How I made $9K before I even created a course

Creating an online course can be a lot of work. I know because I’ve done it. Twice.

My first one has been successful, earning over $20K in just 4 months. But before I made a single dollar from it, I spent 100+ hours creating the course content.

When I was ready to build my second course, I decided that I wanted to get paid before creating it. I knew having that cash on hand would let me dedicate the time to deliver an even better product.

I’d heard about pre-selling, but I was confused.

  • How do I sell something that doesn’t exist yet?
  • What do I do without any testimonials?
  • How do I show everyone how great the course will be?

But I managed to figure it all out, and in one week, I made $9,000.

You need to do 3 things during a pre-sell:

  • Earn your audience’s trust
  • Deliver loads of value
  • Give them a reason to buy

It takes time to accomplish all of this, so I opted for a two-week launch. Week one focused on gaining trust and providing value, and week two was about selling.

Here are the exact steps you can follow to make money before you create your course.

Build trust with your audience

People won’t buy from someone they don’t trust. This is especially true with products that don’t yet exist. And that’s why the first goal of pre-selling is to make sure your audience trusts you.

You can do this by being humble, making yourself vulnerable, and sharing personal stories. This all makes you relatable. It shows people you understand what they are going through.

To ensure my audience could relate to and trust me, I used the first email in my launch to share an embarrassing story.

I’m a professional fashion designer, but I don’t know how to draw by hand. Ask any fashionista, and they’ll tell you this is an expected skill. Without it, I sometimes feel like a total fraud.

And the thought of admitting this made my heart skip a beat.

Which is why I knew this was the perfect story to tell. I set aside my nerves and sent an email describing one of my most nerve-wracking moments as a designer: When I was put on the spot and asked to hand sketch.

I shared that I can’t draw by hand, which is a required skill for fashion designers.

My audience loved it. In their replies to my email, they opened up to me in ways they never had before to share their own stories, struggles, and goals.

They were also relieved to know that professionals like me don’t know how to do everything! Realizing that they, too, could get ahead in their career without knowing it all was a huge weight off their shoulders.

When you show your audience you’re just like them, they’ll start to trust you.

By sharing my vulnerable story, I connected with my readers in a way that allowed them to trust me.

To do this with your audience, tell a personal story that’s relevant to the course you’ll be pre-selling. Think about a time when you were most embarrassed, frustrated, or discouraged. Whatever the emotion, make sure it’s extra juicy. This is not the time to be shy!

If you’re nervous or uncomfortable about the thought of exposing yourself, remember that many of your readers are going through the same exact thing. They won’t see you as a fraud — rather they’ll be grateful that you opened up to them.

It can also help to pretend you’re writing the email to a close friend or family member.

At the end of your email, add a call to action. Want engagement? Ask readers to tell you their story. Want more traffic? Ask them to forward the message to a friend.

Whatever it is, keep it simple and include only one action. Here’s how I asked readers to share their stories with me:

When I asked to hear my readers’ stories, I got a flood of engagement.

Give your best stuff away

Now that you’ve built trust, it’s time to give your audience your absolute best solutions to their problems.

Make sure these solutions are immediately actionable so they have a quick win. They’ll need to see instant results.

Also keep your solutions relevant to both the story you told and the course you’ll be pre-selling. Otherwise, none of this will make sense to them when you’re ready to sell.

Most importantly, remember that this is not the time to skimp! Don’t worry that you’re giving away your best secrets. The better and quicker the win, the more likely they’ll buy.

To do this during my launch, I sent 2 value emails with tutorials. Each one taught simple skills that are required for every fashion job, but that most schools don’t teach.

As a bonus, I included a free download of the file I used in the tutorials so readers could follow along. Just like I did with my embarrassing story email, I added a clear call to action at the end:

This quick video taught my audience a skill they could use right away.

You can do this by teaching your audience how you overcame the embarrassment, frustration, discouragement, or other emotion from the vulnerable story you shared.

Package the solution up in an easy-to-understand way. This may be a video, a written guide, a checklist, or a cheat sheet. It can be in any format, as long as it gives your best solution to their problem.

Keep it short and simple. If you overwhelm your audience with too much info, they won’t take action and won’t see results. A 3-minute video or 5-page PDF is perfect.

Interact face-to-face with your audience

It’s easy to hide behind an email address and be somewhat anonymous. But if you let your readers connect with you in real time, they’ll feel like they really know you. This builds more trust, boosts engagement, and makes them love you even more.

You can do this with a live or interactive webinar. I chose Leadpages and Google Hangouts to run mine.

