26 January 2011

Lucrative teaching? A quick look at Josh Kaufman's The Personal MBA, and Jim Groom's potential to rule the world

Peter Rawsthorne tweeted me a link to Josh Kaufman's recent article on CopyBlogger, Has the Internet Made Teaching Lucrative? adding the question:
why even go down the working for a university route?
Josh's article is a nice addition to conceptualisations of independent teaching practice, from someone who IS doing it, and claims to be making a fair living doing so.
My initial investment in some basic digital publishing training and equipment has produced the highest ROI imaginable: a debt-free, global, six-figure teaching business. I’m making more than most college professors with a fraction of their schooling.
The business model

Josh mixes his skills in marketing and promotion with his ability to empathise with his target groups, to produce a self-help flavoured learning package of subscription emails, blog based articles, reading lists, short videos, a book, and courses.

  • The book sells on Amazon for nearly US$16 plus postage.
  • The courses are chunked into 6 tax deductible fees of US$297, or a discounted one payment of US$1497
  • The blog articles and subscription emails are free, as are the videos that preview his ability to present and explain concepts in accessible and engaging language.
  • To be approaching a 6 figure income, Josh must be selling about 1000 books and 60 full course enrollments a year... as well as a little extra for writing articles and speaking, which would probably be largely part of the free/marketing work...
As Josh says in his CopyBlogger article:
Attracting students requires learning the arts of content marketing and sales — and using them every day.
Delivering quality training requires developing technical skills you may not yet possess. Above all, you must overcome your discomfort in charging what your services are worth, and learn to ask for the sale.
We can only take Josh's word for it - that he is happily earning a comfortable living in the US doing this, certainly he pushed the right buttons for me with:
I can work from anywhere that has a stable internet connection and a phone line. I operated my business on a dialup connection in the mountains of Colorado for six months. And I could easily move anywhere in the world at any time.
The marketing, enter Jim Groom

Marketing should be education, education should be marketing

Josh markets and promotes everything he does, (it must suck trying to have an honest conversation with the guy ;) and that's the key point of difference to your average institutionalised teacher. Josh's website, products, and services are, at face value, well packaged, and sharply communicated, to a very broad audience, never missing a promotional opportunity, always on message. He has a tried and true balance between free access and paid for service and content, using the free to almost over-market the fee based stuff. I don't know many gaol house  teachers (plain English for institutionalised) who have the skills and frame of mind to do this, but I do know one who could do it better than anyone - Jim Groom.

Where it all began. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Jim Groom is also a natural marketeer, but with an obvious point of difference to Josh - working in a niche, establishing face value trust more easily, using a more sophisticated style of media and message, to market brand jimgroom, and more recently the course DS106, but not as yet attempting to make a living from it all like Josh does.

Jim markets himself and his teaching with a self mocking invitation to engage, a sophisticated handling of media and message based on cinema industry symbolism, and drawing on a loyal "fan base" who share in the vision and help with the marketing because its fun.

Jim's products and services are still developing, and it is in this that he could take a leaf out of Josh's set up. To achieve the 6 figures and be independent, Jim needs to set up a product line. EduPunk and DS106 t-shirts for $30, nude posters with a course calendar on em for $10, underwear for the highest bidder, and a textbook-comic for $40. Sell all this to 100 people a year and he's made $8000 without even blinking yet! Put a price on a corner of his teaching service, and he rakes in the rest (more on this below). 6 figures Groomy, and from anywhere you like!

But can Jim Groom and others like him, do this without forfeiting the trust and contribution of his fan base, or the authenticity of his brand? I think he can, with the open, self mocking honesty he naturally has.

Is Jim Groom's niche big enough to deliver his family a comfortable and happy living? I'm not sure, I think if he widened the scope, and targeted businesses wanting to develop their own marketing messages with more sophisticated story telling, bingo! Jimbo has a fee based corner to draw an income from, and he can start sending fat cheques my way because he wants me.

The precarity

There is precarity in this business model however. It relates to the balance between free and fee. Josh and Jim have established reputation to ride on for a time, but their competition is with the others, who offer more free and less fee, all-the-while building a reputation over time. What happens when the next Salmon Khan starts offering business skills tuition in his Kahn Academy? Digital Story telling even? As I type, my brother-in-law Chris is learning guitar for free from martyzsongs. That just put the next guy, offering some free and more fee, out of business. The balance between free and fee just keeps sliding to free.

So Josh and Jim need to stay nimble and keep quick. Get the next thing on the boil, leverage their existing reputation, and dominate the next available space. Develop product, set up courses, and rely on it for a year or 2 before going onto the next thing. Most of all, and as Peter suggests up top, get out of gaol free, work toward independence.

Further reading

My interest in this all began with Kathy Sierra's post, Marketing should be education, education should be marketing. I've posted a whole bunch of thinking drawn from that, but most recently was A crisis for institutions, opportunity for teachers. Linked from there are better articulations of why and how teachers need to get out of gaol: Out From Under the Umbrellas and What Would it be Like to be the Rain. But if you're really stuck on making the gaols work (like me) then, adapting Josh's approach back into the institutions might be more your style with, The role of marketing in educational development.


mws said...

