Business Overview


Online courses are offered for many types of learning. Global Industry Analysts, Inc. reported the global, online, eLearning industry was over US $107 billion in revenues during 2015. There are plenty of opportunities to make money with an online courses business.

Online courses may lead to earning a degree, getting certification and/or completing legal requirements. Online courses are popular for corporate training, continuing education purposes, self-improvement, learning foreign languages, hobbies, and “how-to” instructions for a variety of projects.

Earning a Degree

These online courses can be extension courses offered by “brick and mortar” educational institutions. They can be courses offered by online educational institutions that only have their courses on the Internet. In both of these cases, these courses are offered usually by certified educational institutions if the course credit goes towards earning a degree that is recognized as legitimate by employers and others.

Sometimes these educational institutions hire outside consultants to develop the online courses for them.

Certification and Corporate Training

Another popular use of online courses is for the certifications required for employment in specific fields. These courses may be entry-level for those being certified for the first time. They also may be required for continuing educational purposes in order to maintain one’s certification for licensing renewal.

Examples of certification courses are those commonly used by software programmers to prove their competence in certain computer programming languages, IT technology, and software. Additionally, the instructors of these courses usually are also certified and achieved their certification by taking online courses and passing comprehensive online exams about the subject matter.

Legal Requirements

A common online course, which is taken because of the legal requirements, is traffic school. In some states, a person who gets a traffic ticket is given the option to take a traffic school course in order to avoid paying a fine and have the infraction appear on their driving record.

Other examples are the OSHA requirements for on-the-job safety training or basic first-aid training.

Continuing Education, Self-Improvement, and Others

Many people take online courses due to their personal interests in getting better at certain skills, enjoying what they do for hobbies, understanding how to complete a project, and simply wanting to learn new things, like a foreign language.

There are three styles of online courses, which are popular. These are:

  1. Level One: Online courses that are self-directed and allow students to progress at their own pace.
  2. Level Two: Online courses that are self-directed and have real-time text chat support available to answer questions.
  3. Level Three: Online courses that are guided by instructors with lectures, which are given in real-time. Students interact with the instructors via video conferencing. These courses are very similar to taking courses in person. They can be taken from the convenience of an office or a home without having to drive to a physical place. Usually, the lessons are recorded. This allows any student who misses a live lecture to review it at a later time.

Unlike traditional in-person courses, these online courses are not always lengthy. Some of these courses may only last for 30 minutes, while others may last for several weeks. The online courses may include graded work assignments, quizzes, and/or exams to track the progress of the students. This helps determine their level of comprehension for a part of the material, before allowing them to continue with the next part.

Who is this business right for?

Online courses are created by people with a considerable amount of expertise and experience in the field they wish to teach. As such, having a niche skill makes it easier to offer desirable courses. These businesses require a considerable amount of time when they are the live video-conference style.

Online courses can be more difficult to teach than standard classes as students typically need lots of interaction with the teacher. A high-quality computer and speedy internet connection are essential when teaching online courses if you intend to offer live, video-conference style courses.

What happens during a typical day at an online courses business?

The activities differ, depending on the type of online courses offered.

For level one self-directed courses, most of the processes are automated. As the business owner, you will be highly focused on marketing efforts to find students who will take the courses. You will spend most of your time creating online marketing campaigns and/or supervising those who you hire to help you do this marketing effort. You will spend some of your time creating or supervising the creation of materials for new courses in order to expand your online course offerings. A smaller part of your time will be checking the existing course materials to make sure they are up-to-date with current information.

For level two self-directed courses with live online chat, you will have similar responsibilities as for level one, with the addition that you will participate in the live text chatting with students and/or oversee the live text chats for quality control purposes.

For level three live real-time video conferencing online courses, in addition to the responsibilities of level one and level two, you will spend part of the day preparing for your online lectures and part of the day giving the lectures to students on a regular schedule.

What is the target market?

Contracting with an organization(s) to create online training courses for new employees, and continuing educational courses for existing employees, is an excellent way to achieve continual business.

For online courses taken by individuals, the best customers are those who have a need or desire to complete a course and prefer the convenience of taking such a course online.

