Lynda Weinman, Former Co-Founder, Lynda.com
Lynda Weinman’s Second Act
Lynda Weinman reflects a career full of reinvention, selling Lynda.com to LinkedIn for $1.5 billion, and her new role as a champion of independent film.
“I don’t like to do what I’ve already done,” says Lynda Weinman, and one glance at her career is proof of that. The co-founder of online education platform Lynda.com has reinvented herself multiple times, from animator to teacher to entrepreneur to film enthusiast.
Weinman has been working since she was 15, when she took her first job at a hot dog stand. For years, she worked in retail, and at 23 opened up a punk store on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. At 28, she closed the store and went into animation and special effects, working on movies such as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and RoboCop 2.
And then in 1980, Weinman got her hands on her first computer.
“I wasn’t the first out the gate,” she says, “but pretty close in time to the beginning of where it all started.”
While it might be hard to imagine in today’s age of ubiquitous online learning, in those days, there were no classes to take to learn about computers. And the few books available on the topic were written for techies. “And I wasn’t a techie,” Weinman says. “I was just sort of an enthusiast.” So she began teaching herself computer graphics.
That sparked the beginning of a new, highly lucrative career that Weinman would go on to develop—learning how to master new technology, and then teaching others—that culminated in the sale of her own online education platform for $1.5 billion. It might seem like a big leap from her creative beginnings, but at the time it felt like a natural transition.
“To me, it was a fascinating new discipline that I found really interesting,” she says. “And I found a lot of connections between animation and the computer.”
Soon enough, people started asking Weinman to teach them what she knew about computers. “I slowly realized that I really enjoyed teaching,” she says. So she shifted from working in animation and special effects to teaching computer graphics.
From there, Weinman began teaching at universities, filling a great demand for computer graphics lessons. During that time, she started writing articles and stumbled upon the World Wide Web.
“It just hit me like a thunderbolt that this is a really important new medium and that I was in a good position to learn how to use it and teach other people how to use it.”
And that’s when things really took off.
Lynda.com: The 20-Year Overnight Success Story
“First, [Lynda.com] started as my own personal website that I used to teach myself web design,” Weinman says. “And then it ultimately became the company name and…the bigger idea.
”But the bigger idea took shape very gradually. “I always call it the 20-year overnight success story,” she says.
Back in 1996, Weinman wrote her first book, Designing Web Graphics, which highlighted her skill in translating technical concepts into layperson’s language. That book went on to become a bestseller and opened up a flood of writing and teaching opportunities.
The success of her book sparked an idea—maybe she could write full time and leave her post at the university. So she and her husband and eventual business partner Bruce Heavin moved to a small town with a plan to write books, travel, speak, and teach classes.
It was Heavin who came up with the idea of Weinman offering her own classes, and from there, the couple launched a brick-and-mortar classroom. In their first year of business, they cleared an astonishing $1.7 million in revenue.
Meanwhile, the sales of Weinman’s book were still quite high, so they launched Lynda.com as a resource for her readers. That website also directed visitors to her in-person classes. Almost year round, Weinman and Heavin offered weekend and week-long courses on web design. Eventually, they hired more teachers to keep up with demand, as web design at that point wasn’t being taught in schools.
Before long, their annual revenue had climbed to $3.5 million, and they had a team of about 40 people. Their income sources included physical classes, books, consulting, and VHS tapes.
“The product was the instruction,” Weinman explains. “We were packaging it in many different ways.”
What was the key to her monumental success? “I feel like I was there at sort of the beginning of time when a lot of things were happening quickly in the tech space,” she says. “And I had this rare ability, which was to be able to explain things to non-technical people, and just really capitalized on that sort of juxtaposition of new technology and non-technical people who needed to learn new technology.”
Weinman also took a special interest in creatives and artists, a nod to her background in animation and special effects. Most of her friends were in those fields, and she saw an opportunity to help them merge their artistic abilities with technical skills to forge new career paths.
“I felt like I was a bridge at that moment in time to help a lot of people cross over.”
Spearheading the Subscription Model
Things were going quite well for Weinman’s company—until Sept. 11, 2001, when tragedy sent shockwaves throughout the country and its economy. The terror attacks in New York and DC ushered in a new era for Americans; the economy suffered, travel decreased, budgets dried up, and it all coincided with the bursting of the dotcom bubble not long before.
Weinman and Heavin were forced to take Lynda.com in a new direction to weather the economic storm. They decided to shift from teaching in brick-and-mortar classrooms to putting lessons online, and from charging per class or per VHS tape to offering a monthly subscription. And just like that, a week-long class that had been $1,500 went down to a $25-a-month subscription fee.
“It actually cannibalized our classroom sales,” she recalls. “We were actually eating into our own customer base and our own profit and really offering it at such a value that it was impacting us in a negative way. But we did it anyway, just because a lot of things started to change at that point.”
At the beginning of the transition, Lynda.com had 35 team members. They had to lay off almost everybody, cutting the team down to just nine.
It was a rough transition, but Lynda.com had become one of the earliest companies using a subscription model, which would eventually become a dominant paradigm for online businesses.
