Online education startup Udemy today announced some major growth milestones, including 700 percent growth in the past year, as well as a combined earning power of $1.6 million among the top ten most popular paid instructors on the site. Udemy VP of Marketing Dinesh Thirupuvanam said in an interview that this marks a significant achievement for Udemy, because it means the site’s best-selling teachers can now create online courses as a primary source of income, and one that delivers six-figure returns on the investment of their time.
That’s a difference the site can claim over others offering similar services, like the offline student and class matchmaking service Skillshare, or not-for-profit site Khan Academy, Thirupuvanam said. “For some of our best instructors putting out paid courses, they’ve been able to turn this thing into a full-time living,” he told us. “That’s something across a lot of the other platforms in the space, I don’t think we’ve really seen, where an individual instructor can come over to an online course platform and start teaching and quit their day job.”
For Udemy’s top ten, quitting that day job is a definite option. Number two on the list, Bess Ho has made $218,935 over a year period. In fact, of the top 10, nine are individuals, and four of those are making over $100,000 per year via their course offerings. The top spot is held by Canadian company Infinite Skills, which has a pool of instructors and uses Udemy to supplement its own e-learning platform; that company has managed to bring in $565,320 through the platform alone, likely a strong supplement to its own website sales.
Of course, the success of its brightest stars also means success for Udemy, which takes a 30 percent cut of all fees paid for course subscriptions through the site. The remaining 70 percent is passed on directly to instructors still represents a much better deal than what most would make via book deals with publishers, Thirupuvanam notes.
“What we try to do is really focus on putting the power into the hands of the instructors and the teachers themselves, and I think that model of really empowering the teachers and giving them ownership has been one of the keys to success for us,” he said. “A lot of the instructors who are in that top ten list are folks who [...] have done books before, and they’re used to a publisher coming to them and saying ‘this is exactly what we need you to write, and we’re gonna give you a small advance upfront payment, and you’ll keep a tiny percent of the upside.’” By contrast, Udemy gives complete control over content to teachers, Thirupuvanam said, and also offers them the bulk of the money earned through their efforts.
Udemy’s progress so far is a promising indicator that online skill-based marketplaces have the potential to provide not just supplemental income to people looking to monetize their skills, spare time or assets, but also become a valid channel for generating significant revenue. It’s also a sign that the model of community colleges charging thousands for specific skill instruction is being challenged by online players offering the same (or more, since some of these courses included hundreds of lectures) for much less.
The last barrier for Udemy and others could be the kind of credentialism that requires not only having a skill, but having a piece of paper to prove it, but with many professionals increasingly turning to the kind of contract work that depends on the strength of a portfolio, rather than an impressive résumé, that may not be as much of an issue as it once was.