Rob used to be a graphic designer, doing various poorly paid jobs for various people, but that’s all he knew about. He was really in a rat. Then the internet came along and he build his site robcubbon.com trying to find more jobs for his graphic design.
Rob currently travels the world while working on his laptop, making over $4000 a month on a platform called Udemy.
Udemy is an online learning platform that delivers its content mainly through video. The platform allows anyone to build a video course and sell it.
When I was in Ho Chi Minh City earlier this year, I had the privilege of meeting Rob in person and I took the opportunity to pick his brain. I was excited to learn from one of the top Udemy instructors, as I'm trying to become one myself.
So without further ado, here's the interview with Rob. Don't like reading? You can also download the full audio of the interview!
How did you find out about Udemy?
I heard about it 2 1/2 years ago through a friend that I’d met through the blogger sphere, she was killing it with a course called “beginner’s guide to logo design.” I was immediately convinced about the platform as I already had some video tutorials. See gave me a coupon code for the course and I remember thinking wow that’s really powerful that you can give these codes.
What I really like about Udemy, is that I can focus on making content and not having to worry about building the infrastructure. What are your thoughts?
Indeed, it’s very hard to sell video on your own site. There are people who do it successfully, it is possible, but there are a lot of moving parts. There are so many variables, I’m not even talking about affiliate deals and coupons, site protection, video delivery and even hackers. The list is endless. But there really is no argument against Udemy, because you can do both. So why leave money on the table and Udemy is just 10 if not 100 times easier.
What about the marketing, you’d have to do that as well whereas Udemy already has 5 million students on the platform?
Yes and every time they say how many it’s like a million more, when I started in 2012 it was only a million. They are getting a lot of funding and are the clear market leaders.
Are there any alternative platforms and competitors?
Absolutely, there are loads and I’m sure were both leaving money on the table. Let’s back up a little bit here, Udemy is really on the skills, entrepreneurial and business skills area,which is a fast growing market as we all need skills to make more money and to make better decisions.
There are other platforms that are more focussed on academic subjects. Skillfeed would be the second and Skillshare as well and I am making money on there, but there are lots of regional and little ones. Keep your eyes open, as it’s a very fluid market.
What’s the relation between these different platforms in terms of how much money you’re making on them?
Skillfeed and Skillshare each give me about 10%-20% of my revenue. They all have different commission systems, but Udemy is head and shoulders the biggest one.
You started in 2012, did it take a long time before you started making money?
It’s definitely slow growth for most people, not everyone is going to be lucky and make loads of money to begin with. I did have an audience of and an email list though at the time which really helped. Since I put my first premium course online I was doing a few hundred every month, then I put some more courses on and I was getting about $1000 a month and then $2000 a month.
It was a bit frustrating as I wrote an eBook about how I was making a thousand dollars a month on Udemy and every time my earnings went up I had to change the title. In the middle of last year I hit the $4000 a month mark. It’s been constant since then pretty much.
That’s almost like a full time income, specially if you reside in low-cost countries like Vietnam where we are now.
You could certainly be comfortable with that money, but I’m a businessman first and foremost and I would never put my eggs in one basket. I have client work and I have other streams of income as well.
Udemy has a system that allows you to use coupon codes and track how many sales you get and see analytics. Can you talk a little bit about that?
That’s right and another important point to remember is that when you make a sale using your own coupon, you more or less get 100% of the profit. This still benefits Udemy though, as you may well introduce a new person to the platform and people who go on Udemy don’t just buy one course, they are always going to buy more courses. Many Udemy interests are instructor interest, I get sales from Youtube, I get sales from Kindle and I get sales from my own list. People try all sorts of things, like Reddit and Facebook and I would advice people to do that to find out where the people who are interested in your courses hang out.
There are even sites that specialize in coupon codes.
Yeah, that’s a really good point, there’s Mightydeals and Ozzbargain, there’s a whole other layer of sites and some of them are massive, so you don’t need your own audience to sell your courses outside of Udemy.
Let’s go back to the commission structure that Udemy uses. If you find the student outside of Udemy, you get 97%. However, if the student comes from within Udemy that you get 50%. A third way to get sales is the affiliate channel, what’s the commission on that?
Yeah the affiliate channel only gives you 25%, which seems quite bad and you get instructors who look at that negatively saying they’re losing 75%. I would say to people to just look at these sales as extra money that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Udemy puts a lot of money into the affiliate channel and actually they put money into advertising as well, that’s another channel and you get 25% of resulting sales.
They are running Facebook adds and Google adds promoting your course, so they go out there spending their money on our behalf and you still get 25%. To me, it’s not perfect, but it’s not unfair because you do get more sales that you wouldn’t have gotten from your own platform.
So you mentioned Udemy is geared towards skills, but can people who have knowledge on other topics still be successful on Udemy?
It’s pretty much everything, there are all sorts of courses on there like Yoga, how to make cakes and beer and other topics. I think entrepreneurial and business skills do better, but maybe I think that because that’s just my experience. Another important thing to remember is the value that your student will get from the course. If you’re making a course about Youtube you’d rather call it “how to make $2000 on Youtube using Adsense” then just “Youtube course.” You want to mention the specific benefit that they’ll get out of the course. Udemy students are looking to invest money in themselves, so think about on what topic you would spend money to invest in yourself. So if I were to invest $50 in a course that’s going to give me the ability to make 100 times or 1000 times that in the next few years, then it’s a no brainer.
