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Wes Kao

Wes Kao is co-founder of Maven, a platform that helps creators build cohort-based courses. Before that, she co-founded the altMBA with acclaimed author and marketer Seth Godin. If you have an idea for a course, give this episode a listen before moving forward. And be sure to check out Wes’s free course accelerator.

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What is a cohort-based course?

Wes Kao is co-founder of Maven, a platform that helps creators build cohort-based courses. Before that, she co-founded the altMBA with acclaimed author and marketer Seth Godin.

If you’re not yet familiar with them, cohort-based courses (CBCs) are a not-so-new way of learning with a group of other people. They take the best parts of traditional classroom education and blend them with online classes to create a rich learning experience.

In this episode, Wes shares why CBCs are the best way to learn and why it’s crucial you always test (and validate) your course idea. Having a substantial social following doesn’t guarantee a courses’ success.

If you have an idea for a course, give this episode a listen before moving forward. And be sure to check out Wes’s free course accelerator.

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Episode Transcript

Wes:

It's very demoralizing if you spend a lot of time building something and then put it out and no one wants it. You think it's demoralizing if you tell people about an idea or show them a landing page and no one clicks, it's way more demoralizing months later, once you've already spent 100 times more effort actually building the thing. So, don't be a delusional validate your hypotheses because your time and energy matter and are important, and you want to invest it towards something that people are going to value and that you are going to feel good building.

Chris:

I'm so excited to talk to you today, Wes, because there is so much I want to learn and unpack from what it is that you've been able to do. For people who don't know who you are, can you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit of your background story?

Wes:

Sure. I'm Wes Kao. I'm the co-founder of a new startup called Maven. We make it really easy for creators to build, launch and host their cohort based courses. Cohort based courses are a new learning format that are community driven, interactive. The online courses of the past decade were all about a series of videos that you basically watch by yourself on Teachable, Udemy, LinkedIn Learning, but there's no interaction.
And basically cohort based courses are the opposite of that, because they're entirely community driven. So, there's a start and end date. The course might be three days, a week, three weeks, but you're learning with a group of people. So maybe makes it really easy for anyone to create a course like this.

Chris:

Now just for clarity, you're saying cohort based?

Wes:

Cohort based courses. Yes.

Chris:

Beautiful.

Wes:

CBC.

Chris:

That is a term I've heard in the last couple years. I've never participated in a cohort based course and I'm fascinated by this. So if you don't mind, I'm going to get really geeky on behalf of myself mostly and hopefully some people that are listening in the audience who want to be able to create a course. I think you're going to get an opportunity to learn with me. Now, I wanted to ask you this question about how this evolved for you, because I look at your resume and the things that you've done, this is not how it started, can you take us back to your initial dabblings in course creation and helping authors create content and then why you're here today?

Wes:

For sure. So, the term cohort based course has really been blowing up recently, but a couple years ago it was not even invented yet. So, Seth Gordin and I created one of the first cohort based courses, mainstream cohort based courses in 2014, 2015 with the altMBA. And at the time the dominant form of online learning were massive open online courses so these are prerecorded videos that I'd mentioned earlier.
And the completion rate for this online course was super low, anywhere between six to 10% and a recent MIT study said it could be as low as 3%. So, a bunch of people get really excited to learn and a tiny percentage of people actually stay long enough for any of that learning to actually happen. And myself included, I think I have a hand lettering calligraphy course and a classical music appreciation course in Skillshare somewhere gathering digital dust for the past seven years or so.
So when Seth Gordin and I were working together, we were thinking about this couldn't be the pinnacle of what online education is supposed to be. This couldn't be it for the future of education. And it felt like such a shame because at the time I was helping him create a Udemy course that would end up being one of the best selling Udemy courses of that year. And we were putting all this effort into creating this amazing content and then realizing that most people would never actually watch that content or engage with it or learn from it.
And so we thought, what if there was a better way, what if we played around with the different levers that we had available at the time and created a new format of online learning? So instead of it being low priced or free, what if we made this expense enough where students felt they had skin in the gate and what if instead of it being a solo activity where you learned by yourself, you learned with a group of other like-minded students? And what if instead of it being mainly driven by passive content consumption, this new format was all about active learning and doing?
And so from that, we created the altMBA, a four week online leadership and management course. And in the beginning it was entirely an experiment. And I was skeptical about whether this could work. So Slack, Zoom, there were new technologies at the time. I remember teaching people how to use Slack and Zoom and our students, our early students being wary about meeting strangers online and whether that was safe. And now it seems so weird because we all take Zoom meetings now, especially during the pandemic and we're all used to learning together, but back then it was still this strange thing.
And I wasn't sure if it was possible to recreate the magic that happens with the best in person learning and be able to recreate that online. But from the first workshop that we did in May 2015, I was blown away by the 100 students that we had and how they were connecting with each other in channels that they were creating in Slack on their own DMing each other, meeting each other offline, creating projects outside of the ones that we were giving them, supporting each other with advice on different projects that they were working on. I was just blown away by how people that we had brought together were connecting and interacting and really pushing each other.
And so, Seth and I knew we were on to something. So what stood started as an initial project eventually grew into an institution that we decided to invest in. And I grew the altMBA over the course of three years to thousands of students in 500 cities and 45 countries. And after that I got another nagging feeling of was there something special in the water when we started the altMBA that allowed this to happen or was there something actually special about this format of cohort based learning that could be replicated in other industries and other verticals with other creators and experts?
So, that was the driving question for me as I left the altMBA started working directly with creators. One of my first clients was Professor Scott Galloway from NYU Stern at its company, Section4. Another client was the co-founders of Morning Brew, Alex Lieberman and Austin Rief. I also worked with Amy Jo Martin. She's the bestselling author of Renegades Write the Rules. I worked with David Perell on Right of Passage, Tiago Forte on Building a Second Brain. So, there were these early adopters, innovators within the online learning space that were catching on to what the altMBA was doing and were excited to build their own versions of the altMBA.
So I worked with these different creators to essentially replicate the altMBA model, this cohort based model. And I saw from working with these different creators that the format itself was special, that there was something about this format that allowed communities from different walks of life congregating around different functional topics, whether it be writing, or crypto, or productivity, or business strategy, it was this sandbox that allowed eager operators and professionals to learn together in a really effective way.
The completion rates that I was seeing at altMBA was 96% completion. The completion rates that we're seeing at Maven across hundreds of cohort is about 75% completion or more. So magnitude higher than the single digits that we were seeing with massive open online courses. And so, that was really one of the inspirations for starting Maven, was doing the altMBA, creating that from the ground up, then working with a bunch of creators and throughout all that, realizing that the struggles that I was dealing with as a course creator were struggles that all the other course creators I was working with also were dealing with.
So the slog of dealing with all the technical pieces of cobbling together, 10, 12 different platforms using Zappier to stitch it all together, messing around with landing page software and email software and CRMs and spreadsheets and databases and content hosting software. It was a lot for someone who's not technical. And it was probably the most annoying part of course creation for me. And that wasn't why I was excited about courses, it wasn't why anyone I was working with was excited about courses. They would rather just not deal with the technical piece.
And so, when I got back in touch with Gagan Biyani, my co-founder, he had co-founded Udemy years before. And we were riffing about where online education is going and talking about cohort based courses. That's when we thought, "Hey, no one is building something to address this big problem." And actually back then, it wasn't even called cohort based courses, we created the term cohort based courses. So, this idea that we were onto something early that people were increasingly catching on and liking this format as a new alternative to more static forms of online learning, it felt a really great fit where we could make this process a whole lot easier for a lot of creators.

