EPISODE 131

Web and Personal Security for Your Course Platform with Shaun James from Pentester University

Chris Badgett of LifterLMS talks about web and personal security for your course platform with Shaun James from Pentester University in this episode of LMScast. Shaun teaches people how to do ethical hacking in order to perform penetration tests to help strengthen cybersecurity of websites and online businesses.

Penetration testing is ethical hacking that tests the cybersecurity of companies and tells them where holes are that bad guys could potentially get in so that the holes can be fixed. When Shaun was young, he learned how phone numbers work as codes. That got him into puzzles and ultimately led to him becoming the owner of a cybersecurity company.

Schooling for learning network security is very expensive. So Shaun started a YouTube channel teaching people how to do it for free. He received great feedback from that, so he has started an affordable school where he teaches people how to test network security.

When creating online courses you are normally collecting customer and student information. Making sure that information is protected for students’ safety is important, and that is a major part of what penetration testing is out there to do. Any page is vulnerable to hacking attacks, even static ones. Having security even on basic, non-interactive HTML pages is important.

Chris tells a story of one time when he got hacked and how the hacker was able to redirect his website to the app store if a user accessed it on an iPhone. Shaun shares some great tips on how to protect yourself from attacks and how to protect your backups. They also describes what SSL is and how that is used to protect information.

SQL injection is a way that unprivileged users can make the server give them information from a website. Shaun shares an example of how a website is vulnerable to these injections. He also talks about JavaScript injections and what those are and how they work to attack users.

They discuss concepts such as worms and DoS attacks, which are denial of service attacks. And Shaun gives an example of someone whose website was crashed by a DDoS attack. This type of attack causes a website to get so much traffic that it crashes. Shaun gives some great tips on how you can mitigate these types of attacks for free.

Hackers can also gain access to your camera and/or microphone and be watching or listening to you so making sure you are safe in that regard is important as well. Shaun gives some tips on how you can prevent that from happening.

When your website is under attack from hackers, you should shut it down immediately. This stops it from getting much worse and protects others from getting infected. Changing your password is also necessary when restarting after an attack. Shaun gives these tips and much more to help you in an attack situation.

Having backups and taking care of your website are very important. There are a lot of possible things that can attack and corrupt your cyberspace, but that does not mean you should avoid the internet all together. You should know the ways to prevent potential problems from happening, and when they do how to mitigate them.

You can learn more about Shaun James at Pentester University. You can also find him on YouTube at NetSecNow.

Thank you for joining us. You can post comments and subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast.

