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October 16, 2021

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Today’s Smart Brevity™ count is 1,202 words ... 4½ -minutes.

1 big thing: Eren Bali's journey to building two "unicorns"

Photo illustration of Eren Bali.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Lena Ershov/Wikimedia Commons

Eren Bali’s first “unicorn,” online course marketplace Udemy, is readying an IPO. Meanwhile, his other company Carbon Health is helping people in the U.S. get vaccinated and tested for COVID-19 — on top of running 83 clinics in 12 states.

Why it matters: Bali isn't a household name, but he's quietly built two companies that were perfectly poised to fill in gaps created by the pandemic.

“I’m gonna start a company that believes that karma exists in business,” recalls Bali, referring to his plans to start Carbon Health in 2015.

  • So far, Carbon — valued at $3.3 billion last year — has raised $538 million in funding from investors like BlackRock, Lux Capital, Silver Lake and Elad Gil.

Flashback: Bali’s realization of the internet's power goes back to his teenage years in a small village in Turkey, when his family finally bought a used computer (in part due to his “strong insistence”).

  • One benefit: Bali was able to access new resources to boost his math competition skills.
  • “Even though the internet doesn’t completely level out education, it does give people the chance to catch up,” he says.

Getting started: In 2009, Bali and longtime friend Oktay Caglar moved to the U.S. and enrolled in the Founder Institute, an incubator program in Silicon Valley.

  • After linking up with third co-founder Gagan Biyani, they rode the startup train, raising funding for Udemy from angel investors like Keith Rabois and Naval Ravikant, and later from VCs like Lightbank.
  • Then trouble emerged: Some employees complained about Biyani's rough management style.

Between the lines: “It’s when he went from being the CEO in title to actually being the guy who’s running a big company that’s growing,” recounts Russ Fradin, an early Udemy board member, of Bali’s tough decision in 2012 to fire Biyani.

  • “Eren’s top priority at the time ... was to build a company that people wanted to work at,” explains Biyani.
  • Biyani also emphasizes the respect he felt throughout his exit process. “That’s why we ended up building a relationship back a year or two later,” he adds.
  • Bali remained CEO until April 2014, when he stepped back to become chairman, and is now just a member of the board.

The big picture: “I wanted to start an authentic company. At Udemy, we were mostly rookies, so we went with what was standard practice,” says Bali of his approach as CEO of Carbon Health.

  • He founded the company after a three-month trip to Turkey in 2014 to help with his mother’s health issues. There he saw firsthand the inefficiencies in health care and doctors' tools.
  • In 2017, he joined forces with former ER doctor Caesar Djavaherian (Carbon acquired his small chain of clinics). The two set out to build a company to make health care affordable to as many people as possible.

What to watch: Udemy is expected to go public in the coming weeks, reportedly seeking a valuation of at least $6 billion.

2. Beyond COVID-19

Illustrated collage of Ben Franklin with Q-tip near his nostril.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

When the pandemic eventually subsides, health care companies that got a boost from it will need to figure out their next phase.

Why it matters: While some like Carbon Health invested significantly in rolling out infrastructure like testing and vaccination sites, others like newly public Cue Health, which produces rapid COVID tests, will have to show they’re more than just one product.

What they’re saying: “The direct-to-consumer category is coming for us in Q4,” Cue Health co-founder and CEO Ayub Khattak tells Axios, hinting at an upcoming telemedicine product.

  • So far, Cue Health’s business has centered on large-scale contracts for its COVID-19 tests with customers like the Pentagon, Google, and most recently, the NBA.
  • But Khattak emphasizes that more tests are coming. In fact, before the pandemic, Cue Health was in the midst of clinical trials for its flu test.

The big picture: The company sees its COVID tests as validation of its technology, which is says can be applied to more tests.

  • Similarly, COVID-19 was also a validator for Moderna Health, whose highly effective messenger RNA-based vaccine is one of the top in the world. The company recently began clinical trials for an HIV vaccine, also based on mRNA technology.
  • Curative, another company that's focused on COVID-19, also tells Axios it's planning to expand to more health care services next year.

Yes, but: COVID-19 is unlikely to disappear entirely in the near future, so there will still be a need for tests and vaccines for a while.

For Carbon Health, much of its pandemic-driven growth was in expanding its network of clinics, going from seven at the outset to 83 now, thanks in part to acquisitions. “Our clinics are useful forever,” Bali says.

  • As for initiatives like setting up vaccination sites in Los Angeles, the company knew they’d be temporary investments — but important ones, given the company’s mission of increasing health care access for all.
  • “We mostly attacked COVID because it was going to dominate the front lines whether we liked it or not,” explains Bali. “The fact that we did such a good job … we built a lot of fans during COVID.”

3. Content creators as the new professors

Illustration of hands at a computer against a collaged background.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A decade ago, Udemy helped popularize online courses as a business for indie instructors, and the model is now seeing a renaissance amid the “creator economy” boom.

What’s happening: Online courses are the latest format that content creators are adding to their businesses.

  • Joining existing players like Skillshare and Thinkific, new companies like Maven and U are cropping up to provide content creators with tools to make those courses. The latter two are specifically focused on “cohort-based courses,” where groups of students complete a course at the same pace.

“We absolutely could not have started more than two years ago,” Maven co-founder and CEO Gagan Biyani tells Axios, adding that Udemy’s initial live-video instruction concept was too early for its time.

  • “There wasn’t enough density of learners and students who wanted to get on a video class. Now it’s very natural for you to get on a Zoom.”

The big picture: While content creators used to concentrate on social media services like YouTube and Instagram, other formats like newsletters, podcasts and online courses have been on the rise recently.

  • The result is twofold: It’s making it possible for new creators to generate revenue from their skills and content, and it’s enabling existing ones to expand to additional formats.
  • Maven course instructors Lenny Rachitsky and Anthony Pompliano, for example, already have popular newsletters, Twitter accounts and other content outlets. Meanwhile, more than half of the company’s instructors didn’t have big (or even any) online audiences before creating their courses, says Biyani.

The bottom line: Creating content requires multiple skills, so it’s no surprise that many practitioners are turning those skills into even more revenue by teaching them to others.

📚 Due Diligence

  • As Udemy Plans IPO, Instructors Complain Policy Change Cut Their Pay (The Information)
  • COVID-19 vaccine: Private companies step in to fill logistics vacuum (Axios)
  • Meet The Immigrant Entrepreneurs Who Raised $350 Million To Rethink U.S. Primary Care (Forbes)

🧩 Trivia

Udemy wasn't Eren Bali and Oktay Caglar's first attempt at online education.

  • Question: What was their first company's name and its original concept? (Answer at the bottom.)

🧮 Final Numbers

Recreated from Udemy; Chart: Axios Visuals

🙏 Thanks for reading! See you on Monday for Axios Pro Rata's weekday programming, and please ask your friends, colleagues and online instructors to sign up.

Trivia answer: It was called Knowband and focused on live video learning.