Trade schools are nothing new, but a new startup called Copeland thinks it can build a big business by bringing education about plumbing, drywall, cabinetry and more to the masses through high-quality pre-filmed classes online that feature industry pros and professional educators.
If it sounds like a kind of MasterClass for all things construction, that’s not an accident. Copeland sprung from the mind of renowned investor Michael Dearing, who wrote the first check to MasterClass (now reportedly valued at $2.5 billion) and spied an opportunity in pairing underemployed Americans with homebuilders who can’t find enough people to hire. Meanwhile, Copeland’s co-founder and CEO, Gabe Jewell, previously spent nearly four years as a creative producer with MasterClass.
Of course, in addition to trade schools, Copeland, which charges for its content, is competing with an endless — and free — number of YouTube videos about how to both build and dismantle things. Still, the year-old, six-person, Bay Area-based company, which has produced nine distinct pieces of content so far, has investors excited about its prospects. Indeed, in addition to early backing from Dearing, the company just raised $5 million in seed funding from Defy.vc and Collaborative Fund in a round that brings its total funding to date to $7 million.
This afternoon, we talked with Jewell to learn more about what Copeland — named after an educator — is assembling, and whether homeowners, as well as aspiring tradespeople, are target customers, too. Some of that conversation follows, below:
TC: You’re trying to educate trade workers and those aspiring to work in construction — an industry that’s in the midst of a years-long labor shortage and needs people with know-how. Do you envision awarding credentials so employers know your customers have gone through training?
GJ: That’s on the table — proof of aptitude or certificates of completion after you’ve successfully passed an assessment. On the licensing side, that would be complicated because [general contractor] licenses are offered regionally, and you need to be a licensed electrical contractor so you don’t burn someone’s house down, and that’s a four-year process typically. So we’re right now focused more on general education and support rather than [anything more tangible than that].
TC: Out of curiosity, how would you test users, given this is a one-to-many platform?
GJ: Some of it could involve testing construction math — putting you through an assessment to ensure you know how to calculate angles and area and so forth. Other tests cold be more around general knowledge. We can’t, with an online test, ensure that you’ll build a great cabinet, but it’s easy to imagine [other testing] opportunities.
TC: MasterClass relies on celebrities and stars in their respective fields. To generate more buzz, might you pull in celebrity homebuilders and tradespeople from do-it-yourself-type shows as teachers?
GJ: We’re talking about that, too. There’s a healthy online community of professional builders who share what they do and they’ve given us a warm welcome. What’s most important to us is ensuring that the quality of instruction is really high.
TC: I spent part of yesterday watching videos about how to dismantle a brick wall; it makes me wonder whether there will be content on your platform that’s accessible to, and even targeting, homeowners.
GJ: We are hopefully going to see a DIY halo audience for this stuff. For example, deck building is an employable skill and one that we’ll teach you such that you can learn to do it as a professional would. At the same time, if you’re serious about building your own deck, who else would you rather learn it from than pros who know how to teach it?
We’re also thinking of ways to bring those audiences together. You could learn how to dismantle that wall, but you could also come to Copeland to find a professional remodeler who you come to see as a trusted resource.
TC: How long does it take to create each piece of programming for the site?
GJ: It takes us a couple of months to put the courses together, which mostly fall right now between an hour and two hours, though we’ll see more variability in that down the road.
TC: Do you have partnerships with homebuilders or commercial real estate developers that are desperate right now for help?
GJ: We are establishing partnerships with real estate builders. A few are [coming together now] and we’re really excited about growing that side of the business as we develop and film more stuff and add to our current library.
TC: Will subscriptions be part of the picture as you build out that content?
GJ: Yes, right now we charge $75 per course, and you have access to it forever, or a business can purchase a number or seats. As we grow the library, though, you’ll see see flexibility regarding the pricing structure.
TC: What type of content is coming?
GJ: Currently, we’re really focused on residential construction, both hands-on trade skills, like carpentry and cabinet making, but also blueprint reading, and we’ll continue to grow that by adding in plumbing, and drywall and general contractor skills, like reading contracts and risk management. But we’re also building a commercial construction management library that’s taught by university professors largely centered around skills between the field and the office. Maybe you’re an experienced craftsman and you need to learn leadership skills, or you come to construction from retail and you’re working in an office capacity and need to learn how to connect the dots.