CourseHorse Co-Founder: People Are Spending Locally in Adult Education

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There’s no shortage of options for people looking to beef up their knowledge in a wide variety of skills and subjects. Those in search for continuing and professional education services can choose from an increasingly vast spread of online-only classes, but it often turns out that they’d rather sit in a classroom instead of in front of their computer. When Nihal Parthasarathi discovered that people were giving up on taking local classes because there was no organized method to search for them, he co-founded CourseHorse

The company, which recently announced that it has raised $4 million in Series B funding, powers a local discovery engine connecting students and classes (and taking a commission on every registration). Street Fight recently spoke to Parthasarathi about where the money will be directed, and the various local opportunities in ed tech and adult education.

What was it about the state of education technology back in 2010 or so that inspired you to launch CourseHorse? Why did you think this was a market that needed disrupting?
I was doing tech consulting for a major provider of test prep. The test prep company was trying to figure out the alternatives in the market and how people could find them. And as a consultant I was saying: “There are a ton of different alternatives other than the big brands that people know about.” But they were super difficult to find.

It always feels like technology comes last to the education space, and I think of the education space as where it’s most possible to have an impact on the world, so this was a major problem. That was the core inspiration for CourseHorse. After digging into the problem, I realized that consumers were struggling — when you survey people who set out to learn something, you find that the majority of them never actually engage in any learning experiences. They give up during the search process because they cite that it’s too difficult. I thought, this is a noble aspiration, so we should make it easier for them.

Your recent funding will be directed toward market expansion, and I’m wondering if you can dive deeper into that. Is there specific consumer demand that you guys are responding to?
There are a couple of trends that are important when thinking about our business. Number one is that the majority of millennials still prefer to learn things in a classroom. Even though there’s a huge amount of money being poured into the online space, it turns out people prefer to be in a classroom, with structure, with their peers. There’s also upheaval happening in the adult education space. There’s a major skills gap, particularly in tech — people are graduating from college but don’t have the skills employers are expecting them to have when they join the workforce. You’re seeing new companies and tech schools fill that gap and provide these actionable skills that are marketable to employers. And the last theme is that when people think about how they want to spend their disposable income, dollars are shifting away from buying goods and toward buying experiences, largely local experiences.

We’re at the cornerstone of these trends. We’re the only company able to service that huge local learning need, so when we spend our money, it’s about expansion. We’re a pretty small team, and one of the things we’re trying to do is put more butts in seats and expand our marketing and engineering teams. With marketing, it’s about how we can get in front of consumers so they’re more aware of the 70,000-80,000 classes we have on our site. With engineering, we’re due for some pretty major upgrades with our product, so we want to hire for UX and design to take it to the next level.

The other piece is growth on a geographic scale. We’re live in L.A., New York, and Chicago, but we believe that this problem exists in every major city in the U.S., in every major city in the world. So the faster we can be local in more cities, the sooner we can help those communities learn.

Besides commission, are there opportunities for diversifying revenue?
There are a lot of different opportunities. On the school side, we’ve identified the need for analytics. It’s a totally opaque market; there’s literally no data about what people want to learn locally, what’s trending, what’s popular, which times are the best, which price points make the most sense. So we’re absolutely going to step into the data and analytics space. Another anticipated source of revenue is, we built a world-class course management system that can support a variety of different types of learning organizations, so many schools have asked us to make our tools available to them and power class-finding on their own websites.

On the student side, an essential thing for us is expanding into more areas that people are searching for, like graduate programs you can’t just sign up for on CourseHorse because they’re $20,000-$100,000 masters degree programs. There are challenges facing graduate learners who are looking for those programs, in terms of understanding what their options are. We’re working on building out an information platform that provides leads to schools that are qualified. For example, someone comes to CourseHorse and looks up 20 different nursing programs. By connecting a qualified college or university with that customer, we create a lot of value.

Another area on the consumer side is within corporate. A tremendous amount of money gets spent in corporate local learning every year. Right now we primarily serve the consumer market, but every day we have HR professionals sign employees up for classes and reach out to us to saying, “Hey, can we do a group training on-site?” That’s a major area of expansion for us.

How is CourseHorse innovative in comparison to other offline education options, and how is it innovative in comparison to online-only options?
When it comes to offline, we’re not delivering education ourselves, but we’re the only way you can compare various learning options. We’re the only place on the Web listing all of the local Excel classes you can take. We’re the only place that has reviews at the local class level. Yelp might list a local school, but it only shows reviews of the whole facility, whereas on our site you’ll get reviews of instructors and individual courses, and that makes a big difference when you’re choosing between options. Also, because we have a lot more data about these programs and these learners, we’re able to make much better recommendations. We’re taking the next step from organizing information to curating and pointing people in the right direction.

When you think about the difference between our offering and online offerings, it comes down to what consumers want. When you do research and look at how people prefer to learn, you find that the majority of them are spending their dollars locally. People who seriously want to learn something understand that they personally don’t have the discipline to sit through an online program. A majority of people are not as self-directed learners as all the online companies need them to be in order to be successful using their site. And most people are seeking more than just learning — they’re seeking an experience, with an instructor and peers they can have relationships with. What makes us different is the same as what makes consumers choose locally.

How do all of the advancements happening in local tech affect what CourseHorse is doing?
There’s an explosion of options. There are more schools opening up and more instructors teaching, and because of that level of competition, quality will improve. When quality improves, it means that people are going to have reasonable alternatives to four-year degree programs or masters programs, alternatives that will actually help you get a job. Almost all of this is about careers. In order for professional schools and tech training schools to replace existing educational infrastructure, they need credentialing. When people take local classes, there needs to be a way for them to prove that the education they got actually taught them skills. Our company is expecting to see a boom in credentialing technology.

We also think there will be a much stronger tie-in of educational resources and technology to professional job-searching capabilities. You go out and learn ten different things from ten different places, you complete your credentialing from ten different providers, and it’s the next level of your resume — here are the things I’ve learned, here are projects I’ve completed, and here’s the proof. We’re expecting the digital resume to come a long way.

Annie Melton is Street Fight’s news editor. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.