Five years ago, I ran my first face-to-face course on digital marketing in late summer in Sydney. It was out the back of a divey café in inner city Newtown and it was a ridiculously hot day, even for summer.
I remember the heat vividly. I tried to cool the room down by opening the back door to a rear laneway, but that only added the din of Enmore Street traffic noise to the din inside the room. I well remember diving into my pool once back home again, to recuperate and celebrate.
Since that inauspicious start, when 17 brave souls invested in learning from me, I’ve learnt a lot. In this tell-all piece, I share my top lessons from five years of teaching face-to-face small business courses around Australia.
1: Your first students are your fans
In my very first course five years ago, I can easily remember several people in the room. One is still Matt from Dancing Warrior Yoga, who employs me every six months or so to teach business and marketing on his yoga teacher training course. One comes to every course I run. One went onto do a major project with me. At least six I’m still in close contact with.
The first people who turn up are your fans. It’s heartening to have them at your first course, cheering you on, but after that, you’ll need to work harder to engage more people.
2: Small business courses are invaluable for networking
I didn’t initially appreciate that people don’t only attend face-to-face courses and events to learn something, but also to meet like-minded people.
Working for yourself is stressful and there’s nobody that quite understands the pressure we’re under than other self-employed people. Five years ago, there wasn’t nearly the amount of courses and events aimed at sole traders and small business owners. It was still quite rare to meet other self-employed people.
Many friendships, accountability buddies and joint-venture relationships began through my courses. So ensure you give people adequate time throughout your course to get to know each other. There’s been many courses, although my Adelaide course was particularly so, when I’ve been surprised by the enthusiasm of people meeting other people. So factor in time and activities for people to meet each other.
3: Planning and boundaries
My method is pretty simple: all courses need a minimum of eight people to run and this is determined by the date when the early bird discount ends, which is one month before each course. Eight people enables me to create adequate atmosphere and group dynamic; make a profit; and feel enthusiastic about the course.
Like all personal boundaries, it can be traversed. I have run a couple of courses with less than eight people. But having this boundary in place make the decision easier and has saved my sanity on many an occasion.
4: Stress goes with the territory
Running courses is stressful. Not only are there the logistics: book a venue; organise catering; book air flights and accommodation; organise AV requirements; but you’ve also got the primary task of marketing it.
Make no mistake – logistical organisation pales in comparison with marketing your course. The first few courses you run are likely to be far easier because you’ll be attracting your fans and drawing on your community.
But after everyone on your email list who is likely to come has come already, you’ll need to double down on your marketing. You’ll need to access other networks and reach into other people’s communities to keep filling your courses.
5: Cancelling is not failure
I’m not ashamed to share that I’ve cancelled courses over the last five years. I tell the people who’ve booked and paid that the course didn’t reach the minimum number to make it viable. I offer a full refund or a credit to apply to the next course. Sometimes, I offer a limited time, special offer in exchange for the cash they’ve already paid. More than half of people don’t ask for a refund and either take up the special offer or take the credit note against future courses.
Cancelling a course isn’t the end of the world. I’m not going to run a course at a loss to save my ego and I strongly suggest you don’t either. Remember that a little blow to your ego goes with the territory of self-employment, and far preferable than a blow to your bank account.
6: Are you pitching, or providing value?
Typically, there are two types of courses: those that are cheap that are designed to sell a higher priced course and those that are more expensive that are designed to deliver certain information and outcomes. My courses are the later.
I’ve attended courses that promise that their speakers won’t be doing a ‘pitch fest’ only to find out that all speakers were building towards one united pitch fest to a multi thousand dollar course. And other courses that promise to be ‘fluff free’ where the speaker constantly talks up their lifestyle, creates aspirations in the audience and selling a well-defined ideal of what ‘success’ looks like.
I’ve gotten value from both these types of courses and implemented small changes to my business. But the economics of courses designed to sell the next thing are that the ticket price is low because the organiser knows that a set percentage of attendees are likely to buy the (far) higher priced course.
I model my courses on higher education courses (although mine are currently priced lower than these). I do create limited time offers for course attendees. But these were at the request of participants and the courses aren’t designed around these offers. Don’t be shy about creating specific offers for course attendees who want to go deeper and take the next step with you. But I’m a firm fan of making sure your courses stand on their own two profitable feet.
7: You will always need to cull your information
I’ve run countless courses and presentations in a wide variety of situations, to talks at colleges, to online courses developed on behalf of institutions, from my own face-to-face courses around Australia, to one-off, customised training presentations run in-house at various organisations.
You will almost always need to cull the amount of information you initially believe that you need. You can definitely (and should) over-prepare. But know you’ll definitely need to cull the amount of information you think is reasonable within the time period.
8: Catering matters
My mother brought me up with the ethos that taking care of people means feeding them and that people are always happier when well fed, so I’ve always had catering as part of my courses. If you decide to cater your course or event, don’t underestimate it! Catering has been discussed multiple times on my course feedback forms.
9: Balance recognition with evolution
We business owners have a fine line to balance. We need to be consistent with what we offer in order to build up branding awareness and build demand. But we also need to evolve so that we can stay relevant to our market, industry trends, and our own personal enthusiasm for our courses.
This isn’t easy. Knowing when to change and when to keep on keeping on takes skill. Most creative entrepreneurs I work with struggle to stay consistent with what they offer – continually getting excited by ideas for new courses, which makes it far harder to market.
Teaching face-to-face courses is buckets of fun as well as really hard work. It’s both invigorating, rewarding and exhausting. There’s no clear-cut formula for success. Each student is different, which keeps teachers continually on their toes. But there’s no better way that I know of to master your subject, as well as gain invaluable insight into the inner workings of your community.