I had a great time talking shop with business leader David Meltzer, the Co-Founder of Sports 1 Marketing, a marketing agency that he co-founded with Pro Football Hall of Fame Quarterback, Warren Moon.
Have you wanted to teach online, but didn’t know where to start?
I know, I know. I hear you. It sounds like a great idea, but how do you get going?
I’ve put together this post to help TakeLessons Teaching Partners prepare to become an online teacher.
Hi, my name is Steven Cox. I’m the Founder and CEO of TakeLessons.com. We’re a community and marketplace where consumers find, book, and take lessons ranging from music to languages to career education. Our instructors cover diverse subjects ranging from sewing and parkour; from Excel and Powerpoint, to SAT prep; from guitar and singing to conversational French and magic lessons.
Over the past 9 years, our team has helped over 100,000 freelance instructors and studios market themselves, earn more money, and more importantly, make a real difference in the lives of people around the world.
Here’s what you’re going to learn in this post:
- The benefits of teaching online
- The pitfalls when you teach online, and how to avoid them
- How to get your physical space set up
- What equipment you’ll need to deliver a WOW experience
- How to help students get set up for their online class
Throughout the post, you’ll also see quotes pulled directly from our TakeLessons Partner Community that will give you their tips and feedback about online lessons.
Other instructors who are not part of TakeLessons will also find the post valuable, but it was specifically designed to help professional TakeLessons instructors.
This post doesn’t cover how or what to teach. It’s assumed the instructor already has course materials prepared.
Let’s get started!
Why Teach Online?
TakeLessons Teaching Partners have an internal passion for helping students learn, grow, and become the best they can be. Years ago, most private lessons instructors taught students in their city. But the problem was that there may be an oversupply of instructors or an undersupply of students. In either case, this makes it difficult for an instructor to make a good living doing what they love to do.
Today, the world is shifting into a new paradigm. More and more people are opting to learn online. In a white paper by The Learning House (2014), it’s estimated that almost 70% of college students are either studying fully online, or have at least some of their classes online. Kids are growing up with learning online not as a novel experience, but a familiar and common reality.
New learning technologies are making it easier to connect, communicate, and collaborate. Each year, companies compete to deliver faster Internet connectivity at lower prices. New breakthroughs in data transmission and an increase in camera quality helps provide a better learning experience than ever before.
Ruth. Instructor: Illinois. “I need some advice on how to set up for online lessons! I have over 35 students that are all in home or in studio, however, I will be moving to Colorado end of March and would love to keep as many as I can! Any advice on best platform, cameras, what I, or the student will need to have successful online lessons? Thank “you!!
At TakeLessons, we have continued to see an increase in student demand for online lessons. In 2013, online lessons made up less than 2% of total sessions. In 2016, it will be over 35%. By 2018, the majority of sessions will occur online.
Let me say that again…
ONLINE LESSONS GREW FROM 2% IN 2013 TO OVER 35% IN JUST 3 YEARS
In some categories like Tutoring or Languages, students opt for an online experience almost 80% of the time. In other more traditional categories such as music or sports, online lessons still account for 15-20% of the business.
What’s more telling is that when we compare retention rates for online students vs. in-person students, we see no difference in retention between the two. This tells us that students are benefitting from online at about the same level as in-person.
Reina. Instructor: San Diego, CA. I LOVE online lessons. I teach voice to about 15-20 students using my iPad. There was a learning curve at first and I had to readjust how I teach some subjects but now that I’m in the swing of things it’s awesome. And, my online students are progressing at the same rate as my in studio students.
Students and TakeLessons Partners tell us they chose online over in-person for several reasons:
Convenience. Online lessons, as opposed to in-person lessons, can save 30-45 minutes in drive time. Instead of sitting in traffic or rushing to be on time, both students tell us that online simply makes it easier for them to get to their lesson and helps them stay more committed to the process. That extra 30-45 minutes is very important to a busy mom who is rushing between multiple activities for several kids. We also heard that students were more likely to find a slot that was more preferred when opting for online.
Choice. The power of online is that consumers no longer have to choose from the best person in their area. They can choose from the best instructor anywhere in the world. This allows for a more personalized experience for the student because they are more likely to find the instructor that best suits their individual goals and tastes.
Class Tools. Instructors shared with us that they find value in the tools associated with online lessons. They now can share digital documents back and forth and record lessons for students to reference once the class is over.
Leverage. Teachers also like the ability to leverage their time by teaching more than one person. Theoretically, this lowers the per-student price while maximizes instructor income.
Expanded Reach. While online gives more choice to students, online classes gives instructors a way to expand their reach. With local lessons, an instructor is tethered to the 2-10 mile radius around their neighborhood (and in the case of a city like New York City, the radius is much smaller). With online, an instructor can attract students from all over the nation and the world. As an example, during the month of February 2016, TakeLessons placed 19 students with the same Partner. None of the students were within 100 miles of her. This teacher – and many like her – are able to address a larger market size by using the power of online.
In summary, the world is changing and consumers are getting more comfortable learning through the web due to convenience and choice. TakeLessons Partners who establish themselves now as an online instructor will yield results for years to come. Those that do not may miss one of the biggest opportunities of their teaching career.
How to Overcome the Challenges with Teaching Online
When we spoke with TakeLessons Instructors, there were a few challenges with teaching online. In this section, we highlight them and provide suggestions on how to solve for them.
Challenge 1: The Quality of the Online Lessons Experience
Since this is a new experience for many students, you have to overcompensate to ensure a high level of quality. You only have a couple chances with most students, so make sure your mindset is going above and beyond in those first few sessions. Make sure your students have a super-high quality experience.
Here’s the formula: High quality means a better experience, which creates a better perceived value. Of course, more value means higher retention.