How does an online courses business make money?

There are two ways to make money with online course offerings. They are, charge each student a participation fee or contract with an organization to provide these services for a fee.

What is the growth potential for an online courses business?

Depending on the market niche, the potential for growth is excellent. Examples of very successful businesses that offer online courses include these top-ten selected by the eLearning Industry for 2016:

  1. SweetRush
  2. EI Design
  3. Allen Interactions
  4. Allen Comm
  5. Pulse Learning
  6. Obsidian
  7. G-Cube
  8. Designing Digitally
  9. Learnnovators
  10. CommLab India

BusinessWire reports that TutorGroup is worth $1 billion. TutorGroup is the largest English language online education platform in the world.

The Training Industry provides an annual top twenty list for various types of corporate online training companies.

Getting Started


What are some skills and experiences that will help you build a successful online courses business?

It helps if you have expert knowledge in a specific niche or if you can hire those who have this expertise to help you.

For level one self-directed courses, you will need to prepare the course materials and then market them on the Internet. The course materials may come from your professional efforts and be an extension of them. For example, if you are a great chef, you can create an online cooking course to teach some of your best techniques in preparing recipes.

Some courses require a teaching certification. For example, if you want to teach English as a second language using the video conference method, you should have a teaching certification of TEFL or TESOL. There are many choices for how to get these certifications. One company, ESL Certified, offers both courses online.

Another example is the extensive certification process offered by Microsoft for software programmers and developers.

What are the costs involved in opening an online courses business?

For level one self-directed online courses the costs are to create the course materials, build a website, and create an online marketing campaign with enough funds to attract students.

A typical budget for a sophisticated course offering would be about $21,000 consisting of these expenses:

  • Creation of Course Materials - $10,000
  • Website - $5,000
  • Internet Marketing - $500 per month ($6,000 per year)

For level two self-directed online courses with live chat help, this would be the $21,000 above plus live chat support for a total budget of around $24,000. Live chat support can be outsourced for prices starting at $199 per month for 24/7 monitoring and response. There are many companies providing these services. Here is one example from 365chatsupport.

For level three online courses guided by instructors, you will need video conferencing capabilities, good lighting, and a good quality webcam. Also, the instructors will earn US$30 per hour on average. Your small startup budget would be about $25,000 and depend on the hours of instruction you plan to offer at inception.

What are the steps to start an online courses business?

Once you're ready to start your online courses business, follow these steps to ensure that your business is legally compliant and avoid wasting time and money as your business grows:

  1. Plan your business. A clear plan is essential for success as an entrepreneur. A few important topics to consider are your initial costs, your target market, and how long it will take you to break even.
  2. Form a legal entity. Establishing a legal business entity prevents you from being personally liable if your online courses business is sued.
  3. Register for taxes. You will need to register for a variety of state and federal taxes before you can open for business.
  4. Open a business bank account. A dedicated checking account for your online courses business keeps your finances organized and makes your business appear more professional to your customers.
  5. Set up business accounting. Recording your various expenses and sources of income is critical to understanding the financial performance of your business. Keeping accurate and detailed accounts also greatly simplifies your annual tax filing.
  6. Obtain necessary permits and licenses. Failure to acquire necessary permits and licenses can result in hefty fines, or even cause your business to be shut down.
  7. Get business insurance. Insurance is highly recommended for all business owners. If you hire employees, workers compensation insurance may be a legal requirement in your state.
  8. Define your brand. Your brand is what your company stands for, as well as how your business is perceived by the public. A strong brand will help your business stand out from competitors.
  9. Establish a web presence. A business website allows customers to learn more about your company and the products or services you offer. You can also use social media to attract new clients or customers.

Select your state below for an in-depth guide on completing each of these steps in your home state.

Where can I find a business mentor?

One of the greatest resources an entrepreneur can have is quality mentorship. As you start planning your business, connect with a free business resource near you to get the help you need.

Having a support network in place to turn to during tough times is a major factor of success for new business owners.

Recommended: Fizzle.co offers video courses and a supportive online community of like-minded entrepreneurs. Try one month membership for for free.

