The $4 Million Teacher: How to Make Money Selling Your Knowledge Online

Mission Trip to Louisiana
March 10, 2014

South Korean teacher Kim Ki-hoon has been making headlines for the past week, after The Wall Street Journal published an article titled The $4 Million Teacher on August 3rd. To be more accurate, I should say they published an essay by Amanda Ripley, adapted from her book The Smartest Kids in the World – and How They Got That Way. The book was slated to be released 10 days after the publication of the article in the WSJ.

As you might expect, news outlets around the web pounced on the juicy headline, and it went viral pretty quickly. A teacher making $4 Million a year? Now that’s news, right? Political pundits were quick to jump on the opportunity to bash America’s education system, and discussions about the $4 Million teacher have been rife with controversy.

In my perusal of the online chatter I got the impression that a lot of people are misconstruing the essay. At the same time, I think there’s some good information to be gleaned from it, and an inspiring story for entrepreneurs. So I’d like to throw a few of my own opinions into the mix…

    Kim Ki-Hoon

First, I want to point out that the publication of the article itself is a great example of covert marketing. The essay, and it’s publication in the WSJ (which was perfectly timed to coincide with the book launch), was a great move on the part of Ms. Ripley and/or her publisher, Simon & Schuster. It shows how you can get millions of dollars of free publicity with a compelling article.

We can learn a lot from this approach. The lazy marketer way is to do a press release announcing the upcoming publication of your new book. That might get you listed on a few newswire sites, but look how much more effective it is to create a well-written and compelling piece that has the potential to get people talking about it. Ms. Ripley took what (I imagine) is probably one of the most riveting examples from her book, and released it publicly in advance of the publication of her book.

I’m not going to say much about the political side of the discussion, although it is certainly an interesting topic. I think Ms. Ripley’s exploration of the South Korean hagwon system, and the incentivization of teachers is worthy of consideration. At the same time, I think there are problems with using Mr. Kim’s $4 Million a year earnings as an argument to change America’s public education system.

What I do want to focus on is the business side of the subject, which has been largely ignored by the media, in favor of the political side of the spectrum. The essay itself reveals some very important points in this regard…

“The bulk of Mr. Kim’s earnings come from the 150,000 kids who watch his lectures online each year.”

Those online lessons are part of a private business. Ms. Ripley is very explicit about this fact, yet in some of the subsequent “news” articles that were spun off of the original, readers would get the impression that Mr. Kim was making a $4 Million salary as a teacher.

Even less popular is the following quote from the essay, which I did not find mentioned in any subsequent article…

“He employs 30 people to help him manage his teaching empire and runs a publishing company to produce his books.”

In other words, Mr. Kim is running an information marketing business!

If the article had been titled “The $4 Million Information Marketing Business Owner,” it surely wouldn’t have gone viral. But there’s something about a teacher making $4 Million that really strikes a nerve.

I’m not trying to minimize the fact that he is a teacher making $4 Million a year, but I think the “how” and “why” he’s making $4 Million a year have been muddied by the political agenda.

In my opinion, the “how” he’s making $4 Million a year has a lot more to do with the fact that he’s running a business, and less to do with the fact that he’s a teacher. The “why” he’s making $4 Million a year has a lot more to do with the fact that he’s running a successful business than the fact that he’s working hard as a teacher, or the implication that South Korea values teachers more than America values them.

Not surprisingly, the following quote from the essay was often republished by other outlets:

“The harder I work, the more I make,” he [Mr. Kim] says matter of factly. “I like that.”

People like to hear that, because they are comfortable with the concept of trading hours, skills, and hard work for dollars. I’m sure there’s truth to Mr. Kim’s quote, but it’s clearly not the entire story. The second paragraph of the essay states:

“Mr. Kim works about 60 hours a week teaching English, although he spends only three of those hours giving lectures. His classes are recorded on video, and the Internet has turned them into commodities, available for purchase online at the rate of $4 an hour. He spends most of his week responding to students’ online requests for help, developing lesson plans and writing accompanying textbooks and workbooks (some 200 to date).”

