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Udemy Takes More From Instructors, Censors Critics

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imageaka Udemy knows how to fail

It’s been a while since my last rant, so I figured it was time for a new one.

Updated November 6th, 2013

As some of you may know, I offer an online video course through a service called Udemy. Udemy provides a hosting and marketing platform that instructors can use in exchange for a percentage of sales.

For the most part, I have been happy with my experience with them, however, my most recent interaction has left a very bad taste in my mouth.

What you are about to hear about are failures on multiple fronts. Failures including communication/messaging, usability, and customer service.

You have been warned.

One of the things I had loved about Udemy was how simple and straight forward it was.

Here was the deal, I put my course up on their site and if someone buys it from browsing the site or via one of their marketing campaigns they keep 30% and I keep 70%. If I get people to buy the course via an instructor coupon they get 15% and I get 85%.

Clear, simple, and easy. I know exactly how much I’m getting from each transaction. I have an incentive to market my course and they have an incentive to market my course. Great.

That’s all about to change.

On October 7th Udemy sends out an email saying they’re changing our arrangement and giving instructors less than 30 days notice.

First, the email starts off touting how amazing they are and how they’re growing like crazy, and then they announce they’ve decided they want a bigger piece of the pie, but it’s because

we’ve been thinking deeply about how we can help extend your reach even further. We want to help you teach 10 million people… and, one day, 100 million people.

Right. So what does that mean for instructors?

First, when Udemy brings a student to your course, the revenue share will shift from 70% to 50%.

Second, when you bring a new student to Udemy, the revenue share will increase from 85% to 100% (net of payments fees). This means, you will keep all the LIFETIME revenues when these students purchase your courses.*

Hmm.. o…k… so you’re now taking an extra 20% off sales you drive, but I’m going to make an extra 15% off of my instructor coupons, right? That doesn’t sound too bad…

Well, that’s what they’d like you to think and some people have been fooled, but that’s not really what it is.

Did you see that asterisk? That’s a big asterisk. Udemy didn’t use to have big asterisks before. As I mentioned, it was pretty plain and simple. So let’s look at what’s in the fine print.

Well, the first thing is “net of payment fees”, which appear to be 3%. Well, we didn’t have to pay that before, so now it means we’ve gone from 85% to 97% (100% - 3% payment fees) or a 12% increase in exchange for the 20% decrease on sales they drive.

Now what about that asterisk? You’ll notice they say “When you bring a new student to Udemy”, not “When you bring a new student to your course”.

That’s very deliberate. You see, they want to grow their platform and the only way they can do that is by getting new users to sign up to the Udemy platform, not getting existing Udemy users to sign up to your course.

So what happens if you buy my course through one of my instructor coupons and you were already a Udemy user from someone else’s course? You got it, Udemy will be taking 50%. Sneaky, eh?

And that’s not the only way they can get you down to 50%. See the links at the top of this post to the description of my course? Don’t click them! They don’t have a coupon code in them, so Udemy will take credit for your sign up and if you later purchased the course they’d take 50%.

And there are other ways to disqualify you from being eligible for the 100% 97% (e.g. waited too long to purchase, etc.).

Now Udemy says this is going to be great for instructors because they’re going to use all that extra money to increase the number of users which means more money overall for everyone. Well, a few things.

1. *Maybe* the overall money an instructor makes will go up, but there’s no guarantee, however, what we do know for sure is that the amount an average instructor will make per student is definitely going to go down.

2. Just because they’re going to reinvest the money in the product does not mean those investments will cause growth to happen any faster than it is today.

3. Didn’t you start off this email talking about how crazy your growth was already?

More importantly, things have now gotten a lot more complicated for instructors.

As an instructor, I now not only need to know about students enrolled in my course, I also have to understand what a Udemy user is and how that is going to impact my sales percentage, even though I have no control over whether or not someone has signed up to Udemy prior to finding out about my course through me. How’s that for user experience? Why should an instructor ever have to care whether someone is an existing Udemy user or not?