Chris:

For someone who doesn't understand or is not familiar with that term cohort, can you give us the macro view of what that is just so structural I can get my head wrapped around? Because you mentioned MOOCs, Massive Open Online Course, is it courses?

Wes:

Yep.

Chris:

Yeah. I understand that. That's typically what we think of as an online course. You write something, you record it and then students either watch it or not, but it's all self-study. This is very different, can you just give us, here's the big picture, this is what a cohort based course is.

Wes:

Yeah, for sure. A cohort based course is a course that has a set start and end date where you are learning with a community of other students. So, the course might be anywhere between three days to one week to three weeks. Some of them are six to eight weeks, but during that period of time, you're learning with a bunch of other operators and professionals. So, if you're taking a UX design course, there might be 100 other UX designers who want to sharpen their craft.
And the course might be the full month of March, let's say. And during this month you are learning from an instructor you might meet Tuesdays and Thursdays 12:00 to 2:00 PM, let's say, but in between these life workshops, you are doing group work with small groups or pods, learning pods, or you're working on a capstone own design project that you're going to ship by the end, or you are critiquing fellow students work and giving each other feedback.
So, instead of if you were taking the Udemy course on UX design, you would watch seven, 10 different videos about composition, color, balance, typography. So in a cohort based version of this course, the instructor might give a 10, 15 minute lecture about composition. And then while everyone is still in Zoom, you'd have a five minute silent working time where everyone is now putting whatever you just learned into practice. And then at the end of those five minutes, we all share our screens and show the thing that we just designed.
And then the instructor might pick out a few designs to give feedback to and say, "All right, I liked how you did this. This is great, but this is a little murky here." The rule of thirds, or this is a little off balance. And so it's a much richer learning experience because you're not just watching passively as an instructor speaks and talks at you, you have the chance to put those lessons actually into practice. And what usually happens when you try to put something new that you just learned to practice is you realize that you don't get it as much as you thought you did, you watch the video like, "Oh, totally. That makes sense. I know how to do this."
And then you actually try doing it and you stumble and you realize that the execution is harder than you thought. And so the course gives you the space to practice and to get feedback so that actually learn the thing and you leave with real skills where you are more confident to use those skills the nuances and you have more depth on a certain topic as opposed to a surface level understanding. So, that's a high level of what is a cohort based course, how does it work and why are students more excited to learn in this way?

Chris:

Okay. I understand it now. It sounds a lot like traditional education. At least I went to an art school. And so that meant that the largest class I was ever in was probably 25 students. And they were very short lectures, if any, and then the instructor would give us something to do, but here's the key difference we don't do that work in class. We would then go home and work on it then each class we'd come back with our work up on the wall, instructor would critique and discussion and all that stuff. And we'd make revisions while the instructor's still there. And then we'd go back and do it again. And we'd repeat the process. So how is cohort based learning online different than in class learning?

Wes:

Yeah. Great question. In class, learning is cohort based. If we go back to the era of Socrates teaching in the town square, that is cohort based. If you think about K through 12 and higher education, that is also cohort based, because there's a start of school year. There's the semester 14 weeks, the beginning and end of class, couple times a week, that is all cohort based.
When we think about online education though, we moved away from cohort based for a decade or so more towards this asynchronous, on demand, evergreen, you can access this content whenever in the beginning it was parking a camera in the back of a lecture hall, and then students could access this content whenever. And so that was when we think of online learning what we thought of for what courses look like.
So cohort based courses are bringing the best of in-person learning with the best of online learning. So we keep the interaction and skin in the game of the best kinds of in-person learning exactly what you talked about in your art class, I love that. The professor critiquing students learning, doing, and then coming back, workshopping ideas together, that's the in person piece.
And then the online piece is the scale, the scale, the convenience not being tied to a 25 mile radius of whatever's within driving distance or needing to move across a country just to attend a class or a certain school. So, it's really bringing the convenience and accessibility of online learning and combining it with the best parts of in-person learning.

