Curious Offers Online Learning Without the Commitment of MOOCs

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Before co-founding lifelong learning platform Curious, CEO Justin Kitch was hanging out at home with his kids, taking some time off. He had sold his first company,, to Intuit in 2007, and after a few years there, he was ready to spend some time at home. So he started doing as much as he could outdoors, and decided to devote some time to improving his guitar skills and a taking on a massive landscaping project at a new house. But he needed some help.

“I went online and was surprised at how bad the online learning environment was,” Kitch says. “I found good people, but bad technology, and charging in all the wrong ways for content. These teachers online needed a way to get students and have access to tools and take care of IP.”

Kitch started thinking about how he could build a platform to help teachers distribute and monetize lessons, and to let consumers take short, digestible classes on any subject at any time. In 2012, he and co-founders Thai Bui and John Tokash started building Curious, which featured interactive, short-format video lessons. “The market we focus on is not corporate, though some people are using them in the workplace and to improve their chances of becoming employed,” Kitch says. “We focus on lifelong learners, consumers who are paying for it themselves.”

The range of subjects offered by the Menlo Park, CA-based edtech startup is huge, with short lessons on everything from how to improve your tennis serve to building a computer to trimming your beard and making homemade fire starters.

It’s a very different model from the one being pursued by Udacity, Coursera, and other providers of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, which can give users college credit, and require a lot more time and commitment. “Coursera is focused on the higher-end market,” Kitch says. “They’re taking college courses and moving them online. You’re one of 100,000 people in this MOOC, you watch 20-30 hours of video, and you have hours of homework to do. On Curious, you can take a 15-minute lesson on Java,” Kitch says.

You also don’t have to take lessons at any particular pace. The short classes can be a one-off for something simple, or strung together into a bigger “course” that students can follow in small chunks.

At first, Curious sought out teachers. They looked for lessons on YouTube and checked out blogs and Twitter feeds. “You would be amazed how many different places people are teaching things,” Kitch says. The Curious team worked to convince these self-published instructors to move their lessons to the site. “They’re not really making money anywhere else, and they want to reach as many students as possible.”

But now, as the site has grown, Curious has opened its platform so that anyone can apply to be a teacher and publish classes to their own pages. Classes and teacher profiles aren’t added into search results or the site’s directory until the company has approved them. “We want to make sure we can understand what they’re saying, that the quality is high enough, that lessons come in clear enough conceptual chunks so that people can learn,” Kitch says. “We’re going to enforce rules about a clean, quality lesson.” Some 400 teachers have signed up to teach classes on Curious, with 3,000 classes on offer altogether.

Curious's course offerings range from jewelry-making to electronics and landscaping.

Curious’s course offerings range from jewelry-making to electronics and landscaping.

At this point, Curious doesn’t charge for the material. Instead, people who register are awarded 20 free coins; some of the classes cost a few coins, while others are free. The company works with to decide how many coins they want to charge, if any, while the Curious team reviews each class to make sure that its meets the company’s lesson standards. At some point, Curious will begin charging for coins, just as Facebook charges for the credits needed to play online games through the networking site.

Once students can actually purchase coins, teachers will be able to make money in two ways. They’ll receive a 70 percent cut of of fees paid for the classes they teach, and they can also offer products like e-books and other goods through their Curious pages. One of the current teachers on the site offers lessons in wilderness survival—like how to survive in the woods for up to 72 hours and how to build a fire. But he can also sell things like cargo tape and a compass and mirror to keep in your pack to help you survive. “A lot of our teachers are entrepreneurs in some way,” Kitch says.

So far, Kitch and his cofounders have raised $7.5 million in series A and seed funding, from investors including Redpoint Ventures, Bill Campbell, Jesse Rogers and Justin Kitch himself.

The site’s target audience is adults, but there’s no reason that kids can’t use the Curious. “The other two cofounders and I have kids who are getting older. We all agreed we would not want our kids to use YouTube today, but we always want them to be able to use Curious. There won’t be anything inappropriate.” Kitch’s son even recorded his first class—a lesson on making garlic-free pesto—at the young age of 6.

Kitch’s favorite part about the site, though, is connecting people who are passionate about the same things. A big wine fan, he has a particular website he checks to figure out which wine to buy, where he can go back and forth with people he’s never met, but trust their advice because he knows they love the same thing he does. He hopes to recreate that spirit at Curious.

“The idea that people who have common interests want to help each other out, that’s what Curious is about.”