The first time software developer John Sonmez created an online training course, he recorded over a dozen single-cut takes of his 15-minute introductory lesson. "I didn’t realize that you could go back and take out the um’s," he says.
He’s come a long way since then. His courses on topics like Java and Android are among the most popular on Pluralsight, an online training platform for technology professionals that pays instructors royalties based on course views and top-line revenue. As a result, what started as a side project for Sonmez has become a six-digit income stream.
So far, Pluralsight has paid Sonmez $1,135,621 in royalties, including $455,315 last year. The company’s top-earning instructor, Scott Allen, who declined to be interviewed for this article, made $1.5 million last year.
"When I first did my Android course, I didn’t know I would do more than one," Sonmez says. Then his first royalty payment arrived, a check for around $5,000—modest but encouraging. With his wife’s support, he threw himself into making more courses.
For over a year, Sonmez would wake up and do his day job, break to play with his daughter around 5 p.m., and then work on Pluralsight courses from 8 p.m. until after midnight. As his monthly royalty checks increased, he realized he could focus exclusively on teaching. "I remember thinking, 'I've got to quit my regular job, because this doesn’t make sense.' I talked to my boss: 'I love working here, but I’ve got to quit.' I realized this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Over the next year he recorded an additional 33 courses, bringing his total to 55. "It totally changed my life," he says. "Now I have the opportunity to pursue things that I want to do, and to help other developers without having to wonder about the next paycheck."
Pluralsight was founded in 2004 as an offline training company for technology skills, and pivoted to an online delivery model in 2007. Since then, the company has raised $162.5 million, including a $135 million Series B last August that vaulted it into the echelon of unicorns like competitor Lynda.com, which LinkedIn recently bought for $1.5 billion.
CEO Aaron Skonnard, along with his two cofounders, designed the company’s royalty model based on their personal experience as instructors. "We all understood what the motivations are for an instructor in the professional training world, the kind of lifestyle they’re looking for, and their pain points," he says. "We wanted to make sure that the financial model for the teachers would address those concerns and really work for them just as well as the solution works for the customers."
In the company's early days, Skonnard built credibility by recruiting instructors who are established names in their areas of expertise—regulars on the conference circuit, with popular blogs. They aren't eligible for the kind of stock options available to Pluralsight’s full-time employees, but they end up sharing the same incentive to spur company growth. "The more content our authors produce that’s valuable to our customers, the more our customers buy and renew over time. The more [our customers] stay on, the more our authors make," Skonnard says. "It becomes a sustainable engine."
It's also an engine that could become difficult to manage, as Pluralsight builds out its course library and develops learning pathways. An in-house team of curriculum strategists works to ensure that courses don't overlap—a portfolio model that benefits students, but nudges instructors toward niche subjects or new programming languages. Introductory Java, for example, has already been accounted for—by Sonmez, who claimed the topic in the company's early days. On Lynda.com, by comparison, Java newbies face duplicative courses with titles like "Up And Running With Java," "Code Clinic: Java," and "Java Essential Training."
Given that inventory dynamic, not everyone teaching for Pluralsight has become a millionaire. In 2014 the company paid out $10 million in royalties, divided between 700 instructors, which puts the average check at around $14,000. For instructors who have had courses live on the platform for at least a full year, that average climbs to $43,000, the company says—in addition to the up-front fixed fees that instructors earn for creating courses ("typically four- or five-digit sums"). Plus, as Pluralsight’s revenues grow, instructors with perpetually popular courses stand to earn more every year.
Because of variations in business model and course content, it's difficult to compare instructors’ earning potential across online platforms. But evidence suggests that Pluralsight teachers benefit from the site’s intensive focus on enterprise customers and skills of value to the technology industry. Open platforms that allow anyone to teach just about anything are less lucrative, with the average instructor earning $7,000 on Udemy and $3,500 on Skillshare.
Sonmez, for his part, has no regrets about working with Pluralsight. These days he's focused on helping fellow developers improve their soft skills through a book and his blog. His dream would be to develop a game: "Someday I will," he says.
In the meantime, the checks keep coming.