Chris:

Yes. Wonderful. Okay. It's all clearing up for me right now. So in school, I have a challenge in my classes were five hours long. My classes were very small by design, 10 students. And I would need all five hours to critique the work and go in depth. But when you start talking about 100 people at a time, obviously then you have to engineer the work differently. It's not so easy for me to walk over to students, see what they're doing and say, oh, this is a classic illustration, if you just held your pen this way, you'll see that it's a lot easier to draw. So here now everybody's like a postage stamp size thing. How do you design the course so that it can scale and give someone the feeling that yes, while learning together, I'm getting the attention that I need? I'm curious.

Wes:

Yeah. At the upper end of student count, there are some cohort based courses with 1000 or more students per cohort learning at the same time. So altMBA was 100 to 120 students, but Section4, professor Galloway's sprints have a thousand to 1,500 students at any given time learning about brand strategy, marketing, product management. So how does it work with this number of students?
Breaking down the bigger group into smaller sub cohorts and subgroups is an important part. So you have your entire cohort, but you're not necessarily working with an entire group of people at the same time during the entire duration of the course. So with altMBA, for example, we broke people up into groups of 20 and then into groups of four to five. So you had your smaller learning group that we would change every week of four to five people that you would work on different projects with and collaborate really closely with. And then we'd switch it up so that you could get exposure to different people that you otherwise wouldn't meet and have a chance to expose your ideas and get exposure to new ideas.
And then within your broader cohort of 20, you had a coach, a coach or two who was watching over your shoulder, making sure that you were staying on track, connecting with other students who they thought you would benefit from meeting. So breaking up that bigger group into smaller groups allows you to keep that sense of intimacy and keep that small group feel while still having a lot of the benefits of having a bigger group. So a lot of times, the times that I've learned the most is seeing how other people interpreted a certain problem and solved a problem in their way.
And I'm always shocked because people's brains work so differently, I'll see something and be like, "I would've never thought about that. That's just not where my head would've gone. It seems so obvious to me to solve it this way." And they're looking at my work thinking the same thing. So, getting that bird's eye view into how did all of these different students solve a certain problem can be really, really helpful. And then the second is the networking piece.
So, more students means more chances to expand your network and meet someone that you might hit it off with. So usually within the first couple of days, students have already met a friend that they will keep in touch with after the course ends. So they're usually DMing offline talking about something off of whatever the main course topics are. So with the bigger group, there's more chances to expand your network, to meet different people in your field. There's different pros and cons having slightly bigger and slightly smaller cohorts, but there's a bunch of different levers that you can use to make sure that the course feels balanced for your students.

Chris:

Okay. I imagine then the selection of the students of the group are really, really important because if you have 120 students, that means you're going to have six groups, and then each group has a coach that is not the instructor, I assume, because then... So there's a little hierarchy here. And then that coach works with this group of 20 to break them into smaller groups and there's a rotation. And so that has to be planned out in advance. Am I understanding this correctly so far?

Wes:

Yes. That was the all time based structure. Other cohort based courses are structured differently. So with section four, for example, they have a coach for every 100 students or so. And some courses that are smaller, don't have coaches at all. They might just have the instructor who works directly with the students. So it really depends on each instructor's setup.

Chris:

Right. It also seems like it's necessitated or predicated on how big this cohort group is, the larger it is there's going to be this... You have to have other instructors or coaches to help you teach. Okay. So in a case of Seth, because I did send one of my creative directors to attend altMBA. So he was reporting back to us, but he was reporting from the point of view of a student, a participant and not the master program or architect of all of this.
And so, it's delightful for me to hear it from both sides. So, I'm filling in the gaps now, this is wonderful for me. Sorry, everybody just bear with me, I'm a nerd. I'm geeking out on the learning, this whole idea of curriculum and how to be a better, more effective teacher. I hope this is exciting all of you who are listening, but let's get back into it. What is Seth's role or the instructor's role in 120 student cohort based group? How often is he showing up and how is this material designed so that we feel we're not getting the old bait and switch?

Wes:

Yeah. So this really depends again on each instructor and how they want to set up their course. So with altMBA, Seth himself never shows up in the course, he does not teach the altMBA. And we were very clear about this from the beginning to avoid people feeling like there was a Bait and switch especially early on when we first launched people were shocked, how is it that Seth Gordin isn't in this course?
If we're charging a premium price point and we want to learn from him, how can you say that he's not going to be there? So this was a very foreign idea, but the entire reason for building the altMBA was many people were coming to Seth thinking that he could provide them a silver bullet of some sort, that if they just had five minutes with their marketing guru, that he would solve all of their problems and make all their challenges go away. And time and time again, Seth would encounter this and he wanted to change this narrative for his readers and for his followers and his community.
He didn't want people to rely on him. He wanted them to realize that they had everything in themselves to solve their own problems. And that even if he did meet with you for five minutes, he wouldn't be able to solve your problem because he doesn't know your situation well enough and couldn't possibly know it well enough in five minutes. And so we wanted to teach people the tools and frameworks to be able to think more critically about their own challenges and to be able to solve it for themselves. So, this whole idea around Seth not being there was a feature and not a bug.
If Seth is going to be there, then there's a little part of you that hopes that, well, maybe he'll DM me or he'll respond to my DM, right or maybe he'll pop into our Zoom room and grace us with great advice or something. But if we say he's never going to be there, then that's off the table. If you don't want to do it, then that's fine. Seth does a lot of speaking. You can come to one of his speeches or take one of his Udemy courses if you just want content. The altMBA is for people who want to hands-on build and want to do and want to take a really active role in learning, decision making, storytelling, management with other operators and other leaders.
So being really clear up front is very important. You don't want your students to join your course and then feel they were tricked somehow or have weird expectations. If you do that, then they're just going to ask for refund anyway. So always be clear and upfront and transparent, that's number one. And then the second thing is every creator, every instructor has different strengths and weaknesses and things that they like doing and things that they don't like as much.
So, there are a lot of Maven creators who love engaging with students who love being live, who love the energy of being around students. And then there are some creators who don't like that as much. They're a little bit more self-conscious or not as natural public speakers, they don't like doing it as much. And you can still create a course in either of those situations. So in one of them, you might have more Q and A's and you might have TA's and guest lectures or a co-instructor who helps move the course forward and create that structure whereas you jump in for certain Q and A's.
So Section4, Professor Galloway has something that's a bit similar. So he has prerecorded videos of himself teaching key topics. And then there are a bunch of TA's and community managers, and then he does different Q and As with the audience, with students and will critique different projects and whatnot. So he's involved, but he's not actively lecturing every single time he has recorded videos for that. So it's a blended approach. So, that's really common. And other instructors who like engaging with their students teach every single workshop themselves.
So, it really depends on your bandwidth, what you like as an instructor, what you're good at. And I think that a lot of first time course graders have a more limited idea when they first hear a lot of cohort based course, that it has to be like the altMBA, or it has to be like Section4, or it has to be like Right of Passage or Reforge or something. And it really doesn't. A cohort based course can entirely mold around you and your target student. So, if you want a super short, fast course, I've attended four hour cohort based courses that were fantastic.
And I've also seen six month cohort based courses. Great, both work. I've seen courses with 20 students, 15 students, and I've seen them with 1000 students. And I've seen ones like altMBA where the instructor themselves never shows up. And then I've seen a lot where the instructor teaches everything. So, I think that flexible thinking is a good posture to have when thinking about courses, because it's like starting any business, really, there's not one way to start a business, we all intuitively know that you can start a bunch of different kinds of businesses in a bunch of different ways. And so starting a course is really the same.

Chris:

It sounds to me like there needs to be mirroring of teaching style, personality types for the instructor and then for the student. So in the case of Scott Galloway and Seth Gordin, Seth doesn't really want to teach you. So we get that. He does it in different way. And then Scott's class is so big, his courses are recorded in video format and distributed, and then presumably with a ton of coaches to help make sure that the students are learning.
It sounds to me then the prompts and the assignments or exercises are very, very important in that you can actually do something in the time that you're spending together as a cohort. Is that right? And can you give us some tips on things that we need to do to design it so that the interaction is really good. For example, in class, if I were to give an assignment to storyboard, it's going to take hours for them to come up with their idea. It's not going to be something I can do in 30 minutes.
And so a lot of it would then just be working silent for too long. It would be unbearable. So, that's why we prefer people to start their ideas in class and then really to let that just date and develop, because there's a lot of crafting and manual work and rendering and gathering assets. So on an online thing, there's some challenges here. And so, can you give us some secrets to success for how you might design one encounter with your group?

Wes:

Yeah. Great example that you just gave that sometimes an activity is too long to do altogether sitting in silence. So with the course that I teach, it's called Maven Course Accelerator, it's a three week free course, for course creators on how to learn to build the course, it's very meta, I know. But one example of this is we have our students start working on their course landing page in class. So we will talk about, here are the different sections of a landing page. Here's what usually goes above a fold.
Here are reasons why you need to have credibility indicators. So your students know why they would want to take a course from you. Here's a section where you'd want to have some testimonials so that there's some social proof about your course, here is where you share the key outcomes from your course, so we will talk about the different sections and then we'll review some live landing pages from other instructors to give you inspiration and get a sense of what does this actually look like in the wild.
And then we'll have you take 10 minutes either in small groups or we'll set a timer and silently everyone works in Zoom where you up your landing page. And then you start to fill in some copy ideas for above the fold. You start to fill in your key outcomes. You use the format that we teach you with verb, design this, analyze this, compare and contrast this, build this, create that. So we give you a list of verbs, you play around with it and share in detail, what are the learning outcomes that your students are going to get?
And then for the rest of the week, you work on your landing page on your own outside of class because the landing page is not something that you can write at least, well, in 30 minutes, it's an iterative process. And as you build the course for the remainder of the three weeks, actually, you're going back and continuing to edit and tweak your landing page. So we work on your landing page, starting in week one and the rest of the weeks as we layer on different topics, you're still going back on your own to work on your landing page.
So, that's an example of something where we break down a pretty big chunk of something like marketing your course and doing it via your landing page and break it down into something that we can start in class and then students can continue to do it on their own. And there's usually a lot of ways to do this. I think for any topic, the framework that we teach is a really popular pedagogy instructional design framework called I do we do, you do, so I, the instructor will do something or show you something, we'll do it together in class and then you'll do it on your own. That I do, we do, you do is something that we model in the course that I teach, and then we also teach our instructors to do it for their students.
So in that way, there's a lot of ways where you can break down something active, a project of some sort into breakout rooms, into guided exercises, where everyone is in Zoom but silently working, into a self-guided project into a discussion or a debate or a critique of some sort role playing. There's a lot of different kinds of active learning. And with this, I do, we do, you do framework it empowers instructors think about how to turn something from knowledge transfer, fact-based lecture into something that is interactive so that their students can actually do.

