How to build your own school…

How to build your own school…

Chris Murphy · 14 August, 2020

Summary: I’ve worked as a designer for 30+ years and a teacher for 20+ years, teaching 10,000+ designers. Everything here is tried and tested. I'm sharing everything I learn as I test out ideas, so expect updates.

This overview draws on my experience writing and delivering courses. It outlines the lessons I’ve learned about building a school and moving from offline to online delivery, pre- and post-pandemic.

tl;dr Now is the perfect time to build your own school. The world is in flux and – if you have something to teach – you should seize this unprecedented opportunity and start building. Now is also a great time to be building a community.

If there's one – of many – lessons this pandemic has taught us, it's that communities are the next wave in business. This is what I'm working on next as part of a dedicated community of members at The School of Design.

These are the tools I'm currently testing and leaning towards:

  • Community: Slack, Telegram
  • Private Library: Playgroup; Open-Access Library: Notion
  • Workshops, Lectures, Office Hours: Zoom, Loom

I've also tested:

  • Mighty Networks, Discord and Discourse

Everything is a prototype.

Over the last six months, during my time on Propel, I’ve built the foundations for a new school:

The School of Design

It’s no exaggeration to say that this school is my future and – widening the aperture a little – digital schools are the future, more broadly.

For the first time in a long, long time I’m excited about my work and I’m facing every day with anticipation. Building a learning community allows groups of people to come together and share a common passion, that's exciting.

Education's been hit by a perfect storm.

We’re experiencing a perfect storm of factors that are upending traditional education models:

  • as course fees have accelerated into the thousands, students have begun to question the value of a traditional education;
  • with a global pandemic and lockdowns occurring all over the world, universities have had to embrace innovative models of teaching practice (finally!); and
  • delivering lectures digitally and (a)synchronously has normalised remote teaching.

It’s fast become a cliché, but the world has changed, life has changed and education has changed. There is no going back.

What to do, step by step…

I’m writing up some notes for a friend, outlining the process I followed to set up a community-focused teaching platform. This will allow you to build a micro- social network, which will allow you to build and sell courses.

You don’t need thousands of students (I started with eight). The main thing is this: 'Start!'

I’d recommend starting with a small number of students and focusing on developing a high quality course outline and high quality teaching materials. Once you've tested your thinking, grow.

Look after your students and they will be your champions. They will also – I would happily wager – become your friends.

Here's what you need…

At a high level, you'll need: tools for messaging: both synchronous, asynchronous or both; somewhere to gather the knowledge that the community creates; and – if you plan to charge for access to your community (which I think you probably should) – a billing tool.

The tools listed here are tools I'm using:

  1. Synchronous / Asynchronous Messaging Tools: Slack, WhatsApp
  2. A Knowledge Base: Notion, Playgroup
  3. A Payment Gateway (One Off and Recurring): Stripe, Gumroad
  4. A Scheduling Tool: Calendly

If you’re reading this ~14 August, I’ll be branching this guide at this point as there are a handful of options that I’ve tried and I'm starting to coalesce around my final tools. I was exploring Mighty Networks, which I’d still recommend for many, but I'm now looking at a combination of Slack and Playgroup.

Playgroup – currently in private beta – is lovely. It allows you to build a well-connected digital community with zero technical knowledge required. It looks lovely and it’s affordable too.
Playgroup – currently in private beta – is lovely. It allows you to build a well-connected digital community with zero technical knowledge required. It looks lovely and it’s affordable too.

Thanks to the generous support of Ben Mann, I’ve been beta testing Playgroup: "Modern forum software made for engaging online communities." It solves a number of my specific problems, which is why I’ve moved to it.

However, Playgroup is in closed beta, so – unless you get to know Mann – it’s not an option just now. I’ll add my thoughts about Playgroup shortly as I add content.

Your very own social network…

The first piece of the jigsaw – like any ‘real’ School is to build a community. (I’ll expand a little more in this in due course.)

I've been using Slack, but I’ve also been exploring Mighty Networks. Mighty Networks bills itself as a new form of website builder that grows with you. As they put it:

Bring your community, online courses, and memberships together in one place.

I can’t emphasise enough how helpful it is to have everything in one place: You can build your community there using free memberships and when you’re ready to start charging for membership, upgrade.

Mighty Networks’ Community Plan costs just $23 per month (paid annually) or $28 per month (paid monthly). This gets you:

  • your own web domain;
  • unlimited moderators; and
  • paid memberships.

The beauty of this is you can sign up, trial the platform for a month for just $28 and then move to the annual plan to save money.

$276 (~£220) for everything you need to run a paid community is unbelievably good value.

To sell courses, you need to upgrade to the Business Plan, but if you've grown your community first this is simply a cost of doing business.

Other Communities

For the last six months – on @igniteaccelni’s excellent (and for me, life-changing) Propel programme – I’ve been thinking night and day about communities.

Communities are empowering. They enable individuals to come together inspiring each other. When communities are nurtured carefully, the combined minds are worth far, far more than the sum of the parts.

