As a fashion photographer (for clients such as designer label Giorgio Armani, department store chain Saks Fifth Avenue and men's style magazine Esquire), podcast host and co-founder of an online travel community, New York City-based Justin Bridges sure knows how to keep busy. He still finds time to run an online learning business, teaching photography and personal finance to students around the world. ‘I've always felt like I'd be in some role as an educator eventually,’ he says.
The 36-year-old launched his first course on online learning community Skillshare back in 2015, teaching aspiring shutterbugs the fundamentals of portrait photography through a series of video lessons. ‘I was lucky enough to have someone from Skillshare approach me to tell me about what they were building,’ he shares. ‘I was a little hesitant because I was still fairly young in my career, but it turns out that I wasn't half bad at teaching – even back then.’
Today, he has more than 200,000 students on Skillshare and that figure only looks set to grow. Here, he offers his tips and advice on how to scale your own online learning business.
1. Work out how you can do a better job
As with the start of most businesses, before you start on your own path, it makes sense to be across what others are doing in the sector – and how you might be able to stand out. For Justin, that meant committing to a serious period of research into what was already out there with both his time and cash.
‘When I was a budding photographer, I spent hard-earned dollars and countless hours getting exposed to what was available [in terms of online courses in photography],’ he says. ‘So, when I started teaching, I knew exactly what I didn't enjoy about the cross-section of photography instructors I had learned from.’
2. Find a teaching style that suits your audience
Justin films most of his classes professionally with Skillshare's in-house content team – but, of course, not every creator has access to such resources. According to him however, the key to a great class lies in the planning and preparation – and knowing what resonates with the student. ‘I have a “real” approach to teaching because I'm self-taught. I try to teach in a way that anyone can understand – no matter their expertise level. Jargon isn't important to learning,’ he says.
Adapting your language and finding the right tone and voice, to connect with and resonate with those you're targeting, is going to be key in being successful.
3. Build in mechanisms to get feedback
Naturally, the first attempt you make to design a learning course is unlikely to be the best you can achieve. Iterating, and making changes to content, structure and format, is essential to refining your offering – and something that Justin lent heavily on as his business grew. ‘I think my lessons got better because of the feedback I received from my students over time,’ he says.
Given how personal and interactive an experience online learning can be, you'll need to build in methods of receiving feedback – whether that's through direct outreach, surveys or scouring reviews (for more information on creating customer feedback loops, check out our dedicated online guide).
4. Pick your platform wisely
While Justin regularly promotes his classes on his personal website and Instagram page, he also notes the importance of choosing a suitable and supportive online learning platform – particularly if you're coming from a position of not having a ready-made audience. For instance, Skillshare is video-led and operates on an academy model with a sizable membership base to tap into, so teachers have a built-in audience from the start. It also spotlights stand-out classes on its platform and gives creators tips on how to grow their online following. ‘I owe a lot of my exposure to Skillshare's willingness to make sure solid content is seen and enjoyed by its community. It does a great job of incorporating fresh perspectives,’ he says.
5. Build out your offering
Justin's first course on Skillshare was on the basics of photography – but he quickly diversified to offer more products and reach a wider audience. In his case, that meant making use of his background in accountancy to create personal finance courses on topics like modern money habits and how to fine-tune your financial savvy working as an artist. These courses act as a natural extension of the photography material while making use of his other area of expertise. Justin is considering broadening out his teaching repertoire further into adjacent topics. ‘I think it'll be much more interesting to develop my online learning business by mirroring my growth as an individual versus staying hyper-focused,’ he says.
6. Stay true to your raison d'être
Ultimately, Justin advocates that any decision to follow this route, and start your own online learning business in whatever area you're best equipped, shouldn't be based purely as a way to make some money. Instead, it should come from a place of seeing it as an opportunity to share the knowledge you've built up and your own unique skill set. ‘If you're jumping into something just for the earnings potential, stop right now. It has to start with the question: How can I add value? It's a bit clichéd but it cuts to the heart of it,’ Justin says. As far as he's concerned, the profit that follows is simply a result of a genuine ambition to help others on their journey. ‘I don't teach to make money, I teach because I think I can help others.’
This article was first published in Courier issue 48, August/September 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.