With A New Update, Curious’s Lifelong Learning Service Is Looking More Like TV

The startup’s new idea sounds familiar: programming shown at scheduled times on channels covering a variety of topics.

When I first met with entrepreneur Justin Kitch in 2013 to chat about his then-new online education company, Curious, we spent a lot of time talking about YouTube. Google’s video service offers instructional video in quantities so vast that no human could ever watch all of it. But the quality is erratic, there are no teaching-specific features, and the discourse in YouTube comments typically ranges from inane to offensive. Even the good stuff–and there’s plenty of it in there–can be tough to find.


Curious bet on the idea that there was room for an anti-YouTube: a video site that focused on carefully curated content from capable teachers, with good production values and complementary elements such as quizzes. Rather than being subsidized by advertising, it aimed to provide content on an array of topics that was so useful that consumers would pay for it.

The company’s overarching principles haven’t changed since its founding, but Curious, like almost every startup, has rethought and refined its offering as it’s gone along. Now it’s evolving again, with a free new feature the company calls Curious TV. It makes Curious feel a little less like a rejoinder to YouTube and a little more like, well, TV.

Curious TV features the same video lessons that Curious has been collecting over the past couple of years: more than 15,000 of them, featuring 1500 teachers. But instead of being available on demand, it shows them continuously on 10 channels that cover a lot of ground: Craft, Tech, Brainy, Music, Life, Health, Food, Code, Photo, and Biz. Using a browser or Curious’s apps, you can channel-surf around to see what’s on at any given moment–which might be anything from a tutorial on sewing a bodice to music theory for guitarists–peruse grids of upcoming shows, and sign up for reminders. As before, little quizzes, tips, and other interactive elements are interspersed throughout.

The videos are also coming to TV sets later this quarter, via a new Curious TV channel for Roku’s streaming box. And the company is working with Healthline to integrate its lessons with other health-related information, and Intelity to put them on iPads in hotel rooms. They may show up elsewhere, Kitch says, such as on airplane seat-back screens: “There’s a lot of places where people want entertainment, but they want it to be healthy entertainment.”

Now, launching a service that shows video programming at specific times is a contrarian move on the Internet, which is usually about getting whatever you want, whenever you want it. What it’s reminiscent of is traditional TV, which–for all the changes it’s gone through–still divvies up content into programs shown on stations at scheduled days and times.

And indeed, as Curious formulated its plan for this new direction, it was thinking about competition that has been around a lot longer than YouTube. “If you started something like the Discovery Channel today, you wouldn’t start a TV channel,” Kitch told me. “You’d build Curious.”


Free Or Fee

I could imagine people finding Curious TV pretty engaging on its own. What the company is hoping that they’ll find it so engaging that, having enjoyed it, they’ll be willing to pay for a premium version. That service, now called Curious+, is Curious in something closer to its original form: A fee-based service that lets you pick the lessons you want and follow along at your convenience.

Curious+ is $9 a month or $60 a year for unlimited lessons, which will be available in browser-based form and on phones, tablets, and Roku. (If you sign up on an iOS device, it’s cheaper: $5 a month or $50 a year.) That’s a switch from Curious’s original approach, which was to charge for courses individually. Kitch says that the company discovered that all-you-learn pricing eliminated the indecision that came when people were asked to pay for something they hadn’t seen yet: “Otherwise, you’re paralyzed about which Excel lesson to take. You have to choose, and you can’t tell them apart.”

With streamable movies, Kitch says by way of comparison, Amazon must provide trailers so people can take a peek before plunking down money. Netflix’s flat monthly fee eliminates the need to be a cautious consumer. “On Netflix, there are no trailers. You don’t need a trailer. We like that model.”


About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.