Watch me build an online business (part three of four)

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This is part three (of four) of in-depth look at the process I’m going through to create a new business. Did you miss part one or part two?

Last week I introduced you to the co-founder (Gerlando) of this project. We talked about setting terms for that relationship and we also walked through project management stuff. Now, let’s dive into the actual thing we’re building!

The Name: CreateYourOnlineCourse.com (CYOC)

In one of our Basecamp discussions (or emails, I can’t remember) we tossed around a few ideas for the name of the project. There were a few cute names thrown around, but for a project like this it seemed important to have a good straight forward name. Enter: CreateYourOnlineCourse.com (CYOC).

I’ll be the first to admit it’s not a sexy name. It’s not a super memorable name. But I could spend hours working on naming the project, or I could spend the same amount of time trying to make it a great product that helps people (and makes money). The name can be changed whenever we want and for right now, I care more about building and growing than naming and marketing.

Creating a Simple “Coming Soon” Page

Instead of doing nothing with the website until launching the actual project, we decided to create an email capture page. That way, I can direct people who are interested in learning more about the project to sign up for the early access list. Many of you on this email list have probably seen this page because you’ve replied with interest.

I spent some time writing copy for the email capture page. I wanted to explain a few things very quickly:

  • CYOC would help someone create an online course (beautifully) in only a few minutes.
  • Creating online courses was a pain, especially if you didn’t have a web developer and designer at your disposal.
  • This was a pre-launch signup that would get first access.

Gerlando was kind enough to create a temporary page, but I added a little bit of design love to spice it up. Here’s the comparison of the two landing pages:

CreateYourOnlineCourse Landing Page

Gerlando signed us up for a new MailChimp account, invited my already existing MailChimp account to have access to it, and plugged in all the necessary form code to the landing page to make it work.

I spent all of five minutes customizing the colors and copy in the MailChimp form signup process (opt-in email, thank you page, final welcome email). I like adding just a bit of personality, even to the confirmation pages that most people ignore. Here’s an image that shows the different “Signup Forms” in MailChimp and how I’ve subtly customized them:

CYOC Email Customization

*NOTE* This isn’t a project I’m hoping to build a big pre-launch email list for, so please don’t feel like you need to subscribe unless you’re actually interested in creating an online course for something in the future.

Building Version 1 of CYOC

My initial course was built using WordPress. What that means is that I had to login to WordPress and navigate a hacked-together editor for my course. I used “Pages” for Lessons. Payment pages were coded pages in the “Theme Editor.” And “Users” were managed in the user dashboard. WordPress certainly isn’t the most difficult platform to use, but it’s not simple.

My goal for CYOC is that you don’t have to feel like you’re inside WordPress. I don’t want users of CYCO to feel like they have to understand a certain program or any type of development language (PHP, Javascript, etc). In the back of my mind I’ve been repeating this question over and over again:

“Could my [awesome] grandmother build an online course using CYOC?” 

With that thinking in mind, we’re building a completely custom course builder. I don’t want a user to feel like things aren’t easy and intuitive. I also don’t want them to feel like they have to know some fancy Internet language or program.

As we starting thinking about building CYOC, we based a lot of the usability of the course builder in CYOC on the structure used by LeadPages. If you’ve never used LeadPages before, it’s a great tool for building landing pages (like this one for a webinar on LeadPages [so meta]). Here’s a screenshot of what the editor looks like in LeadPages for one of their random pages:

LeadPages Example

So, with those thoughts in mind, Gerlando went to work. Below you’ll see an image of the first iteration of the course editor. Mind you, this has already completely changed, but I wanted to give you some perspective on where we started.

CreateYourOnlineCourse V1

As you can see, we’re taking the EXACT course framework I built and building an editor on top of it. To keep things simple, we wanted to show a live preview on the right side of the editor that showed immediate changes made by using the editing tools (left side).

Gerlando did an excellent job building the first iteration of CYOC. You could easily change all the course content and colors/images using the editing tools and see it happen in real time.

While building the first editor, we discovered what features CYOC needed. Yes, we did make an initial feature list before building anything, but we also kind of winged it too. Here’s the feature set we think is critical for CYOC V1:

  • Course Dashboard and Editor
  • Lesson Dashboard and Editor
  • Payment Page(s) Dashboard & Editor (with unique URLs)
  • Style Editor (for course, lessons, and payment pages)
  • User Management Dashboard (see users, emails, date of signup, etc)
  • Email Dashboard & Editor (first email to new signups, forgot password email)
  • Stripe Integration (how authors will sell courses and make money)
  • Affiliate Links (let course authors help us market CYOC to new authors)
  • Custom URLs and Google Analytics

While this list doesn’t look too long (it’s only eight bullet points), it’s actually quite a bit of features for a first version.

Hitting a Bump in the Road

Over the past few weeks Gerlando has really kicked ass. He’s been sending me updates through Basecamp and Github, which typically include short videos (screenflow type stuff). I’ll review what he’s been working on and offer feedback and thoughts.

The small bump in the road is that I’ve way over-extended myself during this process. Ideally I would get back to Gerlando in a matter of minutes (or at least hours), but truthfully I’ve taken on too much other stuff and have a few messages I haven’t responded to from last week. Right now I know I’m holding CYOC back because I can’t give feedback quickly enough.

I wanted to share this part of the journey because I know I’m holding my own project back. I’m working to not overschedule myself and allow more time for CYOC. I often make the mistake of filling open gaps in my Google Calendar with catch-up phone calls and random busy work, when I should be filling it with CYOC. I’m keeping myself accountable by adding time on my calendar and sharing that with you guys (yay for public accountability!):

Jason's Calendar

Building Version 2 of CYOC

We stuck with the left column editor / right column previewer for a few weeks. Then, out of no where, Gerlando surprised me with a brand new inline editor:

CreateYourOnlineCourse Inline Editor

Whoa! Truthfully, I was totally blindsided by this change. My first thought was “Gerlando didn’t even talk to me about this huge change, WTF!?” 

But then I took a minute and realized how smart of a decision this was on his part. My knee-jerk reaction was because of shock and fear. Before reaching out to Gerlando, I jumped into the new inline editor.


This was brilliant! My thought now changed to “Gerlando, you’re a genius!” 

Gerlando took a step back and noticed that the left column editor didn’t really need to exist. By building the editor inline with the course framework, it saved time and created a more seamless editing experience. Everything with a blue box around it is clickable and editable (even images!).

I’m proud of myself for not immediately emailing Gerlando with my first reaction. Often times we don’t take a minute to digest something, we just react. He had done something really awesome and I could have derailed that progress because of my own fear.

The inline editor has replaced our previous prehistoric editor on the Course Dashboard, Lesson Pages and Payment Pages. It doesn’t get much simpler than this!

To be continued next Monday…

Next week I’ll be sharing thoughts on pricing CYOC (with competition analysis), our initial launch plans to let people on board, and some other features we’re including.

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