A particular challenge of this business model is churn, or losses experienced when subscribers discontinue their subscriptions. But Weinman says that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For example, let’s say you’re a student in an online course platform, and you’ve finished taking all the courses on the topics you needed to learn about.
“Of course you’re going to stop subscribing,” Weinman says, “and it isn’t necessarily a reflection of the bad product that’s being offered. It’s a reflection of the fact that the user might have some different goal in mind.”
So Lynda.com made it easy for users to subscribe and unsubscribe as needed. “You know, sometimes people go away for a few months, or they get really busy with something, or they change jobs, or they change schools,” she says. “That is not necessarily a bad reflection on you.”
Instead of worrying about churn rate, Weinman recommends focusing on what kind of reviews you’re getting, if people are recommending your products, and if you’re getting good feedback from your customers.
From Physical to Virtual Classrooms
The fruits of Lynda.com’s transition to online lessons and monthly subscriptions took years to ripen. “It just took a while for it to reach critical mass.”
At the time, there was no social media. No Facebook, no YouTube, no Instagram. “Going viral” relied completely on word-of-mouth. Weinman says it was about five to seven years before her online classroom really took off.
“Around the 2006, 2008 timeframe was where we were just growing like a freight train,” she says, “and we knew we had a tiger by the tail.”
During that time period, Lynda.com hit what Weinman had heard was the “magic number” for venture capital firms: $10 million in annual revenue. The company was seeing a gradual doubling in revenue. The next year, it hit $20 million. And the year after that, $40 million. Sure enough, VCs started showing interest in Lynda.com. Not only was it one of the very few subscription services at the time, but it was also profitable and fast-growing to boot.
When the Buyers Come Knocking
And then in 2015, LinkedIn came knocking. They wanted to buy Lynda.com, which wasn’t even for sale.
“They kind of targeted us,” Weinman says, “and they made us a very attractive offer that we accepted.”
In April 2015, Lynda.com sold for $1.5 billion in cash and stock. But part of the deal was that Weinman and Heavin could not shop around for other offers, so only after they accepted did they discover that there had been other interested parties.
Part of what Weinman thinks helped attract such a quality buyer was the fact that she and her team focused on growing and scaling their business, not on shopping it around. In fact, at the time LinkedIn made an offer, Lynda.com had just closed a Series B. One of their investors was TPG Capital, one of the largest private equity investment firms in the world. Weinman says LinkedIn told her that they knew Lynda.com had been pre-vetted, because TPG would not invest in a company that it hadn’t thoroughly investigated.
So, in that way, getting investors can be a good thing if you’re ultimately aiming for a sale. “It lets people know kind of at what level you are,” Weinman says, “because the blue-chip investors are only going to invest in companies that they really believe in. And so, in a way, they are your advertisement that you’re for sale.”
Letting Go of Lynda.com
As one can imagine, after 20 years working on a company with your name on it, letting go can be difficult.
“[Lynda.com] was a huge part of my identity and my husband’s too, because we really built it together,” Weinman says. “And it was a very sudden sale; it was very quick. They made us an offer, and six weeks later, they were announcing it. … So that’s not a huge amount of time to adjust to the idea that you’re not driving the ship anymore.”
With the sale of Lynda.com, gone were the days where Weinman and Heavin could implement their strategies, their goals. There was no way to know if the new owners shared the same values or priorities.
“You’re not steering anymore,” Weinman says. “And, of course, that’s a very tough transition.”
Another Reinvention, and a Return to Film
So what was next Weinman’s next move? “Well, I had some very good business advice,” she says, “which was to not make any decisions for a year.”
To her, two obvious paths emerged: continue with online education or become a spokesperson for women entrepreneurs. After trying out both ideas, neither felt right. What was truly calling to her was film, in particular, the power of independent cinema and documentaries.
“I wanted to challenge myself to do something totally new,” Weinman says, “and I didn’t really have to worry about making money.”
For about six years, she had been on the board of her local film festival. She got invited to the Sundance workshop where filmmakers looking for funding were introduced to potential funders.
“And I just felt like I was at home,” Weinman says, the joy evident in her voice. “It was like a world I could really relate to. I’ve always had an affinity for artists and worked with artists and creatives.”
Mostly using charitable grants, Weinman, who calls film “one of the most powerful forms of media that we have,” began investing in filmmakers. She has now been president of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival for over a year.
“It’s really been joyful,” she says. “I’ve enjoyed it. It isn’t the same as being a founder and having a company and eating, breathing, sleeping that every day. It isn’t as stressful.”
Weinman, who’s in her early 60s, worked relentlessly on Lynda.com from her 40s onward. “You probably shave a lot of years off your life to work that hard,” she says. “And so it’s sort of a wonderful position to be in to be able to be philanthropic and give back and still do what you’re passionate about and what you’re interested in. So I’m a very, very lucky person. But I’ve also created a lot of my own luck.”
