1 April, 2019

Building an Online Business: Project Management Lessons

There are many articles on the web about building an online business. But they don’t look at the project management aspects. Recently, one of our readers asked for information on start-ups, getting a blog going, multi-media marketing – and how to project manage all of this.

I’m not an expert. But, as you can see, I have done it all. OnlinePMCourses was a start-up in 2016, this blog is active and successful, and I use multi-media marketing to reach readers and learners like you.

So, this will be a rather different article to our usual guides. I’ll tell you how I approached building the OnlinePMCourses online business, and what I learned.

Building an Online Business - Project Management Lessons

An Online Business: Defining Your Project

As with any project, if you want to launch a full-on online business, or a personal project management blog, you have to define:

  • what your project is and, and
  • what it is not

Project Definition for the OnlinePMCourses Launch

We start or project definitions by understanding the purpose, goal, objectives, and scope of our project. As an example, here is my own project definition:

  • Purpose: Bring my real-world live training to an audience beyond the large organizations in the UK to whom I’ve been delivering it for the lasy 15 years.
  • Goal: Build a successful online project management school that engages learners from all over the world in high-quality project management learning
  • Objectives:
    • Schedule: Launch in June 2016 (from standing start on 2 January 2016). This was my primary objective.
    • Budget: Constrained budget for software subscription fees and marketing support
    • Quality: Deliver highest quality video training programs possible, consistent with timelines and also creating the content solo.
  • Scope: Launch with one core program, but develop the other two tiers in parallel for launch in Q4, 2016. Grow the program offerings incrementally from 2017. Build all essential supporting infrastructure for launch in June 2016.
    • Course infrastructure and resources
    • Website and content marketing strategy
    • Email outreach and automation
    • Links between the above three key elements

Detailed Definition

The next tier of my own project definition was to start to define and understand the aspects of the online business I wanted to build; my:

  • Audience. In commercial terms, of course, this is my market. You. In project management language, you are part of my key stakeholder group. Recently, I launched a new survey to find out more about my audience, and if you have not taken it, I’d be very grateful to learn more about you, here.
  • Commercial. OnlinePMCourses is a business, so I needed to define commercial targets and a budget for the launch and first year. In project management terms, I built a Business Case.
  • Content. This took the scope down to a deeper level, I needed to understand what breadth and depth of content I would and would not include in my launch.
  • Design. The detailed content design would come in the planning stage. Here, I wanted to rough out the principles of the syllabus for each of my core courses, and also the technical approach to creating and hosting them: the technical design.
  • Marketing. I love the quote, ‘if you build it, they will come’. Sadly, it’s rarely true in business. You have to send out invitations. And, to this day, marketing is my weakest suit in the game of business. So, I determined my primary strategy, that plays to my strength: I would create great free content (these articles and my YouTube Channel) and therefore engage the search engines to help you find me.

Strategic Project Management Approach to Building an Online Business

We need to talk about the strategic project management approach. On the face of it, the choice was simple:

  • a traditional, planned project management approach, or
  • an incremental agile approach

Planned Approach

The option of a planned approach is comforting for me. I have been in Project Management for nearly 30 years. So, building a robust project plan is almost instinctive for me now.

The benefit is that it gives a lot of certainty – or, at least, confidence. I could set a launch date and plan my work, to meet it. And I could do the same with Phase 2 and Phase 3…

The problem with this approach is that this was a project type that was wholly new to me. I could do my research, and speak to some people, but I couldn’t predict the outcomes with any certainty whatsoever.

Agile Approach

Many online businesses launch incrementally, taking a highly agile approach. Some will launch a course with only a few modules, and use revenue and feedback from them to fund and inform future development.

That was not what I wanted. I did not feel my prospective audience would like the idea of buying an incomplete course and then have to wait for vital information.

I do get the benefits of Agile project management here:

  • developing bit-by-bit, so I could launch quickly and gain quick feedback
  • incremental development that would mean I could get something adequate to market and then polish it up later

It’s just not who I am. I considered this option carefully, But, ultimately, any project has to be true to its sponsor and their values. I rejevted it.

A Third Option

Regular readers of my articles and newsletters will know that I prefer to reject binary choices where I can.

I chose a planned approach to launch, the business, and then an agile approach to growing it, post-launch. Indeed, I built a very detailed plan for the first quarter of 2016.