I saved my best sketching tricks for the live event. Since everyone knew this was a crucial skill for their success, they were extra excited to tune in.

Showing your face on a webinar builds more trust and boosts engagement.

After I shared my best content, I introduced my upcoming course and gave attendees every incentive to buy right there:

  • A special pre-sell price that would soon double
  • A bonus 30-minute session with me

At this point, no one cared that the course wasn’t yet available. I had built tons of trust. I made the offer irresistible, and I showed them exactly why they would benefit from the content.

The minute I ended the presentation, I kept refreshing my inbox. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. In just 14 minutes, I made $1,670.

My first batch of preorders!

If you want to do a webinar, follow this simple five-step formula:

  1. Introduce yourself (5 minutes): Tell your audience who you are and why you’re credible. This can be professional licenses, years of experience, or trial and error.
  2. Engage them (10 minutes): Remind them why they are here and how the solution you are sharing benefits them.
  3. Deliver free content (20 minutes): Give them the best solution to their problem.
  4. Pre-sell your course (2 minutes): Introduce the course and what it will include. Also emphasize any bonuses or reasons to buy now.
  5. Answer questions (5 minutes): Invite them to ask questions about your free content or the course.

It’s time to sell more

Once the webinar is finished, you’re not done selling yet. While I did great and made $1,837 the night of the webinar, I was able to bring in another $7,268 over the next 6 days through my email funnel.

The email funnel after the webinar is important because people may have missed the live event, have last-minute hesitations, or need more time to decide.

Give them another opportunity to buy.

I structured week two of my email funnel like this:






Email #1: Send out the webinar recording so people who missed it can watch. Email #2: Introduce your course and outline what it will include. Give them the offer to pre-register. Email #3: Sell your course and tell them why they should buy. Email #4: (AM) Remind them to pre-enroll and offer to answer any last-minute questions.

Email #5:
(PM) Send one last reminder to pre-enroll and answer any common questions.

You can follow the same schedule or adjust it for your needs. Just make sure you’re clear about two things:

Be 100% transparent about when the course content will be available. Give readers an exact date that you’re confident you can meet. You’ve worked hard to earn your audience’s trust. You don’t want to lose it now by misleading them about the date.

In every email, remind people of any deadlines, price increases, or bonuses they will miss out on. Tell them when and why they should to take action.

You’ve been paid, now get to work

With $9K in the bank, I was able to confidently dedicate 80+ hours to creating my course.

2 weeks after closing the cart, I emailed all of my students to let them know the course was live and remind them how to access it.

I’ve gotten great feedback from my students about why they love the course. They’re learning new tricks to help speed up their career progress.

Your turn: What fears do you have about launching? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll give you the best way overcome them with a pre-sell.

There Are 23 Comments

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So what was the email list size when you launched your product and how many attended your webinar?

Awesome! When did you start growing your list (which answers how long it took you to get to 2848), and where were your main source of traffic (guest post, social media, etc)?

Here’s the rough timeline:
Years 1-4: Site w/ side bar email form = 600 subs
Year 5: Site w/ modal pop up = 600 more subs (1200 total)
Year 5.5: Site optimized to collect emails / driving more traffic to site through guest posts = 1600+ more subs (2848 total)

So I had been building for a while, but wasn’t really optimized until after year 5…

Hi Heidi,

this is a great great post.
I really appreciate the details you gave on your webinar structure (sounds obvious when you read it but here, the timing is key) and the email content and delivery schedule.

A very precious “how to”.

May I ask how you decided to sell this course after this pre-sale and how did it fit in your course portfolio? :)

Thanks for this great work,


Hi Geraldine! Glad you enjoyed the article and yes, sometimes we have to see things outlined to realize how obvious they are!

To answer your questions…

I did a “mini” launch 4 weeks after the pre-sell once the course was actually live that consisted of 2 value emails, 1 soft sales email, and 1 short reminder email. The price was $297 (vs the $167 pre-sell price).

My course portfolio consists of this course at $297 and another course at $297. This course will most likely stay $297 for awhile, and the other course will be going up in price after the next launch.

Hope that answers your questions? Let me know if I understood correctly…?

Best, Heidi

You said your email list was over 2,000. How did you have that list to send the sequence out to? Did you already have them from a previous endeavor, use someone else’s list or build it from scratch just for this?

Thanks for the article – it’s nice to see an outline.

Hi Sara – I just sort of answered this on “S’s” comment above, but my list had been build SLOWLY over the years since I had been teaching Illustrator for quite some time and had a site for about 5 years. Don’t get intimidated when I say it was that long to build it though – the truth is I hadn’t optimized anything I was doing until less than a year ago. The majority of list has come from the last 8-10 months of strategizing by optimizing for opt-ins and getting more traffic through guest posts.