Lynda Weinman’s Advice for Entrepreneurs
While, understandably, Weinman gets frequent requests to do consulting and advising, she turns most of them down, opting to remain focused on her film projects. But, while we had her on the line, we couldn’t help but ask her to give a few bits of advice to Foundr’s readers.
- Don’t do it for the money. “The primary advice that I give to people is follow what it is that you want to do,” Weinman says. “I mean, if you end up just chasing money, it’s probably not going to work out.”While she and her co-founder husband had a very successful exit with the sale of Lynda.com, that was not what they were focused on. “The singular outcome was to do our passion, which was teaching and sharing and helping people with technology, and make a living doing it and be able to pay our employees and ourselves. That was really the whole motivation behind it.”
- Understand what it means to take on investors. “No one’s giving you money out of the goodness of their heart,” Weinman says. “They’re giving you money because they want a return on their investment. And that return on the investment will mean that you either go public or you sell your company. So if you’re not ready to do those things, don’t take money.”
- Know what success is for you. “You have to really look at yourself critically and say, ‘Am I on the right path? Is this working? Is this not working?’ And if it isn’t working, ‘Can I let it rest for a minute, or do I need to change?’ Those are all such personal decisions that are based on so many factors that are impossible to predict. … I don’t think there’s one way to succeed. I think there’s lots of different definitions of success, and everybody needs to find their own.”
Weinman is no stranger to the concept of reinvention. In fact, it’s that very spirit of constant evolution that led her to become a trailblazer in the online education space, and to ultimately make a massive exit.
Her journey started with a career in animation and special effects, of all things, and even included running a punk store on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. She continued to pivot, until her creative endeavors eventually led her to education, and a business model that allowed her to teach thousands of laypeople about complex tech topics.
The company started as a brick-and-mortar classroom, but after the economic decline that followed the tragic terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Weinman was forced to take Lynda in a new direction. To weather the economic storm, she transitioned to the online subscription business model of Lynda.com.
Lynda.com’s growth was slow going until social media gained ground in 2006, a movement that helped catapult her company’s revenue to $40 million and beyond. Even though Weinman never thought about selling, when the offer came in, she knew she had to pull the trigger
Working relentlessly on Lynda for the past 20 years and now in her early 60s, Weinman has set her sights on a new course. She’s now the president of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and invests in independent filmmakers using charitable grants. In this interview, Weinman shares the journey that led to her $1.5 billion exit, how and why she has continued reinventing herself, and her top advice for entrepreneurs.
- The emotions that accompany the process of letting go of a 20-year company in three short months
- Why it may not be wise to focus on churn rate and what to focus on instead
- Why getting investors can be a wise choice if you are planning on selling your company
- Lynda Weinman’s three top tips for entrepreneurs
Full Transcript of Podcast with Lynda Weinman
Nathan: The first question that I ask everyone that comes on is, “How did you get your job?”
Lynda: Well, you know I’ve sold our company, so I’m no longer… You know. I mean, I’m not sure if you want to talk about lynda.com or you want to talk about what I’m doing today.
Nathan: Let’s start with Lynda, or, like, did you start another company before that?
Lynda: Oh. I mean, I started lynda.com when I was 40-years-old.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow. So that’s…
Lynda: I guess I had had many careers and many jobs.
Nathan: Yeah. So where did it all start then? Like, how’d it all lead up to Lynda, and then now, you’re doing what? So can we start from the beginning?
Lynda: Sure. I mean, I had many careers. I’ve been working since I was 15. My first job was at a hot dog stand, and, you know, kind of worked my way up from there. I, for many years, worked in retail. I guess my first entrepreneurial episode was when I started a store when I was 23, and I closed it when I was 28.
And then, I went into animation and special effects. And while I was an animator, I discovered the computer, you know, fairly early by computer standards. I mean, I think the personal computer was invented in ’78, and I got my first computer in 1980. So, you know, I wasn’t the first out the gate, but pretty close in time to the beginning of where it all started.
And so then, from there, I had my first computer, and I had to teach myself everything because there were no classes you could take or… There were a few books. Most of them were really written for techies. I wasn’t a techie. I was just sort of an enthusiast like a lot of people can relate to these days.
You know, people who just can’t stop being addicted to their phones or their computers or whatever, and so I had that happen to me, you know, maybe before a lot of other people had computers. So I saw that, you know, to me, it was a fascinating, new discipline that I found really interesting.
And so I taught myself a lot about computer graphics, and it just became sort of natural where people started to ask me how I was doing things. And I slowly realized that I really enjoyed teaching, and then shifted from animation and special effects to becoming a computer graphics teacher.
Nathan: Oh. And so what happened next?
Lynda: Well, I was teaching at many universities. There was a big demand for people to learn computer graphics. You know, I think the first killer app for the computer really became desktop publishing, but I was more interested in screen graphics that had to do more with things like Photoshop and After Effects and interactive media, screen graphics…what I would call screen graphics.
And so I became a teacher. I kind of gradually transitioned from doing animation and special effects, and I started to write articles and teach at universities. And so when I first discovered the web, I was already a teacher, and I was already writing articles. And so it just hit me like a thunderbolt that this is a really important, new medium and that I was in a good position to learn how to use it and teach other people how to use it.
