Is online teaching the most lucrative side hustle yet?

They say that knowledge is power. But sharing it can also give you a hefty income. A new army of online tutors are making up to £200,000 a month by imparting their wisdom on everything, from dog grooming to rapping. And this new side hustle is really taking off among skilled millennials looking for extra ways to make cash. Disillusioned with the traditional jobs market, it’s all part of a fundamental shift to more enterprising, flexible and online-based work. But this option only works for those with a niche who are prepared to hand over a large chunk of their earnings to the taxman, as I explain here…

Iona Bain

What is online teaching, and where has it come from? The digital learning revolution first took off in the US in 2011, when Stanford University started offering free Massive Open Online Courses, known as MOOCs. The number of students signing up for at least one MOOC more than doubled last year, from 17 million to 35 million worldwide.

In the UK, new subscribers to the Open University’s FutureLearn, its free online tuition platform, have increased from 800,000 in 2014 to about 3.4 million. The Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey founded the online education service MasterClass in 2015, with courses also offered by Serena Williams, Christina Aguilera and Annie Leibovitz.

Udemy, one of the UK’s biggest digital classrooms, says that its eight most successful teachers earned £4 million — an average of £475,000 each. Many of the site’s top earners have given up their day jobs and one is travelling the United States with the proceeds from her courses.

The site’s most popular British tutor, Rob Percival, made more than £1.6 million since launching his first course in web development in June 2014. The 35-year-old Cambridge graduate has created 13 courses, allowing him to quit his job as a maths teacher to make £200,000 in a month. He says: “I’m fairly lucky because I have an unusual skill set — I’m a web developer, a teacher and an entrepreneur, and not many people tick all those boxes. But those skills are central to teaching this course. It’s not just about dull programming — I’m selling a whole lifestyle, an opportunity to make money on your computer in your own time in your own way.”


Rob and his family

Rob taught himself computer programming so didn’t have any formal qualifications, but the people who teach technical skills generally have impressive qualifications and/or experience. Udemy reviews all courses to make sure that they meet its quality standards. More than 1,000 tutors in the UK are working through the site, with nearly half of all students enrolling to learn about programming, building apps and web design.

Dennis Yang, the chief executive of Udemy, says: “People are moving online to equip themselves for today’s careers because traditional education and training can no longer keep up.”

Other popular courses include speed reading, photography, yoga and “increasing your influence”. Mr Percival says, “Once you’ve identified a skill you can share, you need to see if there are courses in your specialist area that are selling well but aren’t very good. You probably aren’t going to get far in areas where there are very few or no courses being taught and, likewise, it’s tough to break into an area where there are lots of well-rated, top-selling tutors.”

It can be time-consuming. “It took me three months to write the first course and I can now do it in under two months, which is as quick as it gets,” Rob says.“You need to think carefully about the course structure, how you’ll teach it, provide projects for students to undertake, keep it up to date and remain enthusiastic all the way along. People can underestimate how long it takes.”

Boring webpages of facts and figures will not cut it; tutors need to mix things up with video tutorials, interactive quizzes and comment boards.

Another site, eLearningMarketplace, has increased sales by 70 per cent over the past year. Tutors specialise in professional development and vocations but also offer courses in photography, emotional intelligence and even hypnosis. There is also teaching English online. TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) has estimated that qualified tutors can earn between £8 and £20 by offering lessons online. TEFL offers an introductory 40-hour course to teaching English online, costing £89.

On Udemy, you can set your own rates within seven pricing tiers, ranging from £20 to £50. If you do all your own promotion you keep all the earnings, while Udemy takes a 50 per cent cut of revenue on courses sold through its website. You also have to pay a 3 per cent administrative fee. On eLearning Marketplace you are charged 30 per cent in commission and VAT on the sale of courses priced up to £200, and 25 per cent on courses priced between £201 and £500.

It may be tempting to cut out the middlemen and attempt to sell teaching materials through your own website and social media channels. But Rob says, “Udemy gives you your income post VAT, which you would otherwise have to work out and deduct from sales and submit to the taxman if you’re selling courses internationally.”

The amount of tax that micro-entrepreneurs should pay remains a political bone of contention. Online tutors and others in the so-called “side hustle” industry were previously due to receive a £1000 tax-free allowance, introduced in the 2016 Budget, but this has now been scrapped. HM Revenue & Customs has also been increasingly strict on part-time traders, sending letters to individuals suspected of evasion and requesting customers’ details from sites such as eBay, Etsy, Amazon and Gumtree.

Conor Brindley, a partner and tax expert at Irwin Mitchell, says: “HMRC has sophisticated trawling systems and there are certain professions that they target more than others, such as doctors and lawyers.” However, only people earning serious money need to worry about declaring the income. “If you earn over £1,000 per annum, you need to register as self-employed and fill out a self-assessment form, because it is likely to have crossed over from ‘hobby’ to ‘business’ in the taxman’s eyes.”

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