Building For Creators
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Building For Creators

A tale of competing with giants by building Creators tools - by Ariel Renous

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Hi ! A few weeks ago, I published an open-ended essay on the Future of Social. Amazingly, this piece reached more than 65k people on Twitter and was read in 63 countries ! So I decided to extend it with the obvious next thing to write about: some principles and ideas on how to build for creators. I use Notion for it's convenient and elegant but it's not the best tool to spark discussions. I'd love to hear from other founders, investors and creators interested in the Creator Economy. Let's talk! Best way to reach out is Twitter or email (ariel.renous@gmail.com).

Table of Content 🍽
Resources 📚

What This Is About

Udemy, Coursera, EdX & Udacity dominate the online teaching market. Their rise has been phenomenal and their approach somewhat similar: they are course marketplaces. But some companies grew in their shadow, following a totally different playbook. Teachable, Kajabi, Podia & Thinkific built white-label teaching tools. They are at the crossroads of Passion Economy and Education, and place Creators at the center of their universe.

This article explores what the silent rise of Teachable and others means for everyone out there building for Creators:

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The Teachable Story

Teachable is a good example of how to compete with giants by arming the rebels. It is, in so many ways, the typical trajectory of successful Passion Economy start-ups. Let’s have a look 👇

How It Started

Ankur Nagpal graduated in 2012 and moved to New York. Although he had no formal job at that time, he was making a couple thousand dollars a month. How? By teaching marketing and programming on Udemy. Ankur was one of those early Udemy instructors and amongst the firsts to make a living off online teaching.

Surely Ankur was making decent money, but his online teaching activity could not scale. Udemy instructors did not own their audience and suffered from the platform’s changing pricing strategy. In fact, Udemy increased their revenue share from 30% to 50%. This move got very bad press among Udemy instructors and Ankur was no exception. His online teaching activity was doomed to remain small, was it?

Not to Ankur. He locked himself in his room for three days and coded the very rudimentary website pictured below in an attempt to sell his courses directly to students. It happened to work and Ankur thus reached out to several other infuriated Udemy instructors and presented them with his product. Traction began.

Ankur Nagpal’s first version of Teachable
Ankur Nagpal’s first version of Teachable

Fedora, then Teachable

Fedora was born. Ankur had a few dozen customers, a first employee and raised a small seed round. Two years later, a few dozen became 5,000+, teaching over 700k students.

Ankur Nagpal’s management style is all in control. He kept Teachable close to profitability, carefully monitoring his burn rate and being much more reasonable than some of his peers when it came to fundraising. Teachable raised a $2m Seed Round (extended to $4m) in 2015 and a $4m Series A (extended to $8m) in 2018 from Accomplice Ventures and Naval Ravikant.

Long story short, look at this elegant GMV growth:

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Teachable Acquired

Let’s just appreciate for a minute those tremendous figures Teachable has and its transformative impact on users:

  • Teachable instructors earned collectively more than $840m.
  • More than 100,000 people made money on Teachable
  • 10 people made over $10m (!!!) on Teachable.
  • In October 2020, 12 teachers became millionaires on Teachable.

In February 2020, right before Covid hit, Teachable announced its acquisition by Hotmart in a reported $250m deal. Surely they could have x2 or x3 valuation had they waited a few more months into Covid but still not a bad multiple for only raising $12m total. For the near future, Hotmart and Teachable will remain independent - Ankur will keep running Teachable. Covid tailwinds are too strong to think about synergies.

Lessons From Teachable

Ben Thompson’s Aggregator/Platform framework is useful here. To him, internet businesses can be divided into Aggregators (= intermediaries) and Platforms (= facilitators). Think of Amazon as an aggregator and Shopify as a platform. In the same way, Udemy & Coursera are Aggregators while Teachable & Kajabi are Platforms. The latter have been able to capture value by positioning themselves as creators tools (platforms) when most of their competitors were course-marketplaces (aggregators). This is a classical Passion Economy playbook. Here are the lessons:

Creators-First

Our Teachers are our Customers is the first of Teachable’s Guiding Principles. At Teachable, decisions are made according to their impact on teachers, not students. Creators are at the center of their universe.

Teachable decided not to be a destination platform. Unlike competitors, they do not drive distribution to teachers ⇒ They are a Creators Tool.

