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You might not be into hemming skirts or stitching quilts, but if you’re interested in online education, you may still want to keep an eye on Craftsy.

Unlike many of its peers in Silicon Valley, the Denver-based startup clearly doesn’t have designs on disrupting formal education. Its core students are women over 40 who want to learn how to knit with beads, make handcrafted sugar cookies or master pants-fitting techniques. The next step for graduates of its classes is more likely to be an Etsy storefront than a better job or degree program. But given that Craftsy created its learning experience to be discipline agnostic, its success so far is worth noting by anyone with an interest in the growing field of online education.

Launched in 2011, the company offers classes on all kinds of handcrafts — from crocheting and sewing to bread baking and cake decorating — for about $ 20 to $ 50. But founder and CEO John Levisay, a former eBay executive, said it places a premium on the production of the class, including the quality of the video, the experience of the teacher and the structure of the course itself.

Craftsy“The platform we’ve built wants to capture the benefits of asynchronous consumption — the anytime, anywhere ability to view a class — but similarly harness the magic of a live classroom,” he said. The company, which has raised about $ 20 million from investors including the Foundry Group and Tiger Global Management, spends more than $ 15,000 to create and film each class, including flying the best teachers it can find to its Denver studios. So far, it’s put more than $ 5 million in technology to enhance the learning experience with user-friendly features, motion graphics and other effects.

Simple features make a difference

Many of those features, in addition to Craftsy’s focus on production quality and an approachable aesthetic, are what make the site particularly interesting to me. They’re fairly simple and other online sites offer variations of some of these but, in total, they seem to make remote learning easier for an audience not known for being especially tech-savvy. For example, one feature allows students to stop a video at any point to quickly replay the preceding 30 seconds. Another feature enables students to ask questions timed to specific points in the video. Even after professors or other students answer the question, the archived video includes the time-synced questions. Craftsy’s courses also come with closed captioning and the option to make video notes (or text notes that correspond with bookmarked sections of the video courses).

Online education company 2U, which partners with universities to offer degree programs online (for offline degree prices) has spent a lot of time reimagining learning in an online environment, although it offers live classes while Craftsy does not. And Skillshare, for example, tries to boost student engagement with live office hours that are part of its online courses. For startups like CourseraUdacity and Khan Academy, which are all about democratizing access to education, spending thousands of dollars to produce a single course may not make sense given the fact that those companies are committed to providing free education. But, generally speaking, I’d like to see online education platforms do much more to use the Internet to deliver an effective learning experience.

And, so far, Craftsy’s approach seems to be paying off. In the past year, it’s earned about $ 12 million in revenue, 80 percent of which is from its classes, with the remainder coming from an online store that sells fabric, yarn and other materials. And last year’s revenue is up from $ 2 million in 2011. The company said it averages about one million unique visitors a month and had 750,000 class enrollments in 2012.

Expanding beyond the heartland

To date, the site hasn’t really been competitive with other players in online education. But that could change. Not so unlike Pinterest, it got its start among rural and suburban women – not your typical early adopters – but is now poised for growth among men and a more techie crowd.  On Craftsy itself, it now offers more classes on cooking and on Sympoz, the original site Levisay and his co-founders created, the company has started providing courses on woodworking and entrepreneurship.  Levisay indicated that more classes on photography and music could be on the way, which would make Craftsy and Sympoz rivals with Udemy and CreativeLIVE, which also provide a mix of classes for hobbyists and professionals.

While at eBay, Levisay he learned the power of niche communities that had online marketplaces and well-attended offline conventions, but no where to socialize or learn online.

“That’s what really drove us to this – thinking about taking continuing education for the things I’m passionate about and having no where to go to do it,” he said. “We wanted to create a destination for people who were likeminded learners to interact with each other.”


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