Do you ever feel like you’re getting pulled in too many potential directions when it comes to course creation?
You might have heard that you should work one-on-one with clients first to get a better idea of their pain points and what solutions really work.
But then you realize how long you’ve already waited to get started.
And maybe all this back and forth makes you think “to heck with it all”… and that you’ll decide tomorrow.
Rather than getting stuck in the chicken-or-the-egg dilemma of client first or course first, we interviewed Joan Dempsey to get her take on balancing both.
Joan Dempsey is a writer and writing teacher who believes that every writer can learn how to create valuable, publishable work.
She has been writing since 2000, when she took her first fiction workshop. She also has a few advanced writing degrees under her belt.
She believes that learning how to be a good writer takes diligent, applied effort, perseverance, lots of practice, and an honest willingness to cope with inevitable rejection.
Creative writing is not for the faint of heart, but it is abundantly rewarding.
Joan realized early on that building up her client base would be an important step toward creating sustainable income for her course-based business. So she did both at the same time.
She’s learned quite a bit in the process, and she’s happy to share those lessons with you.
Let’s get right to it.
Ruzuku: What motivated you to start teaching online courses?
Joan: I’d been working from a home office (but for someone else) for six years and was ready for a change. I couldn’t bear the thought of going back into an office setting where I would be beholden to someone else’s schedule and work culture and all of that, so I decided to make a go of it on my own.
I’m a writer and a writing teacher with experience in adult education, so teaching online seemed like a natural next step.
R: Where do you get your ideas for course topics?
J: I did a good bit of research into what creative writing courses are already available online. I also did a lot of surveys and interviews with the writers I knew I wanted to work with to find out what they most needed to learn.
I discovered two important things:
- Many writers are riddled with self-doubt, which gets in the way of their writing, and
- There’s a dearth of good information out there about revision.
So I’ve created courses focused on revision, and I’m currently creating a free video series on overcoming self-doubt as a companion to one of my courses.
I never have any shortage of ideas about what course topics to create, and most of them come directly from the writers I’m connecting with online.
What was your motivation for focusing on building up your client base, and have you found balance between client work and teaching courses?
I am an ENFP (in personality-type-land), which in part means that I love “shiny new things”. Working for myself – and currently by myself – means that I am learning something new every day, and I adore that continual learning.
I love the freedom that comes with working from home, on my own. Every minute of every day I am in charge of what I’m doing, so I can switch things up whenever I want – which also feeds that “shiny new things” part of my personality.
Also, I love working with writers from all over the world. I’ve helped people from every continent, and I love bringing the big world into a connected community through my courses and one-on-one work.
Recently I was working more with one-on-one clients than I was teaching courses, but that was a practical decision. At the time I wasn’t ready to do the all-out marketing my online courses demand (and the solo work paid the bills in the meantime).
Now that my marketing materials are nearly ready, I’m moving closer to a much bigger focus on my online courses. I’ll still want to work with some writers directly, but my goal is to limit that work to only a select few each year, while the courses bring in the vast majority of my income.
What’s the biggest challenge you face as you build up your client base?
My biggest challenge is patience.
Because I’m a one-woman shop, I can only work so many hours in the day. I love working hard but the clock never stops.
I have to be patient knowing that – as Pat Flynn would say – I’m working hard now so I can “sit back and reap the benefits later.”
The “working hard now” part has taken far longer than I anticipated, and that’s been a challenge since the money isn’t (yet!) rolling in consistently enough to feel comfortable.
What have you learned from that challenge?
I’ve learned I always underestimate how much time things will take, mostly because I’m optimistic and so excited to get to wherever I’m going.
It’s forced me to slow down, become a more meticulous planner, take the time to put systems in place so I can be more efficient, and generously pad any time predictions I make.
How has offering online courses impacted your overall business?
Online courses are the core of my business. They’ll be the vast majority of my income if the business model I’m working with succeeds as I intend.
I wouldn’t have a business without them!
How do you build relationships and connect with your students and clients?
I am deliberately and relentlessly generous.
I spend time answering emails in detail, I respond to every single comment within my courses (which can number into the thousands at peak times!), and I am super active in a private Facebook group.
I give abundant and helpful feedback with my one-on-one clients, I make connections between people when it makes sense to do so, and every month I send out a packed newsletter that includes answers to questions I hear from the writers I work with.
I always keep my writers in mind. I’m constantly asking them what they want and need and I’m always looking to streamline any online systems they use so the technology “disappears” and they can focus on learning.
That’s why I use Ruzuku — course participants love how simple it is to use and how aesthetically pleasing it is.
What are your plans for the future?
My immediate plans are to offer that free video series on self-doubt (close to two hours’ worth of content) and give a big push to one particular course. I’ll focus on that for the rest of 2016 and continue to work one-on-one with my existing clients. (I’m not taking on new clients right now, but I might take a few newcomers in the late fall or over the winter.)
Next up I plan to revamp an existing ebook, launch a writing competition, and push the other two courses I’m offering. That will probably happen in early 2017.
After my first three courses are fairly self-sufficient, I’ve got a short list of topics my writers have told me they’d like to learn more about. So I’ll probably begin to create more courses in late 2017.
What are your tips for our readers who are just starting to take on clients?
1. Be relentlessly generous
As you’re building your list, give your all to those who are coming to you for help. It’s a wonderful way to put good energy out into your community. You’ll quickly begin to build a solid reputation as a helpful and generous teacher.
Nothing beats having happy people in your community.
You’ll find that they’ll be more than happy to give back when you need something yourself (testimonials, sharing in marketing efforts, etc). And they’ll tell others about you, which helps to build your business.
2. Be honest and transparent
Don’t put on a persona that’s not you. This work takes a huge amount of energy and it’s far easier to be authentic than it is to pretend to be someone you’re not, or to pretend to know things you don’t actually know.
Let your true self shine through.
3. The internet is your friend
People will always ask you questions that they could have just Googled, but the fact that they’re coming to you means something — they’re building their relationship with you.
So use Google yourself, find the answers they’re looking for (you’ll be adding to your own knowledge all the time), and send them along to the asker, with helpful links.
4. Build your student support arsenal
You’ll find over time that you get the same questions over and over. Do yourself a favor and begin right away to make a cheat sheet of common questions and answers.
Any time someone asks you a question, write it on the list along with the answer you sent them. Give the questions headings so you can easily find the topic.
This will save you heaps of time down the road. Cutting and pasting is far more efficient than reinventing the wheel every time you answer a student’s question.
You can also use these as a resource list on your website. Next time someone asks, you can direct them to your website, which trains them to get used to going there for information.
As an added bonus, your frequently asked questions are a never-ending idea bank for content you can create.
Where can readers find you online?
Work with clients to improve your courses
It can be hard to know where to start — working with clients or creating your online course.
But as you can see from Joan’s experience, it can be incredibly valuable to build up even a small client base first.
You’ll not only have money coming in the door from the client work, but you’ll also have the perfect source of information about the problems your audience faces and the solutions they’re looking for.
Think about how nice it would be to not have to worry about how to pay the bills, while having the freedom to start working on your online course.
Imagine the positive impact on both you and the audience you’re building.
So think about whether building up a client base fits with where you are (and where you want to be), and get to work finding your first client.
What are your takeaways from Joan’s experience balancing client work and course creation? Is there anything that you can apply to your business today? Let us know in the comments!