A PASSION FOR LEARNING. DAVID ROGIER is the co-founder and CEO of MasterClass, where since 2015 he is leading the Californian company’s re-imagination of online education. Previously, David launched British retailer Tesco’s first stores in the U.S., where he focused on increasing the flow of healthy food to lower income neighbourhoods. After Tesco, David attended the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
What is MasterClass?
A subscription service that for the first time allows you a chance to learn from the best of the world.
After you went to Stanford University, how did your career progress?
I went and worked in venture capital. I was investing in start-ups, and I missed building and creating. I told my boss I was going to quit and “go build something, I’m not sure what.” He said, “I want to invest in you,” and I said, “I don’t have an idea or a team.” He wrote me a cheque for half a million dollars and told me to go think of an idea. It was a once in a lifetime chance. I was shocked and scared, but I didn’t want to mess up. I kept thinking of what I wanted to do and how to take advantage of this. I was raised in part by my grandmother, who escaped the Nazis in Poland and came to America, and she taught me that the only thing that someone can’t take away from you is your education. So I said, with this one chance I want to build something that other people can’t take away from us or from others. I want to make it possible for anybody in the world to learn from the best.
University level education costs a lot in America. Did you want to enlarge the number of people who have a chance to do it?
Exactly. That for almost the price of Netflix or a cup of coffee you can learn from the best in the world.
How did you set about it?
I posted a classified ad on a website here in the United States called Craigslist, and offered to pay people ten dollars if I could talk to them about their education, because I wanted to hear why people weren’t going to school, why they weren’t learning more, why they weren’t taking classes. A lot of it came down to cost. It is expensive, and for most people it is a stressful experience. It used to be that everything you learnt in school would last for your entire life, but with the rate of change that’s no longer the case. People have to continue to learn, and I wanted to make something that people could afford, that they would actually enjoy and that would help them learn and grow.
How do you get people to give lessons on MasterClass?
In the beginning it was really hard to get them to actually teach. I don’t come from this world, I cold-called, I sent emails. Some of the first instructors to say yes were Serena Williams and James Patterson. They all wanted to actually teach. They all had somebody in their life that changed how they thought about it or how they did how they did their craft, and this was a way for them to reach lots of people. Now it is much faster, and it is we who say no to 9 out of 10 people.
“We’ve tapped into the intersection of engagement and education, and that’s why people love the product.”
“Are you kidding me? Of course, I would want to learn from Martin Scorsese!”
The Oscar-winning Director Martin Scorsese’s top rated MasterClass lessons include Editing, Sound Design, the Power of Music, and staying true to yourself on your filmmaking journey.
David Rogier, what is the MasterClass format?
We aren’t bound to any format because it’s online, but each class is 3 to 6 hours long and we break it up into 12 minute chunks.
Do you pay them?
Yes, instructors are compensated for their time and effort. But, compensation isn’t the primary motivator for participation. The common thread between all our instructors is that they want to give back, and inspire others by sharing their journey, knowledge and life’s learnings; this is their way of leaving a mark on their legacy.
What do I pay if I want to have one lesson?
What we offer is a hundred and eighty dollars to gain access to every class for a year. So the Massimo Bottura class, the Marc Jacobs, Anna Wintour, Martin Scorsese, Hans Zimmer, all 85+ instructors for a hundred and eighty US dollars a year, which is only fifteen dollars a month. You get access to everyone.
You have had classes available since May 2015, so it’s exactly five years. Do people keep following you because they’re waiting for new lessons, or do they quit once they have finished a programme?
People are no longer signing up with the intention for one specific class or category – they stick around because they want to learn and grow; and we have a steady stream of content to fuel that appetite. What we’ve tapped into is the intersection of engagement and education, and that’s why people love the product.
Have you seen many more join MasterClass when the universities were closed during the pandemia?
Yes, up to a 1000% increase.
As people get used to study by Zoom, after the pandemia do you think universities will change?
I think they’re going to have to. There used to be a certain time of day to go to school and learn. Then there were other times, a time to come home, a time to watch television. Education and entertainment is going to come together, and so all throughout the day you’re going to want to learn and also be entertained. Now lines are blurred. You have to make the content and the classes so engaging that people want to watch. We believed from day one that you don’t measure the success of school based on just grades or completing a course or how much time was spent. You should measure success by impact. What did that person learn and did it have an impact on their life? That is the one question that we ask everybody who takes our classes, if we changed your life. That is our goal, and you’re going to see that shift in education away from just a grade into what is the impact.
But universities prepare you for a competitive life, and in school you work closely with professors?
I’m not saying that you don’t get a lot of great things out of school: a mentor, a group of friends, you are exposed to things that you’ve never learnt before. We are not a university, but one thing that schools do not measure and that we’ve been tracking, because we believe it’s really important, is the impact it’s had on you. To learn something that is going to change your life.
