Skillshare's Users Are Solving the Company's Problems

By Erin Griffith , written on March 7, 2012

From The News Desk

When your startup focuses on feel-good stuff like sharing, community, giving, teaching, and learning, there's an unplanned benefit attached: Your sharing, giving, teaching users may end up solving some difficult problems for you.

Skillshare is a startup in that position. It's a company focused on online-to-offline connections, and it's missing a crucial element: venues.

The New York-based company provides a marketplace for anyone to teach and take classes. In its first year, more than 6,000 people have done so. The company launched in late 2010, expanding nationally four months ago. It has $3.1 million in venture backing.

Skillshare created curriculum builders, promotion tools, social sign-up forms and payment systems for teachers (classes are typically around $20).

But classes need classrooms. Alex Taub of photo editing startup Aviary pointed the problem out in a blog post yesterday. He's a "master" teacher, leading several classes in business development for startups. He noted that the biggest sticking point for new teachers looking to launch a class through Skillshare's system is finding a place to teach it. Skillshare's community manager Danya Cheskis-Gold acknowledged the problem: "A lot of people don't know where to begin looking," she said.

As the company has grown, the sign-up form's suggestions of "try a library, bar or coffee shop" simply don't work. Skillshare's entire point is that anyone with a skill to share can be a teacher. But for now, it's more like anyone with a skill to share and access to an open room can be a teacher.

This is a problem for any online-to-offline company with a focus on local communities. Skillshare can't scale very quickly if its teachers have nowhere to teach. The company also can't scale very quickly, if it gets bogged down in the logistics of finding venues for each new class in its system. The company is a disruptive force in education and, from what I can tell, a darling of the New York scene. But it still hasn't nailed the one thing traditional educational institutions have going for them.

Taub suggested the company partner up with some sort of Airbnb-type service for venue owners. But the company's students are way ahead of him.

Cheskis-Gold said a student from a programming class had created a soon-to-be-launched site to help solve the venue problem, offering spaces open to be used as classrooms, with options for rates, capacities, and types.

Another community member, Morgan Greenhouse, runs a site called verdeHouse, which connects empty spaces in D.C. to temporary users. Greenhouse has acted as a matchmaker for an increasing volume of Skillshare classes. There are also entire companies focused on this problem that are eager for Skillshare to use their services. OpenDesks is one.

These fixes aren't permanent, and we'll see how Skillshare is able to integrate them into their teacher signup flow, but they speak to the strength of Skillshare's focus on local communities and how that benefits the company. If enough local venue matchers spring up, Skillshare's problem will be solved with little effort on its own part.

In the meantime, Skillshare employs part-time ambassadors in its largest cities to identify potential venues and build out relationships. And for its master teachers (those who teach regularly), the company has a full time concierge that matches teachers with venues. But that isn't scalable, so the company would like to use more of the community-sourced tools and workarounds, as it spreads the sharing love.