French entrepreneur Pierre Dubuc was 11 years old when he went online searching for a how-to guide on coding a website from scratch.
This was back in 2001, well before the era of YouTube tutorials about everything. The dot-com bubble was bursting, but for then teenagers like Dubuc and his cofounder Mathieu Nebra, the internet was just emerging as the new go-to place for free, shared knowledge.
“I landed on Mathieu’s site where he explained the basics of coding, and I contacted him on ICQ,” Dubuc recalls.
And while ICQ, a precursor of messaging platforms like WhatsApp or Telegram, has since disappeared, Dubuc and Nebra’s first try at entrepreneurship has flourished into a global platform for online education.
Openclassrooms now has 2m people from 140 countries logging on each month to learn new skills, train or earn a diploma. The Paris-based startup will more than double its sales this year, has raised $70m so far and has 250 employees.
The company is one of a wave of edtech startups that have been getting investors excited about the prospect of tech disrupting universities, especially as Covid-19 accelerates the shift to online lessons.
Funding to edtech startups this year reached record highs at more than $8.9bn, according to CB Insights.
The two Frenchmen officially founded the company in 2007, right after Dubuc turned 18. By then, they had built on Nebra’s initial coding lessons to offer a variety of tutorials to a growing community.
“We reached university and asked ourselves if this was something we could keep doing for a living,” Dubuc tells Sifted in an interview. “But entrepreneurship wasn’t sexy then — people at our school were studying to become bankers and consultants.”
Growing up in a village in the south of France, he says it wasn’t easy to convince even relatives that creating a company was the right career path.
“When we first founded the company, our ultimate goal was to reach €100,000 in sales — that seemed gigantic at the time,” says Dubuc.
The first year after the company was set up, it had €75,000 in revenue, mostly from advertising at the time.
The startup was renamed Openclassrooms in 2013, and that’s when it took on a shape and business model closer to the one it has today: no more ads, but charging people for educational content instead.
Openclassrooms’ offering sits somewhere between those of universities (which charge students for full bundles of everything from diploma to a nice campus and green football field) and more focused rivals, spanning from the hybrid models of coding bootcamps like Le Wagon to Udemy’s catalogue of 130,000 online courses.
“Most edtech startups today are focused on only one vertical — one small fraction of the overall experience of education,” says Dubuc. “We’re about tailoring to people with both flexibility and the need for at least some hand holding through a tsunami of offerings and diplomas.”
Beyond single classes, students can sign up to Openclassrooms to follow educational tracks that deliver diplomas at the end of different time frames, depending on what they want to study.
The diplomas are recognised by the state in countries including France — equivalent to other university diplomas — and they’re tailored to the types of candidates employers are more likely to hire.
A data analyst diploma costs €400 per month and takes a year to complete, for instance. Whereas a training to become a digital transformation lead, delivered by Openclassrooms and partner Stanford University, will take about six months to complete and set you back €1,200 per month.
The startup is putting effort into building new tech tools to improve students’ experience, as well as bulking up relationships with employers. It offers students perks like weekly career coaching sessions and mentoring with professionals.
Advice for teens
Now in his early thirties, the French entrepreneur says Openclassrooms has stayed true to its initial promise, and its central mission is still to make education accessible. That means a cheaper cost, but also being able to study at any time from any place — and even if you’re only a beginner.
So what’s Dubuc’s advice to 11 year-olds today?
“Just do what you feel like, what you really really enjoy,” says Dubuc. “Some people get lucky and find what they love at 11, and maybe that’s entrepreneurship. If not, you just have to try a hundred things until you find your talent and passion.”