For some teaching verticals, such as music or sports, there are nuances that better served by in-person coaching. The stance of a hitter, the swing of a golf club, the hand position on the frets of a guitar, and the posture on a piano. All of these are examples of subtleties that make in-person teaching a wonderful experience.
If you teach music, being able to play along with a student is important. Unfortunately, we all have to deal with latency, which is the small amount of time it takes to transfer audio over online learning platforms. That’s still a real issue. However, as systems continue to speed up, eventually the latency gap will get smaller and smaller.
Sometimes, an in-person experience is preferred, but it isn’t an option. So, the next best thing is to have an experienced instructor helping the student online.
Nicholas. Music Instructor from Atlanta, GA. “You lose out on the ability to touch your student’s arms to point out what muscles they should use (cello/violin/viola) and a bit of that personal feeling that only in person lessons have – but it is a great way to save money and time for both parties. I have found it to work well. You also have no traffic concerns – which is the biggest plus. I like it best when I have met the student in reality first, but that is a luxury. Meeting for a few in person lessons, even if it a bit inconvenient, seems to give the online lessons a lot of that missing personal feeling.”
Your goal, as an online instructor, is to apply your subject matter expertise to the new online medium and find ways to increase the overall learning experience. This may mean that you have to supply additional download material or perhaps learn how to angle the camera better in order for you to see how to help the student. As you become more adept to teaching online, you’ll find tips and secrets that will help your students get the most from their lessons.
As with any class, most of the quality of experience is determined by preparation and commitment. The more the instructor is prepared and the higher the level of commitment from both sides, the better the lessons will be.
Challenge 2: Online Classes Can Be Impersonal By Nature
Online, as a medium, is not as personal as, well, in-person. There’s no substitute for being able to stand with a student and guide them through a learning experience.
Kathy. TakeLessons Instructor. “I agree wholeheartedly with Alexis. I have online students and as hard as I try to duplicate the in-studio experience it’s not the same. That being said we live in the age of technology and we have to adapt or miss out on an entire demographic. Make sure your Internet connection, and theirs, is the fastest available. This helps to eliminate dropped calls and delays. Also, I suggest both teacher and student using an external Mic such as the snowball Mic, and external speakers to enhance the sending and receiving quality of the music.”
How to Make Your Classes More Personal. That being said, here are a few tips that will help you make your online lessons a little more personal:
Your studio Setting can help make it personal. Lights, Camera, Action! Set your studio up in a way that lowers the inherent disadvantages of online. Have a great camera with high definition. Arrange your lighting to remove shadows and make it easy to focus on you. Lower background noise from fans, heaters, pets, and other people that disturb the experience. By taking the time to set your studio up the right way, you’ve allowed yourself to focus on the connection with your student.
Be Real. Just as you would do with an in-person class, build bonds you’re your students through being genuinely interested in helping them succeed. Tell them stories of your own struggles and how the lessons you learned can be applied to their learning process. Set aside the time at the beginning to learn about the student’s WOW’s (Wants, Obstacles, and Wins). Find out what they want and the obstacles standing in their way. Help them get wins with every session and encourage and celebrate as many wins as possible.
Record the Classes. At TakeLessons, by the end of July, you’ll be able to record the student’s lessons for them and store them in ths students’ TakeLesssons account. This is huge. It gives you more ‘face time’ with them – even when you’re not around! Studies have shown that the more someone interacts with another person on a screen, the closer the psychological bonds. So, record those classes and build that relationship.
Your Attitude Shapes the Experience. Finally, remember that your students will pick up on your attitude. If you have a negative view of online lessons, your student will struggle with the experience. However, if your actions, body language, and words convey confidence and acceptance of the platform, they will mirror your attitude (most of the time) and have a wonderful experience. So, commit to viewing online lessons as an incredible way for you to help others and expand your business. Your students will thank you!
Here is a PDF published by the National Education Association designed to provide an overview of the development of an effective online education system, focusing particularly on the skills teachers need to teach effectively online
Challenge 3: Technical Issues and Latency.
The largest area of concern we heard from instructors were the myriad of technical issues involved when getting set up to teach. Not only do you, as the instructor, have to get your side right, but the student has to have their side set up as well.
There’s no question that an instructor who is new to online classes will face hurdles – especially if the teacher is, ahem, “technically challenged”. The best single piece of advice I have for you is to pick one platform and master it. Don’t try to use several teaching platforms, each with their own nuances. Pick one, get good at it, and scratch those technical challenges off your list.
To help you get set up the right way, check out the next section.
How to Set Up Your Online Teaching Studio
To get your online classes studio set up just remember the Two E’s: Environment and Equipment.
The “Three E’s” give you a guideline and checklist on the easiest way to get your online teaching studio set up for online classes. Let’s cover each of them.
Your Physical Environment
The first step in getting your online studio set up is to establish the right physical environment. I’m assuming most of you are TakeLessons Instructors and have a physical studio set up. Many of you have the studio set up in your home. That’s great! You’ll use that same space for online lessons.
Susanna. Instructor from Pittsburgh. “I teach online lessons and use the following. I have a Mini Mac plugged into our Bose system. I use a Logitech webcam and have a Blue Yeti microphone. I use our TV for my screen. I teach out of my living room and I use a land line directly connected instead of wifi. I also have a wireless mouse and keyboard that works with the Mini Mac. I also have a tripod I put the webcam on so I can adjust the height for lessons. I teach strings, so I stand for violin and viola lessons, but sit for cello lessons. I also have two floor lamps I got from Ikea I use to light the room when I am teaching online. Otherwise my room is too dim.”
Here are some helpful tips to getting the right online studio set up.
