K. Michael Russell is a professional comic book colorist and the founder of ComicColor.com, where he shares tips and techniques to help others improve their coloring skills. He is also the author of A Guide to Coloring Comics with Photoshop, and the creator of an online course called Coloring Comics with Photoshop, which currently has over 1700 students from 70 different countries. Not bad considering he started teaching online a little over two years ago!
We recently spoke with Michael to learn more about his journey as a colorist and online instructor and to ask him to share a few tips to help other online course creators succeed. Here is his story:
Working as a freelance colorist
When Michael decided to work as a colorist over five years ago, finding work was a bit of a challenge. As is true of all people who enter a new industry as a freelancer, he had to spend a significant amount of time refining his skills and building his portfolio before he was able to attract a steady flow of clients. “I started working in comics professionally in 2011 and it was a slow-burn to start off”, Michael recalls. “Like most beginners, there wasn’t a lot of work for the first couple of years.”
In between working full-time as a nurse and working part-time on coloring projects for his clients, Michael would spend his spare time watching video tutorials on YouTube in order to improve his skills as a colorist. The problem with these free video tutorials, as Michael soon discovered, was that there were so many of them and in most cases they were unrelated or disorganized.
“There were a lot of materials on YouTube as far as tutorials and that sort of thing, but everything was a bit disorganized and all over the place”, says Michael. “Different methods that don’t really build on each other. You can’t take what you learn in one video and take it into someone else’s video and build on it. It’s usually a completely different method.”
Building his audience on YouTube
After about two years of working as a colorist and learning from free video tutorials on YouTube, Michael decided to start creating his own video tutorials. By this time, he had experienced the frustration of spending countless hours sifting through different video tutorials to learn technical skills, and he suspected there were other colorists experiencing that same frustration. He wanted to create a resource that would help other colorists learn the technical skills of their craft, but more importantly, learn how to use coloring to help tell a story with their work. “Part of your job as a colorist is to help tell the story and I felt that was lacking”, Michael told us.
In the summer of 2013, Michael set up his own YouTube channel where he began publishing free video tutorials to help other colorists. He also created a Facebook Page and a Twitter profile to help promote his videos, but for the most part, his audience grew organically as he published more videos. “I started doing YouTube videos myself in the summer of 2013, and I attracted several thousand subscribers there just kind of organically, not really promoting it too much”, says Michael.
Today, Michael’s YouTube channel has nearly 100 free video tutorials and over 12,000 subscribers. Here is a screenshot of his YouTube channel, so you can see for yourself:
When he first created his YouTube channel, Michael was also excited about the possibility of earning some additional income from the ads on his videos. “You hear about people making a lot of money on YouTube and I guess I did what a lot of people did at first. I just thought I’ll get a bunch of hits and I’ll make a bunch of money off the ads and it will be fine. Of course, that was not the case”, Michael explains. “I don’t want to say exactly what I make from AdSense, but let’s just say that it would buy me dinner at Chili’s once a month probably.”
Creating his first online course
After building his audience on YouTube for a little more than a year (and unfortunately, not getting rich from the ads in the process), Michael decided to explore other ways to monetize his expertise as a colorist. “Not that I started the channel to make money, but after I had built up several thousand subscribers it just wasn’t turning in anything really meaningful as far as income goes”, he explains. “So that’s when I started looking at other options outside of YouTube that I could drive people to and that would make it a little bit more worth my while I guess.”
In the process of researching different ways to monetize his expertise online, Michael learned about online courses. Thanks to his YouTube channel, he already had an audience of people who were interested in coloring, so creating an online course about coloring seemed like a logical next step. Once he created his first course, he could simply add a link to his course to his YouTube channel, and with a little luck, make more money from course sales than he was making from the ads on his videos.
Michael admits that his first course was far from perfect, but the important thing was that he got it done. “With the first course I put up, honestly I just didn’t know what I was doing as an instructor”, says Michael. “I knew I had a decent curriculum, but it wasn’t organized as well as it should be. There weren’t really enough lessons as far as the way it was broken up. It needed a little bit of work.”
After researching different options for selling his online course, he decided to publish it on Udemy, an online course marketplace (don’t worry Michael, we won’t hold this against you!). “I was very excited when it first launched because it was a pretty unique course there and it did well”, says Michael. “But I realized very quickly that I had no control over pricing, sales were incessant, and in some cases, I was making as little as two or three dollars per sale on what was a fifty or sixty dollar course at the time. I didn’t like that very much.”
As an online instructor, selling your course on a course marketplace such as Udemy is not necessarily a bad idea. But course marketplaces do have some limitations that you should be aware of. As Michael discovered, he had no control over the pricing of his course (course prices on Udemy are now capped at $50) or the frequent discounts and promotions that Udemy uses to entice people to enroll in courses (which explained why he was only making two or three dollars per course sale).
