Live Learning Empires Series

How Tiago Forte Scaled Cohort-Based Course, Building a Second Brain, to 15 Cohorts with 5,000+ Learners

Negin Sairafi
March 24, 2022

What does it take to build a live learning empire from the ground up? According to Tiago Forte, a whole lot of experimentation and intentional growth.

Tiago Forte is the founder of Forte Labs and the creator of Building a Second Brain. Tiago’s live learning journey began when he ‘rage quit’ consulting with a month of savings in his bank account. Looking for his next career move and in need of an income, he decided to try his hand at building out a course on SkillShare based on the popular book, Getting Things Done. To his complete surprise, his course became the second most purchased course on the platform (right after Seth Godin’s course) and was taken by over 10K learners. 

There was no doubt that he had landed on something sticky, but despite the success of the course, he felt dissatisfied because he had no way of measuring the impact on learners or collecting feedback to inform the next iteration of the course. He wanted something different, more interactive and engaging, but knew that a low-priced self-paced course didn’t provide the margins necessary to build out support materials or engage with learners in a meaningful way. 

“I was so dissatisfied because I never met my students. I didn't know their names. I didn't know anything about them. I didn't know the impact, besides some comments on a discussion forum, I had no feedback. I wanted to know, is this course making a difference? Is it changing their careers? Is it changing their productivity? Is it changing their effectiveness?”

The inspiration for a cohort-based course came when Tiago took a live course on long-form writing in 2016 and immediately fell in love with experiential learning. He was not only impressed by the learning experience itself but the fact that he actually finished the course. Tiago launched his first cohort of Building a Second Brain a month later and is now on the 15th cohort. His business strategy and approach to learning design and community activation have helped him deliver his course to over 5000 learners worldwide with an all-star team that is actively building and scaling Forte Labs, an 8-figure learning empire.

Tiago believes that the future of learning is live, social, and experiential. A bridge between experts and the people who want to go beyond content to have more access to the people they want to learn from.

“Think about the people that you look up to online, the thought leaders, the content creators, the experts–you want to learn from them directly. You can watch their YouTube videos and read their essays, but the live learning format is one of the very first where relatively large numbers of people can directly access experts.”

What emerging bootcamps, academies, and micro-school operators can learn from Tiago Forte’s journey to success

“If you encounter even one of these turning points, I think you'll save some time and some suffering.”

we are social beings and social learners

Hosting your learning community virtually on Zoom may not be perfect–there’s low production quality, background noise, the speaker might stutter–but the chaos and randomness are part of social learning, it’s what people expect and what makes the experience feel authentic.

Lean into designing more human-centered live learning experiences that allow you to focus on speaking/teaching and naturally incorporate the elements of in-person learning that people are familiar and comfortable with.

learners need structure and guidance

When a learner opts into your course, oftentimes they may be afraid, overwhelmed, feeling lost, and confused. They may not be fully committed to learning what they’ve signed up to learn with you and wondering if the course is going to work for them or if it'll be worth the time and money they invested. They aren’t sure if they’re going to experience the same transformation that others did in the testimonials they read before they signed up for your course.

Your job as an instructor is to know your content and to create psychological safety by providing structure and guidance throughout the learning experience.

“I still, in some ways, have not fully absorbed the fact that people are scared. When it comes to the subject you're teaching, they feel like they've been dropped from a helicopter in the middle of the Pacific with a piece of plywood as a life raft.”

focus on providing value for your learners

The content of your cohort-based course is going to go through many iterations, you likely won’t know exactly what it is that your learners want/need in your first few cohorts. Tiago advises against spending time and resources on building out all of your self-paced videos and content right away, he mentions that Building a Second Brain didn’t have a self-paced curriculum until cohort 10. The key is to allow yourself to discover and design your course content one cohort at a time, and to focus on delivering the utmost value to your learners in the least amount of time. 

“Your goal is to discover—one cohort, one group at a time, one zoom call at a time— which 20% of the material provides 80% of the value. One of my favourite metrics is time to value—from the minute someone starts giving you their attention, how many seconds pass until they are getting tangible unique value? It should be 30 to 90 seconds.”

play the quality game, not the quantity game

When it comes to live learning, more isn’t necessarily better. Don’t assume that what your learners want and what they’re paying for is a huge library of content and resources that will require more of their time and energy. What learners are paying for is a shortcut to the transformation they may not be able to access without your live learning experience.  

“In the past, courses were sold like butter or sugar or bricks. It's like how many pounds of ‘course’ am I buying? And you see this to this day on sales pages, 45 videos, 1500 hours of instruction, 68 modules as if that's good. And it's just insane because people don't want more, they want better, and better often means less, better is more distilled, more succinct, more to the point. What people are paying for is a shortcut. So when you lay on them a hundred hours of watching or reading stuff, you're actually doing the opposite of providing value.”

how to price your cohort-based course

Tiago’s approach to pricing his cohort-based course, Building a Second Brain, has been to incrementally increase the price of every cohort and ‘justify’ the price increase by improving or adding 1-2 features each time. He believes that this approach rewards the early adopters and incentivizes future learners to buy now because they know the price is going to increase.

When it comes to price objections, the team at Forte Labs shares a transparent document that includes the version notes of each iteration of the course, making it easy for potential learners to see how the content has evolved and the value has increased.

“You don't have to reinvent everything. Just imagine yourself delivering the same content, but making it 10% better each time.”

leverage one product to market and sell others

Positioning and pricing your course in a competitive global market can be challenging, especially when you want to ensure that the course is accessible to learners in different income brackets. Tiago recommends zooming out and thinking about your suite of offerings and how a premium course or program could enable you to offer learners more accessible experiences.

