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Time & Money: What Does It Take to Create an Online Course

Time Money How Much to Create Online Courses

Estimating how long it will take and how much it will cost to create a course around a prospective idea is a critical step in validating your course topic.

Your course is going to be designed to solve a problem. And to sell our solution we have to be able to accomplish two things…both of which can be done by creating a solid unique selling proposition, or USP, for your course. If you haven't put in the time to craft a winning USP for your course, we've got you covered...one of our past Course Creation Blueprint posts focuses squarely on this process.

  • First, we need to remind our customer that there is a problem that they want to solve and that solving this problem will improve some aspect of their life.
  • Second, we have to convince them that we understand the problem they’re facing and that our understanding of that problem has led us to create an effective solution.

If we can do those two things, the sale, or conversion in marketing terminology, is already made. Of course, it has to be followed up with high-quality, actionable content which delivers results in the form of effective learning outcomes, but what we’re use the topic validation process for is to tell us whether or not the efforts involved to create the solution will be rewarded.

This article will focus on just that. If you already have an idea of what you might charge for your course, it's time to take a look two more important components of topic validation. In this post, we’re going to look at the potential costs associated with creating and maintaining our course.

Let’s take a look at what costs are associated with creating and maintaining an online course. Now, we’re going to give you an idea of the types of expenses associated and a rough estimate of these expenses. However, it’s going to be up to you to determine exactly what’s going to be involved in creating your course as you’re the only one who knows how complex your topic is, how much content will be required, how the course will be delivered and marketed, and how the content will be created. We’ll given you a simple spreadsheet above (in both Excel and Numbers formats) to use to put these estimates on paper and then you’ll be able to adjust them as needed.

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The first expense we’re going to take a look at is the most challenging one to estimate, so we might as well begin here, right?

As you’ve heard many, many times before I’m sure, time is money. And time is the most precious and most valuable resource we have at our disposal. Furthermore, while almost every other resource in your life can be replenished or renewed, this resource is finite. If you run out of money at some point in your life, you have the ability to find a way to put money back into your possession. If you have health problems, through the administration of medicine, changes in dietary habits, or modifications to your physical activity level you can mitigate or eliminate how those health problems affect you.

But once the clock starts to tick for each of us, it doesn’t stop…so it’s up to us to decide how we use those precious minutes. If we’re going to use more than a few of them to create our online course, we need to take stock of them and place a value on them. After all, we could have used them somewhere else which might have provided more value, whether that’s in monetary rewards or personally enriching rewards.

But how on earth do we begin to place a monetary value on the time we might spend creating our course?

Well, for starters…it’s impossible. And by impossible I simply mean there are far too many unforeseen circumstances that I can guarantee you will come up which will lead to you spending more or less time on your course than you thought. Not to mention, it may be difficult for you to put an accurate value on an hour of your time.

But this is all ok!

We just want to a ballpark estimate for this expense analysis so that we can compare the creation of a course on XYZ topic to other potential opportunities we might have for reaching the goal behind our desire to create a course in the first place.

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First, what is an hour of your time worth?

Here are a few questions to help you think about what an hour spent on building your course might be worth to you…

First, the most important question that only you can answer…What does your gut tell you it’s worth? Let’s say that you were interviewing for a job and at the end of the interview you were told that the company loved what you had to say and they’d like you to start as soon as possible.

"Great!" And the pay is $0.05 per hour. "Not so great!" But what if they told you the pay rate was $500 per hour. Now we’re back to “Great!”, right?

Now that’s an extreme example, obviously, and as you get toward what might be more realistic offers, it becomes less cut and dry. What if a job offer doing something you knew you’d love doing each and every day came with a salary that equated to $30 per hour (a little over $62,000 per year), but another job offer which included doing something you knew would bore you to tears every day came with a salary equal to $40 per hour, or about $83,000. Is $10 an hour or $20,000 per year worth the intangible and impossible to quantify effort of sacrificing your happiness for 40 hours per week?

Only you can answer that.

The next question is one we can answer with a little more confidence and clarity. What would you be paid working for someone else? After all, most of us have a pretty good amount of historical data to help us answer this question, so what have we traded an hour of our time for in the past? This could be in the form of a salary or hourly wage you received in a full-time or part-time job, a contract you were responsible for delivering on, or any other situation in which you’ve traded your time for an income.

Next up, opportunity cost. This question isn’t as straightforward as the last, but if you’re interested in creating an income-generating digital asset such as an online course, there’s a good chance that you’re weighing this idea against others. I know that when Ben and I created our first online course back in 2010, we both had multiple projects in the works at the same time. So we had to be mindful of where we spent our time as some of those projects had better financial prospects than others. If the time you’ll be using to create your course is time that might have been spent on one or more other projects with income-generating potential, is there any financial sacrifice made by spending your hours on this course instead of the other projects?

