What Makes a Successful Cohort-based Course

August 12, 2021

With the rise of cohort-based courses, more and more educators are flocking to build their own online school. The gap, however, is knowing what it takes to build a successful program.

Though building a cohort-based course can be incredibly profitable, the path to getting there is not a straightforward one.

In this post, we'll discuss three key points helping to distill what makes a great cohort-based course:

1. The Long Tail of Education

2. Attaining "Course-Market Fit"

3. Case Studies

The Long Tail of Education

With the emergence of cohort-based courses, we're starting to see what I've started to call the "long-tail of education" or hyper-specialization.

The best CBCs aren't the ones teaching general topics like algebra or English literature.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

The best CBCs teach incredibly niche topics that could never be taught in person.

For example, these four cohort-based courses teach various methods for using Notion to organize your life better:

  • Notion Mastery
  • Supercharge Your Productivity
  • Building a Second Brain
  • Notion Life Design

To find experts to teach these topics and students interested enough to take a class in a suburb or small city would be nearly impossible. 

Online; however, it's readily accessible. 

When it comes to the internet, you can't think in percentages. You have to think in absolutes.

Selling to .001% can represent tens of thousands of customers and quite easily equate to a multi 7-figure business.

These are the types of cohort-based courses that will continue to succeed. To understand why we must discuss the idea of obtain "Course-market fit."

Attaining "Course-Market" Fit

For a course to be successful, it must achieve "Course-Market" fit. For this to happen, three things must happen: 

  1. Your course must solve a hidden problem for learners
  2. Your course must be uniquely better online than in person
  3. Your course delivers enough word of mouth growth such that it grows organically

Solve a problem

The first step of Course-Market Fit is ensuring that your course solves an online learner's problem. 

Usually, it's a problem that you've had before. If not, you should have a unique insight or perspective that no one else does. 

For example, if you're the leading expert on negotiations, having worked at the FBI for 20+ years negotiating hostage situations, you might teach a course about "High-Stakes Negotiation Tactics." 

Or, if you happen to be an expert on leveraging Convertkit to grow your email following, having built an email audience of 100,000+ individuals, you could create a course called "Convertkit Mastery."

Serving the Online Learning Community

It's also important to consider that your course must specifically cater to online learners. 

A student will generally not take a course online unless it's significantly better than one hosted in person.

There are three main reasons why an online course would ever be better than an in-person one. 

  1. The topic is so niche that you can't even find an in-person course.
  2. The instructor is a leading expert on the subject (top 1%)
  3. The caliber of the community is world-class

For this reason, successful cohort-based courses must be built such that they can never be replicated in person.

This is the same reason why online fitness classes blossomed during the pandemic but are starting to lose prominence in recent months. If you're trying to build relationships and meet new people, in-person experiences will be more effective. 

Note: Peleton is the exception to this rule as the market for this product cares more about convenience than meeting new people. 

Generating Word of Mouth Growth

Lastly, your course must be able to grow organically. If it doesn't, then you may not have cracked the first and second points listed above. 

Students should be so grateful for the transformation they received that they'll start telling their friends about your program.

For this reason, it's crucial to nail the student experience. Over time, your alumni will become the reputation of your program. They will be the ones to refer new students, become affiliate partners, and mentor current students. 

Once you start to see uncontrollable exponential growth, you'll know that you've found "Course-market" fit. 

Case Studies

To build a remarkable CBC, it's worth looking at some of the best programs out there and understanding why they've succeeded. 

In this segment, we'll look at three in particular: 

  1. Marie Poulin's Notion Mastery
  2. Dickie Bush's Ship30for30
  3. On Deck Scale

Marie Poulin's Notion Mastery 

Find the smallest viable market.

Your goal isn't to build something thousands of people like. It should be to build something that 100 people love. 

The way to do this is to create a curriculum that is hyper-focused. Something that could never exist in an offline class. 

From her homepage, you can see that this CBC is designed for a particular individual: Someone looking to improve their workflows through Notion. 

Notice how niche the topic is? Marie could have generalized the course to make it so that it could be for all platforms or all use cases; however, she narrowed on specifically:

  • Workflow Automation
  • Platform: Notion

Anyone who fits this category will powerfully resonate with the copy on the landing page. 

If you're building something for everyone, you're really building it for no one

Dickie Bush's Ship30for30 

Sell a transformation

Ship30for30 is perhaps one of the fastest-growing CBCs I have witnessed to date. Their secret? 

Tapping into an insecurity that so many have about writing online. 

This transformation is front and center on their landing page:

"Build a writing habit and start writing online in 30 days"

Notice the header isn't the name of the course- It's the main value prop. Too many course creators sell the product, focusing on the features and format of the program. 

The product isn't what is going to get someone to sign up. It's a means to an end. 

Don't sell a product; sell a transformation. 

On Deck 

Curate a high-caliber community

A community is only as strong as the individuals that make it up. The higher bar you set for entry into your community, the stronger it will be. 

I can't speak for every program at On Deck, but I can say that as a member of the inaugural class of "On Deck Scale," I was blown away by the caliber of individuals in my cohort.  

Ty and the team determined that the only way to ensure that the program could build credibility is through the quality of fellows it could attract. 

And boy, did they deliver. Through On Deck Scale, I'm met some of the most intelligent and accomplished Founders & CEOs of our generation. 

The value that I received from connecting with the other members far outweighed what I could have gotten from any curriculum or workshop. 


The rise of Cohort-based courses is exciting and all, but there's something bigger going on. 

We're democratizing who gets to be a teacher. 

You don't have to be a college professor or a public school teacher. You just need a set of expertise and a passion for teaching. 

The question now is: how do you become a great online teacher? 

As I've outlined in this post, it comes down to these three questions:

  1. Are you solving a problem? 
  2. Are you teaching a topic that is uniquely better in an online setting?
  3. Are you delivering a transformation powerful enough to create word-of-mouth growth? 

Ish Baid

Ish is the Founder & CEO of Virtually (YC S20).