Lessons Learned: Launching Online Classes as Products

Case Study: Dr. Surly’s School for Mad Scientists

If you've ever built a death ray you know how hard it can be to get the tech right. Writing firmware for hardware products is its own special kind of complicated. Temperamental components, bugs in your code, and design flaws can be incredibly costly—all but destroying schedules and budgets as well as your ability to rid yourself of your arch nemesis.

Ever hear of Test-Driven Development? Think it's just impossible to unit test your embedded code? Have we got news for you. Not only is it possible - we've built an entire online course that teaches you just how to do it! You'll be writing real tests in actual C code for real world features on your first day. If you have a little mad scientist in you, try Dr. Surly’s School for Mad Scientists: Unit Testing and Other Embedded Software Catalysts. Enroll now! Use discount code NYUSURLY for $15 off.

Converting Expertise and Experience into an Online Product

Before I was a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at Poly, I was a professional software developer. Much of my early experience was in building fancypants embedded systems like those in your car or flying in weather balloons. My employer before grad school was a big believer in the Test-Driven Development (TDD) style of coding, and the results justified the dedication to the techniques. Eventually we were all but dared to figure out how to apply TDD to resource-constrained, low-level systems. Long story short, we did it.

Along the way I met my partner-in-crime, Mark Vandervoord. He is now the chief maintainer of the open source tools we all developed to support the practices and principles. We've both written about and taught these topics to many others. With the advent of online classes as saleable products (e.g. Skillshare, Udemy, etc.) we saw an opportunity to create a product from our knowledge and experience.

Our Lean Approach to Online Product Development

I've had opportunity to learn Lean Methods through the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute and proposed using these techniques to Mark. He agreed. Fast forward, and within a week of launching we converted 25% of our initial customer development list into paying customers.

Customer Development

Months ago we started with a handful of hypotheses about our potential customers. We used the reach of the open source tools and our personal networks to interview many developers and collect multiple rounds of surveys to test our ideas on overall interest, motivations, and priorities for the content of our course. We learned that one segment of customers was clearly our target market. We also learned that these individuals are self-motivated to learn techniques that improve their professional work and often have the backing of their employers. From our knowledge of our customers and a survey of any competing courses and available online course hosting services, we settled on Udemy as the best match for our customers and product.

Minimal Viable Product

Our Minimal Viable Product was a bit tricky. From multiple exchanges with our potential customers we knew their priorities and interests. However, by launching our product on someone else's platform we had to abide by their rules—namely, a complete and robust course able to stand on its own. Rather than build the entire course we envisioned, we launched with a product that is a thorough treatment of all the fundamental concepts and applications of the corresponding tools. We are using this to collect feedback, shake out issues, and guide development of further value-added material.

Customer Acquisition and Pricing Strategy

If response remains positive, we intend to iterate and improve our course with further sets of lectures. Our first addition will work through an entire real world project that employs the advanced techniques necessary to bring such a project to completion from start to finish. We structured this development strategy to complement a pricing strategy. With each major addition to the course, we will bump up the price. This motivates early signups to lock in the price while still giving us room to grow with new customers. We gain early revenue, course evaluations, word of mouth, and feedback before investing further work. That is, we lower our risk and build momentum.

We know enough about our customers to know where they live online and offline (e.g. blogs, meetups, things read, services used). We are targeting our promotions at these venues. The exchange is a win-win. We give something valuable (and non competitive) to the venue to communicate to its community while they give us access to potential customers. We are using these small-scale promotion venues as experiments to collect data on conversion rates and buyer behaviors towards informing much larger—possibly paid—promotions after we secure a toehold in our market.