How to Create a Successful Online Course and Membership Wisdom with LifterLMS Co-Founder Chris Badgett [Episode 22]

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In today’s episode, Chris Badgett, the CEO and co-founder of LifterLMS  joins Micah to share his insights about online course design, membership sites and his advice for anyone who’s thinking about starting an online course.

Starting an online course is hard. When you’re trying to start your own online course, people run into what Chris refers to as “the five hats problem”. To run a successful online course, you have to be an expert, you have to be a community builder, an instructional designer, a technologist and you have to be an entrepreneur. Fulfilling all these roles yourself can be a huge challenge.

Chris shares his advice on how you can overcome this problem and talks about the right way to approach launching an online course when you’re just getting started.

Throughout this episode, Chris shares a ton of useful nuggets you can use to improve your online course or membership site. He discusses the importance of using feedback loops to improve the outcomes for your students and ultimately make your online course more successful.

Chris Badgett is the CEO and co-founder of LifterLMS, one of the most popular LMS’ for WordPress. Chris started learning about online education on a glacier in Alaska. He’s created courses on everything from organic gardening to wood working. He is extremely passionate about helping other entrepreneurial educators find success and create impact by helping them create online courses and membership sites.

To learn more about how LifterLMS works you can visit their site and start using it for free. If you’d like to learn more from Chris, we’d like to invite you to subscribe to his LMS podcast or join the LifterLMS Facebook group.

Throughout the episode, Chris shares a ton of great advice for anyone with an online course or membership site. To find out all of the advice Chris had to share you won’t want to miss checking out this full episode…

Episode Highlights

  • Chris explains the three main teaching models you can follow to structure your knowledge as an expert and package it into an online course or membership site.
  • Micah and Chris discuss what’s changed over the years when it comes to running an online course or membership site and new trends that all online course creators should be aware of in the future.
  • Starting a course can be hard. Chris refers to this as “the five hats problem”. Running an online course requires you to wear a lot of different hats. How do you balance everything and make it work when you’re trying to start a new course or membership site? Listen to the full episode to find out how to overcome these challenges and effectively overcome these problems as a business owner.
  • Chris discusses the different challenges he’s encountered when creating online courses in the past and shares his advice on how to overcome these challenges.
  • Learn about Feedback loops and why their so important for driving the success and improvement of an online course or membership program. Throughout the podcast, Chris shares ways you can go about collecting feedback from your students, he covers the importance of trackinf your students course progress with an LMS. You can get feedback from people through facebook, talk to people directly, to interview  your successful members, interview members who could be considered failures and you can automate your feedback collection process.
  • Determine what works for you, what does not, and enhance them over time by improving your program. This in turn should help increase the percentage of the number of students who actually complete your program and ultimately make your course or membership program more successful.

Show ​Highlights & Links

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​Episode Transcript

Micah: Hey everybody, it’s Micah from the Membership Site Success show and today we get the pleasure of talking to Chris Badgett who runs and is a partner, co-founder of LifterLMS. He’s agreed to talk to us about his business and share some insights about course design, which is a big specialty of theirs and as much membership wisdom as we can wring out of him in our time together today. So Chris, thanks so much for joining us!

Chris: Thanks for having me on the show, Micah, it’s great to be here! Membership sites and courses is my favorite topic.

Micah: I know, I know, it’s going to be exciting and we’ve got to catch up a little bit. I know you’re from the North-East, you up in Maine today but last time we were talking I thought it was kind of fun, you were at a friend’s house, watching over their maple syrup production for a couple of days so there’s probably lots of interesting stuff we’ll get into but to get started, why don’t you tell me and everybody listening a little bit about you, how you got started and about your business, and then we’ll take it from there.

Chris: Absolutely. I’m traditionally a hardcore outdoor person. I used to live in Alaska, I used to run sled dogs in Alaska. I used to live on a glacier that you can only get to by a helicopter, I ran a helicopter supported dog sled tour business out there for a while, I spent a lot of time in the winter in different parts of Alaska doing things but it was in that time that I started just messing around with WordPress. This is back in 2008, and I started building websites. Later people started paying me to do it, ultimately I built that up to an agency that had 17 people and we were building sites for clients.

A lot of those sites, we developed a specialty in membership sites, had a background in the Infusionsoft community and through all that experience we ultimately wanted to get into a product business so we decided to build a WordPress based online course LMS solution and that’s what led to LifterLMS. I’m also a course creator myself. I’ve done courses in the gardening niche and another niche called permaculture and I do a lot of courses around WordPress, technology and things like that. I’m a course creator, I’m a guy who loves marketing automation and also just helping other membership site folks and course creators find success because it’s a challenging world, you have got to have a lot of different skills to do this things.