Chris Badgett: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett, and today we have a special guest, Shaun James from Pentester University. We’re going to get into web security, personal security and how that relates to your online course platform, but before we get into that, Shaun, I just wanted to thank you for coming on the show.
Shaun James: Thank you, Chris, I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.
Chris Badgett: Yeah. Well, tell us a little bit about your story, because you’re a cybersecurity expert, so can you tell us about your journey, like where you came from, how you got into cybersecurity?
Shaun James: Sure.
Chris Badgett: How you got all the way into teaching others about cybersecurity, and for those of you listening, Pentester stands for penetration testing, but I guess first, tell us what that is, and then tell us the story from the beginning.
Shaun James: Okay. Penetration testing is really just companies trying to hire an ethical hacker to find the holes that the bad guys would use to get in, break in, steal customer information, business critical information, stuff like that. That’s really all it is, and cybersecurity over wraps that, if you will, to include many things like network security and defensive and offensive security and things like that.
Chris Badgett: Very cool, very cool. Well, how did you get into this world of cybersecurity? What’s your story?
Shaun James: It’s actually a really long story, so I’ll try to keep it short. I actually started when I was a kid. My parents used to get super mad at me when I’d pick up the touch tone telephone and start dialing pound codes and star codes, writing them into a notebook and figuring out what they did and all the messages, and the phone company would actually call my house and ask what the heck we were doing. When I got old enough to ride my bike down the street, I used to go to a pay phone and do it.
I’ve been doing this stuff since I was a little guy, but what really got me interested in it is the love of technology and the fact of being able to legally break into systems and figure out security holes, and it’s like a puzzle. To me, it just made sense that that’s what I had to do with my life. I didn’t always, I wasn’t always a penetration tester. I went to school, I learned a different trade, I learned automotive.
At the same time, after high school, I learned networking and computers and security and stuff like that to get really in depth with it to get my certifications and so on, so I always had a back up career. Hurt my back working on cars early out, so I decided that, to heck with this, and I went on to start work for other companies and eventually started my own company and they started subcontracting me and eventually I cut out the middle man and went right after the big fish myself.
That’s really how I got started in that, and after you do something for a really long time, you look for another challenge, so what I did was I created a YouTube channel that now has 35,000 subscribers and I started teaching for free. That was pretty cool, I got really good feedback from that, so I decided to start an online school and actually teach people how to do it because the biggest problem is school is not affordable. It’s just not. I spent $16,000 for six months of school for network security. A lot of courses are $5,000 and some are free, but I live by the old adage, you get what you pay for. I decided to start my own affordable school and here we are.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome, that’s awesome, and one of the things I want to highlight, it’s not really the topic of this show, but the fact that you were already creating content and you found that you had community on YouTube, that’s an awesome way to go about it because a lot of people start with the tools and they don’t have any content yet, they don’t have the community, they don’t have any traction or momentum, so I just want to commend you on your starting point there.
Shaun James: Cool, thank you.
Chris Badgett: Well, when I think of ethical hacking and getting hired to do that and the economy around that, I think about banks wanting to protect their stuff or, but what is, who else should be concerned?
Shaun James: Anybody that’s online really. If you have a computer connected to the internet, at some point, you’re vulnerable. That’s just the way that the world works. That’s the internet for you. If you want to be 110% secure, unplug from the internet, stop using it. Really, that’s what we tell people.
Everybody really has to worry about that, and specifically, online course graders. A lot of times you’re collecting customer information, student information, things like that, and you want to make sure that that stuff is secure. You don’t want to have it vulnerable, like the Amazon and credit card companies get hacked all the time, and banks, and other businesses, and that’s just what it is. That’s the nature of the beast. Everybody has to worry about it, really.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, yeah. Well, what, for someone who’s, this is new information to them, what areas do you focus on for the course creation platform to have increased security? Is it just eCommerce related? Is it logging in to the back end of WordPress, or where do we need to be concerned?
Shaun James: It’s really almost everywhere. I know that’s a terrible answer, but it’s everywhere, so even if you had a static website, right, that you’re posting some information on. For instance, if I was an attacker and you had a popular website for whatever niche it was or whatever it was, even just a static page, if I were to be able to break into the back end of the FTTP server and upload or change your files to include a payload inside of the website, you’ll never see it.
I’ll never modify the text of your website. It looks like a normal website, however, when users go to visit there, I can steal their cookie information which is used for logins. I can steal information from them. I can take over their computer and use it to attack other computers. It’s really important to have, even website security on basic, very basic static HTML websites.
Chris Badgett: Absolutely. I think getting hacked, sometimes it’s not even a question of if, it’s a question of when.
Shaun James: Right.
Chris Badgett: One of my first online course websites, WordPress website, got hacked and there was some kind of code that somehow got in there, and it was actually smart. If I was logged into the site as a WordPress administrator, I couldn’t tell it was there, but, and even people on computers couldn’t tell it was there, but if you were on a mobile phone and you went to my website, it would redirect you to some app, something for sale in the app store.
Shaun James: Right, so it was just a click jacking, if you will, is what we call it, and that’s just to take a specific set of users that you want, for instance in that case, to make app sales or free downloads for the app so they can make money off the ads, it’s just to redirect those users away. I would make a payload, for instance, for iOS and for any other cell phone operating system, and then I would redirect users based upon, every time you surf a website, your information’s given out. What you’re using, what version, all that good stuff.
Chris Badgett: What, where do you start? What’s the first place to start with, okay, I want more security? Where do I start? Is it with hosting? Is it with other plug-ins? What do I do?
Shaun James: What I would start with is the hosting company itself. You obviously want a reputable company, and with that, you want to make sure you’re keeping your own backups. You can’t always trust the company to actually keep and store your backups. Things happen. Backups get lost all the time, so you want to make sure you choose a good host. For instance, since you’re using WordPress for the Lifter LMS, right?
Chris Badgett: Right.
Shaun James: I use the same thing, so what I wanted was a reliable host, and there’s tons of them out there, big name guys. I used to have a hosting company back in 2002. Well, I know a lot of these guys started around the same time I did, so I know where they’re at, but the point is that they can’t all offer really good security. The host I personally use is WP Engine, and I think that, in my research, they’re one of the best. They offer good security, backups, live sites. They do all sorts of good stuff.
The next thing you want to start with there, and this is probably more logic than anything, is not to use a common email that you use everyday for regular communications for your site admin email. Make it an email that you don’t use anywhere else but specifically for that, and that helps because if I was able to get your email address and I know your website and I want to break into it, the very first thing I’m going to do is pop that into what we call BruteForcer, which just really tries username password combinations over and over again until it gets the right one, and I’m going to try a password list. I have one that I created for 1.2 million unique passwords myself, and I would break into your website and then do what I had to do.
Don’t use your regular email. That’s number one. Two, there’s a lot of plugins for WordPress, and I guess this conversation’s going to go more towards WordPress because that’s what we’re all using, like for instance Wordfence. Wordfence is a really super good plugin for all types of security. It offers firewalls, spam scanning, malware scanning, if somebody did break into your website, it scans the site for your users so it could pick up common attacks, things like that.
Also, there’s a plugin, I can’t remember. I think it’s made by, Huge-IT is what it’s called, the company, and they make a login redirector, so usually what happens is when you setup a brute-force type deal, you would go to the WordPress login. That’s pretty common because it’s the same on every single website. You set your attack up to go to that URL and guess those usernames and passwords. However, the Huge-IT thing has a pro version and a free version. Free version probably works pretty good, too, but it really just creates a pop up, if you will. It’s harder to attack a pop up because it’s not an actual URL.
That’s some of the common things you could do there, and again, the host is key. You should have SSL on your websites if you’re collecting any information, even if users are registering for a free account, or logging in, or giving you any information whatsoever, you should definitely, definitely have SSL, and it’s free.
Chris Badgett: Let me ask you some questions around that.
Shaun James: Sure.
Chris Badgett: Secure Shell Certificate, is that what it stands for? What-
Shaun James: Secure Socket Layer, yeah. SSL.
Chris Badgett: Oh, there we go. There we go.
Shaun James: Yep.
Chris Badgett: What does it actually do? What does it do?
Shaun James: When you communicate on the web, you’re sending out packets. Think of a packet as a pill, right, and inside the pill you have, what’s the payload there, is the medicine, right? You have the outer shell of that. What SSL does is it’s basically the outer shell to the critical information that’s inside. It encrypts the communication between you and a server, so when you’re sending your stuff over, it’s encrypted by 128 bit SSL certificates, and there’s a public and private key.
There’s a lot of technical stuff that goes on behind the scenes, but really what it does is it encrypts the session or the line between you and the website. Any information you send or the website sends back is in that encrypted tunnel, or in that pill.
Chris Badgett: Right, so for example, your students in your online course website, when they’re typing in their username and password, that’s communicating with your server, right?
Shaun James: Correct.
Chris Badgett: The SSL is, you’re actually protecting your students’ email addresses and passwords and things like that.
Shaun James: Right, and all their personal information, so for me, I send out some gifts to my students when they first enroll, depending on what they enroll in and so on and so forth, and I collect their mailing addresses. A lot of people don’t put their right mailing addresses, but nonetheless, the users that are serious, they put in their real address. I want to protect that information.
I don’t want to give that out to anybody that may be eavesdropping, and it doesn’t have to be anybody eavesdropping on the websites, and their computer could be compromised from somewhere else, a suspicious download or a crazy email or something. Their computer could be giving up the information, not necessarily our website, so I want to make sure that no matter what, both of us are protected so we create that encryption.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. That’s awesome, and I’ve heard of a simpler plugin than Wordfence called Limit Login Attempts, which all that does is, I mean Wordfence does a lot of things and I’ve used it a lot too, but Limit Login Attempts just helps with that brute-force situation where someone can only forget their password three times, then they get locked out for-
Shaun James: Exactly, and what that does is ban it by IP address, so even that said, that’s not even really safe anymore because you have things like VPNs and proxies. Tor was a infamous proxy that used to switch your IP address or your proxy fake IP address every so often. If I was a BruteForcer and I’m using Tor to do that, all I’m going to do is shut Tor off, start it back up, fire the attempts again, and of course, I have a new IP address and I can keep hammering the system.
You also don’t want to set that threshold too low, so if you set it at three, now the user’s locked out, blocked by their IP address. They can’t really just change their IP address. Now there’s support tickets and chaos, so you have to find that happy medium with the threshold to set it for a lock out.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, that’s a good point. I like what you were saying, too, where sometimes things are just obvious, like if I’m going to a website and I’m like, “Hey, I wonder if that’s a WordPress website,” I actually just add wp-admin to the end. I’m like, “Oh, there’s the login window.”
Shaun James: Right.
Chris Badgett: WordPress used to, they used to create the first user account with the username Admin, so, okay, now all I have to guess is the password.
Shaun James: Exactly. Seems pretty easy.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, yeah. Security is something that keeps evolving.
Shaun James: Sure.
Chris Badgett: It’s always just worth looking at, but what about, let’s talk about eCommerce a little bit. Help me understand this issue with, like with Lifter LMS, if you sell with credit card, there’s a screen powered by Stripe, a little part of the checkout screen, and then, but Stripe is actually handling the PCI compliance or whatever. Me as the site owner, on my website and in my Stripe account, I can only ever see the last four digits of the credit card number or whatever.
Shaun James: Right.
Chris Badgett: We’re used to that when we call somewhere and they’re like, “Hey, what are the last four of your credit card,” there’s some security checks in place there.
Shaun James: Sure.
Chris Badgett: If I’m selling credit card, accepting credit cards on my website, am I good with Stripe and a SSL certificate? Is there anything else I need to think about there?
Shaun James: No, you’re pretty good because Stripe themselves has to self regulate according to PCI DSS compliancy, like you said. That’s a very strict compliancy they have to meet at a certain amount of months, I think it’s now three. Every three months, every quarter, but they have to have their own set of security there. First of all, they have to have SSL, that’s number one, primary, before they ever get their certificate to be able to do any kind of credit card transactions.
Two, when they’re storing the user’s information, credit card, so on and so forth, it has to be encrypted. You have the point to point encryption, which is the SSL, and then when it’s stored on the server, you have to have security at rest. There is strong encryption there to encrypt the actual databases where the credit card information is stored. It’s not impenetrable, it happens all the time, you see whatever bank gets hacked, whatever credit card company gets hacked, and the things are leaked.
Ashley Madison, the whole nightmare that went down there with all those poor guys that lost their credit cards and their personal information and everything else, it’s just a common occurrence, but you’re safe as a teacher, as a course provider, because you’re offering the best encryption you can from them to you, and then from you to Stripe, that’s handled on Stripe’s end. Stripe has to create that encryption tunnel. Users usually are secure in that way. It’s not impossible, like I said, to interrupt that transmission. There are ways to do it, but it’s not something that’s going to happen every single day.
Chris Badgett: I got you, okay. Well, also, since I have the expert on the line here, I wanted to, I’ve heard of SQL injections or whatever, so anywhere there’s a form, like a comment on a blog post or a contact form, a hacker can insert malicious codes through those areas where they can input stuff sometimes. Can you tell us a little bit about how that all works?
Shaun James: Sure, so SQL injections, or SQLi, is basically where, whenever you create a website that has any kind of interactivity to it, you click a button, you go to a different link, you fill in a form, all that stuff has to be stored somewhere. SQL is basically a database where it stores that information. When code’s written improperly, it allows users, or malicious users I should say, to actually inject malicious code into that to trick the database server into giving up the information to unprivileged users. When you create a database connection, you’re saying, this username, this password has access to change, modify, update whatever tables inside this database or retrieve that information also.
When I trick it to do it, it’s because the code doesn’t properly sanitize my input. I can, for instance, if you ever notice, you go into a webpage that says, www.somesite.com?php or index.php?id= and then a number, that’s very susceptible sometimes to a simple attack. If you put an apostrophe there, you can see that it returns an error. When it returns an error, you can say, “Okay, this is susceptible to SQL injection,” you can go further. It’s just, it doesn’t properly sanitize that extra character that I put in, so it gives up that information.
With that being said, once I’m able to do that and figure out that there’s some errors there and it’s not properly sanitized, I can drop the entire database table. I get usernames, passwords, credit card numbers, social security numbers, everything. That’s how a lot of these big hacks actually work.
Chris Badgett: Is that scraping? Is that what that’s called? If you, let’s say you want to get all the emails or credit cards out of something, what’s scraping?
Shaun James: Well, scraping is a tool or sometimes people actually, before there was tools, we used to do it manually, go in and view the source code of a website and do searches for whatever, email addresses or usernames, passwords, things like that. Scraping is basically a tool that goes to the website, does the same thing, opens it up almost in a text editor, if you will, and pulls down any kind of information that you want it to get.
For instance, an email address, is there a list on a website for support, for, a lot of websites for whatever reason still have directories of employees, I don’t know why, with email addresses and telephone numbers and all this good stuff, so if I wanted to, for instance, do a spoofing attack, I’d go scrape the website, get all the email addresses. Now I have the email addresses, I can either try to break into their emails or fake an email to somebody else in the company from somebody else in the company and get them to open a file, and then I’m in to their company and that’s it, it’s over. A scraper is really just going to the website, pulling the information down and having that information available to you for whatever use.
Chris Badgett: Got you. Well, let’s talk about another area that has always, I’ve always wanted a deeper understanding on, especially with WordPress sites, is where does all that spam come from? Is that really a security thing, or are those bots that, leaving comments that have nothing to do with the blog post? What is that?
Shaun James: Well, so I usually recommend using plugins that would use reCAPTCHA, which is Google’s idea of trying to defeat these robots or spambots. The comment spam comes from just being, somebody smart enough to be able to write code to find a comment section, input the correct fields, and then hit post. Really, every time you hit a button to post a comment, it’s just a data packet. That’s all it is. It’s a post or a get or something like that in the HTTP protocol. It’s pretty simple to actually make those things. That’s why I think that WordPress should just roll out with reCAPTCHA right off the bat.
Chris Badgett: Right.
Shaun James: You know what I mean? It’s so common now. It’s constant.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, no. There’s no reason to get up to 500 comments pending in the queue.
Shaun James: Right.
Chris Badgett: I agree with you that they should just, at least have it turned on by default.
Shaun James: Right, and the thing with comment spam is, if it’s, SQL injections are not the only thing you can do with forms. I can do JavaScript injections, which are called remote code injections, and I can actually upload or post a comment that looks like a normal comment, “Hello everyone, welcome to whatever,” and inside that, hidden, is a payload that will steal your cookies, your login information, redirect you, whatever. Download a file to your computer or whatever.
It’s pretty important to have that, too, because there’s a lot of people that create those bots that go out and look for vulnerable forms to post that kind of code into, and that’s how they create botnets, is basically taking over one computer to take over 100 computers to take over 1,000 computers and so on and so forth.
Chris Badgett: That’s like the concept of a worm, right? What’s a worm?
Shaun James: A worm basically replicates through a network, and it’s, it used to be where it’s like a user got something and say if there was 10 computers on the network, the worm would actually be intelligent enough to try to search out these other computers, see if there’s any open shares, everybody shares files across a network, and replicate itself through those shares and then execute itself. Then it would take over all 10 of those computers and use those 10 computers for whatever it was, distributed computing, compiling code, trying to hack other people, and now that’s really turned into botnets, as we all know, we see on the news.
The hacker group Anonymous, you know they’re so infamous for DoS attacks, or denial of service attacks, and that’s how they do it. They don’t necessarily just use one tool, because it’s easily preventable. They’ll use 10,000 computers that they have at their will by one program to command them all to attack something.
Chris Badgett: Yeah. Back in our agency days, we were helping clients who sometimes were suffering from a DDoS attack, which is like a, it’s a lot of fake traffic that, it’s too much traffic and it causes the websites to crash.
Shaun James: Right.
Chris Badgett: Well what, so what causes, what if somebody, how does that happen and how are you supposed to fix it?
Shaun James: You’re talking about a worm attack or something?
Chris Badgett: Or just like a denial of service, like, “My site keeps going down, there’s all this fake traffic. What do I do?”
Shaun James: There’s a great, great company called Cloudflare, and what they do is actually content filtering. What they’ll do is mitigation of those attacks, so like you said, the attacks work by additional, DDoS stands for distributed denial of service attack, meaning there’s multiple computers all over the world attacking one website, server, what have you. What Cloudflare does is actually redirect that bad traffic away. It doesn’t really necessarily shut down your website. They have what’s called a CDN, which is a content delivery network, so they spread your site over around multiple servers.
Now Google and Yahoo and all the big companies have been using that for almost a decade now, and now Cloudflare actually does it for free, pretty much, I think. That’s the only way to really mitigate that. Back in the day, I used to write custom scripts on my servers in the server company to actually deal with that. I would set a threshold to say, if there’s five connections from this same IP, take that IP address and send it to fbi.gov. Let them go attack fbi.gov and get arrested.
Chris Badgett: Right.
Shaun James: There was ways to do that, but now it’s more efficient. Cloudflare is just awesome. There’s other companies like that, like GoDaddy has their own little thing that they do there, but I’m pretty sure they use Cloudflare as their back end anyway. It’s all DNS mitigation now.
Chris Badgett: Got you, and we use WP Engine ourselves too for all our sites, and we’re really happy with it. I know there’s also, if you do get hacked, what’s somebody supposed to do? Where to they turn to to trust? I can just share, in my experience, when I first got hacked, the story I was telling you earlier, that’s when I became a customer of a company called Sucuri, and they cleaned up the hack and then they, I paid for extended firewall service and monitoring. I had a great experience with Sucuri. Where should people go? How do they know where to go if all of a sudden their site’s redirecting or they’re getting weird ads or things appear to not, so they might be hacked, what should they do?
Shaun James: Sure, so the very first thing that I would do is shut down the website immediately because you don’t want anybody else getting infected. You certainly don’t want it getting worse and you definitely don’t want to ruin your reputation, especially if you’re a popular site. Then what I would do is, again, backups are key. Restore your backup.
Change your password, because it’s possible that they broke your password and that’s how they got in. Change your FTTP password, which is where you upload your files to change, any kind of control panels, back end admin logins, change all those passwords. Password security is key here. What I’ve noticed with Lifter LMS is, from default, it makes you use a secure password, which I love that. I do.
Chris Badgett: That’s a public service that we do that some people don’t like and they immediately set it to weak, but we’re trying to be good citizens of the internet here.
Shaun James: No, that’s awesome. Yeah, and that’s awesome because it doesn’t take just your admin account to be hacked. It could be a user’s account. It could be anything, anybody that has any kind of right access on the website, so really what you want to do is shut down the website immediately. Change the password to your FTTP first, because that, maybe that’s how they got in, they cracked your FTTP username and password. Change that password first.
Change any of your control panel passwords. Restore a backup and figure out where the hack came from, so there’s various sites out there, I’m sure you can Google and search for them, that will actually scan your website for malicious code. Again, the WordPress Engine is pretty good at protecting against that stuff, and also, Wordfence is pretty good at protecting that. Maybe you have an outdated plugin. Maybe it was some code that wasn’t written correctly and allowed a remote injection or some sort of payload upload or something like that. Very first thing is always keep a current backup.
I like to make backups every day. I’m just crazy like that, but just in case something does happen. I’m not a guy that wouldn’t get hacked. I’m sure at some point it might happen. Hasn’t happened yet, thank god, but it’s, anybody’s vulnerable. The NSA gets hacked, for god’s sake, so they have millions of people working to protect their security and they get hacked by six year old kids in Indonesia.
Chris Badgett: Wow.
Shaun James: There’s nothing you could do to prevent it. Really, there’s nothing you can do besides not be on the internet, but really, that’s the first step I would do, is to make sure you [inaudible 00:26:10] and then change your passwords and restore your backup.
Chris Badgett: That makes sense, and yeah, backups are really important. Some people overlook it but, and especially if it’s your main business or you spent a lot of time building it up. You should have a good web hosting company that’s doing automated backups. You should have a copy locally, like on your computer. Download it or put it on a hard drive or something, and then if you want to get really crazy about it, download it, put it on a hard drive, and then keep it in a different location in case your house burns down. You can go to-
Shaun James: You can go really crazy.
Chris Badgett: If you’re making a lot of money off your platform, you should treat it-
Shaun James: Invest in it.
Chris Badgett: With an insurance policy like that.
Shaun James: Sure, sure. You definitely invest in it. Listen, we don’t do a million dollars a year in my course. We’re still getting traction here and getting going, but the thing is, I like to invest in any kind of ventures that I have a vested interest in, whether it’s financial or time or labor or whatever. I was going back and forth between a cheaper web host, hosting it myself, or somebody that’s going to do it for me and it’s just done.
If I have a problem I go, “Hey man, I got a problem. Can you fix it, yes or no,” and that’s it. I don’t have to worry about the nuances of fixing it and worrying about it and all that stuff. WordPress Engine does automatic backups, which I think is awesome, even for the lowest level plan. You really can’t beat that, but backups are definitely key.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, yeah. WP Engine is, I think their for one site plan is $30 a month, which is more than the $10 a month shared hosting plan starting point that a lot of people start with, but the peace of mind that comes with some of their security measures, backup system, a staging environment for testing stuff, it’s worth it. You’ll end up paying eventually for other services or whatever.
Shaun James: Right.
Chris Badgett: Well, let’s talk a little bit about the difference between web security and personal security. Where does the internet stop and where does personal security begin? What do you mean by that?
Shaun James: Well, so you could have the most secure website in the entire world, where it’s password protected, encrypted. You could have all the bells and whistles that we spoke about, and then some, and it still may not be good enough. Here’s the thing. Everything comes back to you in the end. You have to have some sort of personal responsibility for your user’s security, your student’s security, what have you, and that starts with your own personal security.
Again, there’s no way to protect you 110% besides not being on the internet. I know I keep saying that, but it’s, that’s the truth. That’s the reality. The thing is, your personal security is key. If you’re not really, like Windows is very susceptible to hacks, and it’s hacks and viruses and malware and all sorts of bad stuff. If your system’s compromised, it doesn’t matter how good your website security is. If you log in to your website, there’s a possibility there’s a key logger, which captures your keystrokes on your keyboard on there, and it sends it to the hacker. Now the hacker doesn’t have to do anything, just log into your website.
Usually you get those kind of infections by downloading files. I know, I used to be, when I was in IT repair, viruses were my key business. I’d charge $100 per virus removal. It’d take me 15 minutes to an hour, and these were repeat customers, like every week, it was like a bad drug habit that these people had. They wanted to download everything, every little popup that came up, “Download now,” “Okay, great. Run it? Sure.” Email attachments, that was huge. “Oh, Johnny’s sending me a document, let’s open it up.”
It was just crazy, and the problem is that that’s really considered what we called social engineering, right? I’m tricking you, as a user, whether I’m spoofing email addresses or sending you questionable information, and you just don’t know any better, and I take advantage of the human element and I trick you into downloading something, clicking on a link, what have you. Now I take hold of your computer and everything that your computer does from there on out, I take over that. Even SSL is not going to save you in that way because SSL starts when you actually send the information. When you’re typing it in there, you could be typing into a secure form, but if I have a key logger in your machine, I’m capturing those keystrokes before they even leave the computer to on the website.
Again, personal security’s key. You have to have a good antivirus. That’s first and foremost. There’s a lot of free ones out there which are really good. Your firewall in Windows should stay on. You don’t want anybody jacking up your system there, and you should just use some common sense. Don’t download everything on the internet. I promise you it’ll still be there tomorrow. Make sure your email attachments are really coming from the people that they say they’re going to come from. Don’t click on links in emails. That’s another common way people get infected with all sorts of good stuff, and that’s it. You have to just have some logic behind using a computer these days.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, and the reality is, it’s just out there. Facebook, you see all the time where somebody, we’re almost getting comfortable with it as a society, like, “Oh, hey, ignore all that. My Facebook account got hacked.” I’m like, “Oh, that’s why you sent me all these airline ticket deal sites and some discounts on some Ray-Ban sunglasses, and I haven’t heard from you in two years.”
Shaun James: Right, exactly.
Chris Badgett: We’re getting comfortable with it, but if you’re going to be on the web, you have to get comfortable with the realities around that, around information and security.
Shaun James: Sure.
Chris Badgett: We’re not trying to scare anybody, but talking about your actual machine, your laptop itself, it’s important to take that into the equation. Some of the things that I see that some people who are the most concerned about security or are paranoid about it or whatever, they put a piece of tape over their camera. Somebody can actually hack your camera, is that right?
Shaun James: Yeah. Actually, I do the same thing. To be honest with you, I turn my camera off in the computer, and I still put a piece of tape over it because, realistically, I don’t want anybody seeing what I’m up to in here. If I’m typing away and working on something or if I’m having a conversation, even the microphone inside the keyboard or my microphone here can be turned on and anybody can be listening to you.
If you’re worried about it, turn it off, unplug it, put a piece of tape over it. My microphone, like I said, I unplug. I’m a little paranoid myself because I know what can actually be done. Not that I have anything to hide, it’s just, I’d rather not have the availability for somebody to listen in on a conversation. For instance, I’m talking with my lawyer about bank accounts or about bank numbers or something, credit card, I’m on the phone giving somebody a credit card number or something, I don’t want anybody hearing that potentially.
It’s all due diligence to yourself. You got to have some sort of self responsibility. Not to make people scared, like you said, where, “Oh my god, hide the laptop underneath the mattress or in the safe or something every night,” but the point is, is that, try to take care of yourself because there’s no one piece of software or hardware or any kind of security whatsoever that’s going to cure the human element. We’re vulnerable as people. That’s just the way it is. We’re very trusting in nature, so people abuse that power.
Like you said with the Facebook stuff, so Tom Jones is on your friends list. Haven’t spoken to them in a couple of years, but you see him and you want to follow up with him and see what’s happening in his life. Tom Jones says, “Oh, so many people viewed my profile today. Sure,” and then it says, big stupid button, “Log in with your Facebook account.” Oh, that’s easy. They click the button, and now they just gave their username and password away. It’s a no brainer that their account’s now used for spamming purposes and try to grow whatever it is that the spammer is after. It’s just the way it is. You have to use some due diligence.
I always yell at my wife on the tablet. “Don’t click anything on Facebook. Just don’t do it. Stay away from my laptop for sure, and whatever you’re doing on your stuff, just don’t click anything, don’t sign in with anything, just stop. If you have a question, ask me.”
Chris Badgett: Yeah, and while we’re talking about personal security, one of the other things I just wanted to bring up, if you’re doing a security audit of your online course business or whatever, you probably, when you set up your Stripe account or whatever, I recommend treating your business like a business, even if it’s from your laptop from home or kitchen table or whatever. You probably set up a bank account for your business and you connected your, the Stripe account to your online course business website, or bank account. Also your personal information, like your business name. You don’t have to make that your home address. You can get a-
Shaun James: PO box.
Chris Badgett: UPS Store box or one of these, whenever you see suite whatever, those are business mailbox services. If you want to maintain a degree of privacy, at all levels there’s always another step up that you can take if you want to take that kind of stuff into account.
Shaun James: Sure. The thing for me is I teach cybersecurity, right? A lot of my students are just, they just want to hack something. A good portion that sign up want to be jerks, too. They just, they probably already know some stuff and they just want to get at me because my popularity on the internet with the network security and the YouTube channel and everything else. It’s just common ground for guys like me.
A lot of guys in my industry have this happen to them all the time. They do a couple talks, they do some conferences with other hackers that are at the conference, and you have somebody that just has it out for you for whatever reason. “I hacked the big guy.” Everybody used to be after Kevin Mitnick, a good friend of mine, one of the world’s most known hackers ever. That’s just the nature of the beast.
From what you were saying with the PO boxes and stuff like that, keep your personal information guarded. None of my personal information is online. It’s just not. I don’t even use my real last name. That’s how serious you have to be because there’s people, when you get to a certain level of whatever it is you’re doing, there’s people that want to ruin it for you and they just want to harass you and send crap to your house or just be jerks. Try to treat it as a real business, like you said, and keep everything separate from your personal life and just make sure that your mailing address is not your house if you’re worried about that. Make sure your bank account’s a business bank account, and you shouldn’t have any problems.
Chris Badgett: I’ve heard of one more that I just wanted to ask you about while we’ve got you on the line about personal security where, if you have a phone, smart phone, or your laptop’s in a bag, people can wear these devices that literally pull data from other devices as they walk by you or something like that.
Shaun James: Yes.
Chris Badgett: Can you tell, again, we’re not trying to scare anybody, I’m just trying to raise some public awareness about security outlets.
Shaun James: Sure, so yes, there is, it’s referred to commonly as RFID, which is what credit cards use and things like that, to give out your information. Magstripe readers, things like that, so even Bluetooth enabled cell phones. Everybody’s walking around with smart phones, like you said. I can hack your Bluetooth and take your contacts, anything you have in your phone, anything you saved inside your phone, pictures, emails, the list is brutally endless.
Here I have my old cell phone here, it’s just an old HTC, and I’ve reprogrammed this to actually do the same kind of things. Here’s my new phone, it’s an iPhone. Doesn’t matter that they’re two different operating systems. It just doesn’t matter. If you’re walking by and you got Bluetooth on this, steal, and I walk by like this and I crack your Bluetooth key and I can steal all your information, download it to the phone, you never know.
For instance, I live in New York, so if I’m in the city and I’m walking down a street, I just hold this right like I’m looking at a cell phone, like every other dummy that’s walking down the street, and really I’m collecting everybody’s information. It’s just the nature of the beast. Technology is a double edged sword. It’s a good thing because we get to do a lot of cool stuff, science and technology and stuff, but it’s also a bad thing because everybody puts all their stuff out there. Everybody does. Companies, regular people, everybody. Everybody does it.
Chris Badgett: Right. Well, tell us about your course, Shaun. Who’s it for and what, who’s it a good fit for and is this a good career for people? What kind of people is it good for? Who are you trying to help and what’s your dent you’re putting the universe with your online course?
Shaun James: Sure, so for me, I offer a different way of teaching than most other people, and that’s what I’ve been told on my YouTube channel and everything like that, so that’s why I keep progressing with this idea that I have. It’s really for anybody. If you want to make a career change, I’ve got a lot of people that were stockbrokers. I’ve got a lot of people that were bankers or people that were just factory workers, people that were in the military and have nothing to do when they come out, they sign up for my courses. I even have people that are in IT that are just looking to change in a different direction and stay in the same relative field that sign up for the courses.
I teach them from complete beginner. I could teach you in 30 days or less how to become able to do a penetration test. The goal for me is to have more people that are on the good guy’s side than the bad guy’s side, because the bad guys are always 10 steps ahead of us no matter what we do, how smart we are, how many people we are. The idea is to grow the cybersecurity community and the problem is that school is very expensive. I’ve paid $16,000 for six months of schooling, and then you have other online courses that are $5,000 for boot camp, and you don’t really learn much. They assume that you know a lot already.
I fit somewhere in the middle, and I help people at an affordable fee to be able to progress into a career into cybersecurity, and you don’t really have to know anything when you sign up for my courses. I’m trying to make the world a safer place by putting more good guys out there than bad guys, like I said.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Well, what’s the name of the course and your website and where can people find out more about you if they want to connect with you on YouTube or social media or anything?
Shaun James: Sure, so it’s pentesteruniversity.org. That’s the website, and we have one course up there right now that I’m in the process of completing to upload the content, which is Penetration Testing for Beginners. Then we’ll have an Intermediate and an Advanced course, and then we’re going to have Linux courses and Web Security courses and all sorts of good stuff up there continuing on from our old platform.
If anybody wants to reach me, they can go to the website, reach me there. There’s a contact us form, a secure contact us form. My YouTube channel is NetSecNow, it’s N-E-T S-E-C N-O-W, and that’s where I got 35,000 guys so far up there. Feel free to reach out to me anytime. If you have any questions or anything, just contact me, I’ll be happy to help you.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, thank you for coming on the show, Shaun, and I really appreciate you sharing your experience and helping us all level up our game when it comes to security, so thank you.
Shaun James: Great. Thanks, Chris. Thanks for having me, and thanks for the good work on Lifter.