Rolling Planning

I took a traditional project planning approach that I learned in the mid-1990s: rolling planning. In this approach, you plan over a long period, but for nearer term plans, you plan in greater detail. So, during the second half of December 2015, I developed my plans for the project:

  • Q1, 2016: I had a detailed plan of what I would be doing pretty much day-by-day
  • Q2, 2016: I had clear milestones through the quarter and weekly plans
  • Q3, 2016: Monthly plans and indicative milestones
  • Q4, 2016: A set of things I wanted to achieve that quarter
  • Beyond 2016, I had a set of ideas and intentions, with indicative priorities and sequencing. There was nothing you could describe as a plan, because I’d take an agile approach to drawing down from this backlog of ideas.

Project Planning Tools

Some people love to hear about tools. I gave up trying to find the perfect tool on a free trial and decided to make use of what I already had and knew.

Trello and Wunderlist - Project Planning Tools


I was a big fan of Wunderlist. I was a bigger fan still, of Wunderkit, but the company stopped investing in it – too much of a project management tool for its time management/getting things done market.

Wunderlist was a highly capable task list manager. It’s by far the best (for me) that I have found, with a great User Interface (UI). And I stretched it right to the limits of its capabilities.

So, it’s a great sadness to me that its new owners, Microsoft, decided to stop investing in it and eventually close it down. It seems they bought the company to get access to a great bunch of developers, who have now built Microsft To Do.


Another tool I use a lot is Trello. This is a Kanban tool – and one of several on the market. In this case, I have no idea if it’s the best: it’s the one I started using, and I stuck with it.

I use Trello to record ideas and track them through the development process.It’s a joy to use and everything I need – including collaboration – is available on the free tier.

Pen and Paper

Most of all, I’m a pen and paper guy. At the start of a substantial new project, I start a new notebook. I sketch ideas, mindmap articles and course structures, and make lists. I take notes compulsively, when learning new things or attending meetings.

And, I draw out strategy charts to indicate the main features of my project schedule graphically. These aren’t Gantt charts – but they use some of the conventions loosely. They are less precise on timing, and show only workstreams and major work packages. But, as a visual thinker, they help me see where I am going.

Planning the Build-out of this Online Business

The essence of planning this project was understanding the logical sequence in which components needed to be ready.

It was tempting just to get on with creating the content. That’s my strength and what I enjoy. But for a good launch, I’d need people to be aware of the new business. With smart scheduling, I could build that awareness at the same time as building the products.

Marketing First

This meant the first priority was to build the framework of a website and some landing pages.

I also built a lead generation asset that would encourage people to engage early. A website with no content would hold visitors. So, I also built the project management glossary I still give away today: ‘Decode the Jargon of Project Management’.

With that ready, I could then contact people I knew and invite them to take a look. I set up a new email list, using a new platform, Active Campaign. Selecting this was a big chunk of work, but the secret is to know what functionality yu need, and to shortlist based on your core requirements.

Technical Stack

It’s worth mentioning that anyone wanting to build an online business will need a whole stack of technology. And selecting this can be a big task.


So, here are my tips:

  • Everyone has their favorites. Their favorites may be right for them, but may not meet your needs so well. Listen to advice, but do your own comparisons.
  • Distinguish core requirements from ‘Nice-to-haves’. The MOSCOW Analysis approach is a great one here. It can often seem that upgrading or swapping out technology can be the solution to a problem. Especially commercial problems like too few sales. Often, the problems are more fundamental. Whatever your goal is, the test of a more expensive tech solution is always: ‘will it truly make a difference to achieving your goal?’
  • Travel light. When you are starting a business, incur the minimum costs you can. If your business succeeds, you can always invest more and upgrade with the revenue you generate. If it doesn’t succeed, sunk costs are irretrievable, and high-cost recurring commitments will hemorrhage profit. Every software service I started with, was on the lowest tier of pricing – at a free tier, where I could.

My Stack

If you are interested in the details of what tools I chose, I’ve documented it here. However, do recognize that, while it all works well for me, it may not be optimal for you.

OnlinePMCourses Technology Stack

Building the Courses

The largest workstream for me was going to be building the three core project management programs. Here are the planning assets I created:

Content Plan

Full course content breakdowns. This was a side-by-side schedule of the modules and sections for each of the three tiers of core program. I planned to record and edit the content for the middle-tier first to get it on sale, then do the few additional lower tier lectures, to build that course. Finally, I’d make the additional top tier program content.


Production and post-production checklists. I would be shooting and editing a lot of videos. I wanted an efficient repeatable process and I didn’t want to make mistakes. Making video courses before, I’d made many, including:

  • not recording the separate high-quality audio track and having to re-do a recording
  • failing to change the title on the video title card, and having to re-edit, render, and upload the video

Checklists ensure you don’t forget any step. For your Project Management Checklists, take a look here.


I created a recording schedule for quiet times of days when nobody else was in the house.

Unfortunately, I had to amend my schedule when landscaping work started in a neighbor’s garden, rendering it impossible to get good audio. I shifted my whole schedule to record after my family were all in bed.

