How This Visionary Entrepreneur Is Shattering Old-School Barriers to Education
Michael Karnjanaprakorn thinks anyone can be a teacher -- doers, dreamers, thinkers, tinkerers. Anyone, yourself included. No college degree, formal training or accreditation required. All you need is knowledge and passion, and an eagerness to share both.
The 33-year-old entrepreneur and world champion poker player’s mission in life is to democratize education throughout the world, one online class at a time. “My goal is to transform education and make it accessible to every single person on this planet,” he says. “Education is a basic human right and we need to break down the $50,000 tuition barrier to it so that anyone, anywhere can learn whatever they set their mind to.”
To make the dream he set his mind to a reality, Karnjanaprakorn co-founded Skillshare, a “learning community for creators,” with his good friend and fellow tech startup veteran Malcolm Ong. (Ong has since moved on to other ventures.)
That was five years ago, back when Skillshare offered only two classes, the first being a poker-skills class taught by Karnjanaprakorn himself. Today, the burgeoning subscription-monetized startup, anchored in the heart of New York City’s SoHo neighborhood, offers some 1,700-plus peer-to-peer classes online. In all, the platform has served an estimated 1 million students.
Video-based courses that people take at their own pace on demand are offered on the buzzy, ad-free education hub in several categories and subcategories. They cover everything from snapping creative self-portrait pics (selfies!), to creating effective Google AdWords campaigns, to brewing your own beer at home to throwing a pot on a pottery wheel. You can even learn the art of screenwriting for short films from actor James Franco. The class list is constantly updated and there’s something for everyone.
Karnjanaprakorn practices what he preaches, personally instructing four of his own classes on his passion project. All are fittingly focused on how to succeed in the cutthroat startup business, which, in the egalitarian spirit of Skillshare, is a subject he’s qualified to teach based on experience alone. The University of Virginia economics grad is far from the only successful entrepreneur to drop knowledge on Skillshare. Also in the mix are Barbara Corcoran, Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki and Gary Vaynerchuk.
We recently caught up with Karnjanaprakorn to talk about Skillshare’s past, present and future. The transcript that follows was minimally edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to create Skillshare?
I grew up in Seoul, Korea. When I was 10 years old, we moved to the U.S. so I could go to college here. I worked hard to get into a good school and it was pretty much all that really mattered growing up.
I got into the University of Virginia and a had a great experience there, but when I got my diploma, I didn’t feel that I learned any real-world skills that would equip me to be successful. I went on to grad school and the experience I had there was very different and non-traditional. We never had quizzes or tests, never had to buy books and all of our teachers were real-life practitioners of what they taught.
At grad school, I came in feeling like I was the least innovative and creative person and I left feeling like I would become the next Steve Jobs. I later volunteered at a charter school in post-Katrina New Orleans. That’s when it clicked for me that improving education is something that I want to work on for an extremely long time. If traditional academia didn’t fit, we could build something online that provided access to high-quality learning to students around the world, and that led to the creation of Skillshare.
What does Skillshare offer that traditional educational avenues, like high schools, colleges and universities don’t?
I wouldn’t recommend someone forgo university altogether and learn solely online if that wasn’t the direction for them. I don’t think Skillshare will ever replace Harvard University. Being a replacement to traditional academia is not our intention. I think we’ve built something extremely complimentary to traditional education. I would definitely recommend that if someone is looking to pursue a profession that requires an accredited degree, that’s extremely important and they should probably go that route.
Skillshare is built with the Internet in mind and is decentralized, with topics you’d never find at a traditional university. We also realize that every student is different, so every Skillshare student can put together any curriculum of classes in any order to suit their individual needs.
The biggest difference between Khan Academy and Skillshare is Khan Academy is very focused on K-12 and traditional education. It’s more about teaching math and algebra, physics and some of the more traditional topics you would learn at school. Skillshare is very focused on real-world skills, especially in the creative community.