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Welcome back to our conversation.

Chris:

Okay. So this is fascinating to me because you said cohort based learning is the same as in-class based learning. There is a twist here because I know you feel this way too, that the education system, at least the way you've experienced and many others experienced in this country at least is this almost assembly line mass production, where you're sitting in a classroom, there's a lecturer, a professor or a TA who's lecturing and you're just an anonymous somebody in the dark somewhere.
Whereas with art school instruction, at least the one that I have experienced, it's very kinesthetic. It's not just like AV, I'm watching something, I'm doing it myself. Figure drawing is there's a model you draw, instructor walks arounds like, well, this is how you might render the arm. And there's a muscle here you're not seeing and then giving exercises. So, that's how I'm used to it. So if you're used to replicating or at least thinking about it in that math style of teaching, your cohort's probably going to fall apart, because it's not really designed for the person to learn. It's designed for the person to memorize, which is an old model.
And so you're probably, and correct me if I'm wrong, very selective in the example of building a sales page, very selective about the examples you want them to look at, to analyze and to break down. And then you're going to ask them to compare this against this and then pair up and then share what you've learned. So you're getting them to discover the things you want them to discover, but without telling them. So that way it's very much active learning versus passive. Tell me all the answers and I'll try my best to memorize it. Did I get that part right so far?

Wes:

Yes, exactly. And it definitely takes more thought on the part of the instructor to craft a lesson so that your students discover the lesson themselves, as opposed to you just telling them what the lesson is. But it's worth it because it ends up being a much more engaging experience that students look forward to and are excited about. And many of us can't say that about a lot of the one directional lecture based I'm one in a sea of 800 students that we experienced in school.
I was literally one in 800 people in my calculus one class in college at UC Berkeley where the professor never turned around from the chalkboard. And I think that system, I don't blame my professor, I think he wasn't necessarily set up for success in that role. I've heard from a lot of professor friends that they don't have a lot of training on engaging with students and actually teaching at least from what a lot of my professor friends have said that you're just thrown in there and you have to figure it out for yourself and there's so many people in that course, 800 people even if you wanted to engage a bit more one-on-one, there's really only so much you can do.
I think the exciting thing about online learning is if you had 800 people in an online cohort, you can break people into smaller breakouts, fairly easily. You can set I want breakouts of 10, click a button and then boom, everyone is in breakouts of 10 with one coach in there with, or TA or alumni mentor or some staff who's there with each student. And so I think there's more that we can do now with technology that empowers instructors and allows them to treat students more like individuals and offer more kinesthetic ways of teaching or acknowledging different learning approaches rather than the Sage on stage model, which is the most efficient, yes. I just tell you 1000 people, something, and everyone starting to takes notes, that's efficient, but is it effective? Not really.

Chris:

Not really. Okay. I want to underscore how hard it is actually, because if you regurgitate what it is that you know in a lecture form with slides and demonstrations on a chalkboard, whatever, it's not that hard for you to do, but when you have to sit down and engineer and design something where the students get to discover the lesson that you want them to learn, it's actually very, very difficult. You're entering into almost game design or game design theory.
And I want to all the analogy of these escape rooms that are popular in some cities, where they gave you clues and it progressively gets harder and harder. It's too hard at the beginning. Everybody is super frustrated and it's too easy. There's no challenge. And so you want people to learn the rules without telling them any rules. It's like you can't break things but other than that you can do whatever you want.
And so then they're able to peel it away and to map it with the, I do, we do you do, I'll show you how I do something. We're going to do some things together, the analyzing the breaking down the compare and contrast. And then when you feel you got an idea of how to do this, you all go home, you work on it and then you do it. I'm curious in the cohort based style of teaching that you're talking about, do they come back and show you their landing pages with their copy and get individual feedback, or does that break the system?

Wes:

Yeah. In our course, yes. You get feedback on your landing page from fellow students who you're paired with and you give each other feedback. And from our marketing coaches. So we have marketing coaches who will give you functional, specific advice. We also have pedagogy coaches who help you with instructional design. So, really depends on the way that a course is set up.
But for our course, we really want creators to leave with a pilot of their course, an MVP, minimum viable product of their course ready to launch. So it's important that their landing page looks good. That's just one aspect of their course. The other aspects include that they have enough interactivity and that the projects that they're asking their students to do make sense. The instructions are well written that their curriculum makes sense. The scope isn't too broad or too narrow, the way that they're positioning and pricing their course looks good.
So we teach all of these different frameworks to help instructos make good decisions for their course. And then we have different checks and balances in place to help look over instructor shoulders, because many of them are doing this for the first time, help them course correct to make sure that no one's going too far down the wrong path without someone saying, "Hey, I think you should rethink this piece. And here's what I think you should do instead."

Chris:

Okay. This is wonderful. How do I know I'm ready to teach? I have never taught before, and I'm listening I was like, "I'm excited about doing this now." How do I know I'm ready, Wes? Help me out.