The biggest drawback of selling your course on a course marketplace is you don’t actually own or control the platform on which your course is sold. This means that changes to the platform that are beyond your control can have a direct impact on your online teaching business. Put in another context, selling your course in a course marketplace is basically the equivalent of setting up a lemonade stand in someone else’s yard. No matter how successful your lemonade stand becomes, at the end of the day, it’s not your yard. To build a sustainable online course business, it is important to have as much control over your business as possible.Selling your #onlinecourse in a marketplace is like setting up a lemonade stand in someone else's yard Click To Tweet
Making the switch to Thinkific
One of the biggest advantages of using Thinkific to create and sell your online courses is you have complete control over your course branding (including the domain you use for your courses), your pricing, and your communication with your students. After experiencing the limitations of selling his course in a course marketplace, these were attractive features to Michael. When our CEO Greg Smith reached out to him directly to tell him about Thinkific, Michael was definitely intrigued.
“Greg actually found me and said he liked what I was doing and asked me to check it [Thinkific] out”, Michael told us. “I was a little dubious at first. I was thinking who is this guy? It can’t be that great if the CEO is messaging me. It turned out that I was wrong. I did a conference call and he introduced me to the whole team on Skype actually, which was pretty funny. But we had a great conversation. I could tell he was very passionate about e-learning and online education and within a week I had my whole course moved over.”
With his course content already created, moving his course from Udemy to Thinkific was a quick and seamless process. “With Thinkific, the initial course creation is very easy”, says Michael. “I mean I come from a tech background but you don’t need that. The majority of the work is on your part as far as content creation goes, like getting videos recorded or creating educational resources. But once that’s done it’s just a matter of getting the copy in there and getting the files uploaded. I love how easy it is.”
Re-launching his course
Shortly after making the switch to Thinkific, Michael read a case study that we published about another online instructor that was using Thinkific to sell his online course. “I actually read one of your case studies with John from My Excel Online, and I was very impressed with what he was doing”, Michael recalls. If you haven’t heard the story, the short version is that John was hosting webinars to sell his course about Microsoft Excel, generating upwards of $20,000 in course sales per month in the process (click here to read the full case study).
Inspired by John’s results, Michael paid close attention to how John’s course was structured and promoted. Using John’s Excel course as a reference, Michael decided to re-record his entire course and organize its lessons differently. “I kind of used what he was doing as a template to organize my course differently”, Michael explains. “I re-recorded the entire thing after that first year. The first course was about six hours long, and the second version which launched in May of 2015 was about ten hours.”
The improvement to his video lessons and the overall structure and organization of his course proved to be beneficial for Michael’s teaching business and for his students. “The feedback from students was much better”, says Michael. “Not that the feedback was bad before, but it turned out that students were more engaged and the course did better, from a financial standpoint.”
Tips for other online course creators:
As we wrapped up our conversation with Michael, we asked him to share a few tips with other online instructors to help them achieve success with their courses. Here’s what he told us:
1. Short video lessons are better than long ones
When Michael created the first version of his course, his video lessons were quite long. He later realized that this made it difficult for his students to re-visit specific parts of his course that were contained somewhere inside these long videos. When he re-recorded his course, he split up his content into smaller video lessons, making it easier for his students to navigate to specific lessons or pick up where they left off after a previous session.
“One thing I could have done better with my first course was I had really long videos. I had thirty, even forty-five-minute videos”, says Michael. “There were tons and tons of content and people enjoyed it, but the problem with that, though, is if I have to quit watching a video now and come back to it later, I’ve got to find my spot where I left off. So when I re-did the course, I broke it up into very small digestible chunks where each video is five, six, or seven minutes long. Maybe ten to fifteen minutes at the most.”
2. Don’t price your course too low
Pricing is a tricky subject for most online instructors, especially for those who have never created or sold an online course before. And unfortunately, most online instructors are drastically undercharging for their courses. This was certainly true for Michael when he started selling his first course back in 2014. “I think I was under-priced initially”, he told us. “Even now, there aren’t really any courses on the internet that are quite as comprehensive as mine.”
When Michael re-launched his course in 2015, which contained more content and was more organized than the first one, he increased his price. He also created different price tiers in order to give his prospective students different options to choose from (a course pricing technique that we highly recommend implementing).
Here is a recent screenshot of the price tiers for his course:
Another problem with pricing your course too low is it actually decreases the perceived value of your course. When people see a low course price, they are more likely to assume that your course is low quality. If your price is too low then you’ll have people assume that there can’t be a lot of value in your course”, says Michael. “A lot of people are afraid to price their course higher, but don’t sell yourself short on pricing.”
Related: How To Price Your Online CourseIf you know your #onlinecourse has value, don’t be afraid to charge a higher price for it. Click To Tweet
3. Use high-quality recording equipment to create your lessons
The final tip for other online instructors that Michael shared with us is to make sure you use high-quality equipment to create your training lessons. Whether you record audio lessons, screen recordings, live video, or some combination of all of these, use the best equipment that you can afford. This ensures your students have a positive listening and/or viewing experience as they consume your course content.
“Almost all of my videos are almost entirely screen captures, so I don’t really have any tips as far as body cameras or lighting or those sort of things”, says Michael. “For me, making sure that the audio quality is good is really important. Get a decent microphone, and make sure that your audio sounds good, that you’re not just using your webcam mic or something. Especially if someone is going to be listening to you for six or ten hours, or however long they are going to listen to you, you want it to be a good experience for them.”Inspiring story of @kmichaelrussell teaching comic coloring online. #teachonline Click To Tweet