Why these Udemy execs left to build a better Udemy

Modal combines cohort-based learning and enterprise-specific skills in one platform

Darren Shimkus spent five years scaling Udemy, a corporate learning business, from $1 million in annual recurring revenue to $100 million. Eight months before the education company went public, though, Shimkus left his gig as president of Udemy Business to investigate a feeling.

“I thought I had innovation to bring to the industry,” he said. “But there’s Darren in what he thinks and in what he sees, and then there is a world that is.” The entrepreneur spent six months interviewing heads of data, talent development and engineering to figure out shared pain points in the world of education. “What I realized was how important it is to reintroduce the human connection back into the learning process,” he said.

Somewhat ironically, Shimkus landed on teaming up with former Udemy CEO Dennis Yang to take a second swing at building the world’s biggest enterprise education company, albeit with an entirely different approach from their shared alma mater.

Launching publicly for the first time today, Modal is a cohort-based learning platform that companies can use to help their existing employees learn new skills or shift disciplines. Per Shimkus, he and Yang were able to raise $6.8 million in capital from Signalfire, Norwest Venture Partners, Learn Capital, Bling Capital, and others.

The startup’s first product will focus on increasing data literacy within startups. It will group employees into 30- to 40-person groups before putting them into an eight-week learning experience, which includes asynchronous projects and live events.

As for curriculum, Modal isn’t going the massive open online course provider route and instead is developing all material internally with experts.

“We’re not going to use the model where instructors come on and publish something on a platform,” he said. “We own all the content that we’re creating.” Eventually, the platform will teach skills like natural language processing, Python and data storytelling.

The company declined to share revenue targets, number of customers or even customer names. It makes money through a classic enterprise B2B sales model.

The overlap between Modal’s vision and Udemy’s mission is hard to ignore. Both companies are selling an upskilling service to enterprises in fear of either losing talent or lagging in development. While Shimkus denies direct competition — saying he “stands on the shoulders of giants like Udemy” — he admitted that his understanding of how to speak to the company’s talent systems will give Modal “a significant head start.”

At a high level, Modal’s product is simple, and refreshing workforces is clearly in demand, given the spree of financing rounds for upskilling and reskilling companies. The moonshot instead is that edtech veterans are betting on the concept of curated, cohort-based learning, instead of asynchronous learning, as the future of how people comprehend information.

It’s not the first time that an Udemy alum has spun out of the platform to build a cohort-based class platform. Udemy co-founder Gagan Biyani has raised over $30 million for his latest brainchild, Maven, that he is building with AltMBA co-founder Wes Kao. Maven, Shimkus said, is more focused on user-generated content, while Modal wants to build for employees and HR leaders.

In fact, months after Shimkus and Yang incorporated Modal, Udemy itself acquired CorpU, “an online leadership development platform that delivers cohort-based immersive learning experiences,” per a statement. Udemy previously declined to share more on its cohort-based class platform strategy.

Shimkus, meanwhile, is thinking more about how this current moment — in the thick of the pandemic, distributed work, remote learning and the Great Resignation — impacts the trajectory of his vision

“I couldn’t have built this company two years ago,” he said. “People’s newfound appreciation for what it is that they want in their life, and what they are expecting from their companies — that’s what made it possible to start this company right now.”