So that was how, really, lynda.com was formed as first, it started as my own personal website that I used to teach myself web design. And then, it ultimately became the company name and, you know, a bigger idea.
Nathan: Yeah, I see. So it started off as a personal website to just really teach yourself, you know, everything around, like, I guess, software and computer graphics, animation, interactive design, and motion graphics and stuff like that.
So how did it form into kind of this massive, educational platform? Like, how did that start? How did that idea, like, come to life and fruition?
Lynda: Well, I wrote a book about web design, and it was one of the first books. And it was written in layperson’s language, which was sort of my specialty was how to explain technical things to non-technical people. And the book, unbelievably, you know, it was my very first book that I had ever written, became a best-seller and was translated into dozens of languages.
And I started getting a lot of teaching requests and writing requests. At the time, I decided, “Well, I guess I could do full-time writing,”and I could leave my posts at the university where I was teaching, ArtCenter College of Design.
And my husband and I moved to a small town where we just had an internet connection, and I thought I could write books and still travel and speak and give classes for other people. And then my husband had the idea, “Well, maybe, you could offer your own classes,”and that was, really, the beginning of us going and creating a business, like, a larger business idea, and it started as a brick and mortar classroom.
And the sales of the book, which were, you know, high, there were a lot of sales, gave everybody the website lynda.com, and so that was how our readers found the website. And then on the website, we were advertising classes, and we eventually opened a full-time classroom.
Ultimately, we opened two, and we were going pretty much year-round teaching web design courses. They were week-long courses or weekend courses, and we started hiring other teachers. And there was just a huge demand because web design still wasn’t being taught in school. It was still very nascent, very new, and there were, really, only a few experts, and I was one of them.
And then some of the other teachers that we brought on were other experts in that space. So we had the physical classroom for many years, and after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, a lot of things changed. The U.S. economy took a nosedive. The dot-com bloom had its first crash, and people stopped traveling, and budgets dried up.
And so we had to shift from having a brick and mortar classroom to putting lessons online where we didn’t have to ship, but we decided to ship that way. And that became the much larger ideal though it took several years for it to really take off.
Nathan: Because, I guess, back then, was it difficult to build a platform to host your courses?
Lynda: Oh, yeah. I mean, there were no web services like today. Everything had to be built from scratch. We were before YouTube, so, you know, you were doing progressive downloads of QuickTime. It wasn’t even streaming, and it was very low resolution. Well, it was 640 by 480 for a really long time, which is, you know, very hard.
I mean, it’s not television resolution. It’s lower than that. So in the early days, our product was kind of, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of VHS. It doesn’t exist anymore but it was…
Nathan: Yeah, of course.
Lynda: Well, you don’t know. When you meet young people today, you never know what they know. And, you know, I think that’s really part of, you know, the issue is that things change very rapidly, and everybody kind of enters at their own timeframe. And I feel like I was there at sort of the beginning of time when a lot of things were happening quickly in the tech space. And I had this rare ability, which was to be able to explain things to non-technical people, and just really capitalized on that sort of, you know, juxtaposition of new technology and non-technical people who needed to learn new technology.
And my focus was very much for artists and creatives because that was my background, and I had worked in special effects and animation. And most of my friends were in those fields, and so I knew that a lot of artists, I mean, it’s sort of a stereotype, but especially back then, before technology was very prevalent, weren’t the most technical people, but yet they had the right skill set to make art and media and things for the internet.
So it was sort of this, you know, new opportunity for artists that I felt like I was a bridge at that moment in time to help a lot of people cross over.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. That’s amazing. So the first batch of courses, as you said, they were downloads, and they were, like you said, similar quality to a VHS. And how did you price them? What was the model? You didn’t have subscription back then or…?
Lynda: No. We started the online version of lynda.com as a subscription. We were one of the first subscription websites, but we started the videos before we offered them from the platform. We started them as actual VHS tapes. In fact, we even had Beta. We had Beta and VHS for a while, and then we put them online in this progressive download kind of format.
And then, we started making DVDs and stopped making the tapes. But, you know, really, what I always say is what we were selling was the instruction.
And really, just the different form factors of the media were irrelevant. It was just whatever worked for people that… We were one of the very first subscription sites. You know, we started our subscription service in 2001, and I think that’s right around the time that Netflix started. I mean, we were out there with the earliest of subscription sites. And we had to build our own platform because there was really no other way to do it.
There was no turn-key system that you could purchase. So yeah, a lot of, you know, arrows in your back and a lot of expense that someone today wouldn’t have to, you know, go through all of that. But then, on the other hand, there’s a lot more competition today, so there’s something to be said about being early.
Nathan: So how did you fund, like, the production of that platform and offering the subscription and stuff like that?
Lynda: Well, we actually were comfortable from the very beginning. You know, we had these brick and mortar classes, and they were very successful. Our first year in business with the brick and mortar classes, we had $1.7 million in revenue.
Nathan: Oh, wow.