Pick One Place. Pick one place in your home that you can use for online lessons. This could be a spare bedroom, an office area, or even your living room if you must. Just remember that the area should be quiet and give you the privacy you need to complete your sessions. But what do you do if you have a roommate? TakeLessons Partner, Rosita Ruiz, suggests that you hang or tape a sign on the door letting your roommate or spouse know whenever a session is going on.
The background. Make sure that your background is uncluttered and free from distraction. If you can, set your camera up to where the focus is on you. The less distraction the better. Some instructors buy a roll of solid paper from a photography supply store and hang it in the background. This gives a more professional look. While you’re at it, make sure your computer desktop is professional and clear of clutter–you’ll be glad you did when you start screensharing.
Check out this video for more tips about the background.Here are some helpful tips to getting the right online studio set up.
Your Clothes. Depending on your background, make sure your clothes and skin contrast against the background. If you have a lighter background, try slightly darker clothes, and vice versa. If you’re shooting against a white wall, then avoid wearing a white shirt. It makes you look weird.
Lighting. Your studio should be well lit in a way that provides a soft light for your camera to pick up and removes shadows. Here is a great video from the gang at Wistia that will help you set up an inexpensive light source.
Here is a picture of our DIY lighting set up we put together in a few minutes. It cost us less than $20. For this demo, we just attached the lights to two chairs pointing at the subject. Notice, the lights are behind the laptop (where you’re giving your online lessons).
Noise, Echo and Reverb. Be aware of any external noise that would create distraction. Things like fans, heating ducts, appliances may create unwanted noise.
Also note that your room may produce echo that will make it more difficult to hear you. We suggest you ‘deaden the room’ a bit by using sound dampening tiles. If you don’t have access to those, try furniture with soft surfaces (cloth vs. metal, for example) and blankets.
Step 2: Getting the Right Equipment
Part of getting set up is to have the right equipment for success. For this section, I’m assuming you will be using TakeLessons Classroom as your online education software. Here’s what you need:
Computer: In my view, there are three things in life you shouldn’t skimp on: a great bed, comfortable shoes, and a fast computer. Get the fastest, latest computer your budget will allow. I prefer laptops to desktops for the portability, and I prefer Macs to Windows-based. The reason is that I’ve found Macs to be more reliable and easier to use. Both platforms will work, but a great 15” MacBook Pro is my choice. A 13” works well, too.
Opt to get the Belkin ethernet adapter that allows you to connect directly into your Ethernet on your modem or router. You’ll have better success if you ‘hardwire’ directly to your Internet source vs. going wireless.
Susanna. Instructor from Pittsburgh. “Most of my students use a webcam with their computer or laptop. They need to be in a well lit room and will need to be further back from the camera than they think. I do have a student who uses her IPad and sets it up on another stand or something so I can see her. Another student set up a webcam on her TV. So far, it has worked well for me. I have 11 online students so far and picked up all of them in the last two months from TakeLessons.”
Computer System Requirements from a TakeLessons Help Article
PC users should have:
- Windows 7 or newer with the latest updates installed
- Dual-core 2.4GHz CPU or faster (2GB of RAM recommended)
- Video Card: at least 64MB of video memory
- Sound Card: at least 16-bit
- Cable modem, DSL, or better internet connection
- A working onboard microphone, or externally connected microphone
- A working onboard webcam, or externally connected webcam
Mac users should have:
- Mac OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion) or newer with the latest updates installed
- Intel processor (2GB of RAM or better recommended)
- VIdeo Card: at least 64MB of video memory
- Sound Card: at least 16-bit
- Cable modem, DSL, or better internet connection
- A working onboard microphone, or externally connected microphone
- A working onboard webcam, or externally connected webcam
Get the Right Browser
Have you tried using GoToMeeting or Skype but gotten stuck because you and/or your student had to download software or install it first? It’s a real pain.
TakeLessons Classroom solves that problem and does not require you to download any software. We produce the session inside of your web browser.
Use Google Chrome as your browser. That’s all you need. TakeLessons Classroom doesn’t support Safari or Internet Explorer.
What about Tablets?
Tablets can work, but we recommend using a laptop. With tablets, you have to connect over wi-fi, which can be spotty. If you must use a tablet with Chrome, you can, but it may be a less-than-desirable experience.
Your biggest point of frustration could be with the speed of your Internet being piped into your studio. Think of your computer as a car, and your ISP as the freeway. You can have the fastest car on the market, but if the freeway is narrow and clogged with other vehicles, you’ll never be able to race ahead. It’s the same thing with ISP’s. Get a good one with plenty of space (bandwidth).
Here in San Diego, I’ve chosen Cox Cable as my Internet Service Provider. They have the most reliable, fastest service for the price. I pay $80 a month and can regularly host video calls with 2-3 people with no issues.
Let’s assume you plan on teaching private lessons and small group classes. When choosing your ISP, you’ll want to look for speeds where download is at least 2Mbps and your upload is 512kbps.
“Look for minimum speeds of 2Mbps download and 512kbps upload”
I know it’s more expensive to order faster service, but look at it as an investment (and it’s probably a tax write off for you). You should be able to make up the cost of Internet for a year with one extra happy client that stays with you because they’re having a wonderful experience.
When you are teaching live, close all other applications that are connected to the Internet, other than the browser that you’re teaching through. This includes messenger apps, Netflix, YouTube, etc. If you are downloading or transferring files, cancel the transfer until after the video session is over.
Also, as I mentioned above, be sure to ‘hardwire’ into your modem/router. This means attach the Ethernet cable directly to your laptop using a dongle (for a Mac). This normally beats speeds you get from connecting wirelessly.
Here are a few links that will help.
This is Google’s view of which local providers stream HD YouTube videos well. It gives you an indication of quality.
This is how Netflix views the service providers. If the service provider scores high here, there’s a good chance they will be good for your online business.
Finally, here is a link where you can test your current internet speeds.
