[Case Study] From Penniless to Passive Income with Online Courses

sales Oct 08, 2019

Want to boost your income without the stress of a 2nd job? Online courses could be your golden ticket. In this case study, we'll share how one young man went from penniless to supporting his wife with passive income from online courses.

We were barely scraping by.

My wife and I knew that we could either pay the rent, purchase some food, or pay off the electricity bill...

But definitely not all of them.

This is the story of how we went from penniless to paying the rent with passive income from online courses.

Hitting Rock Bottom

I was so excited for us to get our first place together. I was living with my parents, and she was living with roommates, so neither of us had ever had to worry about paying a lot of bills. But we were both anxious to live on our own together.

So, I sold my Canon DSLR and all the accessories I had bought over the years, saved a few months’ worth salary, and we started looking for apartments. We found something in the center of the city, in a good neighborhood. It was going to be great!

However, I didn’t take into account all the bills that we would need to pay now that we were on our own: heating, electricity, internet... oh, and did I mention I didn’t factor in the FOOD?

I had backed us into a corner. It was December, when heating was the most expensive, and I hadn't even done the basic math to make sure we could put food on the table. After paying our first and last month’s rent on the new place, there was very little money for anything else, even groceries.

I panicked. I felt my heart beating faster and faster and my head was spinning so much I had to sit down. I had never been in such a difficult situation before! I thought about escape plans: my parents lived nearby, maybe we could go back there? Or at least eat there from time to time?

There had to be another way. I thought about getting a second job. I started looking around online for money making schemes. I tried a few, but that’s what they all ended up being: schemes. Just a few bucks clicking ads, answering emails, or leaving dishonest reviews.

And of course, because things need to get worse before they can get better, my wife lost her job about 2 weeks after we moved in. That’s when I really panicked. I thought that was the end, that my parents were right and I couldn’t live by myself. I felt ashamed and terrified for us.

Passive Income with Online Courses

A ray of light showed itself to us as I found more and more people talking about “passive income." The idea that you could create a digital product (ebook, song, course, etc.) and sell it to an infinite number of people. And if you manage to automate this, by excluding yourself totally from the promotion and payment processes, you’re creating value for people while reaping the rewards, 24/7.

There were the occasional scammy businesses, offering passive income from Day 1, without actually creating anything. I knew that wasn’t for me. So as I started digging further I found out about Udemy.

Udemy, as I’m sure you know already, is an online marketplace for courses. Think of it like the Amazon of digital courses. None of the courses are created by the company staff– they’re all created by individuals. And as I thought of myself as an individual, I jumped right in.

TIP #1:

Scammy businesses are everywhere. It’s easy to spot them, since most of them promise easy money– and fast! Course creation is one of the simplest and most fun ways of generating an honest passive income online. You might not think you’re made for it, but give it a chance and see how it goes for you.

I started creating 2 courses on a topic I was most familiar with: Facebook Ads. I had been managing ads on Facebook for about 2 years, but I was by no means an expert. However, since my circumstances were somewhat extreme, I had to look at the competition, learn more about what I was doing and figure out this course thing, in a short amount of time.

Since I couldn’t invest in any new software or hardware, I started focusing on what I had available or what was free online. I didn’t have a webcam and did not want to show my face on camera (I still don’t use my face in my courses, about 6-7 years later). Also I was recording all of my courses at night, so filming myself wouldn’t have been great quality anyway.

I used Microsoft Expression Encoder (and later iSpring Free Cam) to record my screen – both free for chunks up to 10 minutes. As for the audio itself, I had an old smartphone headphone, which had an inline mic. Wasn’t the greatest quality, but it managed to only pick up my voice and not the surrounding or the rumbling of the computer fan.

TIP #2:

Start with what you have. Use what’s around you. Don’t stress yourself out thinking you have to learn a new skill to teach it to others. Find the things that you are passionate about (or that you are already good at) and teach them!

