How a 7-figure online course business planned its year

How a 7-figure online course business planned its year

Publish Date
Jan 28, 2022

A 6-step process to clarity

If you don't know where you're goingany road will get you there.” – Lewis Carroll
When I joined the Forte Labs team in the last quarter of 2021, cohort 13 of the flagship course Building a Second Brain was just about to start.
I was thrown into the frenzy of the launch where we attempted to create the best online learning experience out there for our old and new students.
While a cohort demands all hands on deck, this wasn’t the working style and stress level we wanted to maintain, especially not in the new year.
So, in the second week of January, the team met in person for a one-week retreat in California.
The goal for the retreat was clear: To get clarity on what we want to accomplish in 2022 and the steps to make it happen while maintaining a healthy work schedule and living fulfilling lives.
(Spoiler alert: The retreat was everything that we had hoped for and more.)
Here’s how we arrived at a well-defined list of goals and initiatives through top-down AND bottom-up consensus that make our next steps crystal clear.
I’m also including action steps you can take to plan your year.

Step 0: Get on the same page

Teams need psychological safety to perform at their best.
Since many of us had just joined the team and had never met in person before, we dedicated the first day solemnly to getting to know each other.
An external facilitator guided us through various exercises, starting with sharing our biggest challenges that had shaped who we are. By the end of this round, there was no one left without tears in their eyes. Such a simple prompt gave us a deep understanding of and appreciation for each other.
Without this work, we wouldn’t have been able to have the honest conversations we had in the remainder of the week.
On the first day, Tiago also presented the vision and mission for the business, which acted as our North Star for the rest of the week.
Your Action Steps: Before you set goals, think through the following questions to ground you:
  • Why do you do what you do?
  • What are you here to accomplish?
  • What’s your big vision? How do you want the world to be different?

Step 1: Set ambitious goals

Day 2 started with Tiago sharing his list of ambitious goals for the company (this link leads to the final, revised version).
This included the main goal (revenue) and sub-goals (such as email list growth and YouTube subscribers) that would help us reach the main goal. He also set operational goals, for example, having no more than one 30-minute meeting per day (probably the most ambitious one).
Seeing these goals laid out, I immediately felt a sense of direction and also relief that nothing felt completely impossible to achieve.
Armed with our annual goals, we broke them down to Q1.
We needed to know where we want to be when the next cohort of Building a Second Brain launches in April. So that’s what we focused on for the rest of the week.
It didn’t make much sense to plan further than that since the performance of the next cohort would determine how we can shape the rest of the year.
Your Action Steps: Take a moment to capture...
  • What do you want to achieve this year? (e.g., revenue, audience growth, operations)
  • How does this translate to the next quarter?

Step 2: What does each department need to do to reach our goals?

As the next step, we split into our departments (marketing, ops, and product) to identify the initiatives and projects we’d need to get done to meet our goals.
In the initial brainstorming phase, we didn’t hold back. We captured every idea, no matter if we believed we actually had the resources to get this done or not. This was the most fun part!
We brought all ideas to the table that we believed could move the needle towards our goals.
Then, it was time to evaluate them.
We used the ICE framework (Impact - Confidence - Ease) to determine which initiatives are most likely to make the most impact while being the easiest to implement.
As part of the marketing team, looking at our initiatives through the lens of this framework made immediately clear which projects needed to become priorities and which we’d push to a later stage of the year.
Your Action Steps:
  • Brainstorm what you need to do to reach your goals. Think in projects and initiatives.
  • List your initiatives and evaluate them on three criteria on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest):
    • Impact: How big is the impact of the initiative on your goal?
    • Confidence: How confident are you that this initiative will have the impact you hope for?
    • Ease: How easy is it for you to implement this initiative?
  • Add up the scores and rank your initiatives from highest to lowest. The initiatives that have the highest impact, with the highest confidence, and are the easiest to implement should rise to the top.

Step 3: What resources do we need to make these projects happen?

Now that we had our wish list of initiatives, we wrote down what resources we’d need to bring them to fruition in time.
This included new hires, external contractors, and software we’d need to purchase.
We estimated how much this would cost every month from February to April.
Your Action Steps:
  1. List what resources you’d need to realize your wish list of initiatives.
  1. List what resources you currently have.
  1. Identify the gap and estimate the cost.

Step 4: What can we actually afford and accomplish in time?

It was time to get realistic.
So far, we had assumed we could spend anything we wanted to acquire the resources needed to reach our goals.
This wasn’t the case, obviously...unless we were willing to take on considerable risk.
After crunching the numbers, taking into consideration the level of risk we were comfortable with, we arrived at an available budget.
Side note: At this point, you might wonder why we didn’t start with the available budget in the first place? Wouldn’t that have saved us a few steps?
The answer is yes. However, it would have also constraint our thinking and imagination. We would have dismissed initiatives that seemed too “out there” and arrived at inferior solutions.
Your Action Steps:
  • Take a hard look at your financials and decide what you can comfortably spend in the next quarter.

Step 5: Revise goals and projects

With our budget in hand, we put projects on the backburner that were not feasible to implement in Q1.
It hurt to cut our project list down further, but this way we’d not overcommit ourselves and risk burning out trying to do too much at once (a healthy work-life balance for everyone was also a goal).
As a result, we also had to lower a few of our initial goals.
Finally, we had arrived at a set of goals and initiatives we felt comfortable and ready to move forward with in the next weeks.
Your Action Steps:
  • Considering your budget, go through your project wish list and cut out anything that’s not feasible (you can keep them for later in the year)
  • Do you have to revise your goals?

Step 6: Identify immediate next steps and assign responsibilities

This last step is crucial to go from “planning” to “doing.”
We loaded all our projects into our project management tool ClickUp (alternatives are Monday, Asana, or even Notion) and assigned responsibilities.
We made sure that there was only one owner per initiative. Because as the saying goes, “A dog with two owners dies of hunger.” By assigning a project to two or more people, we’d run the risk of everyone thinking that the other person will take care of it...and in the end, no meaningful progress happens.
We also identified the immediate next steps for each project. No need to plan out every step of the way. Once an initiative has momentum, the next steps become clear on their own.
Your Action Steps:
  • Add your projects to your project management tool of choice. There should be one source of truth, keeping track of progress and details.
  • Assign every initiative to one owner.
  • Let the owner identify the immediate next steps that they will take.

Did we achieve our goal for this week?

Heck yes!
We got clarity. Everyone is on the same page, moving in one direction.
The beauty of this approach: It was top-down (Tiago sharing his vision and goals) as well as bottom-up (the departments revising the goals). Everyone had the chance to provide input and feel heard.
We’re already planning to meet again in June to map out the second half of the year.