Back in the summer of 2010, Michael Karnjanaprakorn decided that he wanted to take a radical step to raise some money for some of his favorite charities. Karnjanaprakorn, who had worked at the tech startup Hot Potato before it was acquired by Facebook, was an avid poker player and figured that he stood as good a chance as anyone to win some money by entering the World Series of Poker, the renowned annual tournament held in in Las Vegas that is televised by ESPN.
But to enter the tournament, which involves a series of events held over several months, each contestant must ante up $10,000. To cover the fee, Karnjanaprakorn turned to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter where, in return for sponsorship, he would donate all of his winnings to charities in support of beating cancer and promoting clean water. Karnjanaprakorn even created his own foundation, The World Series of Good, to encourage other contestants to do the same.
Karnjanaprakorn was ousted in the third round of the tournament, but he still raised raised some $150,000 for his charity in donations from other players. And when he returned, his friends kept asking him to teach them what he had learned from playing against professionals like Phil Ivey. In talking to his friends about his experiences, Karnjanaprakorn quickly realized that people might actually pay him for the same tips he was giving away to his friends.
As a result, Karnjanaprakorn organized a class he called “Play Poker Like the Pros.” Just as importantly, though, the seeds for a new business were sown, one which would tap the community-building powers of the Internet to organize informal classes not just on playing poker, but on just about anything. Chefs could teach braising techniques, for instance, or Web gurus could teach about search engine optimization. And rather than teach via virtual webinars, the classes would be taught in person around New York City.
“What we are doing is turning the Internet on its head so that we can democratize learning,” says Karnjanaprakorn. “We want to encourage people to think about how they can become teachers.”
After teaming up with his friend, Malcolm Ong, Karnjanaprakorn launched his new business, Skillshare in November 2010. This April, the startup raised $550,000 in angel funding from a group of investors that included Founder Collective, SV Angel, Collaborative Fund and David Tisch, the managing director of TechStars in New York City. “I am really interested in investing in companies who are benefitting the world in a positive way,” says Tisch. “And Skillshare fits that bill nicely.”
In just its first few months, Skillshare has attracted plenty of attention; some 2,500 students have already taken classes from the 500 teachers registered on the site. This is how Skillshare works: students find the class or classes they are interested in taking and then sign up and pay for the class through the Skillshare website. Then, depending on the number of students enrolled, the Skillshare team then helps book a location for the class, which gets announced through Facebook and Twitter.
For example, one of the teachers enrolled at Skillshare is Tisch of TechStars ,who recently taught a class tittled “How to Talk to Investors.” Tisch who, aside from guest lecturing at New York University, had never taught a class of his own before, says he had 45 students pay $15 each to attend his class – with another 40 stuck on a waiting list – which he taught at Dog Patch Labs, a co-working space on 12th Street.
"I was stunned by the level of engagement of the students,” says Tisch, who noted that organizations such as ESPN, Foursquare and Bloomberg Philanthropy, Michael Bloomberg’s charity, were represented in his class. “When people choose to go learn something, they care far more than when they’re in a forced learning environment.”
Skillshare takes a 15-percent cut of the teaching fees. Teachers also stand to benefit from the Skillshare model, since Karnjanaprakorn says some teachers are making up to $1,000 a month teaching classes organized through the site. (Tisch, for his part, donated the $500 he earned to charity.)
Given the early success of the site, Skillshare, which has just five employees, is evaluating new markets to expand into, with cities like San Francisco on the short list.
“We think that Skillshare can work everywhere from major cities to small towns,” says Karnjanaprakorn. “If a town has a school, Skillshare can work there.”