Lynda: And by the time we were three years in, before… You know, 9/11 was a really big turning point. But before that, when there was still the internet, the first internet boom. And a lot of people were getting funding just for ideas, and there was a lot of kind of gold-rush stuff happening. Our revenue went up to $3.5 million, and we had a team of, like, 40 people.
And we were just non-stop doing physical classrooms and writing books and doing consulting and making VHS tapes, so we were doing a lot of different things. Like I said, the product was the instruction, and we were packaging it in many different ways. So when we switched over to subscription service, a week-long class had been U.S. $1,500 And we had a $25-a-month subscription service, so it actually cannibalized our classroom sales, and it cannibalized our…
I think we sold a VHS for $150. We were actually eating into our own customer base and our own profit and really offering, you know, it at such a value that it was impacting us in a negative way, but we did it anyway just because a lot of things started to change at that point.
We had to downsize. We had been 35 people. We had to lay off almost everybody, and we went down to nine people. We were doing everything we could: writing books and doing a lot of consulting work, and we closed our classrooms. And then, you know, we were in the middle of sort of a big transition, and it wasn’t the smartest economic transition for us.
And we had no way to know if it would pay off or not, and it took many years before it did pay off. It wasn’t a flip-of-a-switch success. It was a very hard and bad business decision at the time.
Nathan: So if you knew what you know now back then, would’ve you stayed with the subscription model? Because I guess when it comes to, you know, subscription versus one-off subscription breeds predictability. I guess it’s a great way to guarantee a certain level of income. Of course, there’s churn, but yeah.
It’s a great way to build a business, and you can see it predictably going up or down. But generally, if you’re doing a good job, it continues to go up, and you keep selling. Would have you not done that looking back or…?
Lynda: Oh, no. I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I mean, we had a spectacular run of it, and, you know, because we were charging… You know, you look at what’s happening today with so many free services where they’re really selling their own customers, you know, privacy and private information as a business model.
And our business model was to charge a very reasonable fee for something that was, actually, far more expensive in any other form. And, you know, it just took a while for it to reach critical mass. There was no social media at that time. There was no Facebook.
There was no such thing as social media. So it grew in a viral way, but viral was… You know, like I said, we were before YouTube, so it wasn’t an obvious way to grow that business. It was all word of mouth, it was all based on the quality, and it was not very… You know, I would say it probably was a five- to seven-year period before it started to really be successful and really feel our growth, like, around the 2006, 2008 timeframe was where we were just growing like a freight train.
And we knew we had a tiger by the tail. We were getting a lot of EC interest, and we had succeeded at, you know, we were one of the very few subscription services. And we were very profitable, and we were growing at a tremendous rate. So we were in a pretty, you know, fantastic position, so I wouldn’t change anything.
What I would tell people is that it took patience, and you have to kind of assess whether it’s going to work or it isn’t going to work. And in the beginning, it didn’t really look like it was going to work, but it was one iron in the fire where we have many different revenue streams, like, different ways to make revenue. And it was just one, but it wasn’t the biggest.
It was the smallest. And it was just really lucky that we held onto it and let it grow because if you had judged by the, you know, first early years, you would have said it was a failure.
Nathan: So what were the other revenue streams, and what kept you going during those hard times back in, you know, 2001 and…?
Lynda: I wrote books, private consulting, speaking gigs, you know, just anything, and lowering expenses, so laying people off. Everything we could do to keep our head above water.
Nathan: And why’d you keep going with it? Like, if you said it wasn’t, like… Yeah. Like you said, it took, like, five to seven years before it turned into a real rocketship. How did you know you were onto something, and what kept you going?
Lynda: Well, I think, you know… I don’t teach anymore, but at that moment in time, that was my identity. I was a teacher, and I loved teaching, and I always just felt really lucky to get paid to do what I loved. And it wasn’t really a question of making a lot of money.
It was just a question of, “Can I survive doing what I love?” And I could. And so even at that point in time where we lowered ourselves down to nine people and our revenue went down below… I think, like, our worst year was under $1 million in revenue, and we had been much higher than that. It still wasn’t to the point where you would have to shudder or you can’t, you know, afford to live.
So it was scary, and it wasn’t pleasant to be struggling, but it wasn’t time to throw in the towel, either.
Nathan: I see. And at that time, like, with the subscription offering, were you the only teacher or did you…? You said you had nine staff, so some of those staff were teachers as well. How often were you producing courses, and, well, what did that look like? And did the platform evolve during that period?
Like, you had to spend money, I guess, to… Because you said you were very profitable. Were you still profitable back then to fund upgrades on the software and stuff like that or…?
Lynda: I mean, we had to grow a lot slower. And in the beginning, you know, probably the first year… And we had a little, small programming staff…two or three people who worked full-time. They were probably, out of those nine people, two or three of them were programmers, and I was the primary teacher for a long time.
My husband was the next primary teacher, and at one point, he surpassed me, and he was teaching more classes than I was. And then all of the other teachers that we worked with, it was work-for-hire, so we paid them advances, and they also got royalties based on the popularity of their materials.
