When the pandemic hit in 2020, it had a devastating effect on many of my Deedub Inc. clients. This, combined with pre-COVID market trends and headwinds impacting consultancies, meant it was time for a pivot.
Ultimately, I attempted to transform Deedub from a service provider into a product maker. Specifically, I wanted to put my communication and content strategy skills to good use by creating a variety of online courses and other training products for people in CX / UX, marketing, product, and related fields.
My first offering was Accessibility Love. I had long been frustrated with the quantity and quality of accessibility trainings. All too often, the few options on the market were too text heavy with a “rocket science” vibe that intimidated learners. As a result, my goal was simple: I wanted to make accessibility more accessible by providing a welcoming entry point that was more relatable, visual, and engaging.
My first planned Accessibility Love offering was a free, 15-video fundamentals course, released one lesson at a time on YouTube over a period of months. By leveraging YouTube’s massive audience and social features, I believed I could simultaneously make accessibility more accessible and build a following who would be willing to buy my more advanced paid trainings in the future.
Long story short, while I’m very proud of the quality of my Accessibility Love videos, I stopped publishing after the first five lessons were released. At a certain point, it became clear that the lingering business impacts of the pandemic (combined with other factors) meant that I didn’t have sufficient runway to play the long game and build a successful online course business. As a result, in 2021, I decided to scale Deedub back significantly and find a traditional in-house role at another company.
While this outcome was admittedly disappointing and sad, I’m also very grateful for the experience. The lessons I learned trying to execute a massive pivot under the extreme conditions of the pandemic were invaluable. It refined and strengthened my business instincts and strategic abilities in ways that wouldn’t have been nearly as impactful in less trying times.
Better yet, the quality of my Accessibility Love videos played a major role in my job search — so much so they were a critical factor in my eventual hiring as a Senior Accessibility and Inclusive Design Specialist at Realtor.com.
Now that I’m seeking a new job opportunity due to housing-market-induced layoffs at Realtor.com, I encourage you to watch my Accessibility Love lessons on YouTube. As the videos demonstrate, if you’re looking for a skilled storyteller and communicator to help demystify complex topics, improve collaboration and culture, and lead your org forward, you’ve found your guy.
A closer look: Five lessons learned from the Accessibility Love experience
1) Free is not a business model
Yes, we all love a good deal, and I know the ”freemium” model is all the rage. But have you ever noticed that many of the free or cheap things we receive also tend to be the ones we discard and disregard most easily? Case in point, all those silly promotional tchotchkes companies give out at conferences. They’re usually wastes of space that end up in the garbage, thus harming the environment in the process.
The Accessibility Love experience made me realize that the same is often true of educational content. For example, I’ve bought many $20-or-less business and professional books that I’ve never even read. Also, how about those free lead-gen ebooks that people offer when you subscribe to their email list? I rarely read those either (and when I do, they’re usually disappointing). And don’t get me started on most free webinars…
But the $499 online course I bought a few years ago to help me with my networking and use of LinkedIn? I watched every minute, and it was amazing.
The reality is, there’s a psychology to free that goes against both business and customer needs. For customers, there’s no skin in the game when something is free. I saw this firsthand when nearly all of my existing email subscribers didn’t click to watch my Accessibility Love videos, despite encouraging me to create them and saying they wanted to hear from me.
But when a customer invests real money in something, there’s incentive to get the most out of it. Yes, if you reduce or eliminate your free and cheap offerings, you’ll likely limit your audience by turning off a large number of “free seekers” — but the remaining audience will be loyal, engaged, and happy because you’ll provide them with something truly valuable. Plus, your business will have a viable road to profitability. It’s a win win.
That said, don’t totally rule out a few freebies. You just have to be smart about it, which brings me to #2…
2) Go super brief, or very hands on, or preferably both
The biggest fundamental flaw with Accessibility Love was that I planned to give away too much for free. I mean, seriously… A 15-video fundamentals course with roughly two hours of quality video content, all for free? What was I thinking?! That would be like a Mexican restaurant giving away their main courses but charging for the chips and salsa before the meal. It’s backwards, it might even make the customer feel guilty or skeptical (“this is too good to be true”), and it’s a recipe for business failure.
(Actually, side note: I know what I was thinking. There’s a prevailing attitude in many segments of the accessibility community that it’s a cause and a matter of civil rights, thus if you’re too mercenary, you’ll come off as greedy and unserious about helping people with disabilities. I totally respect this viewpoint, thus the reason I made the course free. But I also know we haven’t made nearly enough collective progress with accessibility over the 30+ years since the passage of the ADA. Perhaps that’s partially because so many of the training materials are free or too cheap — and it shows — so target audiences don’t take it seriously? I think so. But I digress…)
So, if I were to do it all over again, what would I do differently? I now think most modern, content-centric educational ventures should utilize a three-tier product strategy that looks something like this (and my apologies, the restaurant analogy is going to continue, and it’s going to make you hungry):
- In the opening tier, my only free offering would be uber-brief, one-to-two-minute content “appetizers” (probably videos), and I would publish them regularly on popular and appropriate social networks to share the basics and gain a following. Think TikTok-style content, only more intelligent and engaging (but not necessarily published on TikTok).
- The middle tier would also be fairly brief: Paid content “tapas” in the $49 to $199 price range. These would be unique offerings that are packed with practical value yet completable within an hour or less — things like checklists, illustrated guides, paid email subscriptions, etc. For potential customers, it’s inexpensive enough to make them want to buy, yet pricey enough for them to have skin in the game and take the content more seriously than a traditional $20 book.
