A soaring chess prodigy is a reminder: Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.
MasterClass, which sells a subscription to celebrity-taught classes, sits on the cusp of entertainment and education. It offers virtual, yet aspirational learning: an online tennis class with Serena Williams, a cooking session with Gordon Ramsay. While there’s the off chance that an instructor might actually talk to you — it has happened before — the platform mostly just offers paywalled documentary-style content.
The vision has received attention. MasterClass is raising funding that would value it at $2.5 billion, as scooped by Axios and confirmed independently by a source to TechCrunch. But while MasterClass has found a sweet spot, can the success be replicated?
Investors certainly think so. Outlier, founded by MasterClass’ co-founder, closed a $30 million Series C this week, for affordable, digital college courses. The similarities between Outlier and its founder’s alma mater aren’t subtle: It’s literally trying to apply MasterClass’ high-quality videography to college classes. This comes a week after I wrote about a “MasterClass for Chess lovers” platform launched by former Chess World Champion Garry Kasparov.
Two back-to-back MasterClass copycats raising millions in venture capital makes me think about if the model can truly be verticalized and focused down into specific niches. After 2020 and the rise of Zoom University, we know edtech needs to be more engaging, but we don’t know the exact way to get there. Is it by creating micro-learning communities around shared loves? Is it about gamification? Aspirational learning has different incentives than for-credit learning. In order to be successful, Outlier needs to prove to universities it can use MasterClass magic for true outcomes that rival in-person lectures. It’s a harder, and more ambtious promise.
My riff aside, I turned to two edtech founders to understand how they see the MasterClass effect panning out, and to cross-check my gut reaction.
Taylor Nieman, the founder of language learning startup Toucan:
Although I do love how these models try to lean into this theme of “invisible learning” like we leverage with Toucan, it faces the same issues as so many other consumer products that try to steal time out of people’s very busy days. Constantly competing for time leads to terrible engagement metrics and very high churn. That leads me to question what true learning outcomes could occur from little to no usage of the product itself.
Amanda DoAmaral, the founder of Fiveable, a learning platform for high school students:
Masterclass is important for showing us why educational content should be treated more like entertainment. All of our bars for content quality is much higher now than it ever was before and I’m excited to see how that affects learning across the board.
For students, it’s about creating environments that support them holistically and giving them space to collaborate openly. It feels so obvious that these spaces should exist for young people, but we’ve lost sight of what students actually need. At my school, we built policies that assumed the worst in students. I want to flip that. Assume the best, be proactive to keep them safe, and create ways to react when we need to.
Anyways, that’s just some nuance to chew on during this fine day. In the rest of this newsletter, we will focus a lot on tactical advice for founders, from the money they raise to the peacock dance they might want to do one day. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @nmasc_ so we can talk during the week, too!
The peacock dance
You know when male peacocks fan their feathers to court a lover? That, but for startups trying to get acquired. As one of our many rabbit holes on Equity this week, we talk about Discord walking away from a Microsoft deal, and if that deal ever existed in the first place or if it was just a way to drum up investor excitement in the audio gaming platform.
Here’s what to know: Discord is reportedly pursuing an IPO after walking away from talks with multiple companies that were looking to acquire the audio gaming giant.
Discord aside, the consolidation environment continues to be hot for some sectors.
- To sell or not to sell: Lessons from a bootstrapped CEO
- Once VMware is free from Dell, who might fancy buying it?
Even venture capital knows that the future isn’t simply venture capital
Clearbanc, a Toronto-based fintech startup that gives non-dilutive financing to businesses, has rebranded alongside a $100 million financing that valued it at $2 billion. Now rebranded as Clearco, the startup wants to be more than just a capital provider, but a services provider, too.
