Editor's note: This article was first published in The New Individualist magazine.
Just 10 years ago 3G and Bluetooth were in their infancy; Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube didn’t exist; and there were no mobile app stores. Fast-forward to today: social media inhabits a large slice of the web, an estimated 40% of web traffic is generated by video, and mobile multi-media is exploding. Video conferencing from your handheld is no longer just the stuff of Star Trek re-runs. One hundred million (yes, million) Android devices have been sold and 250 million Apple iOS devices (iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches).
Every year significant advances in web-based technologies change how we socialize and conduct business. And that creates a need and problem: how to stay current on new trends and learn associated skills and concepts.
Enter entrepreneur Lynda Weinman, co-founder of the rapidly-growing Lynda.com, a member-supported online learning platform of over 1,500 video courses and over 60,000 video tutorials on all things web-related. (The company name and website name are the same.) Weinman, a self-taught web industry guru, has managed to both provide an effective solution to this problem and, in the process, a fascinating example of win-win entrepreneurship.
Described in the press as a “juggernaut," Lynda.com has grown steadily since its launch as an online learning library in 2002. In the recently released Inc. 500|5000 List, the company was ranked #13 in “Top Education Companies” for its 250% revenue growth over the past 3 years—from $14.3 million to $49.9 million. Last year the company added 70 positions, it has over 70 new positions currently open, and currently employs approximately 200. Last summer Weinman’s firm made a major purchase in Carpenteria, California: over 50,000 square feet of office and warehouse space (to be transformed into recording studios), complete with ocean views. They also maintain offices in Ojai and Ventura. Weinman’s and Heavin’s initial investment in Lynda.com was $20,000—an investment which yielded $1.7 million in revenue in their first year.
The Lynda.com site received over 20 million visits last year alone. It’s been called “a phenomenal training resource” and “tough to beat” by the Princeton University Library, which maintains licenses to Lynda.com so that students can access the training programs. Princeton isn’t alone in this evaluation and use of Lynda.com; many universities (some 2,500) and corporations—including Disney, Google, Time Warner, and Apple—are clients of the site. And now, when you purchase Adobe’s Creative Suite (a large bundle of its software) the company offers you a free one-month subscription to Lynda.com—a marketing victory for Weinman’s firm.
What is Lynda.com?
So what’s attracting top institutions, corporations, and millions of consumers? Undisputed value. Lynda.com offers over 1,500 high-quality video courses delivered by well-vetted instructors for a monthly access fee of $25 (no, there are no zeroes missing). That subscription price has remained unchanged since 2002. Users can cancel their account at any time, making subscribing a no-risk affair. And site visitors can sample content before subscribing by viewing any one of the 5,000-plus free tutorials.
Perusing Lynda.com is like plunging into a lush garden of all things digital: there are courses in just about everything you can imagine: animation, game design, 3D graphics, digital photography, video, social media marketing, web design, project management, and mobile app development, to name a few. Course content ranges from courses for beginners (“Web Design Fundamentals” or “Facebook Essential Training”) to those geared towards web professionals (“Fireworks CS5: Rapid Prototyping”). The site can be used to gain an overview of web-related concepts (e.g. what social media is and how it’s used, what e-books are and how they’re marketed, what front-end web development is ) or to learn specific skills, like how to edit video, create character animation, code in Ruby on Rails, or how to conduct a social media marketing campaign. There are 441 courses in Adobe software alone. And there are 247 business courses, ranging from training in office software to “iPad Tips and Tricks” and instruction in relational database design. Weinman has also launched “Creative Inspirations,” an intriguing series of mini-documentaries on leaders in the design field. At the end of each profile Lynda interviews the subject herself.
The site is easy to use. Each video course is split up into short 3-to-6 minute chapters (courses range in length from about 30 minutes to over 16 hours). This makes it easy for a viewer to skip over chapters to get to the content most important to them. There’s a transcript available for each chapter. And each course is categorized according to level: beginning, intermediate, or advanced. At the beginning of each course, the instructor indicates if any pre-requisites are needed and directs students to Lynda.com courses that fit that bill.
