Nov
03
2020
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Udacity raises $75M in debt, says its tech education business is profitable after enterprise pivot

Online education tools continue to see a surge of interest boosted by major changes in work and learning practices in the midst of a global health pandemic. And today, one of the early pioneers of the medium is announcing some funding as it tips into profitability on the back of a pivot to enterprise services, targeting businesses and governments that are looking to upskill workers to give them tech expertise more relevant to modern demands.

Udacity, which provides online courses and popularized the concept of “Nanodegrees” in tech-related subjects like artificial intelligence, programming, autonomous driving and cloud computing, has secured $75 million in the form of a debt facility. The funding will be used to continue investing in its platform to target more business customers.

Udacity said that part of the business is growing fast, with Q3 bookings up by 120% year-over-year and average run rates up 260% in H1 2020.

Udacity said that customers in the segment include “five of the world’s top seven aerospace companies, three of the Big Four professional services firms, the world’s leading pharmaceutical company, Egypt’s Information Technology Industry Development Agency, and three of the four branches of the United States Department of Defense”, which work with Udacity to build tailor-made courses for their specific needs, as well as use off-the-shelf content from its catalogue.

Udacity also works with companies to build programs as part of their CSR remits, and with tech companies like Microsoft to build programs to get more developers using their tools.

“We’re seeing tremendous demand on the enterprise and government side,” said Gabe Dalporto, Udacity’s CEO who joined the company in 2019. “But to date it’s mostly been inbound, with enterprises, Fortune 500 companies and government organizations coming in and wanting to work with us. Now it’s time to build out a sales team to go after them.”

The news today is a welcome turn of events for a company that has been in the spotlight over the years for less rosy reasons, partly because it found it challenging to land on a profitable business model.

Founded nearly a decade ago by three robotics specialists, including Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford professor who at the time was instrumental in building and running Google’s self-driving car and larger moonshot programs, Udacity initially saw an opportunity to partner with colleges and universities to build online tech courses (Thrun’s academic standing, and the vogue for MOOCs, were possibly two fillips for that strategy).

After that proved to be too challenging and costly, Udacity pivoted to positioning itself as a vocational learning provider targeting adults, specifically those who didn’t have the hours or money to embark on full-time courses but wanted to learn tech skills that could help them land better jobs.

That resulted in some substantial user growth, but still no profit. Eventually, the company faced multiple rounds of layoffs as it restructured and gravitated closer to its current form.

Currently, the company still provides direct-to-consumer (direct-to-learner?) courses, but it won’t be long, Dalporto said, before enterprise and government customers account for about 80% of the company’s business.

Previously, Udacity had raised nearly $170 million from a pretty illustrious group of investors that include Andreessen Horowitz, Ballie Gifford, CRV, Emerson Collective and more. This latest tranche is coming in the form of a debt facility from a single company, Hercules Capital.

Dalporto said the decision to take the debt route came after initially getting a number of term sheets for an equity round.

“We had multiple term sheets on the equity side, but then we received an unsolicited debt term sheet,” he said. That led to the company modelling out the cost of capital and dilution, he said, and “it turned out it was the better option.” For now, he added, equity was “off the table” but it may consider revisiting the idea en route to a public listing. “For the foreseeable future, we are cash flow positive so there is no compelling reason right now, but we might do something closer to an IPO.”

Being a debt facility, this funding does not mean a revisiting of Udacity’s valuation. The company was last capitalized five years ago at $1 billion, but Dalporto would not comment on how that had changed in the (uncompleted) equity term sheets it had received.

Education is in session

The interest Udacity is seeing — both from investors and as a company — is part of the bigger spotlight that online education companies have had in the last year. In K-12 and university education, the focus has been on building better technology and content to help students stay engaged and continue learning even when they cannot be in their normal physical classrooms as schools, districts, governments and public health officials implement social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19.

But that’s not the only classroom where online education is getting called on. In the world of business, organizations that have also gone remote because of the pandemic are facing a matrix of challenges. How can they keep employees productive and feeling like part of a team when they no longer work next to each other? How do they make sure their workforces have the skills they need to work in the new environment? How do they make sure their own businesses are equipped with the right technology, and the expertise of people to run it, for this latest and future iterations of “work”? And how can governments make sure their economies don’t fall off a cliff as a result of the pandemic?

Online education has been seen as something of a panacea for all of these questions, and that has spelled a lot of opportunity for tech companies building online learning tools and other infrastructure — with others including the likes of Coursera, LinkedIn, Pluralsight, Treehouse and Springboard in the area of tech-related courses and learning platforms for workers.

As with other market segments like e-commerce, this isn’t about a trend emerging out of the blue, but about it accelerating much faster than people projected it would.

