After 14 months, it’s time to move on from our learning startup, Nooma.tv.
Preface: Nooma.tv is a learning platform we built where you can learn new creative and technical skills (like app development, music production, and design). Instead of buying and studying individual courses by yourself, Nooma gives you continuous video lessons, 1:1 mentorship, and a Community of other students to learn with for $5 a week.
In January of 2016, my long-time friend Andrew became my co-founder as we set out to build a new learning platform that would help people learn new skills.
We all spend 80% of our waking lives at work, we should love what we do, and do what we love. Even if you studied something different in college or discovered at 29 what you really want to do. You should be able to re-educate, adapt, and always be learning and improving without going into massive debt or getting mired in broken educational institutions. Especially in today’s world and only more so in the future.
We had spent a year-and-a-half teaching ourselves and others how to code and design applications. Along the way, we fell in love with learning but also experienced firsthand a pain point with today’s online learning experience — something I call the “self-study problem.”
The Self-Study Problem
Let’s say you’ve decided to try learning a new skill, say coding. The typical experience on the major online learning platforms (Udemy, Skillshare, Lynda, etc.) leave you trying to learn complex new skills like web development by watching videos and doing exercises, usually by yourself.
And don’t get me wrong, we love and still use these learning platforms and recommend them highly to all. They’ve changed our lives for the better and inspired us. But when you’re a total newbie, today’s experience often leaves you feeling confused, discouraged, and wondering who to ask for help.
We had a vision to build a revolutionary learning platform from the ground-up with intimate community and true relationship in it’s DNA.
“The first attempts to use technology to fix education have focused on using the Internet to distribute traditional content to a wider audience. This is good, but the Internet is a fundamentally different medium and capable of much more.
Solutions that combine the mass scale of technology with one-on-one in-person interaction are particularly interesting to us.
This may not require a ‘breakthrough’ technology in the classical sense, but at a minimum it will require very new ways of doing things.”
So we set out to build a sort-of learning utopia, a community of people learning new skills together with all the mentorship and support you could need to actually succeed.
Here’s a recount of our journey, why we’ve decided to move on, and what I’m up to next.
December ’15: With the success of Twitch.tv and others, livestreaming was presenting itself as an exciting new format that promised an immediacy, interaction, and honesty like we hadn’t seen before on the Web. We were fascinated to be among the first to test it as a medium for learning.
January ’16: We decided to name it Nooma.tv, from the Greek word pneuma which means “spirit, soul, breath of life”. We built and tested a prototype with friends. It worked okay so we then recruited Teachers for the initial launch.
February ’16 — Launched prototype! Signed up 1,000 users (thanks Reddit) from 70+ countries, logged 500,000 streamed minutes of live video between Teachers and Students. We had Korean, Web Development, Singing, Entrepreneurship, and Design to start. Some of our classes had 150+ people live and engaged for over 1 hour. People kept coming back and little communities began to form around the Teachers. But we ran up $2,000+ bill in server costs… Freaked out. We hadn’t anticipated this. Had to make a decision quick.
March ’16 — Not feeling like we had enough yet to raise funding in a competitive environment, we quickly rebuilt the site with a different technology stack that would cost us less and buy as more time. As a casualty, Nooma became a bit more confusing to users and we lost some of our most interactive features…core power users still came back everyday but overall interest and engagement began to dwindle…Learning over livestream proved to be more difficult in practice (bandwidth issues and video/audio difficulties interrupting every class). Benefits didn’t outweigh the costs. Momentum started to die.
April ’16 — Realized Teachers needed to have a monetary incentive to keep teaching. Decided to pivot from free live classes to a freemium, online bootcamp model. Refreshed the site design. Prepared two pilot versions of the online bootcamp: Korean with Angela and Brian Advent’s iOS School.
May ’16 — Inactive month due to death in the family.
June ’16 — Began to market online bootcamp to companies, schools, hundreds of student orgs, and ourpersonal network. Ton of interested signups but really disappointing conversion…
July ’16 — Still went ahead and launched Brian Advent and Angela’s courses with a few paying students to see what would happen but realized pretty quickly it was not working out…
August ’16 — Identity crisis. Contemplated shutting down. Briefly experimented with pivoting Nooma to be a tool for groups to build a live community online. We never really told anyone but we actually did a couple of test runs with the Bernie Sanders and Gary Johnson Presidential campaigns. Had 300+ concurrent live users on a few nights and our servers crashed at one point (thanks again, Reddit). Engagement did not sustain beyond the spikes though and we went back to the drawing board.