And I knew a lot of teachers because I was working in the space for a long time before we started with lynda.com. You know, I mean, that was my career. I was a career teacher of technology, mostly computer graphics. Like, that was what I did. So yes, we kept expanding it, and it was just not a huge return on the investment right out the gate.
It was slow, but it wasn’t so bad that we were losing money or we, you know, yeah, I would say we were still profitable, and the way to still be profitable was to lower our expenses and work our tails off, you know, just saying yes to everything and probably doing way too much.
Nathan: So you said that by the time it hit 2006, 2008, that’s when things just really turned into a rocketship? Like, how did you know? Like, did subscriptions just start booming all of a sudden, or is this a gradual progression?
Lynda: Well, it was a gradual doubling, and if you think about it, you know, when you double one, it’s two. When you double two, it’s four. You know, 8, 16, 32. You start to get into bigger and bigger numbers as you double. So we were just doubling every year. And I think around that period of time, like, 2006 to 2008, we had hit what I heard was a magic number for mentor firms to be interested, which is $10 million revenue a year.
One year, it was $10 million. The next year, it was $20 million. The next year, it was $40 million. The next year, it was $80 million. It was like that, you know, and that starts to be significant money and significant valuations, too. So yeah, the doubling had an exponential factor to it.
Nathan: So what happened next? Did you guys move to San Fran, Silicone Valley or…?
Lynda: No. We were never a Silicone Valley company. We stayed in Ventura County, Santa Barbara County. Eventually, by the time the company sold, we had a San Francisco office, and we had, actually, offices all over the world. We had a couple of international offices, and we had bought a company in Austria.
And so we had, you know, hundreds of employees and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. I mean, it was a very sizable company by the time it sold.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. And during that time period, how did you keep the content relevant? Because things like, you know, computer graphics, animation, interactive design, motion graphics, all those things change. Like, all sorts of software technology and stuff, that changes, so how were you maintaining that?
Lynda: Well, that’s your business. You know, your business model is you better maintain it, you better be good, you better stay ahead of the curve. So by the time… Again, you know, towards the sale of the company, it was hundreds of courses a year. I don’t even remember the numbers, but we had recording booths going non-stop.
People, you know, at 1 time recording 10 classes in the same week. You know, LinkedIn now owns it, which was bought by Microsoft, but they still have lots of recording booths and a lot of recording activity. Probably, you know, hundreds of hours a month.
And that’s your business, so it’s your business to stay relevant, it’s your business to have high quality, and it’s your business to predict the curves of the changes. If you’re not good at that, you don’t have any chance of succeeding.
Nathan: So how did the sale of lynda.com come around, and did you have many other companies, besides LinkedIn, interested? And you said loved to teach. At what point did you stop teaching?
Lynda: Well, I probably stopped teaching in the last five years of the company because it just got to be so big, and there were so many moving parts, and we were expanding. We did take venture capital… Let’s see. What year? I think it was 2013 or 2012.
Nathan: Did he buy in big sales?
Lynda: Yeah. So we had a board, you know, a different kind of a board of directors. We had had a board of directors for a long time, but, you know, we had investors suddenly on our board. We had a lot of people wanting to invest in us more than we had a lot of people wanting to buy us, at least that I’m aware of. But we were really not even for sale when the company sold. It’s just that LinkedIn really wanted to buy us, and they kind of targeted us, and they made us a very attractive offer that we accepted.
But part of their offer was, “You can’t shop this around. If you want our offer, you’re not putting yourself on the open market.” And so we learned after it had sold to them that there were other interested parties, but we just had never put ourselves out there.
Nathan: Like, one thing that someone once told me is, “You don’t sell your company.It gets sold.” Like, do you think, looking back, like, that’s always the best way to approach things? Just focus on building your company and fulfilling your vision, and then people will…
Like, if your company sold, people will come to you. If you put it out there, you don’t necessarily get the best price.
Lynda: I bet that’s true. I mean, I’ve only had it happen to me this one way where it wasn’t for sale, and we got a great offer, but, you know, there are a lot of, like… One of the things that LinkedIn said, because we had just closed a Series B, and the investor on the Series B was TPG. And one of the comments that LinkedIn made was, “Well, we know you’re pre-vetted because TPG invested in you, and they’re not going to invest in a company that they haven’t thoroughly investigated,” right?
And so I think there’s probably… If you are interested in selling your company, sometimes, getting the different investors and Series investments, it adjusts your valuation. It lets people know kind of at what level you are because the blue-chip investors are only going to invest in companies that they really believe in.
And so in a way, they are your advertisement that you are up for sale.
Nathan: So was it hard to let it go? Because I guess, you know, Lynda would be, because like you said, you love to teach, it would have been a big part of your identity as a founder. Like, the company was called your name. And why was that?
Lynda: Well, that was sort of accidental, the whole calling it my name thing. No, but for sure, it was a huge part of my identity and my husband’s, too, because we really built it together. And it was a very sudden sale. It was very quick. You know, they made us an offer, and six weeks later, they were announcing it.