EPISODE 130

Bridging the Gap Between Marketing and Innovation with WordPress Web Hosting Expert AJ Morris from Liquid Web

In this episode of LMScast with Chris Badgett of LifterLMS we discuss bridging the gap between marketing and innovation with WordPress web hosting expert AJ Morris from Liquid Web. AJ also tells a little about his interesting journey from working at a school district to business marketing.

It can sometimes be frustrating to work with people who do not have much training in a field. AJ shares his approach to working with people who have less technical skill than he does. He breaks things down in different ways for people’s differing learning styles. And he believes being patient is key.

Understanding the mindset of the customer is important when selling products to them. But understanding how your team thinks about the customer’s needs is also vital to the process. As the product manager, AJ believes that you become the bridge from marketing and innovation because you end up being the customer’s voice inside the company.

Chris and AJ discuss how the goal of business is to create a customer, and how always focusing on improving the customer or the learner experience is important.

They break down the different types of hosting plans. AJ provides an excellent analogy of how hosting plans are similar to different types of housing. As AJ explains, the size and functionality of housing and hosting changes as you upgrade them. They also touch on managed WordPress and exactly what that is and how it can help course developers.

A staging environment is a place for testing that matches the production environment. This can be used to test out features on your website before they are actually implemented. As Chris mentions, it is similar to how the automotive industry tests out cars in various situations with test dummies before real people drive them.

Chris and AJ talk about how Liquid Web works with backups and the accessibility that Liquid Web provides you with. You can also purchase domains through them. Liquid Web also has iThemes sync, which gives you a portal to all of your WordPress sites. You can install and update plugins across all of your sites at once instead of going through the hassle of doing them individually. It also allows you to hook up Google Analytics so that you can see a high-level overview of what pages are being accessed.

To learn more about AJ Morris and Liquid Web you can check him out on his Twitter, his blog ajmorris.me, or at Liquid Web.

Thank you for joining us on this week’s LMScast. You can post comments and subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast.

Chris: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Bagett, and today I’m joined with AJ Morris from Liquid Webb, which is a hosting company. We’re going to get into some interesting topics today about bridging the gap between marketing and innovation. We’re also going to have the opportunity to talk with somebody who’s on the cutting edge of managed WordPress hosting, and what kind of things you need to consider for running a professional learning management system, and having that hosting piece dialed in, and the questions you should be asking, and becoming aware of what you might run into. AJ also has a lot of great life experience and has had an interesting journey through technology and also some teaching himself, so we’re going to get into that a little too.
AJ, thank you for coming on the show.
AJ: Hey Chris, thanks for having me.
Chris: Let’s start with just a little background. You’re at Liquid Webb now, which is a hosting company as a product manager and wearing many hats during that role, but what was your journey through technology, entrepreneurship, freelancing, to where you are today?
AJ: I started at a school district, and web design development had always been my thing so it was quick to pick it up. Back then in the early 2000s, it was really, “Hey, we need you to do professional development training for all our teachers and staff.” That’s really where I picked up a lot of the technical side of things through my career. Moved that into doing some technical support, going to a university and doing a lot of work with integrating multiple systems before it was easy to do, it required a lot of code. Moved out of that and got into the business marketing side of things and products, and really the idea of product management and bridging the gap between customers and the development team, since that’s always been a pet hobby of mine that now I get to do as a job.
It’s also one that has allowed me to take what I’ve learned through the years and apply them. It’s great because it allows me to have a different task every day and live the entrepreneurial lifestyle inside of corporate America.
Chris: Awesome. That’s also called entrepreneurship. I have a lot of great friends who do that and love it, and it’s a great way to roll. Let me go back earlier in your history and ask you about, when you’re helping facilitate continuing education requirements for IT … I think it’s probably what it was called back then.
AJ: Yes.
Chris: Any teacher or course creator eventually they come head on with this concept of dealing with people who, obviously don’t have as much training, and sometimes it can be frustrating to work with; I see some people get impatient or lose track of what it’s like to work with a beginner. What was your approach to working with people who obviously had a lot less technical knowledge than you, and how did you stay sane if things were moving slow?
AJ: For me, a lot of it is understanding other analogies that can help people understand the different concepts. Typically, I would find one or two teachers or staff in a class that might … Maybe they’re close to retirement or computers aren’t their thing. I would try to spend more time with them and actually working with them to grasp things. Most teachers back then, especially in the early 2000s at least had some basic understanding of computers. They knew what a mouse was, they knew how to open up Word or Excel, or go to a browser and go to a web page, and so they had some of the basics, but what they lacked was the understanding of, how do you work within a specific application or web application? before there were web applications. It was a lot of patience.
It’s funny, my wife says I’m entirely the most patient person she’s ever met and I would definitely attribute it back to teaching. You have to find ways, and repetitive ways, in many cases, to get your content to a person. I’ve been in classes where no two people are alike, and so understanding ways to repeat the information, to say it in a different way, to break it down a different way, has really helped in that matter.
Chris: That’s awesome. I’m sure it’s that same skill set of patience and tuning into the needs of learners that also helps as a product manager with customers or potential customers. It all goes together into one package. There was a famous quote by Peter Drucker, who wrote a book called The Effective Executive, and he said that business is really just two things, marketing, and innovation. I really love that quote because when you divide up tasks around what needs to be done, or how business can grow, you really have to look at those two areas. Everything is like a sub-category under marketing or innovation. Part of what we do as teachers, like you do at Liquid Webb and also do at Lifter LMS as a product manager role, is we build a bridge between the innovation, whatever that may be.
A hardware or software, ideas, ways of being, and then marketing, the communication around all that, the selling of all that, the building of community around all that. That’s a unique skill set to build that bridge. If somebody is teaching or developing a product or developing a business, what do you think some of your super powers or pro tips are for being able to build a bridge between the customer or the learner, whatever you want to call it, and then the raw team making the innovation inside the company? How do you do it?
AJ: I always try to, one, put myself in the place of the customer. If I can understand what the customer is going through, what their mindset is, what their mental model is, what their understanding is, even their understanding level; different customers are going to have a different understanding level. When you start to build a product for even a service and you’re thinking about your customer in that way, you get a new light to think through how effective you can be as you’re implementing or featuring a product, or you’re adding something to your service. I think that for the most part, your internal team, that … Maybe your team is a team of developers, maybe they’re a sales team, maybe it’s a support team.
Whatever that group of internal people are, they’re all going to have different mindsets, and they’re going to all have different ideas about problem that a customer is experiencing. But, as product manager and that person that becomes the bridge, you really have to think of all the ways that your internal people are thinking about it and help share the story of the customer, because you end up being the customer’s voice inside the company.
Chris: It’s a really good point. It’s almost like to your internal team, you’re championing the customer, or to the customers and the outer world, you’re championing your team and your brand and what’s going on behind the scenes. In both cases, I know that involves a combination of storytelling and also education, for example, we both work in the software industry, if a prospective customer or company or whatever is coming with something to do with your software, and you’re not quite there yet, they may have to do some custom stuff to pull it together. Sometimes that involves some education about making sure you understand what they are asking for, seeing how that aligns with road map and educating about the process of how we develop, whether you work in sprint or whatever.
I don’t know, I see education popping up a lot, or coming to the teams, support team and being like, “I remember when I was first building my first WordPress website in 2007 and I didn’t know how to do anything, let’s not forget what that’s like.”
AJ: A lot of times, it’s the … From a business angle, going back to your quote from Peter Drucker, the purpose of a business, typically, is to create a customer. I think we’re both in kind of a sass, a product world, and so you have a subscription that might be yearly, might be monthly, and so your goal in your business is to create a customer. If you don’t really understand the customers that you’re going after, how do you expect to be successful with your business?
Chris: That’s a really good point. One thing I’m doing, it’s on my list to do today actually, is I’m going to redo our … Basically, I’m going to create a video, when a new customer comes, not only … We have welcome emails in onboarding but now this is for software but you could also do this for a course. You can do a video, like, “Okay, here is where you are, and here’s where everything is, here’s how to get support, here’s where most people get stuck, watch out for that,” and so on. Always focusing on improving the customer, or the learner experience. It’s never one and done, it’s a continuous evolution, right?
AJ: Absolutely.
Chris: Let’s get into hosting a little bit. A lot of people listening to this episode they’re course creators, they’re entrepreneurs, they’re teachers. The way I explain it to people is, “You have to get web hosting. It’s a computer that’s in a warehouse in the desert somewhere. Your website actually has to live on a piece of hardware.” But not all of it is created equal. The domain name points to where you can start installing stuff on it like WordPress, and plugins and things and stuff like that. Not all hosting is created equal and the certain challenges that I see a lot of people coming up with … so let me just spray it all out there and let you jam on it, is what’s the difference between a really low cost shared hosting account versus a managed WordPress hosting environment? What is staging? Why is it important?
People are either overly concerned or under concerned about backups, that’s something I see a lot. Where does plugins and WordPress stop? When should you call your web host versus get support somewhere else? These are the things that I run into in the day to day. Maybe start with helping us understand, as you grow in hosting where do you … if you started at the bottom and you have no email list, and you start, when you might you want to grow to managed hosting?
Speaker 3: I think the first point that you had asked was the difference between the shared and managed WordPress. I think the easiest analogy I’ve come across and I use this internally a lot to get other people wrapping their heads around it is, there’s all types of hosting just like there’s all types of houses. Shared hosting, in my analogy, is like the fraternity house or residents home that you might have in college, where you get a small little space to yourself and then you have to share the bathroom or the kitchen, or the door into the building and that kind of stuff. So there’s all sort of these shared resources and sometimes it can become overpopulated, and then all of a sudden your little space can’t perform well because all these other shared pieces …
If your hallway’s got a hundred in it and you’re leaving in and out, your site in that shared hosting environment is going to be slow because there’s a lot of people there. You then can go up to something like an apartment. I look at an apartment as a VPS, and VPS, for people that don’t know, is a Virtual Private server. What that does is, think of an apartment complex or an apartment building right there, there’s studio apartments, there is a single bedroom, a two bedroom, three-bedroom, four-bedroom. There’s different size units in the apartment building but that is all yours. You can now get your own bathroom, you have your own kitchen, you have your own entrance, and it’s gated off from everybody else.
Your water is water, and in some cases your heat is your heat, in some cases. That’s what a VPS is. As you grow, you can got to that. You can even grow inside that apartment building. You can go from a small little studio apartment, all the way up to a four bedroom, and that’s what a VPS is like. Then you’ve got dedicated servers out there and dedicated servers are your house, and so what do you want in your house? You want a five bedroomed house because you’ve got four kids, you want an office, you want a kitchen, you want a playroom you want a living room, a dining room, you want all these features. As you build out your house, that’s like building dedicated server. What are your needs for it? A lot of people don’t necessarily need everything that a dedicated server has.
I think that we’re, especially in the WordPress space, starting to come across Managed WordPress. Managed WordPress has been around for probably the last 6/7 years now, I’d say. I think Pagely and WP Engine go back and forth between who started it but they’ve been around for a while. They make choosing hosting easy. I don’t have to worry about the hosting infrastructure, I don’t have to worry about if I’m on a shared or a VPS or a dedicated, I don’t have to worry about that. What a managed WordPress host is really going to do is they are going to take of that for you and if they’re proactive, they are going to make sure that they’re taking care of all the infrastructure and letting you know, “Hey, you need to have this plan because we’re noticing these things on you site.”
If you’re running an LMS and you, say you’ve got a hundred courses and each course has a hundred people enrolled in a course, you have a lot of data, people accessing in the site all the time, and so your host is going to help you understand how to have, what plans you should have to really make your site shine so that your customers are happy.
Chris: I just want to add to that point that a learning management system has a lot of moving parts compared to the more traditional informational website or blog. Not only could there be all those courses and lessons and quizzes, but then there is the reporting and all the interrogations of the internal data and the data that’s being stored as users move through courses and certain behaviors and milestones attract, there’s a lot going on.
AJ: Yeah, and if your courses are pay by a course or their subscription, you’ve all the transactional data that’s also going on with being able to sign up of a course and pay for the course and all that. There’s a lot of moving parts and if we focus on just LMS and some sort of a learning management system or Ecommerce, I think the two go hand in hand. There’s a lot of moving parts to those. That’s where managed WordPress really can shine, is they can monitor all of that very easily, especially when you’re using something like WordPress, and you go to a managed WordPress host. Those hosts are going to be able to find and understand at a higher level than somebody that just does shared hosting. You’re able to really understand and really partner with your host in that sense.
You create a partnership with the host because they are providing a service to you that helps you run your business.
Chris: Absolutely, and just one more thing on that, it’s kind of like if you take the classroom and you take it online, the building and the room and everything are really important. Just because you are online you still need to have some underlying infrastructure for the magic to happen.
AJ: Yeah. It’s funny I was actually talking to a friend, it would have been last summer now, they were talking about wanting to…they do online courses, and they were like, “I think I want to get into course. I want to do a physical, in-person course. I want to give this a try. I want to see if I can … ” I remember it was my online courses,”Let’s see if we can bring this into the real world, the real life.” The best advice I gave to them was exactly that. I said, “If you’re looking for a real world place, do you want to go to the airport hotel that has a conference room, or do you want to go to somewhere nice that has Herman Miller chairs, and it’s painted and it’s got windows, and the projector, and the screen, just working and you don’t have the issue?
What experience do you want to have there?” I think that, to your point, when you have a learning management system and you take in your classroom and you’ve digitalized it, you want to make sure that the infrastructure from a building to the wall is going to hold up when you need it. It was good advice actually, she went to a beautiful location in downtown, she didn’t go to the airport hotel, and from what I heard, everybody loved it. There’s your words of advice for her hosting and buildings there.
Chris: That’s spot on. I like how you used the word technology partner because if you are going to do this stuff online you need … whether you realize it or not and if it’s really well done you almost don’t notice the technology partners there, but there are several layers of that. There’s the hosting layer, there’s the WordPress itself layer, there’s themes, there’s plugins, if you’re doing videos, you’re probably hosting on Vimeo or Wistia or something, you need this kind of technology partnership. It’s important to spend some time and choose wisely and make sure you’re getting the quality that you need.
AJ: Yeah, exactly.
Chris: Help us understand this concept of a staging environment. Why do we need one? I’m a big proponent of it but I want to hear your take on it.
AJ: Yes. It was early in life a website for a school district is probably my first full time or that first real job. That first job that you have that you’re like, “This is awesome, this is what I want to do. I want to give it my all.” Back then we didn’t have databases and content management since they were starting, and so they were very limited in what they could do. At the same time, the internet was growing rapidly and everybody had to be online. It was, “Everybody’s got to be online,” “Oh, I got to have a website.” We had static HTMO and various files. If you have production environment, that’s where your site lives, and in most cases, back then that’s what you have, that’s typically all you had, but when you wanted to do work, so you wanted to change an image or wanted to change a web page or maybe you wanted to change the layout of the site, you needed a place to build and test things out.
For a staging site, for a lot of people where it comes from, your developers, not having them in the past and making the change in,and blowing up a site that was live, or it was a place to stage things in preparation for moving everything live, so staging is important. On any given day, I have … If I’m managing sites, I still have a few that I manage from my freelance days, I always have a staging site. I always do something there first to know, is it going to wreck the production site, especially mission … anytime you have learning management system or and Ecommerce system running your site, those are mission critical. If your site goes down for whatever reason, that’s dollars out the window that you’re losing while it takes to get that site back up.
You always want make sure that you have some sort of an environment that you can test whatever you’re about to do, maybe it’s your changing the theme, or you want to add a new plugin, you want to have an environment that’s very close to your production environment so you can test it out. Most managed WordPress hosts now will give you a staging environment just for that reason. Where you can go and test the things out that you want, and when you’re ready to go, you just do it on the live site.
Chris: Couldn’t have said better myself. The analogy that just popped into my head while you were talking comes from the automotive industry. I’m pretty glad that they stage or test certain things with the crash test dummies, before, like you said, your revenue or your actual live site life of it is on the line, let’s just due diligence and do some testing before we deploy this new fibre glass bumper to all our car lots around the country.
AJ: Exactly. It’s important to test the idea. I forget where I was reading, but somebody had actually not had staging environment, made a change and they were losing thousands of dollars an hour because there’s change and top of that change, they didn’t know what the change was. It was, one, because they didn’t have a staging environment, two, they didn’t have common software development practices in place. Using some sort of a version control, so when you do make the change, if that change went out with five others and something borked your live site, you’re having that version control also helped. Unfortunately, this company didn’t have that, and they were losing thousands of dollars an hour because they didn’t have the basic, kind of common practices in places.
Chris: Things will go wrong eventually. Something goes wrong or something gets hacked or whatever. Then there is the concept of backups, which you guys have at Liquid Web. How did backups work at Liquid Web?
AJ: Every night we did do a full site backup. The next that we do is we actually tell you how many posts, how many comments, how many pages, some of the basic level WordPress content changed between each backup, so if you do need to restore from the backup, you know roughly about how much pieces of content you’re going to lose. One thing I’ve actually stopped doing recently is I don’t write drafts in WordPress. On my own blog, I only put post in WordPress when I’m ready publish it or schedule it because that way I’m not losing that random data. I’ve had data corruption issues or you have to for whatever reason revert to a backup. If you have all your drafts up there, you might lose those. We wanted to make sure that we showed you how many posts and pieces of content have changed between …
Chris: That’s awesome. There’s really two ways if you’re in that situation, where you need to restore backup for most people and that’s caller developer, or some hosting environments have an interface for the nontechnical person to restore backups. Is that what you guys have?
AJ: Exactly. We have a list of backups that are all stored off-site, off of the infrastructure that actually runs your site, and then we allow you to just click restore and you the restore button and it brings that back up live.
Chris: That’s awesome. Those proactive measures are a really important part of picking a technology partner, so those are important to consider because it’s not just, what if it goes great and you sell of courses or get a bunch of students but what are you going to do if something goes wrong? Since plugins and WordPress itself and Themes and everything are always updating. What else is unique about Liquid Web? I know you guys have a iThemes sync system, what does that do?
Speaker 3: We recently integrated with iThemes sync. What iThemes sync pro does is it gives you a portal to all of your WordPress sites. You instal a plugin, you hook up the plugin to your sync account then sync can see your five sites that you host, or your ten sites that you have hosted. What it allows to do, is it actually allows you to install and update plugins across the board, so you don’t have to go into individual sites, update stuff, you can actually just go into this portal, you can see, “All these plugins and all these sites need to be updated. I’m going to click through, click update and it’ll update them all.” It does the same thing for Themes. You need to install a plugin, maybe you’re making a switch for Gravity forms to Ninja forms, you’re switching forum plugins, and so you want to install it on all your sites.
You can quickly just upload the zip file to sync and then say, “Install on these five sites,” and it’ll install. That’s probably the biggest most used feature I would imagine if I went and asked Cory or Matt that’s what they would say. But they’ve continually added extra features, so from a freelancer perspective, you can go in and you can hook up Google Analytics so that you can see a very high-level overview of what pages are being accessed, what your business account for a time period. They’ve just integrated with the search council, Google Search Council, so you can actually see what people are searching for and come through that way. There’s an integration with Yoast SEO, I think there’s some integration with Gravity forms so that you can see the form entries right inside there.
You can add users to a WordPress site so you’re not having to go into each individual site to add users. The idea is central management of all of your WordPress sites. We’ve integrated with them to provide a lot of that feature set to our managed WordPress customers.
Chris: That’s awesome. Can you purchase domain name through you?
AJ: Right now you can purchase domains through us. We are domain registered. We’re in the process of actually making that easier from a managed WordPress product to be able to purchase those domains.
Chris: I just want to really … We can end it on that note of finding a technology partner because when you take all the stuff that can be a little intimidating especially to someone who’s not in the industry, that’s spread out in all these different places and you bring it under one roof, since you know somebody like AJ in the team at Liquid Web or back there really focused on improving that customer experience that we talked about, or the learning person the technology partner, the domain name, the staging, the backups, WordPress is already installed. I see you guys have the SSL taken care of, which if you’re trying to sell your courses with stripe, you’re going to need to have a SSL. Then you have that one company that you can call for support and you have a product that limits the moving part of, “Okay, my domain name’s over here.
My SSL company is over here. I need to go get WordPress over here,” these things are taken care off and anticipated in advance. I’d encourage everybody to check out liquidweb.com/wordpress and you can see more info about Liquid Web, and what AJ and the people with him have been up to. I guess to close it out, AJ, where do you see the future of Liquid Web heading? Where is it going as a hosting company?
AJ: As a hosting company, I think we’re quickly finding where our niche is. It’s definitely not me Shared hosting small area, I think what you’re going to find from Liquid Web is, we care and we want to work and partner with the people that host mission critical sites. It’s mission critical sites, in a sense that it’s your business. If your site goes down, you’re losing money, if you’re having to work with, constantly give us a call because there’s issues, that’s not what you want, that’s not a partner anymore. A partner is somebody that’s going to come alongside your business that’s going to help you grow and grow with you. As you business grows, as you make more money, that’s success and that’s a win. I think you’re going to see Liquid Web pull features that really become partner ask features.
How do we further become a partner with you to help you be successful?
Chris: That’s awesome. Just to highlight that point you made. There’s a really big difference between a website that’s a sign or informational thing for a business, whereas when your website is business, it’s really important. You really need to focus on the technology pieces there. Aj, I really want to thank you for coming on the show and chatting about your story and helping educate everybody on hosting and some of the things to consider in this world of the LMS and finding technology partners. If somebody wants to connect with you personally, is there anywhere they can go to find you?
AJ: Twitter, I’m on @ajmorris, ajmorris.me is my blog. It’s coming back from CaboPress, where we were both at last fall, I have started to try to blog a little bit more. I’m committing to publishing more content there and of course, you’ll find me WordCam, another WordPress conferences throughout the year.