What are some insider tips for jump starting an online courses business?

Take advantage of the easy-to-use software tools and templates like those offered by eLearning Brothers to more easily create your online courses. A great resource for online teachers is the Online Learning Consortium.

Starting a brand new, independent website may not be the best option because the classes will be much harder to market. Udemy and Teachable offer course-hosting websites with lots of existing web traffic of people looking for courses to take. Udemy and Teachable offer a great opportunity to reach a large group of customers, though these companies take a percentage of profits.

One way to start a business of this type might be starting with a class hosted through Udemy or Teachable, and then, if your course develops enough of a following and a good reputation you can create your own website to expand the business, thereby capturing all the profits.

Growing Your Business


How to promote & market an online courses business

It is important to use the best practices for search engine optimization (SEO) to make sure you have the highest ranking possible on the search engine results page (SERP). This will increase the organic (non-paid) search engine traffic to your website.

It is easier to market a course that offers very special content that is highly valuable and not available elsewhere.

Experts attract high-paying students when they share specialized information that they know with a select group. The most effective way of attracting these students is to give free introductory webinars to discuss the course content in such a way that motivates the participants to sign up for the online courses.

Social media is an excellent way to attract customers by interacting with others who have similar interests. Distributing free introductory e-books helps create interest in taking the full, online courses.

Recommended: Get started with local advertising for your business with a $300 credit from Yelp.

How to keep customers coming back

The quality of the course materials and the good experience of past students, who give positive course ratings and testimonials, will help attract customers. Adding new course content that is of interest to past students helps make them into repeat customers.

How and when to build a team

This is the type of business where it is possible to start as a sole owner/operator. However, if you get enough traction and have enough students you will want to add staff for administrative support, staff (either in-house or freelance) to help increase marketing efforts, and additional instructors if you offer video conferencing courses that have sufficient student demand.

Legal Considerations


State & Local Business Licensing Requirements

Certain state permits and licenses may be needed to operate an online courses business. Learn more about licensing requirements in your state by visiting SBA’s reference to state licenses and permits.

In addition, certain local licensing or regulatory requirements may apply.

Most businesses are required to collect sales tax on the goods or services they provide. To learn more about how sales tax will affect your business, check out our informative guide, Sales Tax for Small Businesses.

For more information about local licenses and permits:

Other Considerations

The nature of legal requirements in distance education is ever changing, especially in regards to copyright laws. Here is a frequently updated resource, which can help keep you aware of the legal requirements.

Reduce Personal Liability

Structuring your business as a limited liability company (LLC) ensures your personal assets are protected in the event your business is sued.

What is an LLC?

Form an LLC in 5 easy steps

Earning Potential


How much can you charge customers?

Level one and level two self-directed courses start at around $9.99 and go up to about $499 if certification is the goal. Video conferencing courses may be charged per hour and students pay $10 per hour up to $30 per hour depending on the number of other students participating at the same time. One-on-one tutoring is usually around $30 per hour. Specialty courses by industry experts can sell for thousands of dollars.

What are the ongoing expenses for an online courses business?

The ongoing expenses are:

  • A high-quality Internet connection that allows for a fast response and large bandwidth for web hosting. Allow $1,000 per month for an average operation that is successful.
  • For Internet marketing, allow a minimum of $500 per month for the most basic advertising. Successful online courses businesses spend $5,000 per month on marketing or more.
  • To pay instructors, allow $30 per hour for their class teaching time.
  • For course content creation, allow a minimum of $1,000 to $2,000 per new course created.

How much profit can an online courses business make?

Some people are comfortable making a few hundred dollars profit per month. Others make hundreds of thousands of profit per year. The largest companies in this industry sector make many millions in profit annually.

Here are some resources to use to generate ideas for online courses that are likely to be profitable:

How can you make your business more profitable?

Continue to offer new and exciting courses to past customers. Sell materials related to the course content. Expand from teaching individuals to getting contracts to provide training for the entire workforce of major organizations.

Set up an affiliate program that gives commissions to those who find new customers for your online courses. Expand operations to include multiple languages and market your courses in other countries.

Next Steps

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