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Debbie Friis-Pettitt has built a wildly successful online course business in a rare niche: limited palette watercolor painting.

Based out of Prescott, Arizona, Friis-Pettitt began her career as a commercial graphic designer. On the side, she created pencil art pieces. After being featured in several art shows, she wanted to try a new medium: watercolor. 

There was one problem, though: she was intimidated by using color. In fact, she struggled for six months. “I had a palette of 30 plus colors, and I wondered how in the world I could know what colors to pick,” explains Friis-Pettitt. “I knew nothing about the characteristics of color, and so every time I would try to do my own painting, it was just a muddy mess.”

Eventually, she says she found an artist online who taught color theory. “I started painting with a limited palette—using just three colors. That helped teach me how to create harmony, value, and mix my own colors,” she says. 

From that point onwards, she says her art took off. “My niche of painting with a limited palette exploded, and I started getting more and more people telling me that they tossed most of their colors aside, too” continues Friis-Pettitt.

Soon, she gained considerable success through her limited palette paintings and consistently won awards at art shows. People began asking her to give workshops on limited palette watercolor painting. She listened and began teaching in-person workshops in 2018. Right before covid hit, she pivoted to online teaching via Thinkific. “The limited palette really changed watercolor for a lot of people, myself included,” she says. “From there, I went even further and got rid of all my opaque colors and just started teaching with transparent staining colors, which most artists teach you not to do.”

Since launching her online business—Watercolors That Glow!—Friis-Pettitt has taught over 5,000 learners—-continually pushing the edges of what she’s “supposed” to do, and instead finding her own way via her unique niche instead. Here’s how she found success in an unlikely industry:

Skip ahead:

  1. She signed up for Thinkific

In order to reach a wider audience, Friis-Pettitt knew she wanted to teach online.  “People love online workshops,” she says. “In fact, I’ve almost stopped doing in-person workshops entirely because it’s expensive for people to travel.”

Another artist introduced her to Thinkific. “I thought, ‘I can figure this out. This is doable,’” she says. 

Thinkific and Teachable were her top two e-learning platform choices, but she decided to go with Thinkific since she thought it was more simple to navigate. “It was really easy to create courses on Thinkific,” she explains. “There were some learning curves, but all in all I love how Thinkific structures things.”

“Thinkific is getting better and better,” she continues. “There’s no way that I would change to another platform. They answer all of my questions right away.”

  1. She created a library of courses

With an online structure in place, she was ready to begin creating course content. 

She began with filming tutorials, eventually compiling a library of them that people could purchase à la carte style. 

Now, with a total of 60 tutorials, she has a membership option, where people can pay a monthly or annual fee to have access to the entire library. “In the beginning, I didn’t feel like I had enough to do a subscription service,” she says. “It wasn’t until I got to about 50 courses that I started offering the subscription option.”

Since launching her membership less than two months ago, she has 200 subscribers. She plans on continually adding new courses so that members and à la carte learners alike constantly have fresh content. 

While Friis-Pettitt is pleased with the subscriber turnout, her goal isn’t to keep her members for as long as possible. “I want people to learn—and learn quickly—and then move on and start creating their own art,” she says. 

While all of her course content is pre-recorded so that students can learn anytime, anywhere, she does live teaching through her livestream workshops—which she offers once every six weeks. 

  1. She invested in the right equipment

When Friis-Pettitt first started filming her tutorials, she used her iPhone. She knew that to create a sustainable business, she needed to find the right equipment. But adjusting to new technology can be incredibly intimidating for anyone, and she says it took her two years to get to the point of dialing in her filming and recording setup. 

Since those iPhone recording days, she’s invested in technology that helps make her recording and editing process as simple as possible. She uses a camera called a Packshot, which is helpful for filming up close. Then, she uses an editing program called Camtasia, which helps her to easily switch between scenes. “I made sure that I spent a lot of money on equipment; it’s worth it. Now, I have my final set-up,” she says. 

She shows Thinkific this setup, which involves a structure in which her Packshot camera is attached from above, aiming down towards the paper in which she paints. “This lets me film as I’m painting, and I have a remote control that lets me zoom in. Then, I use my Camtasia program to edit,” she says. 

“Now, I can film an intermediate tutorial in a couple of days. Having this little bar set up above me was crucial to getting to the film quality that I have now,” continues Friis-Pettitt.

  1. She kept her prices affordable

Like many creators, she struggled with knowing how to price her courses. 

Despite having many people tell her to charge more, she’s remained firm on keeping her prices accessible; her strategy is to attract the most amount of people possible.

Her livestream courses are $65 USD each, her à la carte courses are $35 USD each, and her membership is either $14 USD when purchased monthly, or $144 when purchased annually. Plus, she also offers bundles, which include a few tutorials  grouped together. These bundles range in price between $48 and $84 USD.

To collect payment, she uses Thinkific Payments.

“I get a lot more people coming onto my site because my courses are reasonable. I feel like keeping my prices lower helped me get further ahead.

Pricing is really about keeping your prices reasonable so that people are willing to try them,” continues Friis-Pettitt.

Not only does she price her courses low, she provides as much value for that price as possible. “I go overboard; I give everybody a mini book and go over so much more than other artists do,” she says. “That’s what keeps people coming back.”