This positioning means providing teachers with the best tool to build and monetize online courses. This implies:

  • Major focus on payments. Creators want to be paid fast and reliably. The payment team at Teachable is 40 people big ! (200 FTEs total).
  • Comprehensive product. Enriching the product with features to help teachers build better courses but also distribute more easily (i.e. newsletter features) and sell more (i.e. one-click upsells).
  • Massive content efforts through blogging and webinars. This works much better than paid acquisition in order to attract high-quality creators.

Audience Ownership

This teacher-first philosophy means Creators need to own their audience. On Teachable, this materialises in two ways:

  1. Being white-label. Making end-users feel they are in a space that belongs to the creator.
  2. Collecting email addresses. This is extremely important to retarget students. You cannot collect emails on Udemy, therefore you do not own your audience. The same applies to Medium for instance.

→ The reason Teachable beats Udemy in this segment is the same that explains why Substack wins over Medium : Audience Ownership.

Long-Tail Creators Market

Market is king. And Teachable’s success is above all due to their market. Ankur and his team addressed an untapped, seemingly-small market: Casual Education 👇

Casual Education

Stumbling Upon a New Market

Make no mistake, Ankur had no grand vision of the new world he had discovered. When he started, he was pitching to investors a “white-label Udemy”. Yet he soon realised that his target market - Udemy instructors - was only a fraction of something much bigger. Ankur stumbled upon a blue ocean market of casual teachers.

Casual instructors are, in Ankur’s words:

Whether you teach painting, programming, calligraphy or marketing, no matter if your medium is blog posts, Snapchat, Youtube videos or interpretative dance — if people learn from you, you are a teacher.
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Market Depth

It is extremely hard to size the Creator Economy (some attempts here and here). It is the same for the Casual Education Market. I guess it depends a lot on what you mean by creators. Still by any estimations, this market is enormous. But how enormous? It’s hard to tell as course creators are indistinguishable from other Youtubers, Podcasters, etc. Yet we see the tip of the iceberg: those teaching on online teaching platforms. And there are many:

  • 100,000 Course Creators on Teachable
  • 57,000 Course Creators on Udemy
  • 50,000 Course Creators on Kajabi
  • 50,000 Course Creators on Thinkific
  • 25,000 Course Creators on Podia
  • 200,000 Creators on Patreon
  • 74,000 Creators on Gumroad

Also, it’s fascinating to look at the variety of online classes. Just have a look at how wide apart some of those Teachable classes are:

No Credentials, No Certifications, but Lots of Trust

Why on earth would someone pay for being taught by people they don’t know and with little or no credentials? A big misconception is that people buy online classes from unknown, randomly-found instructors. What happens in fact is that users purchase courses from creators they already follow, support and trust. This trust is built on the platforms where Creators get discovered: Instagram, Youtube, Snapchat, Twitter.

Li Jin summed this up it this illustration:

Casual Education Players

Who They Are

Teachable is far from being alone in this casual education market:

Kajabi(🇺🇸):

  • Business-in-a-box positioning. High-end platform targeting professionals.
  • Highly-comprehensive all-in-one product: landing pages, email marketing, automation, payments, analytics, mobile app.
  • Bootstrapped to $1B annualized GMV (!!!). 50,000 Creators and 60 million students.

Podia(🇺🇸):

  • Best for memberships, downloads and webinars.
  • High-end and white-label version of Gumroad and Patreon
  • 25,000 course creators on the platform.

Thinkific (🇨🇦):

  • Pure online teaching player.
  • Advanced business tools to market courses.
  • They recently raised $22m.

There is also LearnWorlds (🇺🇸), Learnyst (🇺🇸), Gurucan (🇦🇪), Learnybox (🇫🇷) and many others.

What Those Creators Tools Have In Common:

  1. Little Money Raised. Teachable raised $12m, Thinkific raised $22m, Kajabi is bootstrapped, Podia only raised a seed round. Why?
    • You cannot grow faster than your customers. You depend on their own growth to generate upsells. Pouring millions here will not exponentially accelerate the process.
    • Significant effort is required for a lead to turn into a long-term paying customer. They basically have to build and sell an entire online course → Paid acquisition works less here than good educational content and organic growth.
    • Little network effects as those tools are white-label.
  2. Bundle of services. All those tools offer a wide range of services (payments, analytics, marketing and business tools, live streaming tools,...). None of them are merely teaching platforms - they are Business-In-A-Box Platforms.
  3. Highly integrated. Casual Education Platforms are connected to the constellation of tools creators typically use: Patreon, Stripe, Wordpress, MailChimp.