Conveniently, the site keeps track of your course history, automatically bookmarking where you last left off. You can also bookmark and tag specific points in a video course, making it easy for you to find those spots again. Once you complete a course, you receive a certificate of completion—a boon for those looking to burnish their resumes or remain competitive in a down economy. (The site maintains a record of your certificates as well.)
Right up front, the instructor whets the appetite by explaining and visually showing what the student will learn in the course. These “appetizers” are tantalizing: for example, visual previews of a finished product, such as a sophisticated website design built in Flash, that a beginner will learn to create. The instructors get to the point quickly, using straightforward and concise language, all the while providing rich content and clear detail to their students. Trends and developments are placed in context. The student is always shown the “big picture” so they understand the “why” as well as the “what.” Alternative ways of executing specific tasks are shared, even as the instructor explains the reason for his or her preferred option. Related resources are shared, such as related Lynda.com courses or other online resources. “We strive to develop as many ways as possible to help people conquer the digital divide in their careers and lives,” Weinman explains.
The site set-up does not prescribe course pathways: it allows the learner to create his/her own pathway based on personal objectives. “It’s a completely choice-based educational system,” Weinman told TNI. “I’m really amazed and delighted at how people have responded to that.” The introductory class “Web Design Fundamentals” presents a survey of the subject and suggests next courses to take depending on what aspect of web design the student is most interested in learning (e.g. information architecture, visual design, coding).
There are over 240 instructors featured on Lynda.com, experts in their fields and effective communicators. Eric Meyer, author of the classic CSS Pocket Reference guide, among other books, is the instructor of the Lynda.com course “ CSS Web Site Design.” Mark Christiansen, the Lynda.com instructor for two courses in After Effects, created special effects and animation for popular movies like Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Spy Kids 3-D, and more. Want to learn what e-books are and how to create and market them? Check out Anne-Marie “Her Geekness” Concepción’s course, “InDesign CS5 to EPUB, Kindle, and iPad.” Concepción’s company, Seneca Design & Training, is a leading provider of cross-media design and publishing services.
Lynda.com attracts a variety of customers, from design and web professionals to children, retirees, hobbyists. “I’m 66, soon to retire, and feel like a kid in a candy shop with all the bins unlocked,” one user wrote. An 11-year-old wrote to Weinman: “Santa gave me a membership to Lynda.com and my mom and me watch almost every night at bedtime.” On the professional front, users write to Weinman to thank her for training that assisted them in attracting new clients, landing a new job, or obtaining a higher paying job. One member used the training to parlay a $35,000 salary into a $100,000 one. Weinman is inundated with these letters of praise, many of which border on rock star adulation. “I love you!”, “You’re amazing!”, “super-impressed”, “blown away”, “exceeded my expectations”, “crazy good!” and “I’m so happy I could cry!” are typical comments.
Innovation and the Triple Win
To understand the revolution that Lynda.com created, one has to understand what came before. Prior to Lynda.com the standard way to learn about web technologies was via in-person workshops, books, and courses. In-person instruction is still widely available, but pricey. It’s an option more suitable for advanced professionals or corporations with specific project needs, than for beginners. Consider: a one or two day introductory course in a popular web software application can range from $750 to over $1,000. Imagine the cash layout needed to become competent in just a few software programs. For busy professionals taking courses at a community college can be off-putting given the slow pace and drive-time involved. Taking an online program via a college can also be pricey. Learning, say, a web programming language, via a series of thick $50 tomes can be intimidating and pricey.
Lynda.com’s revolution was that it made top-notch training accessible anytime, anywhere, to anybody with a computer, and for the surprising subscription price of only $25 a month, or $37.50 for a “premium subscription” (which includes exercise files)—a significant accomplishment. This is the first “win”—a win for consumers, many of whom would otherwise not have been able to become web savvy or obtain the tech creds necessary to advance in their career.