Creating my first courses was fairly straightforward: a combination of Microsoft Powerpoint slides created, recorded my audio and screen from that and edited everything in a trial version of Sony Vegas. On my courses were done, I had to pass a new Instructor test on Udemy and then I was a full-fledged instructor. I uploaded my courses, got the approval and they were suddenly live – about a month since I started the entire process.

But I focused so much on my content, that I couldn’t see myself promoting the courses. So for the first month I didn’t do any marketing – I made about 4 dollars. A small about, but enough to validate the idea. But the second month blew me away – it was around 70 $. Since our rent was about 3 times that, we were on our way to passive revenue heaven!

Leveling Up My Online Course Game

Because this initial success was so sudden, I decided to work on even more courses– about Facebook Ads (striking while the iron was hot) and moving into content marketing, naming, branding and email marketing.

Creating the courses was the easy part. Because I was familiar with the subjects I was talking about, I could easily create an entire 1 hour course in a single weekend. I used basic keyword tools to find out what people were interested in and tried creating courses around those topics. I also looked at my own pain points and the issues I had as a digital marketing newbie.

I started getting more ambitious, since more courses could mean more monthly revenue. My Magnum Opus still remains an almost 3 hour course about Email Marketing – tools, techniques, case studies and even predictions for the future. If I were to guess, that took me about 1 entire month from idea to published course. It was still a fun process, as I had to learn a lot to make the course as spectacular as I could.

TIP #3:

Once you’ve created a course, it’s time to start adding more content and even creating another course. Don’t forget about your students! Answer their questions, grade their assignments (where available) and try to create a productive community, focused around success from your courses.

My ambition also translated into a desire for better equipment. I purchased my first USB microphone to boost the audio quality. I was also fortunate enough to find a great deal on Camtasia – that still is my go to, when it comes to the best screen recorder.

With these new tools, I also decided to use better templates for my presentations. I switched to Google Slides, to have everything backed up in the cloud and I spent hours and hours searching online for unique or colorful templates. Once I found I few that that I liked, I mainly stuck to those to maintain a consistent branding across my courses.

As I wanted to maximize my reach (and revenue) I started looking for other course platforms, similar to Udemy. Since it doesn’t require you to be exclusive, there’s no penalty in launching courses on other websites. Actually, it’s beneficial, since you can be making more money with the same content. So you’re essentially generating multiple passive revenue streams with the same content – what could be cooler than that?

After Udemy, I found out about Skillfeed (now closed), Skillshare and a few other smaller platforms.

Skillshare is still going strong and generates most of my passive revenue. It’s a different business model than Udemy. You pay a flat fee per month, but you gain access to the entire course library (in the thousands and growing every day). It started focused mainly on digital arts (web design, character drawings, anime, etc.), but I found this to be an opportunity. I had one of the first Facebook Ads courses on the platform, at that time. Skillshare made it much easier to upload courses and since It didn’t want any exclusivity either, I uploaded all my courses there as well.

All these platforms are marketplaces, meaning people can search for a specific topic and find your course. At the same time, these platforms perform marketing actions on your behalf – they may create special cover graphics for you, feature your courses in newsletters, discount your courses as part of promotions, include them in their facebook ads, etc. Their analytics sections (especially Udemy’s) makes it very easy to see where your course sales came from.

This makes it a very enticing proposition, but it’s also tricky. As these marketplaces are open to anyone, you’re essentially competing against the world. Revenues are definitely not steady and different platforms have different rules. Skillshare for example allowed for shorter courses (around 30 minutes) and I knew a lot of instructors churning out content every single day. It worked out for them for a while, as Skillshare pays on a “premium minutes watched” basis. So the more courses you had, the more chances you had of something working. They made hundreds and thousands of dollars with little effort, but rules change all the time so that method of creation didn’t last long.

For this reason alone, I started branching out. The courses I had were working, I didn’t really need to do any tweaking and I was fairly satisfied with the revenue. But I did want to challenge myself.

Taking My Courses to the Streets

As I was scrolling through Facebook one day, I found an ad for a digital marketing courses, but one that wasn’t digital. You had to physically go to a place and listen for a few hours. Crazy concept, I know. That same day I contacted 3 such courses academies. One didn’t respond. One said they weren’t looking for instructors. The last one actually said yes, we should give it a try.

