For years, the formula for teaching has been simple in the United States. Get a license from a local college, join a public school, and teach several groups of kids a day for the next several decades. Pay for the profession remains low, but is mostly consistent. To increase earnings, teachers can take additional classes toward master’s and doctoral degrees, or just wait their turn with lock-step pay increases.
Thanks to the internet, there is a whole new formula that is coming to teaching, and it might just create America’s first class of million-dollar teachers.
Fedora, a New York-based startup, hopes to completely change the way that teachers think about their profession by offering them a platform to create online “schools” and sell their courses to students. They have picked up about $2 million in seed funding split roughly equally between Atlas Ventures a few weeks ago and AngelList-affiliated syndicates last summer.
Now, there are already numerous platforms like Udemy and Skillshare that seem to offer similar services. What makes Fedora different is that it fundamentally believes that the teachers should own their students, and not the platform. Many services prevent teachers from seeing the email addresses of their students, for fear that teachers will defect from the platform. Fedora is allowing teachers to build, manage, and market their product in any way they want.
“We are a school builder much like Shopify is a store builder,” says Ankur Nagpal, one of the two co-founders of Fedora. “Most of [our competitors] were really focused on the student experience, and that is the problem with two-sided marketplaces – you always focus on one more than the other. The problem with them is that you didn’t own the student,” and thus, there is a constant risk that the platform may change its rules.
That has already happened at Udemy, where the company changed its revenue share structure and led to many concerns from instructors. Skillshare has also seen its model change over time away from physical meetups to online video.
Nagpal and his co-founder, Conrad Wadowski, believe that the next-generation of teachers want to not just teach, but also manage their own business. Given that their income may come entirely from the platform, ownership over their students and thus, their livelihood, is crucial for making teacher entrepreneurship work.
Beyond ownership, Fedora offers flexibility. It doesn’t just have a dollars-per-lecture model, but also allows teachers to develop their own approaches to pricing. For instance, a boot camp in New York offered an intense course for $3000, while another teacher offers bundles and monthly subscriptions. The company believes that teachers should determine what’s best based on listening to their student customers.
Non-profit groups like Khan Academy and edX have taken advantage of the internet as a distribution mechanism to provide free lectures to millions of students. Startups like Coursera and Udacity similarly have developed lectures, often similar to the structure of university courses in terms of content taught. But Nagpal believes there is a real gap in the market around skills, and he sees this as critical to the success of teachers and ultimately, Fedora’s success.
The demand for skills training is immense. The idea of million-dollar teachers is not novel, as countries like Korea and Japan have already seen teachers making as much as $4 million a year teaching skills like English.
In the United States, there is incredible demand for skills-based training courses around programming and other fields, and students are clearly willing to pay for the best quality. Nagpal believes that hundreds of teachers could potentially reach that level of income. “If someone is amazing at something, then it makes sense to start doing this,” he says.
Fedora’s revenue model reflects this approach. The startup has developed a much narrower price model for teachers that acts as a sliding scale between a revenue share and a monthly subscription. As a teacher increases their sales, the revenue share goes down quickly, and the monthly subscription price increases. At the highest income levels, their fees come in at around 2–3%. The company said that it had revenues of about $1.5 million in the first year of operation.
Nagpal reiterated with me the importance of seeing the company as a complement to traditional education channels. “Most [of our courses] are skill-based and result-oriented where you learn something right away,” and while the “odd philosophy class” makes an appearance, he doesn’t think that Fedora will necessarily cover absolutely every field in equal depth.
That may ultimately be the blessing and curse of the rise of teacher entrepreneurship. Teachers for the first time may be able to build incredible businesses simply around their teaching, an aggregation of revenue that was simply impossible before. Students also benefit from better and more options to acquire their education. But consumer demand may not always match the subjects that may be most important for our society.
There is a real opportunity for the first class of teachers to get out of the classrooms and get onto the internet to make their fortunes. Ultimately, this may just be the next evolution of a field that hasn’t seen much innovation since Socrates was lecturing in Athens. Now, Socrates can not just lecture to millions of students, but become a millionaire in the process.