I also have to create a coupon code for any traffic I refer so that things are tracked properly (even if there’s no discount attached). If I fail to do so, then I automatically drop to the 50% level on sales I drive on this or any future courses that customer purchases from me. Way to push the burden of proof on to the instructors.

Ok, so that’s the deal. Not great, but maybe they’re right. Maybe it will all work out in the long run, but what happened next was really disappointing.

As you might expect, some instructors (myself included), we’re not happy about this change and brought the discussion to the Udemy instructor Facebook group. In that group, R J Jacquez raised the issue and a lot of discussion ensued between the Udemy support staff, those who supported the change, and those who disagreed with it.

Now, while there was a lot of passionate discussion going on, it was quite civil and constructive. However, suddenly posters who were against the policy change started disappearing as did their posts as Udemy support people began kicking people out of the group and deleting their posts.

And even after a private skype session with one of their support representatives, when I criticized their “clarification” post for it’s confusing terms (which they later corrected based on my feedback) and not presenting some one of the key scenarios I outlined above, I too was removed from the discussion group.

Here was the reason I was given,

You were removed from the group because it became clear you had intentions to continue the line of unproductive questioning from yesterday.

And told by their support representative,

I will not allow today’s conversation to be mired in the back and forth rehash from last night.

That’s right. That’s the attitude of the company. It’s their way or no way. They control the platform and they want to control conversation about it.

Now as a user and customer of the platform, is that the kind of company I want to do business with? One that treats it’s instructors that way and silences them when they disagree constructively? Whatever happened to Udemy being about building a community?

And so now I’m in a bit of an awkward situation. I have a course already on Udemy and a second one that I’m currently building. Do I stay with Udemy and hope for the best? Look for alternatives? If I’m looking for alternatives, does anyone have any recommendations?

Well, here’s one thing, for a limited time, if you sign up below you can get my current Udemy course for free. You might want to get it fast though, once they read this they just might boot me off entirely.

Perhaps Udemy will change their slogan to,

I’m altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.

Today’s image by: anujbiyani


As some of the comments below have pointed out, Udemy has added another scenario in which they can take more from instructors.

Should someone sign up to Udemy through a Udemy paid ad (such as a Facebook ad), then Udemy takes 75% of sales for all courses that person signs up for, regardless of how they got to your course.

I was shocked when I read that in our comments, so I decided to do some digging to confirm it. While digging, I discovered that while I had been banned from the Udemy Studio Facebook group, I was still a member of the Udemy Faculty Lounge Facebook group.

In that group, I found people still confused and frustrated over the new revenue share model (no surprise there). I also found this great article by Mel Aclaro which goes into even more detail on the possible scenarios.

While I was there, I took the opportunity to refer some people to this article for more information on what’s been going on. Here’s what I posted in threads discussing the new model.

For those looking for more details/discussions on how the new policy impacts instructors” and “Udemy takes more now even if they don’t spend money to get the person on the platform. Came from an affiliate originally? Udemy will take 50% of future courses after a period of time. Came from another instructor? Udemy takes 50%. Read more here ”, both of which contained links to this article.

This morning, I woke up to a new email from Udemy in my mailbox. Here’s what it said,

Hey Todd,

I’m writing to let you know that you have been temporarily suspended from the Udemy Faculty Lounge.  If you’re available this morning, I’d like to set up a time today to get on the phone to talk through your concerns and answer any questions that you might have.
As you know, the purpose of the Faculty Lounge is to promote a constructive dialogue among instructors and Udemy’s team.  This forum is more important now than ever, and we’ve endeavored to maintain that active dialogue, only intervening in a small handful of cases when posts stepped outside the bounds of professionalism.  I’d also like to talk through the specific reason why your post was removed, and after we speak we’d be happy to readmit you to the forums.
Please let me know when you’re available to speak this morning.  I apologize for the inconvenience, and look forward to connecting soon.

Yes, that’s right, linking to this article got me banned again!

