How to Level Up Your LMS, Online Course, or Membership Website Business

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You want your online course business to be as professional as it can be whether you’re already successful or just beginning. In today’s LMScast Chris Badgett and Thomas Levy talk about how to level up your LMS, online course, or membership website business with tools, support resources, and teams.

If you’re just starting out with a low budget, you can still build a great course with an inexpensive hosting account, a WordPress site with a free theme, and a course development platform like our free LifterLMS system. This is your simplest and least expensive starting point and will allow you to deliver and sell an online course. But it is only a starting point.

At the high end of the spectrum you can hire a service like codeBOX to build a complete custom LMS from scratch and deploy it through Amazon Cloud on Amazon Web services. You’ll have a complete discovery session to evaluate your needs and preferences, with a detailed timeline and estimate. It’s expensive, but it’s professional. Today we want to look at what you should be working towards in between starting out and reaching ultimate success.

Probably your most important consideration is hosting as that’s really the foundation of your online existence. GoDaddy and Bluehost are fine lower-cost web hosting services, but there are support systems you’re going to need that they simply don’t provide. Your next hosting upgrade should be to something like WP Engine which offers managed WordPress hosting. That means your WordPress-based online course site will have database caching and backups, package management, on-call support, and a staging site where you can do testing in a safe environment that won’t affect your live site.

Over time you’re also going to build a team, because on your own you simply can’t properly perform all the tasks your business needs. You need overall management, systems administration, web development, sales, content development, design, and project management. You’re probably proficient at one or two of those jobs, but not all of them. Plus, every upgrade you make will depend on your courses generating enough income that you can afford those upgrades as well as professional support services.

Tools like WordPress and our LifterLMS platform have made things so approachable and affordable that you might not think about going to the next level, but that growth needs to be part of your plan for how to level up your LMS, online course, or membership website business from the start.

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

Episode Transcript

Chris Badgett: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett, and I’m joined here with Thomas Levy. Today, we’re going to talk about how to run your website as a business and to do that professionally. We’re going to talk about where we all start and where we all ultimately can end up, and we can also talk about some of the benefits of upgrading some ways we approach what we do, and look at some roadblocks that might be holding us back from progressing and becoming a more professional, established website.

To start it off, I just wanted to talk about where we all begin if you’re building a learning management system, membership site, or an online course. If you want to start at the simplest starting point, which is one of the reasons in our mission to democratize education with LifterLMS is so that it’s really accessible, you can get in the game really affordably and almost for free. You can get a very inexpensive hosting account. I’m talking, depending upon what sales is going on, $3, $5, $10 a month. You can install WordPress, and you can install a free theme and a free plugin like LifterLMS, and you’re up and running within a learning management system and a website that’s possible to deliver and sell an online course.

That’s like a beginning point. At the far end of the spectrum, you can have a custom LMS built from scratch, whether that’s on top of Lifter or not, on top of WordPress or not, but you can do all that and just anything is possible. You do a custom development that’s going to be very expensive. It’s going to take time, and it’s going to be tailored to exactly your vision. That’s a totally different story. I think it’s important to look at all the stuff that can happen in the middle on your journey from just starting out with a cheap hosting account, a theme or … a free theme or a paid theme and a plugin like LifterLMS.

One of the areas we want to focus on is let’s just look at hosting. If you get a GoDaddy or a Bluehost hosting account, those are really affordable. They’re cheap, and you can install LifterLMS and WordPress and things like that, but then you can get up to more of a mid-grade area. My top recommendation these days is WP Engine and then, for our custom builds at LifterLMS, in another Podcast episode we talked about our discovery session where we get ready for custom membership sites and learning management systems and spec out what it is we’re going to build where we can do a detailed timeline and estimate and that sort of thing. That’s a custom build. We deploy those under the Amazon Cloud on Amazon Web services. That’s a whole another level of hosting, but what a lot of people aren’t doing that should … but should consider is, perhaps, going to that middle level with WP Engine.