Micah: So, as a course creator yourself and now also developing and working on a piece of software, those of you not familiar with it LifterLMS is a learning management system that Chris is a part of. How much, and this is kind of a curiosity thing because I do this myself a little bit, I have some software and courses, how much of what’s in Lifter is some of your own personal requests versus how much is generated by the market asking for features, you know, does a lot of it come from you and your experience or is a lot of it user driven?

Chris: I think in the earlier days of the project a lot of it came from me but now I see my role more as a spokesperson for the audience and I’m always open to new ideas and new ways of looking at courses and membership sites so often times it kind of comes through the filter of me to make sure we have something, like a feature that is really trending in demand versus isolated one off thing because in the membership site world if you’re in the product space there’s so many directions you can go that you kind of have to pick and choose what is really essential here, what is the course creator’s need to be successful.

We were really engaged with our community so getting feedback, it’s always happening. We have a big Facebook group, I do a live weekly call with some of our top customers, which has become a Mastermind so I very much have my finger on the pulse. I don’t come up with ideas by myself, I’m looking for trends and patterns in our user base and also in our prospect base, people looking for solutions.

Micah: Got you. So I know for a while, let’s go back for a couple of years, you know, maybe three or five years or so, membership sites were still kind of plain and basic. They were just if somebody was doing a good job they were basically just providing videos online that you had to log in to access and then this whole learning management craze came up and everybody was doing that. What do you see as some of the changes that you need to implement for example these days, what are people asking for and kind of what’s coming next?

Chris: So, that change happened like in the early days of internet marketing. The internet marketers and online business and some relationship niches, this is where those e-books and this all kind of started. At first there was this big craze for protected content that people have to go through a paywall to access but over time things have been trending to be much more organized and also just do more things. The way I like to describe it is kind of the difference between just members only content versus a course versus a learning management system.

So members only content could just be an e-book or an access to an event and there’s a lot of great tools for just like members only content or subscription box service that comes in mail. There’s all kinds of things you can do with memberships and then online courses kind of take that protected content that’s mostly probably digital and organize that into a course structure which I usually explain to people, to experts who aren’t necessarily teachers trying to figure this all out is there’s three main models you can follow.

One of those course models is called the resource course. It’s basically knowledge transfer and it’s also the most dangerous in terms of not being successful as a project. This is where you pack your expertise into a bunch of lessons in certain order. There is a place of these kind of courses but what’s really trending is what I call a behavior change course or a learning process course. This is where things, the lessons are sequential or designed in such a way to help somebody change behavior. Within these kinds of things other features become important like your content, prerequisites, gamification, engagement, you’re going to even get in to stuff where there might be like a passive course but then an upsell option to include coaching or private community.

All these things are important, especially in behavior change or you’re learning how to execute a process that isn’t necessarily super easy. So, it’s really gotten a lot more rich and the whole learning management side of it all has to do with not just like the ecommerce statistics and stuff but what is the reporting, where are people getting stuck, how is this user doing, how is this course doing inside the membership, I want to download my data and take it somewhere else, do something else with it.

And right there at the learning management layer if you look at tools like Memberium, you guys do a great job with applying tags and getting a bunch of intelligents into the CRM so outside of WordPress over to this CRM hub like Infusionsoft or Active Campaign. That’s what it’s all about, learning management is a lot more control, it’s like taking what happens in Rick and Morty school and bringing that onto the Internet in terms of analytics and managing the students, as well as the orders and stuff, but a lot more detailed.

Micah: It sounds like I missed the most obvious thing in the world in learning management. You’re explaining this and breaking it down, you obviously understand this on a whole other level developing a plugin for it so you said there’s these three different types, the resource, the knowledge transfer and then the behavior or process change course. When I used to think learning management I thought of it as we’re managing the learning of the user by giving them checkmarks, progress bars, but it sounds like when you say learning management you mean more from the administrator’s perspective managing the learning of the group and kind of the feedback and so forth based on what they’re delivering.

Just as you said it’s like “holy cow, that’s what that means, I misunderstood this the whole time.” Am I correct there saying that you’re kind of seeing that from the administrator’s perspective?