When it comes to choosing the right price, she recommends that creators build their credibility. In the case of artists, she says that they should be known in their communities. “It’s important that you’ve attended art shows and have a few awards under your belt, because then people will feel like they can trust what you’re talking about,” she advises. 

“You also have to have a niche,” she continues. “There may be 10,000 watercolor artists all teaching the same thing, so you have to be different.”

  1. She sold her courses via word-of-mouth

While her courses attract people of all ages, Friis-Pettitt says that most are over 60. 

Her à la carte and livestream courses tend to draw in more serious artists who want to become better painters and maybe even sell their work, whereas her membership is more common for hobbyists. Her audience is almost exclusively women.

People hear about her courses mostly through word of mouth marketing—and she believes that this is possible for anyone who has a good product, is kind, and is teaching something different. “For example, people will post about my courses in other Facebook groups when people ask about courses on the topic of a limited palette,” she explains.

One thing that sets her content apart—and helps her to sell her courses via word of mouth—is that she shows all of her mistakes.

“They see everything,” she says. “They see me have to start over. They see how I handle major mistakes. They listen to my thought process. There aren’t a lot of watercolor artists that do that, and because of this, I’m able to retain students and they go out and spread the word onto all these other sites.”

Aside from word of mouth, she attracts people through her free tutorials. She offers this free content so that people can see what she offers and the way that she teaches, acting as a funnel into her paid courses. Then, she advertises 

her courses on her Facebook group (which has nearly 9,000 members), Instagram page, and Pinterest.  “Pinterest is amazing for the type of visual teaching that I do. I get a lot of students from Pinterest,” she shares. 

Not only is her Facebook group a place for her to share about her new tutorials, it’s also a place where she can connect with her community. She says she has strict rules about joining—and it’s a group specific to her Thinkific website and painting with a limited palette. Many people learn from others through this group, and then transition over to her website to purchase her courses. “Even though I don’t like Facebook, that’s where people seem to be the most comfortable,” she says. 

To Friis-Pettitt, marketing is the hardest part of running her business. “I need to up my game,” she laughs. “Surprisingly, I don’t do a lot of marketing, which is crazy because I have a pretty successful website. My marketing strategy completely goes against the grain.”

  1. She keeps her communication personable

Friis-Pettitt is a one-woman show. Without a team, she relies on keeping her systems streamlined, automated, and as simple as possible. 

She integrates Zapier and Flow Desk into her Thinkific site to keep things running smoothly. “There’s really not a lot involved in what I do,” she explains. “It’s mostly just creating the tutorials and making sure I’m on social media.”

“I would love to find somebody to work with that could help, but I haven’t found that person yet,” continues Friis-Pettitt.

She says that even if she were to hire a team in the future, she wouldn’t want to lose the personal touch that she currently has with her students. “I answer all my own emails, respond to people on social media, and help people in the Facebook group. I always respond right away to everyone in the community,” she shares

“One thing that people love about me is that I’m really personable and I take the time to talk to people; I’m not a bot and I don’t have an assistant handling those things,” she adds.

  1. She honed in on a rare niche

When asked what Friis-Pettitt’s biggest key to success has been as an online creator, she spoke about the importance of finding a niche. “I’ve made it so that I stand out from thousands of other watercolor artists,” she says. “People don’t know you, so you have to think about why they would watch you versus the other 300 people that they just found online.”

“You have to find something that draws people in,” she continues. “For me, using the limited palette has been huge. You have to create something that is different. And if you don’t do that, you’re just stuck with everybody else.”

Plus, she says that choosing Thinkific has been a game-changer.  “There’s nothing wrong with Skillshare and Udemy, but those platforms are in control of the courses, not the content creators. I think the one thing I did right was get on with Thinkific right away and decide how and why I wanted to teach,” shares Friis-Pettitt. 

  1. She stayed consistent, even when it was hard

According to Friis-Pettitt, many first-time online course creators have the assumption that running an online business will be easy.

“It isn’t easy; this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’m just glad I found a platform like Thinkific that could help me organize and structure my classes the way I wanted,” she reveals. 

She says that what kept her going through the hard times was her love for art and teaching. “Sometimes I have to throw myself on my bed and cry a little,” she continues. “Then, I get up, dust myself off, and tell myself that I’ve come this far and I can keep going.”

“It doesn’t happen overnight; it’s taken me two years to get to this point,” says Friis-Pettitt. “But you just have to keep going. If you feel like you have a good product and a good way of teaching, then it’ll happen. But it’s not going to happen right away. It takes time.”

Looking ahead at 2024 trends for online creators, Friis-Pettitt believes that many creators are going to fall to the wayside; now more than ever before, finding that rare niche is crucial. “The market is already overcrowded,” she says. “Unless you’re creating something outside of the box, you won’t stand out.”

She has a few goals for next year. One is to grow her membership; she plans on creating a bunch more tutorials over the next couple of months and then actively marketing it in the new year, hoping to triple her subscriber number. “One of the reasons why I haven’t marketed the membership much is because I don’t feel like I have enough tutorials on there. I’m thinking by the end of the year I’ll have enough to really push it.”

She also wants to create a three-month masterclass through Thinkific, where she will provide a small group learning experience to create a painting. By the end of the class, the students will have a deep understanding of how to use watercolors and paint with a limited palette. “I’m hoping to have two masterclass courses next year,” she excitedly shares.

Looking to launch your own online course business in a niche you’re passionate about? Sign up for Thinkific today—for free!