I’m asked all the time whether the teacher can use the webcam that came with their computer. Technically yes, you can use it, but the video quality for your students will suffer.
My recommendation is to buy the Logitech C930e. It’s a HD camera that plugs into your computer’s USB port. You’ll be happy you upgraded. It costs about $95. If you decide on another camera, make sure it has a minimum resolution of 1280 x 720.
Here is the difference between the internal MacBook webcam (on the left) and the Logitech C930e (on the right). I didn’t make any adjustments whatsoever. It’s pretty obvious which one rocks.
In addition to the Logitech, I recommend you use a little program for the Mac called WebCam Settings. It helps you dial in your webcam to give an even greater picture quality. It costs $8 and can be found at the Apple download store.
Finally, remember that your computer screen is below eye level. So, when you’re listening to your student, it’s OK to look at your computer monitor. However, when you’re speaking back, do your best to look directly in the camera as much as possible. This gives the student a good feeling that you’re speaking directly to him or her. If you look into your monitor all the time, it will make it just a bit less effective.
I’m a big fan of the Blue Yeti USB microphone ($110). It sounds great and allows you to choose between several settings, depending on your need.
It has a cardioid setting, which is better for voice alone where the instructor is speaking into the mic (think language instruction, tutoring, etc.).
If you’re using instruments (such as guitar lessons), then switch over to the Omnidirectional setting, which will allow the mic to pic up other sounds surrounding the mic.
TakeLessons Instructor, Phillip Fullerton, also points out, “You can use it with the attached tabletop stand or you can attach it to a mic stand, which makes it easier to adjust the position of the mic“.
Another cool feature about the mic is that you can plug your portable headphones directly into the bottom of the mic. This allows you to get a great mic and a separate pair of headphones.
Also pick up a foam windscreen for the Yeti. They are $10-$20
If you don’t need the Omnidirectional setting, then check out the Blue Snowball. It’s another great mic, and it’s priced below $50.
I won’t get into all the details of headphones, but get a decent pair. Some people prefer over the ear headphones while others prefer in-ear. Really, buy something that feels good to you. You’ll be wearing headphones for hours a day, so a decent pair that is light and sounds good will help with ear fatigue. Headphones are highly recommended if you plan on teaching group classes online–it helps prevent feedback when multiple students start speaking at the same time.
I favor brands like Shure, Audio Technica, or Sony. Fender also has started making in-ear monitors that professional musicians use on stage. Prices start at $99 for the Fender headphones.
A friend of mine purchased the MEE M6 In-Ear Monitors and loves them. They’re priced right at $50.
If you’d rather get a headset with headphones and a mic in one unit, then pick up the Logitech ClearChat USB Headset or the Plantronics PLNAUDIO478. Neither will have the quality of a good separate mic and pair of headphones, but they are convenient and cost-effective.
Now, let’s talk lighting! So many people overlook this critical component. You can have the best mic and camera, but if your lighting sucks, then the student experience will also suck.
I’ve personally made the DIY lighting kit that was suggested in this Wistia video and, honestly, it works pretty well! It’s really ugly, but if you’re on a budget, start here. I was able to rig up a set with great bulbs for about $30.
Finally, here is a short video shot on an iPhone that also shows you the difference of having even just a couple cheap lights.
The next step up would be a Softbox lighting kit. This provides you with beautiful, soft and even light. Depending on how bright the rest of your studio is, you can opt for a 700 watt system for under $80.
You might also consider the Studio Pro 2,000 watt softbox system. I purchased this one and really like it. I can dial up or down the amount of light that I need for every situation. It’s more costly, but it’s more versatile. ($138.95 for two). You can also just start with one 1,000 watt softbox ($68) and place it facing you, but behind your webcam.
If you want to move one more step up, then I recommend buying a LED light kit. The benefit of LED is that they last longer, use less electricity, and give off almost no heat. They are more expensive, but if you’re planning on doing a lot of online sessions, staying comfortable and not worrying about the heat may be just what you’re looking for. Prices range from $150 for one LED light panel to $300 for two.
Helping Students Get Set Up
When helping students, first understand how fast their internet connection is. You can have them run a test at http://www.speedtest.net/. Hopefully, they have at least 1.5Mbps Internet speed. When speeds drop below 1Mbps, there is a higher risk for dropped sessions.
While you can’t control what speed they buy, at least you know going in whether you can expect connectivity issues.
Also, coach the student on how to get the most from their connection. If the student is on an online session, their family members should not use streaming services like Netflix or YouTube until after the session is over.
The rest of the student’s equipment is dependent on what they’re learning and their budget.
If the student is mostly participating through audio (subjects such as languages) or mostly watching you (arts and crafts, magic, Excel or Powerpoint training), then you can get by with cheaper equipment. The webcam in their computer will work, as will their audio. They can also use standard earbuds, but make sure the earbuds have a mic. Most students will already have a decent pair of earbuds with a built-in microphone.
Here at TakeLessons, we’re certainly seeing an overwhelming movement towards online lessons. It’s our goal to help you make a great living teaching, and I hope this post has helped you understand the benefits of teaching online while avoiding some of the pitfalls. You also learned how to set up your studio environment and what equipment might best serve your needs. Finally, I gave you some tips on how to help your students get set up for online lessons.
If this article has been helpful for you, I’d appreciate if you share it out to other instructors.
Sending you love,
I had a great time being interviewed by John Lee Dumas of Entrpreneur on Fire.
Listen in and hear about my worst entrepreneurial moment, my big ah-ha, and a few awesome resources for entrepreneurs.
To subscribe to Entrepreneur on Fire through iTunes, go here.
I’m happy to announce TakeLessons.com latest round of venture funding today. This round increases the total amount raised to $20mm and will allow us to accelerate our expansion into more categories outside of music, including tutoring, performing arts, and languages. We’ve even started to see new matches in categories such as welding, crocheting, robotics, and basic HTML.