EPISODE 129

Course Marketplaces Versus Self Hosted LMS with Serial Course Entrepreneur John Shea

Chris Badgett of LifterLMS discusses course marketplaces versus self hosted LMS with serial course entrepreneur John Shea in this episode of LMScast. They talk about the pros and cons of using a hosted space for your course versus hosting on your own platform like LifterLMS. They also discuss how to optimize the money you make from your course.

John shares his origin story as to how he got started in the course building space. He tells about his experience finding content and building up his course on Udemy. John then started working with Skillshare. To date he has created around 90 courses. Now John is starting to sell through his website using the self hosted LMS style.

There are pros and cons to publishing your courses via course marketplace. But there are also pros and cons to self hosting your courses.

Chris and John discuss how when going with a marketplace, most of the marketing is done for you. Also when you go through a marketplace your course tends to be more towards the passive end of the spectrum, so it requires less work from you later on. They discuss the cons of using a marketplace, such as having a set price point for your course.

On the other hand, creating and hosting your course yourself can have many benefits. Some that they discuss include: having the ability to control the functionality, design, and price of your course.

Chris and John toss around the idea of negative feedback and how they go about dealing with it. John also shares how he has built up relationships with people by providing a free course and then going on consulting calls with them and giving them advice.

John shares a bit about his method of course creation and some of the feedback he has received. He talks about how he becomes motivated to teach a course and his experience in a learning environment. Chris also shares one of his stories of creating a cooking course.

They talk about how to make the most money you can from your course. Chris and John discuss how you can make money with your course even if the course is free. One of these strategies is using affiliate links. John has used them in some of his courses, and he shares how that has brought him a significant increase in course revenue.

You can learn more about John Shea on his blog at NoShameIncome.com or by searching his name on Udemy.com and Skillshare.com.

You can post comments and subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast. Thank you for joining us.

Chris: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett. Today we have a special guest, John Shea, from No Shame Income. How you doing John?

John: I’m doing awesome. How you doing?

Chris: Good. John has been around the block for a while with online courses and hosted platforms and figuring out how to make money with online courses, how to build an email list with online courses, how to market online courses. I first came across John somewhere in the Udemy universe or in the Lifter universe. I could tell after talking with him that he’s just been involved for a while, so he has a lot of insights to share with you all today.

We’re going to kind of get into a little bit of the differences between a hosted place to put your course or a course marketplace versus doing your own platform like you can do with LifterLMS or other tools. Really engage in the conversation not from a one side is better than the other, but really just get into the pros and cons of either. Both of us, we do courses in both ways and depending upon where you’re at in your business or what’s going on, it makes sense to post the course in either place or both places. There’s some nuances to it all. We’re also going to get into some other interesting ways to monetize a free course. But first, John, thank you for coming on the show.

John: Yeah, no problem. Thanks for having me.

Chris: Take us back to your origin story in terms of how did you get into online courses. What year was it, and what was your first course? How did you foray into the world of all this?

