How to Choose an Online Course Platform

What do Iron Man and falling out of boats have to do with your business? More specifically, what do they have to do with the technology and marketing powering your online education business?

Billy Bross and guest expert Mike Gelblicht have the answers. Mike is a marketing technology specialist who builds online businesses, from courses to marketing automation. 

In Mike’s own words, “People come to me and tell me what they want. I’m the “how” in the way things get done.” 

In his new Lunch and Learn series, Billy Bross hosted Mike, and they discussed the key considerations and decisions business owners need to make when starting their online school, online courses, or coaching program. 

If you're new around here, Billy Bross works with online schools, education companies, course creators, and experts who want to build successful businesses teaching what they know online. 

Building the Pages and Pipes of an Online School 

Billy started the conversation by asking Mike what key things business owners should consider when creating the digital infrastructure for their online business. 

“I think you really need to know the right questions to ask upfront,” Mike said. “And if you’re not clear, you might build something that falls short and can be very frustrating in the end.” 

One of the main questions is: What is your end goal? What is your vision for the project? Once you know where you’re headed, you can make a map of how to get there. 

And if you’ve been around a while, you’ve heard Billy say, “Systems give you freedom.” This is the first thing to know. 

“It really comes down to the systems that run your business,” Billy said. “When someone opts into your email list, that's a trigger that kicks off a whole lot of different actions. It’s the same when someone visits a landing page or buys something – all these things that happen in your business have ripple effects.”

Building sound systems from the beginning will save you time, money, and frustration later. 

The next big question is – where do you want to build? Do you want to build on your own platforms where you’re in control, or do you want to use a step-by-step platform? The answer to that question is in your business model. 

Online Course Marketplaces

One option is online course marketplaces – spaces like Udemy, Skillshare, Lynda, and Udacity. These websites do most of the tech and outreach – you just show up your brain and credit card info. Here’s the skinny on these sites:

ProsThese websites have behemoth email lists and social media audiences. (At the end of 2018, Udemy alone had 24 million registered users!) They give you a built-in audience and access to a giant (metaphorical) megaphone so you can reach out and get your courses in front of primed buyers. 

These sites are simple to use and pretty intuitive. They build and maintain the website. If there’s a glitch with membership access, they’ll take care of it. This allows you to keep things simple and stay in your zone of genius. 

Finally, many are venture-backed, so they have access to more resources than a typical independent course creator. For example, UDemy just raised $50 million at a $2 billion valuation

Cons: You give up a lot of creative freedom and control. Udemy also owns the customer list and limits how you're able to communicate with the people who purchased your courses. You do not get a list of email addresses of the people who purchased your course. That's big drawback for instructors who wish to do followup marketing with their existing customers.

These sites also influence pricing and can discount your course. For instance, Udemy has a $20 minimum and a $200 price cap on courses. They also take 50 percent of the profits if someone buys your course through their marketing and outreach. 

If you don't want to give up that chunk of money and control, you can build on your own platform, which is where Mike’s expertise comes into play. 

On the Rails vs Off the Rails – Which is Best to Host Your Online Courses?

If you plan on building out your own platform, there are a couple of options that Mike dubbed “on and off the rails.” 

Software that is ‘On the Rails’ offers guidance so it is easier to get your online course up and running. You can do the most important and basic things – upload videos, post worksheets and content, but it does limit some customization. ‘Off the Rails’ means you have more flexibility when it comes to customization and design, but there is a learning curve and you’ll have to hire help if you don’t already have the skills needed to get up and running. 

On the rails solutions are platforms like Teachable and Kajabi. They guide you on how to build your site and walk you through what information to fill in. Everything is templated, so it lacks the creative freedom of WordPress, but the learning curve isn’t as steep. 

“It's a great place to start in the beginning,” Mike said, “Because you don't have to learn how to do anything. They keep you in a straight line, and it absolutely works.” 

Off the rails solutions are what Mike primarily works with. His clients come to him with big custom dreams to build out on WordPress. 

“They have all these ideas and all the flexibility in the world,” Mike said, “And they're usually an established business with a budget going into it and a proven model.” 

Off the rails solutions have a lot more layers than platforms like Teachable. You have to consider plug-ins, working with a designer, and more people and moving parts. 

Mike made this comparison: say you fall off the side of a boat. Instead of tossing you a life preserver, they toss you wood, nails, and a hammer to build your own boat. That is an off the rails solution. If you fall off the side of a boat, and someone throws a life preserver to you – that’s an on the rails system. They accomplish the same thing, but one takes more time and resources. 

So which is best for your online courses?  

"I don't think there's a right and a wrong for people," Mike said. "It's just as right to go with a templated system that's more of a Kajabi or Teachable, and it's equally as right to go full custom. It just depends on where you're at."

Mike stressed that it's fine to start on the rails. Spend as much time as you need proving you have something that's going to sell, is transformative, and is a real business vehicle. Then come back to customize when you're ready. 

"For some people that magic happens quickly and they have the resources within 90 days to do an about-face," Mike said. "But there's nothing wrong with stepping these things out in stages because you're not stuck with anything."

Billy agreed and said most of the coaches he works with are ambitious and want to be the best in their niche. Often times, they want to do custom right out the gate. While you could definitely make a case for that, consider how much time and money it would take to do that from the start.

