Make $1m/yr as a Digital Mentor (With Cohort-Based Courses)

Make $1m/yr as a Digital Mentor (With Cohort-Based Courses)

I started launching courses in 2016. I started with small courses which had a set of 5-10 recorded video tutorials. I added them to a simple learning management system and started collecting payments for it using online payment gateways like Instamojo.

I generated leads via Facebook and Google Ads, nurtured the leads through my email drip marketing sequence, and sent them to a sales page to buy my course. Then slowly I upgraded to sales webinars where I would deliver the sales pitch.

However, one thing that disturbed me was that people were not completing the courses they were enrolling for. And just watching the video completely doesn't mean that they have implemented what they've learned either. Without getting the students to learn what they've enrolled in, I realized I won't be able to uptake them to a higher-level program with more rigor and results.

That's when I decided to move to the cohort-based-course model. In 2019 I launched the first batch and now we are at Batch 22 of the Digital Deepak Internship Program. We have trained more than 10,000 students in this program and we have a completion rate of as high as 80%. I have never looked back since.

Cohort-based courses are the future of online education because it tries to replicate the best parts of an offline academic experience without the disadvantages of an offline training program. Here's a small comparison.

Offline education experiences will never die, but a 3-months offline course to up-skill might not be the best use of the student's time.

3-day workshops and 2-3 weeks of offline crash courses can give a much better ROI on the money and time spent on education. (I am yet to crack offline experiences but we've already started some programs in the beta stage to test out various hypotheses we have. That's for another day.)

In this article, let's focus on the benefits of cohort-based online courses.

Benefits of Cohort-Based Courses for Students

Since cohort-based courses deliver more value than an online self-paced course, they can command a higher price. And in the day and age of increased CACs (cost per customer acquisition), having a higher entry price point is what will make digital mentors justify the time and effort in creating online education experiences.

Here are the reasons why Cohort-Based Courses deliver more value to students:

  • Start and End Dates: The cohort has a start and end date. And because of that, there is a feeling of accountability to finish what they've started. It resembles offline training experiences. People who miss enrolling in a specific cohort will look forward to the next cohort.
  • Student Communities: Cohort-based courses are built around communities. All the students who join a specific cohort make a community. They can have interactions with other students on an online forum, discord group, or a telegram channel. It doesn't matter what platform is used, as long as students have an opportunity to interact with each other. The group will be active even after your cohort ends, which is a good thing. They will form the "alumni" group for future cohorts.
  • Peer Support: Cohort-based courses usually have synchronization with the course progress with other students in the same group. This helps in peer-to-peer learning as people solve each other's doubts from the same week's lesson. Some students will be faster than others and they will help the slower students. Q&A sessions can be conducted by mentors and each session can have a specific theme to it in terms of content.
  • Evaluation: Cohort-based courses end with an exam or an evaluation test. Students like to compete with each other and look forward to a ranking so that they can figure out where they stand compared to other students of the same cohort. The people with top rankings get a huge validation for their extra efforts (even without having to give them incentives). "The List" has been important in education since the beginning of time.
  • Completion Rates: Due to the community-based learning environment, cohort-based courses usually have a higher completion rate than normal self-paced online courses. The students will come back to learn more only if they use what they have enrolled in. Customers need to be "activated" once they convert to retain them as a customer for the long term. You just don't sell the course. You've to sell them on the idea of why they should spend "time" consuming the course.
  • Live Interaction: Cohort-based courses give an opportunity for live interaction with the mentor. Live interactions increase engagement, add the human element to the entire program and remove the dullness and boredom that comes with self-paced courses.

Here's a glimpse into our Discord group for our 19th Cohort. We have general discussions, a place for posting memes, asking doubts (for every week), and announcements. Discord works perfectly well for us to handle communities. Each cohort has its own Discord channel/group.

The above listed are just some of the advantages that I can think of from the top of my mind. There is really no comparison between self-paced courses and cohort-based courses. The benefits of a cohort-based course far outweigh self-paced courses.