John: I guess I’ll kind of give like the short version of my story. I have a really long one if you go to my website, it’s like a book. I basically got started with online marketing about six years ago. Initially it was kind of dabbling around that first year. I started sort of blogging, learning from different people, trying to figure this stuff out. Eventually I started my own podcast.
I did a lot of interviews where I’d go out and interview people, same thing we’re doing now. Did about, I don’t know, maybe 80 of those. I got to interview a lot of people I was really looking up to, so I built a lot of relationships that way. The reason I kind of started that in the first place was I was interested in so many different topics and I felt like that was a way to kind of like harness that energy or the shiny object syndrome as people might call it. They’re always interested in so many things, they’re being …
I just got an email today about how some guy is making two million dollars with Shopify stores. Then it’s like, oh man that sounds cool. Just one thing after another sort of coming at you. I felt like with the interviews I could be interested in what everybody’s doing, but at the same time kind of harness that into one thing. I did that for a long time and eventually formed a little SEO service with somebody that I’d interviewed through the relationship we had and got really interesting in SEO.
Basically what it kind of came down to was I was going out and I remember I actually had been following a guy who was doing similar stuff with interviews, this guy Mike Thomas. He runs an interview show called Mike From Maine. He does a lot of product creation interviews, so people that create internet marketing based products, could be software or whatever it was.
He interviewed this one guy by the name of Vinnie. Vinnie had put out a product that I really liked. But the presentation of it was really terrible. It just wasn’t very good at all. It was on this old HTML website, didn’t look very good. The product itself was great, but I remember the delivery of it was like these zip files with text files telling you to go to other places and open these other files. The images and everything was just such a mess.
I approached this guy Vinnie and I said, “Man this method’s really cool but why don’t we take this and go put it on our own site?” At the time, I still was really … I knew what Udemy was. I’d heard of it but I had never really done anything with it. Initially we spent weeks. I probably must have spent a good 40-50 hours at the time using WishList Member, which was one of the, in my opinion, probably one of the first to really do the self-hosted sort of membership. I really learned how to use WishList Member. That was a huge learning curve.
We went out and tried to relaunch the product, it’s like version 2.0. Neither of us really had any real big relationships. My email list was super small, it wasn’t very targeted. What ended up happening was it just kind of bombed. It was a learning experience. I said to Vinnie, I said, “Why don’t we just take the course and take the exact same thing I just helped you structure and I’ll put it on Udemy.”
With Udemy you can actually split the revenue with someone pretty passively. Their system was designed for it. We set it up with a 50/50 split and I think to date … The course hasn’t made anything crazy, I think it’s like $400 or $500. Me and him kind of split ways and that course still will get sales here and there passively through Udemy’s marketing. For a while I just kind of let it make sales.
I eventually made a little podcasting course and I just kind of threw up some interviews I had already done in the past. Made a little bit more money. It was like $50, $60, maybe $100 a month. Then November, I believe it was 2014, I was literally sitting at my job one day and I had this idea come up in my head. I’d been really working hard on building out what’s called an Amazon affiliate site, where you sell products on your own website and redirect the visitors to Amazon to make that a final purchase and you earn a little commission, like a 4% or 5% commission.
I had been doing that and I had this full built-out site. I had started having some success with it and I said, “Man, I could turn this into a super awesome course.” I actually wrote up, while I was at my job I remember. I would slack off a lot at work. I sat there for three hours I remember, and I wrote up the entire syllabus. It’s like a six week syllabus.
That same weekend, that coming weekend, I just cranked for an entire Sunday and put all these videos out there. Got everything up on YouTube the following couple days. Got it approved. The following month was November or I think I did it right before the Black Friday stuff really came in at the end of the month. I made I think it was over $800 on Udemy. I was like, oh my God. There’s really something here. This is solid.
That was kind of what took it off for me. What I eventually just started doing was anything that I learned, even the simplest smallest things, if I could turn it into a short course, something that I could teach someone else, then I just started publishing courses on Udemy. When Skillshare came about about a year and a half ago I think it was, I was able to transition a lot of my courses over there and immediately was making around $200 a month. That just kind of grew from there.
I now have, I think it will be almost 32 or 33 courses on Udemy, combined free and paid. I’ve got about almost 40,000 students on Udemy now. It’s obviously been about three years, a little over three years. Then on top of that, I now have over 90 courses on Skillshare and most of those are very short. That’s kind of what they look for, the 15 minute to 30 minute courses. They’re not really as picky about their review process so you can kind of throw whatever up there, so long as it’s not like you’re actually teaching something.
A lot of the stuff I put on Skillshare would be like a brief tutorial or here are three awesome tools that help you do SEO or something like that. A lot of the courses are really simple. I’ve been combining my efforts between Udemy and Skillshare.
Now I’m actually really moving into trying to sell on my own website, which I know you wanted to talk about. That’s obviously what you can do with tools like Lifter, LMS, and many, many other tools that are out there available today. I’ve been starting to dabble into that and really start to get people coming in through my own blog and my own website and my own marketing efforts, so I’m not relying on these marketplaces so much these days.
Chris: That’s awesome. That’s quite the journey and quite the story. I’m curious, before we get into kind of weighing the pro’s and con’s to the different ways to host your course and deliver the course, where does that come from in you? The desire to teach? I definitely see this in prolific online course creators. You haven’t made one course, you’ve made like 90 or whatever it is.
John: Yeah.
Chris: Where do you think it comes from or do you not … Is it just hard to explain?
John: It is kind of hard to explain. It’s like I never really thought of it as something like hey I just really want to do this. It was kind of like, I’ve had little things happen here and there along my internet journey where something might happen that just sort of triggers you.
I have another example where one of the very first clients I got doing SEO marketing, bringing on a local business to help them with their marketing, was an Insurance client. At the time, I went kind of nuts and I started like branding around Insurance and trying to go after Insurance Companies and I made that a thing. Never really took off, but it was like that one trigger just sort of explodes things. That’s kind of what’s happened with the courses. I’ve been able to be pretty consistent with it over the years and meet a lot of really cool people that are doing really well in both Udemy and selling their own courses.
I think a part of it too could be, and I never even really thought about it much growing up, but my father was a high school teacher for I think almost 30 years. Basically that was his life. As far as I can remember, he was always teaching. I would go down and actually watch his students and stuff when I was younger or even older at some points go down to his classroom. He taught History for seventh or eighth graders I think it was. That was like the rough age range. That could be somewhat part of it.
I know one of the things I’ve only recently noticed is I’ve been recording my videos standing now. I kind of set up this, you can see there’s like a green screen sort of setup behind me here. I don’t have the green screen up, but the stand. I’ve got some lights. I talk with my hands and …
Chris: I know.
John: That’s something my father does when he talks. I don’t know. I think some of that I probably picked up from him would be my guess.
Chris: Yeah. Sometimes we can’t escape our genetic destiny.
John: Although I am adopted, so you never know. But I think it’s just being around him, maybe that did it. I get really excited just being able to talk about stuff. I’ve gotten a lot more confident being on camera, things like that. Jumping into these interviews. I know some people are like deathly afraid to even get on video, you know, so it just takes time.
Chris: I used to be that way too. It all just, it just gets better with time. I think one thing for me making courses is when you see results, like you said, whoa I made $800 by doing X. Even just your first course. When you see someone you don’t know buy it, that just doesn’t even get old whenever it happens.
John: Yep.
Chris: It’s a big motivator and something that encourages me to keep going, when those sales happen independent from my hourly work or whatever. Let’s talk about Udemy a little bit. I’ve been there for, I don’t know, I think three years. I have some free courses. My free WordPress website and the weekend course has around 10,000 people in it. I put it there originally to get leads for my web design business, but also just because I was having fun making online courses.
John: Awesome.
Chris: I started doing gardening courses with experts around the world and with my wife. We built our own platform, but we also published on Udemy, so we get the best of both worlds. We have some gardening courses on Udemy, which Udemy brings the traffic or they come to our site and bring the traffic. Then we just double the places where I’m listing it or whatever. That’s kind of my approach.
How do you approach Udemy? What do you see as some of the biggest benefits? For me, I just say I think it’s … I already have an audience, so that’s a big Pro. The biggest Con is you give up some control and sometimes it can be hard to stand out. I know you can go into a lot more detail about it. What do you like about Udemy?
John: I’d say some of the things I do like are platform’s easy to use. There have been obviously ups and downs. I’m sure, if you haven’t talked about it already with your audience, there was some big price drops back last year so that was kind of disheartening. Some people just left the platform. Even some of the biggest people that I know of got up and basically walked away.
I guess the biggest thing was that, for me, it was always that I really loved creating content and I didn’t really want to worry about marketing it. That was something Udemy was doing for me. Unfortunately, in some ways, I feel like it sort of brought it to a level that I would have not wanted it to be. In the sense that they’re discounting something that easily could be worth hundreds of dollars, where they’re selling it for like $10 or $15.
The kinds of people that come in and buy something like this … If I go in and buy a course for $10 and I don’t watch it, I don’t really feel very guilty about it. I don’t really push myself that hard to really go through it and actually consume it and take action on it either. But if I spend $1000 or $500, then I’m like man I have to do this and I’m going to follow it. I put a different precedence on something when it’s seen as valued that way and I think a lot of other people are going to do the exact same thing.
That’s probably like a disadvantage. But at the same time I’ve seen people, you may or may not know him, but there’s a guy by the name of Jerry Banfield. He used to be really top instructor on Udemy. He got banned for doing some stuff he wasn’t supposed to with joint ventures on Udemy. He had a ton of courses. He was just making such a flurry of sales every month that even with those high discounts, because of the pure volume of people buying, he could still make $10,000 or $20,000 a month.
It’s kind of all in perspective I suppose. I know that he was doing extremely well and he still does really well with his own website. I’ve had other people come to me and say, “Well going on Udemy isn’t really smart because they control that pricing and then they diminish the value.” But at the same time, you look at someone like Jerry and look at how many sales, just the pure volume of people he’s got coming in and buying.
I still get messages all the time from people who I can tell they bought for $15 and they’re messaging me telling me how much they love the course. They’re like wow this is amazing and really helpful stuff. I guess I’ve kind of had a little bit of a two-way street with it.
I think the biggest advantage that I’ve gotten out of Udemy, in all honesty, is that not only posting on Udemy has allowed me to build some passive income there, but I’ve had a lot of people come to me. Other providers or marketplaces, whether or not how successful they are, some are obviously like garbage. Some will come to me.
I had a guy by the name of, jeez I can’t remember … His last name is Clark. Matt Clark I believe it is, who runs Amazing.com. He formerly was selling really high-end Amazon training. This was like $3000 or $4000 training on how to get started on Amazon selling. They formed this marketplace similar to Skillshare where you come in and it’s like $40 a month.
They let me publish four courses. There’s only like 180 courses on the whole platform. It’s almost exclusive and they’ve not really opened the doors to any new courses. I’ve been consistently making another $400 or $500 a month from them with existing courses that I’ve had on Udemy for a very long time.
Matt found my Amazon course, the one I mentioned earlier in my story, the $800 one that initially got me that $800. He found me on Udemy, saw that I was teaching a lot of people, and then reached out to me personally to come teach on Amazing. Obviously that’s paid off quite well. It’s been many months now, so I’ve made thousands of dollars off of stuff that I don’t really have to do any extra marketing. I just give them the content and they’re making me extra sales and extra money.
I also had a friend who was teaching on Udemy and he made a referral for me. He introduced another company called StackCommerce. They run a series of sites. I’m sure you know who they are. I think they’re … I forget all the entity names, but there’s like StackSkills. StackCommerce is the main one and then they’ve got a couple others.
What they did is they took a bundle of seven of my courses and they priced it really low, like technically lower than Udemy. It was like $19 I think it was. They would take 50% of the sales and they must have blasted this to God knows how many people that first month. It made over $10,000 in sales the first month. I made over $5000 the first month they put it out there.
Took some time to get it out there, but it kind of goes to show those small sales could really add up. If you get that many people buying this bundle that’s absolutely amazing for $19, and I’m making $9, $10 off each sale, that adds up really fast if you’re getting just pure volume. Whereas if I’d said okay, all these courses you’re going to spend $500 to get one of them, sure I could make $10,000 off a webinar but it’s probably going to be a little more challenging in a way.
That one’s kind of dialed down a little bit. They’re still sitting out there with the promotion, but it makes me another $400 or $500 a month. That one’s another one that’s just sort of just passively earning me. I’ve got another $1000 here, between just those two platforms, coming in every month without me doing anything.
Chris: That’s awesome.
John: Those would be probably some of the biggest advantages I would say. Obviously in some ways this isn’t going to be an opportunity everyone could have. It took a long time in building an audience and building courses people were interested in and really had people that would be really intrigued to pick them up and buy them.
It’s definitely opened doors and people will reach out to you. Obviously people watching your courses, the pure amount of people, they could end up coming to your website. Like you said, joining your email list and maybe buying other products from you, whatever the case. There’s just a lot of other opportunities there that some higher level course folks might overlook when trying to sell stuff for that $300 to $500 plus price tag.
Chris: That makes a lot of sense. I want to kind of unpack some insights out of there. But before I do that, I just wanted to, for the listener if they’re not aware, correct me if I’m wrong but Udemy recent … The price thing they did recently was they forced all the users to reprice their courses to be between like $20 and $50. Is that correct?
John: Yeah. The courses had to be between that price point. I think the reasoning was that they realized over 90% of the courses being sold were being sold at that price point. But I think what happens is it’s kind of a perception thing. You see a course that has 2000 people in it, which obviously everybody knows if they’re anybody … I mean not everyone’s going to know, obviously some buyers won’t know, but from a perception standpoint that looks like a popular course.
Then you see a $200 price tag and you see wow I can get it for $15, like 90% plus discount, that’s an amazing deal I’m going to get it. But when they diminish these prices, what happened was nobody was buying. All of my sales went from … I think I was making … I think it was right before March, I made almost $2000 in March from Udemy without any of my own marketing. It was purely their stuff. Then it went down to something like $700.
It literally cut my income in more than half. It stayed like that and then they changed the pricing again. They didn’t open it up quite as wide. Before you could price your courses at $500. Now they made it so you still have to price them between a bracket, it has to be between I think $20 and $200.
I actually used to have a course priced at $15 because I knew it wasn’t … It was just something I was just like whatever, it’s not really super in depth. I can’t even price it at that, has to be at least $20. That way they can run their promotions and sell it for $10 if they want or $15 and make some money off their own promotions. That’s definitely kind of come back up.
I’m having a pretty solid month this month. I’m getting close to I think, and being it’s a little bit more than halfway through the month, it’s the 20th, I made just about $1500 this month without any outside promotion. It’s definitely picking up again. It’s just a matter of how it’s going to be the remainder of the year. I don’t know if it’ll slow down again and fall out.
November and January I’d say overall have been historically for me the best months. November due to the Black Friday sales and then January for some reason I think they just run some New Years stuff. December I’ve historically, this past one I had a really good one, but the prior two years it was really terrible. It’s been kind of on and off.
But again, I’m not putting … I’m putting more time in the actual course creation than I am the marketing. Which in a lot of ways is probably not the smartest. I probably should be spending more time on the marketing. I guess the reason I’ve always just relied on it was I couldn’t figure out how to do it on my own. If I throw it out there on my own site, getting people to that is a whole other ballgame really.
Chris: Yeah. Doing it on your own, I mean yes now you have full control over the price, the design, you can add other functionality to your site and other things. That’s the big trade off. If you build it they will not necessarily come.
John: Yeah.
Chris: Udemy gives you that kind of shortcut. That’s why they call it a marketplace. Just to be clear with everybody listening, there’s really kind of three options out there. One is the course marketplace, like Udemy. There’s other ones like Teachable out there that are hosted where you set up your course, but you don’t really own the site. You’re just paying for access to this platform to deliver your course from. But it’s not a marketplace where you’re surrounded by other courses and other teachers and everything. Then you can do your own from your own website. There’s really like three options out there.
But I want to dial it back to something earlier you were talking about John, which was where you published on Udemy and then Amazing.com contacted you. The same thing’s happened to me where there’s all these other Udemy type places that contact me about my courses and I’ve experimented with putting stuff on these different platforms.
But I think the big takeaway there, for the listener out there, is that it’s really important not to start with the technology. Make your course. Don’t even think about Udemy or are you going to host it yourself or Teachable or whatever. Start by making your course.
I see a lot of people get bogged down on technology before they’ve made a single lesson. John, you’re obviously a prolific course creator. I know one of your niches is you like teaching people how to use various tools and things on the web, so it’s not hard for you to create a course.
John: No.
Chris: You probably even enjoy doing it. You like the challenge.
John: Yeah. In some ways … I had someone leave a review the other day and they could tell in some ways I’ve gotten, I don’t want to call it completely lazy, but I definitely just kind of wing it. I’ve never really had the amount of criticism I would receive and, opposed to people that say really positive things, is very minimal.
Some people don’t realize how much time you really put into this stuff. But I try to make it as simple as possible. I just really try to convey good information. People have to naturally understand like if I’m going to cough in the video or I say um a few times, that’s not worth it to me to go back and edit all the stuff out. It just takes too much time where I could be creating more stuff and teaching something else when really it’s such a minute thing.
If it’s really serious, like I made a total goof, then obviously I find myself redoing something. I’ve had that happen plenty of times. Even still today it still happens. But overall, I do my editing … When I do my screen shares, I almost never rerecord them.
I just mentioned the beginning of this, we did the LifterLMS course and I’ll mention that a little bit later. But I just did a course covering LifterLMS and in one of the videos I was going through one of the settings and my internet actually went down in the video. It wasn’t coming up and I thought maybe it was something in the plugin. I said, “Oh that’s strange” and just kind of acted whatever. Then I just ended the video. I didn’t edit it out. I was like no, whatever, it’s not a big deal. Then I just continued the series.
Some people might look at that as well he was unprepared or he’s having errors as he’s trying to show stuff. But I just don’t really make a big deal about it and most people they’re not really going to care. I still got across what I generally wanted to get across and the information is still good. That’s just kind of how I roll with a lot of it.
One thing I will say that I made a huge mistake on and I finally have rectified the problem I think as of today. When I first got started, I had my office set up. I’m in just a little tiny blue room. It’s a really small room. Originally when I was recording, I would sit in my chair here and just record with the webcam, just like this. I would wear, in some cases I had band T-shirts on or just a plain shirt like this.
I had people on Udemy actually message me and say, “You know, I didn’t buy your course because you didn’t look very professional in your video.” In my promotional video or whatever. When Amazing.com actually brought me on, they told me … They accepted my courses for what they were, but they told me for any new stuff they wanted me to be dressed really professionally and have this whole set up.
Of course I went out and I bought, I’ve actually got two lights in front of me. None of them are on right now. There’s the light above me and then I’ve got these other light sets behind me that are kind of mobile. They’re not plugged in, they use battery. That was like $130. These two were another $60 I think. Then I’ve got this green screen kit which was another $60. I probably spent at least 15 hours trying to get this thing working. I went out and I bought a sport jacket, nice new shirt. Here you can see my hair is done. I’m not just like kind of a shaggy mess.
I did all this stuff and then I redid a bunch of videos, sent them to them. I found out that the quality when you zoom in, I couldn’t get the green screen settings just quite right, it was coming out like I’d be blurry. So they’re criticizing me over that. I moved my entire desk setup again. I’m just going to use my wall.
Today in the mail I just got this little really high end point and shoot Canon G7X. It’s got a flip up, for those of you listening on the podcast, it’s got a flip up screen so I can record myself. A lot of popular YouTube Vlogger guys will use it so they’re looking at the camera and they can talk. I made a video with this just today. I just got it in the mail today. This is like vastly better than the webcam. I’ve been struggling a lot with just getting the overall quality to come up.
I think that is really important. If you’re starting out, make sure you’re dressed really nice. You don’t have to go crazy investing in all this stuff, but don’t have … That first course I made on Amazon, I was recording it with a band hoodie on and my hair was a mess and I had a cat tree behind me and my cat was playing around. It just didn’t look very professional. Here I am teaching and … I never received any bad compliments about it, but it definitely gives off more of a perception to people.
Chris: That’s a really good point. I’ve kind of been through a similar journey. It’s funny you mentioned the cat. In my very first course on Udemy, I challenged myself to make a course in a weekend and I recorded it in a day. I actually did a cooking course. It’s on Udemy. It’s called The Poet Omelet Method. It’s perfect omelets every time. I was just more doing it because I like cooking omelets, but mostly because I wanted to figure out this whole online courses Udemy thing.
I was actually house sitting for somebody. The kitchen I’m using in the course isn’t even where I live. It was a friend’s house. Probably they don’t even know their house is on the internet. Their cat was walking back and forth in front of the camera, but I just rolled with it. But over time, I sound really far away because I wasn’t using a mic. But now you can see, if you’re watching this, I have a professional mic.
John: I’m using the same microphone by the way.
Chris: Okay. This is the ATR, what is it called?
John: The Audio-Technica ATR 2100 I think it is.
Chris: 2100. Yeah this thing’s really awesome. USB mic.
John: Yeah.
Chris: The sound, definitely a game changer in terms of sound. Also just to what you were talking about. I think there’s kind of a spectrum of online course creators. You’re really far on that end of like I’m a serial creator. If I make a mistake, kind of move on. I’m kind of the same way. I’m more like that.
But there are some people who all they’re ever going to have is they’re going to have one course and over time it’s just going to get better and better. They’re going to keep polishing it. They’re going to burn it down. They’re going to rebuild it again. You know, you’ve just got to figure out where you are. There’s nothing wrong with being a serial course creator and there’s nothing wrong with being hyper focused on one specific problem or one method that you teach over and over and over again. That’s really cool.
Let’s get into the free course on a marketplace situation. Like I mentioned before, I’ve done it to just build, for practice. I’ve done free courses for practice to build the email list. If I have, like the gardening project I mentioned, I put courses on Udemy just for different, letting other people’s marketing, like the Udemy Company, bring in traffic and convert it.
Yeah sometimes they package my courses inside of their sales and everything and it really drives the price down, but I don’t really care because those are customers who may never had found me over at my website. What do you do with your free courses?
John: I could lay out … I just thought of all the ways that it’s benefited me. I could give you four different ways and some of you guys probably listening would have never even thought of this stuff. The first would be, I’ll give you the simple common sense stuff. The first is that you’re going get a whole bunch of new students, especially on Udemy, if you make it free. A lot of people are just natively going to find that.
The one disadvantage about that with the free stuff, is that if you make it free and people leave bad reviews and you get an average of under 4.0, then they will hide it from the search engine now. Which is something unfortunately I have had happen with a couple courses. Because some people come in and just leave like these one or two star reviews and they don’t write anything. I have no idea, I can’t even try to really rectify the problem, and they of course hide it from Udemy search.
You can then make it a paid course, but obviously if I made it free it’s usually not something I felt like I wanted to charge for in the first place. I have done that with a couple courses. They will make a few sales here and there but it’s pretty nominal. Ultimately that first one will be you get a little bit more of an audience.
The second thing would be you can set up what’s called a bonus module inside of the Udemy course. What you can do with that bonus module is specifically send people to your website or a blog post, something that’s more useful. Obviously you can’t be really spamy in the way you do it.
What I did was I made a bonus video on all of my courses that basically invites people to come check out a free video series. The video series shows them how I made my first $1000 by freelancing on a platform called Upwork. That’s really intriguing. Someone watches my course and then they’re like oh wow, that sounds really cool.
They head over to the site and that video course is actually an Evergreen system. We could maybe get into this later if we have time, but it’s an Evergreen system to sell them one of my courses for $200. It brings them to a webinar that’s all automated and everything’s all set up and ready to go. That’s one piece I have going there with the bonus video. Of course you can do anything you want there. You could send them to a blog post or something of value, but ultimately you probably want to get them on a mailing list.
Then the third would be you could set up affiliate links inside your course. You have to be careful about this. Again that bonus section could technically be that. Maybe you throw in a bonus video or you talk about a product. One thing that I’ve sort of been doing, I’ll give an example, was I just made a course about LifterLMS and you guys have an affiliate program through ShareASale.
I’ll get the course approved on Udemy and then I’ll go back and maybe throw an affiliate link inside the course. You can add an add link reference to a video. I’ll probably throw that in on a couple of the videos, maybe introduction or the conclusion or any video where I mention it. That’s a good way that you’re going to potentially drive some sales.
I’ve made about $800 from a product called Thrive Themes by just including affiliate links across a lot of those courses. I have one where I talk about landing page builders and I compare a ton of them. Then I kind of break it down at the end and say Thrive Themes is one of my favorites and this is why I recommend it. It’s almost like I’m doing an extensive product review inside of the course. Then at the end of that they can go and pick up the product through me and I’ll make a nice commission. So I made about $800 doing that.
Then the last one, which this is probably the most unique one and you guys probably would have never thought of this one. People love this. I just taught this on a webinar. I’ll just kind of break it down really simple. I made a free course on how to set up a Google My Business page, which is something that’s extremely easy to do. Anybody could go and actually go through that and understand how to do it. It’s really common sense kind of stuff. But there’s a few little tweaks you can do, like maybe doing some stuff with photos. I threw in some bonus tips on how to get more reviews for a business owner.
What I’ve actually been doing is, one of my big courses and one of the things I’ve spent a lot of time on over the last few years is SEO and helping local businesses. I actually made this free course and I put it on Skillshare is free. What I do is when I send out my proposals, on a platform called Upwork, what will happen is I’ll send them a link to the free Skillshare course.
I’ll say, “Hey I put together this free course. Check out what I’ve done.” They’re basically watching this video of me where I’m teaching them how to set up Google My Business. It’s like I’m building trust with them. They’re not really talking to me on the phone, they’re watching me on the screen and on the video, and they’ll come back and say, “Wow that was really helpful.” Now they feel a lot more confident in feeling like they can hire me.
It’s built a little bit of a relationship already. I’ve closed a whole ton of either consulting calls, where I’m just basically people drilling me for advice. I had a guy pay me $50 for an hour once. I have another client that I convinced through it that I’ve been working with now for, it’s probably going on like seven, eight months. I’ve probably made, it’s got to be close to $5000 from this one client now. I have them up to $850 a month now on a contract. I initially landed that contract because I sent them that free Google My Business course. He realized wow this guy knows what he’s doing.
That’s really a unique way that you could utilize a free course. I would say one other way too I thought of is maybe you have a topic that is really big. Let’s say I wanted to teach someone how to start an SEO consulting business. That’s actually one of my courses. It’s really long, it’s like ten hours. Maybe I could make another course where I show them one way to go out there and get clients. In exchange the idea would be maybe throw that out there as a free course that drives some interest.
You could kind of consider it a mini-course, maybe it’s 30 minutes, shows them one specific method and fixes that one pain. You could then bring them into your bigger solution which then solves all the pains. Kind of a well-rounded solution to everything else. You could use that as a way to get people just generally interested in the topic and interested in learning more. Like wow this stuff is free and it’s really good, imagine what his paid stuff is. That kind of mentality.
That would probably be the biggest advantages I would say with free courses. I know a lot of people they look at it … I’ve talked to some other Skillshare instructors. I know one who’s done over 100 courses on Skillshare and he’s like, “I’ve never done a free course.” Those are some ways that I’ve been utilizing them as of recently.
Chris: That’s awesome. Well John is like a cornucopia of experience and wisdom here. Go check him out at NoShameIncome.com. I wanted to ask you a few more questions John. In terms of creating courses around other products, I find it really fascinating because it appears to be that oftentimes the best teacher about a software tool or some kind of marketing method or sales method or even outside of business, health method or whatever, it’s like a different person than the person who created the original product. I guess a different company. You mentioned the Thrive Themes and the Thrive Builder and all that stuff.
John: Yeah.
Chris: Just made a course for LifterLMS, which is awesome and we really appreciate that. Where do you think that comes from? Why don’t companies themselves make the best training? It just seems to be a trend. If you look for, I don’t know if you use ScreenFlow. I’m a Mac guy, maybe you …
John: I use Camtasia, so same thing.
Chris: The people who teach ScreenFlow don’t work at ScreenFlow. The people that teach how to use Scrivener for writing a book, the best courses are taught by individuals who built their own businesses around education, around software. Why do you think that happens?
John: I don’t know. It is interesting to look at it that way. It’s one of those things too, and sometimes I have to realize it. Someone was just watching a video series or a webinar I put together and of course they’re completely kind of cold coming into this and they gave me some really critical feedback that they felt like it wasn’t that valuable. But for someone that maybe was like really interested in kind of what …
I coined this from, this is something Scott Oldford, he does a lot of Lead Gen type stuff. He calls it the slow lane, the fast lane. Then I think he’s got another one, kind of like a path of where someone is whether or not their interest is. When you kind of think about when we were doing some teaching, I may be at a different level where someone else is. But if you’re already kind of involved in something, it might be a little harder to step back and think, man where was I five years ago when I didn’t know any of this stuff.
Sometimes it can be a little hard to differentiate the difference when you already are so involved and already know something about this. But I don’t know. It’s definitely interesting. I know that a lot of these companies, if they’re going to do training videos, it’s people that work there.
I think you were saying too when we spoke the other day, you were saying me teaching it it’s like … I think you were saying it’s a little more difficult because you’re so involved in it and you know it really well. It might be a little different than someone coming in from the outside and throwing their perspective at it. Which I’m sure the stuff you’re going to do is probably going to be much higher quality in terms of the information because you’re the one that made it and designed it. In a sense you know everything about it.
Whereas me coming in, I’m kind of like hey not really sure what this feature does but. A lot of it obviously with your particular … is like basic features. I knew what they were and understood, but there’s certain things that I was kind of like I’m not sure. It all depends. I don’t know. It’s definitely an interesting one to think about I suppose.
Chris: I think one thing too is like a product company is often looking to the future. They’re like where are we going next. It’s like a totally different mindset than like they teach a tool or focus on, like you said, that user who’s just not as familiar. You kind of forget what the beginners mind is like for the new person coming into the fold.
That’s awesome. John, I really appreciate you sharing with the audience everything that you’ve been up to. You’re kind of weighing the pro’s and con’s of the Udemy course marketplaces versus the self-hosted. Do you have any other parting thoughts that you’d like to leave the listener if they’re trying to decide between the two or do both?
John: Yeah. Something I realized a few years ago was, and I just watched someone by the name of David Siteman Garland. He used to run a podcast. He was actually the one who got me interested in podcasts in the first place. He started doing online courses and I remember I was watching one of his training videos. He talked about how he was going to price the course at $97.
He ended up basically talking with people about that and determining the stuff he was teaching was stuff that took him years to realize how to basically learn how to do these things, the things he was teaching, it took him a lot of time. He decided to price it at $497 based on that. He’s now doing millions with online course sales and he teaches people how to create online courses.
I’ve actually been going through his content and it’s really amazing the way that he set these things up. He’s utilizing a lot more value based and just sort of scarcity tactics and getting people just really sort of pumped up about the types of products and content he’s creating. He’s got a few flagship courses that he really wouldn’t sell much of anything for probably under $200. A lot of the stuff I’ve been going through, he’s just focused really heavily on making something that’s really high quality and then at the same time putting some effort into marketing.
I guess what I would probably recommend is that don’t necessarily steer clear of Udemy and Skillshare. But I’ve been suffering some problems because I’ve actually done webinars where I’m selling one of my Udemy courses and I’m trying to get a premium price for it, like $300. We’ve seen people come in on the webinars and say well why would I buy this one when I can go get it on Udemy for $15. It’s just completely kind of ruining the situation.
Of course it’s a different name so a lot of people won’t know that that’s really the case. But some people are able to figure out, okay he teaches on Udemy, of course he’s got the course over there. That has actually been somewhat of a disadvantage.
I may look at it like maybe for your really big high end flagship courses, might not be the best idea to put it on Udemy. Because if you really want to get that premium high ticket price for it and you’re determined to do everything in your power, learn how to run Facebook ads, get the marketing down, build a little video series, get people hyped up about it, then I really would probably …
At this point, I’m trying to move away from Udemy and really just crack that code on getting your own marketing down. You could use tools like LifterLMS or any of these platforms out there to do that. That’s the way that I’m kind of moving into the future right now.
Chris: Just to add one more note on that. Another strategy I see people implement is their big premium thing, they self-host it. But maybe some of their … Not every lead magnet or opt-in bribe or whatever you want to call it, is necessarily a free Ebook. It could be a free course. It could even be a lower priced paid course.
I would encourage people to reap the best of both worlds. Publish some stuff on Udemy to get your personal brand and your business brand and your expertise out there and leverages their audience. I also always recommend people, especially even from the beginning, start thinking about what’s that high end, what’s my flagship, what’s my main premium offering. That’s something you don’t want … You kind of want to maintain control of.
But you can have all these outposts around the internet. You can have your free course videos on YouTube. You can put it on Skillshare. You can put it on Udemy. You can put it on Facebook. You can put it all over the place. But when it comes to time for the premium course, you’re probably going to want to end up owning that because it would have been a real shocker if you had just published a real expensive course on Udemy and then they enforce the pricing controls.
They technically don’t give you the email list of the people taking your courses. You can contact them but there’s all these rules around how you contact them, your own students and stuff like that. It’s not all bad, but there’s definitely a place when you’re debating between a course marketplace or self-hosted to think about.
John: For sure.
Chris: I want to thank you for coming on the show John. Where else can people go to find out more about you and connect with you?
John: If you head over to by blog, I’ve got a blog called NoShameIncome.com. I don’t post as much as I’d like to, but I’ve got income reports and you can kind of learn a lot about what I’m doing, check out some of my courses over there, kind of see a lot of the things I’m doing. If you just search my name on Skillshare, Udemy, you’ll be able to find a lot of my courses that way too.
Chris: Awesome. Thank you for coming on the show John.
John: Awesome. Thanks for having me.

