We seek to learn from our partners every day. One such partner is Amir Nathoo, the founder of Outschool. After serving on the founding teams of Trigger.io and Square Payroll, Nathoo wanted to create a startup in a field personally meaningful to him. He chose education, acknowledging that many of the skills that led to his success came from enrichment opportunities outside the formal classroom.
Founded in 2014, Outschool now connects over 700,000 students and 11,000 educators for live instruction in a wide variety of subjects. We spoke with Nathoo to learn more about his venture and dream about the future of education. This conversation has been adapted for length and clarity.
CKI: How did you get interested in social entrepreneurship?
Nathoo: I became interested in impact at a very young age. My father was an entrepreneur and a teacher, and he influenced me greatly.
Outschool is my second startup. Knowing the difficulties and challenges of creating a company, I was intent on working in a field that was personally meaningful for me and good for the world. If you’re going to put in all the energy to create something new, the rewards had better be worth it.
CKI: How did the idea for Outschool come about?
Nathoo: The Outschool idea was a long time in the making. I was watching how marketplace approaches like Airbnb and Lyft were transforming industries like accommodation and travel. At the back of my mind, I wondered if we could create a marketplace approach in education that allows people to engage in classes in a more dynamic way. What if we could make it possible, at the click of a button, to find a group of likeminded kids who want to learn math or science or whatever subject could be imagined?
I like the idea of appealing directly to consumers and enabling parents to supplement their child’s education. I also knew I wanted to have a family of my own and have this kind of option available. I now have a son who’s two years old, and my work is helping to set a foundation for his future learning.
Reflecting on my own education, I realized that many of the experiences that were important for me happened outside of formal schooling. I had a fantastic education in the U.K. I went to a selective state school, I studied engineering at Cambridge, and that education was really valuable for me and opened doors. But I learned how to program outside of school — my parents supported that with family resources because it wasn’t part of my core education. And programming has proved critical for my career. That kind of supplemental learning will be much more important in the future given globalization and a fast-changing economy.
CKI: You’ve described Outschool as “Everybody’s second school.” What do you mean by that?
Nathoo:“Everyone’s second school” is a place you can go to explore subjects and get connected to other learners in addition to what is locally available to you. It’s a “second type of school” that fills in all the gaps. That’s how I see Outschool.
CKI: How has COVID-19 impacted Outschool?
Nathoo: COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on our business, but it hasn’t changed our strategy. We started offering small group, live online classes in 2017, and were growing rapidly as a venture–backed company before the pandemic. The format was proving to be very popular.
When COVID-19 hit, suddenly everyone had to shift to online learning. And we found ourselves with more experience in this type of learning than other U.S.–based organizations. Before the pandemic we had 80,000 learners attend Outschool classes, and about a thousand teachers were on the platform. Now we have had more than 700,000 learners take an Outschool class, and 11,000 teachers on the platform. The growth has been remarkable and unique.
My co-founder, Nick, was the first engineer at Airbnb, so we’ve seen fast growth before. But we’ve never seen anything like this. Overall, we’re just grateful to be able to support so many people through these difficult times.
CKI: Why do you think teachers are joining the platform?
Nathoo: We went from 1,000 teachers to 11,000 over the course of the past year. Many are teachers looking to supplement their regular income, or former teachers who for various reasons left the traditional education system — they’re starting their own families, or want to take a different path but still love teaching. They want a flexible option where they can safely teach from home.
We background–check all our teachers. But we don’t necessarily require teaching credentials. So we offer a wider group of people the opportunity to be successful if they have experience working with kids and have great content to offer.
CKI: What kind of feedback have you received from families and teachers?
Nathoo: We have received incredible feedback. People say their child has started to enjoy learning again because the classes tie to their child’s interests and because the teachers are passionate. We’ve heard feedback from teachers who say they’re enjoying teaching again. They could never have imagined the economic opportunity — some teachers are earning far, far more than they had in previous jobs.
And many people say that we’ve been a lifesaver through the pandemic, when families were grappling with a new type of learning, and parents were struggling with juggling work and kids being home all the time. We’re so grateful to be able to help.
CKI: How do you want to grow Outschool?
Nathoo: We are looking to expand internationally. The majority of our learners are in the U.S. right now, but we have plenty coming on board from other countries. We want to double down on that momentum and genuinely create a global community. What we’re hearing from our U.S. learners is that part of the value is when they can interact with other kids in different places, from different backgrounds, in different states within the U.S., and then globally.
We are also starting to work with schools. Many forward–thinking schools recognize that there’s enormous value in offering many enrichment choices, but these schools face logistical challenges. You can’t provide a wide range of enrichment options if you only draw from your local teacher pool. So schools are starting to consider embedding online learning into their school days, especially around enrichments. We created a new business arm and set of policy initiatives to support this effort.
CKI: What do you think education could be like 10 years from now in the U.S.?
Nathoo: I think the future of education is hybrid, in that kids will split their time in person and online. Also, hybrid in the sense that kids will spend time on core curriculum subjects, but there will be more time dedicated to pursuing project-based learning and individual interests. It’s really important to have a core curriculum and a base of knowledge shared in our society. But project-based learning is really, really important and has been under–recognized in education in the past. Kids need to develop differentiated skills and a motivation to learn, and you do that by letting them pursue their interests. You help kids create. And each child’s unique skill set makes for a unique learning journey.
The world is changing so fast. Having differentiated skills is more and more important than ever, and it’s impossible for kids to acquire differentiated skills if the only thing they do in their school day is follow a standard curriculum.
CKI: What advice do you have for other social entrepreneurs?
Nathoo: Set your sight high. The problems that we face, and the opportunities that we have, are huge. We must rise up to the size of those challenges and opportunities. You always have to start small — but dream big.
Do something that’s personally meaningful for you. Social entrepreneurship is a really hard journey. All the effort to create something new and to drive change has to be worth it. What will keep you going through tough times is passion and your unique personal perspective.
The Charles Koch Institute inspires and invests in social entrepreneurs developing solutions to America’s most pressing problems. Read more about our support for social entrepreneurs committed to education.