When Rob Percival posted his first online web development course for $US199 in June of 2014, he only made one sale in the first 24 hours.
Percival, 34, who is based in Cambridge, England, had been looking into creating in-person coding classes for kids to share his skills: teaching — he spent 10 years teaching maths in a high school — and programming, which he started picking up as a kid and eventually spun into a business, Eco Web Hosting.
When he walked into a friend’s office and came across online education site Udemy, he saw potential.
“I had pretty clear idea of how I wanted the course to look right from the start,” he remembers. “It was just a matter of sitting down, recording, editing, and uploading. It was me in a room with a Mac.” After about three months of full-time work (and a hard drive failure that set him back two or three weeks), Percival posted a 30-hour comprehensive course on web development to the site.
That first day, he admits, was a little discouraging. To drum up interest, he made it free for the next two weeks. “Something like 4,000 people signed up in the first weeks, and then I switched back to full price. I got most of the sales in first few months from emailing my web hosting customers,” he remembers. “In total, the first month was about $US15,000 revenue for me, and $US10,000 of that was my own customers.”
From there, however, things started picking up. In July, $US30,000; in August, $US50,000 — and he was no longer utilising his own email list to drive traffic.
For Percival, who originally had hoped only to supplement his monthly income by $US5,000 or so, the growth was exciting. In September, he released a second course to teach the Apple programming language Swift, and it earned $US200,000. “That was my first huge month,” he says. “Since then it’s been a steady $US150,000 every month.”
Today, Percival’s four courses have taught nearly 125,000 students and earned nearly $US3 million — $US1 million of which he has brought home.
Despite the influx of cash, he says, he and his family are “carrying on with life as we know it. I’m aiming to buy myself future time,” he explains. “I want to have the freedom to do what I want, and spend time with my kids, and have a choice about whether I want to work. That’s the position I’m almost in — not quite, but almost.”
In February, Percival released an Apple Watch developer course, and next, he plans to tackle an Android course.
He has three pieces of advice in particular for would-be creators of successful online courses: Figure out what topics are in demand by looking at which courses are selling well already, make sure your own version stands out among the crowd (“The feedback with the web development course was that it was fun — not going into a load of detail about server info they don’t need, but focusing on what they need and building stuff”), and finally, tackle a big topic.
“I think people want a lot of value for their money when buying an online course,” he says. “Find something you can extend to something big to get people excited and change their lives a little bit, rather than learn a new skill. Anything that can help people start a new career or earn money is always good as well!”