Wes:

That's a great question. I meet a lot of operators and professionals who are not sure if they're ready to each or if they know enough, the question is, am I expert enough to teach? And it's so funny because usually the people who are doubting and wondering if they're expert enough are way more expert than people who are not even thinking of this question. And have already been teaching for a while, despite maybe not having as much credibility as you.
So I think the fact that you're even wondering should I teach, am I ready? Am I expert enough? Is a good sign that you have self awareness and thoughtfulness around do I have something to offer my students and my community? I think that is the big question. Do you have a group of prospective students, community members who are eager to learn from you. It could be on an art topic. It could be about podcasting. It could be about whatever it might be. But being able to identify here is a target student that would benefit a lot from learning this specific topic that I am an expert at, that's really where things come together.
So I call it course market fit. You want to make sure that you are the right person to be teaching the right topic at the right time to the right target student at the right price point. You could be the right person teaching the wrong topic, or you are the right person teaching the right topic but to the wrong audience. You bring this course to a certain community and it's crickets and tumbleweed radio silence, no one wants this. And it doesn't mean that you are bad at your craft, or this was not a great landing page, it just means that this group doesn't need what you have to sell. But if you kept those things the same and brought it to a different group, they might be all over it, eating it up.
Same with the price point that you might get not enough demand or too much demand based on your audience's willingness to pay and how you've priced your course. So that then diagram of variables coming together, it's very similar to product market fit, where there's a bunch of variables. And you have to think about your competitive advantage as a founding team, your experience in the industry. Also timing is the market ready for a product like this? How are you pricing it? How are you positioning it? So a course is a digital product. So thinking about all these things with that practical lens in mind is one of the first pieces of advice that I give course graders.

Chris:

Ooh, okay. Do you have people take a quiz or a survey to make sure that they've got good course. Mark could fit before they enroll in this course creation class with you, or do you do it in the course itself?

Wes:

Course market fit like product market fit is something that takes time to figure out. So it's an iterative process and it's very unlikely that people get things right, right off the bat. So it is an iterative process that you will work on as you shape your course. But one thing that we recommend that's super helpful up front is talking to your prospective students and surveying them. So this is actually a prerequisite to applying to the Maven Course Accelerator.
We found that this was so helpful that we actually ask everyone to do this before you even apply. So we want you to post either on social or post to your email list or go out to your community and say, "Hey, I'm thinking about doing a one week course about teaching the fundamentals of content marketing or teaching you about advanced crypto principles," or whatever it might be and see what the response is. If no one is interested, that's a good sign, that's great. You can change your topic and do something else that people are interested in.
And you can realize that before spending weeks putting together an amazing curriculum that no one ends up wanting. And this idea of getting a sense of market demand for your topic is so powerful that it even applies to creators who have huge audiences, who you would think already know their audience really well. So Anthony Pompliano was a great example, Pomp, he has a crypto course that's very popular on me, even. He has over a million followers on Twitter. He has multiple podcasts, newsletters. He's a very prolific creator.
So you would think that Pomp knows what his audience wants given the fact that he has grown his audience to such a big size and catered to them in a bunch of different channels. So Pomp, when he started building his Maven course thought that the people who would most want his course were crypto beginners. So, he started putting together this curriculum and about halfway through, we thought, all right, let's just validate this hypothesis just in case. So, he tweeted about his course and put out a wait list.
And it turned out that 60 to 70% of people who replied saying that they were excited to take his course self-identified as intermediate to advanced in crypto. So, his hypothesis was actually wrong. And it was a great eye awakening moment, which allowed him to adjust his curriculum. He ended up scrapping half of what he had built and course correcting and doubling down on topics that people who were already more familiar with the industry would benefit from and reshaping his course.
And so, it really goes to show that even if you are a huge trader, much less if you are a smaller one, validating your hypotheses is always a good thing and you don't have to tweet it, you don't have to post it on social, but putting it in front of real people and letting your idea interact with reality in a small way, it could even be hopping on the phone with existing clients. We have a lot of creators who don't have a huge social following, but have been coaching or consulting for years. So they have a great client base, even bringing it up to your clients or sending it out to your email list to see what is that level of interest before you start building your course.

Chris:

Oh, okay. What you said was about observing, ideating, validating and iterating, and that's basic Silicon Valley product development cycle. And so many of the course instructors I work with, they want to go straight to here's the finished course, because I want it to be perfect and they don't do that product or course market fit. And you need to do this and you do it in the least committed way so you have a lot of flexibility. You don't over invest in the creation of your course.
But you do bring up a couple different things. Okay. I'm a small creator, and I hear this all the time. I don't have an audience and the data that I'm going to get back is going to be so skewed. They're going to be friends and family because it's really not that many people. And they're going to give me false information because we want to support our loved ones. And we're like, "Yeah, that's a great course." And then you go and take the next step. And like you said, it's crickets and tumbleweed. How do we avoid that?

Wes:

I think one way of avoiding it is putting your course in front of your target student, not in front of friends and family, unless your friends and family are also your target students, which they are probably not. So if this course is for associate product managers who want to get promoted into being product managers mid-level product managers, then don't show your brother-in-law who is a lawyer, put this in different product communities, different product Slack groups, different product meetup groups, different product events.
So, get it in front of people who more realistically represent the target student that you are going to be going after. I'm really big on not being delusional. So, it's always better to know the truth. Even if the truth hurts, it's better to know it now because it'll just hurt more later. You might as well know now that hey, there's something about this idea that I have a four course that isn't really resonating with people and that's okay because now I can change it and iterate on it until it resonates and then go build that thing.
It's very demoralizing if you spend a lot of time building something and then put it out and no one wants it, you think it's demoralizing if you tell people about an idea or show them landing page and no one clicks, it's way more demoralizing months later once you've already spent 100 times more effort actually building the thing. So don't be delusional, validate your hypotheses because your time and energy matter and are important and you want to invest it towards something that people are going to value and that you are going to feel good building.