It was public knowledge. So that’s not a huge amount of time to adjust to the idea that you’re not, you know, driving the ship anymore, you know, because you have your own strategies, and you have your own goals. And then, you know another company is going to buy you, and you aren’t sure if they’re going to have the same priorities, the same values, the same anything.
You know? So it was sort of this put on the brakes and just stop everything and, “You’re not steering anymore.” And, of course, that’s a very tough transition and, you know, takes a while to adjust to. So I would say yeah, it was difficult.
Nathan: So what happened next?
Lynda: Well, I had some very good business advice, which was to not make any decisions for a year. And, you know, I mean, I had a couple of very obvious directions I could go in personally. To me, they were to either continue with online education or to become kind of a spokesperson for female entrepreneurship.
And I wanted to sort of take toll and see if either of those ideas felt right, and they didn’t. And the thing that was sort of calling to me was I was very, very interested in film and the power of independent cinema and documentaries.
And I wanted to challenge myself to do something totally new, and I didn’t really have to worry about making money. And I had already become very philanthropic over the years with Lynda because at our levels of revenue, we were already supporting a lot of causes and local non-profits and things like that.
And I had already been on the board of our local film festival for about six years, and so that was the thing. I got invited to this Sundance workshop that was introducing potential funders to filmmakers who were looking for funding, and I just felt like I was at home.
You know, it was like a world I could really relate to. I’ve always had an affinity for artists and work of the artists and creatives, and I feel like the world has sort of changed a lot in the way that people consume news and information and media. And that film is one of the most powerful forms of media that we have.
And so that was the direction that I started to move into was to invest, mostly with charitable grants, invest in filmmakers, and I became much more active on the Board of Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Eventually, I became president. I’ve been president for over a year, and that’s been sort of my direction, and it’s really been joyful.
I’ve enjoyed it. It isn’t the same as being a founder and having, you know, a company and eating, breathing, sleeping that every day. It isn’t as stressful. You know, I’m in my early 60s, so I’m not… You know, and I worked really, really hard, like, from my 40s through my…
We sold Lynda when I was 60. And so it’s tiring, and you probably shave a lot of years off your life to work that hard. And so it is sort of a wonderful position to be in, to be able to be philanthropic and give back and still do what you’re passionate about and what you’re interested in.
So I’m a very, very lucky person, but I’ve also created a lot of my own luck.
Nathan: That’s amazing. I can hear the joy in your voice when you talk about the work that you’re doing now. That’s so cool.
Lynda: Thank you.
Nathan: So just wrapping it all back, when it comes to, you know, all the success that you’ve achieved with lynda.com, and, you know, it was sold for a significant amount of money. You said you wouldn’t do anything differently, but what are some great lessons that you’d love to share with our audience because you’ve been a founder for a very, very long period of time?
What are some things that you’d love to share, in essence, that I’m sure… Like, are you an advisor to any startups, in particular, or any educational startups that you’re seeing? You know, yeah. I’d just love to hear. Just kind of open it.
Lynda: Well, I do get asked to do a lot of consulting and advising, and I turn everything down because, you know, there’s only one of me, and I only have so much time, and I feel like I gave at the office. You know? I gave a lot of myself when I was a founder, and it’s a later stage of my life, and I’m, you know, looking to work less and still do the things that I love.
And so I don’t, actually, invest in startups or consult with startups. Very occasionally, I’ll have an old friend come out of the woodwork or, you know, somebody who I just can’t say no to, and I’ll, you know, give them a little bit of advice, but it’s not really the thing that fuels me. And I do love being charitable, but, you know, it’s sort of on my own terms with those sorts of things that I find, you know, sort of gratifying and challenging at this time.
I’m the kind of person I don’t like to do what I’ve already done. I like to do something new, and so I’m challenging myself to learn about a whole new industry, and it’s very gratifying and very fun. So I think, you know, the primary sort of advice that I give to people is, “Follow what it is that you want to do.”
I mean, if you end up just chasing money, it’s probably not going to work out. You know, there are a lot of people who are very, very driven and very, very ambitious to make a lot of money and, “Look at what we did,” and like, “I want to do that.” You know? But we didn’t want to do what we did. It happened over time, and it was gradual, and it was an outcome that we worked towards, but not a singular outcome. The singular outcome was to, you know, do our passion, which was teaching and sharing and helping people with technology and make a living doing it and be able to pay our employees and ourselves.
And that was really the whole, you know, motivation behind it. Now, it started to grow really fast and grow really big, and we had the opportunity to sell it or to take money long before we did, and we just weren’t finished. We still had a lot of things we wanted to do, and we felt like we were the right people to be in charge.
But keep in mind, if you do take money, that that is… You know, no one’s giving you money out of the goodness of their heart. They’re giving you money because they want a return on their investment, and that return on the investment will mean that you either go public or you sell your company. So if you’re not ready to do those things, don’t take money. And, you know, I think if you are ready to do those things, just…
We were very lucky to be in the driver’s seat and be able to say no to a lot of people, and I felt like we were interviewing our investors as much as they were interviewing us. And, you know, that’s another realization that I think… If you’re in a position where you hold the controls of your company and…you really can’t do that if you’re desperate or you’re hurting.