“Given Udacity’s growth, focus on sustainable business practices, and expanding reach across multiple industries, we are excited to provide this investment. We look forward to working with the company to help them sustain their impressive global growth, and continued innovation in upskilling and reskilling,” said Steve Kuo, senior MD and Technology Group head at Hercules Capital, in a statement.

In the areas of enterprise and government, Dalporto described a number of scenarios where Udacity is already active, which are natural progressions of the kind of vocational learning it was already offering.

They include, for example, the energy company Shell retraining structural and geological engineers “who had good math skills but no machine learning expertise” to be able to work in data science, needed as the company builds more automation into its operation and moves into new kinds of energy technology.

And he said that Egypt and other nations — looking to the success that India has had — have been providing technology expertise training to residents to help them find jobs in the “outsourcing economy.” He said that the program in Egypt has seen an 80% graduation rate and 70% “positive outcomes” (resulting in jobs).

“If you take just AI and machine learning, demand for these skills is growing at a rate of 70% year-over-year, but there is a shortage of talent to fill those roles,” Dalporto said.

Udacity is for now not looking at any acquisitions, he added, for another 6-12 months. “We have so much demand and work to do internally that there is no compelling reason to do that. At some point we will look at that but it needs to be linked to our strategy.”

Oct
20
2020
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Dublin’s LearnUpon raises $56M for its online learning management system for enterprises

One big technology by-product of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a much stronger focus on online education solutions — providing the tools for students to continue learning when the public health situation is preventing them from going into physical classrooms. As it happens, that paradigm also applies to the business world.

Today, a startup out of Dublin called LearnUpon, which has been building e-learning solutions not for schools but corporates to use for development and training, has raised $56 million to feed a growth in demand for its tools, particularly in the U.S. market, which currently accounts for 70% of LearnUpon’s sales.

The funding is coming from a single investor, Summit Partners . LearnUpon’s CEO and co-founder Brendan Noud said the capital will be used in two areas. First, to add more people to the startup’s engineering and product teams (it has 180 employees currently) to continue expanding in areas like data analytics, providing more insights to its customers on how their training materials are used on via its learning management system (commonly referred to as LMS in the industry). Second, to bring on more people to help sell the product particularly in countries where it is currently growing fast, like the U.S., to larger corporate clients.

LearnUpon already has some 1,000 customers globally, including Booking.com, Twilio, USA Football and Zendesk. And notably, eight-year-old LearnUpon was profitable and had only raised $1.5 million before now.

“We’ve been growing organically pretty fast since we started but especially for the last 4-5 years using a SaaS model, but now we’re at a scale where the opportunity is vast, especially with more people working from home,” he said. “We want to give ourselves firepower.”

Corporate learning has followed similar but not identical trajectory to that of online education for K-12 and higher learning. In common, especially in the last 8 months. has been a growing need to engage and connect with learners at a time when it’s been challenging, or in some cases impossible, to see each other in person.

What’s different is that corporate learning was already a very established market, with organizations widely investing in online tools to manage training and personal development for years before any pandemic necessitated it.

Areas like employee onboarding, personnel development, customer training, training on new products, partner training, sales development, compliance, and building training services that you then sell to third parties are all areas that count as corporate learning. One researcher estimated that the corporate learning market was valued at an eye-watering $64 billion in 2019, with LMS investments alone at over $9 billion that year, and both are growing.

That has been a boost for companies like LearnUpon, which provides services in all of those categories and says that annual recurring revenues have grown by more than 50% year-on-year for each of the last 12 quarters.

But that also underscores the challenge in the market.

“It’s definitely a very crowded space, with maybe over 1000 LMS’s out there,” said Noud, although he added that it only has about 10-15 actually direct competitors (which to me still sounds like quite a lot). They include the likes of Cornerstone, TalentLMS from the Greek startup Epignosis, the Candian publicly-traded Docebo, and 360Learning from France.

But also consider those that have moved into corporate learning from other directions. LinkedIn has made big moves into learning to complement its bigger recruitment and professional development profile; and companies originally built to target the education sector, such as Coursera and Kahoot, have also expanded into business training and education. Both represent further competitive fronts for companies like LearnUpon natively built to service the business market.

Noud said that one reason why LearnUpon is finding some traction against the rest of the pack, and why it’s better, is because it’s a more comprehensive platform. Users can run live or asynchronous (on-demand) learning or training, and the SaaS LMS is designed to handle material and learning environments for multiple “students” — be they internal users, partners of the organization, or customers. In contrast, he said that many other solutions are more narrow in their scope, requiring organizations to manage multiple systems.

“And the legacy platforms are overly bloated, with bad customer support, which was a key area for us,” he said, recalling back to eight years ago when he and co-founder Des Anderson were first starting LearnUpon. “Our first hire was in customer support, and that has carried through to how we have grown.”

