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The Lean Start Up – A Business Model for Online Course

In the field of Online Education there is a process called ADDIE.  ADDIE is the guiding light for instructional designers like me.  Following ADDIE, I start with Analysis, then Design, then Develop, then Implement and finally Evaluation.

I also yawn a lot.

The model, is old, outdated and has many flaws:

  • The process is too slow – and prescriptive
  • There is not enough focus on the Implementation Stage- the actual point where we see the course in action
  • It assumes people work and create courses in a linear fashion – I don’t and neither do my clients

My main concern with ADDIE is this:  It doesn’t take into consideration that there is a new breed of online course creators.


The Online Entrepreneur.


You want a Business Model, not an Education Model

You are reading this site because you want to incorporate an online course into your business.  You see a need for education in your field. You have the expertise and the means to seize that opportunity and make a profit.

You want help creating a superior online education course.

And you want a project manager who can offer advice on how to test, market and promote the course in the online space.

 Enter the Lean Start Up by Eric Ries

The Lean Start Up is method that:

 “teaches you how to drive a startup – how to steer, when to turn, and when to persevere-

and grow a business with maximum acceleration.”

And it is now the model I use with all my clients because:

  • Both the client and I see the potential course for what it really is – A Start-Up
  • Allows for clients to develop their entrepreneurial vision for the course and business
  • Promotes a Management Vision where the course is viewed within the business, not as a separate venture
  • Focuses on continued learning and measurement

The Lean Start Up is a three step process:  Build, Measure and Learn


This is where I work with the client to create what Eric calls a “minimal viable product’.  You see we can’t predict how consumers or students will perceive a course until we see it in action.  And no one, especially entrepreneurs, want to waste their time building a course that isn’t profitable.


Once the course is in the hands of the consumer I work with the client to measure its effectiveness.  We look at:

  • How they complete the activities
  • What they say in the forums about the content
  • Whether they apply the new knowledge and skills to their own lives


This is where we look at all the information and decide what needs to change or stay the same.  And this is the part that set’s my
client’s courses apart from any on the market.  Our courses are in a constant state of change and improvement.

The Lean Start Up reminds us to ask the question:  Should we Pivot of Persevere?

Throughout this process there will be times when a client and I sit together to determine whether we should ‘pivot or persevere’.  Pivot involves reassessing the strategy and moving in another direction, persevere involves staying the course.

To me, this is why the Lean Start Up is a successful model.  Because it constantly reminds up to look at the data and realign our strategy to what it is really telling us.

Reis states “At its heart, a startup is a catalyst that transforms ideas into products.”

That is what I do here at Courses That Matter.  I turn your ideas into online courses.  Online courses built from the best online education and business models. Courses that are passionate and profitable. Courses that Matter.

What are your thoughts?  Have you read The Lean Start Up?  Do you use a plan to create your online courses?


  1. Abe Crystal says:

    Very interesting! Don’t think I’ve seen Lean Startup thinking applied in this way before – seems like this approach has great potential.

    One of the tenets of Lean Startup thinking is measurement and validation. For example, Eric Ries often advocates that product companies use A/B testing when they release a new feature, to see if customers actually adopt and get value from the feature. I’m curious if you’d be able to share any more details about how you approach the measurement challenge in this context. Do you focus primarily on qualitative feedback from course participants? Are there any quantitative measures that you look at? And how do you get meaningful feedback before investing a huge amount of time and energy in creating a full course?

  2. Ainslie says:

    Hi Abe

    Well I like to do things a little differently – but so far the Lean StartUp Model has helped me streamline my procedurres so I think it has huge potential.

    Now let’s see if I can answer your questions by starting at the end.

    You are right. Creating online courses does take a huge amount of time and energy.

    For me, the Minimial Viable Product is the lesson. By lesson I mean the content and learning activities. And we can create a MVP in a number of ways
    - create individual lessons and give to client’s readers (or people in their coaching programs)
    - produce a smaller course – say 4 weeks
    - put the lessons on a simpler platform like email, private page on a website or even Ruzuku.

    From there I can measure and split test a number of ideas:
    - different lesson plan structures
    - different learning activities
    - look at how students applied the information
    - ask for personal opinion.

    I wish education could be successfully measured with numbers but it can’t (hence all the online discussion on standardised tests at the moment) And the numbers can be misleading (just like Eric says).

    So what I am looking for is how the lesson plan, activities, forum discussions and content move the students to practice the new skill, reflect on how they can use it in their setting, and then apply (not just once but consistently)

    But what I love about this model is the Pivot or Persevere idea. Because all the testing in the world cannot predict how a group of students will perceive and interact with your course. All students are different, and every group is different. So with courses you need to have new ideas ready if the initial ones don’t work. And if they don’t work on one group, it doesn’t mean they won’t work another time.


  3. Abe Crystal says:

    Thanks! I like the idea of creating an MVP for a course and then testing it with the client’s readers/coachees. Actually, sounds similar to what we do in a user-centered design process for software – creating a prototype of a website or application and then testing it with a small sample of users.

    I think the approach you describe would make for a good case study — that could help make your services more compelling, too — if you have a client who wouldn’t mind you sharing some of the details of a course you worked…

  4. Melani says:


    I love the Lean StartUp Model. ADDIE is fabulous on many levels and when I was using it in a more traditional classroom setting, learning it and applying it taught me a lot. Today however working with entrepreneurs and in an online setting it can feel a bit cumbersome – but perhaps having it working in the back of my mind all of the time even if I am not using the model in a linear way helps as well.

    The pivot and preserve is genius. That’s what we have to do all the time. Part of being a good teacher is knowing how to “read the room” and adjusting based on that information without losing the heart of the lesson.



    • Abe Crystal says:

      Melani– Coming from an ‘in the classroom’ education background myself (university teaching; practitioner workshops), I completely agree about the importance of ‘reading the room’ and being able to adjust content and approaches to engage learners. I’m curious if you have any thoughts about how to do that online … while participation statistics, for example, can be interesting I still find it difficult to ‘read the room,’ especially in asynchronous learning environments.

      • Melani says:


        I am curious about that too:) It’s certainly more challenging online in asynchronous learning environments to “read the room”; however, in those situations I think it is about paying close attention to the questions, feedback and comments students are making. While I can’t read those who are not participating like I can in person, I can attempt to engage those people via email or a forum or something like that. Fortunately most of my students want to be in the class and made the choice so their engagement is visible. I can tell how I am doing by the questions I am getting and I shift all of the time based on them. This is one of the reasons I think giving students access to the teacher is so important. If the learner is the most important part of the equation then setting them up to have the best learning experience is the only way to go.

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