“For us and our community, it is all about making excellence egalitarian and fuelling a learning lifestyle.”
David Rogier, are documentaries and interviews competitive with MasterClass?
I don’t think they are, because there is nowhere else on the web where you can get Martin Scorsese for 6 hours teaching his class. There are lots of places where you can watch his movies, and you can learn a lot from his movies. There are lots of places you can watch his interviews, but there is no other place where for 6 hours he’s going to sit down and teach you his craft.
Are these people good teachers?
To actually make a class right can take one to two years, so they’re putting a tremendous amount of work in there. It’s not just about learning a skill. It’s about learning from the lifetime of mistakes they’ve made, of the achievements that they’ve done and operating at the highest level. This isn’t just watch an interview. This isn’t just a college class. It is much more than that. They talk straight to you.
Do you prepare the classes in a studio?
We always try to film where you would want to learn from them. Serena Williams’ class you learn from Serena on her own tennis court. Martin Scorsese wanted to film at the Lincoln Centre, and it was important to him because it was one of the first places his first film was shown.
Are some people only interested in cinema or cooking or photography?
This is a really important point. Most of education has assumed that people are primarily interested in just one area, and I think one of the surprising things to us that we found in most of our subscribers is that they go broad. They will start with the basketball class with Stephen Curry, and will then go from area to area and go to the Steve Martin class on telling jokes and comedy. They’ll then go to the baking class with Dominique Ansel. We’ve had a generational shift where people used to define themselves by one thing: “I am a lawyer.” “I am a doctor.” “I am an entrepreneur,” whatever it is. Now people are multi-hyphenate. They say, “Hey, I’m a lawyer, but I’m also a computer engineer.”
This is more like the renaissance?
Exactly. I would like to think that we can contribute and help to bring back the culture of the renaissance.
How do you select your teachers?
For us it’s not about how well-known they are, but are they the master of the craft. Are they the best in the world? That often means people are well-known, but it often means people who aren’t well known, and some should be well known but are not. The way we look at that and try to figure it out is to ask other masters if they would want to learn from that person. Every filmmaker that we talked to said, “Are you kidding me? Of course, I would want to learn from Martin Scorsese!”
One of the ideas of America is that everybody can make it, can become president, become a millionaire. Do scholars follow you, or less literate people?
It’s a very big mix, and we also have many subscribers from outside of the United States, so we have a large group of people that aren’t American. For us and our community, it is all about making excellence egalitarian and fuelling a learning lifestyle.
Where are they?
We see a lot from Europe, South America and Asia. It’s all over the world. For example, we have lots of people from Italy who take our classes.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Marc Jacobs teaches fashion design on MasterClass.
Annie Liebovitz teaches photography and brings you into her studio and onto her shoots with materials that are 100% exclusive to MasterClass.
Legendary German film director Werner Herzog teaches his uncompromising approach to documentary and feature filmmaking. MasterClass is now expanding internationally.
“Over the next two years we will be filming our first classes not in English.”
David Rogier, do you use many European people as MasterClass teachers?
We do have quite a few, like Hans Zimmer, Werner Herzog, and Dominique Ansel. There’s more and more. We just raised $100 million from venture capitalists, who invest in the company in exchange for a percentage of the company, and a lot of that is going to fuel our international expansion and growth.
Are you worth a lot more than you were at the beginning?
A news report came out saying that they believe that MasterClass is valued at $800 million. But it is significantly above that.
Do you accept advertising?
There is no advertising in our product. All our money comes from investors and subscribers.
Which are the classes that people particularly take during the pandemic?
There is a large surge in the Anna Wintour class, which is on how to manage and how to lead, and during this time people in business organisations don’t know how to lead so they’re taking that class. There’s a class from Chris Voss, the former lead hostage negotiator of the FBI. He teaches a class on negotiation and a lot of his class is on tactical empathy. How do I show acts of empathy? A lot of people are home with their families and need to display more empathy.
After the pandemic will your numbers slow down?
Last year we grew 200%. I think it’s a shift. The shift is to online, and is going to carry on.
Which are the best sellers?
It depends on the age of the person and what’s going on. There has been a rise in those classes that I mentioned, and in the things that you can do at home during this pandemic; in cooking classes, in gardening classes. We’re seeing an increase not only in the States, but across the world, and as I mentioned, one of the large things we want to do with this additional investment is expand internationally. Over the next two years we will be filming our first classes not in English.
How many people work with you and where are your offices?
We have 250 employees. We have two offices; one in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles.
Will you have one in Europe?
We are thinking about it.
Will you use 3D and Virtual Reality in the future?
We are spending a lot of time trying to think that out. It’d be so neat if you could take a MasterClass in basketball and look at augmented reality, virtual reality, and see where to put your feet. Imagine it was in VR, and you can walk into a film set and the teacher would explain to you why the light is here, why the camera angles here, to make it come alive. The short answer is yes.
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