Chris: Yeah but there’s also layers to administration. Like the website owner, the instructor, the instructor’s assistant, the student, like how they administer their content. There’s a lot of layers to those user roles and another thing that might be helpful in the beginning as we flush this out is a challenge that we see in people who are successful in these kinds of platforms or these types of online businesses or organizations, which is, I call it the five hats problem. So, you have to be five different people at once if you’re a solo operator or you have to build a team or use technology to help fill in the gaps.

You have to be an expert, you have to be a community builder, you have to be an instructional designer, you have to be a technologist and you have to be an entrepreneur. Wearing these five hats is almost like a unicorn to find somebody who has all these skill sets in one person. It can also be challenging to build a team around this but this is one of the reasons why software exist to help with the technology piece. What we were talking about with the types of courses like behavior change and process, those are instructional design issues.

This is where an expert is like “Maybe I shouldn’t just dump all my knowledge in here but I’m going to build a 30 day program that’s a process that’s going to help bring students in this state A into state B in the real world.” So now that becomes a much more attractive, easier to market type of course with process but I can go on and on, I just think when those five hats are out in the open we realize how challenging this industry is and how many different types of technology solutions can help in these different areas.

Micah: I love it. I love how you got little context or contrasts to put some of this stuff in, brings a lot of clarity to it. It’s interesting too, you mentioned you’ve done some sites yourself. On one of the more recent sites that you’ve built yourself or done for yourself, can you kind of walk me through the thought process from when you thought about doing the site what was maybe like stage one minimum viable version of your site and then where did it go from there?

Chris: That’s a great question. I’m going to come back with another model thing, the first thing is you’ve got to figure out is it just a one course site, am I a single person with lots of courses that perhaps are available a la carte through a membership or is it like a multi-instructor online school. So depending on which type of project I’m approaching, I would attack the first steps very differently but for the one course site I’m a big fan of piloting where you’re kind of testing an idea.

I’ve done this before with helping people build a course site so it’s a little meta. I do have some courses that we are building sort of like our own online courses for course creators that cover these issues that are faced with these five hats. For a long time we’ve had technology courses but we’re trying to build out more courses to help people with all these different things. But, piloting is where you just get this shopping cart up and then you move people through that training but you do it live.

You do it on 1 on 1 or group coaching live so you really test out your method, make sure you can do it over the internet before jumping into the totally passive video course where everything is automated and planned out. Even still going passive I like to have at least like some kind of office hours once a week or a coaching call once a month or whatever just to make sure that feedback loop is open because one of the biggest challenges courses have is too many assumptions about their target market or lack of personalization because even though certain students might fit into the same marketing profile and came in perfectly through the funnel they may actually struggle in different ways with your course and if they don’t have a way to get personalized help that contributes to this big problem that we have in our industry of really low completion rates with online courses and online course based membership sites.

Micah: Got you, it’s genius. I like that idea, especially of doing kind of a live pilot group because I’ve talked a lot about that in the past, I don’t want somebody to go build a whole site and then find out that there’s not a whole market for it but I think you’re taking it to the next level of not just do a test to see if there is a market for it but your test is going to make the content a lot more relevant for the users to add to course completion rates, make those better because that is a huge issue.

Let’s say you do pilot and you find out this works and just as an example you’re going to go into the one instruction building maybe one course to begin with but then more courses afterward, how would you approach that, do you really design that first course with all the bells and whistles, do you populate a lot and then layer on other stuff, how would you go through that process?

Chris: I’m a big fan of membership thinking in addition to just one-off courses. Sometimes though people are just going to be like I’m only going to have one course, it’s like the quit smoking course or it’s the couch potato to five k course. It’s always going to be one course but if there’s any chance that there’s going to be like a membership component where there’s going to be a course plus community plus coaching, either one on one or group or you’re going to be rolling out other courses, I would launch with the course and the membership at the same time.

Or those early adopters with better pricing or discounts or other benefits or whatever. But to start out, I would start with really mapping out that learning journey and I know a lot of this audience is probably pretty familiar with marketing and marketing segmentation and things like that so when you market to everyone you market to no one. I think that one of the things that’s really important is to focus on the starting point, like who is this for, at what precise moment in time in their life.

So, if it’s a course for first time parents, is it they’re about to have a baby or did they just have the baby, is the baby one year old and they’re like totally stressed out, what stage are we at? Because if we have a clear starting point and we know what the end looks like at the end state, regardless of is it a resource course, process or behavior change, within that the way I like to start, assuming we’ve done some piloting and we’ve kind of taken a lot of our expert skills and gotten results with people, we move into the instructional design phase.