Chris:

So when thinking about this, the metaphor, the visual you should have in your head is effort is the ladder. The more effort is the higher the ladder is the harder the fall. So if you make a little bit of effort and it doesn't work, you still have time to build new ladders, and you have no broken body parts, a couple of bruises here and there, but it'll be okay. It will not be fatal. And I know many people, unfortunately, who build a very tall ladder and jump only to find that there's no landing and then they give up, they never try it again. It's too brutal.
It's like, "I'm not going to subject myself to that again." So, very wise Sage advice here. Okay. Something that you mentioned before is about pricing. This one's so tricky. How do I know how much the freaking charge? It's like, "I don't know how much it's worth." And we get into this problem. And it's a [inaudible 00:50:12] that is way overpriced for what the market will bear or you're really undervaluing yourself. And because this is such an individual thing, based on your experience, your reach, the demand and your mastery of the subject, how do you help people figure out price?

Wes:

Yeah. You hit the nail in the head that it's so individual based on situational factors for each creator. So, even if we look outside, of course creators for a minute and look at coaches and consultants, there are coaches and consultants who charge $50 an hour, $500 an hour and $5,000 an hour. So it's so dependent on the person's credibility, their track record their brand, their audience's willingness to pay, which specific audience segment they cater to.
So it's hard to say oh, consultants can charge X. So in the same way, it's hard to say a course must be this price or that price. I think looking at ranges and what the market says is useful though and so with cohort based courses, the range that's pretty common is anywhere between $500 per student to $5,000 per student with, I would say $750 to $1,500 being really common price points. So within that though, it depends on a bunch of factors.
One is, is your topic easily reimbursable? There are topics like product management, design, a course for new managers to learn more about leadership and management, crypto or industry specific courses that very much lend themselves to being reimbursed by the employer. And then there are other courses that are more hobbyist type courses. So, watercolor mindfulness. So there's other topics that might not be as easily reimbursed, and that's fine. And there are a lot of students for those courses too.
So, it really depends on your topic, who you are as a creator, your student's willingness to pay. In general though, I will say that the price point that you are able to charge for a cohort based course is way higher than that for a video course, that is for sure. So the average Udemy course is $10 to $20 per student. So you have to sell a lot of $10 to $20 courses to make a living.
Whereas if your average student is about $1000, you have the luxury of working with a smaller group of people who really want to learn from you and who are diehard fans of your work and not have to cater to everyone. So, with that there's certainly a trade where you're not having to chase volume just to be able to eek by because of that higher price point, you can be more selective and go after students who really, really want to work with you.

Chris:

I'm surprised you didn't add a third category, you said easily reimbursable. Obviously, if I can get my employer to pay for this, no problem. I'm going to take this course. I'm going to grow and I'm going to contribute more to my company, perfect. If it's a hobbyist thing where it's like, we just do it out of enjoyment or just for ourselves, it might not command as high of a price because it's just for joy.
I thought you were going to add a third category. Maybe you have, which is how quickly can I make my money back? So for example, you teach a course on how to make courses. So no matter what you charge, if in my mind, I'm like, yeah, after I learn this, I'm going to launch my course and so it pays for itself. Is that a category to consider too?

Wes:

Yeah. I don't know if it's a category as it is a way of describing your course and helping your students see the upside of taking your course. So even for a topic that might seem less work oriented, describing how someone is going to unquote make their money back from the course is a great way for helping them see the value that this course would bring.
I actually have an example of a non-work non-reimbursable course that is actually one of my favorite cohort based courses. It's called Live OS by Suzy Batiz. Suzy was the co-founder and CEO of Poo-Pourri. And since has taken a step back to become chairman and now runs this course, and it's an eight week course that's all about basically overcoming internal blockers that have been holding you back in your creative process in your work life. Suzy time, a lot about how for many years she was chasing money and never getting it and she went bankrupt a couple times before starting Poo-Pourri and not really taking off.
And it was because what she was chasing was out of alignment with who she was. And so it's about authenticity, about ideas that resonate about a more intuitive approach to business, not just being purely rational and analytical and saying, "Okay, I did this cost benefit analysis. I should do this," but rather listening to your body and the clues that your own enthusiasm give you about ideas that give you energy about working with certain types of people that give you energy.
So this is not very business related on the surface, but the way that she described the course and talked about the upside and quote unquote, making your money back from the investment of the course, overcoming all these internal creative blocks that have been keeping you stuck or keeping not energized about your work, when you think about those things, you're yes, for $2,000 for the past, to overcome a decade of trying to deal with this internal blocker.
And to help the tools and frameworks and community and space to talk about these blockers with a supportive group of people, that's totally worth it. So that's a course, for example, that I've recommended to a bunch of entrepreneurs and friends where it's not necessarily super business related, but there's definitely value from that course. And so explaining the value in terms of how your course and your topic is going to make that person's life better is definitely something that every course creator should do.

Chris:

Okay. I'm watching time. I'm so nervous that this is going to crash. So I'm going to get this one in, it might be the hottest and most controversial thing that we're going to talk about. I struggle with this last, so please help me out. And I give you full permission to just drop the hammer on me and just give it to me straight between the eyes. I think it's very important to create content so that I can build an audience community so that when I'm ready to teach them, I've established authority, trust, relationship, I'm not showing up for the first time saying, "Give me your money.
So, I'm in this loop where I'm creating content and then I create a course from time to time and it goes back and forth, back and forth. The general question that people usually push back at me is, "Chris, I can't consume all your free content. I think it's wonderful. What's the difference between the course and your free content." And so now I'm stuck in this weird place, and I know you have a perspective on this, I'd love to get your way in, please.

