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FOR THE LAST FOUR YEARS, ANDRE DANTZLER’S COMPANY SociallyU has been quietly developing its own unique version of online training. Rather than helping corporations train employees, SociallyU forms partnerships with people who know a thing or two and helps them sell their expertise to consumers.
“Our angle is finding experts and equipping them with a platform so they can teach whatever they’re awesome at and have other people pay a fee to learn,” says Dantzler.
The LearnSocial product is a self-contained, cloud-based ecosystem to manage the delivery of eLearning video content, including a user management system, credit card processing, security, a drag-and-drop page designer for building web pages and email blasts, and an integrated support desk system. The idea, says Dantzler, is for his company to take over the entire burden of technology.
As the company’s name suggests, the social component is critical. A robust commenting engine allows students not just to interact with the teacher but to engage their community of fellow learners. For example, music students might seek peer feedback on a recording of themselves playing a lesson or entrepreneurs might look for peer and mentor comments on a video of their investor pitch.
Companies pay a relatively modest fee for the core system—just under $3,000—and agree to share 20 percent of profits with SociallyU. Because of that profit-sharing partnership, SociallyU vets potential clients before accepting them.
“You can’t just go to our web site and sign up,” says Dantzler. “Because we are partners, the people we pick we are going to make successful. It’s about picking things we think are interesting. I think my clients want this, too. They want me to be passionate about it.”
Beyond that initial tier, SociallyU also offers video production from its own in-house team and marketing from partner company Whiteboard, which also designed LearnSocially’s user experience.
Dantzler and his staff of six have worked with just a handful of companies in an extended beta, using each company as a real-time R&D project to pilot the system and develop new features to roll out to the group.
Clients include a stage magician, music teachers and nonprofits. Dantzler doesn’t want to name them because SociallyU is invisible to the end user. His largest client has about 12,000 users nationally, while the smallest has as few as 20. One site offering video music instruction draws revenue in the six figures, according to Dantzler, revenue that was new to the company.
A year ago, SociallyU stopped accepting new custom development clients to concentrate on building out the commercial version. Now the company is preparing to roll out LearnSocially 3.0 in November. Why so long to launch?
“We don’t use the ‘launch it broken and then iterate fast to fix it’ model, like so many companies today seem to,” Dantzler says. “It’s a drip release, bringing on clients, feeling what that need is like, making sure we’ve addressed it well technologically.”
Dantzler structured the company to be customer funded. He received a start-up grant from Innovate Here, a program of CreateHere, the Lyndhurst Foundation and others to attract high-growth startups to Main Street. With no other outside funding, it has been profitable and debt-free from day one.
“There’s an overarching philosophy of ‘What will people pay us to do’ that drives every decision,” says Dantzler. “That shapes our culture differently than the investor-funded model that says ‘We are going to build this product.’ We know what we’re going to build, and at the same time we have to figure out how to make some money while we’re heading in that direction.”
Code for the new system, created in Ruby on Rails 4, was finalized last week and is in quality assurance testing now.
“It is 100 percent written here in Chattanooga, handmade code,” Dantzler says. “It’s not off-the-shelf stuff that we’ve duct-taped together. It’s a real and complete ecosystem that we’ve built.”
Dantzler plans to roll out the fully developed LearnSocially product in November. Five clients—some current, some new—will be on the new platform by the end of the year, and his goal is to sign 50 new clients in 2014.
“The world has changed,” says Dantzler. “Information doesn’t want to be free anymore.”
Now that we’re drowning in the free stuff, including an estimated 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute—niche content is king, which creates opportunity if SociallyU can find the right experts.
“If you give me a niche, I can create a platform around that and make them the top people in their niches,” he says. “When the world is your audience, even a small niche can generate some sizable revenue.”