Now here’s the thing, had they just emailed me and wanted to talk, I would have actually been ok with that and welcomed the discussion, but instead they banned me from the group first, removed the links to this post and then offered to talk about why I’m not allowed to say these things there.

Why would I want to talk to a company that continually tries to get me to shut up, clearly doesn’t value what I have to say, and doesn’t want to discuss the issue in public?

Who is stepping out of the bounds of professionalism? Me? Udemy? Should I talk to them? If I do, what would you like me to say to ensure your voices are heard?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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Why Yahoo Might Be Right to End Work From Home

Share/Bookmark Subscribe! caused an uproar on the Internet recently, when a memo leaked revealing that they were planning on ending all existing work-from-home arrangements by June of this year.

This change in policy has caused no end of outrage from not only Yahoo! employees, but also from those on the Internet and in the media who see telecommuting as the future of work.

The responses seem to range from those who see it as a huge step backward from an industry they expect to be pushing for more telecommuting to those who feel it is an attempt by Yahoo! to micromanage and control their employees.

Almost all seem to predict the end result for Yahoo! will be a mass exodus of the best employees and no one wanting to work there.

I’m not sure I agree with that sentiment.

While it’s entirely possible that the effect will be exactly as predicted and that perhaps Yahoo! is looking to micromanage its employees and weed out slackers, I don’t get that from reading the memo that was released. While all HR memos tend to be sugar coated, I tend to take people at their word unless they give me a reason to suspect otherwise. Let’s look at some of the actual text from the memo.

To me, this is the key paragraph,

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

As someone who coaches Agile teams, the things they seem to be looking for are consistent with what makes Agile teams successful.

On Communication and Collaboration

The memo specifically calls out communication and collaboration. Let’s look at one of the values and a couple of the principles from the Agile Manifesto.

We are uncovering better ways of developing
software by doing it and helping others do it.
Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

When most of your workers are working from home, you require more processes and more tools to make collaboration happen successfully. It also becomes more of a challenge for individuals to interact with each other.

Business people and developers must work
together daily throughout the project.

Again, it is possible to pull this off remotely with good tooling (and I’m not convinced that there are good enough tools out there or that those who are doing telecommuting are using them), but this principle is difficult to adhere to even when people are working in the same office, so why add the extra layer of complexity?

And finally,

The most efficient and effective method of
conveying information to and within a development
team is face-to-face conversation.

The further we get away from face-to-face conversations, the more information is lost. Tone, body language, and other non-verbal queues are lost and worse, when only part of the team is remote, it’s easy for those remote team members to be inadvertently excluded from on-site discussions which increases the knowledge gap between team members.

It is also much easier to build trusting relationships face-to-face.

If you want to build a culture of collaboration, high communication, and trust, then it’s easiest to do that in person and it sounds like that might be what Yahoo! is going for here. [click to tweet]

On Speed and Quality

The next section specifically calls out speed and quality. This has drawn a lot of criticism from those who have been working from home who claim that they are more productive and can get more done when they are not being distracted by their co-workers.

While many people are more productive individuals when they work from home (and some indicate some Yahoo! workers were not), I don’t believe Yahoo! is referring to individual speed and quality, but overall speed and quality.

In Lean software development, we often refer to ‘optimizing the whole’. That is, the efficiency of a system cannot be improved simply by optimizing the efficiency of it’s individual components. In some cases doing so can actually be damaging to the overall system. [click to tweet]

What often kills productivity in organizations is not how fast individuals produce stuff or how much stuff they produce, but how long they are delayed. The time an item spends waiting to be worked on usually ends up being greater than the time it is actually worked on. [click to tweet]

If you need assistance on an item and can turn to me and get it immediately, we as a team are more productive, even if the interruption makes me less productive as an individual. So if instead of getting the answer immediately from me, you have to write and send an email, or open a ticket in a ticketing system, wait for it to be prioritized, etc. We as an organization become much slower. While it can be possible to get good response times when telecommuting, it’s much harder and can never be as fast as having the person right beside you.