Finally, if the creation of this course is going to happen during time you would otherwise spend doing things which enrich your life in a non-monetary way, what’s that worth to you? For many of you, as was the case with our first course, this work is going to take place in addition to full-time commitments such as a job and family. If you work 40 hours per week, have 20 hours per week worth of non-negotiable personal commitments such as commuting, school drop offs and pick ups, your activities or activities of your family members, volunteering, etc. and you sleep 8 hours a night, you have 52 hours per week of waking hours during which you can eat, do chores, spend time with family and friends, exercise, read, or pursue personal activities that just make you happy. So it’s up to you to also decide what giving up a portion of those 52 hours per week is worth.

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Now that we know what an hour of our time is worth, we can take a guess as to how many hours our course will take to create. It’s beyond the scope of this article to talk about every single task involved in producing content for an online course and supporting students who enroll in that course. However, we’ve been creating our own courses since 2010 and we’ve worked with many, many other course creators since 2012 and we have pretty good sense of what’s going to eventually be involved when we come up with ideas for new projects.

So here’s a very rough estimate of how many hours you can expect to put in before your course is launched.

I’m not going to cover the time involved in marketing your course after it’s live doing things such as finding joint venture promotional opportunities or promoting your course through social media. We’re also going to be leaving out the time it takes to support paying customers after purchase. And of course, keep in mind that these are very rough estimates and the time required will vary based on how you approach course creation (ie. outsourcing versus doing everything yourself), how much content you’ll include, how complex that content is, and your skill set going into the process.

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First up, you’re going to need to choose a name for your course, register a domain, develop branding, a logo, color scheme, choose a font family, and create any associated creative assets that will be used within templates throughout your course. You’re also going to need to build a website, configure that website with course content, set up a way to charge for your course, create a sales page and other supporting pages such as a contact page, FAQ page, etc., and configure any other supporting elements such as a student forum or student dashboard page. You’ll also probably want to set up social media pages to support your main course website in marketing your course.

A good ballpark number to use for this is to count on spending around 40 hours on all of the duties I’ve just mentioned.

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You’ll also need to create a course outline. And when we discuss creating an outline for your online course, we’re not talking about just a simple mind map or flow chart that only lays out the course title, module titles, and lesson titles. We’re assuming this will be a well thought out, carefully structured course outline which will be the guide map during your content creation process and will also be effective in helping you chart a path to effective learning outcomes for your students. A good course outline takes a lot of brainstorming and putting yourself in a complete beginner’s shoes and it also requires almost constant revision.

That being said, having created many course outlines I think it’s fair to use an average estimate of 15 hours for creating a solid course outline.

Next, you’re going to need to assemble a few things to have ready at your disposal to make the course creation process as efficient as possible. You’re going to need to choose and become familiar with the software you’ll use to produce your course such as video recording and editing software or presentation software. You’ll also need to assemble templates for the content creation process ahead of time. This includes elements such as presentation slide templates, templates for written materials such as lesson summaries or action guides, and video or audio intro and outro sequences to enhance the consistency of your lessons.

I would personally plan to allocate 10 hours to this phase of the process.

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Finally, you’re obviously going to need content for your course lessons and this is going to be where the majority of your course creation time is spent. Now, there are many, many variables which can influence how long it takes to produce a single lesson for your course. And over time, you’ll develop a workflow which works for you and best suits the type of content and students you’ll be addressing.

But for now, I’ll quickly run through my typical workflow. This workflow assumes that I’ve already created a course outline initially as a mind map in MindMeister and then transferred this course structure to Trello boards where I further detail each module and lesson, even including details about what type of lesson I will create, the primary purpose of that lesson, what supplemental resources will be included, and often, even a complete script to use for each lesson although I generally create those one at a time as I produce each lesson.

I like to work one module, or group of lesson, at a time and then batch the different duties associated with that module together...

1. First, I compile any research I’ll need to produce the content of my lessons for a particular module.

Sometimes this is pure research to fact check or gather interesting statistics and sometimes it includes tasks like setting up fresh accounts with any online services or websites that I’ll be demonstrating in a lesson so I can show students how to begin from scratch.

2. I’ll then produce all of the scripts, talking points, or presentation notes for each lesson within the module.

3. Next, I’ll assemble slide decks for each lesson within the module.

These usually include a mix of slides for recording portrait-style videos of myself speaking to the camera, demonstration slides for displaying screen sharing or "over-the-shoulder" lessons, and slides for simply listing images and talking points.

4. Once all of my presentation materials are prepared, I record all of the lessons.

I plan time to record all lessons within a module, edit them, load the videos to my video hosting account, create a page for each lesson within the course, and embed the lesson video.

5. Finally, I write a brief lesson summary below each of my videos and, where needed, I prepare a PDF summary or action guide for which I have already prepared a template.

Again, this is one of those aspects of the process where the time required will vary significantly based on lesson length and complexity. But when I’m evaluating a prospective course idea, I generally use an averaged estimate of 4 hours of time required for each lesson which will be included within the course.

So again, these are just ballpark figures and we’re leaving out a lot of the duties involved after your course is ready. But so far we have…

  • 40 hours for website buildout and other duties
  • 15 hours for creating a course outline
  • 10 hours to create templates
  • 4 hours to create each lesson

If we’re looking at launching a course with 20 lessons, each of a reasonable length of, say, 10 minutes of video, we have:

40 hours + 15 hours + 10 hours + (4 hours x 20) = 145 hours

As you can see, this is a significant investment of your time. That’s over two and a half weeks of full-time work.

If we value our time at $40 per hour, then the estimated expense for our time to create this course would be:

$40 x 145 hours = $5,800

If we use rough math and assume we’re going to charge $100 for our course, we need to sign up 58 students to cover our time spent creating the course. Almost everything after that aside from the time you spend to market, update, and support your course is profit.

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As I said, “almost”…

There are other expenses to factor in as well.

First, outsourcing. Are you going to handle all of the duties we discussed earlier or will you hire some help to speed things along? This might involve finding qualified contractors through Upwork or Fiverr to handle writing, video editing, your website buildout, logo creation, and so on.

As an estimate, for every hour you plan to outsource to save time on your own end, plan on a likely estimate of $25 per hour for your expense. This is going to vary based on the expertise of the contractor your hiring and for what duties, but this is a good number for a ballpark average.

For a $100 course, singing up one student will pay for roughly four hours of outsourcing.

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Next, you’re going to have to pay to register a domain for your course’s website and purchase a hosting plan.

Obviously, if you plan to have 10,000 students, you’re going to need a much more robust hosting plan than if you’re planning to have 25 students. So hosting can range from $7 per month up to over $100 per month. If you already have a hosting plan or know which provider you’re going to use, go with that number for your calculations. If not, you can use a simple estimate of $20 per month for an average hosting plan with email accounts, security features, and other add-ons.

For a domain, you can use an estimate of $25 per year for the actual domain you’re registering, privacy protection for that domain, and associated fees. So if you’re going with the $20 per month estimate for hosting and just want to look at one year of estimated expenses for your domain and hosting, you can use an estimated expense of $265 to run your course for the first 12 months.

Let’s call that three customers for our $100 course.

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Finally, you’re going to have some software expenses in addition to your website’s domain and hosting charges.

Now, I’m going to assume that like 100% of the 20,000 or so course creators we’ve worked with since 2012 that you’ll be running your course’s website on WordPress since it now powers close to 40% of all the world’s websites.

If you’re not going to be using WordPress and will use a hosted course solution such as Thinkific or Teachable or if you already have a website with a managed service like Wix or SquareSpace, you’ll already have an idea of what it’s going to cost each year to keep your course website up and running.

If you will be using WordPress, then you’re going to need a few plugins to successfully launch and manage an online course. Plugins are simply bundles of pre-written code which extend the functionality of WordPress. They’re basically just a type of software and they’re usually billed just like any other software package. You pay an annual fee to use the plugin, receive product feature updates, bug fixes, and security patches, and also technical support.

You’ll likely need a mix of paid and free plugins to handle things like building your course, accepting payments on your website, installing analytics to track what happens on your site, and collecting email addresses from your visitors to use for marketing purposes.

The average annual licensing fee for these types of premium plugins is around $100 per year and we’re going to estimate that all but three of the plugins we need are ones which we’ll be able to download and install for free. Our WP Courseware learning management system plugin allows you to build a course and set up payment gateways to charge for your course with a single plugin. And it starts at $129 per year, so you're really getting two plugins for the price of one...a course builder and an e-commerce/shopping cart plugin.

So that comes to $300 per year for plugins, or three customers for our $100 course.

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So to tally everything up for our simple illustrative example of our 20-lesson, $100 course, we have $5,800 for our time assuming we’ll do everything ourselves, $265 for domain and hosting, and $300 for WordPress plugins or a hosted service.

$5,800 + $265 + $300 = $6,365

$6,365 / $100 = 64 customers to break even

If we’re just evaluating one year at a time, in this example we’ll need 64 students to sign up in our first year to break even. Everything after that, again aside from marketing, support, etc., is “gravy” as we say. For every 10 students you sign up in that first year beyond 64, you take home $1,000.

Not bad, right?

So your action steps for this article are simple, but they are going to take some thought. Download the spreadsheet included above and begin to work out these numbers for your course. Again, you’re the only one who knows all of the fine details of your prospective course, so it’s up to you to put these projections together. But this is an important step.

After you have your rough estimates finalized and have an idea of what it might cost to create and run your course, what do you think? Does your price work to help get you to that “break even” point? Can you realistically sign up, at minimum, the number of students you need to cover the expenses?

Maybe you realized you may need to charge a higher price for your course. Maybe you realized that you’re really going to need to hustle during and after your course’s launch when it comes to marketing and sales of your course.

Regardless, knowing this number and determining if the situation is realistic is a big step in answering a validation question that only you can answer…

Is it worth it?

And we hope your answer is "Yes!"

About Nate Johnson

Nate Johnson is one of the co-founders of Fly Plugins, creators of the first and most widely-implemented learning management system for WordPress, WP Courseware. Since 2012, he has helped thousands of entrepreneurs, corporate training departments, and higher education institutions develop and deploy online training courses from their WordPress websites.

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