That’s all about, me personally I like to do mind maps and once I have mind maps I get more traditional and squeeze that into a traditional table of contents like curriculum structure so it’s basically our lesson plan. And then when I look at the lesson plan there’s going to be informational videos and things like that, I’m also thinking about exercises. This is another example of the difference between just typical, not typical but traditional members only content. Online courses, when people start talking about online courses there’s often an exercise, I’m going to give you an information but this isn’t just education, I’m going to tell you exactly what you need to do to get the highest likelihood of achieving the results that I promise you’re going to get. It’s about taking information and moving into action.

That’s like knowledge they need to know plus the action they need to take. Then I also think about the support network so is there, in order for this to work, does this need community, are we going to have a private Facebook group, are we going to have a private community on the website itself, are we going to do a live event in a couple locations or multiple locations, what are our community needs to provide our support, are we going to help the students to form little mastermind groups, it’s questions like that where the conversation is not just about content, it’s also about do I want to put coaching and community in here too, is this an important part of achieving the result?

So all that comes into laying out the lesson plan, not just what are we going to teach but how are we going to support them, what are we going to guide them to do?

Micah: Again, you do have really good models of all this stuff, it sounds like you’re reading from notes but I’m sure you know it cold. For those of you listening I would imagine right now you’re thinking the same thing I am which is “this is really useful or I missed a step.” I recently last summer did a course myself and I’ve done many over the years but this one was a little intimidating because it was for membership site owners so it’s kind of like doing a magic trick for the magicians so I was like “okay, how do I incorporate all these best practices and make this a model of a good site?”

I think the thought process you just laid out, getting from the mind map to the table of contents into a lesson plan and within that not just considering the video content but all the other pieces that are going to help the person get the result. I think it’s beautiful so I really appreciate the clarity. I think those are all fantastic fundamentals. Once you do this, let’s say, once you have really mapped out and implemented a site and a few months into the site things are going well, at that point for you is it “now I go make another site or another course” or do you just try to pump up the membership numbers, what would be your next business goal?

Chris: It depends on the type of person. Is the person sort of the serial entrepreneur personality, are we going to automate and move on to the next passion or is this like the marathon life’s work type of person? I would devise two different directions depending upon that type of person.

Micah: Let’s start with the marathon type where they’re an expert in one area, like a true expert and they want to take it as far as they can, what would you do?

Chris: I personally like that model because those courses have the highest likelihood of success because by the nature of running a marathon we are going to commit, we are going to iterate, we are going to have feedback loops, we are going to find out what works, we’re going to find out what didn’t work and we’re going to improve it over time. The first thing I would do is, this is where the LMS kind of comes into play, is look at completion rates and try to identify bottlenecks because people get stuck or people fall off, you’ll start to see patterns you might notice if you’re doing office hours like some kind of webinar group coaching call and let’s say it’s a process driven course and you’re like okay on week three attendance of the live office hours really starts to decline and you’re starting to see a trend.

I would do things to address that problem, maybe interview the people who did not come back to the next office hours or try to put my instructional designer hat on and look at my outline or my table of contents, am I not getting people results soon enough so that they’re losing motivation? Also, as a membership site creator, an online course creator, the intensity, the very moment of purchase, right when they first buy and get in that’s when the most energy and excitement is, maybe I’m not taking advantage of that moment to get them results and get through some of the stuff that’s either harder, less sexy or whatever or the stuff that’s super exciting to get them really addicted to the program and just trusting me that I’m going to help get the results.

It’s really all about iterating, figuring out what are we going to test with the next cohort, even if your course is evergreen or you’re doing cohort based launches, I would always try to open up feedback loop, talk to people, interview successes, interview failures, interview the average folks and find out enough information for me to come up with a hypothesis on how to make the course better. I’m talking to you right now as a teacher, which is the instructional designer, I may have a business problem, I may have a marketing problem of how I’m actually getting people to do this course so maybe I’ll put the marketing hat on and look at my sales funnel, maybe I need to build better campaigns or lead magnets or more free content for getting some Google juice for my platform. So I think it’s important to share the love across all the hats if you will.

Micah: I totally agree because sometimes I feel like I’m being pulled in a bunch of different directions but it’s just kind of the game and you have the team around you but then it’s just the team game, it’s the same game of doing it all. Speaking of getting members, what is kind of your go to funnels or kind of a basic outline of a go to member acquisition strategy or funnel?

Chris:  So the classic one that I like to teach because people get really overwhelmed with these projects or they don’t know where to go or they burn out so what I advise if somebody wants to try a process especially for the very beginner who hasn’t done anything yet, they’re really excited expert and they’re ready to take the jump into online business is to write one blog post for free about the topic. It in some way gives the learner or the reader a really good insight or even results in the real world so you’re basically teaching for free through a blog post.

