This article was originally published on Mashable.
Being able to learn marketable digital skills is sluggish and difficult—or so they say.
Adda Birnir noticed a gender divide between a media company's business and technical side (read: men) versus the editorial side (read: women). She created online tech education platform Skillcrush to give women a way to learn marketable skills that could lead to steady, high-paying jobs and relevant, satisfying work.
The five-year-old company teaches digital skills: We're talking about technical jargon, coding, building a website and understanding user experience. You do so by signing up for classes that are designed to be fun and done on your own time. But that wasn't always the format for Skillcrush.
"Our challenge is actually not convincing people that tech skills are really important," she says. "It's convincing people that getting tech skills is something that they can do."
Initially, Birnir and her team went to SXSW and seeded the first 250 people the old-school way: By beating the pavement and having heart-to-hearts.
But the next step—getting people to pay for the product—was a huge red flag.
Solution: Actually sitting down with dozens of users, one-on-one, to pinpoint what deterred them and what they hoped to learn.
This led to a lightbulb moment for the company, and it turns out users just needed some structure and a human touch.
"You can't take the human element out of learning, even when it's online," Birnir says. "You have to have instructor support."
So they created the first class, which was led by an instructor and adhered to a schedule (which you don't necessarily have to follow).
Using Skillcrush is like learning from your friendly, accessible best girl friend (not that it matters—about 25 percent of Skillcrush users are men). Buying into a class includes access to the Skillcrush 101 class lessons and group discussion, three 20-minute video office hour sessions with class instructors, downloadables, personal feedback and quick office hour sessions via Google Hangout.
Users are also placed in a community with their fellow students. This camaraderie, Birnir finds, really helps people reach their goals.
"The Skillcrush secret to success is that we have a really committed practice of always talking with our users and working with them to understand what their pain is, and how we can solve it," she says. "Whether your customers like what you're doing is top-of-mind at all times for any startup CEO."
Birnir calculates the company's growth by the amount of user engagement in the community. Users are what Birnir calls "hyper-engaged"—they stick around and effectively serve as TAs for newer students. One user even voluntarily copy-edits the entire website.
"A lot of our growth has come very organically, from word of mouth," Birnir says. "People will share within their company and we'll get 100, 150 employees all at the same company, signing up in one day."
Some of her own employees actually took it upon themselves to seek Skillcrush out because they believe in the company’s mission. Skillcrush employs more than a dozen minds—still relatively tiny, but with a big, big goal.
Watch the video above to see how Birnir grew Skillcrush from a noble idea to being the friendliest tech educator around.
Have you used Skillcrush? Tell us about your experience in the comments.