Your products can (and should) naturally create marketing and revenue flywheels for your business. Whether you’re offering a membership community, cohort-based courses, programs, masterminds, a book, or all of the above, you’re creating an ecosystem where products leverage each other to help scale your live learning empire.

“You have to think about the interplay, the relationship between the products. The only part that is really essential is the IP—the core concept, the core intellectual property. Your only mission is to find it. Once you've found it, the ways that it can be manifested are practically infinite.”

the right learners are willing to invest in a transformative learning community

Tiago rejects the idea that people don’t have time or long enough attention spans to invest in a cohort-based course. He believes that you have to target and find the learners who want to be challenged and confronted, and who want to belong to a community of like-minded individuals. And for those who aren’t getting the value, or happen to change their minds, Tiago’s approach is to ‘let them go’ by offering a seamless refund experience and using their feedback to design a better experience and business for his ideal learners.

“One piece of feedback by someone who's asked for a refund is worth a hundred pieces from anyone else. They will tell you truths that no one else in the world can tell you, deep truths about your blind spots, your assumptions, and your weaknesses. If you take them in and you act on them, it's unlike any other kind of feedback.”

Why a unique value proposition and organic referrals are crucial to scaling your learning empire

  • Selling a cohort-based course is not like selling candy or a dishwasher, it is a unique offering that learners can only access if they buy it from you.

    “Your program or the collection of offerings has no true alternative or direct replacement.”

  • When it comes to your cohort-based course or program, you’re selling more than just information, content, and experience. You’re creating an opportunity for someone to change their life.

    “You will have more joy. You will have more ease and peace of mind. You will save this time. You will increase your business or your income by this amount. You're really looking at holistic life outcomes. And what all that means is that word of mouth becomes even more important.”

  • Not everyone will become an advocate of your cohort-based course, program, or learning community, but those that do will truly champion your business and may even be public figures or thought leaders with their own audiences.

    “It's not that every person, every graduate of your program is going to refer one or two people. It's more like 80% will refer no one. 10% we'll refer one or two people. And the last 10% we'll refer dozens of people.”

  • Practicing impeccable integrity and overdelivering in your first few cohorts can nurture organic referrals for years to come.

    “I would respond to every single post in our discussion forum, just for those first few cohorts. And this was not sustainable. It was not profitable, but for cohorts one through five, I over-delivered and over-committed knowing that would produce those word of mouth kind of generators, who to this day are some of our most important referral sources.”

engage your learners and activate your alumni community to scale your learning business

The customer journey can be different for each potential learner. Based on Tiago’s experience, it’s possible that someone may follow you on social media for years, be on your email list for months, attend one or more webinars, and only then become a paying customer.

The approach at Forte Labs to engaging learners and scaling their team has been to create multiple levels of engagement and leadership opportunities for community members—everything from being a student to being a community moderator, to becoming an alumni mentor, to being hired to work for the company—learners have a chance to grow personally and professionally, and to contribute to the overall success and growth of Forte Labs.

“Pretty much every person on our team that is an employee started and did that whole sequence. So they proved themselves at each level, learned all the material, and really got to know the community. So by the time they're hired by us, they're ready to go. They're an active contributing member of the community.”

virtual live learning is the future of education

In the world of modern learning, academies, bootcamps, and micro-schools are not bound by the same geographical constraints as traditional educational institutions. Virtual learning allows you to attract a niche group of learners from across the globe who are all interested in the subject you’re teaching—one that is most likely not being taught anywhere else. Tiago believes that with trends like remote work and education, and the accelerated progress we’ve made in the past two years when it comes to location independence, virtual live learning may soon surpass traditional education. 

“A few years ago online courses were not very profitable, not prestigious, not very desired, low quality, low impact, not community-driven, not social. And every one of those adjectives I've just said has flipped right now. The top live courses are approaching the prestige of Ivy Leagues. It's getting to the point that being part of these online groups can be just as impactful—not just for your skills, but your network, your reputation—as going to Harvard or Yale.”

Tiago's Vision for Scaling His Live Learning Empire

Tiago and his team have run Building a Second Brain, a single program, twice a year for the past 5 years and have successfully built a 7-figure business, but they have no plans to stop scaling, their vision is to build a live learning empire. Forte Labs is imagining the next 5 years and deep-diving into learning from their community and mentors and taking the time to understand what could be next by asking important questions.

“What would be fun? What is worth spending the next five years on that has the potential to become at least a 7-figure business, that has leverage, that can scale, that will not be a short-term flash in the pan? And that will compliment what we have spent the last five years doing? What we seem to be converging on is a subscription learning community.”

What to Look for in a Live Learning Platform

When it comes to choosing a learning platform, Tiago recommends thinking about what you do best and how you want to spend your time. His approach is to choose platforms that are ready to go and don’t require coding or technical skills. This is exactly why we built Disco’s all-in-one platform, to enable founders and operators of academies, bootcamps, and micro-schools to focus on building and scaling their live learning empires. 

Join a passionate community building the future of virtual learning

If you found this article valuable, you can learn more from our team of experts by joining DiscoU, our learning community where we help organizations and knowledge creators like Dribbble, Makerpad, and Roger Martin School of Business build, market and scale their live learning empires.

December 14, 2021 @ 3PM EST

Stefan Palios, Freelance Academy

Join us as we deep dive with Stefan Palios, an experienced Freelance writer, business strategist, and coach who has built his career working with over 70 governments, enterprises, venture capitalists, and startups.