We’ve tripled the number of instructors on the TakeLessons platform over the past year and continue to be excited about building a marketplace that helps consumers easily find the right instructor, while helping instructors make a better living doing what they love.
Congrats to the team and thanks to the San Diego Startup community for its support.
Starts at :48
Chris: As I mentioned before the break, we have a wonderful guest in studio today, Steven Cox, founder and CEO of TakeLessons.com. The team at TakeLessons has been connecting music students with the best local music teachers since 2006. They pride themselves on providing safe, affordable, fun music lessons to students of all ages. Steven Cox, welcome to the studio!
Steven: Thanks a lot for having me, Chris. Glad to be here.
Chris: So TakeLessons.com, we’re going to get into what that is. Obviously we’ll find out more about what it is that your company provides, but I want to get a little bit of background on yourself, where you came from, how you got out to the West Coast, and how you got started into TakeLessons.com.
Steven: Sure, well it’s an interesting story. So I grew up in the Midwest and grew up in Ohio, went to school in Kentucky, and I’ll tell you the quick story about how I got out west. So this is also dating myself, which is okay as well … but I was selling Prozac, actually, for Eli Lilly, I graduated — out of school, was selling Prozac for Lilly, there in Kentucky, which I can tell you all kinds of stories about–
Chris: That sounds fun!
Steven: [You can] imagine. A buddy of mine, he had invested in this company out in Las Vegas and he sat me down with a group of us, about six or seven of us, and he said, “Hey, I invested in this company out in Las Vegas.” The year was 1996 and the owner had raised $840,000 and literally gambled it all away. Every single bit of it. So he goes, “So we’re going to go out and take over the company. Do you want to go?”
Chris: All right, all right.
Steven: And I’m thinking to myself, well I just broke up with my girlfriend, I don’t have anything here anymore–
Chris: Didn’t even know what the company was?
Steven: Well that’s one thing I ask him. I said, “So what’s the company do?” And he goes, “Well, we’ve got these CD-ROMs and what we’re going to do is try to let people buy and sell stuff over the Internet.” And I go, “Oh, the Internet, yeah I’ve heard about that. So — yeah, sure, why not?”
Chris: And it’s not selling Prozac. “I’m in!”
Steven: This was literally a Saturday. I called my boss on Tuesday, quit my job, packed everything I owned up in a storage van on a Thursday, and then the next Saturday, literally, we were trekking it cross-country in a budget mini rental van with a couple of things we owned in the back. We traveled out west to start a company out in Las Vegas, where I first cut my teeth really in the Internet space, and it was 1996. Kind of typical, goofy Internet companies, had no idea what we were doing, software didn’t work — that sort of thing — a lot of testing in that era and that environment, but it started catching on and we landed a couple clients and that company grew from about 8 people to 800 people. Went through the whole funding, IPO, was the 3rd-best performing stock of ‘99, I believe — and was kind of able to see a lot about how to build a business as well as how not to build a business. One of the key takeaways that I had learned from that was, first of all, what goes up must come down — as we’ve all experienced — and second of all, it’s to really try to build things that are of high value for people. If you focus on building those high-value items that truly solve a problem for a particular group of people, then … you have a chance of really succeeding in the business.
So I never went back. I was in Vegas, and then I visited out here in San Diego, flew into downtown, and I was like, Wow, I’ve got to move here. There’s no heat wave. This is great. Also, there’s no snow. From there, I moved to San Diego and started with a company here that a lot of your listeners may remember — it’s called College Club, which was one of the very first social networks. And they were around … from about 2000 to 2004. The company didn’t get the chance to go public, but they sold out to a publicly-traded company. Again, it was just like a MySpace or a Facebook before Facebook, so I’ve always done Internet startups.
Chris: There’s actually been some success … too. There’s a lot of websites that people just put up, and nothing happens, right — but you’ve done a little bit better with that.
Steven: We’ve done okay with them, sure.
Chris: So now that you’re in San Diego … now this company came and went, 2004 rolls around, 2005 — what’s the next venture and how did it get started?
Steven: Sure. So I’m a nerd — I’ll totally admit that. What I do — and still do, actually, I was out pontificating — I was drinking a martini, which is something I typically do, and sitting out on my deck, pontificating, “Oh, where is the web going to go?” We had seen this big move over the past five years from, really, the late 1990s and through 2005 to where Amazon started, had launched, and really taken off. They grew from books to basically where you could buy just about any type of product that you would think about. And then we were starting to hear about this little company called Zappos that was starting to get a stronghold in the market. And I’m thinking, “If people would buy shoes over the Internet, they’re going to buy everything over the Internet.”
We started the general thesis back then with a couple guys I knew that, at some point in the future, services would move to the web very similar to how product had moved to the web. We’d see this giant shift — services in general make up over 75% of the economy, yet it’s very difficult to buy services over the Internet — and the main reason is, if I want to buy a product, it has a SKU number, right? I can take a look and I can accurately compare what that product is versus another brand or another site. When it comes to buying a service, whether it be financial services, or an accountant, or in our case, a tutor or a music lessons provider or a dog walker or a babysitter — you name it — we don’t have SKU numbers. So it’s very difficult to compare. Our whole thesis is, that at some point, brands would establish themselves as the place to go where consumers could go to know that they could get a trusted, vetted service provider that would give them a good service, and if they weren’t satisfied, that they could get their money back as well. That was the general premise, as far as the Internet goes, for starting TakeLessons. That tied in with one other thing that was happening at the time — that I could tell you about, if you’d like.
Chris: Yeah, absolutely.
