The Company That Took Over YouTube Pre-Rolls Just Got a Pile of Money

Photo: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Since the beginning of the shutdown, anyone who has turned to YouTube for a moment of algorithmic distraction has noticed that one company, MasterClass, has dominated the pre-roll advertising. Offering a touch of exclusivity and the promise of a one-on-one lesson with a teacher you will never meet, for $180 a year users gain access to a library of videos from over 80 famous teachers, ranging from Annie Leibovitz discussing the art of photography to Chris Hadfield on the ins and outs of space exploration.

Due to a combination of factors — the pandemic’s disruption of teaching as we know it; years of building its exclusive library; or maybe just Americans’ desire to be talked to by celebrities — the company appears to be thriving in the online-education market. On Thursday, MasterClass announced it had raised $100 million in a series E financing round, which was led by Fidelity Management & Research Company, one of the largest asset-management firms in the world.

Describing the company’s unique offerings, Vox provides an apt explainer for why people might be attracted to a service that doesn’t aim to teach, so much as “discuss” the challenges of creative and entrepreneurial fields:

Every MasterClass follows the same formula. Bathed in soft light, the instructor delivers 15 to 30 brief lectures. If the instructor does something inherently visual for a living, like cooking or sports, those lessons include demonstrations. The writers just talk. Each lesson comes with a PDF workbook containing a summary and links to further reading. Students can record questions for instructors, who periodically post video replies during “office hours.” The formula extends all the way to course titles: Person Teaches Skill. Deadmau5 Teaches Electronic Music Production. Frank Gehry Teaches Design and Architecture. James Suckling Teaches Wine Appreciation. Teaches.

“Discusses” might be a more accurate verb. Hans Zimmer talks about what went into scoring The Dark Knight and Sherlock Holmes, but that’s not quite the same thing as teaching film scoring … MasterClasses exist in the uncanny valley between first principles and technical details. Its form of teaching is a grab bag of tips and reflections.

That is largely by design. “If you want to learn how to use your DSLR camera, this is not the place for you,” MasterClass co-founder and CEO David Rogier tells me. “That’s not what you should learn from Annie Leibovitz.”

For that, a free how-to on MasterClass’s advertising home of YouTube may be the more appropriate tool.

With the new round of funding, CEO and co-founder David Rogier told TechCrunch that the capital will be used to build out new classes, with a plan to debut one class per week. According to Bloomberg, the new level of financing brought the company’s valuation to $800 million, almost double its value in 2014. As for the ads, Rogier claims that the new blitz is helping build their audience while everyone is stuck at home. “If you’ve seen more ads, it is because they are working,” he said.

The Company Taking Over YouTube Ads Just Got a Pile of Money