On Creating An Online Workshops Marketplace For Teachers

Published: December 16th, 2019
Robert Kaplinsky
Grassroots Workshops
from Long Beach, California, USA
started April 2019
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Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

My name is Robert Kaplinsky and I founded Grassroots Workshops. We provide a flexible online workshop for teachers from experts they know, like, and trust.

The outgoing professional development model requires teachers to choose between staying in their classroom with students and leaving to learn from someone that they might know more than. It’s often expensive and too short to provide sufficient support.

Our model allows teachers to learn what they want, when and how they want, from who they want. It works around their schedule, not the other way around.

In two and a half years of having online workshops, we’ve had thousands of customers from dozens of countries.

What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

I graduated from UCLA and started as a programming consultant in 2000, unaware of the impending dot com crash. I quickly went from being flown around the country for job interviews to not being able to find anyone interested in me. I eventually started my own programming company, but it was inconsistent work and wanted something more consistent.

In 2018 I left my full time teaching job and am focusing solely on consulting and developing the business.

I eventually became a math teacher in 2003 and loved helping others. The desire to consult never died though and I merged the two in 2012 when I started consulting to help other teachers teach math while still maintaining my full-time school district job. After several years of consulting, I became much more aware of the problems around professional development and thought I could help fix the problem.

So, I founded Grassroots Workshops in 2016 to, at first, provide in-person workshops for educators. This went well and was very profitable, but it was not easily scalable and I longed for something with a better work/life balance as I was still working full time for a school district and doing consulting work.

Eventually, I ran my first online workshop, and the potential was overwhelming. As a result, I made the tough call to end the profitable in-person workshop and focus solely on online workshops.

In 2018 I left my full time teaching job and am focusing solely on consulting and developing Grassroots Workshops to better meet teachers’ professional development needs.

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

I was fortunate to have significant experience as both an educator (consumer of workshops) and consultant (provider of workshops) so I deeply understood the headaches that both of our customer groups consistently faced because I regularly dealt with them too. I believe that I could do a better job of meeting teachers’ professional development needs but I had to validate various assumptions.

The first question that I needed to answer was “Would anyone take my online workshop?” This led to a slew of discoveries including how do I get an online platform for sharing my workshop to how do I film and create the content to how do I market it to other educators? I hired a web developer to create a WordPress site with e-commerce and learning management system plugins that were good enough for testing this assumption. Ultimately, I spent about a year and a half developing my content, the platform, and my marketing to test this out and I launched my workshop in Fall 2017 where I had 200+ educators from around the world register at $297 per person.

This was eye-opening, so it was time to answer my next question of “Can I help someone else launch an online workshop?” I was fortunate that I had credibility in the educational consulting space, so I was able to reach out to others who would give me a chance to explain what I was up to. However, it was still much harder to find someone than I realized. I eventually found an instructor duo who was up for the challenge, and their first workshop successfully launched in Fall 2018.

Off of that success, my next question was “Can I scale this?” and that required some major steps. First, I had to hire my first project managers to help me standardize and strengthen my existing processes. I had to reinvest in the website as WordPress was not the long term solution, and I was fortunate to find a developer who could build me a custom platform, though at a significant cost. I also had to find instructors to create and run the workshops. That is still my biggest challenge and might always be.

We currently have eight workshops from seven instructors scheduled for Fall 2020 with another 5 instructors bringing workshops in Spring 2021. Our workshops are primarily for math teachers, but we aim to diversify our offerings as we grow. We’ve brought on an additional 3 project managers and are working to build upon our slow and steady growth.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Grassroots Workshops is built upon a profit-sharing model where the instructor and company split what’s left after expenses. I believe that this is much fairer than a flat rate model as it gives instructors a better return on the time and energy they invest in their workshop.

We run extremely lean, which allows us to keep our operating costs down. We also have no outside investors as my consulting work has been able to fund the company initially.

We are profitable when looking solely at ongoing expenses and earnings. However one-time costs including the creation of our custom learning management system platform are not included. We expect to be fully profitable, including one-time expenses, in 2021.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

When I started Grassroots Workshops, I had a Field of Dreams mentality where I genuinely thought that if I built a site, instructors who wanted to provide online workshops would come. I came to realize that it just doesn’t happen this way and the reasons why are quite complex.

If you find that you want to do something that you love but others really love too, it’s going to be a much more challenging path.

For example, there’s some measure of imposter syndrome in that people don’t think they’re good enough to be an instructor. There are certainly systemic oppression issues where historically the majority of educational leaders have been white males, so when you don’t see yourself in the faces of the people you want to emulate, that is problematic. There’s some amount of gatekeeping in terms of what knowledge is valued and who is allowed to share it. And so what this amounted to was that I couldn’t just sit and take my pick of potential instructors like I was the scout of a sports team.

Fixing this has been challenging and has involved a lot of unlearning. For example, when I would go to a conference, I would often see the same speakers who I loved the year before. What I came to realize is that when I always see the same white, male speakers, I might have a great time but I’ll also be completely unaware of the other amazing speakers out there. Now when I go to a conference I try my best to only see speakers I have never seen before, and especially women and educators of color. It’s a lot of work but very rewarding and I’ve met so many amazing educators that I should have been aware of long ago.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We originally began by using a WordPress site running WooCommerce for selling things and LearnDash for our learning management system. Unfortunately, those were not long term solutions so we now have a completely custom coded platform that better meets the needs of our educator customers.

We also use Asana to organize tasks for our instructors, Slack and email to communicate between team members and Stripe for payment processing.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Two books are baked into everything we do: Building a StoryBrand by Donald Miller and Launch by Jeff Walker.

Before I read StoryBrand, we talked about how amazing we were and why customers should pick us. I was clueless to the reality that our job is not to be the hero of our customers’ stories. We are supposed to be the guide who helps them achieve their own goals. As a result, we’ve completely changed how we communicate with our customers.

Launch helped us go from having the best online workshops that no one had ever heard of to ones where people are excited to register. The book really helps our instructors figure out what they need to do and why they need to do it. It’s not as strong in actionable steps about how to do it and that is part of the value we provide.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

I have two pieces of advice that had served me well. The first comes from Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt who’s advice for finding a career applies well here. He suggests aiming at the overlap in the Venn diagram of what do you love to do and what do others hate to do.

Anything in that middle will be something you love but others hate, which means that there’s likely to be limited supply and potentially high demand. If you find that you want to do something that you love but others really love too, it’s going to be a much more challenging path.

My second piece of advice comes from Lean Startup and it’s the idea of minimum viable products (MVP). The basic idea is to test your critical assumptions as early and as quickly as possible. The best example I’ve heard is from Zappos founder Tony Hsieh who was unsure of whether people would be willing to buy shoes online. Instead of building an expensive website on a hunch that they would, he went to a shoe store, took pictures of their shoes, posted those pictures online, and when shoes sold, he wants to the same shoe store to buy the shoes at cost and send them to the customer.

He probably lost money on the experience but it was a relatively inexpensive way to verify that his assumption was correct. What are your big assumptions and how can you test them as early on in the process as possible?

Where can we go to learn more?