Tech Insurgents 2012: Mike Karnjanaprakorn

Founder and CEO, Skillshare

Mr. Karnjanaprakorn (Photo: About.Me)

The Principal of New York

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Before Mayor Bloomberg signed up for Codecademy, before General Assembly signed its first lease in the Flatiron—even before Peter Thiel started paying kids to skip school—Skillshare founder and CEO Mike Karnjanaprakorn was trying convince New York investors to finance his peer-to-peer learning startup. He billed the company as the Etsy of education, since it set up a market for anyone to teach—and learn—practical skills through an affordable hands-on class, starting at $25 a night. (The hybrid online classes that Skillshare launched this August, with Livestream office hours, start at just $20 a night.)

But in 2010, two years before The New York Times dubbed 2012, “The Year of the MOOC” (massive open online course), venture capitalists weren’t biting. As with hardware and clean tech, investors begged off education—burned by one too many startups shut out by the gatekeepers of traditional K through 12 and higher ed. “Some of my favorite notes that we got from investors were, ‘We don’t think education is a big market,’ ‘We think education is a shrinking market’ and ‘We don’t think people enjoy learning at all after they graduate,’” he said. “‘You have to get a master’s in education before you can teach,’ was another.”

Economic realities like persistent unemployment, mounting student debt and an army of jobless graduates without the skills to fill open positions quickly proved otherwise. The time was right for Skillshare’s modernized approach. Through its online platform, the company promotes the classes, procures students, processes credit cards and books rooms for in-person offerings—often in a tech company’s lounge or lecture hall—all in exchange for a percentage of the sales.

In the early days, Mr. Karnjanaprakorn, whose previous employer Hot Potato was acquired by Facebook, and his co-founder Malcolm Ong, a product manager at game-maker OMGPOP, gravitated toward the kind of programming and entrepreneurship classes they wanted to take, like Mr. Karnjanaprakorn’s popular course, “Launch Your Startup Idea for Less Than $1,000.” As the Silicon Alley refrain goes, meeting tech people is easy: just take a Skillshare class and drop by General Assembly.

Skillshare’s emphasis on nonacademic classes with real-world application paved the way for other local players like CourseHorse, Lore and Codecademy. Signing up felt less like an indulgence than a practical necessity. “There’s a real-world application” to Skillshare classes, he said, “something that you could use immediately.” Headlines about an instructor quitting his day job with the $100,000 a year he made teaching Ruby on Rails to aspiring programmers helped attract instructors as well.

In 2012, the company expanded to other U.S. cities like San Francisco, Boston and Los Angeles, and kicked off its large-scale online-only classes with an offering from Union Square Ventures co-founder Fred Wilson—a Skillshare investor—that reached 2,500 students all over the world. Mr. Karnjanaprakorn said that it would take him two years to teach that many students if he taught every week here in New York City.

Mr. Karnjanaprakorn compared making a case for accessible education outside of a university to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. “If the first phase is awareness and huge institutional change,” he told The Observer, “The second step is making something that will fix it or being a company that tries to solve it. I can feel that happening. It’s less about why should people learn. Nobody asks that question now anymore.”

Next: Rick Webb, Tumblr: The Undercover Ad Man

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Tech Insurgents 2012: Mike Karnjanaprakorn