The Race To Sell Life Skills, From Body Language To Photoshop

Nov 7, 2013

Online marketplaces like eBay, Craigslist and Etsy offer you a way to sell your stuff. But what about a place to sell your skills and expertise?

Now sites like Udemy, Skillshare, and Lynda.com are offering a wide range of courses -- so many now that competition among teachers is intensifying.

'I could never do that with books'
Vanessa Van Edwards of Portland, Ore. is an expert on body language. She’s written books, columns and lectured on the subject. She’d often thought body language was an ideal subject to be taught online. But it’s only when she found Udemy that it made sense.

“This was the first time I was able to actually offer it because they took payment, they hosted it all, they got me students, they helped me with marketing,” Van Edwards said.

Van Edwards filmed her first course, “Secrets of Body Language,” with an iPhone perched on top of a pile of books. She lit her set by dragging in every lamp she owned in her apartment.

To her surprise, it worked.

“My inbox was filled with sales,” said Van Edwards.

Van Edwards said she has earned $18,000 since June -- way more than she made on books sales in that time. She has big plans for more online courses.

“Body language for health care professionals and doctors, body language for realtors, body language for students, body language for dating," she said. "Every different vertical I could think of. I could never do that with books.”

Growth And Competition
Udemy is one of the fastest growing online learning platforms. The company offers 8,000 courses and claims to have grown to 1.5 million from 1 million users in July. Other sites like Skillshare and Lynda.com are also growing fast and new ones are popping up all the time.

Tom Vander Ark of Seattle, author of “Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World,” believes there is more room for growth. Vander Ark blogs for Education Week Magazine and is an investor in educational technology companies, including Udemy.

“Now there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these anywhere, anytime learning sites that make it possible for people around the world with access to broadband to gain entrance into the idea economy,” Vander Ark said.

But he also believes there will be saturation in some subject areas.

“This space will be very, very Darwinian," he said. "We don’t need 3,000 Photoshop instructors.”

The $5 Class
With so many new entrants, these companies have become aggressive in how they compete for students. They offer steep discounting and giveaways.

Some instructors aren’t too happy about that. One of them is Charlie Borland who offered Udemy’s first photography course.

“They have a very high discount percentage," Borland said. "Seventy-five percent off all the time. Sometimes you only get five bucks for a class."

Vanessa Van Edwards has the same complaint: “They have trained their students to buy only on discount.”

What’s more, when course sales result from company marketing directly, they take a bigger share of the revenue.

“When a class costs $20 for example, the teachers are collecting about 70 percent of that revenue and then 85 percent when that enrollment comes through the teacher,” explained Ethan Bodnar, dean of design with Skillshare.

That is why successful instructors like Van Edwards are focused on building their own following.

“They subscribe to your newsletter, they follow you on Twitter, they buy your other courses,” Van Edwards said.

Borland built a big enough following that he was able to sell his house in Bend, Ore., buy a recreational vehicle and travel full time.

So what skill could you sell online? Borland has this advice: “The competition, like everything is as fierce as can be and so create the best product with a lot of enthusiasm and if you do it right, you will be rewarded.”