Out of the classroom and into the Udemy record books

DSC_0519If we ever create a Udemy Hall of Fame, instructor Rob Percival will definitely be among the first inductees. His story has been told numerous times in the media, and he’s something of a legend around Udemy. When he visited our office in November 2015, people stopped what they were doing and watched him as if he were a movie star.

Yet Rob will be the first to say that his success on Udemy has exceeded his wildest dreams. He’d been working as a math teacher in Cambridge, UK, and had started a web hosting business on the side along with doing some freelance web and app development. Life was fine, but Rob was a bit unsatisfied. He wanted to focus on one area and build it into something big, but he wasn’t about to gamble with his livelihood. Eventually, his web hosting company got big enough that he could rely on the income and leave his teaching job without taking a risky leap into the unknown.

Finding Udemy opens up possibilities

In the meantime, Rob had enlisted his friend Ben Tristem to help him run a summer coding school for teens. The two had met at a gathering for self-employed techies, and it was Ben, already a Udemy instructor, who introduced Rob to the platform in June 2014. Ben was having moderate success until Rob shared what he knew from teaching in the classroom and helped Ben take it to the next level. Rob’s formula — go big, choose a popular topic, make it project-based and fun, and include lots of extras to sweeten the deal.

Offering an online course was an idea Rob had toyed with before. He had no doubts he could create the content, but he thought his only option would be to host it on his own website and he wasn’t sure he could drive enough traffic there. Udemy made it a no-brainer for Rob to act on his idea.

Rob with Udemy CEO Dennis Yang

Rob with Udemy CEO Dennis Yang

When he first launched “The Complete Web Developer Course,” he had modest expectations and set himself the goal of making $5,000 a month. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Rob’s earnings make him Udemy’s highest earning instructor. About 300,000 students have enrolled in his 13 courses and he’s made more than $2 million (gross) since joining the platform. He employs four full-time employees to help manage his Udemy courses, provide customer support for his web-hosting business, and run his marketing activities.

A completely changed life

For Rob, his Udemy income gives him the freedom to spend more time with his family, especially his two young children, and even enjoy the occasional vacation. But there are intangible rewards that Rob values highly too. First and foremost, he is amazed and humbled by the reactions he gets from his Udemy students — comments like, “This is the best course I’ve ever done.”

You might expect someone coming from the classroom to miss face-to-face interactions, but being online lets Rob teach hundreds of thousands of people and still get great feedback. And he does get to know individual stories, such as when students say they got more out of Rob’s courses than from their university program or when they report how they were able to move up into different, better jobs.

No secrets to his success

Rob is living proof of what he tells his students — that web development offers a different way to live and that they have the tools to create this new life for themselves if they really want it. “What I’ve done is not mysterious; I haven’t found any secret tricks,” Rob says in his typical self-effacing style. He attributes some of his success to good timing, but he also points to his empathy, energy, and enthusiasm as reasons why students gravitate to him and even feel like they know him personally. “I know from being in the classroom that you have to show that you’re enjoying yourself, like it’s the most exciting thing in the world you could be doing.”

All in all, Rob is a pretty happy guy these days. He’s “always updating, fixing, and making new courses; I have plenty to keep me busy,” he says, but his mind has already latched onto a new passion project — reinventing school education. “I’d love to Udemy-ify schools so that most instruction is online, and teachers spend more classroom time on individual interactions.” Given Rob’s track record, we wouldn’t want to bet against him.