Subscribers can cancel their subscription at any time, making the purchase of a subscription a no-risk proposition. Lynda.com courses can also be purchased singly, as DVD-ROMs, for those who don’t wish to subscribe. Prices for the DVDs range from $24.95 to $149.95.
Lynda.com is fully subscriber-supported, and doesn’t feature sponsors or advertising. The revenue from subscribers is more than enough to generate profit and capital to reinvest in the creation of new courses, which are released on a regular basis. As the industry releases new web-related software, Lynda.com keeps pace by timing courses to coincide with release dates. So as consumers “choose” the unique value proposition that Lynda.com offers, that choice fuels the creation of more content that benefits those same consumers.
The instructors featured in Lynda.com video courses are freelancers and receive royalties based on the popularity of their courses. They are paid “very, very well,” Weinman says. Some “are more than paying their mortgages” and others “are earning more than they could teaching at a university or through any other avenue today . . .” she adds.
Employees also win: Weinman underscores the importance of treating staff and freelancers “like gold.” “I have the distinct privilege to do work that I love with the most talented people in the business,” she notes.
And lastly Weinman and husband Heavin win, as they see their idea become more popular than they ever imagined. They don’t have to endure the grueling travel schedule that they once did when Weinman traversed the globe to deliver in-person classes. Audience size is no longer limited to a set amount of seats in a given venue. Courses do not have to be re-enacted over and over again, in order for new audiences to access them. It’s a great value proposition for the couple who in 1997 invested their $20,000 in life savings only to see the idea generate $1.7 million in revenue in its first year.
“Business doesn’t have to be a win/ lose or winner take all proposition,” Heavin points out. “Everyone can win. We like to believe that we win, we like to believe our authors can win, we like to believe that our customers win. We like to believe that everybody that we are involved with is a winner.”
It’s been a remarkable journey for a woman who started out in life feeling isolated, unhappy, and unpopular.
Seated in front of an audience at the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, California, Lynda and co-founder Bruce Heavin told the story of their lives and business success. Both have an easy-going and approachable air about them. Sitting catecorner to Lynda, and wearing faded jeans with unlaced khaki sneakers, Bruce leans back as Lynda begins. Dressed in black, seated comfortably with sandal-clad feet crossed, Lynda surveys the crowd. Her pale green eyes, framed by trademark oval glasses, sparkle with curiosity as she steps into the role of raconteur and teacher. She recalled how from childhood she began identifying personality traits, adaption mechanisms, and choices which aided her in attaining a happier life. “I actually came from a broken home,” she explains. “My parents were divorced and in the 1950s it felt like I was like the only kid who had a divorced family. I felt very isolated. I did not really like myself very much and I was definitely not popular. And I just say that to kind of, I think, reassure people because I know what we have accomplished is really huge… [B]ut I seriously was not anything too exceptional, I think, as I was growing up.”
In order to successfully navigate her difficult childhood, Lynda enlisted her perceptive qualities in a quest to observe: “[T]o try to figure out what was normal, what did normal people do, and how do normal people behave? . . .” She continued: “And I think very early on I became a people pleaser, because there was a lot of anger in my family and I was the mediator. I think both of those traits, being an observer and being a people pleaser, have actually had a lot to do with how I turned out and my interest in teaching and my interest in what I do today.”
Lynda recalls being “very miserable” in public school, but she set out to discover her options and to act upon them. After reading about alternative education, she decided she wanted to attend a school of her choice—one that offered the freedom to explore her interests and one without a grading system. “I just believed if you could figure out your own interests and strengths and passions and get to follow them, you would have a more fulfilling life,” she told TNI in an interview. “[M]y parents could not afford private education for me, so I actually got a job at a local hot dog stand,” Lynda explains, “And I went to the headmaster of a local alternative school, and said ‘I am making 80 dollars a month, that is all I can afford for tuition. Would you accept me as a student?” The headmaster, impressed with her initiative, said “Yes.
