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Better Than Free: How Lynda.com Made a Pay Wall Pay

January 26, 2012, 12:00 AM

What's the Big Idea?

Free is easy. In an age when just about anything can be shared, the hard part is getting people to pay for it. For ten years, content creators have argued that if you want watch, read, or listen to something, you have to support the writing, editing, and production work that has gone into it. Usually, this translates into nothing more than guilt-tripping or flattering an audience into making a donation, since it's widely assumed that putting content behind pay wall is a sure way to kill a site's traffic



Afterall, if you put up a paywall, won't readers just turn to other sources for their information? That depends, says Lynda Weinman, co-founder of lynda.com, on how good your content is.

Since the mid-nineties, Weinman has been discretely building a web empire with a mission: to be better than free. Lynda.com brings together thousands of video lessons with the aim of teaching users basic to advanced technology skills at their own pace. Subscribers pay a flat monthly fee for unlimited access, and instructors receive royalties for their work on a per-video basis. The lessons are geared mainly towards web professionals looking to sharpen their Photoshop skills or learn HTML, but the company's business model hints at possibilities for a broader audience. 

What's the Significance?

It's unusual for a website to charge for its services, admits Weinman, but the fee "allows us to have a sustainable business model where we can pay contributors." Her approach represents a compromise between the open ideals of the web and the financial needs of the people who fill its pages.

On a practical level, that means constantly monitoring and encouraging user feedback. It also means treating the community like adults. "We're very cognizant about not speaking to people in a condescending manner. They're not stupid. Having respect is key, being very clear about the how, the what, the why, the when; not just to throw out a lot of advice." So far, the model seems to be working: the site has amassed a following of more than 100,000 users.

How did Weinman arrive at such a counterintuitive solution? By eschewing the Silicon Valley startup business model. Lynda.com was launched in a small town, without a dollar of venture capital funding. "Our company started because I had been a teacher and I loved teaching," says Weinman. She and her husband did everything from writing and teaching to buying computers, sweeping the floor, and cleaning the toilets.

The decision to pay for content arose from Weinman's own experience as a freelance designer, when her biggest challenge was getting clients to compensate her fairly and on time.

"The typical MBA kind of approach is: find a market, evaluate how big the market is, write a business plan, figure out how you can tap into getting some of that market share," she says. "I watch a lot of businesses where they get an idea, but they are reliant on all kinds of other people doing every piece of it and they don’t really necessarily have a big role in the mechanics of it. There is a lot of value in knowing all the different aspects of your business and knowing that you can kind of do it yourself." 


Image courtesy of Shutterstock.



Better Than Free: How Lynda...

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