Building a cohort-based course is hard. It's essentially five different job functions wrapped into one:
It's too much for any one person to do on their own. Even the top cohort-based programs like Building a Second Brain, Ali Abdaal's Part-time YouTuber Academy, and Supercharge Your Productivity have built an entire team to help run operations.
Luckily, more and more tools are emerging every day to help automate the process.
In this post, we'll break down the 6-components that go into building a cohort-based course, various tools for each category, and our recommendations.
If you prefer, you can also watch a video covering this exact topic here.
There's a common misconception that you should have an all-in-one tool for building a cohort-based course. This is just not true.
Building a cohort-based course is like building any other business. You'll need to use various different tools for specific purposes that can speak to each other seamlessly.
To figure out what these tools are, you have to understand the various components that go into building an online education business.
A database is simply a collection of student records. It is the single source of truth for your student community. Some information you might store in a database:
For your database, you can use anything from a spreadsheet up to a CRM.
In our case study, we discovered that 34% of participants used Airtable, 33% used spreadsheets, and the rest were evenly split between Notion and Teachable.
For most people, we recommend Airtable. It's simple enough when you're getting started but can easily scale as you start to add more and more automation.
This is simply the tool that collects payments. For most creators, you'll have something that can securely collect payments internationally and provide flexible payment options.
The most popular tools are PayPal, Stripe, and Memberstack. There are hundreds of other solutions, but these are the ones we see as most commonly used.
Many programs primarily use their course hosting platform for payment processing. While this is convenient, it can often create lock-in and prevent flexibility down the road.
We recommend Memberstack for programs that are looking for an easy-to-use payments tool.
An LMS is simply a place to store your content that you'd like to share with your students.
This can include videos, PDFs, slides, or any other supplementary material.
The common LMS's for course creators include Teachable, Thinkific, and Kajabi. You can even use Google Drive or a tool like Notion.
More than anything, the community is at the heart of any cohort-based course. We've found that the best cohort-based courses actively help facilitate community throughout their program and often beyond.
As an instructor, your #1 goal should be to make sure students walk away having made at least one genuine connection. Fostering your community is one of the best ways to do this.
The most popular products in this category include Facebook groups, Circle, Slack, and Whatsapp.
Our case study showed that 80% of the top CBCs use Circle; meanwhile, 20% use Slack.
We believe that Circle is the better choice for programs looking to white-label their community experience. Not to mention the pricing is friendly for course creator communities and costs a fraction of Slack's premium plans.
Your communication channel is how you disseminate information to your students.
Your community platform will be one channel, but you'll likely need to rely on email as well.
For communication, you can use Mailchimp, Convertkit, or regular Gmail.
A tool like Convertkit is best for sending emails. Not only does it provide all the essential mailing functionality, but it also has the best built-in automation of any tool that we've seen.
What makes cohort-based courses uniquely different than other types of courses is a focus on live events.
Live events are another amazing way to help deepen the relationships between your members. Examples of such events include:
In an upcoming post, we'll be going deeper into the various types of live sessions you can host. Be sure to subscribe to our email list below.
Now you might be thinking... geez, that's a lot of tools. And yes, it can be, but fortunately, you won't need to be actively maintaining all of them.
Instead, there are two tools you can use that can tie them all together and help completely automate the student experience.
If you're familiar with the No-code ecosystem, then you must also be familiar with Zapier.
Zapier is a tool that allows you to set up automation to share data between various tools.
Some examples of what you can do with Zapier:
When you're just getting started, you may be fine to just use Google calendar to send calendar invites and Gmail to send reminders; however, this will become cumbersome very quickly as you grow.
Rather than needing to bounce around between a dozen different tools, Virtually allows you to manage live events, communication, reminders, and engagement data from one place.
This is because Virtually integrates with:
With a tool like Virtually, you can upload your member roster, create various groups, and start creating events.
When you create events, Virtually takes care of all the heavy lifting. Members will get sent a calendar invite, zoom link, and an email/Slack reminder before the event starts.
After the event ends, you'll be able to see all your event analytics from one easy-to-access dashboard.
If you're getting overwhelmed, don't fret. You don't need all these tools when you're getting started.
You can slowly layer them in as you start to grow.
Here are some other resources to help guide you on your cohort-based course journey:
To get notified when new posts get published, be sure to sign up for our weekly newsletter below.
Ish is the Founder & CEO of Virtually (YC S20).