I created a cohort based course from scratch. Here’s what happened.

July 23rd, 2021

At 2:20pm, I posted a thread on Twitter:

“I’m opening up pre-orders on a new course: Strategic Financial Analysis!”

By 9:59pm, 24 prospective students had PayPal’d me $300 and I had an additional 200 emails on a waitlist. The test had worked!

While the Twitter thread was a mere experiment to gauge interest for a class that I hadn’t yet created, it was clear that my audience wanted to learn something from me. So I spent the next couple weeks building a course. 

I conducted user interviews, developed a curriculum, delivered the class and fine tuned it to make it better. And several weeks later I’m pleased to say that the beta cohort of Strategic Financial Analysis has successfully completed. 

Here’s how it went down. 

Why I Started a Cohort Based Course

Why did I launch a course in the first place? 

Well, I enjoy teaching and I had done it before. Back in college, I worked for an education startup that taught undergrad students how to build financial models in their preparation for investment banking interviews. I taught thousands of students at hundreds of colleges over my four years there. And I really enjoyed it, and since I now have a small online audience, I thought it would be a perfect fit. 

I was also encouraged by recent innovation in education. Specifically, I was interested in teaching a cohort based course. CBCs are online courses that are facilitated in groups of students all going through the class at the same time. They are 2-8+ weeks long and students participate in several live sessions for a couple hours at a time. The sessions are a combination of lectures, discussions and exercises. Some CBCs include a homework component. 

The innovation in CBCs is that they are live. This is important because CBCs have very high student completion rates (85%+). This is in contrast to massive open online courses (MOOCs). MOOCs are self-paced online video courses that are available to anyone. Fewer than 5% of students who begin MOOC courses complete them. 

Besides that, CBCs offer other benefits besides a higher completion rate. There is increased accountability. Instead of working on your own, and on your own time, the cadence of the class and structure of a teacher working with you makes you more likely to stay engaged. Additionally, they are a way to build a network. You work side-by-side with peers who may be someone that you work with one day. 

So for many reasons, CBCs are an excellent class format. And they are lucrative too. Maven, a well-funded startup that helps creators build CBCs, has mentioned that several of their creators have made over $100k on a 1-month course. Several CBCs charge in the thousands of dollars and can support hundreds of students per cohort. Some quick napkin math (hehe) shows that these courses can be multi-million dollar businesses. 

I decided to give it a shot. 

Topic Selection and User Research

Before starting, I needed to figure out what the heck I was going to teach. I have a background in many areas of finance: FP&A, financial modeling, mergers & acquisitions, and finance writing. But instead of dreaming up a class on my own, I decided to talk to people who had been following my work and asked them what they wanted to learn about. 

Over the course of a few weeks, I gathered data from a few sources: 

  • I sent a survey to my email subscriber list
  • I created a few polls on Twitter
  • I conducted ~15 user interviews on the phone

From this data, I pulled out a few themes. Here are a few that kept coming up:

“I don’t know how to begin thinking about analyzing public companies
“I want to be more fluent in
technology metrics like LTV/CAC, net retention
“I want something that
mixes finance with strategic thinking
“I’m sharp on the product side, but
get lost when colleagues talk financial terms

This gave me enough ideas to begin crafting a real pitch. 

(Side note: the user interviews I conducted were both useful and also a form of procrastination. They were useful because they gave me confidence that people were actually interested in a class. Hearing people’s voices really helped! But they were a form of procrastination because I already knew about the information from the surveys I conducted. I’m not sure this class would’ve gotten off the ground without the user interviews, but if I were to do it again I would’ve spent less time on them.)

Validating Demand

The next step was validating demand. 

I hold a firm belief that you should validate demand for a product before creating it. There are many, many more entrepreneurs who build something that no one wants than entrepreneurs who can’t find a way to build a product that has demand. I wanted to be the type that builds something people want. So: validate demand first. 

The two marketing channels that I had access to were Twitter and my personal email list. Since I wanted it to have the possibility of spreading quickly, I decided to post on Twitter. 

The thread needed two things: to describe the course well enough to spark interest, and to actually collect payments. I already had people telling me that they would buy a course. But that’s not worth jack shit. Unless customers pay, demand isn’t validated. 

So in the thread I described the course, my background in finance, and the proposed curriculum. In the final Tweet, I included a link to my PayPal and told people to send me $297 if they wanted to reserve their spot. 

To my surprise, people were interested: I posted the Twitter thread at 2:20pm and by 9:59pm 24 people had PayPal’d me $297! This was actually 4 more people than I wanted to host in the beta cohort -- in the final minutes the Paypals were coming in so quickly that I couldn’t close it before people sent me money. I then attached a simple Google Form so that I could collect emails from people who wanted the course but didn’t make it into one of the first slots. I collected 200 emails from this. 

I should mention this was in no small part to help from some friends. Retweets and support from larger accounts like Turner Novak, Nathan Baschez and others definitely helped. 

This exercise gave me enough confidence that the market wanted a course from me. And so, I set off to create the product. 

Executing the Course: Early Day Hiccups

In theory, creating a course is simple (even if it’s a lot of work). You have expertise, and you turn it into a curriculum to pass on the knowledge. 

