Dabble's Erin Hopmann on the Inner Teacher in All of Us

There is no polite way of putting this, but: The older we get, the dumber we feel. That's why there are so many adult-education classes. But where do you go to take such classes? The Learning Annex is referred to so often in sitcoms -- or at least it used to be -- that some people might think it's a made-up place, but it's real, and slightly more impractical because it was a building people would have to go to to teach classes on whatever they felt compelled to. The Learning Annex has gone online, but starting online in the first place is the still relatively young Dabble. Co-founded by CEO Erin Hopmann and CPO Jessica Lybeck in May 2011, the startup basically helps individuals who want to teach crowdsource to gauge and see whether there are enough people interested in taking a class on whatever, no matter how specialized (learn how to weld, make a website, cook chili) and then help them register. The teachers are responsible for teaching and having a place for the students to go, and it's pretty straightforward -- one of those "why didn't I think of that?" ideas for a company. 

Dabble has been doing so well that it was accepted to IDEO, a "global design consultancy... that takes a human-centered, design-based approach to helping organizations in the public and private sectors innovate and grow" as a start-up-in-residence. It's unusual for IDEO because it rarely accepts startups to incubate them historically, but it speaks to Dabble's potential. As does the rise and return of its Chicago Notable Series, wherein "some of [Dabble's] favorite Chi-town micro-celebs" teach. For example, on deck for 2013? Threadless' Co-Founder Jake Nickell will be lecturing 50 people on Turning Your Passion into a Business.

Anyway, I gave Hopmann a call to discuss her business, how it's going and where else it's headed in 2013.

Is this a rising trend? Are there a lot of people now offering a platform for people to take and teach classes outside of an institution?

Erin Hopmann: It's not. What's a trend is just education -- people taking different spins on education. But as far as the one-time class offering for adults that's meant to be low-key and in person as opposed to online learning, there hasn't been a crazy influx in terms of competition or anything.

What's going on with you guys right now?

Erin Hopmann: We relaunched the site in October, so we're actually continually making improvements and we have a lot of new things to introduce. We want to be the place for -- and you've kind of alluded to this in your email -- how people become teachers. We want to empower people interested in sharing their skills and talents to be able to do so. So you don't need to have a degree in education to be able to be an awesome teacher, so how can you use our platform to do that is the thought?

By the same measure, how do you vet the people who want to teach?

Erin Hopmann: Yeah, it's funny. Vetting is probably the number-one thing we're asked about. Basically, we vet for class content and teachers. It's kind of a bit of both. It's basically anything that's not uber-controversial. And we're not here to be giving out degrees, so things that are overly academic probably aren't going to be a go, neither are overly political -- although we have experimented with some classes that are a little on the fringes just to see if they'll sell.

Teacher-wise, part of the vetting process includes the submission process online. So, you as a teacher submit what you want to teach and it asks about you, asks you to provide a bio which ideally lines up with what you want to teach, class title, content and description. Our feeling is that you're not going to submit a class that you're not good to teach. Why would anyone want to stand up in front of a room full of people and embarrass themselves? The few poorly reviewed classes we've had have not been about content. They've been about someone being unorganized or unable to --

Clashes of personality.

Erin Hopmann: Yeah. Right, exactly. So collecting feedback and reviews from students and now with the relaunch of the site they're publicly available on the teacher and the class pages so that you as a consumer can decide if that class looks good for you based on the reviews.

How are you trying to further empower your users?

Erin Hopmann: We provide resources tailored to people -- we're actually in the process of revamping these tools, but if you're a person who's taught many times and you just want to start getting new students through Dabble, you probably don't need our resources. So we try to encourage everyone to teach to a Dabble experience, to have some level of consistency in terms of what people are going to experience. But if you're new and are really passionate about barbecuing, then you might need some help thinking through how to structure your class. That's where our resources are meant to help.

What sort of resources specifically will be available?

Erin Hopmann: We send downloaded packets of information once you've submitted and the class is posted, which includes tools for teachers to think about how to structure a class with different styles and instructions and what might be best for you and your class content as well, thinking about how to prepare and approach the class. We also give communication manuals that we would encourage you to do to communicate through the site. It'll send them a reminder and a follow-up. And lastly we provide some resources on how to promote your class.

You mentioned you added more cities. What are some other benchmarks you would be hoping to push towards in the future?

Erin Hopmann: We're gonna be experimenting a bit with bringing some higher-profile teachers onboard. We're calling them the Notable Series. A few of those have taught. We'll likely branch into extended offerings. So, if you've taken Photography 101 through Dabble and it piqued your curiosity, we want to keep you coming back, so how do entice people beyond that first class? And, yeah, I don't have all the answers right now and everything but getting some partners onboard that we're in talks with would be really helpful.

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a comedy-writing instructor for Second City. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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