You know? So it is super important to try to find profitable ground and sustainable business models and practices. And some of that means sacrifice, and it just means you don’t chase getting rich. You chase the dream of just sustaining and growing at whatever your natural growth rate should be, and for us, our natural growth rate was really, really fast.
And that was its own challenge, but for other people that I know who are entrepreneurs, it’s much slower. And I think the real challenge is to love what you do and be able to have the privilege to do what you love and… You know, that, to me, is just the key to life.
Nathan: Amazing. And you said that you worked really, really hard, that you, perhaps, shaved a few years off your life, or you should’ve because you worked that hard. Like, what kind of hours were we talking?
Lynda: Well, I mean, just when you own your own company, it’s 24/7. It’s what you think about almost every waking moment of your life. You know, you go to sleep with it. You wake up with it. You’re worried about this. You’re worried about that. It’s a lot of stress.
It’s not for the stress-adverse.
Nathan: Yeah, I see. And I’d be crazy not to ask you this question, but when it comes to, you know, everything that you’ve done at Lynda and building an educational startup, that’s kind of near and dear to my heart because for us, as a magazine and a media entity that produces a lot of content…
You know, because a lot of magazine companies are shutting down, one thing that we’ve found is building out an offering around educational courses as well. And I guess, you know, for us, we can’t, and we don’t want to, or it doesn’t make sense for us to, I guess, offer courses in other categories apart from entrepreneurship and startups and marketing and stuff like that.
So we’re really developing an educational offering for founders, and we’re starting really, really slowly. Like, you know, just one course at a time, getting teachers in, and just slowly… Like, only teaching what our audience tells us they want to learn the most. And, you know, this year, we’ll be developing 12 courses. Last year, I think we did, like, three, and we’re just slowly building up, selling it once off.
Like, what would your advice be or… You know, I’d be crazy not to ask you, right?
Lynda: Well, I think you’re doing it exactly the right way. You know? Listen to your audience. You know, you’ll get their feedback whether they buy or they don’t buy your materials. That’ll be the litmus test, if they like it or they don’t. And I wouldn’t do it too quickly. I wouldn’t artificially, you know, make it faster than what the demand is.
And I think you’ll find the right rhythm, but that sounds about right to me.
Nathan: And do you think, because one thing, like, you know, we haven’t launched a subscription offering yet, and we may, we may not. We haven’t worked that part out yet, but one thing that I’m quite worried about is churn. What are your thoughts on that side of things with a subscription-based model?
Lynda: Well, that’s your biggest problem in a subscription model, and so, you know, for us, we had sort of an interesting attitude about churn because there’s a certain amount of it that’s just not a bad thing. I mean, if you’ve already taken the marketing class and the Foundr 101 or whatever and then you’re onto…needing to study something else or do something else, of course, you’re going to stop subscribing.
And it isn’t necessarily a reflection of the bad product that’s being offered. It’s a reflection of the fact that the user might have some different goal in mind. And, you know, we made it really easy to subscribe and unsubscribe and come in and come out. And, you know, sometimes, people go away for a few months, or they get really busy with something, or they change jobs, or they change schools, and that is not necessarily a bad reflection on you.
So I think it’s a bad reflection if people are leaving because they don’t think the quality of what you’re doing is good. So I would worry more about what kind of reviews are you getting? Are people recommending your materials to others? Are you getting feedback that people are unhappy, and is it something you can change or you think you should change?
And just really letting people sort of vote in that way.
Nathan: That’s great advice. Thank you. Well, look, we have to work towards wrapping up because I’m super-mindful of your time. I guess my last and final question is was there anything that you’d like to share, just parting words? And where’s the best place people can find out more about, I guess, yourself and your work?
I know, like, you know, you’re really into the films and, you know, stuff like that. So yeah, was there anything else here that you’d like to share or…? Yeah. We can wrap there.
Lynda: Well, thank you. I mean, I feel like we covered a lot of ground in this conversation. I don’t have any way that people can reach me. I don’t want people to try to reach me.
Nathan: Oh, of course. I didn’t mean it like that. Sorry.
Lynda: That’s part of the problem with why I don’t do interviews because they only lead to more interviews and more people wanting, you know, to hear your story and to learn from you and things like that. And so it’s a weird thing to not want more of the same, but I don’t. So I think, you know, just if people find what I said to be of value, I’m really happy to have shared, and, you know, I just think everybody who has a company, you have to really look at yourself critically and say, “Am I on the right path? Is this working?Is this not working? And if it isn’t working, can I let it, you know, rest for a minute, or do I need to change?”
And, you know, those are all such personal decisions that are based on so many factors that are impossible to predict. So, you know, there’s a lot of decisions that you make as a founder every day of your life. And I was very lucky to work with my husband, and I think the two of us had a good way of feeding off each other and being that sort of critical sounding board who was still supportive.
And, you know, I know that we had a lot of good instincts and a lot of good luck and a lot of hard work, but I don’t think there’s one way to succeed. I think there’s lots of different, you know, definitions of success, and everybody needs to find their own.