By Kate Daly | Special to the Almanac
"I'm curious. I love being curious," says Robert Redford in the newly released movie, "A Walk in the Woods." That could be a slogan for the Menlo Park online startup Curious.com.
The company's target audience is what co-founder and CEO Justin Kitch calls "lifelong learners ... a large minority who believe learning is a part of living."
He goes on to describe them as anyone who might listen to NPR, "read newspapers and novels, and watch National Geographic specials."
On the website Curious.com, they can continue to learn everything from pole dancing to training a dog, blogging, giving a TED talk and speaking another language. Mr. Kitch estimates that more that "25 percent of our learners are overseas," and many use the lessons to learn English.
The company's slogan is "grow your skills."
In under three years, Curious.com has grown to where it offers 18,000 online lessons created by 1,500 teachers around the world. In most cases it seeks out the teachers and then provides them with a marketplace and platform.
About 90 percent of those on the Curious.com platform were hand-selected by the company "out of all their peers on the Web," Mr. Kitch says. About half of the teachers have done something on YouTube or Vimeo.
"Many have tried to sell their content directly," he says. "That's when they come to us. It's very hard to do."
Several of his 25 employees are called lesson wranglers. Their job is to take material submitted in different file formats and help turn it into polished teaching blocks that include quizzes, assignments and attachments.
"We think of ourselves as a media company," says Mr. Kitch, sitting in his office at the company headquarters on the corner of Middlefield and Willow roads in Menlo Park.
In April the company added another dimension: streaming 10 free video channels labeled: brainy, tech, code, biz, craft, music, photo, life, health and food. They run ad-free all day and night, and broadcast more than a thousand introductory lessons at scheduled times.
To dig deeper, learners can buy Curious+ subscriptions for $14.99 a month or $89.99 a year and gain unlimited access to all the lessons in the library, plus some interaction with teachers. The company keeps track of which lessons are watched, and pays teachers based on viewership.
A lot of people apply to become teachers, but few make the cut, he says. He recalls just one time a teacher came in off the street and landed a spot.
Sophie Maletsky of Sophie's World is more the norm. Her planning business for children's events is based on the Peninsula (she hosted a workshop on making things out of duct tape at the Menlo Park Library last year), but on her personal YouTube channel she claims to have 9.5 million views.
A couple of years ago, Curious.com came to her and asked her to be a teacher. Her husband, Scott Stohler, is a video producer, so she already had a lot of material on hand. Curious.com provided the format and some suggestions to get her videos into shape. On Sept. 15, a search of her profile shows she had 202 lessons posted, 53,117 views and 5,876 enrolled students.
After some search engine optimization research, she recently developed an "advanced class" that is now on Curious.com, an 11-part course on how to make a prom dress out of duct tape.
She's used to reaching tweens and teens via her own website and YouTube. Feedback on Curious.com leads her to think she's tapping into an older audience. For example, a volunteer from a nursing home thanked her for her creative ideas on making crafts.
"There's something for everyone," says Curious.com employee Jody Kramer. Her kids, ages 7 and 16, sometimes watch Curious.com for the history lessons.
"Learning is the way to keep your mind growing," says Mr. Kitch, who studied education technology at Stanford. After college he wrote a programming language for kids, and then co-founded Homestead, a small business website platform that was acquired by Intuit in 2007. He worked there until 2010.
This past summer he experienced his own learning curve with the launch of Curious Conversations, live interviews he is doing in front of an audience in the company's studio with experts on various topics. He recently spoke with Denise Pope from Stanford about her new book on stressed-out students, and the talk is available on Curious.com.
When asked about competition, Mr. Kitch said other sources of online educational courses such as Coursera, Udemy, Udacity and Skillshare don't pose as much of a threat as Facebook, Angry Birds and Snapchat in terms of competing for online time. "I'm very afraid if you raise an entire generation of people on this," he says.
He grew up in Kansas, where he and his twin brother were only allowed to watch 30 minutes of TV a week. He and his wife, a high school math teacher, live in Palo Alto with their three children, ages 12 and under. They are limited to 30 minutes of screen time a day.
Ironically, he foresees putting his lessons on many more screens in the future. Someone just asked about running CuriousTV in an office lobby. Other potential outlets could be taxicabs and airline seat screens.
"The audience continues to grow," he says. "We're in the process of building. We're very fortunate to be well-funded and backed."
Published reports show the private company is backed by $22.5 million from Redpoint Ventures, GSV Capital and three individuals: Mr. Kitch, Bill Campbell and Jesse Rogers.