In regards to quality, if a decision is made in a side conversation at the office, that information may take longer to reach a remote employee, if it makes it there at all. This can result in costly rework. So while a remote worker may be more productive and producing more stuff, this gap may mean that they are producing more of the wrong stuff.


Many of the issues I’ve raised can be worked around in a telecommuting environment, but it’s hard and you will still likely have more issues than an equivalent fully co-located team, so in the end each organization will have to decide if it’s worth it for the type of culture they’re trying to create.

While I’m not convinced that this was the best approach Yahoo! could have taken to the situation, I can certainly see why Yahoo! might feel this is the right move for them. They could have taken a more gradual approach, but perhaps they felt that delaying any longer would have led to more catastrophic results.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Today’s image by craigles75.

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Status Reports Are Demotivating

Share/Bookmark Subscribe’ve been thinking a lot lately about motivation, and why we should be focused on building organizations around employees first and customers second.

Now I’m not trying to say that customers aren’t important, they absolutely are. In fact, I believe that providing exceptional customer service is the biggest difference between organizations that are successful and those that fade into obscurity.

However, I also believe that the only way to create an organization that is capable of providing the level of customer service needed to excel today is to make sure that your employees are truly the biggest proponents for your organization. And the only way you can do that is to put your employees first.

So how do you get highly motivated employees? Step one, stop demotivating them!

if management stopped demotivating their employees then they wouldn’t have to worry so much about motivating them - W. Edwards Deming [click to tweet]

That’s easily one of my favourite Deming quotes and it’s bang on. And so, I’ve decided to look at one of things that I have always found demotivating. The status report.

Here’s the situation. You’re going about your day, doing your job, and out of the blue you get an email from your boss saying something like, “Hey, would you mind sending me a weekly status report of what’s been going on and what you’ve been up to? KTHXBAI”.

Boom! You’ve just been assigned the task of producing a weekly status report! Now, from the perspective of the sender, no big deal, right? “I’m just trying to get some visibility on what’s going on and I thought a weekly email would be useful”, but let’s look at it from the side of the person on the receiving end.

First off, the request for a status report looks more like this:

and second, you’re already busy enough as is, and now you’re being asked to add another thing to the list of things you do and to you that thing doesn’t provide any value and it probably provides very questionable value to your boss. After all, you don’t even know if your boss is going to read it or that your boss will be able to get enough of the context around it to do anything useful with it.

And if we’ve learned anything from the Agile Manifesto, it’s that we value “Individuals and interactions over stupid status reports”, right? [click to tweet]

Ok, that quote may not be 100% accurate, but the spirit is there.

Dan Pink talks about three things that motivate knowledge workers, autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Status reports strongly undermine autonomy.

Status reports say “I don’t care enough to have a conversation with you, but I don’t trust you enough to not keep tabs on you.” [click to tweet]

And unless you trust your employees, they can’t truly have autonomy. 

The other message sent is ”My time is worth more than your time”. And if you truly believe that that is true, don’t expect to be building a highly motivated work force any time soon.

Today’s image by The U.S. Army.

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Lean Startup Metrics Talk at TiE

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On October 4th, 2012, I had the opportunity to give a high level overview of Lean Startup Metrics at the TiE institute. Here’s the video from the talk.

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Yes, and… Test!

Share/Bookmark Subscribe in to Lean Startup Machine, one tip i’d love to give the teams participating is to use a “Yes, and… Test!” mindset. In fact, I’d love to see all teams embody the “Yes, and… Test!” mindset. [click to tweet].

The Improvisor in me loves to tell people about “Yes, and”. “Yes, and” is one of the founding principles of Improvisation. It’s the idea that you accept whatever offer your scene partner gives you and build on top of it. For example,

A: Let’s go to the mall!

B: Yes, and while we’re there we can buy some new shoes!

If you continue in this manner back and forth, you’ll have a scene that always seems to be moving forward. To continue,

A: Yes, and I’m going to buy shoes with roller skates in them!

B: Yes, and we can roller skate around the mall, while drinking smoothies!