This indicates that it’s not so much about how hard Mr. Kim is working, but about how he’s spending his time working. He’s spending the vast majority of his working time on things that actually leverage his time and reach. Furthermore, he is leveraging other people’s time by employing 30 others.

So he could have just as easily said “The smarter I work, the more I make.”

At the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, this is basically the same business model that I’ve been doing for the better part of the past decade, and teaching since 2007.

In a nutshell, it’s this…

  • Find something that people want to learn and are willing to pay for. Chances are good that you already possess such knowledge.
  • Format the knowledge in the way your audience wants it, and package it in a way that can be distributed online.
  • Market it.

There’s nothing particularly new or inherently South Korean about this business model. It’s one of the most time-tested business models on the Internet, and entrepreneurs in myriad niches have been making millions of dollars selling information online for many years.

In her essay, Ms. Ripley states:

“It was thrilling to meet Mr. Kim—a teacher who earns the kind of money that professional athletes make in the U.S. An American with his ambition and abilities might have to become a banker or a lawyer.”

On this point, I have to partially disagree. American entrepreneurs (and those in free market economies around the world) have been writing their own tickets for as long as the nation has existed. Many of these entrepreneurs have been able to make great money “doing what they love to do”; whether that’s cooking, writing, inventing, programming, and yes… teaching.

Examples from our Internet marketing subculture are numerous. I could cite myself as an example, having made millions of dollars as a “teacher” in a niche in which I had no formal training. There’s the construction worker who now makes over $500k a year, the 19-year-old kid who makes millions selling ebooks, and the 83-year-old Grandma who created a profitable Ebay business while doing what she loves (shopping at thrift stores and garage sales).

Then there’s the guy who sells over $10 Million a year of information teaching men how to date women. A fitness guy who does $1 Million a month teaching how to get 6-pack abs. And the information publishing company that does over $400 Million a year mostly from financial and health related newsletters.

While those kind of statistics work great for sales letter headlines, they rarely make it into news headlines. After all, business people make money all the time, right? It takes something like a South Korean teacher making $4 Million (written about by a well-respected American scholar), or a couple of Stanford professors who are selling their courses online to over 160,000 students.

While this business model has been around for a long time, what is changing is that it’s becoming more mainstream. Many institutions are moving their course offerings online, along with sites that host and curate higher level educational courses, such as Coursera and Udacity.

Perhaps even more impactful is the explosion of do-it-yourself educational platforms, most notably Udemy. Unlike the higher-level education sites, which cater mostly to college students and feature courses taught by professors, sites like Udemy enable virtually anyone to teach virtually anything to anyone.

This model of “teaching” is what I’ve been teaching how to do for years, but Udemy makes it easier for many would-be online teachers to get started. Instead of having to create your own website, and put the business together entirely on your own, you can essentially plug into Udemy’s platform. They handle many of the technical details like processing the payments, and hosting the course for you. In return, Udemy takes a cut of the course revenues (15-30%).

Udemy recently issued a press release detailing the earnings of its top 10 instructors, who have earned a combined $5 Million+ on the platform to date. Of course this doesn’t include income that those instructors have earned outside of Udemy. Based on the relative newness of Udemy and its exponential growth rate, I expect they will have their own $4 Million teacher before too long.

For those who are building an information marketing business, or thinking of starting one, I do still recommend creating your own website and building your own web presence and authority apart from any 3rd party platforms (for many reasons which are explained in my lessons). However, sites like Udemy are a great way to reach a wider audience with your product.

For example, if you’re currently selling your product in one place (such as your own site), you could potentially multiply your earnings by reformatting and selling that same information on a variety of popular platforms such as Amazon Kindle and Udemy, as well as disseminating your information on free information platforms such as YouTube and other social sites, which can be monetized in various ways.

In case you’re interested, here is a course that explains 10 places to market your information products, including Udemy.

As always, you are welcome to post your questions and comments below 🙂

Have a great day!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *