Sweat Rewards

Online Learning

You can teach an old concept new tricks. While many online companies appear pale under the economic spotlight, e-learning businesses are looking rosy. Employee training, Internet college courses and classes catering to the fresh legions of home-schoolers are booming areas. IDC expects the corporate e-learning market alone to top $18 billion by 2005, up from $2.3 billion in 2000.

Stephan Thieringer, 35-year-old CEO and co-founder of Danvers, Massachusetts, business training company GTF Systems, is familiar with what it takes to successfully launch a virtual education company. "The market is huge," says Thieringer. "The mistake a lot of companies make is they get very broad-ranged. We are very specialized." GTF Systems' focus on state- and federal-mandated compliance training and human resources solutions keeps it plenty busy in its niche market.

Thieringer explains one of the key factors poised to make 2002 a good year for e-learning entrepreneurs: "The community has come to the point where distance learning isn't necessarily considered an inferior education." The arrival of accredited online-only universities like Capella University of Minneapolis is proof positive of this growing trend. Look for business opportunities not only in providing courses and continuing education programs, but also in servicing the peripheral supply and material needs of distance learners.

While there is a high awareness of online college-level classes, there are also interesting e-learning developments a little closer to home. According to the National Home Education Research Institute, 1.3 million to 1.7 million children were home-schooled in 1999 and 2000. No exact figures are available for 2001, but the home-schooling movement has gained significant steam during the past few years, making K-12 education a hot area for entrepreneurs. Fronted by William J. Bennett, former Secretary of Education under former President Reagan, K12 in McLean, Virginia, has made a high-profile entry into this area by offering curricula and supplies geared toward the elementary market. But there is still plenty of room on the chalkboard for small companies to make their mark.

Thieringer sees a wide landscape for e-learning start-ups, but he emphasizes that the basics of customer service and specialization are required for success. "It's about content," he says. "It's about the scalability of the product. It's about the bandwidth requirements. It's about ease of use." Virtual learning entrepreneurs prepared to balance the knowledge with the technology will move to the head of the class in 2002.

-Amanda C. Kooser

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Are our picks for what's hot in 2002 on target or way off base? Tell us what you think.

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This article was originally published in the December 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Sweat Rewards.

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