Online coursework is exploding across all kinds of verticals and fields of expertise — but those courses inevitably end up on platforms like Udemy, and for Ankur Nagpal, that’s really not a way to build a true business.
That’s why Nagpal started Teachable, a platform for experts that want to create a business around their coursework that helps them build an entire online education suite beyond just platforms like Coursera or Udemy. Niche expertise can be way too valuable for just a simple marketplace like Coursera, Nagpal says, and experts in those areas — even seminars on mindfulness or Feng Shui — should be able to make more than just a few thousand dollars a year off that coursework. Nagpal said the company has raised an additional $4 million in equity from existing investors Accomplice Ventures and AngelList co-founder Naval Ravikant.
“In the past, if you wanted to teach courses, you could either put it in the marketplace or have it on your own website — with your brand and domain name and full control of everything — but there’s no easy way to do it,” Nagpal said. “It’s the difference between listing a physical good on Amazon and having your own storefront. While you could make a few thousand dollars on Udemy, you couldn’t build a sustainable business selling courses for $10 to $15.”
That fundraise, however, comes with a whopping $134 million valuation in the end as the company expects to be profitable by the end of Q4 this year. Teachable has around 10 million students across 125,000 courses, with 12,000 paying customers on the platform. Nagpal says it is aiming for a business that will generate more than $200 million in sales this year, which might not be so far off given the speed at which it has ramped up from just $5 million in 2015 to around $90 million in 2017.
In Teachable’s earliest days, instructors focused on marketing or programming, which is where a lot of online coursework got its start when the value of knowledge skills like Ruby or Python skyrocketed. But since then, Teachable has grown into a platform where users with niche skill sets can create robust coursework, and if they already have content ready to go like videos, can get their domain up and running in just a few hours. Teachable has a multi-tier pricing structure ranging from taking small transaction fees to a paid subscription of nearly $299 a month in order to manage its online domains, which is designed to appeal to a wide variety of potential instructors looking to get their start.
“If you look at our top 10 or 20 instructors, there’s virtually no pattern of verticals that are successful,” Nagpal said. “[The popular courses are based on] professional skills, or learning to play a musical instrument, or fly a drone, or even financial empowerment. There’s almost an anti-pattern.”
And again, these aren’t supposed to be courses that get wrapped up into a $49 per-month subscription. Courses in highly specific verticals — like something like Feng shui — can cost up to a hundred dollars or more. But the idea is that these seminars have so much value that students who are looking to dive deep into them are willing to go beyond the cost of just a Udemy in order to get the most valuable content. Teachable aims to make it easy to port the kind of content instructors might post on one of those marketplaces to quickly get them up and running with their own independent online course.
That free plan with a transaction fee is ultimately what at least piques the interest of potential instructors, and Teachable also hosts workshops to try to get them more excited about the opportunity — and then get them to start paying as they look to attract more and more students and need a more robust toolkit, like advanced reporting. or priority product support. The company doesn’t really focus on paid marketing because Nagpal says it’s “not very good at it,” as it primarily leans on word of mouth and affiliates.
“Courses on marketplaces are effectively commoditized,” he said. “I would buy the top-rated courses, but the first course is as valuable as the second or third. On our platform, if people are buying the Ruby on Rails course, it’s probably because they’ve followed an expert on that for a year. What I’m buying is not commoditized, I have a relationship with that person. Their content is much more valuable. All the sales are generated through an instructor.”
Nagpal said he got his start building a bunch of, well, bad Facebook apps like personality quizzes and really simple flash games in the early days of the Facebook Platform. Getting such an early glimpse at that behavior on the Facebook Platform is pretty controversial today with the massive privacy scandal Facebook faces after Cambridge Analytica, a political research firm, ended up with personal data of up to 87 million people through a simple app on the Facebook Platform. Nagpal, however, said what now seems like a treasure trove of data was at the time not really all that useful for that business.
“We got some of that data, but to us it was junk and we never stored it,” he said. “It just seemed like noise.”
The biggest challenge for Teachable, Nagpal says, is making sure instructors actually want to remain instructors. The free tier might attract them to getting started, but instructors might just get burnt out from being instructors in general — whether that’s on Teachable or a marketplace like Udemy. The real competition, he says, are platforms like YouTube and other time sinks for content creators. To keep them on board, Teachable hopes to expand to other verticals of content like coaching and services. That, too, might keep it ahead of marketplaces like Coursera and eventually woo instructors with the opportunity to build an entire online business on Teachable.
“Every month we have 50 people getting more [than the top paid instructor on a platform like Skillshare],” he said. “The sustainability of the business is very different. It’s really hard to make a living selling $10 courses. On our platform, the average price point is closer to $100, which in turn gets reinvested to create actually good content. We’re finding most of the instructors don’t just sell courses, and they have multiple income streams. We’re trying to see if we can get our checkout product powering all that. That creates network lock-in.”