1 + 1 + 1… = ∞

I’ve learned a huge amount by joining a number of communities and seeing what works and what doesn’t. Over the last year, I've joined the following communities (in this order):

  • Farnam Street
  • Visualize Value
  • Ness Labs
  • Megamaker
  • Content Clube

I'll be sharing the lessons I've learned from each of these communities shortly, but I can't stress enough:

To understand how to run a community you need to be part of at least one other community, prefeably more.

Watch this space and I'll supplement this section with notes shortly.

Another Kickstarter…?

I'll be adding some notes here shortly, but if you'd like to get a feel for my current thinking about The School of Design's offering and pricing, you might want to read A Community of Practice.

I've started to outline thoughts on our Kickstarter.

Creating your curriculum…

This is – without question – the most challenging part of the process. A good course has a solid outline, which acts as an overarching narrative arc.

Within this outline, you will have modules. These modules will be comprised of lessons.

The best way to create a course outline is to learn from your community. What kinds of problems are they facing? What are they struggling with? What do they love (and what do they hate)?

If you’ve followed this plan, your community members and your paid members will help you to create your outline (because you will have helped them by adding value to your Mighty Networks community).

(I’ll expand a little on creating courses shortly, because I think I need to talk about: learning outcomes, how we can deliver those outcomes in a variety of ways, and why a team is important.)

A Virtual Lecture Theatre

If you’re at this point, you’ll need to upgrade to Mighty Networks’ Business Plan, which will enable you to sell courses and start to look at your analytics.

Analytics are important, they’ll enable you to see what works and what doesn’t, allowing you to fine-tune your marketing strategy. (You have a marketing strategy, right?)

Once that’s up, you’ll then be able to sell courses using Zoom as your delivery channel and Notion for your course materials.

(There are alternatives to Zoom and Notion. I’ll leave that due diligence in your capable hands.)

I would strongly recommend delivering your lectures live. I’ll write about this separately, but think of your lectures as the World Cup final. Watching it live is a totally different experience to watching it a week later in a recording.

Delivering your lectures live might be a little stressful for you, but – as with everything in life – practice makes perfect.

Live lectures allow your learners to follow along, ask real time questions and get involved in a post lecture discussion. All of this adds to the engagement within your community, which keeps the engine of your school running.

All of the above is the theory. Everything below, is how I am putting that theory into practice.

Here's how I approached it.

I believe in a show, don't tell approach to teaching. I also believe it's important – under certain circumstances – to share the facts and figures behind the story. If I don't share the facts and figures, you won't know if my approach was successful or not.

With that in mind, here's everything.

I started this process in February, 2020, bootstrapping everything into existence. I’ve been down the seed funding, angel investment, etc., road before and this time around, I’m bootstrapping. No investors equals me, as my own boss (and, of course, Cara!).

I’ll be explaining why I’ve opted for bootstrapping in an upcoming Design Your Future summer course that I’ll be delivering at The School of Design. If you’d like to hear more about this, sign up to our mailing list.

Beta Learners, Unite!

To get the ball rolling, I signed up a eight ‘beta learners’, they paid me £300 for what I called my ‘I’ll teach you for life’ tier.

Looking back, this was ludicrous.

£300 to have me on your team for the rest of your life is a ridiculously valuable offering. Of the original eight that signed up, six are still working with me on their goals. £300 – for the support I was offering – was priced far too low, but let's not forget:

Each of these eight individuals took a leap of faith with me. They had no idea what I would teach them, because I had no idea what I would teach them.

We took this leap of faith as a team.

I think it’s fair to say that they’ve all benefited greatly. I’d even go so far as to say the experience – for some of them, certainly – has been life-changing.

Working together, I have helped them to define their values and, through that, begin to articulate their purpose and their mission.

That work on core values has given them all a very clear sense of their future trajectory, and I’m incredibly proud of the work they are doing. Here is what one of them has to say:

Having Chris on your team is like adding a cheat code to your career. He selflessly shares everything he knows with you, enabling you to add it to your toolkit, setting you up for success. —Liam, Belfast

I can’t create a school built on learners who are paying £300 to sign up for an ‘I’ll teach you for life’ tier. There’s just not enough income to offset the level of work I’m investing.

I also have plans to grow a faculty of mentors who I’ll pair learners with to give them advices I can’t give. These mentors will need to be paid for their time and experience, rightly so, teaching isn’t easy.

Levelling-Up Learners

With my £300 Beta Learners enrolled, I next moved to work with learners at a more appropriate price point, that reflected the work I‘d been putting in (which is a great deal).

The benefits of this approach, levelling up the price when I’m more comfortable with the tools and I have a library to support me, has been everyone who joins me knows what they’re getting. I now have two pricing tiers:

  • £700 (£750 Payment Plan)
  • £1,800 (£1,950 Payment Plan)

These tiers are related, in that I envisage some of the learners on the £700 tier (Accelerator Coaching) will move on to the £1,800 tier.

I’m currently exploring how this works, with an idea that some of the £700 fee is offset against the £1,800 fee. i.e. if you decide after the £700 fee coaching is over that you’d like to join the more formal taught plan (with lectures, peer discussions, etc.) some of your £700 is used to discount the £1,800 fee.

I have to run the numbers and see what’s fair, but I am doing my best – as much as I can – to help people.


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