Will your online course platform still be here tomorrow?

dropped ice cream cone at child's feet

In your search for an online course platform, you may have noticed that the market has gotten quite crowded – which means it’s time to be cautious.

I’ve seen this before – circa 1997 (dotcom days) – when tons of e-learning companies were rushing into the market and investors were throwing money at those companies. I think the frenzy is more legitimate now (and investors aren’t acting as crazy), but still, you can bet that a lot of the platform companies don’t have what it takes to survive.

If you are just dabbling, this isn’t a big deal. But if you currently sell or plan to sell online courses as a significant part of your business, you definitely don’t want to wake up one morning to find the company you depend on has shut it doors.

Now, given that a significant percentage platform companies out there right now are privately held, it’s next to impossible to tell how viable each one is financially, but here are some checks you can perform to help give you confidence your provider, or any provider you are considering, will be around for a while:

Presence

By “presence,” I don’t just mean how the company’s Web site looks – though I’d definitely be concerned about how good a platform will be from a company with an unattractive, unintuitive Web site. Rather, do some poking around on the site and through Web searches to find out:

  • Who are the company’s founders? What is their experience? How clear and compelling is their vision for the company?
  • Does the company seems to have a clear value proposition that differentiates it, even in a small way, from the competition?
  • How fresh is the content on the company’s Web site? Is there a blog or news area that is updated regularly?
  • Does it provide regular updates/communications on at least one social media channel?
  • What kind of experience do you have when you contact the company? (Always send a question or two to any company you are serious about to see how long it takes to get a response and how helpful the response is.

If you have trouble getting at any of the information above, or have a hard time getting useful responses from a company during the sales process, beware.

Momentum

Any company can put up a Web site and some marketing language and make some noise, but actually getting any traction in the market is a different matter. Use the following tools and approaches to get some insight into how much momentum a company has:

  • Alexa Ranking – Look at the company’s Web traffic statistics on Alexa to see how it ranks and whether that ranking seems to be improving significantly over time. (Alexa charts the change in rank over the past year). Personally, I feel most comfortable if a company ranks within the top 50,000 in the U.S. and top 100,000 globally – or at least seem to be headed that way quickly.
  • Moz Authority – Use Moz’s Open Site Explorer tool to see how the company’s domain authority, based on a number of factors, stacks up against other companies you are considering. Personally, I like to see a company score at least a 40, and preferably 50 or above. (Note: Moz only allows for a couple of searches if you don’t have an account, but you can sign up for a free 30-day trial.)
  • Finally, assess the content of any news about the company – assuming there is any – across the Web. Does the news suggest the company is updating its software regularly? Acquiring new customers? Attracting high profile customer and/or customers you respect?

None of these indicators are perfect, of course, but they can give you a reasonably good idea of how the company is faring out in the market and what its chances for continuing success might be.

Economics

As suggested above, nearly all of the companies readers of this site are likely to consider are privately held, so it is usually not possible to get much, if any, financial information. Still, you can apply a sort of financial “sniff” test, including:

  • Does the pricing make sense? Would a reasonable person think they are sustainable? If the pricing sounds too good to be true, there is a good chance it is.
  • Has the company attracted investment? How much, how many rounds, and from whom? Investment activity can be hard for the average person to evaluate, but in general, it is good to see the same people or companies continuing to invest, but with a good reason for each round of investment. (If a believable, strategic reason for continuing capital injections is not stated in press releases, beware.) You also usually don’t want to see a significant drop in either the amount of money invested or the valuation of the company from one investment round to the next. This may be a sign of trouble.
  • If there is no evidence of investment, then put even more emphasis on the points above about the founders and their vision, the pricing model, and the amount of momentum the company seems to have. Personally, I have been involved with companies that have raised a lot of money, and I have bootstrapped two companies of my own. I have a strong bias for the latter. This is one key reason I have tended to promote Thinkific over most of the other companies out there. They have strong organic growth, they have a solid, sustainable pricing/business model, and they have strong Alexa and Moz numbers – among other factors. (I also get a lot of favorable, unsolicited comments from readers about them.)

Yes, all of the above can take a bit of work. And, yes, anyone who follows me for a while will learn that I often say not to obsess about the technology. But the above points are worth obsessing about a bit. While there are many good platforms out there, any number of which could meet your business needs well, it’s definitely worth taking some time to evaluate whether a particular platform is likely to be around for the long haul.

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