Pricing Cohort-Based Courses

Based on my understanding of the online education market for the past decade, I can clearly see that there is a cap on the pricing of self-paced courses.

Just like books always retail around $10-$20 (with a few exceptions), no matter how life-changing the content is inside it, self-paced courses always retail around $50 to $200 with a few exceptions. Many courses even sell for $10 at marketplaces that are flooded with courses.

There is a cap on the price of such courses because there is a cap on the amount of value they can deliver. It's just access to content and nothing else. No mentoring, no community, and no motivation to finish the course. Just like most book buyers don't complete the books, most course buyers don't complete the course.

What students want when they sign up for an education program is not information, but transformation.

Cohort-based courses are also a great way for creators to monetize their creative work. A creator who keeps posting videos on YouTube is not going to get far in terms of revenue. eBooks and Books can bring a bit more revenue but not that much. Courses a bit more, but still not significant enough for the creator to make a living out of it.

Cohort-based courses sell for a much higher price point and the creator can expect to make a living out of it. CBCs can range anywhere from $500 to $10,000.

Let's do some simple math. Here are 5 ways to make a million dollars a year as a creator. At a $10,000 price point (believe me, there are plenty of courses at this price point), you just need 100 customers a year to reach a million dollars a year in revenue.

Even if the expenses (ads, tools, team) are as high as 50% of the revenue, $500,000 a year (in profits) is still an excellent income for an individual creator. That's along the same lines as Google/Facebook tech lead's salary.

(10 months/yr: Assuming the creator takes a holiday for 2 months in a year)

If a million dollars per year looks too big for you, think 1/10th of it.

The numbers still look impressive. A $1,000 course needs just 100 customers for it to make $100,000 in revenue. That's just 10 customers for 10 months at a nominal price point of $1,000 (₹75,000 Rupees).

For someone who posts content regularly on YouTube, getting 10 customers a month is extremely easy. That would be the best way to monetize content. With YouTube ads, one has to get a million views on a single video to make $1,000 to $2,000 from that video. And getting a million page views is extremely difficult.

Anyone, with descent expertise on a topic, can start digital mentoring and aim for 100 students a year, or 10 students a month (approx). That's as good as a full-time job salary for a skilled employee. There are plenty of niches for digital mentors (and I will write about them in another article).

The biggest challenge that most mentors have is to believe that their training can be valued at that level. That's a whole different topic, again, a topic for another day).

Let's now look at what is the best way to structure a CBC.

How to Create a Kick-ass Cohort-Based Course

If you are looking to start your own Cohort-Based Course, the following method can be extremely useful for you.

This is the same method I followed to build my 3-month CBC into a cash cow. This structure helped me scale profitably to 10,000+ students (at a $200-$300 price point) within 2 years.

You are selling a service, but you can productize (and automate) your service to the highest extent possible.

First 3 Cohorts (Manual Value Delivery)

  • Identify pain points in your students. (It helps to have a community of potential students developed through your content before you launch your first cohort-based course). I will cover this topic when I write about how to build your marketing funnel to attract students to your topic.
  • Create a rough outline for 8-12 weeks. Most cohort-based courses are usually 2-3 months long. What are the students going to learn every week? Design the assignments for every week's learning module.
  • Enroll your first batch of students through your community. If you have a community of 500 people, you just need a 2% conversion ratio to get 10 people in. 10 students are more than enough for you to get the ball rolling.
  • Don't aim for perfection for the first 3 cohorts. The lack of structure in the program will be made up by your availability and individual attention to your students. It is chaos, but it's ok for a start.
  • Develop mind-maps, and slide decks, and present them to your students live. Start editing your content based on the questions that students ask. This will help you understand what most students want. There is no way to know that without presenting the topic to your student, in a live class. This is where the rubber meets the road and this is what most people will try to skip.
  • Work with your students personally and solve their challenges in a group coaching format, or do personal mentoring. You might have to give them at least 2 to 3 personal calls during the course of the program.

The first 3 cohorts are going to be messy and chaotic. Bite it and endure it. This chaos is required to build order later. (I teach this in my digital mentoring program).