For some people maybe YouTube is easier, maybe it’s podcast episodes, something. So basically start with one and then get up to five pieces of free content that are just sitting out there. It’s like training, it’s like flexing the muscles and getting comfortable teaching online and all that. But from there then it’s all about figuring out the lead magnet, like what is my free content going to point to, is it going to be a checklist, an ebook, a little email mini course is my favorite, so that would be a series of three to five emails that teach something if people opt in to your list. And then at the end of the email mini course I like pitching a free or low cost course like a tripwire on website.

Now people are moving from just finding me on Google, now I’m in their inbox, now I’m moving them into my website with courses on it but I’m getting them into a free or low cost course. From there it goes to at the end of the free course you pitch the paid course and then after that multiple paid courses, ultimately ending in a membership that includes all of the courses. And then without getting too fancy but then I would acknowledge the fact that not everybody goes through the funnel like that, through the stair step model.

I would develop different marketing funnels for people who just want go to straight to the membership or people who want to go straight to my flagship paid course. That is all but it all starts with one blog post.

Micah: I love how practical that is because of how many people are not usually, maybe lost is not the word for it but I think overwhelmed, because they get so much marketing advice. There’s so many cool fancy strategies and so many pieces of software that are going to help you do the latest and greatest thing but I love that that’s just a thing that everybody can do. They should be able to blog or like you said YouTube or whatever their method is, podcast or something, and just start hooking it. Just kind of calm down, go ahead and do what you probably knew you should be doing, hook it together and then expand from there.

You mentioned couple minutes ago interviewing the successful people but also interviewing some of the failures, people who, I’m guessing you’re saying that they cancelled or they’re still a member and it’s just not working for them and you interview them.

Chris: Both, did you get any refunds, I would love to know why and looking at the analytics, if somebody hasn’t logged in a while or they just got stuck at lesson seven or whatever and just never to return, it can be as simple as sending a one sentence email like “Hey I noticed you got stuck in this lesson about confronting this issue and you haven’t come back, do you want to jump on a 15 minute call and discuss what could help you get through that and figure out what’s going on?”

Micah: Got you, for the membership site owner or the team or whatever, out of those five hats which one would you say, if there is one, is kind of a key failure point, like which one gets neglected that shouldn’t be in your mind?

Chris: That is a great question. There’s really not a favorite. I see people with their no entrepreneur skills fail because they’re missing the marketing and the business building, I see people just totally lost in technology, that’s probably the biggest fail actually because people as an expert may buy the tools, people buy the tools out of order, people get the tools early. The way I describe this is what people often do is they get the tools and then they decide “I need to get some content” and then they decide like “Now I need to get some community to sell into.”

But I recommend the opposite approach which is start by building community, then build the content and then wrap it in tools. That’s just the much easier way but yeah, it starts with expert, it goes to community builder, it goes to instructional designer, it goes to technologist and then it goes to entrepreneur and it just really depends on the individual what’s weak but if you’re missing or don’t have the basics covered in any of these areas it won’t work out.

Micah: Yeah, It’s funny I was muted a minute ago so you didn’t hear me but I was chuckling but just that idea yeah they buy the tools first. You run into people all the time who are like “I’m ready to do this, I bought this and this and this and I’m ready to crush it.” It’s like you know that tool doesn’t mean that you have something there. It’s more like a mountain of work and learning what you just bought. Nothing against any software but I appreciate that insight, they usually are going backward and again, I’ve been making notes but I was dwelling on that thought so I didn’t write it down, you put the hats in order, kind of like content, community then course designer and then technologist and then entrepreneur?

Chris: Correct, it’s more of a game chart or something like that but if I had to put them in order it would be the order you described.

Micah: Got you, and that does make a lot of sense. That I think also would solve one of the problems we talked about earlier which is where people overbuild the site before doing a pilot or anything like that so starting with the content itself, building the community around it and then designing it into a course once you know that people like what you got and that there’s some momentum and some content to put into the course once it’s designed, I love it.

Chris: Yeah, and I just want to mention one of the things too is, it’s an interesting duality. When I’m talking to somebody I listen to what they’re saying to figure out which hats are, where they’re at. The most common I see is all teacher expert, no business or marketing skills or I also see the opposite a lot, which is I have so much knowledge on marketing and all this stuff, tools and tech, I just need to find a course to make. It really just depends on the individual and where they’re at.

