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Hit The Ground Running

From Near Failure To A $1.5 Billion Sale: The Epic Story Of Lynda.com

From fast success to near failure to a billion-dollar sale: The epic and inspiring story of how "the mother of the Internet" built her brand.

[Photo: © Xavier Collin ./Retna Ltd./Corbis]

At times, Lynda Weinman seems almost stunned by her own success. Unlike many recent tech founders, Weinman didn't enter the industry with dollar signs in her eyes. She wasn't pining over a $1.5 billion sale like the one her company Lynda.com closed with LinkedIn earlier this month. She was just trying to teach people about what she loved: web design.

"I was not techy or geeky, and I figured a lot of things out on my own," says Weinman, who became a teacher almost by accident. "A lot of people came to me to ask, 'How you do this and that?' I didn't realize sharing your enthusiasm about something was teaching."

But while Weinman believes much of her success comes from being in the right place at the right time, building Lynda.com from a $35 domain name to a multibillion-dollar business was hardly a matter of happenstance.

Lynda WeinmanPhoto: via Lynda.com

Dubbed by many as the "mother of the Internet," Weinman, 60, launched Lynda.com in 1995 as a site where students could go for free resources. At the time, Weinman was taking a self-taught approach to web design that today is hardly out of the ordinary. But in those pre-YouTube days, that kind of learning was still unusual. "That enthusiasm has now become the zeitgeist of our world," she says—thanks, in large part, to online resources like the one she built.

Still, figuring out the right path for her business was not without its major setbacks. Weinman spoke with Fast Company about rebounding from near-failure and growing the business to where it is today.

Filling A Need That Wasn't Being Met

When Weinman started teaching web design in 1993, she went to the bookstore in search of a book her students could use as a reference. But she found only complicated technical guides that were impossible for the average person to understand. "I remember thinking, Maybe this book doesn't exist yet," she says. "I went home from the bookstore and wrote the book proposal."

Considered by many to be the first industry book of its kind, Designing Web Graphics was instantly popular—used as a reference by readers around the world looking for a nontechnical guide to web design. Around the same time, in 1995, Weinman heard from someone with the email address debbie@debbie.com, which made her wonder whether the domain name "Lynda" was available. She bought it and used the website as a way to communicate with her students and book readers.

Starting Small And Gradually Expanding

After the book success, Weinman's husband and cofounder, Bruce Heavin, had the idea to rent a high school computer lab over spring break and offer a weeklong web design class. They advertised the class on the site, wondering if anyone might be interested. Not only did the class sell out, but people flew in from as far as Vienna to attend. "It kind of blew our minds," says Weinman. "To put an ad on a website and have people come from all around the world was shocking to us."

Those week-long workshops soon became the mainstay of their business. Weinman and Heavin used $20,000 of book royalties to launch their web-design school, hosting in-person training programs that each sold out months in advance. "We had so many customers, we were turning them away," she says.

Rebounding After A Major Blow

At its peak, the business had 35 employees and $3.5 million in revenue. But in 2001, after the dot-com crash and 9/11, Weinman wasn't sure if the business would make it. The company took a drastic hit, and Weinman and Heavin had to lay off 75% of the staff, with only nine employees remaining. They downsized their home and gave up classroom leases. "Everybody was fighting to keep their head above the water," Weinman says. "We were doing everything and anything and working our fannies off. That was when we decided to put everything online."

At the time, watching movies on computers was still a fairly novel idea. Lynda.com put up a pay-wall and offered a $25 monthly subscription service. Few people signed up. "It actually hurt our revenue to do it," says Weinman, "It was a very dark time. I wasn’t confident that we were going to be able to stay in business."

With only about 1,000 members to start, the company was barely surviving. But Weinman was patient. Growing an online member base would take time, she told herself. "It wasn't a flip of a switch," she says. "It was gradual. One day we started to watch the online subscription business and it was doubling every year."

By 2006, membership had grown tenfold. When it reached 100,000, Weinman took all of her 150 employees and their families to Disneyland to celebrate.

Staying True To The Culture While Growing

Having a family feel at the company was always important to Weinman. She knew every employee by name, but as the company grew to more than 500, maintaining that family feel was not easy. "The challenge was how to scale," she says. "For anyone who has ever gone through a growth spurt, you have to start inserting hierarchy. It was a very flat organization."

In 2007, the company brought in a CEO to help better run the business. "That was really challenging. It started to become more political and more bureaucratic," she says. "As a 500-plus-person company, the challenge becomes: How do you quantify and communicate the culture and mission and get everybody marching in that direction? It's easy when you are small but much harder when you're large."

Allowing For Quiet Success

In the past few years, Weinman has watched the craze for massive open online courses (MOOCs) with some skepticism. Busy as everyone was declaring that MOOCs would transform the face of education forever, Lynda.com stuck to its course and kept expanding, adding more courses and subjects to its roster. What started out as 20 online video courses has since grown to 6,300 courses and more than 267,000 video tutorials.

Offering a library of videos rather than asking people to commit to a full class on a topic proved to be just the difference that kept the company from being lumped in with MOOCs. "For a while, everybody thought [MOOCs] would be the future of education," says Weinman. "We were under the radar as far as why we were different."

Making The Sale

When she found out LinkedIn was interested in buying the company, Weinman was shocked at first. She and Heavin hadn't been looking for a buyer, and at 60, she says she's far from ready to retire. But as they thought about it, the acquisition made perfect sense. With both sites as go-to resources for people trying to further their careers, a marriage between the two seemed natural. Plus, the hefty valuation didn't hurt.

"A lot of people are focused on the price. It surprised a lot of people who are not in our industry," says Weinman. "For me, I'm focused on the impact. The first words out of my mouth were: 'Wow, that will have a big impact.'"

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