The end here sounds like a shift to what Virno describes as a virtuosic mode of production as a path to institutional independence - I wonder if the Rossiter's Organised Networks might be interesting to read in this light - so that 'immanent critique' within an edupunk collective shores against the ruin of precarity.....keeps things vital and provides a kind of check against the weirdness (and stasis) of becoming your 'brand'.

The threat is that this results in a return to an institutional model...but if that 'institutional turn' (Rossitter) remained essentially distributed it would be preferable to a fostering a Cult of Personality...

As much as I'd bid high for the Bava's undies...you can imagine a group of 4 highly distributed edupunk nodes offering a set of courses that would blow away most institutional offerings - at least in the network media literacy/dynamics/production side of things. That would no doubt return a handsome dividend in sales of edupunk tshirts/gstrings etc...

Leigh Blackall said...

oi! thanks MWS, I'm reading up on those references now. First thought, of course everything is cyclical. We will return to this place eventually, and where we're going is where we once were. Looking forward to reading your references more.

A more coordinated edupunk offering would be great! I wish those dudes would hang out with me on Wikiversity a bit, seems the logical place to aggregate the otherwise distributed line up, and use it as the launching pad out of Wikipedia and into some exciting learning spaces, while always having a pathway back to the source code.

Leigh Blackall said...

Think I've found links to the references. Rossitter looks interesting.. Ned Rossitter right? Based at University of Western Sydney? I'm noting these recommended readings here.

funnymonkey said...

Leigh - I think you're missing the boat with Jim.

The fact that he understands the medium, and can use it, should not be conflated with a desire to exploit it for profit.

And Jim Groom underwear? To the highest bidder?

That would only work if the underwear could talk.



Leigh Blackall said...

Hi Funny Monkey,

If I understand DS106 correctly, the University that Jim works for is sponsoring the course, and there are formally enrolled students. Being a US university, they're interested in profit. My suggestion to Jim is make a living, not a profit, an escape the profiteering institution.

I bet Jim Groom's undies can talk!

Andy Rush said...


I work with Jim at the US university you refer to. We are a public, state supported university - non-profit. We may be interested in a bigger endowment, but profit is not an option. Jim and I, and other colleagues, consistently rail against for-profit U's.

The "controversies" generated by images and posts were "offensive" not because of their content per se, but because of a seeming lack of understanding what Jim and others do day to day. The sacrifices we make at public U's.

I see your acts of contrition on Flickr and I know this will go a long way. Some still may not see it that way. You have hit a nerve. Knowing why, as you hopefully do now, will in itself help calm the storm.

It is obviously difficult to communicate all the nuances of this dust-up, but I'm happy to keep the conversation going. Cheers.

Andy Rush said...


I have an Edupunk t-shirt. Jim didn't make a dime on it. He's a terrible entrepreneur ;-)

Chris Lott said...

The distinction between "making a living" and "making a profit" is important, particularly now that Leigh has clarified it for us. So the fact that we work at non-profit institutions really doesn't have much to do with the central issue, which is the dynamics of institutions and how we perpetuate them even as we attempt to work against them. There's certainly something to be discussed considering:

1) Jim, who I love, talks about DS106 as being a break from edupunk but at the very same time holds it up as an opportunity for the edupunk ethos to play out, and

2) is at the helm (as much as there can be a helm) of a course whose success depends to a significant degree on Jim's standing and personality in pioneering the edupunk idea while

3) the course activities are, as I understand it, subsidized by the fees-paying students of the institution.

Talk of figuring out how to break away from the institution is routine among many of the most prominent DS106 members; railing against the dynamics of the institution is commonplace... yet almost all of those people, including myself, remain with the institutions that are so problematic.

Yet how many people have the combination of insight, ideas, and brand recognition of Reverend Jim to pull off such a feat? How much is DS106 a model of what can be done and how much a singular event? Does this point at a path by which some could strike out on their own into the next, mostly imagined (so far) area of "courses" outside the institution that both allow people to learn and avoid plowing $$ back into the institutions that are causing so much harm? What is the line where good-natured marketing necessary to stay alive and afloat crosses the line? Or a line?

Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks Andy, coming from a country of almost entirely State funded universities myself, I may not properly understand the technical difference between profit and not-for-profit in the US. Here in Australia, I would say our universities are very interested in profit despite being heavily supported by public funds, so they'd never publicly admit it the clear profit motive. (Patents and intellectual property, higher study fees, content royalties, higher subsidies, large pay increases for management..)

The more accurate phrase I should have used is, academic capitalism. A search on this blog, or maybe Google, will bring some context. It essentially says that all universities are affected by the same "for-profit" mentality now - as you might have suggested when you said, "We may be interested in a bigger endowment" which I think is equal to our universities here asking for more money from the government.

As for Jim the entrepreneur :) I agree. But just imagine what he could do with the right producer! Off to make myself a t-shirt too.

Leigh Blackall said...

Right on Chris, you get it. Thanks!