Thomas, what do you like about WP Engine? What makes it a good Web host even though it’s more expensive? It can be $30 US a month for 1 site.

Thomas Levy: Yeah. There’s a lot to say about WP Engine, and there’s a lot of things like WP Engine, too, so, for some reason, you have an aversion to the particular product, we’re talking about managed WordPress hosting. A lot of these managed WordPress hosting platforms have a lot of the same features.

The most advantageous part about them is, and we’ll talk about WP Engine specifically, is that with the click of a button from your WordPress admin panel, you can scroll up a complete clone of your website, a staging site they call it, where you can do all of your testing and in a safe environment that’s not going to affect what’s goes on in your production website because the fear here is that you get those 10 little icons on your plugin screen that say you need to update that little 10 in the red circle and you just start clicking all those buttons because you trust the developers, and then there are some new conflict introduced and, now, your Website crashed or critical a feature of your website is down. Like you maybe can’t take payments anymore because something broke with Stripe, and now you’re losing money.

If you do everything in that neutral testing environment, you now have an opportunity to work out all those bugs, figure out what’s going on, contact the support representatives of whatever plugin you’ve updated that caused the problem and, now, you’ve also made their job a lot easier because, now, they can go in and do their job without the fear of breaking what’s now potentially already broken or breaking something new in your production environment.

That’s one of the clear advantages. When you start to think about like what happens on your journey as you grow, you add team members. We all started, I started, Chris started kind of as a 1-man-shop, and then you start to supplement your skillset with the skillset of other people. I’m a Web developer. Chris is a product marketer and … a man of many, many, many talents, but he’s not a Web developer, so that’s where we’ve kind of joined forces. I don’t really like selling things. If anybody ever tried to buy something from me, I’d much rather give it away to you, than convince you to give me money for it, which doesn’t really maintain profitability.

One of those people you’re always going to need is a systems administrator. At codeBOX, we have one for our highest clients. We have somebody that handles the Amazon Cloud for us because, even as a Web developer, I’m just not that good at it.

Chris Badgett: Just to jump in, like when you’re on the cheap plan just at the beginning, your systems administrator is the GoDaddy or the Bluehost support person you get on the phone, but you don’t have to stay there.

Thomas Levy: Yeah.

Chris Badgett: Go ahead.

Thomas Levy: Anyway, so what the managed WP Engine type WordPress hosting does is it kind of gives you that person. Now you’re paying a little bit more than if you were paying $3 a month and you have to call technical support all the time. Now, you kind of have that person that’s taking care of the WordPress Core for you and caching and database caching and all that stuff that is maybe a little bit scary to some people. It’s just kind of done for you. Plus, you get the ability to scroll up that staging site and test all your things there. You get backups.

One of the really, really important things about backups, everybody knows you got to run a backup, not a lot of people know how to get your backups back when you have that critical failure. Like what do you do? It’s like, “Well, I have all these backups. What do I do with them?” WP Engine makes that kind of thing really, really easy from your hosting panel. From my perspective, one of the greatest advantages of that is you gain a team member, like an invisible ghost team member that really gets to do that high-end development stuff for you or systems administration for you without having to actually have that person paid under your team.

Chris Badgett: Absolutely. I just want to add that this is just an unintended consequence of these tools like WordPress and LifterLMS who have made things so approachable and affordable that you just miss out on the fact that you do need to spend a little bit of money if you want to take it to the next level.

Thomas Levy: Exactly. Yeah.

Chris Badgett: Yeah, and then we get in this situation at LifterLMS or WordPress learning management system and online course membership site product where we provide pro level support. We have a pro Support product. Our pro membership with some other features, some graphic design assets and promotional discounts and things, but, a lot of people, their main reason usually for buying Pro is to get direct access and private priority access to us to support the product, but there’s a difference between supporting the product, helping a user navigate like, “How do I do X?” or, “I can’t find the documentation on X,” or, “I’m having this conflict.”

