Creative Learning Pays Off for Web Start-Ups

Anyone who wants to learn calculus, statistics or ancient Greek history can take free online courses in those subjects at a variety of sites from instructors with distinguished academic pedigrees. For more mundane pursuits, like learning how to paddleboard or build a planter box for the garden, there is an inexhaustible supply of free how-to videos on YouTube, eHow and other sites.
But if you’d like to watch a recording of a three-day course on the minutiae of photographing clients who commission high-end portraits of themselves in lingerie, that will cost $149 on a Web site called CreativeLive.
While companies like Udacity and Coursera — providers of giant online open courses — are just beginning to introduce courses with fees that count for academic credit, other online learning companies have carved out a lucrative niche in courses on design, photography and other creative pursuits. CreativeLive, and others have tapped into an audience of customers who are highly motivated to hone skills that might help enhance their careers. The online courses are usually less expensive than intensive in-person workshops on photography and other subjects, and can attract top-notch instructors with their promise of big national audiences.
Amanda Picone, a wedding photographer in Babylon, N.Y., bought the CreativeLive course on photographing people in lingerie, a genre known as boudoir photography, because she thought it would enhance her appeal to clients, some of whom want boudoir shots. Ms. Picone learned that asking subjects to lift their chins slightly while posing can result in more flattering portraits.
“They’ve all been incredibly helpful,” Ms. Picone said of the several CreativeLive courses she has bought.
Investors are noticing the profit potential in this niche of online learning. In January, some of the venture capital firms behind Facebook and other technology companies pumped $103 million into, a maker of online training videos for software and other technical tools used by creative professionals.
And two of Hollywood’s largest talent agencies, Creative Artists Agency and William Morris Endeavor, have invested small sums in CreativeLive that signal their interest in using the company’s service as a new outlet for their celebrity clients. CreativeLive has raised a total of $8 million since last year, most of it from the venture firm Greylock Partners.
While it is unlikely that Tom Cruise and other matinee idols will begin teaching on CreativeLive soon, Creative Artists Agency represents home décor experts, chefs and authors, many of whom already earn speaker fees for appearing at trade shows and corporate events.
“We love the idea that this could grow into another platform of scale and financial weight and could be another piece of the offering to our clients,” said Michael Yanover, the head of business development at Creative Artists.
CreativeLive has a twist that most of its rivals do not: courses are broadcast live over the Internet and shaped in real time by input from a small studio audience and the much larger group of people watching online. About 20,000 to 60,000 people on average tune in for the live broadcasts. One exception was the audience for a three-day course by the author Ramit Sethi called “Essentials for Creative Entrepreneurs,” which topped 150,000.
In some cases, instructors earn six-figure payments for teaching multiday courses. In total, CreativeLive has “paid out millions” to its instructors, said Chase Jarvis, a commercial photographer who co-founded the company in 2010.
“Creativity is the new literacy,” Mr. Jarvis said.
The company’s live broadcasts are free, but CreativeLive charges $19 to $249 for replays of the courses; 3 to 10 percent of its live audience ends up buying the replays because they weren’t able to tune into the entire course live or want to study it more closely.
“They see it as furthering their career or life,” said Mika Salmi, a longtime Internet and media executive who used to run Viacom’s digital operations and joined CreativeLive as chief executive last year. “This is an investment in me.”, a photography education site, has about 100,000 subscribers who pay $25 a month, or $199 a year, for full access to video courses on topics as varied as photographing wildlife or corporate head shots.
Digital-Tutors has more than 1,000 courses on the special effects and graphics tools used by filmmakers and game developers, available to subscribers who pay $45 a month. Coursera, too, has begun to beef up its arts and design offerings, including a course titled “Introduction to Programming for Digital Artists” taught by an instructor from the California Institute for the Arts. is one of the largest sites in the category. Co-founded 17 years ago by Lynda Weinman, who worked on special effects in “Return of the Jedi” and “Tron,” the company had revenue of more than $100 million last year, up 30 percent from a year earlier. Like CreativeLive, says it has been profitable since its earliest days.
By Nick Wingfield
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