By working in agreement, we continue to advance the story. Now, what would happen if we were to negate the first offer?

A: Let’s go to the mall!

B: No, the mall is closed.

A: …

Hmm we don’t seem to have anywhere to go from here, do we? Our only option is to throw more offers at our partner.

A: Ok, well let’s go to a baseball game.

B: No, our baseball team moved.

A: Hockey game?

B: No, they’re locked out.

By this time person A probably just wants to get out of the scene as soon as possible, since this scene is clearly not going to go anywhere.

In life outside of Improv, we see scenes like this all the time.

A: We should start doing x, it would really improve the way we work.

B: No, that won’t work here.

Sound familiar? Person B has killed the idea before it ever got a chance. Or perhaps you’ve seen this scenario,

A: We should do x, it rocks!

B: No! We should do y, it rocks!

A: x sucks!

B: y sucks!

A: I hate you and all those that like y!

B: Only idiots like x!

Ok, perhaps that’s a little bit simplified, but you get the idea. Politics, arguments, and usually an appeal to authority play out until someone wins and someone loses and in the end you still might have made the wrong decision. Great.

So what do you do instead? Say “Yes, and” to these ideas!

But what if you truly believe the idea won’t work?

Well, you don’t know an idea won’t work unless you’ve tested it and have the data to prove it. You have an assumption, and that assumption should be tested.

Also, the key to “Yes, and” is not that you go along and do whatever the person says, but that you accept that they believe what they are saying is true. For example,

A: Now that I’ve tied you to this chair, I’m going to beat you until you tell me what I want to hear.

B: No! I’ll never talk! When I get out of here, I’m going to foil your scheme!

Even though person B said no, they still accepted the fact that they were tied to the chair and going to be beaten by person A, so they still accepted the offer to be true (Yes) and then added something themselves (and). The opposite would have been something like this,

A: Now that I’ve tied you to this chair, I’m going to beat you until you tell me what I want to hear.

B: What are you talking about? I’m not tied to a chair. Stop playing around Billy, we’re going to be late for school.

Of course, it would have also been fine for person B to just start spilling their guts to person A, but having a negative reaction didn’t stop the scene from moving forward because their actions were still saying yes to the suggestion made by their scene partner.

To keep moving forward, we must believe that what the other person is saying is what they truly believe based on the information they currently have. [click to tweet]

Once we’ve accepted what they said to be true, we need to look at what assumptions are there and how we can test them. Now we can expand “Yes, and” to “Yes, and… test!”.

Let’s go back to our other examples,

A: We should start doing x, it would really improve the way we work.

B: Yes, let’s run a test to try it out. Here are some potential barriers I see with it working, if it passes these tests, then I think we should do it.  

and our second scenario,

A: We should do x, it rocks!

B: Yes, let’s test it out. I’m concerned that it can’t do some of the things y does, if we can test it to see if it does those things or if we have good ways of working around those things, I think we should do it, otherwise maybe we should go with y.

A: Yes, there are some things I like about x, that y doesn’t handle. Let’s test y as well and see if it can handle the things I like about x. If it can, let’s do that. We might also want to see what other options are out there.

In both of these scenarios we can now move forward in a more objective manner (the tests should be clear about what we’re measuring and what constitutes a pass or fail) and in the end, instead of just selecting one and hoping for the best, we are now in a position to make an informed choice instead of an opinionated one. The added benefit in this scenario is there is no winner or loser between A and B. Both got behind each idea and set the criteria that would get them fully on board, so neither loses any political capital.

Taking this approach greatly improves collaboration and the quality of decisions made in teams. This mindset is absolutely essential for teams at Lean Startup Machine. You have one weekend to learn as much as possible about what your customers want. Once you’ve done some interviews, the members of your team are likely to have many different opinions about what step to take next.

Too many teams waste time debating over different ideas. Save yourself some time, create a set of tests for each and go test them. [click to tweet]

You’ll have less stress between team members, you’ll learn more, and you’ll get better results.

Don’t believe me? Test it!

Today’s photo by TechYizu.

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