe we can touch on that in Build Something More because I do want to be cognizant of your time.

But Wes, I do need to ask you my favorite question before we get going, which is do you have any trade secrets for us?

Wes Kao: Ooh, I feel like we covered some good general principles here. I think one good trade secret is embracing constraints. I spent a lot of my time as a creator, as a founder earlier on in my career kind of lamenting constraints. Like lamenting that, you know, Oh, I wish I had these resources, or I wish I had these connections, or I wish, no, this didn’t have to be restricted in this way.

But when you embrace constraints, you give yourself a chance to be creative within those constraints. So whether you’re a creator, you’re an instructor, or a consultant, thinking about doing a course, embracing the constraints that you have right now and building with exactly what you have, not waiting for some perfect conditions, waiting for something else to happen. You’ll be shocked once you stop trying to fix your situation, what you can do.

And this is really the difference between a problem and a constraint. Because a problem is something that you try to fix. A constraint is something that you acknowledge, mentally accept, and workaround.

So I think we spent too much time thinking about certain things as problems when we should acknowledge that there are constraints. And once you do that, all that energy that you were spending trying to solve it you can put towards working within those constraints.

Joe Casabona: I love that. And as most of my life a programmer, right, we spend a lot of time working with constraints. I think you’re absolutely right. I think “done is better than perfect” is another way I’ve heard a similar philosophy.

I tell my students they don’t need a 4k camera to create a course or YouTube videos. You don’t need a Telefunken or a mini microphone to sound perfect. You can get a $50 microphone on Amazon probably delivered to your house today or tomorrow and you can record your first episode. So embrace constraints.

West Kao, this has been such a fantastic conversation. If people want to learn more about you, where can they go?

You can go to or @MavenHQ on Twitter, and I’m at and @Wes_kao.

Joe Casabona: Awesome. I will link all of that and everything we talked about in the show notes over at Also there, you’ll be able to sign up for the Creator Crew, where you can hear an ad-free extended episode of this podcast. And in the extended part of the episode, I’m going to ask Wes a couple of questions about feeding that content monster, specifically YouTube because I was making two or three YouTube videos a week for a while. And spoiler alert, that’s impossible to do with three small kids, and it’s just a recipe for burnout.

So we’ll talk about that. But Wes, thanks so much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.

Wes Kao: Thanks, Joe.

Joe Casabona: And thank you to everybody listening. Thanks to the sponsors of this episode: Ahrefs, Nexcess, and TextExpander. And until next time, get out there and build something.


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