How Building a Cohort-Based Course Led Me To Founding My First EdTech Startup and $2.2 Million in Venture Capital

March 23, 2021

I remember the day quite vividly because it was the 2019 Superbowl game. The Patriots were going up against the Los Angeles Rams.

I was at the gym when I saw some flurries. It's not usual for Seattle to see snow, but I didn't think much of it. I finished my workout and then headed straight to a buddy's place to catch the game.

After the game, I took an Uber home and noticed that the snow had picked up.

"Seattle Office Closed, Monday Feb 4th" was the first notification I saw when I got home. Guess a few inches was all we needed for the Facebook offices to recommend work-from-home.

Over the next few days, we got a whole lot more snow. Seattle transformed from the lifeless blob that you'd expect in the winter months into a snowy playground. Because of how steep the roads were in my neighborhood, you couldn't drive down them- so people used them to sled, instead.

I had never seen anything like it.

The snow kept piling on. The city was completely unprepared. Roads and offices were closed and we were pretty much stuck inside for the better part of two weeks.

I decided to spend that time by watching some lectures, working on some side projects, and catching up with old friends via various video conferencing tools.

It just amazed me to see how far conferencing had come. Video calls weren't just some blurry rectangles on a screen like the early 2010s. It was actually getting pretty good.

That's when I had the idea.

If video conferencing continued to improve at the rate I was seeing, so many possibilities could open up. Besides using it to talk to friends and host business meetings, it could be used to completely transform how people learn.

Instead of relying on people in the same zip code as you, you could learn from the experts of the world- no matter where you lived.

If you could remove geography as a barrier to learning, you could make education 10x more accessible and 100x more affordable.

Sometimes, an idea takes hold and it just won't let go. For me, this was the idea.

A few days later, I went back to work but I couldn't stop thinking about it. I knew that the opportunity was right there in front of me... all I had to do was go out and build it.

So I quit.

March 8, 2019 was my last day at Facebook. I turned in my ID badge to try my hand at building an EdTech startup which I hoped would change the world.

For the next year, I played around with different online learning formats:

  • 1-on-1 coaching
  • Peer mentorship
  • Live webinars
  • Memberships
  • Mastermind groups
  • Accountability calls

My eventual goal was to build software to help enable live, remote learning- but to do that, I had to first find a format that engaged students.

As someone who didn't have many expertise myself, I often relied on social media influencers to help lead these classes on my behalf. I emailed hundreds of them to recruit just a handful who agreed to work with me.

Nothing was working in the beginning, but I was learning so much:

> Webinars were awful because how little audience engagement there was...

Coaching was engaging, but not scalable.

> Pre-recorded video courses seemed to be the worst. Completion rates were horrendous. On average, less than 10% of people who buy video courses actually finish them.

Memberships were somewhat interesting. For a low monthly rate, you could get access to a community, office hours, along with a handful of resources to help you learn about a topic. The problem with memberships was that students would be highly engaged at the beginning and then slowly drift off.

I knew there was potential in the space, but wouldn't figure out the secret sauce until February, 2020- nearly a year after I had left Facebook.

My thesis was that online education could only work if it had three key characteristics:

  1. Curriculum - The program couldn't be free form like a membership; there needed to be structure through some sort of curriculum.
  2. Community - The education couldn't be the only thing that motivated the students. They would need to build genuine relationships through a tight-knit peer network.
  3. Cohort-based - Most people won't make a commitment to any online learning program, indefinitely; there had to be a specific start and end-date.

And thus was born my first cohort-based course, Creator School.

The goal of Creator School was to help teach a topic that no one could learn in college: becoming a content creator- And who better to teach the program than the dozens of content creators I had befriended over the past year.

After spending a few weeks emailing my network, I had put together a top tier roster for instructors who would help lead Creator School lectures including:

  • Markian, Facebook Influencer w/ 5M+ Followers
  • Jordan Paris, Host of the Growth Mindset University (Top Apple Podcast)
  • Billy Broas, Marketing Consultant for Online Course Creators
  • Jacob Fu, Travel Blogger
  • Ella Mae, Instagram Strategist
  • Jerry Potter, Founder of FiveMinuteSocialMedia
  • ... and more+

For the first time ever, the class sold out and I had actually made a profit (for once).

Each student that was accepted into the program was an aspiring creator in some regard. Whether they were running a podcast or a YouTube channel, their primary objective was to learn how to build an internet business from scratch.

We held two sessions per week. Tuesday would be for guest lectures and Thursdays would be for accountability calls. Sprinkled in between would be 1-on-1 coaching calls.

There was something truly remarkable going on with Creator school from the very beginning. Students were showing up to class, regularly. And it wasn't just for the lectures, they were coming for each other.

Not only were they collaborating on a professional level... they were becoming friends. We had a built a community.

What I learned from Creator School

Creator School taught me something magical about learning over the internet: It allows you to connect with individuals that you never would have met in person.

Most content creators don't know other aspiring content creators. It's such a new profession. It didn't even exist ten years ago.

As such, if you want to learn to do it, the only way is through other creators. No college professor or degree can help you get there.

Creator School gave my students something that they couldn't find anywhere else.

It has also given me what I had been looking for. An educational format that worked in a completely remote setting:

Cohort-based courses.

The Fork in the Road

In front of me, I had two options:

1. To continue building Creator School

2. To abandon it to build a tech solution for cohort-based courses (CBCs)

If I'm being honest, I loved running Creator school. I loved teaching. I loved mentoring. I loved connecting aspiring creators to one another. And I was good at it.

But I knew that I'd be doing the world a disservice by not helping bring more attention to cohort-based courses.

At this point, COVID-19 had taken the world by storm and people were looking for new ways to teach and learn online. I had the keys to the kingdom in my hands. I could either open the gates or wait contently inside for someone else to open them.

I knew what I needed to do.

Virtually Gets Legs... and Big Paycheck

It wasn't difficult to get the tech platform off the ground. I had started writing code for it back in July 2019... it just had never gotten traction, because it was missing the "cohort" element of cohort-based courses.

On May 7, 2020, I was admitted into Y Combinator, a prestigious startup accelerator that had been one of the first investors in some of the biggest names in technology including Airbnb, Dropbox, Doordash, Reddit, and more...

With it, I received $150,000 and the affordance to hire my first engineer.

A few months later, I raised what they call in Silicon Valley a "seed round." To date, the company has raised $2.2M in venture funding to help build and power cohort-based courses all around the world.

Looking Ahead

We're working with organizations of all shapes and sizes. Coding bootcamps, marketing schools, career accelerators, domain matter experts, coaches, etc...

Anyone who wants to teach online for a living can do it with Virtually. As of writing this, we've paid out over $11,000 to various CBCs, today alone.

It doesn't take much. We give educators all the tools they need to build their online education businesses including support for payment processing, live classes, and a modern learning management solution (LMS).

Virtually customers are already having massive impact on world economies. Take Victor Rivera and John Young, for example. They're using Virtually to build the premiere coding school in South-East Asia.

Next year, they're on track to training more software engineers than all of the colleges in the Philippines combined.

Now, that's impact. See the full case-study here.

If you or someone you know is looking to build a cohort-based course, I encourage you to get in touch. We'd love to help. Or subscribe to our weekly newsletter where we share tips on how to build and scale your online education business.


Ish Baid
Founder & CEO, Virtually | Connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn

Ish Baid

Ish is the Founder & CEO of Virtually (YC S20).