Wes Kao, Co-Founder of Maven, Wants To Streamline Cohort-Based Course Creation for ‘Knowledge Influencers’

We’re sitting down with leaders on the business side of the creator economy to get their best advice for creators looking to launch and develop their careers. This week, we spoke with Wes Kao, the co-founder of Maven, about why she advocates for cohort-based learning and why Maven appeals to creators.

Maven is a cohort-based learning platform that allows creators to design and sell courses based on their areas of expertise. Besides operating Maven, Kao runs a newsletter and publishes essays about leadership, marketing, and online courses. She also has a Twitter account with over 125,500 followers. 

Courtesy of Wes Kao/Maven Cole Mitchell

Wes Kao is a long-time believer in “cohort-based” learning programs. Cohort-based learning involves a group of students—a cohort—all moving through a syllabus together at the same time. Cohort-based learning is the opposite of asynchronous, mass online open courses, (MOOCs) where students move at their own pace through course content.

Kao said that cohort-based courses are far more engaging for learners than MOOCs, which have been criticized for low enrollment and completion rates. Over the past decade, cohort-based classes have risen in popularity, addressing common complaints about MOOCs. 

Cohort-based classes offer live feedback from a teacher and courses with set start and end dates. In real-time, groups of students are able to hold each other accountable, push each other to experiment with class material, and challenge each other’s ideas. 

“The community aspect of being exposed to other like-minded learners, of being able to discuss your ideas, of being able to make friends as you’re learning and to expand your network, to be exposed to ideas outside of your own, that’s a huge part of learning and cohort-based courses,” Kao told Passionfruit. 

Prior to founding the learning platform Maven, Kao co-founded the altMBA, a popular cohort-based leadership workshop. In the next phase of her career, she worked with specific course creators—like writer David Perell, creator Tiago Forte, and public speaker Scott Galloway—to help them develop cohort-based courses. 

During that time, Kao said she noticed technical issues with building cohort-based courses, including issues building and maintaining web pages. She decided that she wanted to build a platform that streamlined the end-to-end process of course creation.

Kao teamed up with two fellow entrepreneurs in the online learning space—Gagan Biyani, the co-founder of MOOCs platform Udemy, and Shreyans Bhansali, founder of the education app Socratic, which was acquired by Google in 2019. 

“We started sharing stories about how we were thinking about this next wave of learning,” Kao said. “If no one is making a platform making it easy for people to teach this kind of course, we should build it.”

Kao said Maven focuses heavily on attracting “knowledge influencers”—content creators who share knowledge on particular subject matters—to their platform. Influencers are able to follow a suggested end-to-end course creation process on the Maven platform that helps determine their desired course price, length, topics, and milestones.

Kao said cohort-based courses are attractive to some creators facing burnout because a lot of the work is upfront and self-structured. Course creators can decide how long they want a course to be and how many times they want to lead it, which Kao thinks is appealing to creators who feel they are “on a content hamster wheel.” 

“Once you build it, anytime you want to run a cohort you can ‘turn on’ that course whenever you want,” Kao said. “There’s a lot of flexibility for the creator to have a leveraged asset.” 

Kao also said she thinks selling cohort-based courses is appealing to creators because they can focus on crafting a quality, niche product rather than constantly churn out content for advertising or sponsorship income. Some of the most popular classes on Maven sell for a few hundred dollars, while others go for upwards of $3000. 

Sahil Bloom, a Twitter creator and newsletter writer who runs an “Audience Building” course on Maven, said the platform helped him engage in deeper ways with his community. 

“I’m able to balance my day-to-day as a content creator with my course to share my learnings from years of building audiences with others,” Bloom told Passionfruit over email. “Maven took the guesswork out of building a cohort-based course and provided the insight needed to take my course from an idea to a finished product in only weeks.”

Kao urged creators like Bloom to not shy away from diving deep into a niche. 

“People are afraid of catering only to certain niches or alienating certain people,” Kao said. “But you actually end up attracting more like-minded followers and fans. They’re glad that someone is finally saying the thing they’ve been feeling.” 

Kao advises creators to take unique takes that others might disagree with in her recent essay titled “Spiky Point of View.” Kao recommended another one of her essays for creators, titled “Turn Bugs Into Features,” which is about turning things you might think of as defects or disadvantages into strengths. 

“How does being an introvert help you connect with your audience in a different way than someone who is more extroverted?” Kao said as an example. “Anything you might think is a personality defect or disadvantage: how can you lean into it?” 

As Kao looks toward Maven’s future, she said she’s keeping an eye on a few trends in the creator economy. She said creators are increasingly viewing their career as a portfolio—of newsletters, podcasts, public speaking, workshops, merchandise, brand partnerships—and understands running a course on Maven will be only one part of their wheelhouse. 

“We’re living in a time where there are more options than ever for creators. This is the best time in history to be a creator. In the past, it was kind of like creators were sharing their passion or hobby but there wasn’t a great way to monetize or a clear path to revenue. Now, there are so many different ways to monetize,” Kao said. 

With courses specifically, Kao is looking forward to seeing how creators experiment with course format, length, subject matter, community building, and projects. 

“We’re just on the cusp of what courses will be,” Kao said. “One thing we can expect is a lot of creativity and innovation in the course category as more creators get involved.” 

Are you an entrepreneur in the creator economy? Email [email protected] for a chance to get featured in an upcoming newsletter.

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