You will be doing one session per week which would be a content session and another session that would be a Q&A session. But it gets better after you complete the first 3 cohorts.

That's where automation comes in...

Next 3 Cohorts (Semi-Automated Value Delivery)

Once you have done the first 3 cohorts of your course for at least 30 students, you can start adding automation to your cohort-based course. This is the point where you remove yourself (at least partially) from the equation.

Record all the sessions. You have the mind maps and the presentations already in place. You know what your students want. Your recorded sessions will not make sense and it will have a good content-market fit. (How to record the sessions, what tools to use, how long it should be, is a topic in itself. Again, for another day.)

However, you cannot automate it completely as your students might still want to have access to you and your expertise. Students can watch the recorded modules every week, and then they can interact with you live on a Q&A webinar. You can answer their questions in a group coaching format.

You are reducing your time commitment to one live Q&A session per week because your course module is now recorded.

Your lack of live coaching for the week's modules will be (and should be) made up through better-structured content. You can never get the structure right in the first go because you do not know what your students want and where their challenges are. That's why I recommend doing the first 3 cohorts live. You are becoming a better teacher and content creator through live training.

From the 7th Cohort (Automated Value Delivery)

When you do the 4th, 5th, and 6th cohorts in a semi-automated way, you will discover the missing links in your content. Which is made up of your Q&A sessions and live interaction with the students.

For each week, you might be able to identify 5-10 questions that are being asked frequently. Now you can make 10-20 minute videos for each of these questions and add them along with your week's modules. This will act as a "patch" for the missing links in your course.

For example, in my cohort-based course, in Week 4, I teach people to set up their own website on the WordPress platform. Different students use different hosting providers to host their blogs and in the 4th Week's live Q&A session I discovered additional questions that were unique to micro-cohorts of people within the cohort. I created short SOPs and tutorial videos for each of them. They become assets for a long time.

Once you have made this content, we are looking at:

  • 8-12 weeks of main modules (each 1-2 hours long, sometimes 3-4 hours long based don't the topic).
  • 5-10 additional short videos for each week. Each video can be 10-20 minutes long depending on the question and its depth. Sometimes some questions can be answered in 5 mins. These videos need not be as professional as your main videos as they are just answered to FAQs.

What you have made is a high-value intellectual property. However, the content is not going to get any life by itself. It has to be structured inside a CBC for students to derive value out of it.

From the 7th cohort onwards, you cannot eliminate the need to live Q&A sessions completely. People will still have questions that will not fall under the additional Q&A videos you've made. There is still a service component required.

Instead of doing the Q&A sessions yourself, you can employ a mentor who can do the weekly Q&A sessions. Many students will ask questions that you have already made videos for. They would expect the mentor to "spoon-feed" it to them.

As long as the mentor points them in the right direction, it is enough. The mentor just needs to share the link from the FAQ video library you've made. The student will be satisfied. Think of it as a concierge service for the students.  

Your lack of live presence with the students will be compensated by the well-structured and A-class content that you've made.

You might think that students might not enroll if you are not available, but by the time you are launching your 7th cohort, believe me, you will have developed enough student results to increase the demand for the course. And what I've described above is the best way to scale your revenue and also deliver more value to more students at the same time.

Perpetual Monthly Cohorts

Once your course is ready, along with the FAQ videos, you can launch one new cohort every month, and assign a mentor to each cohort. Each mentor will handle a cohort for 2-3 months, and move on to the next cohort.

That's how I've been doing it for the last 15 batches. We are at Batch 22 this month and every month we launch a new cohort. Every cohort has a new mentor who will handle the batch for 3 months. We comfortably enroll 300 to 500 students in a single batch.

You might think that 300-500 students are a lot for a single mentor to handle. But believe me, it is not. When the content is well-structured, many people might not even show up for the Q&A sessions. Their questions will be answered within the content you've made.

In the Q&A sessions which we now do bi-weekly, we would see around 30-40% of the total students show up live. For students who cannot show up live, we also let them ask their questions in a form and then answer them on the live webinar. The recording of the live webinar is available for them to watch at a later date.

