The 3 Required Elements to Building and Selling Your Online Course



How to Build an Information Product Empire You Actually Own

In order to build and sell an online course, there are 3 functional elements you need to get the job done. key ingredients are usually handled by different tools, plugins or software. The set of tools you use to accomplish this goal is known as a ‘stack’.

Some Stacks are more versatile than others, and some are more expensive. Some single pieces of software promise to completely replace a stack, but a closer look usually reveals that they lack some vital features.

Does this all seem a bit complicated? That's because it is.

So, we’d like to make this all crystal clear and help you to see why the stack we recommend for selling online courses is Thrive Apprentice + SendOwl, above all others.

A Brief Message from Shane: Why We Integrate with SendOwl

The Thrive Apprentice + SendOwl solution we're now recommending for creating and selling your premium online courses is one we can fully stand behind. It's the tool stack that ticks all the boxes.

Of course, it's not the only way to create your online courses. Everyone is free to choose a different membership solution (we even integrate with several of them for our own business).

However, we must leave this product decision up to you, the end user. As a company, Thrive Themes cannot stand behind any tool recommendation that isn't EU VAT compliant.

Personally, I'll never make recommendations to you that don't meet this standard because it would be unethical for me to give you a maybe simple, maybe cheap solution that leaves you open to being sued into oblivion at a moment's notice.

That's a big reason why we've integrated Thrive Apprentice with SendOwl and is our recommendation to you for creating premium online courses to sell as info-products on your website.

Element #1: Your Checkout Tool

Since your intention is to sell something rather than offering it for free, the first tool you need is a checkout tool.

The single most important thing your Checkout tool needs to do is to trigger an action upon purchase. We occasionally hear people ask “why not just use Paypal or Stripe?” for checkout, but asking this question exposes a common misunderstanding when it comes to selling products online.

Paypal and Stripe are payment processors and are not designed as checkout tools. A service like Paypal allows money to shift from one bank or credit-card account into another. Their entire business is built around making sure that the payment is quick, easy, secure and works every time.

But that doesn’t trigger any action on the product side of things when a purchase is made. This is why you need a Checkout tool.

With a Checkout tool, you can create a purchasable product. This product comes with a set of triggers and actions that automatically fire only once a purchase is made. Examples of such actions are:

  • Redirection to a thank you page
  • Creation of a user account inside your WordPress dashboard
  • Enrolling a student in an online course
  • Sending a welcome email
  • Many more such actions

A Checkout tool makes these actions happen automatically and ensures that purchases don’t go through without your customers having paid first.

Good Checkout tools do even more. They allow you to modify prices, bundle multiple products together, create upsells and bonuses, accept coupon codes, create different payment options, and customize how your cart and checkout interface look to your customers.

VAT MOSS Calculation, Collection and Reporting

There is one extremely important feature that most checkout tools lack: Automatic Value Added Tax (VAT) Mini One Stop Shop (MOSS) calculation and collection. If your business sells digital products to anyone who's a resident in the European Union, you must calculate and pay sales tax based on the specific country that your buyers are from.

EU VAT Legal Warning

If you sell digital products but aren't EU VAT compliant, your business is in a vulnerable position and could be fined out of existence.

All it takes is one disgruntled customer or a predatory lawyer out to make a buck and you'll wish you would have selected an EU VAT compliant online course solution.

It’s a logistical nightmare to set up VAT MOSS, and most checkout tools either pretend it doesn’t exist or try to integrate with an expensive tax tool that you have to pay for. If you don’t manage VAT MOSS, you are liable to be sued.

So in our opinion, a good checkout tool should have VAT MOSS calculation, collection and reporting built in and easily manageable.

Affiliate Marketing

Another important feature that good checkout tools have is an affiliate marketing feature. The tool should allow you to reward other people for promoting your product on their websites, mailing lists and social channels through affiliate links​.

A good checkout tool will help you manage such relationships by registering your affiliate partners, issuing them affiliate links to your sales pages, tracking customer purchases that arrived through those links and then reporting the commission amounts you owe them on a monthly frequency.

Often affiliate marketing tools are expensive and complicated on their own so when a checkout tool offers this functionality as well, it’s a huge bonus.

Checkout Tool Comparison

Now with all of these things in mind, let’s look at a bunch of established Checkout and Membership tools with integrated checkouts:

EU VAT MOSS calculation and collection built-in:

  • SendOwl
  • Teachable
  • Thrive Cart

Some EU VAT MOSS integration if you pay for 3rd-party providers:

  • MemberPress
  • Paid Memberships Pro
  • Digital Access Pass
  • S2Member
  • Kajabi

No EU VAT/ MOSS features:

  • LearnDash
  • Lifter LMS
  • MemberMouse
  • AccessAlly
  • Thinkific
  • Zippy Courses

A Note On WooCommerce

It’s hard to place WooCommerce amongst this set. WooCommerce is a free WordPress plugin that lets you take payments on your website. But the customer experience is godawful, it’s a mess to configure, and customization requires paying through the teeth for a number of costly upgrades.

For example, just adding ‘Subscription payments’ to WooCommerce will cost you $200 USD per year. And even once you buy it, you still have to run the nightmare gambit of configuring it.

Furthermore, adding EU VAT compliance can quickly add another $50 to $100+ per year on top of that!

We’re leaving WooCommerce out because it quickly becomes a Frankenstein-ed, money eating monster to achieve the functionality someone needs to sell their course.

Element #2: Your Virtual Learning Environment

Your online course needs to live somewhere online where you can build it and students can access it. Your course also needs to be structured in a way that makes sense to the student. Let’s call this your Virtual Learning Environment.

