Growing up in a small village in Turkey Eren Bali was inspired by the power of the internet to change education and level the playing field. To fill this need, he founded Udemy, an online education platform that allows people of all skill sets to offer free or paid courses to curious learners all around the globe. We talked with Bali about the unique challenges faced by education and immigrant entrepreneurs.
How did you end up going from working in the dating space to education?
I was always interested in education. Most people don’t know this, but I first started Udemy in Turkey eight years ago. It didn’t work there because it was way too early, we didn’t have the right product yet, and Turkey wasn’t the right place. So I decided to give it another shot in Silicon Valley. I came here with a working visa and started working at SpeedDate, but when I was moving there I already knew that I wanted to try Udemy again. I worked for a few years and then started Udemy again here in the US, with angel investors from Silicon Valley.
What prompted that first attempt to launch Udemy in Turkey?
I was born in a very small village in Turkey and my primary school was this one-room school hall. There was only one teacher for the whole school who had to rotate between classes, so you can imagine the quality of education. On the other hand, there were tons of super talented people all around my village that had a lot of skills to offer. One day my parents bought me a computer and internet access for a few months, and I started teaching myself advanced mathematics and eventually ended winning math olympiads. So I suppose you could say that would be a turning point in my life. I realized that the internet was creating a level playing field for everyone in the world. If you could have access to internet, even though you didn’t have access to the best quality education, you could catch up. As I finished my degree in computer science and mathematics, I was especially interested in building web-based products. I thought if somebody built a platform that enables anybody to learn anything they want, it could create opportunities for people who don’t have them today.
Did you purposely avoid starting a company that depended on working with schools or universities?
Eventually that’s what happens anyway. When you’re a professional, you use maybe ten percent of the things you learned from school in your actual job. Most of the skills you use you learn from peers, colleagues, online resources, and things like that. When we launched education was considered a very bad market to be in, so it was very difficult to raise our first round. We proved that people inherently want to improve their skills and themselves and that doesn’t have to mean education from a school. We showed that people really will choose to spend their own free time and money on learning and bettering themselves.
The education space has changed a lot in the last 5 years but there are still only a few large companies—where do you still see big opportunities?
The theme is that traditional universities are expansive and are being unbundled. None of the edtech companies will independently disrupt universities, but I think the things that you get at a university will be mastered by different companies. So opportunities include things universities offer outside of content – 1-to-1 mentoring, professional career-based coaching, assessment, etc. Whatever a university provides, pick one of them that can be unbundled from the universities and create a startup in education.
What are some of the biggest challenges you encountered as an immigrant entrepreneur in Silicon Valley?
The obvious challenge was that we didn’t know anybody.
The other big challenge was the visa. We had to be on a working visa to stay in the U.S. So I couldn’t just quit my job and start the company. Instead we had to work at a day job, get some traction, raise money and then quit. And there’s so much competition, if you don’t quit your job it’s really hard to make something meaningful enough to get attention from investors today. Then one of my co-founders, who is also from Turkey, had his visa rejected when he was transferring to Udemy, so he had to go back to Turkey for three years before he could secure his visa. Those were some very big challenges in the beginning. We overcame them but it wasn’t easy.
What advice would you give to entrepreneur that want to start a company in education specifically?
What they should realize is that they have to create a venue for education. They can’t make something just slightly easier or slightly better and expect to get traction. I would try to think through a very large problem and then think about how you can make a small impact on that problem space.
And then figure out how you can make the small improvements into a big opportunity. ________________________________________________________________________
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