Why I'm Sunsetting CourseLift (kinda)


Ryan Chenkie

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June 19, 2023


Setting Out to Help Course Authors

Just about two years ago, in the summer of 2021, I announced that I was embarking on building a SaaS app to serve course creators. As a course author myself, I had tried different hosting providers over the years and saw some gaps I wanted to solve.

In the two years since, I’ve built CourseLift into a fully functioning product. It’s where I now host my own courses. Thousands of students have taken my Prisma courses, all enrolled through and managed by CourseLift. I’ve built up a wait list of about 600 people interested in hosting their own courses on the platform. Around 50 course creators have tried CourseLift out in a free beta.

Today, however, I’m announcing that I've decided to say goodbye to it.

Well, kinda.

Building Something to Solve my Own Problem

They say that when coming up with an idea for a product to build, you should aim to scratch your own itch or solve your own problem. Indeed, that’s what I set out to do with CourseLift.

I've had a bunch of ideas for SaaS products over the years but I've had trepidations about starting them. If I ended up in a spot where it didn’t work out or I wanted to stop working on it, it would have felt like a big sunk cost. With CourseLift though, I knew that I’d still be able to use the the product for myself if things didn’t go ahead.

So that’s the good news. Even though I’m sunsetting CourseLift as a product company, it’s still a product that I’ll use for my own purposes. I’ll still add features and improve it as I go. So, all is not lost in this. The effort and time has still resulted in something useful to me.

So, why give up on it?

“Isn’t that a tough market?”

So why am I sunsetting CourseLift as a business exactly? Two words: the market.

A theme I’ve seen a lot when people tell others about their business ideas is that they get a reply with something to the effect of “isn’t that a tough market?”. I got a little bit of this when I started out, but not too much.

It's probably the case that all markets are tough ones. That's just par for th course.

In hindsight, the market I sought to serve, that of course creators, content authors, etc, is one that isn't necessariliy tough perse, but it is a bit hard to categorize.

Is it a B2C market? Not really. At least when I think of myself as a customer of other course hosting platforms, I don’t think of myself as a consumer. I create courses to earn money for my business.

So is it B2B? Maybe. But not really that either.

Maybe something closer would be some kind of “prosumer” category here.

Surely there are some customers of course hosting products that are full-on businesses in the way we typically think of a business. Where there are employees and offices and filing cabinets and stuff.

But more commonly, the customers of these products are individuals. They may own a business or they may not. But they’re in it for the money, like a business is.

A Huge Amount of Activation Energy

This is where we get to the ultimate reason I’m sunsetting: getting users to do something once they've signed up requires a metric ton of activation energy. Possibly more.

I’ve always known that publishing a course is hard. Very hard. It takes so much sustained work over a long period of time. I’ve lived it, several times. What became clear after taking a bunch of people through the beta testing phase is that not everyone is up for this.

The intent to build and sell a course is aspirational. Many want to do it. Not many have the sustained time and energy to see it through. This is apparent in the behavior of those who came through the beta phase. People are excited to start. They upload a video or two and start arranging a course. But then they don’t do anything more.

This is not a knock on anyone that went through the beta group (thank you so much to all those who tried it out). It’s just a law of physics in this case: the activation energy required to see a course all the way through is enormous.

But people still do it, right? And course hosting companies still have enough market share to make it worth their while? Indeed they do.

The difference, in my view, is that the companies behind the course hosting products that have been on the market for a while are much better equipped to handle this market. They have employees and offices and filing cabinets and are able to run a sort of meta business where they nurture and encourage people to make that course and sell that thing. They have the resources that are necessary to supply the required activation energy to help their customers reach orbit.

And that’s where we get to the crux of it: CourseLift is not the right idea for a bootstrapped solo founder. At least, not this bootstrapped solo founder.

Accidentally a Side Project

When I first embarked on CourseLift, I was outgoing from a devrel position at Prisma. I loved my time at Prisma. I still love the product, which is why I teach about it so much.

It was around that time that a big check from my shares at Auth0 had landed (they had recently sold to Okta). With a bunch of personal runway and my time freed up, I was set to focus on CourseLift.

At the beginning, there was a ton of focus. It’s what I worked on most of my time. But shortly after getting started, other business stuff started to change. In a good (but challenging) way.

Since 2016, I’ve built software for companies on a consulting basis under my corp called Elevate Digital. Some startups, some established companies. The work would peak and settle, and at the time that I started on CourseLift, it had mostly settled.

A few months in though, in about Q4 of 2021, things at Elevate really started to pick up. All at once, I was offered two new greenfield projects plus a bunch of new scope on an existing contract.

I had a couple options at that point. I could have said no to this new work and continued to focus on CourseLift. For better or worse, I chose the other option and said yes to all of it.

This meant bringing on some staff to help support it all. Long story short, Elevate Digital is now a seven figure business with a team of eight in three countries.

This is all great, but when that much work comes in, something needs to give. And in this case, the thing to give was CourseLift.

I started to (unintentionally) ignore it for weeks at a time. Features that should have taken days to build would take months. My talk of it on social started to dry up and with it, new interest as well.

Fast-forward to the last couple months and this feeling gnawing at me for about a year now really started to solidify: with the market not being right for a bootstrapped solo founder and with how much is going on with a cash flowing business like Elevate, it’s probably time to officially sunset CourseLift as a focus area.

Maybe I’ll come back to it as a business someday, I’m not sure. For now, I’m happy that I have a product that can serve my courses to my audience and that it’s one that works the way I want. Instead of making appeals to another hosting company to add a feature if I need it, I can just build it myself.

There’s more!

As if the above doesn’t sound busy enough, there’s other business stuff going on too. I have another SaaS product that I basically never talk about (because the market is completely outside my audience) that is profitable and growing.

There’s also PDFGen, a product that spun out of a need that I encountered while building CourseLift and that I had run into at Elevate for a long time.

PDFGen continues to get new signups without me having said anything about it in a long time. It’s at about 800 users right now and they are active! The product has been integrated into a bunch of apps and is in real-world use.

This is the kind of product that is just right for a bootstrapped solo founder. It requires much much less activation energy from users. It’s also the perfect product to be working on as a side project. For that reason, I’ll continue to develop it and put some pricing around it soon.

Big Thanks 🙏

I want to say a huge thank you to all the people who tried CourseLift out in the beta phase. I truly appreciate your interest in the product and wanting to give it a shot. Thank you!

I also want to thank everyone from the RedwoodJS team for making an amazing framework, especially David Price for convincing me early on that Redwood might be a better choice than others for what I was building. CourseLift and PDFGen are both built on Redwood and we’ve standardized on it at Elevate. Thank you!

Also, big thanks to my pal Jerrie Pelser who is building Cloudpress. He and I had regular calls as part of a quasi mastermind for the better part of my time building CourseLift and I could always lean on him for input and advice.

Looking Ahead

So what does the future hold?

I think right now it's about simplifying things. Officially sunsetting CourseLift helps me to free up some mental bandwidth to dedicate more energy to building my own courses, growing Elevate Digital and my other SaaS, and to test the waters with PDFGen. These will be my focus areas for the next while and I look forward to seeing what kind of adventures they bring!