Product support is really about supporting the product. It’s not necessarily about supporting whatever hosting environment you’ve chosen or … and even I believe that … At LifterLMS, we go above and beyond and, if we can, if it’s obvious, we help people if there’s a conflict that we didn’t necessarily create, but we can help identify where the issue is coming from, we’re more than happy to help, but there is a time where you do need to hire a Web developer to help you or you need to get a systems administrator or go with a hosting company where that’s built in to the price.

Give us an example, Thomas, of some things that are common for LifterLMS where somebody is … we have our support product, but they’re really asking above and beyond what is considered supporting LifterLMS.

Thomas Levy: Yeah, I mean one of the greatest examples or most common examples with that is going to be people that have or users who have been on some of these … I’m not going to call them cheap, maybe less expensive hosting platform, where maybe you’ve had that GoDaddy account of that Bluehost account for 4 or 5 years, and they don’t proactively upgrade your packages for you, so …

Chris Badgett: If I could jump in and just clarify that point, and I just really learned this recently myself, I didn’t quite understand the full ramification, but when you buy your cheap hosting account, I mean there is a piece of hardware that holds your website, and they’re not upgrading that piece of hardware proactively necessarily.

Thomas Levy: Exactly. Yeah, and you might not know that and it might not cause any issues for you for years and years and years. We’ve actually had this problem internally with some of our own websites where we just weren’t keeping up to date with updates on the server level, which is things like PHP or TLS, which is an encryption software that help … or package that helps deal with the little green lights you see on the browser bar that secure for HTTPS and things like that. If you’re not proactively upgrading those packages on your own, they’re not getting upgraded, so, again, if we want to toot WP Engine’s horn, and that’s managed, you don’t ever touch your server. They take care of keeping that stuff up to date for you.

Back to your question, Chris, one of the more common things we see is somebody who has one of those older servers that’s maybe still working on Version 5.3 of PHP which is now several years deprecated and we’re now on PHP 7 is the common standard. I’m not, off the top of my head, I don’t know what version of PHP WP Engine work runs on. I’m willing to bet it’s PHP 7, but it might be like a 5, 6. Anyway, so we’ll see that, and it’s understandable that if my response to you then is like, “Well, you’re having issues because you’re on PHP Version 5.3. You need to upgrade that.” We get a lot of people that are like, “Oh, well, please upgrade that for me.”

Chris Badgett: That’s not necessarily part of LifterLMS. That’s part of you …

Thomas Levy: Yeah, it’s a little bit more complicated than that. The reality is like we could absolutely do that for you, but if you think about the scope of what we’re responsible for, it’s … There are so many unknowns that I can’t go in there and just click a couple of buttons for you and expect everything to work perfectly nor can you. That’s the difficulty here and why, as you level up, you want to add people to your team or continue to consider other hosting options because upgrading from PHP 5.3 to PHP 5 or 7 or any later version might not cost any issues at all, but it might cause issues. You might have some weird plugin installed on your website or you might have other websites installed on your same server and you might have some unanticipated bug crop up as a result of the upgrading.

Now, in most scenarios, they’re not, but, in some, you might, so what the Web developer would do, to deal with your Web developer would be to create a bunch of backups and know how to restore them, create a staging website where they could test the upgrade and then after they’ve tested everything and made sure there’s no problem, then upgrade those in the production environment.

That’s a lot. There’s a lot of steps involved in that. As you ascend and grow your business, taking those steps makes more and more sense because it’s more financially responsible to have your site online and offline because of bugs. You’re hopefully making more money, so you can afford to pay people to do that kind of thing. Again, we’re just going to harp on WP Engine because they make all of those steps just kind of not essential because they’ll take care of it for you and you have that staging site and they’re managing your packages, but-

Chris Badgett: You might be paying $20 more a month, but that’s really worth it. You don’t realize how much it worth until that site goes down, until you start having those conflicts, until you need to call somebody and you’re on hold for a long time or getting somebody on the other end that doest know how to help you.

