Lynda Weinman wasn’t one to just open the box, toss the user manual aside, and start playing with her new device. Long before she sold her business and was dubbed by some as “the Mother of the Internet,” she got her start by voraciously reading the user manual for a brand new Apple II that her boyfriend brought home. Using her self-taught computer skills, she launched a career as a freelance special effects animator, culminating in 1989 with her work on Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. In her next role as a multimedia, animation, and interactive design instructor in Pasadena, California, Weinman purchased the domain “Lynda.com” for $35 and turned it into a web-portal for her students to access course materials. Then, in 1995, Lynda and her husband repurposed the site to start a small business based on teaching web design skills. Twenty years later, the couple reached a major milestone in their remarkable journey and sold their business to LinkedIn for a whopping $1.5 billion.
Evolution of the business: Creating and capturing tailwinds
One might think the success of a business offering online courses for creative and technical skills is hardly surprising. Indeed, the business grew up over two decades characterized by unprecedented advancements in digital technology that drove a steady surge in demand for technical talent; however, the company’s business model and success were far from inevitable, and the company by no means got a free ride on transformational tailwinds. In fact, what makes Lynda.com such a remarkable example of winning in the modern digital economy is that it began before the tailwinds seemed to so obviously blow its way, and it truly became both a byproduct and a catalyst of the digital innovations of its time.
Digital video education was hardly an obvious business model in the 1990s. Data didn’t move at high speeds. Web pages were primarily text displays. Media storage was still transitioning from tape to digital disks. Youtube was still ten years away. The best Weinman’s site could do was offer subscribers a digital version of her book, Designing Web Graphics, which was one of the first guides to web design.
At the turn of the century, Weinman’s website was still little more than an advertisement for in-person workshops she taught on web design. The internet boom drew people from around the world to her classes, but the dot-com crash led to a precipitous decline in enrollments that nearly drove Weinman out of business. Desperately seeking a new path forward, she used more self-taught skills to produce, edit, and publish videos of her workshops on her site behind a paywall. At first, very few people paid the $25 monthly subscription, but Weinman was patient, and her small base of subscribers started doubling each year.
The rapid advancement of digital technologies in the following years had an unusually potent effect on Weinman’s growing business. New technologies not only allowed her to operate her digital business more effectively – for example, using faster, lower-cost, higher-quality video transmission – but also became subjects for new courses. Each new course created new reasons for people to continue using or join Lynda.com. While her team implemented new programming languages, utilized new video editing tools and techniques, tested freemium models of customer acquisition, stored content on remote servers, or refined their online marketing strategies, they built a business out of helping the rest of the world learn to do the same. In a way that few other companies could, Lynda.com both fueled and benefited from the ongoing digital transformation; it truly led and embodied the convergence of the creative, technology, media, and education industries.
The business today: Creating and capturing value
Today, Lynda.com is a well-known source of high-quality, up-to-date, expertly-taught educational content that are used by individuals and enterprises alike. The company boasts more than four million subscribers; 5,700 online courses; 255,000 video tutorials; and enterprise partnerships with more than half of the Fortune 50 and roughly 40% of U.S. universities and colleges. Individuals still pay just $20-30 per month for unlimited, device-agnostic access to the course library, which is broad, deep, and growing at 60 courses per month. Course content spans more than two hundred distinct categories, with hundreds of unique courses in individual areas such as 3D animation, business and professional development, mobile app development, digital marketing, photography, and web and interactive design. Formalized “learning paths” include rigorous assessments that allow users to demonstrate proficiency to the growing number of companies and universities that use the programs as verification of preparedness for creative and technical jobs. Some organizations also offer these programs as a benefit to their employees, either as a supplement to or replacement for existing training.
Rather than crowd-source educational content like so many other online education companies do, the company has chosen to hire its own design, writing, and film production teams who collaborate with the company’s network of instructors, all of whom are well-regarded industry experts, to produce each course. The company also has close partnerships with many of the world’s largest software companies to build tutorials for their new products and updates, thus expediting training-to-member time and alleviating the need to undergo long and costly process of producing manuals or books. All of these collaborations ensure Lynda.com is consistently first to market with some of the highest-quality instructional content available.
For more information on how Lynda.com operates, see the video below.
In the hands of LinkedIn and its new parent company, Microsoft, Lynda.com may be well-positioned to continue driving meaningful shifts in the way learning, hiring, and training occur, at least for some professions. Creative and technical schools may disappear. Major universities may terminate or meaningfully reconfigure technical degrees, especially if momentum continues to build behind skills-based certification and hiring. But in any case, we’ll be able to look to Lynda.com to teach the world about its latest innovations and transformations at each step of the way.