Virtual learning is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, but it’s also quite nuanced. Developing your community and growing your business comes with a unique set of challenges and opportunities.
We’ve had dozens of conversations with leaders in learning over the last few years, probing them on how they’ve grown and sustained successful businesses. To no one’s surprise, they share a number of philosophies and tactics on building a learning community, growing membership, and scaling to hit key revenue and business metrics, such as:
- Finding similar successful business models you can draw inspiration from
- Setting yourself up with a growth plan to scale successfully and sustainably
- Being open to experimentation, even once you’ve hit your metrics of success
- Striking the right balance of paid and organic marketing channels to increase acquisition and retention
- Unlocking additional arms of revenue so your business isn’t surviving on just one stream of income
Before we discuss growing your learning community and creating scalable success, check out our tips on designing transformative experiences, marketing your course, and creating sticky referral programs.
Ready to grow your learning community? Check out these five key insights from the brilliant minds that are shaping the future of education.
5 Insights About Growing Your Online Learning Business and Scaling for Success
Find successful models to mirror
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s also a smart technique for inspiring your business’ growth plan. The best in the learning business have gotten to where they are by drawing inspiration from successful businesses before them. These businesses don’t even necessarily have to be in the same industry, either.
CorpU co-founder Dr. Mike Barger is a strong proponent of finding different concepts you admire from businesses you’ve either created before or have admired and using those factors to build a growth plan around:
Mike says “Try to experiment with it, to feel a little bit of the tension of this ambiguous situation, try to apply some of the things you’re learning; maybe you’ll get it right, maybe partially right, maybe it'll fail miserably.”
With this philosophy in mind, huge players in the learning space like Udemy took notice and eventually bought CorpU in 2021. CorpU was a pioneer of online learning, and institutions like coding bootcamps and the many cohort-based courses that have come since have looked to it as a success story worth modeling, especially on how to sell course value and design a program that students can thrive within.
Seek out inspiration for every aspect of your business from brands and companies you admire and see what works and doesn’t for your current business model and where you hope to be years from now.
Prepare to scale – then go do it
Entering the growth phase is an exciting time in the lifecycle of your business. You have solid income, customer influx and retention, and your product feels airtight. But it’s especially important that you don’t immediately jump into expensive growth tactics or quick-scale fixes.
Hyrise founder Dominic Blank has seen this happen all too much with early-stage startups and budding companies. He insists you have a “Prepare to Scale” phase that will gear you up for success when it’s time to explode:
“In most startups, you play MacGyver your first half-year or year, and then you immediately go to scale, but then you have legacy problems, because you don't figure out how you want to scale and what's necessary to scale,” Dominic says.
For Hyrise, they looked at their business model and found areas of opportunity that made sense immediately. For things that could come later down the line, they put them on the back burner but put plans in place to scale those initiatives later on:
“So this year, we want to build our programs and our value creation processes in a way that is scalable. Then next year, I think we want to scale, and scaling might mean geographically expanding to other regions or other big geographies outside of Germany. It may also mean launching new products, which may help SDRs become AEs, which may help current AEs upskill to get promotions. So for the multiple ideas that we have, we're going to run experiments around what makes the most sense” says Dominic.
d.MBA founder Alen Faljic shares this philosophy, but he took a different method to get there. By determining what his North Star was — in this case, wanting to price his world-class design course at $3,000 per student — he was able to work backwards and improve his product along the way. At every stage of the pricing journey, there was a reason and a justification for the cost:
“My goal from the beginning was $3k,” Alen says. “I knew where I would like this thing to be, so I needed a team for us to be able to do all these things. So initially, I felt comfortable with $500 and that's what the first eight paid. It worked. So I said, ‘Okay, let's go with $1,000.’ So then we gradually increased it with each intake. Then, the biggest increase was from $1,500 to $2,500, which is a huge increase.”
Determining not only how to grow but when is a critical finding during the Prepare to Scale phase, and it can unearth findings you didn’t previously consider. But don’t wait in the Preparation stage for too long — you have to take a leap and try new things if you want your business and learning community to scale successfully.
Be open to experimentation
In the spirit of trying new things, three founders and operators of learning empires have shared their philosophies around frequent, open experimentation within their business strategy.
For the founding brothers of School16, experimentation isn’t just a growth tactic — it’s a way of life, even as their program has seen massive success. One might argue that you don’t need to experiment if things are working, but brothers Sergei and Vadim began School16 on the basis of experimentation and testing new methods, and it’s a philosophy they still carry today.
They tested everything, like their pricing strategy and a paid referral incentive:
“Early on in School16, we had about 40 people that had gone through the program after about six months. We then decided to experiment with paid referrals, mostly to see how this might change as our alumni base grows. Even if we don't offer a paid incentive, maybe we can offer other types of benefits. Whether it was a paid incentive or it was unpaid, it didn't change the amount of referrals that we got,” Sergei recalls.
Being open to experimentation doesn’t come naturally to every business, however. By baking flexibility into your business model, you’ll be able to test new methods and try new things. Members of your community will also get to enjoy that flexibility, making your experience open and accessible to more people:
“Our model is flexibility,” says Vadim [School16]. “Flexibility of when you learn (it's part-time), flexibility of options for payment, and the like. It’s really important for us to have accessibility to our classes and flexibility of when you even start the classes.”