Steven: In-between my startups, I come from a very musically-oriented family. My grandparents cut records, my parents cut records, all my brothers are session players, and I’m kind of the least musically-oriented out of the entire group. But I’ve always been in bands my entire life. I DJ’ed my way to pay for college.
I was playing in a band back in 2002, 2004. No, we weren’t any good. Most of us, anyway. I was, again, the worst out of all of them. But I was the lead singer in the band — and our drummer was just an incredible musician. He had studied for years, had a masters degree in music performance, and not only just an incredible drummer, but also an incredible human being. We had just finished a gig, and after the gig we went over next door to the bar to drink, and he said, “Hey Steven, I’ve got some news for you.” I said, “Well, what’s going on?” He said, “I’ve got to quit the band.” [I was] thinking, if you quit, the whole band’s going to break up–
Chris: You are the band!
Steven: “You are the band! What’s going on?” He had a wife, and he just found out that his first baby was on the way. And he’s like, “I’ve got to make some life decisions and I can’t pay with this. So I’m gonna quit working in music and I’ve got a job lined up and I’m gonna be a cook at Chili’s.” My heart — and his heart — you could just see it, just sunk to the bottom of the floor. And I’m thinking, Wow, this can’t happen to this guy.
We started talking, and I ask him if he was teaching. He said, “Well I’ve got my posters hanging up at the local drugstore, but not too many people [are] calling me.” I said, “Why don’t you use the Internet for that?” He said, “I don’t really know anything about marketing or the Internet and, plus, I just really want to teach. I don’t really know how to really run a business.” I said, “I’ve got a little background in that — why don’t I help you do that?”
That concept was what also kind of — the genesis of the idea was: how do we keep Enrique out of Chili’s — our drummer — out of Chili’s? And really help him make a living out of doing what he really loves to do? The belief of the company is that if we can help enough people make a living doing what they love to do, we can make a very positive impact on the world because we believe people are just generally happier when they’re doing stuff they love to do.
Chris: Absolutely. That’s a great point, great philosophy. So — what is TakeLessons.com? Let’s talk about what it actually is and what it is you guys actually do.
Steven: Sure. We’re a marketplace where you can come onto the site and find a local, vetted instructor for music lessons as well as tutoring service — academic tutoring services — as well.
Chris: Okay, so, perfectly matching up people that want to get instructions either via music or any other type of potential lesson via your website.
Steven: You got it. Instead of — you can imagine Mom hopping on Craiglist and finding some long-haired dude to invite into her house to spend time with her nine-year-old — it’s kind of creepy.
Chris: It can be, sure.
Steven: We take the creepiness out of it. All of our instructors … they walk through a whole 7-step process — all 40,000 that we’ve had apply — a 7-step process where we vet them out, they do background checks, we check with their professors, they walk through best practices before they’re even allowed onto the site. And about half — well over half of the people that apply don’t make it onto the site. They just don’t pass the standards.
So you could think of us — if you think about eBay and it’s a very open-type marketplace online where anyone can come, buy and sell — we’re kind of like that, but just for power-sellers in the same realm. Meaning, just the best-curated type instructors so that way the consumer knows that they’re going to get a really great experience.
Chris: They’ve done all the legwork for the person looking for an instructor because you’ve already vetted them all the way through.
Steven: You got it.
Chris: Okay. It sounds like a great website. I know I’ve checked it out — it’s awesome. We’re going to take a quick break here with Steven Cox, CEO and Founder of Takelessons.com. Stay tuned, we’re going to get right back at it after the break.
Chris: Welcome back everybody, you’re listening to the Market Pulse here on ESPN 1700. We have the wonderful Steven Cox, Founder and CEO of TakeLessons.com here in studio with us, just talking a little bit about your background and how you got into TakeLessons and obviously some of your passion with — your family was … musically inclined, and you had a little bit more business sense as well to go with that. It popped up — how to keep your good friend Enrique out of working for Chili’s. So whatever happened to Enrique? Is he still with you guys? Did you help him?
Steven: So you know what? Enrique never started at Chili’s, which is a big, big win — for both him and me. He still teaches for us today; he is one of our drum instructors. If you are in the Encinitas area of town and need a fabulous drummer, hop onto our website and look up Mr. Enrique. He is the bomb.
Chris: Perfect. I’m glad to hear it. That’s a good story. Now, obviously you have a musical background — and even yourself, you play some musical instruments. Other than that, your passion to getting this involved, and raising funds for it, and understanding the business side of it — what was that process like? Did you guys have to get fundraising for it, or did you use your own funding for it?
Steven: Sure. [I’m] super passionate about music — and one of my even larger passions, or I should say, just as passionate with music is the idea of — how do you build? — you know, we’ve been very specific in the Internet space, that’s all I’ve ever done — and my idea was, can I go start and found a company and then build something that becomes a household name? And continue to build something in — one of our core values of the company is ‘build stuff you’re proud of’? That was something that was very dear to my heart is assembling a team, building out an ecosystem to where if you are working for the company, you wake up every day excited to be inside the company, and if you are not in the company, you’re thinking to yourself, “Hmm, how do I get in working with those guys?” That’s the type of company we wanted to build. That was a big passion of ours from Day One.
When we first started the company and we decided to take a run at that … obviously there’s a couple things that one needs, and that is a decent idea, a lot of elbow grease, and the third is some capital — so we had the first two. The third came from myself — I was my own angel, if you will. Angel money — we put some money into the company to get it started. I recruited five, six guys and they literally worked for zero pay for about the first six months — my co-founders. And then after that, they got a giant raise — they were then making $750 a month.
Chris: Right — huge.