The first difference between Skillshare and Lynda.com centers around content. A lot of our teachers are people who actually practice their craft in the field. The second difference: We have a whole, active community on Skillshare as well. You can move at your own speed, watch the class videos on your own, and we also have tons of other things you can do, like upload your own work and get feedback the community. We also just recently launched live sessions for students who need a little more structure. They can move off of a date-based calendar with a teacher.
What, if any, lessons from playing -- and winning at -- poker have you applied in business, to bootstrapping a startup?
A lot from what I’ve learned from playing poker is really centered around decision making. As a poker player you have to make really good decisions consistently over the long run and not let your emotions get the better of you, similar to what’s required to make it in business. I would definitely say my poker-playing experience gives me a unique view when it comes to making choices about the direction of Skillshare.
What are some classes currently on Skillshare that you think people find the most interesting?
One of the more notable ones that comes to mind is one that we recently launched with Oakland-based Blue Bottle Coffee. It’s called “From Plant to Cup: Brew an Amazing Cup of Coffee.” I’m currently taking that along with some photography classes. It teaches people how to make the perfect cup of coffee. We also have a writing class with author Susan Orlean and an intro to audio recording course with Young Guru, who is Jay-Z’s music producer. It really depends on what someone wants to learn, but those are some of the more unique classes that come to mind.
How does Skillshare qualify its teachers?
We don’t. We’re not in the business of vetting teachers or saying “This person’s a good teacher and that person’s not.” For us, we believe in the power of the Internet and the students will tell us which classes are good and which teachers are are good and which aren’t.
Our philosophy is creating an open platform that is extremely flat and it doesn’t matter how famous the teacher is or how big their following is. What matters is the kind of teacher they are. I really believe anyone can teach. We have some great teachers who are professional teachers and we have some who never taught before that piled up 50,000 students [on Skillshare] over the last couple of years.
Our classes also don’t go through any kind of quality control. Anyone can upload any class videos right now. The community will flag it and tell us if something in it is inappropriate or unethical or infringing on any copyrights. Like Reddit and Youtube, anyone can create and our job is just to make sure that we push classes to the top so people know they are there.
What do you think the students of tomorrow want?
A lot more options and variations. Historically, the only option any serious student would have is to go to college and that’s what created thousands of universities all around the world. The student of the future wants more, to be able to take on hands-on learning experiences, like an apprenticeship at the top-rated restaurant in the world, or to take a bootcamp on coffee-making from the founder of Starbucks for three months. And they want nontraditional options like that to be socially acceptable.
In not too long, because of the disruptive nature of the Internet, a lot of traditional academic institutions will have to rethink what they offer, especially to the younger generation.
Which Skillshare classes would you recommend busy entrepreneurs take to boost their business acumen overall?
We offer a host of classes taught by other startup founders and entrepreneurs. I would recommend Seth Godin’s “Modern Marketing Workshop.” It’s really highly reviewed. Mailchimp offers several classes on email marketing that are really well reviewed as well. Another one is Gary Vaynerchuk’s class on effective social media marketing. It’s called “Context is Key: Social Media Strategy in a Noisy Online World.”
How many employees does Skillshare have now and, being that your service is 100 percent Internet-based, do you encourage telecommuting?
We’re about 35 total employees today. Almost 100 percent are based out of our headquarters in New York City. We haven’t done telecommuting yet because the startup face is changing so frequently and because we’re innovating so rapidly. We feel that collaborating in-person leads to creativity and so it’s important to us to work within the same office. We structure our organization to be extremely collaborative, extremely decentralized and mostly based in one place.
What’s next for Skillshare, both in the short- and long-term?
Right now, in the next year or so, we’re focused on steady growth and on having a bigger impact. We’re making sure we’re continuously providing a positive product experience and that we’re always thinking ahead toward the future.
Over the next five to 10 years, our mission will be even more centered around providing access. Ideally, we’d have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of classes across every imaginable topic, completely accessible to any student around the world on any device and in any language.