“I was willing to work hard for something, willing to create my own path and was sort of a self starter."
After graduation, Lynda attended an alternative college, which she says enabled her to discover her true passions and where she gained business experience. “For an entire year I ran the college art gallery,” Lynda recalls. “I did nothing but organize shows, and write grants, and hang [art], and figure out what kind of exhibits I wanted to do.”
Foray into Retail
After graduating from college, Weinman became a buyer for a store and then opened her own retail establishment, Vertigo, with locations on Melrose and Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. “My own store had a lot of artistic elements to it,” she recalls. “I sold jewelry and clothing and just things that I like.” She became an “arbiter of taste” and credits the years of observation and pleasing people as well as the traits of being willing to work hard, taking the initiative, and forging a path, with assisting her in this new role.
In 1982, after four years of operation, Vertigo went out of business, but Weinman learned a lot from owning and operating the store. She compares the brick and mortar business model with the virtual products and delivery systems of Lynda.com: running the retail store required dealing with inventory, returns, damaged merchandise, theft, and more. “It really has shaped my understanding of how precious what we are doing today is . . . we do not have inventory, and we really do not have returns too often at Lynda.com. We have such an amazing business model that really never could have even existed back when I was doing retail. I still think that my background in retail actually formed my ability to recognize what is good about the business model that we currently are operating under.”
A Passion for Learning Becomes a Passion for Teaching
Another trend in Weinman’s life that helped to shape her business was her passion for learning and for teaching herself. “I had a boyfriend who had worked on Star Wars  and Tron  and he had an animation studio,” Weinman recalls. She began assisting him as a camera operator and animator and worked to learn everything she could about the business.
Her boyfriend returned home one day with an Apple IICi, a purchase that changed Lynda’s life. This was “back in the days of amber monitors and CPM and command line interfaces,” she quips. To appease her boyfriend Lynda “broke out the manual” and “very painfully” taught herself “through trial and error” how to use the computer. “My life trajectory changed completely,” she notes. And the boyfriend? He took to calling himself “a computer widow.”
Her perseverance led to a new career as a motion graphics director and animator in the film special effects industry. Weinman worked on several major films including RoboCop 2 (1990), Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). [See sidebar: " Reflecting on Steve Jobs"]
Another career milestone came in 1984 with the release of the Macintosh computer which boasted the first graphic user interface and mouse. “It barely had any software, and I just absolutely fell in love with it,” says Lynda. “I had to have it. . . . [I]t completely changed my life because then I got into computer graphics.”
After learning how to set type, print, and create graphics on the Mac, the desktop publishing revolution began. “People started asking me if I would teach them, if I would consult for them,” she says. She points out that at that time there were “really no computer books”, no such thing as a computer trainer, nor were there courses in computer graphics. Lynda had paid her dues, trudging through difficult-to-understand computer manuals written by engineers. She had a gift for making difficult concepts easy to understand and for envisioning and revealing the potential of these tools.
It was time to leave the special effects industry: Weinman found herself poised at the crest of a giant wave: the advent of computer graphics on personal computers. “I was just really in the right place at the right time with the right interest,” she says.
A plethora of teaching opportunities opened up: at Art Center College of Design, the American Film Institute, UCLA, San Francisco State University. “It’s kind of amazing to be a self-taught person and then walk into these kinds of institutions and be the expert,” Weinman recalls. She also found herself in demand as a consultant for companies like Microsoft, Macromedia, Adobe, and Apple.
From Teacher to Author
Another watershed moment came when Weinman was asked to write on the subject. “I had never thought that I was good in school in English,” she explains. “I was very insecure about my writing. It was really kind of scary to me.” But instead of settling down into an “I can’t” mentality, she chose to push forward past those doubts and take action. Magazines like MacWeek, Step-by-Step Graphics, and The Net published her.
