Masterclass: My new favourite fucked company
They were glory days. A micro era – spanning a year, maybe two – when capital outpaced rationality, but did so in a way that benefit users just as much as entrepreneurs. Often more than entrepreneurs.
I’m talking about the days of the first dot com bubble. Days of pet food shipped below cost, and free grocery deliveries, and fifty bucks just for signing up to PayPal, and every newspaper on earth suddenly giving its content away. And of rivers of money pouring into naturally niche publications like Slate and Salon and Plastic and a flurry of other media companies which seemed to exist to serve the needs of a tiny handful of very specific users. Remember Pseudo.com?
Today the money is back, but absent the glory. Uber may have unit economics straight out of 2000, but its treatment of drivers and customers (stolen medical records of rape victims; CIA-linked smear campaigns) is like something from a dystopian future. Facebook and Twitter might be as transformational to the media landscape as suddenly free newspapers, but come with the added cherries of harassment and Nazism and treason. The closest we’ve come to that 2000s feeling of “there must be a catch!” is the sudden explosion of Bitcoin which has made a lot of early adopters into lottery winners. It says everything you need to know about this second boom/bubble that its most exciting story is a Ponzi scheme.
All of which explains why I’m so excited about Masterclass, a kind of Khan Academy for price-insensitive dilettantes. Which is to say price-insensitive, coastal, dilettantes, who hero worship a very specific subset of liberal celebrity auteurs. Which is to say price-insensitive, coastal, dilettantes, who hero worship a very specific subset of liberal celebrity auteurs and want to learn their professional secrets. Which is to say price-insensitive, coastal, dilettantes, who hero worship a very specific subset of liberal celebrity auteurs and want to learn their professional secrets and have ten hours at a time to spare.
Which is to say, me. And I’d guess maybe fifty thousand other people on the planet.
According to Crunchbase, Masterclass has raised $56m. It’s not hard to figure out where that money has gone. The company offers 6-10 hour video lectures from Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet, Shonda Rhimes, James Patterson, Venus Williams, Gordon Ramsey, Steve Martin, Usher, Judy Bloom, Samuel L Jackson… and maybe a dozen others. (Until recently, the list included Kevin Spacey. Unsurprisingly, he has since vanished from the site. Dustin Hoffman, however, remains. [Update: Shortly after this article was published, Hoffman disappeared from Masterclass' public list of teachers.]
The cost of paying those celebrities – just the cash, never mind what back-end deals they’ve surely had to cut – can’t have left too much in the kitty, and that’s before the cost of… well… building and operating a business. They might as well offer a Masterclass by Montgomery Brewster on how to spend $56m in the fastest possible time.
The videos themselves are delightful. Useless on a practical level, of course. You’re not got to learn to be Venus Williams or Steve Martin, no matter how many hours you spend. But absolutely delightful. Well produced, well staged, well edited and packed with wonderful, motivating anecdotes that convince the viewer not that they might one day make it to the upper echelons of a particular art or discipline, but they already have. As a price-insensitive, coastal, dilettante who hero worships a very specific subset of liberal celebrity auteurs and wants to learn their professional secrets and has ten hours at a time to spare despite the fact he’s supposed to be finishing a book, I’ll pay $90 all day long for that kind of positive affirmation.
Maybe you will too. If you’ve ever dropped a couple of grand to attend a professional conference just to see the keynote (which you wish had been six hours longer) then Masterclass’ $180 all-access pass is the answer to your prayers . For a writer, that means hours and hours of wisdom from Sorkin, Rhimes, Blume and Mamet - and soon Bob Woodward - for maybe a fifth of what it might cost to attend a two day conference.
Still, let's not delude ourselves too much. The business is absolutely doomed. Like all of those magical dot com bubble companies, this magical company run out of money soon enough, or change its business model to become significantly less magical. In the meantime, I’m just going to enjoy the hell out of it and pretend the laws of economics don’t apply to things I love.
Man, I miss the 2000s.