Books on tape were the lifeblood of self-help. But e-learning startups like Khan Academy and Coursera demanded our eyes, not just our ears. Then came podcasts that make knowledge accessible, yet rarely focus on you retaining and applying what they teach.
Today, a new startup called Knowable is launching to provide gaze-free audio education at $100 per eight-hour course on topics like how to launch a startup or how to sleep better. The idea is that by layering chapter summaries and eventually interactive activities atop premium, long-form, ad-free lessons, it can become the trusted name in learning anywhere. With always-in Bluetooth earbuds and smart speakers becoming ubiquitous, we can imbibe content in smaller chunks in new environments. Knowable wants to fill that time with self-improvement.
The big question is whether Knowable can differentiate its content from free alternatives and build a moat against copycats through savvy voice-responsive learning exercises so you don’t forget everything.
To evolve beyond the podcast, Knowable has raised a $3.75 million seed round led by Andreessen Horowitz’s partner Connie Chan, and joined by Upfront, First Round and Initialized. “The market is ready for a company like Knowable. Their timing is right and their team possesses the rare combination of product expertise and creative media experience necessary to win. That’s why I’m not just hosting Knowable’s first course, Launch a Startup, we’re also one of the earliest investors in the company,” says Initialized’s Alexis Ohanian.
There’s certainly a market opportunity, as 32% of Americans listen to podcasts monthly, up from 26% in 2018, with 74% of those citing the desire to learn. Half of Americans have listened to an audio book. The e-learning market is $190 billion today, but projected to grow to $300 billion as bloated and expensive higher education succumbs to cheaper and more focused options.
But to score consistent revenue, Knowable must build up its library and execute on plans to offer a subscription service with access to updates on prior lessons. A major challenge will be bundling classes on the right topics that don’t exhaust users so they keep listening and paying.
Building a school from sound
“My first-generation immigrant parents came here without college degrees. Great teachers let me move up the socioeconomic ladder pretty quickly,” says Knowable co-founder Warren Shaeffer. “The genesis of the idea came from our shared interest in education and the value of great teachers.”
Shaeffer and his co-founder Alex Benzer have already been through the struggles of startup life together. After meeting at MuckerLab in LA and splitting from their respective co-founders, in 2007 they created SocialEngine, a community website builder that sold to Room 214. Next they built up a video platform for independent creators called Vidme that raised $9 million but never became sustainable before selling to Giphy in 2018.
The pair had glimpsed how great content could rope in an audience, but felt like the true potential of the podcast hadn’t been explored. Why did they have to be produced on the cheap, distributed on generic platforms and supported by ads? Knowable emerged as a way to create luxury audio, delivered through a purpose-built app and paid for with direct sales or subscriptions. Instead of recording unscripted discussions as episodes, they mapped out course curriculum and filled them with structured advice from experts.
I’m a few hours into the Ohanian-hosted Launch a Startup. It’s certainly a lot more efficient than trying to learn the basics just through storytelling from podcasts like Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale or NPR’s How I Built This. One chapter breaks down the top ways startups die and the traits you’ll need to persevere. From optimism and resilience operating in unstructured environments to a refusal to make excuses why you can’t succeed, Ohanian cooly recaps the learnings at the end of the chapter. Open the app and you’ll get a written summary plus suggested blog posts and books for diving deeper. An accompanying 95-page PDF workbook collects all the key learnings for rapid review later.
The topic is huge, though, and Knowable is at its best when it’s distilling knowledge into neatly packaged lists and frameworks. The course’s weakest moments are when it feels most like a podcast, with somewhat meandering conversations with random founders discussing how they dealt with problems. Meanwhile, it currently lacks some basic tools like in-app notetaking and sharing, or as wide a range of playback speeds and rewind options as you’ll get on Audible. “We don’t think of ourselves as a podcast company,” Shaeffer says, but that’s still who he’s competing against.
What’s also missing is any true interactivity. The downside of audio learning is that if you’re not paying full attention, it’s easy to zone out. Knowable needs to develop voice and touch-controlled exercises to help users apply and retain the lessons. There are plans to launch learning communities where students can confer about the classes, akin to Y Combinator’s “Bookface” forum.
However, Shaeffer says that “we’re on a mission to make education more accessible and quizzes might be an impediment to that,” which leaves questions about what the learning activities will look like, even though they’re crucial to users coughing up $100 per class. It’s easy to imagine Spotify/Anchor, Gimlet Media or other major podcast players developing their own interactive features and classes if Knowable doesn’t get there first.
Snackable audio education
The startup’s bid for virality is the ability to give a friend a code to take the class with you. Knowable is also hoping big-name experts and quality driven by a team cobbled together from NPR, The Washington Post, William Morris Endeavor, Masterclass and Vice will set it apart. They’ve got a lot of work ahead to grow beyond the six courses currently available on topics like climate change activism and real estate, especially because there’s a 100% money-back guarantee if classes fall short.
For the moment, Knowable feels a bit late with its homework. It has the potential and demand to reinvent audio learning but currently sounds too similar to what’s already everywhere. I was hoping for a Bandersnatch for education that made a broadcast experience feel more like a game.
But the opportunity will only continue to grow as we spend more of our lives in earshot of AirPods and Echoes. With a broad enough library and clever editing, one day you might tell Knowable “teach me something about venture capital in eight minutes” as you walk to the coffee shop. That’s going to have a much better impact on your life than just scrolling through another feed.