Posted: September 01, 2011
Tech startup: Sympoz Inc.
Tapping into continuing educationBy Eric Peterson
where Denver | FOUNDED April 2010 | web www.sympoz.com
INITIAL LIGHT BULB After working together at Web companies in California (eBay) and Colorado (ServiceMagic.com), John Levisay and Josh Scott launched their own Internet startup with ServiceMagic.com veterans Andrew Rogers, Todd Tobin and Bret Hanna in Sympoz, aiming to bring a classroom experience to online education.
Scott says the idea arose from personal need. "We wanted to tap into continuing education, but it was difficult to do with busy schedules," he says. "Online, nothing was very satisfying."
Levisay says the latter typically offers a "passive" environment that is akin to "the back of the classroom." The key question: "How do you create that magic of a classroom online and make it asynchronous?" Sympoz answers it with what Scott describes as "time-indexed technology" that fosters instructor-student interaction.
Sympoz is now 16 employees strong - and hiring - with Levisay and Scott respectively serving as CEO and vice president of product development.
IN A NUTSHELL For each course, Sympoz produces eight to 15 20- to 30-minute high-quality, high-definition videos with experts. Students can pose questions during the lecture that get tagged "contextually at the right time in the video," Scott says, and experts answer in the same comment field, typically within 24 hours. Users can also take time-tagged notes as they view the lecture videos and access course materials with a click of the mouse.
"We believe there are experts in every field uniquely qualified to teach a class," Levisay says. "This is a great way for them to monetize their craft or trade." About half of the videos are produced at the company's in-house studio in downtown Denver, with the remainder typically being shot at the expert's location. Experts are paid a commission for each student.
Crafting has emerged as a focal point, with Sympoz sub-brand Craftsy (www.craftsy.com) offering classes on knitting, quilting, and paper arts. Other subjects in the Sympoz curriculum include wine, personal finance, gardening and parenting. Beyond the online courses, the Sympoz website features social networking integration, e-commerce, and photo posting.
Launched in 2011, Sympoz has already attracted more than 20,000 paying customers for courses that run $29 to $59, a tally growing by more than 5,000 new users a month. The company has leveraged Facebook by creating groups tied to relevant crafts and activities; those pages have collectively garnered more than 1 million fans.
"I love it because you can stop and start, you can pause, you can go back," says Dianne Moore, a Michigan-based fiber artist who has taken Craftsy's quilting classes. "I do it totally at my own pace. It's so much better than a live class."
THE MARKET Estimates tab the U.S. continuing education market above $100 billion annually. Seattle-based Ambient Insight Research pegged the U.S. e-learning market at $18.2 billion in 2010 and forecast growth to $24.2 billion in 2015.
FINANCING The founders and Michael Dearing of Harrison Metal Capital participated in a seed round last year. "We'll soon be putting together our first institutional round of funding," Scott says.
QUOTE: "We came back to what we saw at eBay. People came to eBay for their passion - Beanie Babies, collectibles, comic books - then they realized they could buy and sell a car, ski equipment, photography equipment, et cetera."
- Sympoz CEO John Levisay on plans to expand the course catalog
Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com