What are the most important things to be successful on Udemy?
I think what you’re doing, making up to ten courses is a great way to do it. A lot of people make the mistake of making one really big course. There is nothing wrong with it, but it can cause a lot of stress if you’re new to making videos. It’s much better to get the courses out quickly and don’t forget Youtube. You can learn so much from Youtube and you’ll get so much better once you have some videos out.
None of the successful Udemy instructors have just one course, they all have a really rich portfolio of courses. It’s the same on Kindle, it’s the same game. Also you have to enjoy making courses, get into the habit of making video and don’t ever think about stopping. Just keep going, because it’s a long game.
It’s a long game, but what’s great is that if your courses are evergreen, you could be making money on them for a really long time.
Absolutely, that’s the beauty of it. I have courses up that I created over one and a half years ago and some aren’t perfectly evergreen but you can just go into the course and update whatever is new in that industry. It’s a young platform, there is not a great amount of competition, so if you have a good course you can make money for years.
Some people may think that they only really know about one subject, can you make multiple courses on one subject, for example by publishing one for free and a premium paid course?
That’s a good way of doing it, you can make two courses on exactly the same subject. For example, I’ve got two courses on WordPress and they are almost identical, one is a little more technical than the other and I create a different type of website in each course. A lot of people are taking both courses, they’re not going to learn everything about WordPress from taking one course. If you really want to do something, are you going to buy one book about it? No, you’re going to buy ten books about it. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself.
I find it much easier to build video courses than writing books. My first book took six months to write, whereas my first video course only took three months and my second one took one month, but people perceive video as more valuable. What’s your experience with this?
I agree, I’m writing books and I’m going to stick with it, but making video courses is easier for me and it makes me more money. People say I shouldn’t bother with Kindle but that’s another story. The bar on Udemy is going to be raised though, people are going to make better and better videos over time.
Also, a lot of people are scared to be in front of the camera, you don’t have to but I would advise people to start filming themselves straight away as I think Udemy will want you to do that in the future. You can give it several tries and even if you make mistakes you can edit it out in the editting process.
Do you have any other advice for aspiring instructors?
Something we haven’t touched on is student interaction, and that’s an extremely important metric. Udemy really wants student interaction and this plays a big role in determining which courses they will promote most. You can have a course with 1000 students, but if none of them have watched any lectures, none have asked any questions and none have left reviews then they are going to think the course is bad.
So it’s very important to engage, if you get a question, answer it straight away. That also helps other students learn. What you can do as well is whenever you get a question, just make another video and discuss it there. Udemy will like that too.
Another thing people forget is that after the student watches about three videos, there’s a little pop-up asking “How is this course going for you?” and Udemy will take that information very serious. Udemy judges the courses based on the feedback they get from students.
So you have to make sure those first couple videos are really good.
Yes that’s a good point as well, I remember re-doing the first videos of most of my courses to make sure they are really good.
Would you recommend giving courses away for free to other Udemy instructors?
I do recommend that, I wouldn’t go too crazy and get 10,000 free students in your course, but you can add the course on the Udemy instruction review document. A lot of instructors will give you good feedback, just don’t go blast it out everywhere.
What I also recommend is telling your friends and community about your course, and asking if there is anything particularly they’d want to know about the subject. This helps you build the course, but it also gets a few people particularly interested in the course so that could be very good for reviews. You want to ask the people who are most interested in your course for reviews, don’t even think about money because getting the first few early adopters interested in the course and writing reviews that’s worth more than the money they would have paid for the course.
What’s another good way to get reviews?
People aren’t going to leave a review just because they like your course. What I do is I ask the people who have taken my course and message me with questions to leave a review after I help them. You can easily tell who the students are that are engaged. There’s a tab on the page where you manage your course where you can see how much of your videos your students have watched. Just message a few that have seen most of your course because they are going to be the ones that love you and it’s unlikely that they dislike the course.
Are there other ways to reach out to your students?
You can send out announcements to your students. There are two types, the educational one and the marketing ones. You can send out as many educational ones as you want, as long as you’re not sending people to a sales page of email subscriber page. If you sent them to good valuable information on your site, you’ll get traffic and email signups.
You’re also allowed to send two promotional announcements and they can only go to students that are taking paid courses. If you have a lot of paid courses, this really pays off. Attractive looking coupons that are time based work really well.
That’s a really powerful tool, as people who’s already paid for one of your courses are much more likely to pay for another one. How many students do you have?
I’ve got about 60,000 students, not all in my paid courses though. I probably have 20,000 people in the paid courses. It’s very powerful to send out an announcement to all these people when I have a new course. I actually have a video on Youtube that shows me making $1500 by sending out two announcements.
What are your plans with Udemy and what do you think Udemy’s future is?
The obvious answer is that I’ll be making more courses, I’ve only made one course so far this year. At the same time, I also want to have multiple income streams and I’m looking at multiple platforms as well as selling on my own site. I also want to keep writing books.
As far as Udemy’s future, it’s really tough to say, it’s a very fluid situation. Apple, Google or Microsoft could get in on the act. I think Udemy will be looking to make more deals with well know entrepreneurs such as Seth Godin. It seems like they are getting more entrepreneurial for sure, it used to be more skills oriented.
The good thing about these video courses is, if Google for example would step in and take over the online learning space and Udemy would go down, you still have all your videos so you can easily switch to the new platform. Thanks so much for your time Rob!
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