Refresher Learning

Part of my planning process was re-watching the video courses on video production and editing. I was familiar with all of this, but wanted to sharpen my skills. When you review a course for a second and third time, you often pick up on details you missed the first time, because there is so much there.

Importantly, I use video training as a primary way to learn business and professional skills, myself. In the dreadful corporate-speak jargon, I eat my own dog food.

Delivery of Your Online Business version 1.0

What can my experience tell you about the process of delivery?

It’s hard work. Lot’s of hard work, in fact. But having a plan to work to made it feel easier and certainly not overwhelming. On the face of it, it should be. Over 6 months, I:

  • recorded and edited nearly 200 videos
  • crafted them into three courses
  • created over 200 downloadable resources
  • built a website of over 100 pages
  • learned about email automation and set up a couple of dozen automations and sequences
  • wrote a weekly article and a weekly newsletter
  • promoted it all on multiple social media channels

A plan makes everything seem easier and more controlled. And when you need to abandon part of your plan and rebuild it due to diggers in next door’s garden… Well, you have a framework to start from.

And checklists mean I made very few errors along the way.

Launching Your Online Business

The day your business goes live with its first saleable product is a big day. And, when you make a sale – and then another – that’s special.

But launch is not the end, it’s the start of the next stage. For some businesses, it’s the start of the operational stage, where customer care and maintenance are your only concern. But for this kind of business, we’re into cycles of new projects to develop new products.

It feels pretty Agile, but in truth, I plan out each new product carefully.

Launch is time to Close the First Project

But we do need to close the ‘launch’ project. And Project Closure means three things:

  1. Reviewing your project
  2. Clearing your admin
  3. Celebrating your Success

I’ll come back to the lessons learned review in a moment. I did, of course, have a range of too-dull-to-discuss-here tasks to clear. And, of course, I made sure to spend some of my first sales revenue on treating my family to a celebratory meal.

But it’s the lessons I learned that you want to hear about.

Lesson Learned

I learned a lot, and I am continuing to learn. That’s what keeps me doing this. Most were matters of detail – and project specific. That is, I learned more about video production, design, and marketing that I did about Project management.

But three Project management lessons stand out for me, as I look back. And none of them is ‘new’ in the sense that I did not already know it.

But each is an important reminder of an essential truth of project management.

Perseverance, determination, and discipline can get anything done.

And, the benefit of a fixed timeline is that there is an end-point to the early mornings and hard work. When someone tells you there’s easy money to be made online, take it from me: it is not easy money if your ambition is to offer a good quality product at a fair price, with integrity. The easy money comes from scams and get-rich-quick courses.

By the way, that is not to say that you cannot make a lot of money. I’ve met some incredible online course creators who have made a metric Tonne of hard cash. But the ones worth talking to have also worked hard to get there.

Step-by-Step Makes it Easier

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer researched what makes people feel good or dejected at the end of a working day. The secret lies in whether or not you feel you have made progress.

If you break you task into lots of small chunks, with milestones for each, then you can always achieve one or more milestones in your day. That way, you feel good and keep motivated. If, instead, the chunks are big, then ‘all’ you will achieve by the close of the day is ‘a bit of progress towards something a long way off’.

By checking off every video recorded, or edited, as a milestone, and marking each web page as an achievement, I was able to make many achievements each day. That’s a good feeling!


Here’s the big one. And this was a little more surprising than the first two. I knew, from my career in managing projects and leading teams, how important it is for people to have the answer to the ‘why?’ of their project.

And I had that from Day 1: to bring my real-world live training to an audience beyond the large organizations in the UK to whom I’ve been delivering it for the last 15 years.

But there’s a place beyond knowing why. It’s truly believing that your project can work, as well as that it is worth doing. To sustain you through a long, self-motivated project, you need to believe in that project.

What is Your experience of Launching a Side Gig?

Have you launched your own online business? If you have, I’d love to hear about your experiences and project management lessons. Please do comment below and I’ll definitely respond.

Or are you planning to set up your own Online Business?

If you are, what are your questions? Again, use the comments below and I’ll do my best to offer suggestions.

Learn More about my Business

I have done a number of interviews over the years, about my business. You might like:

Important Note:

This article is published on 1 April 2019 – April Fools’ Day in some countries.

This is NOT an April Fool post. Although I marked this slot for a joke post in my content plan, back in December 2018, I decided against it for two reasons:

  1. I can’t be sure April Fool is a thing in every country where I have readers and students
  2. This post will be available for weeks, months, even years. Blogs are not ephemeral things like newspapers and tv shows, that publish spoof features each year.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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