How Udemy Found Their First 1,000 Instructors… Tips For Building a Marketplace with Gagan Biyani

Founder of Udemy and Sprig

December 16, 2014

How do you find your first users when building an online marketplace?

Background: Gagan Biyani is the co-founder of Udemy, an online marketplace for learning with over $48 million in funding. Currently, Gagan is the founder of Sprig, a dinner delivery service with $11 million in funding that’s immensely popular here in San Francisco. Between founding Udemy and Sprig, Gagan was an advisor at Lyft, the ride sharing behemoth we all know.

Why am I telling you this?

To show you that when it comes to turning your startup into a fire breathing, high growth machine, Gagan is your man.

This post describes the presentation Gagan gave at Hustle Con where he explained exactly how Udemy found its first 1,000 course creators.

This post is for you if you want to learn:

  • How to create a scalable process to find your first customers
  • How to build an online marketplace
  • Why you shouldn’t focus on advertising when first starting out.

When it started, Udemy struggled to get instructors to start teaching on their platform.

Gagan spent first 6 months of the company cold calling instructors and asking them to put courses on their platform. Udemy had no reputation or success stories of instructors making a living on their site. Because of that, none of the instructors Gagan called created courses for Udemy.

So the Udemy team decided to create their own course as a case study to show how much potential instructors could earn using their platform.

Raising capital for startups

Gagan’s course, Raising Capital For Startups, was video content from a conference he hosted featuring Udemy’s investors as speakers. Gagan recorded their talks and used them (along with the PowerPoints) as content for the first course. Then, Udemy sold the course to as many channels as possible.

The first course made generated around $30,000 in just a few weeks.

And BOOM – their case study was born.

With the case study in hand, Gagan created a 3 step funnel to find potential instructors and convince them to create courses on Udemy:

1. Finding the leads:

Gagan needed a huge amount of leads. He accomplished by outsourcing the lead gen process for $3 an hour to data miners in the Philippines using Odesk. In the past, Udemy used college interns but switched to outsourcing to increase efficiency. Udemy had 5 to 10 outsources working on lead gen at any given time.

What did the outsources do? The lead gen teamed searched “learn python,” “what is python,” and any other search term related to a learning python (or any other topic Udemy wanted a course on). When the data miners found a relevant site, they’d copy/paste the web page author’s email. This amounted to 100’s of emails a day that the outsourcers would put in a Google doc.

2. Getting the leads to talk to them

Once they had the emails, the data miners would email, one by one, each address. Gagan didn’t used Mailchimp or any other mass email service because it looked sketchy. The outsources sent a a variety of emails Gagan wrote beforehand and tracked which emails received a response. After 500 emails or so, the team would switch to the winning email.

3. Closing the lead

At this point, the data miners successfully had hundreds of instructors signed up for Udemy. But there was still a problem: the instructors rarely finish and launched their courses.

So Gagan got creative.

Udemy emailed any instructor who didn’t finish creating their course and said “Hey, we wanna run a promotion for your course in 3 weeks…can you get it down by then?”

This email increased convinced instructors to finish creating their course in a few weeks. It also increased the conversion to get people to create a course in the first part.


Important notes from Gagan’s talk: Advertising is a growth accelerator, not a growth cause. If you’re startup with less than $2,000,000, don’t advertise. Also, don’t bother A/B testing your emails if your only sending 100 at a time.
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