“To me, I think about guiding principles for growing a business,” Billy said. “The most important thing is sales. Getting money in the door. That's what allows everything else to happen.”

He went on to say that most small businesses fail because of cash flow issues.

“One of my favorite Dan Kennedy quotes is, ‘Money is attracted to speed,’” Billy said. 

“Right, and the speed of implementation is going to be ten times faster with something like Teachable because it’s you and that software,” Mike said. “You know, there's no perfect solution. We can get really close and for some people, what they build is perfect for them.” 

Again – nothing is forever. You can always change your system if you need to. 

The Technology at the "Heart" of Your Business

One of the most important factors to consider when mapping out the tech behind your online school is your CRM. If you’re not familiar, that stands for customer relationship management. Around here, Billy calls it email software on steroids. 

“I would say, number one, what is your email automation CRM, and what is compatible with that?” Mike said. “And are you happy with it? Because if you’re not, I would get really clear on what you want with the CRM because everything’s going to go through that.”

“The way that you're talking about it, it sounds like the CRM is really important, right?” Billy said. “It sounds like you're almost saying it's the heart of the whole system.”

“That’s accurate,” Mike said. 

Billy uses Tony Stark as an example. The ‘genius billionaire playboy philanthropist’ with his Iron Man suit. If you think about that suit, he has the arc reactor sitting right in the middle of his chest – the "heart" of the suit that powers everything. 

"You have the website software; you have your online school software, your LMS, you have all your social media accounts," Billy said. "There's a lot to think about, but you really do have to prioritize these things. Your CRM, your email software, whatever you want to call it, is really important and right at the heart because it connects everything and powers those other things."

Mike agreed, adding that you want to be happy with your CRM and dream big around that software. 

"And what I mean by that is imagine that you've built the perfect site for your clients," Mike said, "And now you want to be able to reach more people. What does that look like?"

He listed ways people often want to customize – things like creating Facebook messaging for people that signed up for a free trial and canceled, or having a way to contact people that signed up but only stayed for two months. You can automate all these kinds of things. 

"So that CRM is the biggest leverage point in your business a lot of times," Mike said. 

You can start from either direction finding a CRM you love first or finding the other components that are important to you – things like membership plug-ins. It’s important to consider both sides and pick the route that gets you to your goal. 

Once you’ve done that you can start mapping out what you want your systems to look like. 

A couple years ago, Billy got certified in Ontraport because, you know, he geeks out about coaching and certification stuff. But one of the biggest things he took away from that training was learning to map out systems. Ontraport consultants went through projects where they worked with clients to create better systems. 

"Just that exercise of mapping out all those processes gives you so much clarity," Billy said. "You see so many opportunities to reduce headaches, make processes more efficient, allow you to scale, and generate more revenue. What is the best way to get from point A to point B to hit these goals? Then decide on the software to get."

Check around, too. Are there going to be four or five different bridges between these two different tools? Is it a direct integration, or an all in one platform? 

But don't sweat it if you don't have all of these systems perfect from the start. 

"At the end of the day, it's going to come down to your content," Mike said. "The most important thing is to have something truly amazing and transformative that's gonna make a difference in someone's life and solve their problems."

"I'm so glad you said that," Billy said. "A lot of times you distract yourself with automation, and you sketch out this amazing blueprint with all these moving pieces.” 

“It’s like, “'Holy crap, look at this machine that I built.' But the messaging sucks. It's not compelling, it doesn't resonate with people, and the marketing is poor." 

It's fun and exciting if you love tech to dig in on the automation and pipes, but don't let it distract you from what's most important – the content. 

Common Fears & How to Fight Them 

In December, one of Mike's clients told him they wanted to clean up their Infusionsoft (now called Keap) account because much of the information was outdated or not useful anymore. 

No problem, Mike said. He did what he's great at and rebuilt the client's funnels and automation. Then the client started working on their membership site, and came back to Mike saying, "You're going to think I’m crazy, but I want to rebuild this on Ontraport.”

It made sense, so Mike built out the program in Ontraport. A short time later, the client ran into a hard wall with his affiliate program, and it actually made sense to go back to Infusionsoft. 

Still with us? Infusionsoft > Ontraport > Infusionsoft. All in under 60 days. It seems a lot of back and forth, but there are a few takeaways here.


First, there is no one correct way to do this, and you're not going to be judged for making a thoughtful shift in your business. 

"What are the rules that we make up in our heads that keep us from succeeding in the way we want?" Mike said. "To me, it's not a judgment around, 'Oh, that was a dumb decision.' If you have the resources and there's a logical reason to make a pivot instead of living with a possible mistake, why not?" 

Mike advises to plan as best you can to avoid wasting time or money, but you have to make decisions to set yourself up for success. 

"Right, do your due diligence," Billy said. "Look at reviews. Obviously, if you have a platform that's down every single day, you probably don't want to go with that company. But at a certain point, you've got to stick with something."

Which brings us to the second takeaway which you heard before, but it’s worth repeating – you aren't stuck with any of this forever. 

"It's not always going to be perfect," Mike said. "But it's okay because in the end, if you're serving your customers in the right way, with great intention from the heart, and you're serving well, that's what's going to build a business."

Show Notes & Resources

Want help building your online school? Reach out to Mike. You can find more information and connect with Mike on his website:

Want help marketing and selling your courses? Reach out to Billy:

On the rails solutions

Off the rails solutions