Here’s what to know: The startup has been on a tear of product development for the past year, launching services such as valuation calculators or runway tools. It’s a step away from what Clearbanc originally flexed: the 20-minute term sheet and rapid-fire investment. I talk about some of the levers at play in my piece:
Many of Clearco’s newest products are still in their infancy, but the potential success of the startup could nearly be tied to the general growth of startups looking for alternatives to venture capital when financing their startups. Similar to how AngelList’s growth is neatly tied to the growth of emerging fund managers, Clearco’s growth is cleanly related to the growth of founders who see financing as beyond a seed check from Y Combinator.
- How are VCs handling diligence in a world where deals open and close in days, not months
- Clearbanc rebrands into a unicorn
- After going public, once-hot startups are riding a valuation roller coaster
Don’t market your opportunity away
Keeping on the theme of tactical advice for founders, let’s move onto talking about marketing. Tim Parkin, president of Parkin Consulting, explained how startup founders can use marketing as a tool to stand out in the noisy environment. Differentiation has never been harder, but also more imperative.
Here’s what to know: Parkin outlines four ways that martech will shift in 2021, strapped with anecdotes and a nod to the importance of investing in influencers.
- Customer care as a service: Outsourcing can help your startup wow clients 24/7
- 5 creator economy VCs see startup opportunities in monetization, discovery and much more
- Time-strapped IT teams can use low-code software to drive quick growth
Your humble yet favorite startup podcast, Equity, got nominated for a Webby! Me and the team need your help to win, so please vote for us here. Your support means a ton.
This newsletter will always be free, but if you do want to support me, feel free to use code STARTUPSWEEKLY for 25% off a subscription to Extra Crunch.
Across the site
Seen on TechCrunch
Seen on Extra Crunch
Thanks for reading along today and everyday. Sending love to my readers in India and everyone around the world that is facing yet another deadly surge of this horrible disease. I’m rooting for you.
How taking on unfamiliar challenges alongside my daughter benefits us both.
Four years ago, MasterClass, a platform that sells celebrity-taught classes, invited chess legend Garry Kasparov to teach a class. He said yes, but soon realized that creating a message that could satisfy a majority of players was a “struggle throughout the process.”
While the class did pretty well, Kasparov found it “a little bit annoying” that he had to downplay concepts and stick to a specific structure. So, now, Kasparov is launching a platform he says has been several years in the making: Kasparovchess.
Kasparovchess will be a platform in which legendary chess players will have free reign to share tips and tricks with players from various levels. Financed by private investors, and media conglomerate Vivendi, the company declined to disclose its total capital raised to date.
The platform, produced by Vivendi, includes documentaries, podcasts, articles and interviews between experts and known players in the chess community. Moe than 1,000 videos have been recorded to date, Kasparov said. Beyond content, Kasparovchess will have an exclusive Discord server attached to it and playing zones.
In many ways, it’s a vertical-specific version of the chess MasterClass he did years ago, with a big focus on community and variety. MasterClass, which is reportedly raising funding that would value it at $2.5 billion, has been a leader in the “edutainment” space, which monetizes off of documentary-style entertainment. One of the unicorn’s biggest characteristics, as Kasparov alluded to earlier, is that it has to appeal to a wide audience so subscribers can hop from one class to another. Within the same month, a user could go from a Kasparovchess class to general pontifications from RuPaul on self expression. The more classes that MasterClass can get you to take, the longer you’ll keep your subscription.
MasterClass might consider its broad view as a differentiator, but it’s clear that Kasparov views it as an opportunity.
Kasparovchess has a monthly or yearly subscription of $13.99 or $119.99, respectively. The majority of lessons from experts and retrospective analysis on games you’ve played sit behind the paywall. The premium product also grants users access to a database of 50,000 manually created puzzles that allows players to train certain skills. The product will be available to the public by the end of month.
A popular competitor already exists: Chess.com. It’s a chess server, forum and networking site that launched in 2005, with premium subscription that ranges between $5 a month or $29 a year. Kasparovchess is significantly more expensive.
Kasparov says his biggest differentiator will be a focus on community. The long-term goal of Kasparovchess is to connect global chess communities with each other, unearth prodigies that might not have access otherwise and give others access to his experiences. He thinks that remote education during the pandemic has shown the need to have more interactive solutions, beyond buzzy promises.