Showing Up Live as a Digital Mentor

Just because you have made the content, made the FAQ videos, and assigned mentors for each batch, it doesn't mean that you can disappear completely (though you can you will be forgotten soon).

To make up for the lack of your live presence with students from the 7th cohort onwards, you can do a weekly live session and talk about something new in your topic and address the students of all the cohorts in a single live webinar.

You will have 3-4 concurrent cohorts running at any point in time and you can invite people from your old cohorts as well.

I do a live call for my students every week (usually Wednesdays at 9 PM) and the live interaction with the students makes up for the lack of my presence in the weekly modules of the cohorts.

At this point, the only work that you need to do is do a live webinar for all your paid students once a week. The rest of your time can be allocated to your craft, creating more courses, and marketing yourself & your products.

Assignments, Rating, and Feedback

I would recommend that each week's module be accompanied by an assignment. We add the assignments in Google Docs and give the links to them in the LMS. Students can make a copy of the original doc and fill up the assignment. (In the future, we are planning to ship physical workbooks to students.)

Students can submit the assignment from inside the LMS and there is a back end for approving the assignments. The mentor manually reviews each assignment, gives a rating for the assignment, and also gives short feedback for improvement on the assignment.

We've built a custom LMS for this because we figured out no other LMS has these features. (In the near future, we might also make a SaaS product out of this LMS that we've built for ourselves).

Incentives for Assignment Completion

What made our CBC popular was the decision to give cash back for every assignment completion. Students get real money paid to their bank account for every assignment that is approved.

Whether you want to give cash or some other incentives to your students, I believe, gamification is important for increasing the completion rates of your students.

Instead of punishing students for not completing assignments (like in school), you can reward them for completing the assignments. It works like a reverse scholarship. The meritorious students can get a part (or full) of their training fee back if they prove themselves to be sincere students who take all the training modules (and their assignments) seriously.

Marketing Your Cohort-Based Course

I am sure that by now you are pretty convinced that you need to get into a CBC to increase your revenue, your next question probably is: how do I market my CBC and how do I ensure enough students enroll every month.

It involves the following steps:

  • Find Your Niche: Start creating content and create your personal brand as an expert in a niche (You need to learn how to do market research and how to position yourself as an expert).
  • Lead Magnets: Create walled content in return for contact details (lead magnets). You can create ebooks, courses, tools, templates, and so on. (You need to learn content creation).
  • Lead Generation: Drive traffic to your lead magnets and scale up your lead generation. (You need to learn traffic generation).
  • Lead Nurturing: Create follow-up emails to nurture your leads. (You need to learn marketing automation).
  • Community Management: Build a community and interact with your community. Use the community to get to know your ideal student avatar. (You need to learn community management and trust building).
  • Discovery and Empathy: Have group calls and 1:1 calls with your community members. Understand their challenges and figure out how you can help them achieve their goals. (You need to learn how to probe for the right questions and diagnose your student's current state through empathy. This is very important before you learn how to sell to build trust with your students.).
  • Launch First, Build Next: Design your first live cohort-based course and get enrollments for your first course. (You need to learn how to persuade people, sell via sales copy, sales webinars, and sales calls).
  • Create: Make recorded videos (You need to learn video production and editing specifically for courses).
  • Organize: Host your videos and your community (You need to learn what tools to use and how to use them).
  • Automate: Automate your business. Hire people to mentor your students. And hire people to do sales calls and sales webinars. (You need to learn how to hire, train and get extraordinary results out of ordinary people).

I hope this article gave you a clear insight into how you can make $1,000,000 a year as a creator by moving to cohort-based courses. $1m/yr might take a few years, but even if you get to $100k/yr it is a good start.

Here's a mind-map recapping everything we talked about...

There is a lot more to learn and this post might be a good inspiration and a starting point for you to take CBCs seriously.

Since I have already cracked how to make cohort-based courses and scale them with my digital marketing training program, I am planning to teach people how they can become digital mentors themselves. I will be launching my CBC on "Digital Mentoring" soon. Stay tuned.

Deepak Kanakaraju