EPISODE 128

Becoming an Online Instructor on Lynda with WordPress and Freelancing Expert Carrie Dils

In this episode of LMScast, Chris Badgett of LifterLMS talks about becoming an online instructor on Lynda with WordPress and freelancing expert Carrie Dils. They also discuss how podcasting has helped both of them in their careers as teachers.

Carrie is a content creator, she has courses, and she is a teacher on Lynda.com. In this episode she shares her story of how she became a podcaster and her background with blogging. Carrie and Chris discuss her transition from running a blog to becoming an online educator. Carrie tells of her experiences with navigating into the teaching space while also being a freelancer and running her own business.

Podcasting is something Chris and Carrie both do, and they discuss the different ways that it has helped them in their careers and other endeavors. They value the relationship created with people through podcasting, and the interesting experience that occurs when you meet up with the person who has taught you in real life. Carrie has found her podcast has brought people to the other aspects of her life, such as teaching and blogging. They discuss their experiences with podcasting and some cool things they have been able to do with it. Podcasting can also help you with becoming a better communicator and teacher by getting you in front of a camera and delivering information to an audience.

Carrie fills multiple different roles in her business and life. Moving between positions within her business helps her figure out what she is interested in. She shares how she is able to do that, and the mindsets that she uses to fill those roles. There is room for anyone to join the WordPress space. Becoming a unique instructor and finding your niche market is what is important for success.

Carrie shares her journey of learning WordPress using Lynda to teaching WordPress on the same platform. Chris tells of his origin story with creating LifterLMS and how similar it is to Carrie’s story. Carrie has a book coming out soon called, “Real World Freelancing. A No Bullshit Survival Guide.” Chris and Carrie talk a bit about what went into that book, what Carrie’s inspiration was, and who she wrote it for.

You can learn more about Carrie Dils at CarrieDils.com or her book Real World Freelancing.

Thank you for joining us on this week’s LMScast! You can post comments and subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast.

Chris Badgett: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett, and today I’m joined with a special guest, Carrie Dils. How are you doing Carrie?

Carrie Dils: Good, how are you?

Chris Badgett: Excellent. Carrie is somebody I first came across in the WordPress community. She’s a prolific content creator in mini formats, has a lot of awesome multi-disciplinary wisdom to share. She has courses, and she’s a teacher on Lynda.com. We’re going to get into kind of how she does that, and how she rolls. And Carrie’s just an awesome all around person, so if you ever come across her on the internet or in person, she’s super approachable, and it’s always great to hang out. So thanks again for coming on the show, Carrie.

Carrie Dils: Wow! That was an amazing intro, thank you. You made me sound maybe better than I actually am.

Chris Badgett: No, I think you are that good. I first came across you on one of your podcasts called, “Genesis Office Hours.” So that was when I first came across, and I watched your show, and you just had a lot of great tips. I was doing similar stuff. I was building websites for clients. I wasn’t using Genesis, but it really resinated, and I could see too like you had a really, you know, there was a tribe of followers forming around you. And that was quite some time ago. I can’t remember how long ago that was, 3-4 years maybe? Was it that long?

Carrie Dils: Yeah, I think about three years ago, and then it morphed into the office, just plain office hours.

Chris Badgett: Why the change?

Carrie Dils: So that I didn’t have to… That’s a good question. So it’s, you know you said it started off as “Genesis Office Hours” and, so most of my guests that came on were somehow involved using that software. But what we ultimately ended up talking on the podcast was rarely about that software. So I felt like it was limiting the people that might listen to the show. Their like, “Awww, I don’t used “Genesis”, this podcast isn’t for me.” When in fact there was so much great information being shared from my guests that I just ended up axing that to make it a little bit more approachable for anyone that’s doing WordPress for their business.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. So was that your big first foray into content? Like are you like a person who likes to talk and speak? Or were you like really into blogging? A lot of people get into blogging before they do podcasting. Is that true for you too?
Carrie Dils: Yeah. I blogged for several years, and writing, I like blog writing, but it’s so time consuming. And podcasting on the other hand is you push the record button, talk for an hour, and then you push it out. Of course, as a podcaster, you know there’s more to it than that, but it’s another median for creating content that to me is much simpler, and less stressful, than actually writing.
Chris Badgett: I agree. I’m at about a little over a hundred episodes too, and its just so much easier to do this. And I also have some help in terms of somebody who does transcription, post-production, or whatever. It gets transcribed, which gets a lot of the SEO benefit, which is fantastic. But I still write blog posts from time to time.
From a marketing perspective or whatever, whenever I talk to people who come across Lifter LMS, or for different reasons come across me, often they say like, “Oh, I saw you on YouTube.” Or I was like how did you hear about us? And like, “I found you on YouTube.” Or “I found you iTunes. I heard your podcast.” I had no idea how far these things can go, and because they are a little kind of hard to set up, a lot harder than a blog, I think it just, and you know you have to get on camera and stuff like that, that it’s just not as competitive, and what not.
So I don’t know, did you have a similar experience? Cause I’m really focused on this like online course, LMS nitch, and if you are really focused in Genesis and this freelancer nitch, like how did that podcast do for growing your tribe?
Carrie Dils: Oh my gosh. So funny story. The woman that does my transcriptions, she used to work in the corporate headquarters for Dick’s Sporting Goods, and she was looking, she was searching YouTube for something appropriate to communicate a message in one of her meetings. And she came across one of my YouTube videos that had nothing to do with WordPress, it was just me being silly, and she ended up using that video in her meeting, and then it turns out she’s now left that and is moving into the WordPress space, and is connected with me. Yeah, it’s just a small world. You never know who is out there.
I don’t know how to actually measure the impact that the podcast has on my other endeavors, but somehow I feel certain that it’s a really important piece of that. And that it’s something that draws people into other aspects of like my teaching or my blog or something, that might not have encountered me somewhere else. So man, I would love to have actual numbers on that, but I don’t know how you connect numbers to that.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, I haven’t been able to measure it either, I mean cause it goes to the website, YouTube, iTunes, Stitch, or all these places. It’s like, well I don’t know, I give up. But it seems to be working, so.
How about another cool thing about podcasting is it seems like it gets you really comfortable with like being on camera, talking to your computer screen all day. I mean my neighbors are probably walking by the house like, “There he is, talking to his computer again.” But, it’s actually an acquired skill that I think it helps you develop as a teacher, and as a communicator or whatever. Did you have a similar experience? Do you cringe when you listened to your first podcast episodes or anything like that?
Carrie Dils: Oh it’s terrible. It’s terrible. I only leave it up there as proof that everyone can start with no skills and grow it into something. But yeah, I think it’s definitely something that, it’s a good, you said it more eloquently than I’m trying to say it, so I’m just going to agree with you on that front, and then also say it’s much easier when you have a companion that you’re talking to like we’re doing right now. As opposed to the folks that just look at their computer screen and hit record and their not talking to anyone. That to me, I feel like I sound like an idiot when I try to do that, so I’m much more comfortable with the conversational… having someone on the other end of my computer screen.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, absolutely. I totally relate to that. What was the first foray into teaching? Did you do it, especially teaching WordPress and Freelancing stuff, and all these things, was it in person? Was it online on your own site? You teach at Lynda.com, which we’re going to get into a little bit, but how did you kind of navigate into the teaching side while also being a freelancer or doing your own business?
Carrie Dils: That’s a good question, and it wasn’t necessarily anything I did on purpose. I think as I… So when I started my blog, what I would do is just write usually technical how-to’s, so whatever it was that I was learning, I would then blog about it. More for myself, because I didn’t know who was out there reading it, but it, overtime I realized you know people leaving comments on my blog and stuff like that, like “hey, this was awesome! Thank you. That helped me.” You know, “I’ve been trying to understand this and I finally understood it because the way you described it.” Blah, blah, blah. And I didn’t realize it, but that’s a form of teaching. And I think from there being a part of the WordPress community, you know applying to speak at Word camps, which standing up in front of people talking was nerve racking. It still gives me sweaty armpits.
Chris Badgett: Yeah.
Carrie Dils: But I’ve gotten a little more comfortable with it. Yeah, so all that sort of went into teaching, but I didn’t call it teaching. I didn’t even think of it as teaching. I thought of it more as just sharing my experience, sharing my knowledge. And then Window, which we can talk more about kind of put a formal package around that, and once I had a taste of that, I was like, “I like this!” This is a really good spot to be in. Teaching is something that I found that I really enjoy, and it’s a way to empower other people, and like you said, the reach of you podcast or your YouTube videos… You know, you have no idea how many people that you can impact, but its just cool to think that you’re making a positive dent in someone’s world.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, that’s awesome. Yeah, on that note on how many people you impact, sometimes like I’ll get on a sales call, and they’ll be like, “Is this really Chris Badgett?” I’m like, hey, I’m just a normal guy, like… I just have some videos and a website and stuff, I’m not a celebrity. But it’s interesting how the internet does that or whatever.
But I want to get into Lynda in a second, but you mentioned on something like you realized you found a love for teaching and just connecting with people, but it seems like often times the same person is not necessarily the expert, the business person, and then also the teacher. But you’re able to juggle all those. Like I know you’re way more of a developer than I am, but you’re also like a business center, and an entrepreneur, and you do marketing, entrepreneurial projects, and then you’re like a solid communicator. So how did you develop those skills either simultaneously, or in a different order? And then how do you kind of switch between them? Like I mean surely your head is in a different space when your like doing something in PHP vs. like being on the green screen at Lynda or something.
Carrie Dils: Oh definitely. First let me set the record straight, I am not a marketer. I am a terrible marketer. I hire someone to help me with that. But you know anybody, and I know a lot people that listen to your podcast are entrepreneurs, so I think the concept of wearing many hats is probably quite familiar to them. You know I think that those, it’s the combination of a lot of little things over time that’s kind of, and I mean I’m still learning how to do things, but that’s brought me to currently where I am now.
So technical skill, I’ve been developing websites since the late 90s, but I wasn’t teaching it. I couldn’t have taught it at that point in time. Also, I’ve always kind of had that entrepreneurial spirit, but didn’t have any actual business savvy, other than you know, you can’t spend all the money and make it. You’ve got to set some aside in your coin box. And you know over time and experience in different jobs. I did a stint at Starbucks where I was part of their management, part of a local management team. I got to do a lot of employee training, which I found was a whole lot of fun, and also learned how to just run a business. So how to look at a P&L and understand where we needed to push and where we needed to go back and all of those things. And then out of that, I came into this freelancing career, so kind of a rebirth of those technical skills that I had put on the shelf for a while, and then like we were just talking about. I didn’t mean to teach, it just sort of happened.
So anyways, that’s the really long rambling answer that I don’t even know if I properly addressed your question. But yeah, there are distinctive hats you put on and the way I’ve found to be the most, I guess effective at that, is to not try to do all of them at one time or even in the same day. So like there’s one day a week where I’m putting on my business thinker hat taking care of business, looking at strategy, all those sorts of things. And there’s you know a few days where I’m just the developer. I’m not thinking about you know any strategy or whatever, I’m just working on code. And then again when I’m working on say like a Lynda course, that’s all I’m doing. So fully immersing in whatever I am for a good chunk of time before I peace out and put another hat on.
Did that make any sense?
Chris Badgett: It made total sense, it made total sense. I do want to add though that I think you are a marketer, because like when I talk about sales or whatever, there’s three kinds. THere’s inbound, outbound and relationships. And perhaps you don’t do a lot of outbound code calling or knocking on doors or whatever, but you definitely create a lot of content, which creates inbound leads, which is a form of that. And then you know, you’re very involved in the WordPress community and there’s a lot of relationships and that kind of thing there. So that’s really cool, and I think one of the big take aways there is there’s a big difference between like multi-tasking, like trying to do all that at once vs. like having some structured walks. I’m kind of anal about that stuff too where I even have like four hour blocks on my calendar every week for certain things just to make sure I don’t let that thing slip or whatever. So that’s really cool.
Well how did you get into Lynda.com? I mean Lynda was just acquired by LinkedIn right? For a billion dollars or something like that? Is that right?
Carrie Dils: Yeah, I can’t remember what the price tag was, but a hefty sum, and then LinkedIn, the deal was just finalized here recently, but LinkedIn was acquired by Microsoft. So it’s like the fish just keep like… I don’t know, I thinK we’re probably at the end of the line in terms of big fish to keep going. And LinkedIn is going to remain its own kind of individual thing. But Lynda has been completely swallowed by LinkedIn. Not in a negative way, its just I don’t know how much longer the actual Lynda brand will stay around. But anyhow, that was not your question at all.
So I used Lynda.com, their training videos, to learn WordPress and to learn kind of beef up some of my technical skills when I was entering this space, and it so happened that they had one instructor in the WordPress space, and that was a fellow named Morton Rand-Hendriksen. So I watched his classes, learned WordPress, and I don’t know, maybe a year or two into my WordPress journey, I met Morton at a Word camp. Its like you on the phone, “Is this really Chris Badgett?” And I mean I saw Morton from across the room, and I mean I totally went and was just a big fan girl. Because for me he was a celebrity. So I got to meet Morton and start a friendship with him, and over time he introduced me to the folks at Lynda, and the rest is sort of history. But I think it’s funny that I am now teaching what I learned from that resource, so you never know.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Well is Lynda, do they come after you? Or you have to go after them? Like not anybody can teach on Lynda. It’s not like necessarily like you Udemy. So how…
Carrie Dils: Yeah, so there was an interview process and where I was sending in demos of me trying to teach some concept or whatnot. So there is, I mean its not just anybody that knocks on the door. But now that I have an established relationship with them, I can come to them with course ideas, more often than not their coming to me with course ideas, or refreshing older content in their library. You know, wanting to bring some of that content up to date. If somebody ever wants to teach, like if you go to Lynda.com and I think on the very bottom of the page, and they call it author vs. teacher. Go click on that and apply. The worst thing they can do is tell you no.
Chris Badgett: Do you do it in person? Like do you have to be in their green room or whatever? Or is it, can you record from home?
Carrie Dils: I go out, so they have a facility in Southern California, where they do all their recording, and it’s, Chris it is state-of-the-art. I mean the equipment, even the people, I mean their so close to LA, so their pulling in people that have been working on Hollywood sets and stuff, that level of production. They’ve got all these little perfectly cubed sound booths and they would cringe if I submitted a video that looked like this right now with you know the halo behind me and you know, just talking on my built-in microphone.
So yeah, I go out there to do the recording. Folks like Morton, who he is a full-time staff author there, he has his own set-up at home, because otherwise he’d just be traveling out there all the time.
Chris Badgett: Right. That’s cool. Well how long is your average Lynda course? And then how long is the recording session for it?
Carrie Dils: Oh, that’s a good question. Average course length, probably an hour and a half. And I spend about 60 hours in a booth recording to get that. And all of that time is like the lights going, but its me you know prepping script. But even you know a video that eventually gets cut to like a three minute segment, there may be 12 minutes of recording that… because I mess up, or I don’t say something the right way, or I didn’t quite get the right message across, and oh my gosh. It’s intensive. But, what the resulting product, and this is the thing that I really think sets Lynda apart from other online education training libraries is that level of excellence in quality. So there is no fluff or you know, “umm-ing” and “ahh-ing” like I am right now. I’m wasting people’s time. They edit all that stuff out.
Chris Badgett: And somebody else does the editing for you at Lynda, right? Like they have a …
Carrie Dils: Yes.
Chris Badgett: Like they have their own post-production team or whatever.
Carrie Dils: Exactly. So its like you let the author be an expert at whatever their an expert in, and then other experts in that, you know in recording and production and all that can do their excellent work so you don’t have to learn that, which is really nice.
Chris Badgett: Well you mentioned something else that’s interesting, and I’m going to kind of tie it in to something you said earlier about Morton, but also just what you said even earlier about you didn’t know you were teaching, or that’s not how you approached it. I had a similar thing happen where I started making “How to Build a WordPress Website in a Weekend” videos, and the I just looked the other day, and it’s a free course I put on Udemy many, many years ago, and there’s like 10,000 people in there. I even have like one of my developers who was working for me for a while, he realized after we had been working together for like six months that he learned WordPress from me, like and he’s from Nepal, and he was living in Iceland, or whatever, but I was like, this is crazy.
Carrie Dils: That’s awesome.
Chris Badgett: That was just me challenging myself to make a … I was actually doing it to kind of attract new clients, and that’s when I first started freelancing, they’d be like, “Hey Chris, I saw your YouTube videos. This looks easy, but it’s actually kind of hard. Can I just pay you to do it?” I’m like yes! So this similar thing happened where I started blogging actually about, I created online courses around organic gardening topics with my wife, Sam, and I used a theme off of Theme Forest, and an LMS theme, and I started blogging about it. And like most blog posts Chris used to write, you know I might get 100 people on it here or there, but then all of a sudden I was getting like thousands of people a day. And then you know fast forward four years, you know my agency started specializing in online courses and membership sites and we build a product to kind of scratch our own itch, and solve some of the problems we solve in this space. It all started from just like creating content and just kind of becoming a teacher by accident and getting better and better at all the technology stuff.
But the piece I wanted to kind of tie into related to you know I teach WordPress, you teach WordPress. When I first met you in Abo, Mexico, I was like, “Oh, there’s Carrie Dis!” from the, it’s the same thing, from the podcasts. But there’s a lot of people doing similar things, so even like you mentioned, you did something in a similar way to what Morton did, perhaps updated it. Of course, its in your own style and flare and your own unique insights, but also I saw you at I think it was a Word camp U.S. show were you were with Shawn Sketcher, who also teaches WordPress …
Carrie Dils: Ah yes.
Chris Badgett: And Bob WP, I think you guys were being interviewed by W.P. Engine. But there’s not, I think what my point is, even though it might be crowded, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. So how do you approach that? Or do you even worry about trying to be unique? Or just trying to do the best you can do on your topic? How do you see all that?
Carrie Dils: Yeah, to me that’s not, just like you said, it’s not a bad thing at all, its a credit space. I think there’s still plenty of room there, especially with a piece of software like WordPress that’s so vast, and there’s so many different ways that you can approach it. Like Bob, W.P. Bob, or Bob W.P., has taken very, very beginners under his wing and wants to just demo the very, very basics of using plugin or whatnot. Whereas Hesketh has gone on with his W.P. 101 videos and really created a solution that he can make available to people like you and I that do client work or that used to do client work teaching clients how to use WordPress. And then there’s me who I’ve got a little bit more of a technical or developer bet on teaching WordPress.
I think there’s room for anybody that wants to play. I think the important thing is you can find, let me just Google you know “how to learn WordPress.” And you’ll probably find a bajillion different things out there, or different people that could teach you. But I think part of what makes an instructor unique and why a student might choose you vs. someone else is specifically because its you. So their part of your tribe, over time they’ve seen your YouTube videos, maybe they bridge your content, you are a trusted face and a trusted voice, and therefore it doesn’t matter if ten other people put out a class that’s just as high poly as mine. Those are people that want to hear what I have to say, which still blows my mind. But I think that you build a tribe, you build an audience, and then when you have something to teach them, you will be the obvious source.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, the world is a very big place, so people will find you. I think heard Chris Lema say that you know often times people do it backwards. They start getting online course or LMS software, and then they start building community, and then they start building content, or content and then they start building community, but you should actually do it the other way around or whatever.
Carrie Dils: Absolutely.
Chris Badgett: Cool. Well what about like the mediums? So you do client work. You write, you podcast, teach, like what’s up with all this like multimedia thing? Like instead of, why not be an author? Or why not be a podcaster? Why not be just a business person? Like how is it, I’m the same way, so maybe I’m just trying to look into the mirror here, but how does that happen to somebody?
Carrie Dils: So I’ve actually cut out client work. I phased that out at the end of 2016, which was a big chunk of what I was doing. So that lets me focus more on you know the teaching. And I think the fact that there’s all these different mediums, I really don’t know Chris. Maybe its just curiosity to try out different formats and see what works or see what people respond to. But the thread is the same through all of them. So whether I’m writing or doing a formal course or hosting a guest with some great expertise on a podcast, those are all informational and instructional things that you could broadly put under that umbrella of teaching. So yeah, Chris, I want to affirm you that it’s okay to have professional ADD. And I say that so I can feel better about myself.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Well like kind of like on Lynda, your still surrounding the same person with just different kind of offers or creations or works of art. You may be teaching something more technical in your course, but then like you have a new book that is about to come out or may be out when the listener or viewer sees this, but its called, “Real World Freelancing. A No Bullshit Survival Guide.” So maybe that same user has a, you know they learned something technical from you, but now they need some business advice. So you come at it from different angles. Your just helping the same person in different ways. What’s the book all about? Like what is the origin story?
Carrie Dils: I like that, I like that. Yeah, so origin story, I actually have a colleague, Diane Kinney, that I’m working with to write the book, and its, the origin was, and I don’t even remember who it was I was sitting down with, but somebody that was cranking up a new business and so I was like all right, get out your pen, and we’re going to talk about everything. First, you need to, you know, go establish yourself as a legal entity, and then you need to separate your money into different accounts, and then you need to … And we hadn’t even gotten to actually what it is you do for a living yet. We were just talking about all the business aspects that surround it. And I was like holy crap, I wish somebody had sat me down and told me this when I was 22 years old. And so the book is, you know if I could go back in time and sort of mentor a younger me, that would be who it was for.
So you know, there’s a ton of developers, designers, people in the WordPress space that want to hang out their shingle and start doing client service and make a living off of it. And while there is room to do that, I think that those are going to be a lot of candles that fade out quickly if there’s no like actual business savvy underneath it, or as a foundation. And again, I don’t think you need to go get your MBA, I certainly don’t have one. It’s just been the school of life. But that’s sort of the origins of the book, and yes, so the people that I’m teaching technical things to, if a lot of them, and I know this just from surveys of done with my readers yet, but a lot of them either are already freelancing or aspire to ditch their 9-5 and hang out their own shingles So that’s exactly who the book is for.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. And I think that that whole freelancer economy vocation, independent, work-from-home or wherever, co-working thing, is like, it’s just, I think we’re actually still just at the beginning of what’s happening there. I think the economy is really changing, and people need stuff like that.
My mom used to always say that I had to do things the hard way, and since its already, we already have the explicit tag on this podcast episode, when I first started learning WordPress, I went to YouTube and I was like, “This is bullshit!” Like it’s taking me forever to piece together all this stuff to like build a site, and I was just a user, not a developer. So then I was like, alright, I’m going to like scratch my own itch and I’m going to make like, okay, you can do it, you can do it fast, this is the critical things you need to know, and I started doing that, and then I you know started publishing that in different places and stuff.
But yeah, that whole like, you don’t have to do it the hard way, like you’re saying. Especially in this day in age when things, the world is moving fast, it’s really complicated, you need to be more and more integrated and interdisciplinary if you’re going to be some kind of expert or specialized skill. You really need to know how to run a business too, and stuff like that. So that’s just an awesome thing to do to write a book around.
Carrie Dils: Well thank you. Yeah, a lot of things that, this may be telling of my age, but we didn’t have the internet. The internet was very, very young, so it’s not like resources to learn WordPress. I mean technically, WordPress wasn’t even around at that point, but you couldn’t just go YouTube “How to do XYZ,” because there was no YouTube. So it’s awesome to have all these resources, and you can now tell your mom that you don’t have to learn everything the hard way.
Chris Badgett: Yeah. I mean I’m feeling the age too. My daughter the other day pointed to something, “what’s that?” I’m like, “that’s a payphone. You can actually like call somebody.” But yeah, I think that that overlap, if you were to make like a Venn diagram, like if your doing like web development WordPress skills, but also business. I see that a lot of people, that’s just how they find their unique angle or their tribe is like, they overlap something. And often times it may be harder to compete like at one thing, but when you find a sweet spot between two things or three things, that’s really where you start getting you know a brand and some uniqueness going on. So that’s really cool.
Carrie Dils: I love that. That’s a great way to think about it. And I’m going to start doing this for my Venn diagrams.
Chris Badgett: So if you’re listening, you’re going to need to come on over to YouTube to see what this is. But I would encourage you the listener to check out Realworldfreelancing.com. One of the great things about books and courses and things is that you can stand on the shoulders of giants and learn from people without necessarily making the same mistakes. You’re going to make mistakes, but why not shortcut the journey. There’s never been a better time to teach and to learN and to leverage the experience of others.
Well where can people find out more about you, Carrie? Where do you want to send them?
Carrie Dils: Carriedils.com. That is the hub of all of my various hats and adventures. And then on Twitter @CDils.
Chris Badgett: @CDils. All right. Well thank you for coming on the show, and I appreciate you sharing the wisdom and being an inspiration to all of us out here.
Carrie Dils: Thanks so much for having me.