Being open to testing also requires you to find the right technology that allows experimentation to thrive. Matt Wyndowe, former CBO of Bloom Institute of Technology, finds this to be the most exciting part of growing a new business:
“I guess that’s one of the trends that I think is exciting: using these new platforms and new technologies to better deliver learning. I think there are some interesting ways that people are delivering microlearning through other creative distribution platforms.”
This is why we built Disco — to give founders and operators of learning communities just like this the tools and technology they need to grow their business and create thriving communities.
Learning communities like Shane Parish’s Farnam Street Learning Community have reached hundreds of thousands of people by using frequent experimentation and technology to boot. Without this philosophy, Shane wouldn’t have been able to reach over 300,000 members who currently subscribe to his suite of products:
“If you have a better way of doing things or you think that you can contribute, then you have to put those ideas to the test. The way to put them to the test is you have to go out in the real world and you have to be willing to be wrong and be embarrassed by the fact that you're wrong because you strongly believe in these ideas so much.”
Test frequently, experiment often, take what works, and leave the rest.
Create a healthy mix of organic and paid acquisition channels
When your business is in its growth stage, you’re likely looking at new ways to not only acquire additional customers but retarget and retain existing customers or people in your pipeline. At a certain point, organic marketing efforts alone can’t always meet your pie-in-the-sky growth metrics. Investing in paid marketing, whether it be on social media ads, native ads, display, search, or otherwise, might be the thing that tips the scales.
The School16 founders agree:
“It's very important to have a healthy mix of both paid and organic acquisition channels that you constantly experiment with to figure out how to grow to make sure that your blended cost of acquisition remains relatively low. That's what we're constantly doing — we're figuring out how to have low to no cost acquisition channels where the only cost is our sales process and a healthy mix of acquisition channels that are paid but not so expensive that we're barely breaking even.”
What’s most important, whether it’s through paid or organic marketing efforts, is that your message is always live, even if your community is full and your cohorts are packed to the brim. Consistent brand awareness is key to growth — the moment you shut off messaging, you run the risk of being forgotten.
d.MBA founder Alen Faljic keeps up organic marketing efforts even though his cohort-based course has more than enough interest to keep running for years to come by creating thoughtful, consistent content.
“Now, you have to create processes. People [on your team] need to feel empowered. We are in this process of trying to create a content calendar and have certain topics that we write about. Just going back to understanding that creating content is your job is marketing. Having a plan and knowing where our audience lives [includes] having a list of resources they use. Do the Google search analysis and see which keywords fit well with the topic you're trying to target and that have low difficulty so it's not as many content pieces battling for that phrase. That's our approach.”
Tackling paid advertising online can feel daunting, but finding opportunities to invest in areas of your marketing strategy that are already doing well — say your organic social media, content marketing, email strategy, even SMS marketing — will only improve results from a channel that’s already making strides on its own.
Create additional revenue opportunities
Picture this: Your business is solid. Revenue is flowing. Your product is polished, and people are loving it. They’re buying it. Now, it’s time to open up additional revenue opportunities.
There’s almost always a business within the business; a chance to create additional income streams that align with your existing business strategy.
Sales accelerator Victory Lap has this process nailed down. The five-week long course immerses learners in an intensive sales curriculum with the intention of helping them find a job afterwards. Over the last year, they’ve been able to unlock additional opportunities on the corporate training and partnership side that not only creates profit, but gives Victory Lap students a leg up when they’re ready to find that first job.
This arm of the Victory Lap business involves three unique elements:
- Hiring: Companies routinely seek out Victory Lap students to fill entry-level sales roles.
- Corporate training: Companies also seek out Victory Lap to train their corporate sales teams with new information and tactics.
- Curriculum alignment: Allow businesses to white label the successful Victory Lap curriculum to teach other professional development courses.
Unlocking more opportunities to generate revenue, grow your community, and improve your overall bottom line is a major step in the growth process. But don’t confuse growing and scaling; according to HBR, “Growth means adding revenue at the same pace you are adding resources; scaling means adding revenue at a much greater rate than cost.”
Everyone wants to scale — and perhaps your business is there. If it isn’t, employ the necessary growth tactics that will get you to a place where scaling is the only logical next step.
Every week, we pick the brains of the sharpest minds in learning. These founders, operators, and creators of learning communities and businesses both on- and offline offer invaluable insights to any growth-minded business owner. The future of education is bright, and we’re collecting every bit of wisdom possible (which you can catch up on here).
We’ve had dozens of conversations with leaders in learning over the last few years to understand how they’ve grown and sustained successful businesses. Read the full article here!
Naturally, the best minds in learning share five philosophies and tactics on building a learning community, growing membership, and scaling to hit key revenue and business metrics, like:
- Drawing inspiration from successful business models
- Preparing to scale before you actually scale
- Experimenting frequently (at every stage)
- Using paid and organic marketing efforts effectively
- Creating new streams of income within your business