Workplace

No one likes corporate training programs. Is there a better way?

Companies like Reforge, On Deck and Maven are replacing the awkward training programs for mid-career professionals.

Wall of sticky notes

A growing number of sites are delivering support for working professionals who are hungry to learn but don't see opportunities within their workplace.

Photo: Getty Creative

Welcome to the era of the unbundled corporation.

Two decades of frothy corporate perks brought us office campuses with gourmet cafeterias, laundromats and on-site gyms. These amenities were supposed to create incentives to stay with the org, either because the company was supporting employees' needs or, as more arch observers have noted, because they made it possible for people to work longer hours.

What often got left out, however, was professional development: substantive support for employees, especially in the early or middle of their career arc. "There are tons of bootcamps to help people get jobs and tons of executive support, but not a lot in between," said Brian Balfour, founder and chief executive of Reforge. "And that's where we spend most of our time: the middle of our careers."

Reforge is one of a growing number of sites delivering support for working professionals who are hungry to learn but don't see opportunities within their workplace. It's a fiercely hot market, fueled by a convergence of trends: lackluster internal coaching; prefab and awkward "corporate training" programs; impersonal, massive online programs where dropping out is far more common than soldiering through. Managers know what they're supposed to do: "Address the 'learn and grow' not the free stuff," wrote Gallup CEO Jim Clifton in a company blog post.

But who wants to sit around and wait for management to become enlightened?

That's one of the reasons Balfour started Reforge in 2015. It has been profitable since its first year, and these days is racking up "eight-figure revenue." And then came the pandemic. Stuck at home, investors shook off any lingering doubts about the power of online learning cohorts (at least for adults).

In February, Reforge said it had raised $21 million in venture funding. Others have followed: In March, On Deck, a community learning platform, raised its own $20 million series A. Section4, an online business education platform started by New York University professor and internet celeb Scott Galloway, topped up an earlier seed round with a series A that put its funding at $37 million. And in May, Maven said it had secured $20 million in funding to build a platform for delivering cohort-based classes. (Its founding team had previously created Udemy, altMBA and Socratic.)

Each is taking a different approach to supporting young professionals. Gagan Biyani has been immersed in online education — democratizing learning, as he likes to say — since 2009, when he teamed up with two Turkish entrepreneurs to jumpstart the online learning market, Udemy. "This feels like a much bigger wave than the last," he said. "In my mind, the shift used to be online [professional development] was about keeping costs low and early career development. Now people are choosing online learning over in-person at the most senior levels of organizations." That's almost a textbook definition of disruptive innovation.

Maven's platform enables instructors, particularly in business, to create and offer "cohort-based courses," (CBCs, if you like acronyms) and reap the rewards. Much like Substack has become a profitable platform for many writers, Maven is rolling out the welcome banners for instructors. It's also pulling together the administrative tools its instructors need to create interactive, accountable community-based classes, both live and asynchronous. And Maven takes an active role in coaching those instructors about how to build effective cohorts. Instructors set the parameters such as student fees (which range from $100 to $2,000 per course) and the number of students accepted (between 70 to 150 students seems to work) — and they pocket 90% of the revenue.

No one needs to apply to join a Maven cohort. "Selectivity is both valuable in some contexts and highly overrated in others," Biyani said. "The mere fact that you're adventurous enough to take a cohort course means you've 'preselected' yourself. That can be powerful."

Joel Montano, a program manager at a large, Seattle-based technology company, agrees. Montano says he was a couple of months into his new role when he began looking for ways to learn more.

His employer offered him online programs that awarded certificates but few insights to unlocking his most pressing challenges. "The answers to my questions always seemed to be a lot of: 'It depends,'" Montano said. He was already following Lenny Rachitsky, who writes Lenny's Newsletter, a popular advice column on product management. When he saw that Rachitsky was going to offer a four-week workshop-style course on Maven, Montano jumped in.

What Montano found he valued the most from the experience were the peers he met online, who are all wrestling with similar situations: "The value was in the people. We keep in touch. We ask each other questions." The curriculum was helpful, Montano said, but building relationships with peers "suits my way of learning."

Reforge puts so much stock in cohorts that Balfour said they have turned down "quite a few" individuals as well as companies that have applied. "There's a misconception that 'selectivity' is about 'exclusivity,'" he said. "That's what the Ivy League schools taught us. But that's not what we're looking for."

Instead, he said, they prioritize relevance and students' "desire to learn." "We're trying to put people in an environment that's relevant to what they're working on at just that stage of their career," Balfour said. "We focus on teaching how to solve problems and reach goals within the organization, rather than isolated skill sets."

These types of courses aren't for people looking to switch careers or who need to learn how to write SQL queries. But, for example, a senior individual contributor who is now stepping up to manage a portfolio of people or channels might want to know how to drive growth or customer engagement and retention, or how to systematically create a culture of experimentation. That's where Reforge comes in.

Around 8,000 people have gone through one of Reforge's six-week programs, led by industry practitioners, which has an annual membership fee of $2,000. A cornerstone of Reforge's approach is to amplify people's desire to learn. When well-intentioned managers buy a PD solution and roll it out without assessing employees' interest, even a good program can flounder. "We see the best results when managers find people on their teams with that desire and then support them" by giving them the tools that help them grow, Balfour said.