Steven: Unbelievable, huge, huge money. But when you’re starting a company specifically and you’re looking for what we call a “product fit” — right? — and can you build something that the market values enough to pay for? Specifically in the Internet space — that’s … the first minimum viable product that you’re trying to search for. And sometimes that’s exactly what it takes. If one is not a proven entrepreneur with a track record, to where you’ve sold a couple companies off in the Internet space, then what you have to do is you really have to buckle down and either find people that believe in you and [are] willing to pony up and invest in you — because they’re really not investing in the idea; the idea’s going to change a thousand times in your first year — it’s very, very typical — but people who believe in you. Or if you’ve had some kind of exit in the past, and believe enough in the idea that you’re willing to put your own money on it, that really speaks accolades and volumes to the next group coming in.
Steven: So we funded the company — I funded the company myself, starting, and from there we started getting a little bit of traction, figuring out what’s right, what’s wrong. We launched here in San Diego, we launched in a couple other cities, and was able to attract our first round of friends and family. We raised another $800,000 — mostly it was people who just knew me. I had guys that were like, “Man, I don’t understand a thing you’re doing. but here’s some money–”
Chris: “We know you’re going to work your tail off!” Yeah, okay.
Steven: “Just, don’t lose it, okay? Try to make it something.” But luckily for them, we didn’t lose their money — which was great.
Steven: Then we found a local investor, and also a tech guy — his name is Jordan Greenhall. He was an early guy at MP3.com, a local company here in town, DivX — which went public, also a technology company here in town. He was our first lead investor. Finding that first lead investor, who is experienced in the space, savvy — what that does for the young company is that grants some credibility. So all the other guys who were kind of on the fence and thinking about investing — as soon as our lead investor came in — boom! Then all the rest of them. All the rest of them just fell right in line.
So we were able to close that round. The next round, what we did was another friends and family round, and we got a couple other folks from LA involved. One of the early founders of MySpace came into the company, and again gained us a little more credibility. But all along this way, I’m talking about the investors getting us credibility — but we were getting credibility ourselves. We were actually working on a product, solving a problem that we felt customers needed and customers were validating that. …
So this is 2013 — then [in] 2011, so we’re into the company 4 years or so, we had enough gunpowder and enough results here for what we were doing to where we were able to go out and do a first institutional round of financing. [We] looked around in San Diego — there’s not too many venture capitalists here in town, so we did a road show through the Silicon Valley area. Talked with 32 venture capital firms, had really good meetings and follow-up meetings with about 13 of those, we were able to get three what’s called term sheets — which is not a promise or a commitment — but, “Hey, we’re kind of interested–”
Chris: Good intentions.
Steven: If you’d like to work something out, yeah. Our first round was led by a group called Crosslink Capital. They’re a well-known fund out of the Bay Area. They also did Ancestry.com, they were the lead investors with Pandora, and with those guys came SoftTech Ventures, who backed Twitter and Facebook and a bunch of well-known companies — and some guys like, for instance, Maynard Webb, who was the COO of eBay, who in the marketplace space played a big, pivotal role. So guys like that we were able to get in once we had a proven track record that we were going to do what we said we were going to do.
Chris: Gotcha. So at that point, you must have been steamrolling ahead pretty well, having these backers behind you, and people really believing — the people that work for you, plus people that probably now wanted to come on to work for you, moving forward. Was there a pretty quick progression in terms of growth from 2011 to today?
Steven: Sure. There’s an old saying that I like to tell all young entrepreneurs, and that is, if you take a look at the Space Shuttle or a rocket that’s about to blast off, and it’s filled with millions of tons of fuel, and 80% of that fuel that it’s going to use is going to be used in the first mile getting off the ground. And then after it starts getting traction, then it can — not coast a little bit — but it becomes a little more efficient. That’s the same thing; that you are going to spend a tremendous amount of effort on the front end getting things right before you’re able to inject that kind of capital into the business, most times. We did have traction, we were seeing some results, and the funding really just allowed us to put more fuel in that tank and press on the gas quicker. We’ve grown — we were 18 or 20 people when we got our first institutional round. We’re about 70 people now, so in the past year and a half — not quite two years — we have grown substantially just in the number of people. As well as we’re just getting more mature in systems and processes and customer base and we’re really looking to build a company with a lot of long-term value for a lot of people.
Chris: I imagine you’ve been able to smooth out a lot of rough edges along the way. Now you’re almost a finely-tuned machine. There’s still always something you can tweak, I know, right?
Steven: I gotta tell ya, it never feels that way.
Chris: It’s never done, right? Work’s never done.
Steven: If you’ve started a company and you’re a few years into it, and you still feel like, “Jeez, does this ever get easier?” That’s the way we feel.
Chris: It’s what you’re supposed to feel, right? You can’t rest on your laurels.
Steven: That’s right. It’s very natural to feel, sometimes, beat up — sometimes to where you’re like, “Oh man, this absolutely sucks today.” But I don’t know, I wouldn’t have it any other way. if this was a simple task — I think we were mentioning earlier — everyone would do it. But building a company from scratch and getting traction takes a lot of work from a lot of people. Not only just good decisions, but a little bit of luck along the way, and certainly a lot of tenacity to make sure that you persevere through the bad times.
Chris: At least at this point, Steven, you can take a look back and take some stock in what you’ve done and accomplished. I mean, you guys are heading the right direction — you’ve done a lot — your metrics are, what? You said 40,000 instructors now, or at one point? You guys have–
Steven: Yeah, we’ve had over 40,000 instructors apply. We’re in about 3,000 cities all across the US. We’re giving over a million minutes a month in lessons. Certainly a little bit of traction. And I really just give accolades to my team. This is certainly — I had the vision, but there have been just some incredible people — my co-founders, the folks who are with me today — that have been able to truly grow the business way past even where I thought we would be.
Chris: A million minutes a month. That’s remarkable. You’re giving — you’re teaching a lot of people or giving them the foundation to find what they need to move forward in their lives. That’s awesome.
Steven: There’s a lot of happy moms out there — because their kids are happy right now.