“It’s time to actually switch from what we’re teaching to how students can apply it,” he said. “And that helps us indirectly because chess has been recognized for centuries as a nexus for intelligence and creativity.”
Kasparov became the youngest world chess champion in 1985. He retired from public chess in 2005, and has since launched a foundation to help children have access to chess worldwide. Most recently, he helped advise for “Queen’s Gambit,” a show about a chess prodigy that became Netflix’s most-watched scripted limited series to date on the platform. The show was so ubiquitously popular that sales for chess boards soon skyrocketed.
“I was so happy because it was the first time where we could see chess as a positive factor,” he said. “We had so many years with chess being seen as potential destruction and something that could push kids to the dark area of psychological instability.”
The freshness of this message mixed with an uptick in remote education has given Kasparov confidence that his years-long project is finally ready to launch.
“It’s not just about teaching the game, or playing the game, or debating the game,” he said. Instead, he hopes people who come to the platform focus on the culture of chess, its survival and its seemingly timeless power.
One of the first and most elite chess players to flee the Soviet bloc for the West, he was among the best players in the world for many years.
We’ve been covering Square Off for a couple of CESes now — ever since the connected chess startup competed in one of our pitch offs. The Mumbai-based startup has been rapidly iterating on technology that lets users play a physical chess game with opponents across the globe, including the arrival of the new modular gaming system, Swap.
Today at CES, it announced the upcoming arrival of a new rollable system, adding a level of portability to its offering. Obviously you lose some of the magic here — the self-moving pieces have been sacrificed in order to bring a board that can be rolled up and stashed in a backpack for easier transport. That effect was a big part of what made the tech so eye-catching in the first place.
The system will still take advantage of Square Off’s existing AI and connected technologies, allowing people to play globally against competitors. Between the continued inability to congregate in-person and the rise in interest in chess in the wake of Netflix’s wildly popular “The Queen’s Gambit,” this seems like an opportune time for the startup to launch a new product.
Unlike past offerings, the company won’t be going through a crowdfunding site to launch this one. Square Off expects to bring the product to market around March, priced at $199.
Between studying moves with tutors in India and New York, Oliver Boydell has homework (with video game breaks, of course).
Like the fictional Beth Harmon in “The Queen’s Gambit,” she’s trying to find a way to get to Russia to compete. Unlike Beth, she’s blind.
The horses in higher-end wooden sets must be hand-carved, a long, specialized process to make sure all four are exactly the same.
The first major conquest of artificial intelligence was chess. The game has a dizzying number of possible combinations, but it was relatively tractable because it was structured by a set of clear rules. An algorithm could always have perfect knowledge of the state of the game and know every possible move that both it and its opponent could make. The state of the game could be evaluated just by looking at the board.
But many other games aren’t that simple. If you take something like Pac-Man, then figuring out the ideal move would involve considering the shape of the maze, the location of the ghosts, the location of any additional areas to clear, the availability of power-ups, etc., and the best plan can end up in disaster if Blinky or Clyde makes an unexpected move. We’ve developed AIs that can tackle these games, too, but they have had to take a very different approach to the ones that conquered chess and Go.
At least until now. Today, however, Google’s DeepMind division published a paper describing the structure of an AI that can tackle both chess and Atari classics.
Music brought a critic and a guest together, in a conversation about Bach, Beethoven, chess and politics.
Fans of the Netflix series, including teenagers and the actress Beth Behrs, are flocking to the game because “women can be rock stars” in chess.
Inspired by ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ demand for chess sets is soaring. So why not make your own?
Prominent leaders said he was a somewhat reluctant trailblazer who took office at a difficult period of fiscal crisis and racial tension.
The Netflix show about a chess prodigy has reignited interest in the game and fueled demand for sets, accessories and timers.
The Netflix hit captures the struggles of women in the game, where female grandmasters are rare. But the reality, one top player says, is worse.
