In 2012, John Azzi reached out to his old college roommate with an offer.
His roommate, Eliot Arntz, was miserable working as an accountant in New York City, so Azzi offered him a small sum to learn how to code, with the agreement he'd join Azzi's app-development agency, Bitfountain, once his education was complete.
"In the meantime, he was teaching weekend courses at General Assembly to teach others how to code simple iOS apps," Azzi remembers. "His students loved him. So I said, 'Let's put this online to reach more people at a lower price point.'"
Azzi and Arntz spent three months and about $1,000, putting together an online course on app development for iOS 7.
"The first week was crazy," Azzi says. "We literally emailed every person we knew in tech — from Eliot's GA students to people who came to an iOS meetup we hosted, telling them that we built a course that would take absolute beginners and turn them into junior developers in about three months of learning."
They charged $99 for the course, and that first month it was live, September 2013, they made about $40,000.
Their earnings flatlined, and "the next few months didn't bring in much at all," Azzi remembers. They partnered with an affiliate, which set them up with enough cash to last until the summer of 2014.
Then, says Azzi, they made "a really strategic move."
About two months before Apple released iOS 8 and its new programming language, Swift, they made their iOS 7 course free for a limited time. "We really had no idea what would happen, but it was crazy," Azzi explains. "We were on the front page of /r/programming on Reddit, hacker news, No. 1 on Product Hunt, and all over the internet. In like two days we added 60,000 people to our email list."
Just getting the subscribers didn't earn them a cent, but once iOS 8 launched, they sent out an email blast offering the course for $89. "That's when we exploded," says Azzi. "We made about $700,000."
John AzziAzzi records Arntz using their homemade setup.
"Again we were No. 1 on Product Hunt, but this time with the paid version of a course," he says. They've continued to build app-development courses, Azzi writing the material and Artnz making the videos.
They've even brought on some expert consultants, and now have nine available courses (two of which are free). Since September 2014, Azzi says, they've averaged over $100,000 a month, totaling $1 million profit for 2014 after paying their affiliates.
While building the initial iOS 8 course, the duo had moved from New York City to Berlin. "We didn’t have a ton of money because iOS 7 wasn't as huge," Azzi says, "but Berlin is really cheap, so it was the perfect place for us to buckle down for a few months and get the iOS 8 course launched. When we brought in some money, we were traveling all over the world."
After working everywhere from Tel Aviv to the beach in Palolem, India — "all we need are our laptops and our mics" — Azzi is now living in Paris, and Arntz will leave for Melbourne, Australia, after spending five months in Barcelona. In the last year, Azzi estimates, they've visited 17 countries.
And what would Azzi advise others who might be interested in a similar lifestyle? "Build the best possible course in whatever topic you are teaching," he says. "There are a ton of free resources out there to learn iOS, but why did our course get 60,000 students in two days and not the others? And why did thousands of people subsequently pay us for our courses? Because we put everything we have into being the best on the market.
"We have a policy of responding to all student questions on our forums within 24 hours. We take at least four months of full-time work to write our material and shoot the videos. Students are paying you more than the cost of a technical book, so you better make sure you exceed expectations."