Chris: Keeping them on the right track. Keeping them out of trouble.
Steven: We’re pleased to be a part of it.
Chris: Awesome. We’re going to take a quick break. Steven Cox here, Founder and CEO of TakeLessons.com. If you have any questions for us here in the studio. We’re going to talk to him for just a few more minutes after this next break. I want to talk about if you had any mentors along the way if you have any advice for people that are starting their own business or maybe trying to get over that next hump so stay tuned — be right back
Chris: Back to the Market Pulse. We have Steven Cox, Founder and CEO in studio with us at TakeLessons.com. Obviously, they can go to the website — TakeLessons.com — or is there a number they can call as well? To get in touch with somebody or talk about more information about what they can do.
Steven: Sure. The best I did, just hop on your mobile phone or go to the website on your laptop, that’s probably the best way.
Chris: I’m pretty sure most people are — at least hopefully somewhat Internet-savvy at this point, right?
Chris: If not, ask somebody else — they can help you with it. So one of the things I wanted to ask you was, you went through a pretty big growth spurt from 2011 to now — is there certain things you guys see on the horizon for things you maybe have to overcome, or opportunities, or expansions for what you’re going to do moving forward?
Steven: Sure, Chris. So one of the ideas of the business when we were very young was: how do we develop out a platform and get to where we can launch with music and then start stacking other sorts of personal verticals on top of the same platform? So you can build once and then multiply your market expansion. We’ve been working on that for several years, and in January — or February, rather, we just launched tutoring. So now, instead of just music, we’ve also now allowed for tutoring where you can come in and find a math teacher, for instance, for your kid who’s struggling in algebra. And we have plans to launch other sorts of verticals on top of that.
In addition to the types of lessons, so just for music and tutoring for example, we’ve also launched an online product to where the majority of our lessons happen one-to-one. An instructor will show up at your house to teach you or your kid in about 3,000 cities, but there’s a lot of cities throughout the US. In fact, 12,000 [cities], so we still don’t cover the majority of the cities, believe it or not. We have all the large ones covered, but for all of those other cities we just launched an online product where you can literally, through the platform, pop in and schedule your lessons and do lessons over the Internet.
What’s really cool about that is first of all, it serves a much broader market; we have found that busy professionals such as, maybe Chris, like yourself, where you’re like, “Well I can’t go to a place once a week for lessons,” but at 8:30 at night, perhaps, you can hop on your computer and take a half-hour lesson and that’s much more convenient for professionals.
Chris: I’d rather spend my lunch break doing an hour webcam session.
Steven: You got it. So we just launched that product — it’s taking off like wildfire; it’s super, super cool — and with that we just got our very first international students — so Switzerland loves TakeLessons. They just told me about that last week, and I thought that was really cool. And it was a 53-year-old gentleman in Lucerne, Switzerland, who wanted to take lessons from an American and never had a shot before.
Chris: You went from 3,000 cities to every city in the world by doing that platform, right?
Steven: You got it. That’s the whole idea — is how do you continue to expand out the platform in such a way to where it provides a great service for people.
Chris: So what you’re saying is you’re going to become the next Amazon of the service industry on the web, right?
Steven: You know, we have big dreams, and we do things in a very methodical manner, which is something that folks ask me — they’re like, “Wow, you guys are expanding so quick!” But one thing that I’d like to point is out is that we were very lean and methodical and focused on one thing for six years, and just did one thing and tried to get the absolute best at that one, very particular thing.
I see a lot of companies out there when I advise younger startups, and what I say is they try to boil the ocean. They have this great idea and they’re going to do these 50 different things — they get zero traction at any of them because they’re not he best at anything. What I always advise is: find one thing that you’re super-passionate about and that you know you can do better and get a competitive advantage over someone else on it, because there are — if you’re in any other business, Internet or anything else — there’s probably fifty people working on your exact idea right this second. So the question is: how do you get really, really good at that? I believe in that as a focus and really diving down, focusing on one thing, because if you don’t focus down on one thing — you will never have the opportunity to focus on many.
Chris: That makes a lot of sense. That’s great advice. Did you have mentors along the way at all, or any advice you received? Or probably similar to what you’re saying now?
Steven: Yeah, you know what? I’ve leaned on a lot of smart people. That’s what I try to do. In essence, I can’t claim that I’m smart; but I can claim that I get a lot of smart people around me. That’s been the key. I use our advising group on the company, I use our board of directors quite frequently, and I’ve always tried to lean on people smarter than I — some of the very early product design came from just very good, deep conversations with other people in the Internet space trying to figure it out.
Chris: Right — that’s an awesome story. Steven Cox in studio, Founder and CEO of TakeLesson.com. Obviously — name of the company — go right to the website, TakeLessons.com. Located here in San Diego. And you can find just about every and any instructor at this point, whether it’s music medium or other medium as well–
Steven: Or tutoring.
Chris: Or tutoring. Perfect. We want to thank you again for coming on. Is there anything else you’d like to add before taking off for today?
Steven: I think that’s about it, Chris. I really enjoyed it. We love being here in San Diego. We’re hometown guys and it’s great building an Internet business here in the sunshine.
Chris: Any favorite bands you have? I know you’re in a band and a lot of people at your company are in bands, but anybody that you listen to or anybody that inspires you?
Steven: I’m kind of in the Foo Fighters, U2 realm — I listen to a lot of The Cure, just depending on my mood. 5:30 in the morning in the gym, I’m certainly listening to the heavy Foo Fighters or even Deadmau5 or something like that. I’m kind of all over the board so as long as it pumps me up.
Chris: I think that’s good. Eclectic taste. There’s a lot of good music out there. Perfect — Steven, thanks for coming on. We appreciate it. Steven Cox, Founder and CEO of TakeLessons.com.