Cohorts — far more than instructors or curriculum — are also the core of On Deck's programs. People apply to be part of cohorts built around jobs ("founder" or "community builder") or sectors (so far there are four: climate tech, ed tech, fintech and health). There are speakers, socials and hackathons, but the value comes through meeting peers. When designer Lucy Mort joined On Deck, "I had all of these ideas and no one to collaborate with," she wrote. "It was great to be dropped into this community of people that thought like me." Through On Deck, she met a co-founder and raised funding for her startup, Sunroom.

By contrast, Galloway parlayed his popularity and success into a fast-paced online program, Section4. He recruited longtime entrepreneur Greg Shove to join as chief executive. "We decided to focus on the idea of 'sprints,'" Shove said, an intense two-week program built as a stack of synchronous lectures, prerecorded video lessons, case studies, a project and a community on Slack. Shove's mantra: Deliver 60% of the value of a great business school class for 10% of the cost ($750 per class) and "no friction" for those taking the program. "It isn't easy. We had to convince ourselves the sprint format worked," Shove said.

A week before the pandemic closed down much of the country, Section4 launched with a program taught by Galloway built on his past teaching experience. It was a hit particularly with ambitious mid-career managers from small companies in many industries and locations. Now other name-brand lecturers are joining Section4's teaching ranks, such as Mohan Sawhney, associate dean at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management.

So far, more than 12,000 students have taken a dozen sessions. Topics include brand, consumer experience, innovation, platform, product and strategy. Classes have as many as 1,000 students — and plenty of teaching assistants. More than 70% of those who start the program finish.

"We wanted to challenge every assumption in ed tech," Shove said, starting with the size of cohorts.. He wants students to find peers who are relevant, which he thinks is easier in large cohorts. "We're going to test a class of 2,000," he said.

Soon to be announced: Annual memberships in Section4 ($1,000 a year) that include ongoing live lectures, updated case studies, in-person (in addition to virtual) events — and, of course, "access to the network itself." Shove said he's already hearing of Section4 alumni hiring one another, even though the company has yet to even create a jobs board.

"Our mission is to get this quality offering out to as many people as possible," he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Reforge was founded in 2015; it was founded in 2016. It also misstated the name of the Kellogg School of Management. This story was updated on June 24, 2021.

Policy

Musk’s texts reveal what tech’s most powerful people really want

From Jack Dorsey to Joe Rogan, Musk’s texts are chock-full of überpowerful people, bending a knee to Twitter’s once and (still maybe?) future king.

“Maybe Oprah would be interested in joining the Twitter board if my bid succeeds,” one text reads.

Photo illustration: Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images; Protocol

Elon Musk’s text inbox is a rarefied space. It’s a place where tech’s wealthiest casually commit to spending billions of dollars with little more than a thumbs-up emoji and trade tips on how to rewrite the rules for how hundreds of millions of people around the world communicate.

Now, Musk’s ongoing legal battle with Twitter is giving the rest of us a fleeting glimpse into that world. The collection of Musk’s private texts that was made public this week is chock-full of tech power brokers. While the messages are meant to reveal something about Musk’s motivations — and they do — they also say a lot about how things get done and deals get made among some of the most powerful people in the world.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Fintech

Circle’s CEO: This is not the time to ‘go crazy’

Jeremy Allaire is leading the stablecoin powerhouse in a time of heightened regulation.

“It’s a complex environment. So every CEO and every board has to be a little bit cautious, because there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire told Protocol at Converge22.

Photo: Circle

Sitting solo on a San Francisco stage, Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire asked tennis superstar Serena Williams what it’s like to face “unrelenting skepticism.”

“What do you do when someone says you can’t do this?” Allaire asked the athlete turned VC, who was beaming into Circle’s Converge22 convention by video.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Enterprise

Is Salesforce still a growth company? Investors are skeptical

Salesforce is betting that customer data platform Genie and new Slack features can push the company to $50 billion in revenue by 2026. But investors are skeptical about the company’s ability to deliver.

Photo: Marlena Sloss/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Salesforce has long been enterprise tech’s golden child. The company said everything customers wanted to hear and did everything investors wanted to see: It produced robust, consistent growth from groundbreaking products combined with an aggressive M&A strategy and a cherished culture, all operating under the helm of a bombastic, but respected, CEO and team of well-coiffed executives.

Dreamforce is the embodiment of that success. Every year, alongside frustrating San Francisco residents, the over-the-top celebration serves as a battle cry to the enterprise software industry, reminding everyone that Marc Benioff’s mighty fiefdom is poised to expand even deeper into your corporate IT stack.

Keep Reading Show less
Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a writer-at-large at Protocol. He previously covered enterprise software for Protocol, Bloomberg and Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JoeWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Policy

The US and EU are splitting on tech policy. That’s putting the web at risk.

A conversation with Cédric O, the former French minister of state for digital.

“With the difficulty of the U.S. in finding political agreement or political basis to legislate more, we are facing a risk of decoupling in the long term between the EU and the U.S.”

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Cédric O, France’s former minister of state for digital, has been an advocate of Europe’s approach to tech and at the forefront of the continent’s relations with U.S. giants. Protocol caught up with O last week at a conference in New York focusing on social media’s negative effects on society and the possibilities of blockchain-based protocols for alternative networks.

O said watching the U.S. lag in tech policy — even as some states pass their own measures and federal bills gain momentum — has made him worry about the EU and U.S. decoupling. While not as drastic as a disentangling of economic fortunes between the West and China, such a divergence, as O describes it, could still make it functionally impossible for companies to serve users on both sides of the Atlantic with the same product.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Latest Stories
Bulletins