Micah: Yeah, I see that as well. You mentioned something earlier about, I asked you a question and you said “It depends on if the person is going to really dedicate themselves to this type of work or if they’re a serial entrepreneur and they just want to build the site and move on and build another site.” I really believe that the type of the membership site owner, the person behind it is a true expert rather than the marketer who is out exploiting niches, that would be a strong word. But, out of curiosity, if somebody is or does want to build a site in a niche or move on to a site in another niche, what type of advice would you give that kind of person?

Chris: Well, there’s different ways to look at it, I call it the publisher mindset. So if you’re going to really exploit a niche, which in some ways is what I’ve done in organic gardening and permaculture niche for some of my course, when I just started figuring all this stuff out I actually went and I found some of the bestselling authors in the world on these topics and this niche is like really huge, like the gardening category and organic farming and all this is actually a really massive niche and there are notoriously a little bit behind the times in terms of technology and online business and everything like that so I partnered with the experts, like I took on the publisher’s mindset, I flew or drove to live events they were doing, workshops, started filming them.

That evolved into bigger and bigger operations, one time I spent a winter in Costa Rica, I flew a guy down to New York, a videographer to film a two week permaculture design course in the jungle of Costa Rica and then I packaged all that up and made it into an online course. That one’s set up to be more passive in nature so I’m not there, I’m not checking in on students, it’s more of a taking this wonderful thing that’s happening in the jungle and bringing it to all these other people around the world who want to learn all these things. So it’s more traditional in that way. There’s not like live coaching or stuff like that but that would be my advice, the publisher mindset because if you’re not going to be the best in the world at it and run that marathon, there’s probably somebody out there whom you’d be better off to partner with than to do it yourself. You’ll get better results.

Micah: Yeah, I like that. That’s legit because you went to the true expert. I should be careful how I put it because when we designed our course we said in our sales video, and it was part of our internal conversation that this course is for actual experts to build something useful, not for internet marketers to exploit, but if a marketer teams up with an actual expert, that’s fantastic, that’s even better almost because they’ll be successful as a team so that’s awesome. I lived for about a year in Costa Rica and I think it would be cool to actually do the publisher mindset and just find really cool people and go to cool places and figure out a way for everybody to do better together. It’s really cool.

Chris: Yeah I just want to add on to that point, outside the internet there’s this whole world out there of experts. In Costa Rica there’s all kinds of yoga retreats and natural science type of stuff where you learn about the ecosystem and community cultural things going on. There is a whole world out there and expertise that has yet to come out of internet in a strong way so if there’s an online marketer listening to this, instead of making marketing courses which are definitely cool and there are great ones out there, maybe think of partnership model, you might get more results and have more fun.

Micah: Yeah I think a lot of people could. Even guys like you and me or anybody going down that kind of marathon method where let’s say you’re the most experienced attorney at some type of line, you really go down that road and you’re a couple years down the road with the membership site and doing well, there might be a level of burnout or just wanting to do something new. You can leverage all that experience and like I said I want to be careful with how I put that earlier because I may have sounded a little bit negative but it’s more just negative to the types who are like “oh, I’m going to read a book on this subject and make a course as if I’m an expert and sell it” rather than finding a real expert.

In a moment I want to actually dive into Lifter itself, the software and talk about that, but with one of your membership sites what would you say is a big mistake that you personally made building a membership site?

Chris: That is a great question. One of them is, just to tie it into what we’ve just been talking about, when you have a lot of projects going at once, it’s easy to neglect the older one, especially if it’s kind of got stable and you’re on to the next shiny object so this is really one of my biggest mistakes, is not making the commitment or building a team enough to or building a business around it enough to give it the attention it deserves. I don’t know why that happens, I think it’s kind of the mechanic that fixes up cars sometimes doesn’t always focus on their car.

Another big mistake is just not talking to people, I heard one of my early, in my agency days, he had a and still has a membership site on real estate sales, great platform hugely successful, he always used to say that your customers are not in a witness protection program. So, some of my stuff I just haven’t had the time of talking to customers or selling them other things. That’s what I would say, to think seriously about the marathon model as a way of life and really just making that commitment.

There’s a phrase, some people call it the corner office test, some people call it the stage test. If you’re working in a niche and you’re going to do a course and you look up to somebody who is in that niche, do you want to be like that person, can you see yourself in a corner office or whatever, can you see yourself talking on a stage five years from now about this topic, feeling proud because there’s always so much that goes into it and the technology is always changing, the marketing is always changing, the tools to build the content and create engagement, all this is always changing so if you’re going to commit staying hyper-focused is something I think is really valuable.