Of course, it’s not necessary to use an online course plugin to create your learning environment because you can build your lessons on simple WordPress pages or posts. However, this doesn't make for a good experience for your customers making your product look shady.

Modules, Chapters and Lessons

The traditional structure for a course is with Modules & Lessons, though some software (Thrive Apprentice included) offers a third level, which we call ‘Chapters’.

Most online courses are not something a student would go through in a single session, so a good virtual learning environment allows students to track their progress. It should record what lessons have been completed and which ones have not, allowing students to pick up where they left off.

Learning Management Systems (LMS)

You may have heard the term ‘LMS’ before, which stands for Learning Management System. Really an LMS is just a Virtual Learning Environment with a bunch of extra bells and whistles. Some LMS tools allow course creators to offer tests, interactive multiple choice quizzes or assignment submissions.

While all of these features sound fun to have, most of the time they're more of a hurdle to overcome when setting up an online course rather than being an asset that will help you as the course creator sell more.

Who’s In Control of Your Learning Environment?

But there’s a catch to your Virtual Learning Environment: We believe you should have complete control over it.

After all, you’re investing time and energy into building your online course so it should be 100% owned and controlled by you. This means that even after you stop paying for your course solution, you still have access and own all of your course content.

When your business lives on someone else’s platform, you’ve agreed to their terms and conditions. And if there’s a change that affects you negatively? Too bad.

This is why we are very wary of hosting online courses, that is your entire paid product, on someone else’s platform.

You use WordPress because it’s yours. You self-host your website so that it’s yours. You aren’t agreeing to someone else’s Terms & Conditions, so you can define your own.

From this business perspective, let’s compare which Virtual Learning Environments require you to host your course on their platform rather than on your own website:

Virtual Learning Environments Hosted on YOUR platform:

  • Thrive Apprentice
  • LearnDash
  • Lifter LMS
  • Sensei — requires WooCommerce

Virtual Learning Environments Hosted on Someone Else’s Platform:

  • Udemy
  • Skillshare
  • Teachable
  • Kajabi
  • Zippy Courses

Element #3: Content Restriction

Once you have your online course content built and a checkout tool that can take payments and deliver digital products, the last piece of your premium online course puzzle is finding a way to grant access to paying students and restricting course access to everyone else.

For this, you have the plethora of — usually dreadful — membership plugins to choose from.

The Purpose of Membership Plugins

All membership plugin do is check to see if users are allowed access a certain pages on your website. If they are? The page loads for them. But if they are not? Users are redirected to a notification page that tells them that they do not have access.

Unfortunately, Membership plugins usually suck. They are ridiculously confusing, complicated to setup and often the most expensive tool in your entire stack. You can spend a lot of money on membership plugins only to immediately require a developer to come in and customise it for you.

It can feel like pulling teeth to get membership plugins to work, but without them, you have no way to prevent non-paying customers from accessing your course.

With our new SendOwl + Apprentice integration, you no longer need an extra plugin to do this.

This integration allows Thrive Apprentice to talk directly with SendOwl and permit user access to specific courses only if SendOwl has confirmed the correct payment in the checkout.

The Shocking World of Membership Plugin Pricing

Since membership plugins are expensive, let’s look at the annual price of several popular ones.

NOTE: Many of these solutions are  Membership Plugins + Virtual Learning Environment combos that require you to host on their platform:

Membership Tool
Membership Tool
$159 +
$348 + 5% transaction fees (up to $4,788)
$240 for up to 1000 members
S2 Members
$0 - $189 (one time)
Paid Memberships Pro
$297 - $597
$200 - $1000
$258 - $498
Digital Access Pass
$227 - $480
$780 - $5k
$1548 +
Zippy Courses
$948 - $1908

SendOwl + Apprentice Costs:

Thrive Apprentice is included in the Thrive Membership at no extra cost. All Thrive Members have access to our 10+ WordPress plugins including Thrive Apprentice. But to get the benefits of being able to sell courses with Apprentice, you’ll need a separate SendOwl account as well.

Fortunately SendOwl offers a 30-day free trial period and then starts at just $9 per month — a total of $108 per year.

After getting setup, you may want to start selling multiple products, offer upsells, and start and affiliate marketing program, which will require getting either SendOwl’s $15 or $24 per month plan, which comes to either $180 or $288 per year.

Just compare those prices — and what you get with them — to any of the individual membership plugins above and you instantly see the value in what a Thrive Apprentice + SendOwl integration offers you.

Why We Recommend the Thrive Apprentice + SendOwl Integration:

Now let’s look at why the Thrive Apprentice + SendOwl integration work so well.

SendOwl Is Your Checkout Tool

Inside SendOwl, you can create products — a series of actions that take place upon purchase — as well as customize your cart and checkout experience for customers. You can set your checkout to appear when visitors click ‘buy now’ buttons on your sales page — a super easy step to setup when using the Thrive Architect landing page and content builder.

And if your customer is from the EU, your VAT MOSS tax will automatically be calculated, collected and reported for you — no expensive tax software add-ons needed!

Apprentice is your Virtual Learning Environment

Thrive Apprentice tracks student progress and allows you to create customized pages for lessons, chapters and modules. Thrive Apprentice make it super easy to create new lessons, publish or un-publish them, reorder them, and build out your online course however you like in record time.

For your students, the Thrive Apprentice front end experience is structured, clean and appealing showcasing yourself as a professional and authority in your niche.

SendOwl + Thrive Apprentice work together as your Membership Tool

This tool combo restricts access to your online courses by making sure only those logged in Thrive Apprentice users who completed a purchase through SendOwl enter premium course areas. Once a customer makes a purchase, their account will unlock the associated course in Thrive Apprentice.

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