The Skillery was founded in 2011 as a marketplace for classes and workshops. Our first class — a December holiday ornament-making workshop with our good friend Katie Gonzalez of linenlaid&felt — cost $28, and we sold 14 tickets.
Just a few minutes before Katie’s class began, the electricity went out. Attendees arrived to total darkness, and we escorted them into the classroom via flashlight. We offered them wine in a completely pitch-black room, and almost cancelled the class. An hour after we were plunged into darkness, the lights came back on, and the class took place. But lesson learned: Expect the unexpected.
Four years later, we’re still facing the unexpected, and learning more every day about what does and doesn’t work. Though we’ve offered hundreds of classes — on topics ranging from calligraphy to pasta making to how to build a house from recycled tires — our business has evolved, the landscape here in Nashville has changed, and we’re about to make a major shift to our business. We’re ditching most of our classes and workshop offerings. Here’s why:
It’s a tough business model.
In just under four years, we’ve made over 10,000 tickets available to almost 550 classes and workshops at The Skillery. (The mostly complete list of Skillery Classes at this link.) Just over 46 percent of those tickets have been sntached up by Nashvillians eager to learn and grow. We’ve paid teachers over $82,000 to share their expertise.
We’re proud of these numbers, and prouder still of what they represent: a community of teachers and learners enjoying our city, our coworking space, and the work we do every day. On some level, we’ve been successful, and community support for The Skillery has always been strong.
But the numbers are still small, and most parts of the class and workshop business model are really tough. Filling the pipeline of classes is hard, and a never-ending endeavor. Class revenue is unpredictable, and really small. And, frankly, the way we’ve structured it, it’s an unsustainable business model. We’re ready for a change.
Attendance is down.
Not just registration, but attendance — i.e. the percentage of people who actually show up for events for which they register has declined significantly. We’ve held free events where 75 people registered, and 34 showed up. Or 20 people registered, and three showed up. The numbers are better for events with a price tag, but the lesson is still salient to us: It’s tougher than it used to be to get people to engage.
Direct competition is fierce.
Nashville has changed drastically since we began offering classes and workshops in 2011. We weren’t the first place in town to offer à la carte classes and workshops — Nashville Community Education, USN’s Evening Classes, Watkins, and numerous opportunities at Vanderbilt preceded us — but almost a dozen more have popped up since we started. From training institutions (like The Iron Yard Nashville, The Nashville Software School and Periscope) to class-focused businesses (Homeroom 615, Craft South, Savvy Coders and Warehouse 521) to other membership-based organizations (fellow coworking space Refinery Nashville and The Porch Writers’ Collective). We’re thrilled to live in a city where these organizations exist, but none of them existed when we started.
This is equally true for one-time events, like our Etsy Seller Boot Camp, the Nashville Creativity Summit, The Skillery Expo. Quite simply, there’s more of this in Nashville today. Craft Content Nashville, BarCamp Nashville, TedXNashville, ChargeCon, Marketing United, CREO, Punctuate and more… Not to mention demo day presentations for Nashville Software School, Jumpstart Foundry, The Iron Yard, Project Music and more, which, while not primarily educational, serve as natural networking events for the entrepreneurial community. Rather than add to the fray with yet another offering, we’ll be dialing back.
Given the crowded landscape, I’m not sure we’d start The Skillery today. Whether or not Nashville ever needed us offering classes and workshops, it certainly doesn’t today.
Indirect competition is fiercer.
Even with all of the competition for classes and workshops, we have always joked that our biggest competitor is Netflix. Really, anything that might prevent someone from getting off the couch — even after they’ve registered — is our competition. iPads. Long commutes. The Predators playing well. Options for at-home entertainment continue to swell; people’s attention, money and free time shrinks. In short, there’s a lot more noise than there used to be.
That’s not to say that people don’t attend classes and workshops; they absolutely do. Our perspective is that they’re more likely to spend their limited free time attending classes and workshops that serve them professionally — computer programming, social media marketing, accounting — and less likely to attend purely “elective classes,” like calligraphy, pasta making, bookbinding.
So, with our last class of 2015 having taken place in early October, we’ve made a decision that elective classes will no longer be a part of our business model. Education will always be a part of our ethos, though, and we will always maintain a focus on teaching and learning. Here’s what stays for us:
Our own programming for freelancers, entrepreneurs and independent professionals.
This year, as an experiment into a new direction for us, we decided to design and offer our own entrepreneur-focused workshop. We listened to our community, and realized that a low-cost, low-commitment workshop that taught business basics to aspiring entrepreneurs could fill a significant gap in Nashville’s entrepreneurial/educational landscape. So, for the first time in four years, rather than relying on an outside teacher or an outside curriculum, we designed, built, tested and taught our own affordable and accessible one-day workshop: Introduction to Entrepreneurship.
It’s been a big success — attendees have raved about it, we’ve made good money from it, and we enjoy offering it as part of our mission to help folks explore entrepreneurship. It will be a big part of our class and workshop landscape moving forward.
In 2016, we’ll be making our Introduction to Entrepreneurship workshop available nationwide to other coworking spaces and community organizations that want to offer it. And we’ll be launching additional programming in 2016 to support aspiring entrepreneurs in a number of ways.
Community building educational events.
We’ll also continue to plan and host educational events that build our community, and give back to it, like our weekly Office Hours series or events like 99U Local. We’ll continue to offer events like this, but we’ll work harder to drive attendance and engagement. These events are valuable and inexpensive and short and awesome and we want a greater number of registrants showing up and taking part.
We’re excited to develop these educational events in 2016, and bring them to the Nashville community, and beyond. While classes grow and strengthen our community, and education is (and always will be) at the core of who we are, the benefits of maintaining a more extensive calendar of classes and workshops no longer outweigh the increasing burden on our staff and resources. It’s time to narrow our focus. It’s time to let some things go. It’s time to make a change.
Most people in Nashville got to know us originally for our calendar of fun and eclectic classes and workshops, and we’ve received more than one less-than-pleasant inquiry from folks eager to see a return to our previous programming schedule. We get that. And we will continue to politely refer those folks to our friends in town who are offering classes and workshops more regularly. We hope those folks will stick around as we evolve into a more focused and dynamic organization.
The Skillery was born from a desire to bring communities of people together to do great work, to teach and learn from one another, and to share knowledge and expertise around topics of mutual interest. None of that changes. It happens in our coworking space, it happens in our entrepreneurship programming, and it happens every day — organically — in the interactions we have in our community. Moving forward, we’ll continue to ask ourselves how we can maintain our ethos of education while supporting people as they do work that's meaningful, satisfying and fun. We hope you’ll be with us for what comes next.
Have some feedback on any of this that you’d like to share? We’re listening.