EPISODE 127

The Current State of Online Education and the Engagement Opportunity with Mike Weiss

Chris Badgett of LifterLMS talks about the current state of online education and the engagement opportunity with Mike Weiss in this episode of LMScast. Mike is from the Client Engagement Academy, and he is a professional in online course and platform creation. They discuss the problems with eLearning in the online course landscape and how to solve them.

Online courses have an extremely low completion rate, because the mindset behind the people who buy them is to extract information rather than to complete the course. Mike explains that this creates a bookstore mentality, and students don’t care to finish the course. Mike shares ideas and tips that can help you increase your completion rate, receive better feedback, and ultimately sell more courses.

Mike offers advice on how to add value to your courses by using digital badges. The digital badge has grown in popularity lately. Chris and Mike discuss the value of the digital badge, and how that can help bring students into the course with the end in mind. This will help with completion rates, because it provides incentive to finish the course. The digital badge also provides a level of tangibility to the online course community.

Employers are starting to implement online courses into the job training process, and in some cases to the application process. Online badges serve as a new way of setting standards for industries that do not have many standards. It is currently difficult to prove that someone is skilled in social media marketing or email marketing. Digital badges provide a great way to prove the trainings that one has been through.

Mike believes it is essential to understand your company’s data and what all of the numbers and logistics mean. Measuring the velocity at which your students are completing course material is also necessary to improve your course completion rate. Having frequent tests and quizzes can help determine the speed of completion and help gather feedback necessary to improve your course. Knowing your course’s data will also help you motivate people who take your course.

People have all different types of learning styles, so Mike believes that you should cater to the people in your online course that want to open the floodgates and take on all of the content at once. But it is also important to know that some people will get overwhelmed by that, so having options within your course about the speed at which content is provided is important.

Thank you for joining us on this week’s LMScast. You can post comments and subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast.

Chris Badgett: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett, and I’m joined today with a special guest. Today we have Mike Weiss from Client Engagement Academy, and Mike is a real expert in online course creation, platform creation, instructional design. And really if I had to pick just one area in all of that, it has to do with an obsession with engagement and really pushing the industry forward in terms of increasing course completion. We’re going to get into that, and we’re going to get into kind of some of the problems out there in the eLearning, in the online course, or the digital learning landscape. First, Mike, thanks for coming on the show.

Mike Weiss: Yeah, thanks for having me. I’m looking forward to spending some time with you and your audience. I’ve been watching you in the space, and it’s amazing to see your dedication and commitment to excellence, and so both for the educator and the student. I love that.

Chris Badgett: Thanks, Mike. One of the things that I really … I think I heard a statistic from you in a presentation in the Devin Slavin’s Course Creation Summit, which I think I’ve borrowed and been using, and I’m really happy to give you credit publicly, and also I heard in our earlier conversation you rolling off even more statistics that I’m likely going to borrow in the future, just with more detail. But one of the things you’ve really worked on is increasing engagement, and I have some other podcast episodes, way old ones, about the dirty little secret of membership sites, and that dirty little secret is that sometimes people buy stuff they don’t finish or don’t use. And I heard somewhere from you that there was like a 10% industry average completion rate, and I thought we could start there and kind of look at the problem.

Let’s start with some statistics. What are some of the either recently, or that you know about in the different types of eLearning, what are some statistics around course completion?

