When Masters Share Their Tradecraft Secrets

Written

When Masters Share Their Tradecraft Secrets

Taking a lesson from his childhood, the cofounder of an online school wants to democratize genius.
Serena Williams of the U.S. hits a shot during her Women's singles final match against Venus Williams of the U.S.
MasterClass students can learn tennis from Serena Williams, acting from Kevin Spacey, and photography from Annie Leibovitz. | Reuters/Edgar Su

When David Rogier was in the second grade, he was whining about doing his homework when his grandmother told him a story that not only motivated him to get back to work, but also, many years later, inspired him to start an online school.

David Rogier | Drew Kelly

As a young girl living in Poland, she and her mother left town for a vacation while her father stayed behind to work (he was going to join them later). A week into their trip, they discovered to their horror that Nazis had invaded Poland, stolen all of their possessions, and sent her father to a Russian labor camp, where he would later die. After the family fled to America, his grandmother tried to get into medical school but was repeatedly rejected. One admissions officer told her she had three strikes against her: She was Jewish, she was a woman, and she was an immigrant. But she kept trying until she was accepted into New York Medical College. She went on to become a pediatrician.

At the end of her story, Rogier’s grandmother told him, “Education is the one thing in life that no one can ever take away from you.”

In May 2015, Rogier and his friend Aaron Rasmussen launched MasterClass, which provides access to highly produced online classes from famous masters of various crafts, such as Kevin Spacey on acting, Annie Leibovitz on photography, Steve Martin on comedy, and Serena Williams on tennis. Each class costs about $90.

Based in San Francisco, MasterClass has 40 employees — a number that’s expected to double this year. Rogier says the company has raised $21 million in venture funding.

“Education is everything,” says Rogier. “It changes how you think about the world. It was important to me to help other people have something no one can take from them.” Rogier graduated from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2011. He talked with us about how and why he’s sharing with the world his love of learning.

What’s the big idea behind MasterClass?

What if you could learn from the very best?

How long is each course?

We propose that you give each class four to six weeks, including all of the assignments. If you just watch all of the videos and don’t do anything else, it ranges from two and a half hours to six hours per class.

How do you determine whom to invite to teach a class?

We talk to experts in the field and ask them whom they would like to learn from. We also talk to students and survey people and ask them who they think are the best in the world. Then we analyze a bunch of statistics to figure out who’d be the best person to teach a particular class.

What makes them the “best person”?

Our instructors all had someone in their life who changed their path for them. Kevin Spacey talks about the restaurant manager who convinced him to be an actor. Kevin was a waiter and performing in the park on weekends. His boss at the restaurant fired him and told him, “I saw your show in the park. You have what it takes to be a great actor. You should go do that.” They all had someone who helped them and they want to help someone else. Also, they are all masters of their crafts. They’ve spent decades honing their skills, and they want to share that knowledge.

How do you compete with platforms like YouTube, where people can learn all sorts of things through online video?

Some of our teachers already have tons of other content out there, like chef Gordon Ramsay. He’s published books, produced TV shows, and has tons of videos on YouTube. But his MasterClass takes place in his home and he opens up his kitchen to teach you how to elevate your home cooking to Michelin-star level. It’s the first time he goes into this level of depth. You can’t get that level of access anywhere else. Also, our classes go beyond video. We have forums and workbooks, and the instructors are engaged in the classes. Werner Herzog, the German screenwriter, is hosting a live Q&A with people in his class. James Patterson picked someone from his MasterClass to coauthor a book with him. That opportunity and access is something you just don’t get on YouTube.

Who was the first MasterClass teacher and how did you convince him or her to do it?

Dustin Hoffman was the first to say yes. I knew someone in his camp. As soon as he heard our idea, he said yes. He said it was because he’d worked with Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando. They had a huge impact on him as an actor. He wanted to try to help young, new actors by sharing that knowledge.

Your courses feel more heavily produced than most online education content, but it isn’t quite entertainment, either. Where do you see yourselves in that spectrum?

We think of ourselves as an education company. A big part of our initial thought process was: Why don’t people finish a lot of online classes? Many of the online classes that are available out there are shot with a webcam in the back of a classroom. Those people are taking a format and structure that was not made for the web and putting it up on the web.

Combine diverse groups of people, such as engineers and marketers, to get a wide range of ideas. Out of that, you get magic.
David Rogier

Why can’t an online class be the best acting class ever? I think about the stuff I do sit through and finish, and it’s shows on Netflix and HBO. We’re trying to set the bar for what online education can be. The best classes can be engaging and look nice and also make you laugh and cry. You cry watching Dustin Hoffman’s class. In Christina Aguilera’s class, you sing into your computer — we made a program that shows you your range so you can see when you’re making progress.

Can you bring the cost down to be more competitive with other video entertainment content?

We don’t think of ourselves as just entertainment. You’re going to learn, a lot. With us, it’s more like taking a workshop or going to school. This isn’t a replacement for those things, it’s an add-on. We wanted to democratize access to genius.

Are most of your students doing this as a way to become qualified and find a job, or is this more for a hobby or general entertainment?

There’s a huge mix, but most of our students want to become the best they can at something, whether they’re a professional or not. Half of them have never taken an online class before.

What would be your dream MasterClass?

I’d love to get Elon Musk to teach a class.

Why?

He has changed at least three industries. He sees into the future. He’s great at understanding what the world is going to want in 10 years. I would ask him to explain how he got the ideas for his startups. I want to understand his mental process. The class would be on entrepreneurship, but the part that would be most interesting to me would be learning how he sees the future and then goes and creates it.

Who was your favorite teacher when you were a kid?

There are a couple. I had an English teacher in high school named Pam Felcher. She was from New York — tough and a fast-talker. I wrote an English essay and BS-ed my way through it. I got my paper back from her and she said, “Don’t BS me again.” She pushed me to get great insights and to write better. I had an economics professor in undergrad named John Nye. If I had the choice to hang with friends or go to his class, I’d pick his class. It always rocked my world. He helped us question a lot. Econ came alive with him. I still stay in touch with them.

What are your biggest challenges right now in building your business?

Finding great people. We are trying to hire and we need to double in size. We are looking for people on the creative side, product, business development, marketing, and finance.

How do you come up with your best ideas?

I have a team that is very creative. I learned as an intern at IDEO that I need constraints to be creative. IDEO’s process of brainstorming was to build off other people. I try to create a culture and environment that encourages that. You combine diverse groups of people, such as engineers and marketers, say, in order to get a wide range of ideas. Out of that, you get magic.

What is the best business book you’ve read?

Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill. It was written by one of the best market researchers of the past couple of decades. He focuses on finding new ways of understanding your target customer. If you do that, you find things you wouldn’t have thought of in a board room or your office. You start to understand it isn’t about what someone says but what actually drives them.

What do you think is the greatest innovation in the past decade?

They aren’t from the last decade, but spreadsheets are underrated. They literally created new professions.

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