Lessons from EdTech founder David Rogier.
If you look at MasterClass from a business perspective, it’s a clear success story.
In 2015 David Rogier founded the company. Five years later, he closed a Series E financing round with a post-money valuation of $500M to $1B. In a recent interview, Rogier said MasterClass is on the path to an IPO.
In short: MasterClass is one of the few emerging unicorns in EdTech.
Yet, if you look at the education platform from a learner’s perspective, its success story is less clear. After all, mastery of complex skills and processes is the result of deliberate practice.
Michaelangelo, the painter of 5,000 square feet in the Sistine Chapel, once wrote:
“If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.”
MasterClass Isn’t About Mastery
In December, a friend asked whether I’d share a 2-for-1 subscription. I read on their website, ‘MasterClass delivers a world-class online learning experience.’
I said yes. $90 a year for learning from world-class performers like James Patterson, Sara Blakely, and Yotam Ottolenghi seemed like an incredible deal.
The two-sided business model
Customers pay for accessing pre-recorded courses, and instructors get paid for recording them. The value proposition: “Getting the best in the world to teach and share and make it a price point that is affordable.”
From the consumer side, it works like Netflix — a streaming platform with a subscription model. For $180 per year, consumers have access to all classes.
Instructors receive a one-time payment and a revenue cut. In 2017, a source reported MasterClass teachers get at least $100,000 per course plus a 30% revenue cut. In 2018, Bloomberg wrote instructors get a guaranteed sum, plus up to a 25% cut. However, in a later interview, Rogier shared contracts vary by individuals.
Hence MasterClass’s key activities are:
- Recruiting world-class talent and turning them into instructors.
- Recording Hollywood-like videos.
- Providing and maintaining the streaming platform and an online community thread.
- Marketing activities to win paying customers.
What MasterClass got wrong about learning
According to Rogier, instructors design their classes. But education researchers agree: Masters might not be the best teachers. Likely, they’re beginners when it comes to instructional design and the science of learning.
Most MasterClasses build on the thesis that online, low-touch courses are for skill-building. But our brains don’t work like recording devices. We don’t absorb information and knowledge by consuming content. Instead, learning is at least a three-step process — we acquire, encode, and retrieve.
I won’t bore you with the specifics. Barbara Oakley, Roediger, et al., and Lieberman have done a prolific job explaining how we learn and remember. But as a simplified rule of thumb:
“Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow. Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful.”
Learning through passive content consumption isn’t truly effortful.
How humans acquire mastery
Anders Ericsson, author of ‘Peak’ studied high performing-individuals and found that the best among them spent thousands of hours practicing in solitary, deliberate practice. Mastery is a product of practice quantity and quality.
Think about frequent fliers. Before every start, they watch a video of a flight attendant putting on the life vest. But as this study shows, actually putting on the inflatable life vest a single time would be more valuable than repeatedly watching another person doing it.
You acquire true mastery by performing the procedure yourself. MasterClass instructors have surely not gotten where they are by sitting on the couch, watching videos about their craft.
The author of ‘Ultralearnering’ calls this principle directness. It is essential for mastering any skill.
Yet, with a few exceptions, classes are as far away from direct practice as they can get. It’s like someone studying the guitar but not holding a guitar — just looking at videos of how to play the guitar.
Don’t get me wrong; I like MasterClass. With its tips and anecdotes, it inspires millions of people to become lifelong learners. But as a learning expert, I cry when I read on the website of an emerging EdTech Unicorn that they offer a ‘world-class online learning experience.’
Because they don’t.
Key Entrepreneurship Lessons
When you spend hours researching MasterClass, you can’t help but admire founder and CEO David Rogier. His humble and authentic stories make him one of the most sympathetic founders I’ve listened to.
Here’s what we can learn from his entrepreneurial journey.
#1 Build something you can be proud of even if it fails
Rogier was raised in part by his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. When he was at her house as an 8-year-old, she told a story that changed him forever.
When his grandma fled to the States, her dream was to become a doctor. She sent applications to 25 medical schools — and got 25 rejections. When calling the deans to ask why they rejected her, all hang-up except for one, who said:
“You have three strikes against you:
You’re a woman. You’re an immigrant. You’re Jewish.”
She reapplied the next year. One school accepted her. Ultimately, she became a doctor. Here’s her lesson she shared with 8-year-old Rogier:
“Education is the only thing someone can’t take from you”
When Rogier graduated from Stanford Business School, he had so many ideas about starting up. He couldn’t decide. The advice that ultimately helped him decide was to pick something that, even if it fails, you’re gonna be proud of.
For Rogier, this meant building a product in education. He shared in an interview about his grandma’s story: “It’s what propelled me to create MasterClass, and to try to democratize mastery.”
So if there’s a lesson here for future entrepreneurs, it’s this: Don’t create a product based on market growth. Instead, build something you can be proud of, even if it fails.
#2 Don’t stop when people say your idea is unachievable
In 2014, Rogier told a former classmate about his MasterClass idea. The friend said it would be too difficult to get the instructors to sign up, especially in the beginning. How can you possibly attract world-class masters without having an existing customer base?
His friend was surprised Rogier presented the signed letters of world-class masters like Serena Williams. Yet, this journey wasn’t predestined.
Signing the best in the world wasn’t easy. He cold-called and e-mailed hundreds of masters in their craft. He says years went by without getting any yes.
Recruiting the first instructors was challenging, but Rogier says he rejects nine out of 10 people who want to become instructors.
Undoubtedly as a Stanford Graduate with an initial seed funding helped gave him credibility. Yet, he has one of the most important traits of founders: resilience.
#3 Reach out to people who can help you
Rogier decided he wanted to do something with education. Yet, he wasn’t sure what exactly this would be.
As a result, he posted ads on Craigslist to pay people $10 an hour to talk about their educational experiences. He asked his interview partners questions like:
- Who did you learn the most from?
- Which topics would you have loved to study more?
- What things do you want to learn now? And how do you want to learn them?
These initial conversations helped him sharpen his vision. Plus, when he recorded the first videos, they looked like crap.
So Rogier reached out to a professor from his grad school who won two Oscars for filming. His professor offered to film the videos, and that’s how the courses started looking like high-class Hollywood movies.
Of course, most people don’t have Oscar winners in their direct network. Yet, asking for help when things don’t go your way certainly increases the chances of reaching the ultimate goal.
Rogier said learning doesn’t have to be boring, and it doesn’t have to involve a classroom. And it’s true: When done right, education can be entertaining and online.
MasterClass managed to bring the quality of Netflix to the $100 billion e-learning industry. Yet, it failed to bring along state-of-art learning science.
Polished videos don’t lead to mastery. What matters more than lighting and sound are whether consumers really learn new skills. And without using evidence-based techniques for learning, this goal is out of reach.
If you want to feel inspired and listen to master’s success stories, go ahead and subscribe to MasterClass.
If you, however, want to achieve mastery, take courses that really help you learn new skills. Look out for features like:
- Offering real-time feedback on learning progress.
(And no, not like MasterClass with collecting product feedback channel).
- Giving direct access to instructors.
(And again, no, not like MasterClass offering contests to get a 1:1 in exchange for giving the instructors feedback).
- Having assignments that are directly linked to your desired skill.
- Including structured access to a fellow community.
- Deploying spaced repetition features.
- Using testing as a tool.
Whatever you choose, keep education researcher Terry Doyle’s words in mind who said:
“The one who does the work does the learning.”
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