September ’16 — Refocused back to education. After briefly exploring going B2B and building a white-label for Teachers to compete with Teachable, we had a “DUH” moment and decided to introduce a new learning model: on-demand video courses + livechat support whenever you need it for $5 a week. Relaunched new version with Nick Walter, one of Udemy’s top instructors. Got 10 recurring subscriptions in the first week! We’re onto something!
October & November ’16 — Got more customers, launched 2 more Teachers. Began launching Community Events and Hangouts to deepen the relationships.
December ’16 — New website design and simplified UI. Reached out to more Teachers. Stronger reception. 12 of the top 50 online teachers with combined reach of over 1,000,000 join Nooma.tv
January ’17 — Relaunch. We begin running ads. Teachers began marketing as well to thousands of their email lists. Got tens of thousands of impressions and thousands of visits, but conversion was again, disappointing.
February ’17 — A couple of our teachers are actually doing quite well. They have recurring subscribers paying them $5 every week and growing. But we start to see the writing on the wall.
Wait, why are you stopping now? Why don’t you try some more things?? Maybe you’ll succeed if you just keep going!
It’s always hard to know when to stop and when to keep going.
We could stay small, raise a few small rounds of financing, and keep growing that way. We can try to figure out ways to survive and grow. But that wasn’t what we set out to do.
For us, we would rather fail trying to achieve our mission than be moderately successful at something that isn’t making the kind of transformative impact we set out for.
I’m proud of our fight. We stuck it through a lot of really hard times and eventually figured out a product that real people were paying money for every single week and are successfully learning from, even right now, as I write this.
We’re going to go and get better at what we do and try a different approach at a different time.
- “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face” — Rarely does a plan survive it’s first implementation. Expect that there is a 100% chance your first several genius schemes to not go as planned and have multiple contingency plans thought of in advance. Anticipating the mistakes and pitfalls of your startup will help you move quickly and decisively.
- Don’t fall victim to wishful thinking. Be highly skeptical of yourself because you will lose objectivity. Invite outside opinions frequently but look at people’s actions more than their words. And when your gut says it’s not working or doesn’t feel right — there’s probably a very good reason.
- Know what it takes to compete, know what it takes to dominate. The marketplace is not unlike the NBA. There are a total of 30 teams in the league and each year, the top 16 teams make it into the playoffs and only the top 4 teams are considered to be actual championship contenders. To compete, there’s no way around the fact that you need the best personnel. If you don’t have the best, you just don’t have the tools needed to win. It sucks to find out halfway through or after your startup has failed that you didn’t properly understand what it’s going to realistically take for your team to truly compete and win in the marketplace. Specifically, know what and how much of every resource it will take you to even have a shot at succeeding. It can be easy to jump into a startup with a romantic dream of how you believe things will play out.
- Ask for (and give) help. It can be hard to ask for people’s help. You will feel like it’s your startup, it’s your job to figure everything out. And you certainly don’t want to take it too far.
I want to give a special thanks to…
Andrew, I don’t know a more loyal, honest, and hard-working person than you and no one has been a better friend to me than you have. I’ve learned so much from you and I’m so glad we’re still friends and collaborators through this. Shoutout to your family for all their support. Vivian and Gary, too.
My family. Angela for all your hours teaching on Nooma. Sylvia, for all the ways you nurture and encourage. Mom, for being so supportive in every way you know how. And all three of you Park women for not only putting up with me, but also coming all the way up to the Bay together to visit me when I needed some cheering up.
Jeremy Ong, for your encouragement, mentorship, and being there on-call during the lowest of lows. You’re a great 형.
Shoutout to Alima Strickland, Andrew Lee, DiViNCi, Jeremy Ian Thomas, 5am, Jacob Kang, Dom Finnetti, Chet Corcos, Jason Choe, Jonathan So, Catherine Uong, Dianne Lee, Sydney Liu, Abby Chao.
I want to bring at least one truly great product into the world during my career and to do that, I believe I’ll have to put a lot of time into studying and doing:
(2) Machine Learning
So probably something like this…
9am — 5pm: Full-Time in Product (40 hours)
7pm — 2am + Weekends: Personal Projects & Development (30 hours)
- Machine Learning: To become a proficient machine learning developer within one year, I estimate it will take about 250 hours of study. 250 hours / 52 weeks = 5 hours a week. That’s the minimum required, so I’ll probably shoot for closer to 300 hours. 5–10 hours / week
- Content: I have always loved media, storytelling, and connecting with an audience. I’m going to get back to it. I’m thinking YouTube. 5–10 hours / week
- Freelancing + Volunteering: I would like to keep my technical skills fresh so I will probably aim to have one light freelance project going on at all times or just help friends or non-profits for free. 5–10 hours / week