I have the excuse that I have a software company, I’m really busy over there but sometimes I admire the full-time experts. They don’t have courses on the side and their main deal is something else, which is kind of become, I love this industry but most of my attention right now is on the software. So not fracturing focus if possible I think is a big tip. The other thing is don’t be scared of a small list because if you’re piloting that can just be one person or three people. If you develop a course that has a coaching element and let’s say it’s a six week process course and it’s very valuable results, if you get 100 people in there paying 1000 dollars, that’s a decent income. If it’s good and targeted and you have couple hundred, five hundred, maybe you build up a Facebook group, find other people in your industry who share the same customer and you do free presentations, you don’t always need tons of customers.

I would say that’s another big tip that I’ve learned myself is, instead of doing cheap courses sometimes is better to do expensive ones and include a live element.

Micah: Interesting. You and I, I think are in the same boat there where we got courses and we’ve got software and the only saving grace for us is that our software is about membership site courses so it kind of reinforces us, it’s not that separate. Let’s talk about Lifter for a couple minutes, your software, there is a lot of LMSs out there, why did you guys make another one, what do you do that you feel is unique and powerful?

Chris: The first thing is Lifter is the self-hosted solution. There’s a whole hosted LMS industry where you’re paying for monthly access, you’re basically renting, there’s nothing wrong with that. Lifter sits over a self-hosted area so this means you on the website that’s powered by WordPress you add Lifter to it, we have add-ons that bring more integrations and power, so owning the platform is one of the things that makes it quite different than a lot of the things in the LMS industry. In many cases when experts find out about us and things like that, we’re there for introduction to WordPress, they haven’t even necessarily heard of that yet.

So the self-hosted is a thing and I would say the two biggest things that make us different has to do with the philosophy we’ve had from day one with engagement. So we want to solve that issue in our industry of five to ten percent completion rates and there’s been a social science studies on e-learning of where these numbers come from (inaudible 43:28). So we add certain features like achievement badges, personalized emails that the system can fire out at various milestones in the course, certificates, these little pop-up things that can come up to kind of gamify it and like the product you have, Memberium for Infusionsoft, you can imply tags with a tool like yours.

That’s like a personalization actions there where if somebody passes a quiz you can trigger this campaign, that kind of personalization and engagement is what we are built around. We had like a Tollio integration if you want to send text messages so it’s all about keeping people engaged. The other thing that makes us unique in the space is that we’ll focus on the results so for example, like I was talking about earlier, it’s not just about access to premium content, it’s also about being a teacher, being a guide and explicitly telling people what to do and giving them action steps so we have like an assignment’s add-on where if I’m teaching you how to build a website in thirty days or build your first marketing funnel in thirty days I’m going to teach you ideas and concept but I’m also going to tell you exactly what to do with like a checklist and you can’t complete this lesson until you check these items off.

That will save as you go, stuff like that, driven content sometimes is helpful if you really are moving people through a process and you want them to not get distracted but that’s a big one and then really the reason people come from the hosted world of LMS is they want design freedom and functionality freedom. With WordPress there’s always great themes and page builders out there so you don’t just have a couple skins or styles you can choose from, you can make it look like whatever you want, that’s a big deal. Then there’s the whole ecosystem of plugins that you can tie into and integrate. Integrations with third parties like Memberium and payment gateways and stuff like that so, there’s all kinds of that ecosystem of other people building tools makes it hyper-flexible.

So if you’re doing a one course site or if you’re doing a multiple course site or the membership with courses or the online school with all these instructions, basically like an online university, they can scale up with you. Another problem that we like to solve is what I call the software Frankenstein. Traditionally it’s been an issue in the membership and online course and LMS community is like too many tools at once, it’s a myth that there is a perfect one on one solution but some things we, you know, like the badges for example and certificates, it’s all integrated as part of the system. So I do believe there’s times to integrate with third parties for the best in the breed. For example, your CRM, for more advanced users it’s better to have a CRM than just use a WordPress website. If you’re going to use advanced marketing in addition to your online course membership site you’re going to want a CRM and you’re going to want them to play nice together.

A lot of the basics that you expect in LMS, especially in the self-hosted world, I think we’re doing a great job of bringing that kind of under one roof and integrating the best breed.

Micah: Yeah I like that kind of balanced response where there is reasons for occasionally using something else if you really want to go out and get the very best thing of that type, but like you said avoiding the Frankenstein problem where you’ve got too many things all glued together, that’s another issue too. I know aside from the core LMS stuff, I know you have kind of a package of other add-ons, what all does that cover, I mean, does it include community and e-commerce, what does it cover, what does it not?

