Lynda Weinman, an early fan of the personal computer, made a name for herself by teaching web design to non-techies in the mid 1990s. From there she went on to create online education company Lynda.com, which was bought by LinkedIn for $1.5 billion in cash and stock in 2015. “It was a 20 year overnight success,” Weinman joked when I interviewed her on stage at The Montgomery Summit technology conference in Santa Monica, Calif. in March.
Weinman, who doesn’t grant interviews or speak publicly very often, ranks No. 55 on Forbes’ new list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women, with an estimated net worth of $280 million due to the sale of her company. At The Montgomery Summit, Weinman spoke with me about how she went from teaching herself web design and motion graphics, to teaching students at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. those same skills. She also published a textbook on web graphics that became hugely popular.
At the suggestion of her husband, artist Bruce Heavin, the couple rented a high school in Ojai, Calif. (east of Santa Barbara) over spring break one year to teach web design classes. The classes sold out that first year, with one student coming from as far away as Vienna, Austria. From there, Weinman and Heavin went on to build Lynda.com.
Never take "no" for an answer
Never take ‘no’ for an answer
Weinman credits their success to a number of thoughtful decisions. First, she learned early on how not to take ‘no’ for an answer. When she came up with the idea to publish a web design textbook for non-techies, no one would publish it, she recalled. “I needed the advance to write the book-- I needed to earn money. And so I got a magazine publisher to let me do a monthly series,” she said. She later turned the series into a book, Designing Web Graphics, published in 1996. The success of her textbook became a calling card of sorts – and the reason that a student from Austria found out about her first classes in Ojai.
Make sure you have market validation
“Another thing that I often say to people: Really make sure you have market validation,” Weinman advised. “I knew that I did, because I was a popular teacher. Then when we started the school, that was successful. There were hard times, like with the dot com crash and the travel restrictions [after 9/11/2001, when Weinman had to lay off all but 9 of Lynda.com’s 35 employees]… but I knew ultimately that people loved the way that we taught and our approach.”
Do things differently for the right reason
“Everybody talks in business about playbooks and how everybody else does everything. We really tried to think about doing things in a different way than our competitors were doing them, not just to be different, but understanding what actually worked and what didn’t work. There’s a saying that my husband picked up: ‘Your marketing spend is the price you have to pay for a bad product.’ [What matters is] being passionate about your product, so that people love it and they want to share it.”
Focus on the product or service, not the exit
“I see so many young people who want to be entrepreneurs right out of college … They’re looking to the exit. I’m proud of what Lynda.com sold for, but I’m way more proud of how many people we helped and lives we changed, and how our product grew organically, and it grew because it was a great product. People still, when they hear [about the company], say ‘I love Lynda.com.’ They never say ‘I like it’.”
On taking venture capital funding
“We had people ravenous to invest in us the entire time because we were the only people in our space who were making money,” Weinman recalled. Lynda.com was profitable and growing. “Eventually we chose to take the VC money as a desire to have an exit. I decided when I turned 59 [that] by the time I’m 65 I’d like to have another chapter. And also, we were in the very unusual position of our company being more valuable than the revenue it earned. So there was a lot of value that was in the company that was never going to be realized unless we went public or were sold.”
In January 2013 Lynda.com raised $103 million in funding from Accel Partners and Spectrum Equity. In January 2015 it raised $186 million in a round led by TPG Capital. “Everybody wanted to invest in us because we were a sure fire thing; we were profitable. We were a very well run organization,” Weinman said, partly because she and her husband had hired a CEO to run the business when it got big enough.
Lynda Weinman, founder of online education company Lynda.com, in conversation with Forbes' Kerry (to Jake Caumeran for The Montgomery Summit)
On selling to LinkedIn
When Lynda.com raised venture capital money, it was with the intent to eventually go public. Then in the spring of 2015, LinkedIn came knocking. The sale “was probably a little too soon, but it felt like a perfect fit and I’m very glad that we did it the way that we did it. I think going public would have even been harder,” Weinman said. It took three months from the time LinkedIn first made the acquisition offer until the two companies announced the sale in June 2015. “Having such a quick offer, which came totally out of the blue, was actually something that I was grateful for.” Weinman said LinkedIn kept her on retainer for a while but she didn’t meet with anyone at the company. (In December 2016, Microsoft completed its $26.2 billion acquisition of LinkedIn, so Lynda.com is currently owned by Microsoft.)
Weinman is now focused on harnessing the power of film and video. She chairs the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and backs independent filmmakers and documentary filmmakers.
Kerry A. Dolan
is San Francisco-based Assistant Managing Editor with a focus on wealth. She edits mostly, but also writes about how the richest get wealthy and how they spend their time and their money. She won an Overseas Press Club award for an article she wrote about Saudi Arabian billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal; She also won a Gerald Loeb Award with co-author Rafael Marques de Morais for an article they wrote about Isabel dos Santos, the eldest daughter of Angola's President. Over 20 years her Forbes reporting has taken her to 17 countries on four continents, from the slums of Manila to palaces in Saudi Arabia and Mexico's presidential residence.
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