What Is MasterClass Actually Selling?
The Atlantic|September 2020
The Ads are everywhere: You can learn to serve like Serena Williams, write like Margaret Atwood, act like Natalie Portman. But what MasterClass really delivers is something altoguether different.
By Carina Chocano. Ilustration by Jade Purple Brown

Sometimes an advertisement is so perfectly tailored to a cultural moment that it casts that moment into stark relief, which is how I felt upon first seeing an ad for the mega-best-selling writer James Patterson’s course on MasterClass a few years ago. In the ad, Patterson is sitting at a table, reciting a twisty opening line in voice-over. Then an overhead shot of him gazing out a window, lost in thought like a character in a movie. A title card appears: “Imagine taking a writing class from a master.” It didn’t matter that I’d never read a book by Patterson before—I was hooked. What appealed to me was not whatever actionable thriller-writing tips I might glean, but rather the promise of his story, the story of how a writer becomes a mogul. Any hapless, hand-to-mouth mid-lister can provide instructions on outlining a novel. Master- Class dangled something else, a clear-cut path out of the precariat, the magic-bean shortcut to a fairy-tale ending— the secret to ever-elusive success.

MasterClass launched in 2015 with just three classes: Dustin Hoffman on acting, Serena Williams on tennis, and Patterson on writing. Since then the company has grown exponentially, raising $135 million in venture capital from 2012 to 2018. It now has more than 85 classes across nine categories. (Last year it added 25 new classes, and this year it intends to add even more.) After the pandemic hit, as people started spending more time at home, its subscriptions surged, some weeks increasing tenfold over the average in 2019; subscribers spent twice as much time on the platform as they did earlier this year. In April, the company moved from offering individual classes for $90 a pop, with an all-access annual pass for $180, to a subscription-only model, and in May, it raised another $100 million. Its trailers have become so familiar and ubiquitous that they spawned their own SNL parodies, “Master Class: Quarantine Edition,” in which Chloe Fineman appears as Phoebe Waller-Bridge for a class on journaling, as Timothée Chalamet for a class on fashion, and as Britney Spears for a class on … something.

MasterClass trailers tend to follow a certain playbook: the introduction of a famous person; a peek behind the curtain; an overview of their setbacks and failures; the promise of what you might learn; the emotional, soaring soundtrack. But the courses are distinct from one another—there’s no standard format or formula. What MasterClass purports to provide is a premium, high-level learning experience via a series of glossy videos taught by the world’s best. In some classes, instructors address the camera for a few hours. In others, they are more hands-on, demonstrating techniques or leading workshops. You can take writing classes with Margaret Atwood, Dan Brown, David Baldacci, Joyce Carol Oates, David Sedaris, Shonda Rhimes, Malcolm Gladwell, or Aaron Sorkin. You can take photography with Annie Leibovitz; acting with Natalie Portman; comedy with Judd Apatow or Steve Martin; and cooking with Thomas Keller, Gordon Ramsay, or Alice Waters. There’s a directing class with Ron Howard, a makeup class with Bobbi Brown, a negotiation class with the former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss, and a class on how to be a boss with Anna Wintour. RuPaul has a class on authenticity and self-expression, and Neil deGrasse Tyson has one on scientific thinking. Two classes—taught by Kevin Spacey and Hoffman— have been removed following allegations of sexual misconduct against the actors (which both have denied). The masterClass is a brand built on other people’s impeccable brands.

DAVID ROGIER,who co-founded MasterClass, likes to tell the story of his grandmother who as a young woman fled the Nazis, emigrating to the United States with her mother. After working in a factory for years, she applied to medical schools and was rejected by dozens of them—one dean flat-out told her that she had three strikes against her: She was a woman, she was Jewish, and she was an immigrant—until she finally found one that would accept her. She always impressed upon her grandson that an education could never be taken away from you. That was the grain of the idea for MasterClass.

It’s a great origin story, the kind perfectly suited for a MasterClass trailer, and also the kind that every young Silicon Valley founder is more or less ready to recite when the press comes along. But the story sits somewhat uncomfortably alongside the actual product, which is to a medical degree what an apple is to an orange planet.

Rogier grew up on the Westside of Los Angeles, the son of two lawyers who became artists in retirement. After getting his M.B.A. at Stanford, he asked one of his professors— the angel investor Michael Dearing, who founded Harrison Metal, a seed-stage venture-capital fund in San Francisco— for a job. Rogier got the position, but after a year or so realized it wasn’t for him. He went to Dearing and told him he planned to quit. When Dearing asked what he had lined up, Rogier responded, “ ‘I’m going to build something.’ He’s like, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ So he wrote me a check for about half a million dollars.” Rogier formed a holding company and called it Yanka Industries, after his grandmother.

The question of who (and what and how and why) gets funded in Silicon Valley might not be asked often enough, considering the impact of technology on our society, economy, politics, and daily lives. But patterns are discernible: Mainly, the ideas that rise to the top are those that seek to address deficiencies in an industry by creating a new category from within the old one, the way caterpillars consume themselves to become butterflies. (Also, most of these ideas are had by young white guys.) Turning the housing market into an infinite unregulated hotel, for instance, or everyone’s cars into an unregulated fleet of taxis. Or aggregating mastery across disciplines.

“I felt a lot of pressure,” Rogier told me of the windfall investment. He was aware that he’d been given a gift. “You can’t whine about it or complain about it, because there’s nothing to whine or complain about, right? This guy threw me a blank check.” Rogier knew he wanted to do something related to education, but he wasn’t sure what. So he posted ads on Craigslist offering to pay people $25 an hour to talk about their experiences with education. He asked subjects about the schools they’d gone to, whom they’d learned from the most, the topics they wished they had studied more. What things did they want to learn now? How did they want to learn now?

Rogier already knew life was changing at a much faster rate than it had for his parents’ generation. What you learn in school no longer lasts you through your career. His research showed that people are willing to invest in personal growth and education, but many feel “ripped off” by their education. He isn’t referring only to formal education. “People pay tremendous amounts to take not-great classes,” he said. “And then there are also the scam stories. Somebody went to school to be a receptionist, and she paid for it, but the ‘school’ was answering phone calls for two weeks at an office.”

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