Then came the World Wide Web. The Mosaic web browser debuted in 1993, and not surprisingly, Weinman dove in eagerly. Soon she knew how to “do the authoring for it, how to do the HTML, and how to create graphics.” At the time she was teaching digital media and motion graphics at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. She became convinced that it was going to be important for her students to learn how to publish their portfolios to the Internet, so she hit the local bookstore in search of a good book on web design to assign to her students. The problem: there were no books on the subject. As many entrepreneurs do, she transformed the obstacle she faced into an opportunity: “I thought to myself . . . I’ve written for magazines. I am a teacher. I write curriculum. Why couldn’t I write this book?”
When she could not find a publisher, another “Lynda rule” came into effect: “When one door would close, I would just figure out another way to do what I wanted to do.” She began publishing her future book content as a series of magazine articles—thereby getting paid to do the research. Once the series was completed two publishers became interested and entered into a bidding war. Her first book, Designing Web Graphics, was published in 1995.
She then co-authored Coloring Web Graphics with her then-boyfriend and former Art Center College student Bruce Heavin. They married shortly after that.
“This book ended up becoming a national and international bestseller,” Weinman recalls “I left Art Center fueled with the royalties. And we had enough money to buy a house.” The couple settled in Ojai, California. “This is right at the beginning of the Internet age when Bruce had an illustration career and I was writing books and we just decided we can live in Ojai because all we really needed was FedEx and an Internet connection.” “And that was dial-up,” Heavin quips. “And that was dial-up, yeah definitely,” Weinman smiles.
Weinman launched Lynda.com originally as a free resource for her students, and then turned it into a site promoting her books. The title of the bare bones site was “Lynda’s Homegurrrl Page.” It listed seminars and workshops she was teaching as well as magazine articles she had written. The articles were prefaced with the charming note: “I am not a trained writer, just a computer graphics and animation geek who fell into writing entirely by accident. So if you find a grammatical mistake here and there, I have a great excuse.” The contact information link was prefaced by: “When technology works, you can send me e-mail.”
Taking a Gamble
Lynda became a world-renowned expert in graphic design following the success of her books. Subsequent demand for her training led to an exciting, but grueling, international travel schedule. “It was hard on me. It was hard on my family,” she recalls. Bruce’s creative imagination lit up as he pondered how the problem could be solved.
Why not rent some space in the local high school and hold a web design class there? They could advertise it on Lynda.com. “I thought he was crazy,” Weinman recalls. “I said ‘No one is going to come to Ojai.’ And he said, ‘Why not? You are travelling all over the world and people are going to see you, why wouldn’t they come to Ojai?’ And he was absolutely right.
“It blew our minds. And we realized this is the power of the Internet."
The couple rented space at Thatcher High School, and advertised on Lynda.com. The first class sold out. One woman came all the way from Vienna, Austria for that class. “It blew our minds. And we realized this is the power of the Internet.”The year was 1997. The following year they opened their own school, the Ojai Digital Arts Center, with their life savings of $20,000, generated from book royalties. “We thought we’d get out of working in our garage,” Lynda explains. “We’ll move into this space. We’ll teach a class one week out of the month, and the rest of the time we will just use it for our studio, for my writing studio and his painting studio.” Again they used Lynda.com to advertise upcoming classes
The school was “an incredible success.” And it led to yet another “epiphany.” Did Lynda have to be the only teacher? Would people come to receive instruction from other teachers other than Weinman? “It felt like it was a bit of a gamble,” Weinman recalls. “Well, they definitely came. They came from all over the world. We had sold-out classes. At one point we had two different classrooms and we were teaching 60 people a week in web design in Ojai. We had the Vatican come, we had people from Martha Stewart coming, L.L. Bean. We had every major startup, and it was just this unbelievable success.” The numbers told the story: “Our first year revenue from the $20,000 investment was $1.7 million. It was astonishing.” It was also almost overwhelming.