My take on these companies is that the market is deep enough and growing fast enough for several of them to become unicorns and catch up in valuation with their Udemy and Coursera cousins. Did Teachable sold too soon? Yes.

Quick Take on Udemy: Marketplace or Creators Tool?

Udemy is Teachable’s $3B cousin. They expect more than $400m in revenue this year, of which $100m comes from its corporate learning segment. But the visions behind Udemy and Teachable are very close. Udemy’s founder, Gagan Biyani, described his to Paul Graham in an email following his rejection from YC:

“We plan to aggregate the educational content on the internet and provide users with a one-stop shop to learn. (...). Ultimately, we offer tools to enable anyone to create a Lynda.com.”

Did Gagan Biyani want Udemy to be a course marketplace or a creators tool? Both. Udemy was intended to be a one-stop shop for end-users and a tool to enable independent instructors to build courses.

How Can They Be Both?

Early-Mover Advantage. Udemy have been the firsts to enable independent instructors to teach online. This built them a brand. And brand is what enables them to become a destination platform as it generates the trust end-users need when choosing online courses. This trust is the cement of their marketplace approach - attracting users and then, creators.

Yet can this marketplace playbook be replicated now ten years later? Hardly. How would I proceed to do so anyways? Go vertical 👇

Horizontal vs. Vertical Teaching Platforms

Teachable and their competitors are all horizontal LMS (Learning Management System). That means they are unopinionated about what is taught with their tool.

But this is not the only approach. Some platforms are specific and choose to verticalize:

  • Creative Live is a course marketplace for creative work.
  • VIP Kids is a course marketplace for kids education.
  • Masterclass is a media and learning platform from top experts.
  • Cambly is a course marketplace for English learning.
  • Knowable is an audio course marketplace.
  • Codeverse is an online code learning platform for kids.
  • Skillshare is a course marketplace for design, photography and animation classes.

Driving demand is much easier when you are subject-specific and vertical. Hence many of those platforms adopt a marketplace approach. They try hard to attract students and then build tools for independent instructors willing to access their student pool. Vertical LMS strive to be the best at acquiring users when horizontal LMS want to build the best tool.

Here’s my visual summary of horizontal vs. vertical LMS:

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Why This Article, Some Start-up Ideas and What’s Next ?

The Creator Economy is truly about giving superpowers to individuals. It is so exciting to watch people building tools enabling people to share their passion, connect with others, and live off it.

Some Start-Up Ideas

  • Codecadamy for X → Gamified hands-on first learning experience for X (No-Code, Fb Ads, Excel/Sheets, building a store, cold-emailing/blogging,...).
  • Mobile-only Course-Builder. Doing to online courses what Universe does to websites.
  • An audio-first white-label Course-builder.
  • A vertical course marketplace (+ course-building tool) for elders, focused on art & culture.

Also, there are so many non-venture companies to be built in this space (online course studios, agencies for Creators, etc).

What's Next to Write ?

There are many more interesting things still to write on this topic. Some ideas for you and me:

  • What’s going on in other geographies ? This article mainly focuses on the US and Europe but there are some amazing platforms having a great time on other continents.
  • A playbook for fully vertical (producer & publisher) platforms i.e. Codecademy.
  • Podia & Gumroad: is the digital goods market capped?
  • Udemy’s Gagan Biyani new Passion Economy start-up. Why such a bet on cohort-based courses (CBCs)?
  • Teachable launching his marketplace with Teachable’s Discover. And when should Platforms become Aggregators.
  • Why Tik Tok tests a Learn tab and why the future of course consumption & creation is mobile.

I might write on these topics but you can too. Or we can work on it together! Anyways, I love the intellectual stimulation of collaboration, so feel welcome to pop into my Twitter DMs or email (ariel.renous@gmail.com).

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Thanks to my dad who reads, discusses and supports all I do.