Why I Decided To Roll My Own Course Platform

After following a number of people I look up to in my industry, one of the top messages that became clear for building a successful business is that you must have an email list. An email list is composed of a group of people interested in what you have to say and sell.

An email list is built up over time. In exchange for something of value within your industry category, people will hand over their email address, allowing you to stay in front of them with your message and offerings. How you maintain a relationship and grow your email list is a whole other article. But it is the cornerstone to my decision for self hosting courses.

I believe having complete control over your email list, customer experience, brand and direction of your business is the only way to build a successful ecosystem. Think Apple or Disney World. Once you enter into Disney World, you really are walking into a completely different world. If Disney was not able to have complete control over your experience, Disney World would not exist.


It’s through this control that Disney can build a strong relationship with its customers and incentivize them to purchase the Disney brand. Without this control, they could do the same but it would be more difficult, cost more and certainly be more time consuming.

At Bitesize Business School (my business), domain branding, and course experience all remain within BBS. When I send an email to my customers, it comes from BBS. It is branded as BBS. It is sent when I want it to be sent and presented exactly as I want it to be presented. There isn’t a detail I can’t modify to suit the brand exactly.

When customers click a link in that email, they are brought to the BBS website, where the experience continues to be well maintained.

From email, I could be directing them to a new course launch. If there is a pre-sell funnel, it is all on BBS and the experience is once again tightly controlled. When a customer purchases a course, they remain within the BBS world.

Lisa Irby

Lisa Irby

To get some additional views on self hosting, I contacted a couple of other great instructors. Here is what they had to say about self hosting:

“I started off hosting my courses with Udemy, and I think they are a decent platform if you’re just starting out. At the same time, there were limitations. I decided to go self-hosted so I could have ultimate control over pricing, profits, course layout, upsells, and marketing to existing students. Hosting courses yourself can be intimidating at first, but not so bad once you get comfortable with your platform. It’s worth it in the end because of the control you gain.”
Lisa Irby

james burchill

James Burchill

“While publishing your products on another site may prove beneficial it comes with inherent risks, namely the fact you typically don’t own the most important asset – the customer/student data (emails etc.) Without this critical information, you are left at the mercy of the 3rd party publishing platform whereby they can market to your students (and you make nothing) or worse yet … stop you from communicating at all! Creating content is key (you need something to sell) but having someone to sell it to is the most important element. No audience, no business!”
James Burchill

The Positives Of Using A 3rd Party Hosted Platform

Creating a course platform isn’t expensive but it does require work (i.e., time)…whether you do it yourself or hire someone to do it. You still have to plan what the course site will look like, which payment processors are needed, where videos will be hosted, and it must be tested, just to name a few tasks.

You can save lots of time by simply renting a pre-built or templated platform. Someone else owns this platform and while it isn’t plug-and-play, it can still be much faster to get up and running and start selling courses.

Usually with this scenario, you only need to worry about uploading or linking course videos to the platform, filling out text for your course landing page, ordering videos within the curriculum, and selecting a payment processor. There are a few more things to do but those are the main ones.

From there, you pay a monthly fee to use the platform. It’s still work but usually less than building out your own platform.

On the other hand, you can use a marketplace such as Udemy. There is no monthly fee. Instead, they take a cut of your sales. This can be a great choice for beginners.

The Negatives Of Using A 3rd Party Hosted Platform

While the above benefits can sound great, I believe the disadvantages of renting a platform far outweigh the benefits. Let’s go through them one by one:

1.) A large chunk of your business is now dependent on someone else. If they decide to fold up business, which you might have very little notice of, you’ll need to find a new platform.

2.) The customer (email) list may not be your own. This is usually the case for marketplaces. You have to abide by their terms when it comes to sending anything to the (or should we say “their”) list.

3.) Policies can and do change. This means you might be restricted from uploading certain content. A bandwidth restriction may be imposed. You’re course may be subject to sales restrictions if reviews are low. You might be banned from the platform if your sales don’t meet a certain amount every month.

4.) Since this is someone else’s platform, you have little control over the customer experience. You might be able to do some branding but it will be difficult to achieve the same level of brand adherence that you can if everything is on your website (i.e., within your ecosystem).

The Software To Create A Course Platform

Several pieces of software are needed for self hosting your courses. Here is the list of software I use at BBS to create an online course platform:

  • Digital Access Pass (DAP): For membership management, payment processing integration, upsells, and affiliates
  • Optimize Press (OP): Overall look of the course mini site
  • Bluehost (Pro Account): hosting platform for course webpages
  • Vimeo: Hosting of videos

I imagine most of you reading this post haven’t heard of DAP. I found out about it from Kevin Halbert (Gary Halbert’s son) while attending one of John Carlton’s Masterminds in Redonda Beach. It was just he and I having this conversation but he made it sound like DAP was the best thing since sliced bread. So I took the plunge. The Halbert brother’s bring in millions per year so credibility wasn’t a question.

Below is a diagram showing how everything links together. Dotted lines are areas the user doesn’t directly see (backend processing).

selfhostedflow

Besides the course platform on BBS, which is a pay per course model, I also use the same setup and layout for my membership site and two mini sites (Bitesize Design School and Bitesize Programming School).

Below is a screenshot of the main course page, which allows navigation to each linked topic. This particular example is from my Twitter growth course, although all courses follow the same layout. The image on the right is a sub course page, where the actual videos are located. If any video has an associated download, that is linked under the video also. The top and bottom of the sub course page have navigation to the main course page and next lesson set.

2m10kcoursemockup

Technical Requirements

What skill level is needed to create this kind of platform? There is effort and time involved but a non technical person can certainly do most it. I believe the one area that is the most technical is integrating with Stripe.

OP is basically drag and drop. Once you have a course layout you like, you can create a template and use it for all of your future courses. This speeds up the entire process.

Vimeo is a matter of uploading videos, categorizing them by course/collection, setting privacy, making sure they can only be viewed on your domain and getting the embed code. This code will be used to embed videos into your OP course page. I try to not display more than 4 videos per course page. More than that can cause issues on mobile devices. Since you must use Vimeo Pro, it comes with fast support in case you get stuck anywhere.

DAP doesn’t require backend coding. Although I’m using code for customizations such as slashing the listed price to display a discount price when someone uses a coupon. It is a huge product but documentation and their support are both great. The one area that gets technical goes back to Stripe integration. For the PayPal button, you will also embed code generated by DAP. But this isn’t really any different than embedding the button directly out of PayPal.

Everything sits on Bluehost. Once you setup with Bluehost, including your domain name, you’ll install WordPress from their dashboard. From there, you’ll mostly be working within WordPress and the OP theme.

While OP does come with some membership abilities, DAP takes this to a whole other level. Membership is pretty much their thing. They also include affiliate tracking, which is nice since you don’t need any additional software.

While this can all look intimidating at first, there’s a lot that you can handle if you want to. I imagine most people reading this are solopreneurs like me. To handle setting up new courses, I have a VA with experience using OP handle the setup. Before getting a VA, I documented my entire process. The VA follows this document using the templates.

Summary

I believe the advantages of hosting courses on your site, under your brand, far outweigh any advantages of purely using a marketplace or 3rd party hosted platform. The main reason is control and consistency of branding.

You don’t have to do everything when setting up your platform and courses. If your business has been up and running for at least a few months, is growing and is profitable, I’d argue you shouldn’t do everything. Once you have a particular process down (i.e., it’s repeatable), it should be documented and then handed off to a VA. That helps to scale your business up.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me here. If you’d like to follow in my journey of growing a profitable online business, just sign up to my list in the top right of this page.