One area where LearnUpon not doing anything right now is in content development. It does offer tools to construct tests and surveys, but users can also import content created with other e-learning authoring tools, Noud said. Similarly, it’s not in the business of building its own live teaching platforms: you can import links from others like Zoom to provide the platform where people will teach and engage.

That’s not going to be a focus for now for the company, but given that others it competes with are providing a one-stop shop, for those that are looking to simplify procurement and have a more direct hand in building training as well as managing it, you can see how this might be an area that LearnUpon might develop down the line.

“In today’s knowledge economy, we believe corporate learning has become a key requirement for all organizations of scale – and the added challenge of remote working has only accelerated the importance of delivering learning digitally,” said Antony Clavel, a Principal with Summit Partners, in a statement. “With its modern, cloud-based learning management system, strong product development organization, demonstrated dedication to customer success and capital efficient go-to-market model, we believe LearnUpon is strongly positioned to serve this growing and increasingly critical market need. We are thrilled to support Brendan and the LearnUpon team in this next phase of growth.”

Clavel is joining the LearnUpon Board of Directors with this round. The startup is not disclosing its valuation.

Mar
05
2019
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Salesforce releases myTrailhead, a customizable training platform

Salesforce has been using the notion of trailblazers as a learning metaphor for several years, since it created a platform to teach customers Salesforce skills called Trailhead. Today, the company announced the availability of myTrailhead, a similar platform that enables company to create branded, fully-customizable training materials based on the Trailhead approach.

It’s worth noting that the company originally announced this idea at Dreamforce in November, 2017, and after testing it on 13 pilot customers (including itself) for the last year is making the product generally available today.

While Trailhead is all about teaching Salesforce skills, myTrailhead is about building on that approach to teach whatever other skills a company might find desirable with its own culture, style, branding and methodologies.

It builds on the whole Trailhead theme of blazing a learning trail, providing a gamified approach to self-paced training, where users are quizzed throughout to reinforce the lessons, awarded badges for successfully completing modules and given titles like Ranger for successfully completing a certain number of courses.

By gamifying the approach, Salesforce hopes people will have friendly competition within companies, but it also sees these skills as adding value to an employee’s resume. If a manager is looking for an in-house hire, they can search by skills in myTrailhead and find candidates who match their requirements. Additionally, employees who participate in training can potentially advance their careers with the their enhanced skill sets.

While you can continue to teach Salesforce skills in myTrailhead, it’s really focused on the customization and what companies can add on top of the Salesforce materials to make the platform their own. Salesforce envisions companies using the platform for new employee onboarding, sales enablement or customer service training, but if a company is ambitious, it could use this as a broader training tool.

There is an analytics component in myTrailhead, so management can track when employees complete required training modules, understand how well they are doing as they move through a learning track or recognize when employees have updated their skill sets.

The idea is to build on the Trailhead platform idea to provide companies with a methodology for creating a digital approach learning, which Salesforce sees as an essential ingredient of becoming a modern company. The product is available immediately.

Jan
25
2017
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Teachable books $4 million to turn everybody into educators online

A user sets up an online course via Teachable.com Education tech startup Teachable (formerly known as Fedora) has raised $4 million in a Series A round of funding according to CEO and founder Ankur Nagpal. The company provides a platform that’s like a Shopify or a SquareSpace for tutors or teachers. Its platform allows subject matter experts to quickly construct online courses and sell or give them away to their followers, setting their… Read More

Feb
17
2016
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Databricks Launches Free Community Edition As Companion To Free Online Spark Courses

Female programmer looking intently at computer screen. Databricks, the commercial company created from the open source Apache Spark project, announced the release of a free Community Edition today aimed at teaching people how to use Spark — and as an adjunct to the free online courses (MOOCs) it created last year. The free version is a limited edition without all of the advanced features you would find in the enterprise-pay… Read More

Jul
14
2015
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DataCamp Gets $1M Seed Round To Develop Data Science Learning Platform

Laptop with bookshelf on screen to symbolized e learning. DataCamp wants to teach data science skills to a generation of people, and it got a million in seed money to continue developing its online data-science learning platform.
The round was led by Chris Lynch at Accomplice, an early stage venture capital firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The company had raised $300,000 in seed money previously
DataCamp is not unlike coding bootcamps such… Read More

Mar
16
2014
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Another Day, Another EdTech Giant Acquired: Following Renaissance Learning, Education Software Veteran Skillsoft Sells For $2B+

It’s been an active week in the world of education software, with this weekend bringing news of the second big-ticket acquisition of a veteran EdTech company in as many days. Last week, Renaissance Learning, the 29-year-old, Google Capital-backed analytics and assessment giant, was acquired by private equity firm Hellman & Friedman for a hefty $1.1 billion. On the same day, rumors of… Read More

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