With Skillshare’s online classes, instructors get shot at bigger bucks

When New Yorker Mattan Griffel taught a local class on marketing startups through Skillshare earlier this year, he made about $400 from the nearly 30 students in attendance. But now that the peer-to-peer learning startup enables instructors to offer courses online, Griffel is on the verge of pulling in $30,000 from a single course on learning how to code that includes more than 1,500 students around the world.

In a place like New York, that may just be enough to cover the rent. But it’s still a pretty impressive haul for just three weeks of part-time work.

When New York-based Skillshare launched in April of 2011, the idea was to let anyone teach local, in-person classes on specific creative and professional skills based on their expertise. “The original thesis was to turn every city into a campus,” said founder and CEO Michael Karnjanaprakorn. And since its launch, Skillshare has expanded to cities around the country, including San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia. But as global demand for classes grew, Karnjanaprakorn said they decided to scale more quickly by adding the online classes in August.

Attempting to combine the best of online and offline

The “evolution” (not pivot, the company says) combines a bit of the online with the offline, enabling the education startup to reach a wider audience while still allowing students to interact with instructors through live online office hours and with each other during optional in-person student workshops.

Skillshare declined to share how many students and instructors participate in its classes. But it said that the number of enrollments it has seen in the 75 online classes launched since August is about equivalent to the number of students enrolled in 1,200 of its local classes, which is about 30,000 students (if you assume offline classes include an average of 25 students.)

The online classes also give instructors a chance to get in front of a bigger group of students and earn a bigger payout. Before launching the online classes, the top paid local classes made about $500. But now Skillshare says its top paid online classes (about 20 percent) earn $3,000 to $5,000. (For both online and offline classes, Skillshare takes 15 percent of the earnings.)

The company acknowledges that Griffel is still something of an outlier. Just about 5 percent of its more than 5,000 instructors (as of August) reach five-digit annual earnings and the payoff depends on a range of factors, from the experience of the teacher to the subject matter of the course to the amount of promotion it’s given to how much instructors choose to charge (the average is $20 for online and local classes, but teachers can charge more or less). And, while anyone can teach an offline class, online classes require teachers to apply.

But Griffel’s experience shows the potential for independent instructors to succeed on an open, peer-to-peer marketplace for education.

“I think there’s a problem in the market, teachers don’t get paid for the actual value of what they do,” he said. 

Amid competition, Skillshare focuses on the real-world

As it continues to push into online education, however, Skillshare will have to prove itself against a growing group of competitors attracting both students and instructors. In addition to Udemy, which offers classes on a range of skills and also reports big earnings for top instructors, online education startups like Coursera, Udacity and Codecademy offer students free instruction on some similar topics. Depending on the topic, Skillshare could also compete with companies like CreativeLIVE, Treehouse and Lynda for students’ dollars.

But Karnjanaprakorn said Skillshare’s advantage for instructors is the opportunity to make supplemental income while also marketing one’s skills and business to a local and global community. And, for students, it provides the ability to learn specific skills (as opposed to potentially more theoretical concepts taught on Coursera and Udacity) and network with other local students and instructors.

“We’re focused on real-world skills,” said Karnjanaprakorn. “The students on Skillshare actually make the things you can see and touch and feel – it’s proof that they learned the skill that they said they were going to learn.”