Baptism by Fire
While Weinman had some retail experience under her belt, neither she nor Bruce had a strong business background. “We got thrown into the fire. We had to figure it out.” They raced to fill necessary positions and hire a bookkeeper.
“We had the Vatican come, we had people from Martha Stewart coming. We had every major startup.”
She and Heavin continued to write books; many were translated into other languages. Weinman wound up authoring 16 web design books. In 2000 she and Bruce also started the FlashForward Conference, the very first conference on Flash, the popular Adobe software tool for creating interactive content. Weinman recalls the excitement: “Three thousand and five hundred people were lined up three times around the block like at a rock concert. It was unbelievable.” (Weinman later handed the leadership of the conference over to others in order to focus on Lynda.com, but she has since taken up her leadership role again. The conference draws standing-room only crowds all around the world.)
The Lynda.com company grew to 35 people with their chief focus on classroom teaching, but the other activities continued. “We were just kind of doing everything.” In retrospect she believes they were “too unfocused” during this period.
Dot com Crash
The business took a big hit in 2000 with the dot com crash, followed by 9/11 a year later. A lot of their clients had been from dot com startups. “All their money dried up, funding for training dried up,” Weinman recalls. Lynda.com soon was without a travel budget. Again, a door slammed shut, and the couple looked for an open window. “We started to record our courses onto VHS. We continued to just kind of eke by. That was a really tough year.”
In 2002 they began putting their videos online, in the dial-up era, long before broadband and YouTube. “It was before video was really considered viable on the web,” she adds. In the meantime the couple continued to publish books, run conferences, and do “everything else under the sun.”
With the advent of broadband and YouTube the online training library started taking off. “We could not hire enough people to help us with this growing online training library. Our library was starting to grow with this just really, really fast pace.” Realizing that the library represented their most distinct competitive advantage, they made it their primary focus.
"We invent our future."
If they were to have done anything differently, it would’ve been to bring in professional management sooner. “We didn’t have any budgets, we didn’t have any limits, we had very few controls,” Weinman recalls. They also were not projecting expenses. In 2007, they brought in a CFO, COO, CEO and President.
In order to better serve their purpose and audience, they made a conscious decision to become a larger company. Their position at #12 (2010) and #13 (2011) on the Inc. 500|5000 list of Top Education companies tells the story of growth: specifically a 250% increase in revenue—to $49.9 million—over the past 3 years.
Lynda.com is not the only source for online training in business, design, and web technologies. Other players include CreativeLive.com, Safari Books Online, and Total Training. But Bruce Heavin indicates the company is focused on innovating and moving forward and pays little attention to competitors. “We’re really focused on the next cool thing we could do,” he says. “We’re not looking in the rearview mirror.”
The company continues to publish new courses—some 20-30 hours of new material—every month. And they continue to keep pace with instruction on the latest version of software releases. The September newsletter noted that it took 9 years to produce the first 1,000 courses. But within only four months of 2011, they produced 100 courses. The newsletter listed 25 recent releases. “Even though we’ve never raised our prices, the value of a membership keeps growing as we continue to increase our production capacity to make this the most productive year ever,” Weinman notes.
A new version of the company’s iPhone/iPad app has been released and mobile apps for Android and other smartphones are on the way. A mobile version of the site is in beta, and being tested by 100 select users. Enhancements of the website’s functionality are made regularly.
“We have this incredible passion for technology, this incredible passion . . . [for creating] truly effective training,” Weinman says. With a bit of whimsy in his voice, Heavin recalls that when he was in grade school he often day-dreamed in class. “I was told to stop it. Frankly, that’s what I get paid to do now. It’s what we do. We invent our future.”
From the ever-growing stack of fan mail and ever-increasing number of subscribers, it’s clear that Lynda and Bruce are helping Lynda.com members, employees, and instructors create their own futures as well.
And that’s a triple win.
Editor's Note: Kira Newman contributed research to this article and some interview quotes from Lynda Weinman and Bruce Heavin. You can follow Kira's work now at TechCocktail.com.