Wes:

It really depends on the value prop that your course offers. So people pay for what's scarce and content these days is not very scarce. So, whether they can get it from you and the great free stuff that you're already putting out or from other sources on YouTube, articles, blogs, there's a lot of content out there it's very abundant. So what necessitates a higher price point for a product like a course? It has to be something that is not just content. And what we are seeing students pay for is experience, they want the experience of going through a course where they are learning with a community and they have the experiential kinesthetic space to learn.
Learn by doing, they're not just joining this course to have more content thrown at them that they can read and watch on their own. If they wanted that, then they should interact with free content and literally just do that on their own. So that experiential piece, the community piece is the part that has been missing from a lot of online education from the past era and is missing from a lot of the free content. So really emphasizing the experience and the hands on learning and the community is a way to differentiate all of your free content from the paid course.

Chris:

It seems like obviously you're very passionate about this and very committed to it, all roads lead back to cohort based teaching, so I create a lot of content, you're right. There's a sea of content you can drown in. And I have to start rethinking how I want to teach moving forward. I'm inspired by our conversation. I got some clarity. I want to dig deeper and find out more about you and this Maven itself and how you teach people to run a cohort based curriculum. How do I find out more information about this and what does it cost? How long does it last and how often are you running these programs?

Wes:

Maven.com is our website, and we have a link to the Maven Course Accelerator. We have been launching the Maven Course Accelerators every couple months. We want to do it more often because we have a lot of great instructors who want to get started and don't want to wait a couple months. So, we're figuring out how we can do it in a more frequent cadence. And on Twitter, we're at Maven HQ.

Chris:

Okay.

Wes:

And the course is three weeks long.

Chris:

Three weeks long.

Wes:

Yes. It used to be six weeks, we condensed it to three weeks to make it even more efficient for a lot of busy creators and it's free.

Chris:

You can't be free.

Wes:

Oh it is free.

Chris:

How do you guys make money? I'm signing up tomorrow. This is it.

Wes:

Yeah. There is an application. So, we got over 1000 applicants for our most recent cohort that's in session now just started earlier this week, for 50 spots. So there's a lot of interest. We have limited capacity to help every instructor. So there is that application process up front. I mentioned the survey earlier to validate your course topic and yeah, it's our way of onboarding new instructors.
We're still pre-product. So, one day we will be open where anyone can come on to maven.com, click a few buttons and be able to launch a course. But as of right now, we're still pre-product. So, we are bringing on instructors in different batches so that we can help you with a bit more looking on over your shoulder to make sure you're building your course correctly and can give you more feedback. So that's why we've been keeping it a little bit smaller.

Chris:

Okay. Yeah. I heard you say earlier on it's three weeks long and it's free. I'm like, "Did I mis-hear that part?" Okay. And I love that as soon as I said, I'm signing up tomorrow, you're like, "Well, Chris, there's an application."

Wes:

I think you'd be a great fit though. So, you should still look into it for sure.

Chris:

I still need your help. I really do because for a very long time, I've tried to figure out how to do this thing that I love so much, which is to teach and to teach eight or 10 students at a time. Obviously not scalable, there's no way I'm going to go to being broke really fast, going down that path. I buy courses all the time. I barely watch them, forget about completing, I don't even open them.
A lot of times I just buy it out of trying to reciprocate the value I've gotten. It's like, "Yeah, I've learned from you. I'll just buy this course," or I'll send one of my employees to go take the course, but I want to change. Only part of this very exciting way of teaching and being able to empower people. And I'm saying this in a very genuine way. I'm very excited about transforming and I want to learn from you. So, I appreciate this very much.

Wes:

Thank you, Chris. That means a lot. And I think the fact that you've been teaching and that you have evergreen courses already gives you a huge up with creating a cohort based course. So I would say that 50%, 60% of the battle is done even before you've even started building your cohort based course, because you have already put thought into your content and just structuring it, creating a narrative work that makes sense for your students.
So with creating a cohort based course, it's taking what you've already built and looking at it through a fresh lens that's a bit more interactive, thinking about adding accountability for your students and active learning, but you've already built a really strong foundation with the courses that you've created.

Chris:

It's been a real pleasure. I woke up this morning with a head full of curiosity, tonight I'll go to sleep a little bit smarter, not a lot, a little bit smarter and more empowered and I think with a greater amount of clarity and direction. So on behalf of everybody who's listening to this, I hope you're geeking out as much as I was. I want to thank you for your time today and sharing and the fact that your program is free, it blows me away. Thank you so much.

Wes:

Thank you, Chris. It's been really great. I'm Wes Kao and you're listening to The Futur.

Greg:

Thanks for joining us this time. If you haven't already subscribe to our show on your favorite podcasting app and get a new insightful episode from us every week, The Futur podcast is hosted by Chris Do and produced by me Greg Gunn. Thank you to Anthony Barrow for editing and mixing this episode and thank you to Adam Sandborn for our intro music. If you enjoyed this episode, then do us a favor by reading and reviewing our show on Apple Podcasts, it'll help us grow the show and make future episodes that much better.
Have a question for Chris or me? Head over to the futur.com/heychris, and ask away. We read every submission and we just might answer yours in a later episode. If you'd like to support the show and invest in yourself while you're at it, visit thefutur.com. You'll find video courses, digital products, and a bunch of helpful resources about design and creative business. Thanks again for listening. And we'll see you next time.

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