Hi Heidi – just a quick note to say thank you for such a quality post! So detailed and transparent – really refreshing to see the launch process broken down into simple, actionable steps. Congrats, Emma xx

Thanks for the transparency and the Step-by-Step. You have given us a great tool to model. Congratulations in a successful launch!

Hey Heidi,

That’s one awesome piece of content and information!

Thank you for your transparency and insights – this is super valuable.

1) Not sure if I missed it in the article, but at what point did you tell them that the course was live?
2) On the actual sales page, let’s say it’s a leadpage, do you mention a ‘live date’ of the course or what do you use to describe that the course is upcoming? Do you just use upcoming or give a specific time range?


Hi Pamela – great questions! Here are answers:

1. I first introduced the course during the live webinar. A couple hours after that finished, I sent an email to my entire list with a link the webinar recording and let them know about the new course.

2. Throughout my sales page, I made sure to note multiple times that this was to “pre-register” for the course and that the content would be available on X date. I even included a specific FAQ about when the course would be live and when students would have access to the material. As I mentioned, you want to make sure people know when they will get what they paid for!

Hope that helps :)

Hi Heidi!

What a timely post for me. I’ve been working on (procrastinating) starting an SEM, SEO workshop for photographers. My background is in digital marketing and I do photography on the side so it’s a perfect fit.

My biggest fear is not providing the content in a useable fashion. Very similar to your not being able to hand draw, I can’t make pretty charts of data.

Your article helps inspire me to look at my path to launch time differently. Take a different perspective. I was led to your article from one of Ramit Sethi’s videos; I can’t recall which one it was now I’ve watched so many today. LOL

What source(s) have been the most inspirational to you as it relates to launching your online courses?


Hi Barb,

Thanks for your nice note and so happy to hear that the article has inspired you!

To address your fear about not providing content in a useable fashion, I would suggest you work directly with your audience on this one. Have you tried delivering different types of free content? If so, you can ask for their feedback and figure out what is the most engaging / what works best for them. Start small and learn what your audience likes with free content, then apply that to your paid course! You’ll also want to put some students through a beta version to make sure the content is delivered the best way possible.

For me, video has been the best option (and if you know anything about Ramit’s opinion on this, he tends to agree).

The most inspirational sources for me have been the (online) communities I’m part of, specifically ZTL and Accelerator. Having a group of people who are doing the same thing you are, get what you are going through, and help you get there is invaluable. Don’t try to do this in a vacuum – get out there to get the guidance and support you need!

Hope that helps! Best, Heidi

Great article Heidi! It’s good to see how the process stays true if you follow it. I had a few questions…How much content would you say you had when it came time to start preparing for a pre-launch? I’m in the process of writing every day and my site is not even really setup, but I just was wondering since I’ve seen different approaches from different people. Also, how much feedback/guest posts did you partake in before deciding to prepare for the launch? I feel like that part can feel a little overwhelming since there are so many moving pieces.

Hi Jesse –

Measuring the amount of content, feedback and guest posts is not what is going to tell you if you’re ready to launch.

Instead, focus on building your email list and keeping them engaged. Sometimes you can do this with very little content. Writing every single day may not be the best use of your time. I post quite infrequently on my own site and focus more on guest posts (to build my list and traffic).

With that said, how could you change what you’re doing and how does that change how “ready” you are to launch?

Heidi! Thank you so much for laying this all out there in such a clear way. You have clearly been busting your ass on this and the results are amazing. I look forward to seeing you continue to hit it out of the park! :)

Thank you for the very informative article! I like how the calls to action are very relational and not just “tweet this link for a bonus.” My biggest fear about launching is having people who will negate or say “that’s not how you do it” or “that’s now how I did it”. In actuality I know that my target audience will have little to no knowledge on my topic so this is silly, but still it’s scary. I would not put out content that I could not back up with personal experience, but still it’s scary for me. I think everyone who starts a business, no matter how qualified, feels a sense of imposter syndrome and is afraid of being called on the carpet.

Hi Angela! Oh…the ever lingering impostor syndrome! Unfortunately you’ll never outgrow it :). BUT, once you do put something out to your audience (I suggest you start with free content to test and do research with!), you’ll start to get feedback and testimonials. And that is what will keep you moving ahead and let you know you’re doing the right thing! I constantly doubt that I know what I’m doing, but then people tell me how great a course was or how much a free download helped them, and I’m reassured :). You’ll do awesome!

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