Chris: So we have integration add-ons, we’ve got a few email marketing ones, some e-commerce ones for selling, like Stripe, PayPal, we’ve got our own WordPress theme although Lifter can work with any WordPress theme. Those are kind of our basics add-ons, that’s what’s inside of what’s known as our universe bundle. And then we have these advanced add-ons which there four of those, there are advanced quizzes and assignments, those are advanced teacher tools with manual grading and lots of different question types designed into increasing engagement, reinforce learning.

Then, when you’re thinking about building your training program or your learning journey, I like to look at the stack courses, coaching community. So we have another one for coaching called Private Areas so if you want to have private content for per a student per course or private content per a member per membership, that’s possible with Private Areas and it also creates a place where the instructor and students can have a private conversation around that content. So for example I can have a hundred dollar course and then I can have a second way to get at it for a thousand dollars that includes the coaching package and through that method that student gets Private Area.

Let’s say the first private post includes a link to schedule their first coaching call. That coaching call gets recorded, the replay gets put in there, there’s private conversation that can be personalized around the action steps they came up with in the coaching call and the accountability and all that kind of stuff. And then we have something called social learning, which is an advanced add-on. It basically builds a Facebook-like experience on your website. The problem with Facebook, I love Facebook groups, I have a very active Facebook group for course graders and membership site folks but it’s very distracting.

I know when people are in there they’re all over the place and bouncing in and bouncing out and but everybody is on Facebook, it’s good to have a Facebook group. In some cases, especially if your content is very personal or private, there’s nothing like having your own little Facebook kind of site, that’s what social learning is all about. The final thing that’s in the infinity bundle, which includes all those plus everything in the universe bundle, is we have something called office hours Mastermind, literally after we get off this call I hang out every week with people who have the infinity bundle or purchased that add-on by itself and that’s for people to get live technical support, get strategy support, talk about marketing and instructional design, all these five hats that we talk about.

It’s really interesting because what I did is I just started with what was just a live technical support product and then it ended up evolving in the mastermind. I don’t necessarily have all the best ideas and there’s a lot of great successful course graders out there in the group and also people just getting started. Some people have been there since day one, other people kind of come in, they’re just getting started, they get their issues figured out, talk strategy and then they kind of move on. But then there’s this group that comes all the time so it really evolved into a mastermind. I recently raised the price on that product by itself but that’s included in the infinity bundle. So that’s kind of the suite of tools but the core main Lifter on this plugin is free.

We’re big believers and supporting entrepreneurs and one of the key things about entrepreneurship and education entrepreneurship is validation. So we help people get results as much as possible with the free plugin which is super powerful before they have to invest in any tools.

Micah: Got you. And that’s really nice just that people can go and get started that way. In fact, we’re basically out of time here and usually we have a question like what general advice in this or that situation but I feel like you’ve covered so many of those things with your model and I think you’ve been really generous with sharing all of that. What is the best way for somebody to get in touch with you, is it to just go get that free plugin, connect on social media, how would you want people listening to this to connect with you?

Chris: In the spirit of this interview people are really different so I’m going to lay out a couple. One of them is we have a Facebook group, you can just do a Facebook Search for Lifter LMS and you’ll find it. The other thing is we have a podcast for course creators called the LMS cast, there’s about 180 episodes in there and it’s all about stuff that we were talking about today so check that out. If you’re interested in LifterLMS, check out, you can find over there where to download the free version, we also have a 30 day demo, which is a one dollar trial. You basically get a temporary website for 30 days, you get logins to the back, it has our premium stuff installed, you can test it out to see if it’s a good fit for your project. Any one of those ways are a great way to connect.

Micah: That’s perfect, thank you so much Chris for sharing it and everything and just for being willing to jump on here and spend your valuable time with us, I really appreciate it. Anything else you want to say?

Chris: I just want to say thank you for bringing me in here, talking about this stuff is one of my favorite things to talk about. Great job with the interview and I’m also grateful to you for building a Memberium integration for Lifter LMS because it’s an eco-system out there and I like the whole Dave and John Fubu for us by us kind of thing so we’re like membership course people building tools for membership course people and I think that’s the best way to go about business these days.

Micah: It’s a ton of fun too, huh?

Chris: Absolutely.

Micah: Alright, thanks everybody for listening, thank you Chris for joining us, have a good one!

Chris: Thank you!

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