TIP #4:

Don’t give up when it feels like no one is answering. There are loads more course academies now, so the odds of someone saying something positive has increased. People enjoy working with individuals who are qualified, knowledgeable and confident. So if you’re like that, you’ll do great!

Soon after I met with their CEO, I started a course about Facebook Ads, Google Ads, personas, analytics and tried to tie everything together. I ended up traveling to a few cities in my country and it was a great experience for about 6 months in total. I was paid significantly more than what I was getting on Udemy or Skillshare– for each 2-day course I could pay our rent that month. There were months when I wasn’t teaching and months when I taught every week.

In the end, I parted ways with the course academy, as I found it exhausting balancing a full-time job and doing 2-day courses. At the same time, I got bored of my own course, even though I kept tweaking and improving it based on the students’ feedback.

I didn’t seek out another physical partnership, but I’m now in the process of creating more courses, as I upgraded my entire setup: expensive microphone, great screen recording software and I even went to an enunciation course and started an audio podcast.

TIP #5:

Continue improving and you will see tremendous results if you stick to it. Slow and steady wins the race, so continue your journey to online course success!

Course creation has really changed the way I see things in terms of jobs, freelancing and being able to provide for my wife and I. It’s a digital world we live in, and we should take the leap of sharing our knowledge with the world. I promise you the world needs it, you’ll feel satisfied and make money in the process. So what are you waiting for?

Recap: What I Would Do if I Were Starting from Scratch Today

To conclude, I’d like to leave you with a quick recap of what’s worked for me and what I’d consider doing, if I were starting to create courses as a new instructor today.

What’s worked for me:

  • Creating courses on topics I'm passionate about. I’ve seen instructors living happy lives through courses about teaching piano, digital photography, public speaking, etc. So there’s room for any topic out there.
  • Doing more than one course on a topic. I’ve usually done beginner and advanced courses as well as larger, masterclass-style courses. I tend to think that beginners will look for the next course as an upgrade, if they feel ready.
  • Being very specific in my introduction. I always tell my students what they’re going to learn and who this course is for. This helps them make the right choice and helps you have great reviews from the people you want as students.
  • Asking lots of questions and talking to fellow instructors. I’ve made many friends along the years, from the instructor community and most of them shared secrets to their success, which helped me grow.
  • Creating a discipline and having focus. I created a course structure I stick to, I organize my files neatly, I backup everything in 2 different places, and I make time to work on new projects every month or so.

What I’d do if I was starting all over, and what I’m in the process of doing:

  • Try to increase the quality of my courses. For example, add a video element of me talking to the camera and try to get on big platforms like CreativeLive, Lynda, PluralSight and Stackskills – they do pay per accepted course and they do revenue sharing – I’ve talked to people making thousands of dollars from just 2-3 published courses.
  • Talk to a lot of other instructors. See what works for them and ultimately find ways to partner up, either on course creation or on promotion.
  • Challenge myself to build courses on a wide variety of topics, to see what people are interested in and where I should focus more.
  • Create little video teasers to post on social media, create a YouTube channel, start a blog, and generally work on marketing my courses.
  • Look for more ways to also add a physical component, either as consultations or as face-to-face courses.

Founder's Tip:

"Although course sharing platforms like Udemy and Skillshare save you some of the trouble of doing all your own marketing, creating your own platform (that is, having your own website and email list) allows you to have complete ownership and control over your course, charge what you want, and keep all the profits! It's hand's down the best way to go if you want to make a serious income with online courses. Check out our guide 21 Best Online Learning Platforms to Create & Sell Your Course for more information." –Mary Fernandez

I’m so glad I was able to share my story with you. I hope it inspires you to start creating courses. I’m also available to chat and respond to questions you may have– the comment section is open!


Sorin Amzu is a digital marketer in love with content and creating digital courses. He’s on the content team for InVideo, one of the simplest tools to create small, shareable videos.

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