Chess and fashion have not historically intersected, but a popular Netflix show is resetting the board.
Charu Robinson was one of the pioneers who inspired a generation of children to play a game that had been the province of elite schools.
The Netflix show about a female chess prodigy in the 1950s and ’60s is one of the best screen adaptations of the game yet. But there are a few wrong moves.
The new Netflix series, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, puts a self-destructive female player at the center of a male-dominated sport. But how to glean high drama from all that staring?
Chess has a reputation for cold logic, but Vladimir Kramnik loves the game for its beauty.
“It’s a kind of creation,” he says. His passion for the artistry of minds clashing over the board, trading complex but elegant provocations and counters, helped him dethrone Garry Kasparov in 2000 and spend several years as world champion.
Yet Kramnik, who retired from competitive chess last year, also believes his beloved game has grown less creative. He partly blames computers, whose soulless calculations have produced a vast library of openings and defenses that top-flight players know by rote. “For quite a number of games on the highest level, half of the game—sometimes a full game—is played out of memory,” Kramnik says. “You don’t even play your own preparation; you play your computer’s preparation.”
Viewers are flocking to games during the pandemic, entranced by a charismatic grandmaster and his lightning-fast play.
Garry Kasparov is a political activist who’s written books and articles on artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and online privacy, but he’s best known for being the former World Chess Champion who took on the IBM computer known as Big Blue in the mid-1990s.
I spoke to Kasparov before a speaking engagement at the Collision Conference last month where he was participating in his role as Avast Security Ambassador. Our discussion covered a lot of ground, from his role as security ambassador to the role of AI.
TechCrunch: How did you become a security ambassador for Avast?
Garry Kasparov: It started almost by accident. I was invited by one of my friends, who knew the previous Avast CEO (Vince Steckler) to be the guest speaker at the opening of their new headquarters in Prague. I met the team and very quickly we recognized that we could work together very effectively since Avast wanted an ambassador.
I thought that it would be a great combination because it’s about cybersecurity, and it’s also about customers, about individual rights, which is related to human rights, and it also had a little bit of a political element of course. But most importantly, it’s a combination of privacy and security and I felt that with my record of working for human rights, and also writing about individuals and privacy and also having some experience with computers, that it would be a good match.
Now it’s my fourth year and it seems that many of the things we have been discussing at conferences when I have spoken about the role of AI in our lives, and many of the discussions that we thought were theoretical, have become more practical.
What were those discussions like?
One of the favorite topics that was always raised at these conferences is whether AI will be a helping hand or threat. And my view has been that it’s neither because I have always said that AI was neither a magic wand nor a Terminator. It’s a tool. And it’s up to us to find the best way of using it and applying its enormous power to our good.
The Square Off robotic chess board was already a great device for these times. The system makes it possible to play a solo game using 20 different degrees of difficulty or challenge someone remotely through chess.com. I met with the Mumbai-based startup a couple of CESes ago, and was quite impressed with the execution.
Now, in the face of massive global isolation courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has introduced a video calling feature. Using the connected app, players can connect with one another across the globe. It’s not quite like having another human on the other side of the board, but in these trying times and all that, we’ll take what we can get.
“The lockdowns have motivated people to rediscover their passion and the chess community is expanding,” CEO Bhavya Gohil says in a release. “The recent addition to the video calling feature was the call of the hour and we are thrilled for the response it has received. It takes the experience of connected board gaming one notch ahead. We are constantly innovating to provide the most quintessential gaming experience.”
The company says it has seen a 30% uptick in time spent on the board since the pandemic began. For those who are interested, there are a number of different board configurations currently available through the Square Off site.
As she endured a difficult recovery from Covid-19, the grandmaster Irina Krush thrived in competition and found familiar support from others in the game.
The world’s top chess players are competing online with in-person tournaments shut down. Millions of amateurs are joining in, too.
How to use video conferencing to play traditional, real-life board games with people who are sheltering in different places.