- In the top tier, I would offer content “main dishes” that are somewhat like online courses in their length and depth, but with more hands-on interaction customized for the needs of each student. Think bootcamps and workshops, only more practical, individualized, and collaborative.
I like this strategy because it simultaneous solves the problems with free, and acknowledges a major problem in today’s world:
People are drowning in content. It’s with us all the time thanks to smartphones, and it has rewired us to have Tweet-length attention spans.
Worse, if you’re a creator of educational content for professionals, you’re not just competing with other authors and online course makers in your field. You’re also competing with sports broadcasts, movies, that funny gal on TikTok, fiction novels, news websites, that jerky podcaster bro, and the hot hew streaming series everyone is talking about.
In other words, there are only so many hours in the day, and your target audience only has room for so much content — especially when you factor in all the other more important things in their lives, like their families and careers.
That’s why I’m now of the opinion that monolithic, one-size-fits-all online courses may be on a downward trend. Instead, people want their content to be brief yet worthwhile, and they’re increasingly only willing to shell out big bucks for the deeper stuff if it’s individualized to their exact needs while offering direct access to a cohort of peers and/or a teacher who truly cares.
3) Time is precious, so get help from experts who complement your strengths
Video is hard. That’s why this may be shocking to hear, but I scripted, shot, and edited my Accessibility Love videos all by myself. That meant literally months of combined research into cameras, lighting, microphones, editing, and more.
In my case, I felt like I had no choice with Accessibility Love due to the cashflow challenges caused by the pandemic. But I’m also grateful that I went the DIY route because I learned a lot, and I now have a deeper empathy for professional video production specialists. I know what I’m looking for and how to communicate with them — and that’s important because, moving forward, I would only create these kinds of videos with help from an expert. I would focus on organizing and scripting my content, and I’d outsource all the recording, editing, equipment choices, graphics, and special effects to them.
Time is money, so act accordingly by building collaborative partnerships where everyone wins.
4) Dig even deeper with your research
The truth is, Accessibility Love wasn’t a purely pandemic-induced pivot: I’d been mulling the idea since 2017. I constantly monitored the market and customer needs, looking for signals that it was “go time,” and 2020 seemed like the right moment for a number of reasons that went beyond the pandemic.
But honestly, as thorough and strategic as I was, I didn’t go far enough with my customer and market research. There was one additional source I didn’t check until early 2021: search engine keyword volume.
Using Ahrefs, I discovered that estimated accessibility-related keyword volume related to trainings and education were abysmal (only in the 10s to 100s of searches per month). Meanwhile, more popular search strings related to UX design, web design, and digital marketing garnered between 35,000 and 85,000 searches per month. This discovery was the #1 factor that caused me to stop further publication of my free Accessibility Love fundamentals course.
In hindsight, it would have been smarter to create a course about a more in-demand topic within product, design, or marketing, and weave accessibility knowledge throughout the content. Not only would this have broader appeal, but it would also be a less siloed and more integrated approach to accessibility, which I advocated for in Accessibility Love Lesson 1.
5) Don’t be afraid to move outside your comfort zone and challenge preconceived notions
When executing a major business pivot, it’s easy to become too narrowly focused on something and miss the big picture.
For example, moving from client services to training products, I remained too fixated on familiar target audiences. Specifically, I tried to make Accessibility Love for people and organizations like the ones I had served as clients, as well as other consultancies. I thought that was the only way to achieve the mass-market scale needed to build a successful online course empire.
But I didn’t need to build an empire. In fact, I was missing something that wouldn’t become clear until I scaled Deedub back and began my job search:
Larger tech companies are beginning to take accessibility very seriously. They represent just a fraction of all businesses, but they have tremendous resources, and their reach and scale makes it possible to bring accessibility and inclusion to a massive number of users. That makes tech companies an ideal target audience for accessibility trainings — albeit in a different way than I originally envisioned for Accessibility Love.
For example, in my 2021 job search, I encountered multiple tech companies looking to shift left on accessibility by integrating it earlier in the product design and development process. That necessitates empowering rank-and-file designers and developers with practical accessibility knowledge, and that’s why I saw multiple accessibility opportunities where teaching, coaching, and communication were big parts of the job description.
In other words, these tech companies weren’t looking for a one-size-fits-all course like Accessibility Love. Instead, they wanted to develop their own bespoke trainings, customized to the exact needs of their company, product, and people. That’s a smart idea because:
- It gives them a competitive advantage (whereas, if every competitor used the same off-the-shelf training, there would be less chance to differentiate their products).
- There are often multiple ways to achieve the same end result in accessibility. Custom training allows companies to save time and increase productivity by focusing on the exact methods that work best for their unique products.
- Speaking of saving time, product teams typically have very specific processes, design systems, and documentation preferences. It’s complicated work, and as one interviewer shared with me, the usual marathon accessibility trainings and courses that require setting aside up to three solid days of time simply aren’t compatible with their staff’s schedules. Instead, custom training allows companies to proactively integrate accessibility tools and documentation throughout those processes and systems, which is more efficient and effective in every way.
Bottom line: Those low Ahrefs search stats didn’t mean there was zero demand. It simply meant that I had to find the right audience and industry niche, and I had to offer a solution that matched their wants and needs.
In my case, that meant not just pivoting Deedub, but letting go of Deedub and pivoting my entire career away from self employment and into an in-house tech company role. By doing so, I was able to achieve my goal of making accessibility more accessible, and land an amazing job at Realtor.com that was more financially and emotionally rewarding than if I had stubbornly stuck with Accessibility Love and self employment.
Now that I’m back on the market after the layoffs at Realtor.com, I’d love to apply these lessons inside your organization. Interested? Let’s connect…