Mike Weiss: Yeah. Some of these you can find online fairly easily, like for instance, like I have some broad categories. There’s the personal development space, which I’ll share my personal experience from that space, and having spent many years in that space, and dealt with as an educator with customers, I knew what my numbers were, and I knew what some of the peer numbers were. That’s the personal development space, and then there’s the business opportunity space. That’s really anybody that’s looking to take a course, to improve their life in some way, shape, or form in business or hobbies or those type of things. Then there’s sort of the in between, which is really hard to classify, and then if we look at some of the newer channels like the MOOCs, the Harvard, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, that data for sure is online because they have a big challenge and it just goes to show, I think, our audience that they took the best professors at those universities. I don’t know what the tuition is a year, but it’s got to be 60, 70 grand a year now. They took the best professors, took some of the best courses and put them out for free, and they get 50% of people aren’t even logging in, and their completion rates are in, say, 4% to 8% range. That’s to me really sad.
Udemy, which has 12 million students and 40,000 instructors, because they’re an aggregator of educators and an aggregator of students, I’ve heard that their number is sub 10%. Around 8% completion rates. Personal development, which is where … We peaked out before we took action was around 12%, and then the business opportunity space, that is where it’s shockingly low. In my opinion, they’re all disgustingly low, but business opportunity is at like 3%. That’s a shame. That’s what inspired me six years ago when we only had 12% of our customers. I helped start a company with John Azeroth that was a client engagement company, and so we faced this problem as educators, and then we did move the needle into the low 20% but not because of anything that I’m doing today. It was because we hired human beings, the client onboarding experience. We used automation and some accountability. Just hard work, but not from anything that really we’re doing today. Yeah, those are the numbers. When you’re an educator and you’re faced with those numbers, it makes business really tough.
Chris Badgett: Yeah. That is a huge gorilla in the room, and I’m sure that in person classrooms or in person schools at all levels have a much higher completion rate, so there’s this challenge of the learn at home situation. I mean, the same thing I think happens when people buy books that they don’t finish, or other kinds of information products of whatever variety. In my opinion, some of that comes from the content. Maybe it’s not that engaging, or perhaps someone feels like, “Oh, I was sold this, but once I got behind the paywall, I’m not really feeling it. I’m not seeing the value, or I’m not seeing results fast enough.” What do you think underlies … Like, what are some of the key problems behind these low rates? You mentioned onboarding, and you know, engagement. Trying to hook people back in, encourage them to come back. What else is going on under the hood?
Mike Weiss: Well, that’s a great question. There’s a philosophical answer that will be general, and then I can get into more specifics. What you hit on is absolutely true. If I … Let’s take an example. If I’m interested in learning about socially conscious business, and I’m at an employer and I’m looking to change jobs, and I want to make a difference work-wise, but I also want to work for a company that’s socially conscious, so it would behoove me to learn about it before my interview. The traditional way is go to a bookstore. I guess people don’t go to bookstores that much anymore, but go online and shop. You buy three or four books on socially conscious business. You read some chapters here, there, ba ba ba ba ba, and then like you said, a lot of that stuff ends up on the shelf. It gets shelved.
That, to me, is where the online education industry is. There’s a clear line in the sand between online education and traditional brick and mortar education. Traditional brick and mortar education, when you enter in to high school, you’re going to graduate and you’re going to graduate because without that, you’re not getting into college. When you go to college, you go to college because you’re going to graduate, because you’re going to get a better job than if you didn’t go to college. MBA, doctor, lawyer, any other more advanced education, you go with one thing in mind, and that’s to graduate. The mentality of that student is completely different, because in their own selfish right they’re going into something with an end in mind because they want to then get the benefit of that ton of money invested.
If you really want to break down 500 years of education even more to its core, it comes back to the same concept of basically any investment we make in life, and that is if we can’t get a mathematical return, then the investment generally is going to fail. People don’t like to look at education that way, but my background in 29 years in the financial business and a spreadsheet guy, I look at a lot of opportunities like that. Then people say to me, “Well, look, doctors … That’s not been the case for doctors, because they want to save lives.” I’m like, “That’s bull crap, because if you think about what a doctor goes through, they go through college, and then they go through doctor school, and then they go through a few years of additional training, so the bottom line is, their education today, not only is it 10 to 12 years, but it could be close to a half a million dollars. Now, if they weren’t paid more because they were a doctor and they were just making $75,000 a year, the entire system would fail because no one’s going to spend 10 or 12 years and be in debt a half a million if you can’t make a return on your investment.”
It all comes down to this magic formula. Now, if we take that and we say, “Okay, let’s look at the online education world,” well, online education world is no better than a bookstore, as you mentioned. I don’t even know if you were actually thinking about it this way, but all the online courses out there, they’re bookstores with books. When people are buying these courses online, they have no real intention of finishing them like they would if they entered into a course that was in high school, college, or it was a prerequisite for them to get something, because that mindset is, “I’m going in with a beginning and end. I’m going to finish.” Where was the transition from, “Okay, online world is like just books,” which by the way is part of the reason why the graduation rates are so poor, because I don’t even think people are still focused on that, and where has it now changed?
For me, what caused me to pivot my entire business and go from being an expert in online marketing to basically shutting down that entire business and building my own platform is because of what Mozilla did with the Digital Badge. They recognize … They’re a global brand, so they can affect the world, and they realize I think a lot of what I just shared is that, “Okay, it’s a broken industry. What’s missing, and what can we help with?” That’s the magic, to me, of the Digital Badge, because for the first time now, an educator has an open source architecture, a way, a methodology, a tool that they can easily say, “Okay, my course is 10 modules, and you’re going to start, and at the end you’re going to be able to get a diploma and a Digital Badge.” Now, that methodology, which wasn’t available three or four or five or 10 years ago, now creates this new opportunity to actually shift the mindset of your students as they come into your course.
To me, there’s a lot of secret sauce that I put into building, because we consult, design, build, and host our platforms for our customers. I’m going to go through some of those. Those are more strategic, but the entire thing comes back to mindset, and if you can adjust people’s mindset prior to them coming in, saying, “Look, I’m up for a student outcome. That’s why I want you to buy my course. If you just want to buy it and shelve it, I’m not going to stop you, but I’ve designed this with one purpose in mind. That’s you want an outcome, and we designed it to get an outcome. How? Ba ba ba ba bum, and by the way, at the end you get a Digital Badge.” That Digital Badge becomes they way to get their return on their investment, you know? How so? Because it’s a way for them to show that they’ve actually made that investment in themselves and they accomplished something and they attained some level of specialized knowledge.
I know I spoke for a long time. I just want to just tie the bow tie on that example of that socially conscious person, that socially conscious business person. Now, the next woman is at a company, and she wants to change companies and go work for a socially conscious business company, so instead of buying books, she finds two courses online. They’re expensive. They’re a grand each, on socially conscious business, and they deploy Digital Badges, and they’re focused on student outcomes, so she makes the investment herself and spends a grand and a grand, and five weeks, and 10 weeks, and now when they both walk into the interview of the company, the one guy says, “Hey, I learned a lot about socially conscious business. I know your company is. I want the job.” He’s like, well the interviewer says, “Well, what do you know?” He says, “I bought this book, that book, this book, that book.” He’s like, “Oh, okay. Great.”
Next, the woman comes in, sits down, and he says, “You know, we’re a socially conscious business. What do you know about it?” She says, “With your permission, can I come over on your side of the desk?” The entire relationship has shifted, and she says, “Well, just pull up my LinkedIn.” She pulls up her LinkedIn, and, “You see this course and that badge? You see this course and this badge?” The guy’s like, “Yeah, that and a quarter will get you a telephone call.” She’s like, “No, no, no. Click the badge.” This is what I think Mozilla’s done that … This is the beginning of a trend that’s going to shake online education globally. It’s doing it already, but in a very beginning phase. The guy clicks it, and it instantaneously takes him back to the educator’s site, and it’s her encrypted portfolio, and it says, “Congratulations. This is the date. This is when she passed,” and it talks about all the criteria of the course, so the person can actually see, “Oh, it was 10 hours. 15 videos. Quizzes. Final exams. Blah blah blah blah blah.” Then it talks about her new skillset, and she’s like, “Now click the next one.” Then once again, boom, more stuff.
This person walks out of that interview with a completely different relationship to the chance to get that job, and the reason why is because she has a way to get a return on her investment. That is now quantifiable, and you know what? She is going to get the job. This to me, like your question was an amazing question. There’s a lot of things that we do strategically, but this concept is so big that this is the one I try to convey to my customers, is that we’ve got to get on board with this and everything else will come together. Does that make sense?
Chris Badgett: That makes total sense. That’s really cool, and I’ve often thought about this issue of jobs, education on the path to job or career, and how when we live in a world with increased uncertainty, I actually see a huge opportunity for employers to say … To put together like a course or some kind of learning track for certain position or the HR department, whereas like for example, I run a web agency, and I almost never ask people where they went to school. I actually care about what they’ve done and things about their personality, and how they interact with clients and things like that. If I wanted to build a … I could actually piece together, like, what I believe is the perfect set of skills required to be a perfect fit for that role, but I might, as an employer, I may have a very different story to tell than what that person might hear if they go to their community college or university. Like, “This is actually what I want and I will pay you however much money, salary, and benefits, and all this stuff, if you have this skillset which is diverse.”
I just see the job market shifting that way as the world becomes more uncertain, as there’s more automation. The skills required and the fluidity that businesses and economies change, it’s really hard for a traditional education system to keep up. It doesn’t mean it’s not necessary, but it’s a funny situation where one of my biggest complains is, as an employer, and a lot of employers will say this, like, it’s hard to find good people. And what a lot of great people say is it’s hard to find good jobs. Well, what connects those things? Learning. Learning connects those things. It just needs to be the right kind of learning.
I was reading an article recently on some kind of e-learning news site and it was trends for 2017, and one of those was the rise of accreditation and certification through badges or certificates and whatnot, but what’s going to end up happening according to this article is that people will start creating their own certificates that aren’t necessarily like … They might be kind of unique. Like, I may say, like, “Okay, if you go through all this training, which may seem random on the surface, all these different skillsets, you’re going to be a perfect fit for my company, or this kind of job.”
Mike Weiss: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, but go ahead.
Mike Weiss: Yeah. What you’re saying is so true. Like, I have a … One of my clients, he’s created a likeability course. You know when you’re hiring that, like … You’ve probably never heard of a likeability course. I never heard of it. The guy is just an awesome guy. When he told me about it, I was like, “That’s strange.” But people were very self-conscious about how likable they are, and they become maybe introvert because they don’t feel like if they are themselves, they’re going to be liked. If you’re an employer and you have, like, your project management people, they need to be likable, because they have to relate to your customers, where maybe the programmers don’t.
If you knew, like, you were going to scale and say, “Okay, I need 20 project managers, and these are the skillsets that I know that I need, because it’s the winning formula,” you could actually reach out and say, “Okay,” to this client, the likeability course, you can find four or five courses in their four or five disciplines that you know they needed, and you could actually say to them, like, “I want to put together an internal training. I’ll pay you per seat. Can I have your course and put it as part of our internal training?” Then you could actually have people go through it before you actually even gave them the job, and said, “Look, this is my requirement to become an applicant. I’ll pay for the training, so even if you don’t end up working here, you’re going to be much better off, but this is a prerequisite even before you come into the application process.”
The application for what you’re describing and for what we can do now is just as much as you can imagine, we can create, and specialized knowledge is what’s going to differentiate people as we move through the process, you know? This is great for a company looking to hire people. One of my customers is a digital marketer, and I consulted, coded, designed, built, launched, and hosted all nine of their certification programs for them, and some of those folks are doing it just to improve their own knowledge so they can be better at digital marketing, and some of them are newbies that are going through each of the certifications, and deep, deep, deep, and then going out and practicing, getting certified, and then creating at-home businesses. Those Digital Badges become their marker, where for the first time now they’ve got social proof that they at least meet a standard in an industry.
Digital marketing, you know, you don’t go to college for Facebook advertising, so how do you tell if someone’s good at Facebook advertising or not, or blog creation, or email marketing? All the core areas. There’s no standard, and so now there’s a way for kind of like digital marketers to create their standard.
I will share with you that in every industry there’s the “pooh-poohers,” right? The pooh-poohers are saying, “Well, anybody can create a Digital Badge, so that Digital Badge carries any weight. Because Harvard’s badge has been around for a long time, Harvard’s badge carries weight. It’s an association that approves coursework, so it’s accredited for a college credit, then stamps all courses in colleges because they went through the association as a college accredited. That makes them great.” Well, the bottom line is what makes a course great is if a student gets an outcome, and in my opinion, because of the outcome, they can change the directory of their life. Who’s to say a Digital Badge is good or bad, or it doesn’t carry weight? The bottom line is that it’s going to prove itself, right?
That’s, like, Digital Marketer. I love Ryan Deiss and Richard Lindner and those guys, and they’ve been great to work with, but at the end of the day, I don’t think they imagined how powerful the program would be because they didn’t truly understand the power of Digital Badges. Not that I did either. I knew that they were powerful, but now we’re seeing firsthand how they just shift the relationship of, “Okay, there’s a beginning and there’s an end, so I’m coming in with the expectation to finish,” and also how to connect those dots for people so they can actually have a live digital report card, which is there and available for them to get a return on their investment for the rest of their career. It’s totally cool stuff.
Chris Badgett: That is really cool. What Mike’s doing here, is he’s really elevating the conversation and what we see in the landscape. Information products like online courses is not just about taking book content or just some blog posts and like packaging it in a membership site and calling it an online course, which has higher perceived value. It’s about, like, creating real outcomes for people, and that’s the difference between the ones that work and the ones that don’t. The best marketing is a good product, and if somebody goes through a …
Mike Weiss: Great quote.
Chris Badgett: Do you know who … I’ll give credit. I don’t know where that came from, but that is a …
Mike Weiss:Great quote.
Chris Badgett: It is a good one, and as somebody goes through a course, whether it was made by the company that was offering the job, or let’s say an entrepreneur saw an opportunity, like, “Hey, I work at Google and I noticed that these five people, you know, are not like everybody else, or they’re not pedigree, but they still got in here. How did that happen?” And then he talks to them, figures out, “Oh, this is actually the magic formula to kind of self-style, get a job at Google,” or wherever. You can create, like, training content around that, and then over time if it works, other people are going to take off. Google might endorse it, be like, “Keep doing what you’re doing, because you’re sending great people through your certification program.” These are the things that happen when real results happen, which only makes the platform, the online course, the training even stronger.
Mike Weiss: Totally. Yeah. I know, like, we were supposed to spend more time together, but you and I when we had our scheduled call, we got in such a deep conversation before we actually went live. We sucked up a lot of time, which is great, because it was really deep, and awesome, and juicy. I do want to make sure that we at least cover some of those other additional engagement topics that I think are important, along with the Digital Badge. I think, Chris, this is … We’re really getting to know each other now, so we’re going to have an opportunity to do a bunch more of these together. I love your passion and what you’re doing, and how you’ve created the opportunity for all folks that have specialized knowledge to go out and create a product and give it out to the world.
I know we both believe that education is part of the solution to, you know, helping this world heal and move into a better place, so I think we’re going to end up having a lot of conversations like this. How much time do we have left? Let me just gauge it. I want to go through those, so, yeah.
Chris Badgett: Yeah. Let’s do a lightning round on that, and then we’ll plant some seeds of what … We’ll do some more of these, and tell people where to go in the meantime.
Mike Weiss: Yeah, perfect. The things that I speak about, and some of these are proven, meaning that you can go on Google and look them up, not that that means that they’re proven now. Some of them are just the ones that we know that work. I’ll share that for us, at Client Engagement Academy, we consult, we design, we build, and we host, and because we’re in the business of hosting, I’m looking at real data all the time. When I talk about what’s working, what’s not, it’s because we have a lot of companies that we’re managing their sites from. We’re seeing, and we’re constantly making incremental improvements for all of our customers and sites, based on their customers’ feedback.
If there’s one that I will harp on that I think is ultra-important, it’s being able to understand your data. When we say, “Okay, Mike, what is going to make us more successful with increasing those completion rates from 3%, 5%, 10%, 12%, to 20% or even 30%, that would be a 200% or 300% increase. I’ll share this. I can share it because I spoke at Traffic and Conversion, and last year I did a case study, so the completion rates were on average around 40% for a digital marketer. That number is just, it’s outrageous how high that number is, because those certification programs, it’s not like a course. We’re not comparing a Udemy course at 8% to 40%, because those certifications are intense, there’s a lot of content, there’s quizzes. The final is a 66 question final. Like, you’ve got to know your stuff to complete. If it was, like, a fluffy course, I’m sure it would be at 60% or 70%. What we’re doing is working, and so the things that we’re putting in along with Digital Badges, which to me is, for every traditional course you have to have that. That’s one. We have to have quizzes and certifications.
All these things, you can just go on Google and look, and look up “Adult education, quizzes, certifications, do they work?” And the answer is yes. Adults like to be quizzed, and they like the challenge. It helps boost confidence and engagement as well. If they know that there’s a quiz that’s coming at the end of a lesson, they need to pass it to go on to the next lesson, then that helps all areas of that. A lot of this stuff also, we have to thank the online universities, which is one thing that we didn’t talk about today, but they sucked wind when they first invented themselves, because they didn’t figure out how to engage people online, and they had high failure rates, and a lot of them went out of business. That is a lot of them that are very successful because they’re sort of crossing over between the traditional brick and mortar and the online world, and then there’s studies that they put out now. The quizzing is stuff that comes from the online universities. Like, if they don’t graduate people, they’ve got to go out of business, which is a lot harsher reality than, say, an online educator. A lot of this stuff comes from that.
It’s certification and quizzes. Reporting is crucial. Like, you’ve got to know your data. For what we do, we know exactly where every single student is at any specific point in time, which allows us to measure the velocity of the students going through the course, the average number of days it takes from lesson to lesson, where we’re looking at the quizzes they’re getting, the comprehension scores. We’re looking at engagement on the videos, drop-off rates, so we’re looking at … There’s so … Activity into the site. I don’t know. There’s like 40 different sort of topics that we can look at data on, but that’s imperative, because you have to make adjustments. That’s where, when you talk about another facet of gamification, or I call it “prizification” comes in, it’s like, we know that works. You just can’t randomly add gamification, because it’s going to have no effect. Where would you put gamification in? The place where people are getting stuck. They could be getting stuck just because that’s where everyone naturally gets tired in a course, which is in the second week. Gamify it. But unless you know your data, it’s pretty hard to figure out where to help motivate people.
Quizzes, reporting, gamification. This one’s a big one as a client pathway: Algorithms. I’ll just spend a really quick second on this. Back in the day, before learning management systems, when someone bought a course, you sent an email with 10 links to 10 modules. We were like, “Whoa, that’s bad, because they can just forward the email and everyone gets our content.” Then they said, “Oh, let’s put it behind a login,” so they did that. Then it was like, “Oh, the first membership site.” Then someone said, “Oh, that’s bad, because when they log in, they’re getting all 12 lessons from once. It’s like drinking out of a fire hose.” This is funny stuff now, right? “It’s like a fire hose. It’s going to overwhelm them. They’re going to get stuck.” True.
So then the next genius, which I think is ingenious, it was one of the worst things that people moved in a trend to, was locking down the content. Someone said, “Oh, this is a good idea,” without thinking through it. That, “Let’s … 10 modules over 10 weeks, and that’s our prescription, and they have to go week by week. If we restrain them, they’ll get a chance to digest. They’ll get through it. We won’t overwhelm them, and we’ll do something that’s good.” Bad. Worst. Terrible decision, because 25% of your customers are going to be type A people like me that act fast, talk quick, and if I see something that I want, and I buy it, if you drip it out, by the second week that you torture me, I’m out. You literally, if you say, “How is it only 12% completion rates?” Well, take 25% of the people off the board if you’re just purely dripping content, because you’ll torture them and they will not complete it, right?
You need to have a dual client pathway where you’re going to be able to control the experience through and also get people to go through as quickly as possible, not randomly jumping around, in your pathway, as long as they’re comprehending. That means they can take 10 modules and do them in two days, as long as they’re passing each one, which is the gateway to open up the next. It’s getting to figure out how to focus on that pathway.
What else? LMS course structure, that’s your bailiwick, so that to me is critical. Like, you know, if someone can’t figure out where they were, where they are, where they need to go within five seconds of logging in, you lost them. It’s got to be intuitive, for the student we’re talking about. Most all people stink at technology, so the LMS is critical. Your program is an awesome program. You come from being an educator, a technologist. An evolution of, you know, you just keep getting better and better, is driven by the customer’s experience. That’s critically important, is a great solution like yours. And then responsive design. It seems weird that we’re even talking about this, Chris. It’s 2017, but, you know, there’s so many online education platforms that are not responsive. It’s just old technology that’s antiquated, and if you’re … I don’t have my phone, but if your course doesn’t play on any device, any which way you turn it, anywhere in the world at any time, you’re toast. Now we’re up to almost like 60% of video being consumed on mobile devices. If you don’t play well on a mobile device, you’re toast.
Also, there’s a study out there- people can look it up on Google- that I think 60% of the LMSes will be replaced over the next 24 months, because the lifestyle of the LMS architecture of that software just in the last five years has gotten antiquated. Even people that were, like, early on when LMS and have had them, and are using the ones back from three or four years ago, they’ve got to be replaced. The product replacement cycle is driving right now, like, I think it’s a billion dollars or plus, into new investment of the new architecture and software like yours. That’s critical, and then of course Digital Badges. Those are the ones, boom boom boom boom boom. There’s a lot more, but that’s what we got.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Well, Mike Weiss, ladies and gentlemen, Client Engagement Academy. Mike also has a course out where he’s taking his best knowledge that a lot of his high paying clients use, and he’s publishing that for you to get some of his best strategies. That’s called E-Learning Engagement and Profit Mastery, so go check that out, and before we sign off here, Mike, is there anywhere else you want to point people to find out more about you and what you’re up to? And of course, if you’re listening and you enjoyed this, Mike’s going to come back on the show and we’re going to do this more, so thanks for coming on the show, Mike.
Mike Weiss: Yeah. Client Engagement Academy is the website, but somewhere on the page if you’ll put a link, the course is basically a super deep dive of everything that we’ve spoke about today and more. It’s outrageous. It’s for people that are just thinking about creating a course, because this is stuff you need to know prior to creating it. It’s for people that have courses, and then people that are doing really big business with courses. It kind of fits the entire gamut. There will be a link for that. We also actually have a free course, like a mini little free course as well. We have just a ton of content, and we’re going to continue to put it out. Client Engagement Academy, we’ll put the link below, is the best place to find me.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, thank you for coming on the show, Mike.
Mike Weiss: Awesome. Thanks for having me.