I mean, when you start out, it’s just you or maybe you and a freelancer is helping set things up, but if I were to design the dream team as a startup, if you’re building your online course or your membership site, you may have a very limited budget and you may need to do it all yourself, but that means you’re going to need to be the … do all the content. You’re going to need to be the designer. You’re going to need to be the developer even if that’s just installing plugins. You’re going to need to be the person setting up the hosting account.

If you need support, you can use the plugin support to a degree, but there’s so much room to grow from there. You can get a professional designer of low budget or high budget to help you. You can get an affordable Web developer on something like Upwork or kind of graduate up into the Codeable area. We recommend Codeable. They’re just vetted WordPress developers. Then there’s other services like we at codeBOX, creators of LifterLMS. We do complete end-to-end solution. If you’re stuck or you’re having problems, you might be ready to move up, and it’s really important to … You look at that when you’re creating your course and everything is … For it to be really sustainable, you need to be … Your course needs to be generating revenue. You need to be able to afford the basic team. That’s really key.

What am I missing from the team? What else?

Thomas Levy: I think there’s different stages of it, like you’re saying. At the beginning, you’re wearing every hat and figuring it all out. I think the dream team is really going to depend on you. If you’re starting as a solo entrepreneur building a website, you might be more inclined towards the management side or the content side or the development side or maybe you’ve got skills in 1 or 2 of those areas, but you’re weakest in the 3rd.

The way I see it is there’s really kind of the management of the website. We can call that person a project manager. There’s the developer who manages the technology side and executes on the technology side, and then there is, in my mind, content creation and designer kind of hand-in-hand. That design aspect might be a fourth person. It might be the developer who’s also a designer. It really depends. When we get to our largest projects, we have a dedicated designer, a dedicated designer, a dedicated project manager, and then our client is generally that content creator because they’re coming to us because they have content that they want to put out into the world, but they don’t have those other 3 members to execute on it.

Chris Badgett: Just to piggy-back on that point, the people who are ready for that, already have some success. You may want that or even feel like you need that, but a company can’t help you unless you can afford them. In order for you to be able to afford them, you already need to have some level of success looking to the next … to grow from there. If you’re starting out and you’re starting up with constraints, you need to grow into that.

Thomas Levy: Exactly. Yeah. I think you really just need to take a look at yourself and take a look at what you’re best at and what you’re worst at. I think whatever you’re worst at … and that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bad at it. It might mean you’re just uncomfortable with it. I can write. I am a writer, but I’m just not as great at executing on the content as Chris is, and so that’s a natural addition to my team. Of course, it’s our team. I didn’t say like, “Hey, Chris, you’re going to come and write content for me. We’re a partnership here,” but … so I mean, I think, you just need to kind of look at what brings you the least amount of joy and what’s the hardest for you to get your head in to accomplish it.

For a lot of people, that’s going to be the technology side of things and like the doldrums of testing plugins. That kind of stuff is great for me. I love it. I’m great at it. I can do it all day long, and that’s why I’m the Web developer, but you might not be. Yeah, so I think you just need to take a look, but I think those 3 areas are really like the content, design, the development and then the overall management.

I think that overall management is one of those hats that can be worn by you for the … I see at least most commonly for the longest period of time, and that project manager is maybe the last thing that gets added into the mix, but, yeah.

Chris Badgett: Just to close it out, if you’re at the very beginning and you’re that crappy startup where it’s pretty much just you, the roadblock or the mistake that we see people making, and our call to action for you today is to get a good hosting account. Get something with a staging environment like WP Engine and then also get a … look into finding a developer resource. If funds are tight, there are freelancers out there. You can got to website like Upwork. Look for people with WordPress and even specifically LifterLMS experience if you’re using our software and start building your team because that’s where it starts, a good host, which is going to give you that better red phone or systems administrator and then a developer that could help you. If you’re ready for even a little more than that, start experimenting with some freelance design help.

Yeah, most people try to wear all those hats too long and they get themselves into trouble and, essentially create more … You can create more inefficiencies just by not letting go and kind of growing.

Thomas Levy: That concludes this episode of LMScast. Thank you for listening, and we’ll catch you in the next one.

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