Founders Parade

Founder’s Parade: Sebastian Thrun of Udacity

Sebastian Thrun

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Sebastian Thrun is a research professor at Stanford, a Google Fellow,and a co-founder and CEO of Udacity.

Udacity is a platform for massively online open courses (MOOC’s) that was started in 2011. According to Udacity’s website: “Udacity was born out of a Stanford University experiment in which Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig offered their ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ course online to anyone, for free. Over 160,000 students in more than 190 countries enrolled and not much later, Udacity was born. Now <they’re> a growing team of educators and engineers on a mission to change the future of education by bridging the gap between real-world skills, relevant education, and employment.” The value proposition was to offer free education to the masses, thus producing a trained workforce for Udacity’s sponsers. Some courses are actually delivered by advocates of the sponsoring company’s products and those products are used in the course. Up to January 2013, Udacity continued to offer courses for free to anyone with online access to Udacity’s website. But the success rate was poor. Too few people were completing the courses, and among those who completed the pass rate was low. After charging a small fee for courses in the late 2012, Udacity found that offering courses for a fee dramatically increased the completion rate, though not the pass rate among people completing. Thrun and his team concluded that the pass rate depends on getting the right fit between what Udacity is offering and the ability of the candidate student to take full advantage of the opportunity – Thrun decided to refocus on a different market segment. Udacity now offers paid programmes of study in partnership with universities and with sponsership from stakeholders in industry. Students must now pay a substantial fee for a course of study leading to certification.

Sebastian Thrun first came to public attention in 2005 when he won a DARPA grand challenge to develop a robotic vehicle that can drive autonomously over a 128 mile course in the Mojave desert – a contest which captured the public imagination. Thrun’s vehicle went further than any of its competitors and won the 2 million USD cash prize. In 2007 he joined Google, where he led the program to develop its self-driving car, and then founded Google X, the research lab behind Google Glass and other research projects. With respect to his motivation for co-founding Udacity, Thrun is credited with saying that after teaching his first MOOC course to some 160,000 people in one go, he found it difficult to go back to spending the same amount of time and effort teaching just 200 people at a time.

The Leadership Team at Udacity consists of eight people. Brief profiles of the members of this team as well as that of the Advisory Board can be found at https://www.udacity.com/us. According to the information there, the team members, in aggregate, have substantial prior experience working with successful ventures as well as developing online courses and teaching online. The advisory board consists of seven accomplished individuals providing leadership experience and established professional networks in education, entrepreneurship and venture funding.

Upon reflection, I am struck by the need for a founder and CEO to appeal to the diverse interests of the stakeholders in the venture. I imagine that it takes a lot of thought to craft a viable proposition that appeals to all concerned. I am also struck by the value of testing that proposition and pivoting when necessary. Thrun seems to be very tenacious in his drive to make this venture viable and the recent pivot to a new business model is an exciting development. Udacity’s story continues.

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