Why Course Creators With Small Audiences Build The Best Cohort-Based Courses (And Why Having a Big Audience Can be a Hindrance Early on)
The deeper the roots, the stronger the branches. So start small, and then scale.
“Build an audience before you build a course,” is one of the worst pieces of advice I hear recycled over and over again. That and “marketing is more important than learning design.”
Both are fundamentally wrong.
From what I’ve seen in the dozens of courses I’ve been involved with since the pandemic, course creators with small audiences and credible expertise usually launch better courses than people with big audiences.
In today’s edition, I’m sharing why having a small audience can work to your advantage and why course creators with big audiences tend to build courses that aren’t conducive to professional development.
The Trap Course Creators With Big Audiences Fall Into
Course creators with big audiences are obviously great at writing content for their chosen social media platforms. Most of them have newsletters and are comfortable on video as well. While those are great building blocks to start teaching online, many of these people fail to realize that the essence of cohort-based courses is creating space for students to practice what you’re teaching and get feedback.
Instead, what people with large audiences tend to do is take up too much space as though they’re commanding an audience rather than guiding a group toward a destination.
This manifests in three mistakes I’ve seen over and over again:
Mistake #1: Prioritizing the wrong things
The first mistake course creators with big audiences make with cohort-based courses is spending time creating high-tech videos at the expense of designing feedback systems and engaging live sessions (also known as workshops).
It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking polished videos signal value and more content equals more value. But that’s not the case in cohort-based courses.
The value of a cohort-based course is largely determined by the feedback students get on their work.
Feedback from teachers and peers is the cornerstone of skill development. Students need to practice doing something, get feedback, reflect on how to improve their work (and by extension their practice), and then iterate.
So as a course creator, you’re better off recording a quick Loom video of you presenting a deck and spending more time designing feedback systems and engaging live sessions using thoughtful prompts for exercises, reflection, and peer feedback.
In addition to the latter being more conducive to learning and development, you’re not wasting time on content that will need updating based on feedback. It’s rare to nail your course content on the first try. So start with a minimum viable version and be willing to adapt.
Additionally, videos should only be recorded after you design your live sessions. The goal is to be outcome-driven. So figure out the outcome students need (ex. to draft a landing page for their product) and then design your live session around guiding them through the process.
Then, if students need additional context and you want to cut down on presentation time during the live session—which is a great initiative—record a video and ask students to watch it beforehand.
Mistake #2: Cramming in too much content
Most course creators—especially those with big audiences—go overboard with content. Largely because they have so much available and they’re excited to share everything they know. But if it took you years to develop your expertise, you can’t expect students to absorb everything you know within a few weeks.
Plus, the value of taking a cohort-based course is to get the minimum viable path to achieving an outcome—not to become version 2.0 of the course creator. So the less content, the better. Everything should be action-oriented. Information that’s extremely nuanced or nice to have for those who want to geek out to the extreme can be shared as bonus content.
But the key is to distinguish it as such. Because most people won’t go to that extent. You have to remind yourself the course is for the students to learn and develop, not for you to showcase everything you know.
Mistake #3: Not doing one-to-one interviews
I once helped someone with over 100K+ Twitter followers launch a cohort-based course. What shocked me was their resistance to doing one-to-one interviews with even a handful of students. They said it wasn’t worth their time.
I never worked with that person again. Because if you can’t be bothered to do Customer Discovery work beyond Twitter polls, you don’t care about student outcomes as much as you do making money and promoting yourself as an expert.
Here’s a great reminder of what a great course business actually looks like:
A lot of people with big audiences want to be the next David Perell—the founder of the premier online writing course Write of Passage. But they don’t want to dedicate themselves to their students the way David has done over the years. I don’t think these people realize the extent to which the Write of Passage team is continuously doing one-to-ones with students and absorbing feedback as they scale.
Not to mention, they recruit mentors, editors, and community stewards to maintain a tight ratio between course staff and students. That’s what makes the course effective in spite of its scaling to 300+ cohort sizes. It started off much smaller.
The Opportunity Around Starting Small
Starting with a small cohort of twelve to twenty students is one of the best ways to start a course. Because the teacher:student ratio is tight enough that you can give every student feedback and extract feedback from each of them in return. That’s win-win because you’re guiding students toward desired outcomes and gaining insights on how you can increase the value of your course (and thus the price) going forward.
Starting small is the best way to find course-market fit.
Here’s a quote that speaks to this nature (no pun intended) of starting small and scaling with intention:
The deeper the roots, the stronger the branches.
I know it can be daunting to think about how you’re going to market and sell your first cohort with a small audience, but I assure you it’s not as hard as you think. 90-100% of people who join your first cohort will be people who already know you. That means there’s a lot less riding on your landing page and marketing than you think.
A student in my course joked how I could’ve advertised my course on a garbage bag and she still would’ve joined. So if you have credibility in your network, don’t delay launching until you build an audience. Build your course and you can build your audience in the process. You’ll actually be more credible as someone who’s doing something versus talking about doing something in the future.
You’ll also be more confident and have more fun by crafting your teaching and course management style in lower-stakes environments. After all, your early adopters want you to succeed and will help you level up so you can scale.
An Inspiring Example
I want to give a HUGE shoutout to a student from my course,, on running his first online workshop tonight for twenty people. Click the link below to read his thread on how he pushed through fear and delivered an engaging session (including hilarious anecdotes like "I was so nervous I ate one whole entire pizza for lunch").
Steven is running his next workshop on Photography for Creatives on Wednesday, February 22nd. You can sign up here.
And if you’re looking to build your course in the company of others willing to beta test your workshops, give feedback on your landing page—and so on—join us in the course and community. We’d love to have you.
Thank You & Share Your Feedback
I would love to hear your thoughts on these topics. So comment below with anything you would like to share.
Thanks for reading and have a wonder-full week,
⏩ If you want to help me promote my newsletter, share this one with friends.
💻 If you want to build a scalable cohort-based course, join my course & community.
☕ If you want to grab coffee in Montreal, hit reply to let me know when you’re in town.