Coursedot, a Bulgarian marketplace for professional IT upskill courses, raised $1M in Series A round from its previous investor Eleven Capital and Morningside Hill. With the latest investment, the company, which has reached a valuation of around $7.5M, will aim to productize its current offering to adapt it to the new online reality. Coursedot will expand into new markets, and increase the size of its sales and operations teams.
Founded in 2015 by Teodor Panayotov, Coursedot is an online platform that sources IT trainers and allows companies and organizations from all over the world to organize highly specialized IT upskilling training. Our team met with Panayotov to find out more about the story and stage of development of Coursedot, the challenges that they had to overcome, and the future goals for the company. The founder also shared some intriguing insights about the trends and changes in the corporate upskilling of IT talents.
The Recursive: What was the market gap that you tried to fill and the problem you wanted to solve, when you founded Coursedot?
Teodor Panayotov: Coursedot is not the first iteration of the company – we actually had a small bootstrapped service agency for trainers. During that time we did not develop software and worked with practically zero innovation, but the experience we gained allowed us to verify that there is a market need.
With this, we started building something like a spreadsheet with trainers, who we sourced to fuel training companies. Then in 2013, I went to a Singularity University and after I came back, I quit my well-paid job in Fast Lane, one of the largest technology training companies. The first gap in the market that we recognized was that there were not enough trainers to fulfill the customer demand. Second, professional IT training is pretty much standardized and classes are delivered by roughly the same trainers all over Europe. This means that the exact same content is delivered with the exact same exercises, with differences in the pricing.
What Coursedot sought to achieve was to build the global marketplace for all kinds of technology training classes. We built a marketplace with around 85,000 different options and even had a partnership with a very innovative UK company, whose API we used in natural language processing projects. We created a recommendation engine integration with which we solved the technical problem of the project. But we had grossly underestimated the problem of marketing and after banging our heads against the wall for a couple of years, we almost went bankrupt. I had to close down on that project and scale back on the official Coursedot product, which is sourcing trainers to train companies. So now we have some very interesting pieces of software archived in the cloud to remind me of my mistakes.
What were the main challenges you had to overcome since last year?
Before the pandemic, about 90% of our business was focused on flying people around to deliver premium physical classes. I remember that on March 13 last year, I came back to Bulgaria from Manchester. And on March 16, I had to personally cancel probably 75 – 80 flights with our travel agency. The big change, however, was that many businesses shifted their budgeting and attention, and the global spend on corporate training shrunk from $150B to about $105B. And as a result of that, about half of the classes last year were either canceled or rescheduled indefinitely.
What is the significance of the latest investment for your company?
It shows that investors have recognized that the market has turned around during the past year. Right now training, education, and professional upskilling are the ways for companies to get back in business and start producing more value. The real big winners of 2020 are the companies that produce pure online self-served content, such as SkillSoft, Pluralsight, and Cloud Guru. Such online supermarkets for training are growing at breakneck speed, and they have the same value proposition as us. COVID actually helped corporations move their thinking from choosing an X amount of physical classes per employee to paying for a subscription to help their employees define their learning career path. We try to differentiate ourselves by shifting the model and flipping the classroom. We offer trainees to have several engagements per week with a certified trainer. And this person is not just there delivering slides, but rather, their role is to be a mentor who answers questions, who helps you with your career growth, basically, hold your hand.
Where is Cousedot at the moment and what comes next for your company in the second half of 2021?
Currently, we work mainly with technology training vendors such as Microsoft, Google, AWS, VMware, which have their technology training partners, also called learning partners, and deliver training classes to corporates. Coursedot was kind of like the fire extinguisher for IT training in Europe right now. People called us on Thursday evening asking if we had someone for AI training Monday morning. So we went ahead and built a product around that, which we called the Instructor Hub. Right now there are about 3500 trainers registered in the Hub, who are based in 115 countries. Our main customer base is in Europe as we work with most of the large technology training companies in Europe. But we do have global customers and offer classes anywhere from Greenland to Australia.
We are going to be building upon the Instructor Hub after we already did a couple of experiments in Bulgaria and Germany. And once that is done, it will be productized. We have already built the working prototype and it has worked as a service in a couple of projects. Right now we are in the phase where we’ll be hiring additional people in teams to do the market and customer validation in key markets, all over Europe. We need to hire people in all areas of sales, which includes account executives, sales development representatives. After the customer base grows, we will also increase our operations team.
Why do you think investors’ interest in your market is rising? How has the market developed over the past couple of years?
First, competition is increasing and there is not enough inflow of people. What I mean is that no matter whether you are in China, the US, or Europe, you read pretty much the same content, watch the same training videos, and receive the same certifications. So how will companies become more competitive?
Five years ago, I met a venture capitalist who is an investor in Coursera, Udemy, and Singularity University, who said to me that we were moving further and further from lifelong employment. In the past, people used to get a job at IBM or Hewlett Packard and work there for life as they were climbing the internal career ladder of the companies. Nowadays this has already changed and because there is no lifetime employment, it is the employer’s job to increase the skill set of all employees. This is necessary to make them competitive once they outgrow their current position and move within the company or move outside the company.
The second change is that people working in the IT space are no longer just looking precisely for salaries and benefits. Rather, they are looking at how this job would help them in their life and personal development.
What skills are companies looking for right now and how do you expect this to change in the future?
When we started, we observed the biggest demand for infrastructure classes, then it was virtualization, and then the cloud. Infrastructure is trendy as it is growing and changing with the aggregation of more data. The big question for corporations now is what they should do with that data. Whether it will be AI, AR, virtual reality, or IoT, it has to be analyzed and turned into actionable insights. This means that improving skills in cloud infrastructure and building applications on top of that data are key.
What we see now is also an increased interest in low-code environments. I believe that in some years, you will not have to be a professional developer, in order to build a product application. People would probably be able to drag and drop elements and sprinkle some AI, image recognition, and natural language processing on top of that to have a well-working application.
Of course, cybersecurity will be evergreen and even increase its relevance for corporations. We have more sensors, more data, more connected things – everything is intertwined and there are so many dependencies.