However, doing a live cohort model presented a few unique challenges:

  • Unknown skill levels. For each student, it was hard to know what their previous experience and skill level was. This could’ve been solved a bit by creating a funnel that screens candidates before they are allowed to pay, but that was too much complexity to build before validating demand. You live and you learn. 
  • Varied interests. Some students wanted to learn about technology companies, others students were in other industries. Some students were enrolled to study strategies of companies to do better at their jobs, other students wanted to learn Excel modeling. This also could’ve been mitigated by being more direct in my course offering, but at some point you realize that you can’t please everyone anyway. 
  • Set pace. It’s really hard to predict how long exercises, lectures, discussions and other activities will take until you actually interact with students in a classroom. This makes both short-term planning (what are we going to do during this class period?) and long-term planning (what will students learn over the course of the course?) difficult. 

I faced these challenges head-on in the first couple live classes. In the first session, I had students look through filings, describe what the company did, and categorize expenses into fixed and variable. In theory, a good way to get started. However, I had the students take too much time for the exercise and didn’t provide enough structure to the session, 

In the second session, I tried something new: walking through some Excel keystrokes as we filled in historical financials. While I got good feedback from some students, I think Excel modeling is better as a separate, asynchronous module because some students already knew how to do it. 

And so after two sessions, I hadn’t built something that was receiving positive feedback yet. It wasn’t a great feeling, but the only solution was to keep trying. 

Experimenting to Success

Going into the second half of the class, I continued to try different formats. I tried giving homework in advance so that we could spend more time in discussion. I tried a bit more lecturing to give each class period a stronger foundation. I tried asking each student their perspective to make sure they felt engaged. 

Eventually, it worked. 

As an example, one of the last classes was performing public comparables analysis on our target company (Netflix). Here’s how the class was structured:

  • Lecture: Intro & Background. What is relative valuation? Why do we use it compared to intrinsic valuation? What are some interesting examples (bubbles, etc.)? The lecture provoked lots of questions and back and forth between me and the students. 
  • Exercise: Selecting Comps. I went through the criteria that we use to select comps (industry, size, growth rate, etc.) and then had the students spend 10-15 minutes coming up with their own comp set(s) for Netflix. 
  • Discussion: Selecting Comps. After the students selected their own comps, I led a discussion with them. Since it was a small enough group, I would go around to each student and have them tell us which comps they selected and why. It was revealing to see each students’ thought process and have them compare their selections against each other. 
  • Lecture: Gathering Data. A large part of comps analysis is pulling all of the data required for the analysis. I had a quick lecture going over the process for doing this and how I hired a Fiverr worker to expedite the process. 
  • Discussion: Comp Set 1 & 2. I ended up generating two comp sets for Netflix and so in this next discussion we went over each comp set separately. I had the students answer two questions: 1) is this a good comp set for Netflix? and 2) based on this comp set, is Netflix overvalued? This was a super fun exercise where we placed all the metrics and multiples on a single page and had the students talk through these questions. 

I used a format similar to this -- a mix of background lecture, short exercises, and discussions -- in the last few classes. By the end, students were enjoying themselves and performing analyses that they hadn’t done before. A strong finish. 

What’s Next? More Finance Education

What can you expect from me going forward? 

My overarching goal is to build a really, really great place to learn about finance on the internet. For right now, I’m working on two things. 

Video Course: How to Understand Public Companies

The first thing I’m working on is a video course. I’m taking the best content from Strategic Financial Analysis and creating videos around it. I’m almost finished with all of the recordings and I’ll have it all done soon (if you want to be notified when it’s ready, add your email to the bottom of this post!). 

I’m pretty freakin excited about it. The live cohort of Strategic Financial Analysis was already a distillation of years of finance experience, and this video course will be the very best content from that. My goal with this is to help people understand what public companies do is the most time-efficient way possible.. Then I want to help them glean strategies that they can use in their day-to-day job or help them frame an investment pitch. 

The following will be included in this video course:

  • A detailed outline of my research process, including dozens of questions to guide stock research and several third-party sources to help understand what a company does. 
  • A walkthrough of unit economics. We’ll use Netflix as an example to calculate LTV to CAC and all of the support metrics that go along with it. 
  • A public comps analysis. First I’ll explain which metrics and multiples matter. Then we’ll select comps and discuss which ones make sense and why. This analysis was a favorite amongst the live cohort and I can’t wait for other students to experience it too. 
  • An overview of the few financial metrics that actually matter. I’ll not only go over definitions but also explain why we use the metrics (and why we ignore others). 
  • And lots more

While I love cohort-based courses, there’s room for video courses too. There’s room because there are students with different interests and needs. In my user research, I came across many students who lived in Europe or Asia who couldn’t attend a live session due to time zone differences. I also talked to people who had families or other weekday commitments and wanted a course that they could complete on their own. So this video course is also for people with other time constraints. 

Cohort-Based Course

The other thing that I’m working on is the second cohort of a live course. I learned a lot from the beta cohort class and have lots of ideas on how to improve it. 

I also realized that I have strengths and weaknesses and that I should lean into my strengths. For example, I’m strong at explaining finance topics but I’m weak at managing an online community. So for this next cohort I want to hire people to help me deliver the best course experience possible (if you have experience delivering cohort based courses please reach out!). 

Overall, I’m super excited to build more courses and (hopefully) get back in the rhythm of writing content. It’s what I like doing and I’m good enough at it to make a living from writing. If you want a first look at these courses, sign up with your email below. This way you’ll get notified as soon as I release them (the beta cohort sold out in a few hours!).

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