Planning to launch an online course right now? You want to rethink that

March 20, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

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Photographer Rebecca Yale was set to launch her online photography guides in late April, digital follow-ups to her live workshops and existing courses as part of her educational program for fellow photographers. But as COVID-19’s spread and fallout—travel restrictions, size caps on gatherings, and the loss of contracts due to canceled events—has continued, she is faced with a moral decision: Ask the people in her industry, many of whom are hurting financially, to commit money to hear her expertise, or cancel the launch, affecting her bottom line.

“We don’t know what income we can count on for the year, and the idea of asking anyone to spend money on education seems insensitive and possibly irresponsible,” says Yale. “It’s a double-edged sword because now is a great time to spend time working on our craft and learning.”

It’s a business question being asked by professionals across industries. As their audiences gain more time to sit in front of a screen during quarantine, should educators be selling their content? Or does that feel tone-deaf at a time when society says we should be working together as one? For some, the choice wasn’t hard, but for others it’s a serious decision.

Yale admits she’s torn about the prospect of launching her e-guides, which were meant to enhance an in-person workshop, which is now canceled. She planned to charge $100 for the download. Yale explained that her educational programs bring in 30% to 40% of her yearly income in addition to shooting events—at a time when events being canceled at an unheard-of rate, she does feel nervous if she loses the educational-based revenue too. “A lot of [photographers] are unsure what the rest of the year is going to look like,” she adds. “But is it okay to profit during a time of crisis as long as you’re doing it ethically?”

Eddie Zaratsian, a designer and florist, also faces this tough decision. He just launched his course on, an online platform featuring workshops from the best in various businesses like Samuel L. Jackson, Thomas Keller, and David Mamet, on March 10. The course, covering the business of luxury floral design, took him years to put together, and beyond excitement, he wanted to share with students his experience as a businessman, designer, consultant, and creator. But as soon as COVID-19 took over many of his potential viewers’ time—rescheduling events, revisiting budgets, and creating new communication plans—he hit pause on his promotional emails.

“Right now, our industry is facing one of our darkest hours,” Zaratsian says. “If I can contribute my insight and expertise in any way to help, I will.”

To that end, he’s instead marketing a free webinar he is hosting on March 20 in collaboration with the Wedding International Professionals Association, a membership-based organization of events professionals. It’s focused on how to manage your business in times of crisis, such as COVID-19. He and his team are also working on a series of articles for their blog on how to “weather the storm” as well as offering free advice to industry outlets.

Similarly, Sam Jacobson, founder of Ideation Consulting, a business strategy consultancy focused on the hospitality and events industries, delayed the launch of his spring courses and workshops. “It would be tacky if we tried to sell our community online courses,” Jacobson says, comparing it to hurricane preparations. “It’d be like selling tenants sheets of plywood rather than helping them nail them over the windows.”

Jacobson is also offering free advice. He’s ramped up his daily IGTV morning show with tips on how to make the best business decisions amid COVID-19 and how-tos on sales and marketing. He’s also doing daily check-ins with his current clients. It may be beyond the scope of their initial agreement, but Jacobson says it’s not the time to nickel and dime. “My wife and business partner always joked I gave away too much good advice for free,” Jacobson adds. “We feel better than ever about doing so.”

Photographer Lauren Fair was also set to launch a paid small-business webinar with an event planner. Instead she is offering the entire webinar for free as well as sharing tips from her teaching plan on her Instagram. “We hope to provide some ideas for creating income,” Fair says. “The more we can encourage each other as business owners to stay positive, the better outcome this will all have for us at the end.”

It’s great when a business is stable enough financially to make big decisions to stop potential revenue streams amid a crisis. But it’s not always black and white. Fitness instructors, for example, often don’t get paid unless they physically teach a class in the gym or studio. If those locations are closed because of social distancing, instructors have resorted to charging fees for online practices, like meditations and at-home yoga streaming services.

Educators recognize that there will be some followers who do have the time and money to take a class. Yale says she’s noticed an uptick in sales of two of her existing courses, which cost $99. Jacobson has a link to his courses on his site, even if he isn’t actively marketing them, and Zaratsian says that he did decide to leave his course live on MasterClass. “Some event professionals will be utilizing the next two weeks to focus on business-related projects,” Zaratsian says. “If this helps them, then by all means, they’re welcome to it.”

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

How to get a refund on your Broadway tickets after coronavirus shut down
—The oil sector takes its next hit: Coronavirus on offshore rigs
—Some of the most extreme ways companies are combating coronavirus
—How luxury designers in Italy’s fashion heartland are facing coronavirus
—Amazon tells employees to work from home if they can. Warehouse workers can’t
—Why Dollar General thinks coronavirus can help business
—Coronavirus may not be all bad for tech. Consider the “stay at home” stocks

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