Right before Labor Day weekend I shared a ramen-noodle lunch with Jeff Maggioncalda, the new CEO of online education firm Coursera, who gave me an interesting reason for why he took the job. The founding CEO of the original robo-advisor Financial Engines, Maggioncalda says he’d been midway through a mid-career semi-retirement when he read Tom Friedman’s book Thank You for Being Late, which among other Friedmanesque very large thoughts stresses the importance of community and education as the savior of society. When a recruiter called about the top job at Coursera, a five-year-old startup and one of the original MOOC (massive open online course) companies, Maggioncalda saw an opportunity for “meaning.”
Coursera and its ilk—Udacity and Minerva Project are two examples—are an appropriate topic of conversation on the day after Americans honor those who work. Coursera’s take is that higher education is too expensive and too airy-fairy to meet the needs of today’s students. What’s needed are specific classes that serve the needs of today’s students, like courses on how to code specific software languages and brand-new fields like machine learning and data science. Coursera also is working with individual employers like Google to design classes that employees and developers need to succeed on their platforms.
Maggioncalda says Coursera isn’t only interested in offering these trade-oriented classes, but he may not have had time yet to survey all his firm’s offerings. I asked if I could take an introductory course on French, and he assured me I could. If there’s a French class offered at Coursera.org, I couldn’t find it.
Coursera is a big idea with a ton of funding, $200 million in all. I have no idea how Coursera is doing because Maggioncalda won’t say. (It is growing fast and is funded by luminaries like New Enterprise Associates and Kleiner Perkins, he points out; But “fast” is nearly meaningless, and the well-funded Juicero had impressive backers too, including Kleiner Perkins.)
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Coursera sells access to groupings of courses it calls “specializations,” sold as a subscription for $49 a month. It also has created online degrees with prestigious universities, including a $20,000 MBA from the University of Illinois (my alma mater) that Maggioncalda says would cost $118,000 in person.
Companies like Coursera are great ideas that could fill a tremendous need. Whether or not they can become businesses is another matter.
I admired this article by Noam Scheiber in The New York Times, also a good Labor Day read, about how the Trump Administration is acting on its reverence for entrepreneurs by making concrete regulatory changes. Note this article’s dispassionate, analytical tone about an important subject. What you take away from it likely will depend on if you share the president’s high opinion of entrepreneurs.
Finally, just for fun, I thought you might like this piece about a local bookstore—and a really good one I visit regularly—that has survived for 50 years.
Block that coin. China is ending the startup fundraising technique using digital currency known as an initial coin offering, or ICO. On Monday, China’s central bank banned ICOs, lumping the deals in with pyramid schemes. The price of bitcoin, the most popular cryptocurrency of all, was already falling over the weekend after hitting an all-time high of $5,013 on Friday. It was down about 14% on Tuesday morning, trading close to $4,300.
Risks and rewards. Artificial intelligence, pro or con? Russian president Vladimir Putin declared that AI is “the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind.” Meanwhile, Elon Musk, a frequent critic of AI, took to Twitter to warn that competition among countries racing to develop the smart programs would be the “most likely cause” of World War III.
Carrot and stick. After finding Google guilty of breaking EU competition law and fining the search giant $2.7 billion, Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager decided to say something nice about the company. “In other respects, Google is a wonderful company, very, very innovative and they have brought us innovation that has changed our lives,” she told CNBC.
Streaming stocks. Roku, which makes the most popular devices for watching streaming Internet videos, filed to go public. The company brought in almost $200 million in the first half of 2017, up 23% from last year, generating a net loss of $24 million. Earlier investors that could make out in the IPO include VC firm Menlo Ventures, mutual fund giant Fidelity, and Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox.
Who’s my boss? Apple officially shifted responsibility for its Siri digital assistant project to Craig Federighi, who runs the company’s Mac and iOS software efforts, from iCloud and iTunes chief Eddy Cue. As per usual practice, Apple didn’t explain the move, disclosed in a change on its executive leadership web page on Friday.
Hackney hacking. After a successful test flight of its prototype electric flying taxi in April, startup Lilium said it raised $90 million from backers including Tencent and Obvious Ventures, the fund of Twitter’s Ev Williams. “There’s going to be an app and from day one you’ll be able to book this airplane as a service,” CEO Daniel Wiegand optimistically tells TechCrunch.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Speaking of taxis and digital currencies, in some countries taxi and ride sharing companies are trying to break into the payments system. Grab, a popular ride hailing app in parts of Asia, last month said it would begin allowing customers to trade “GrabPay” credits amongst themselves on their smartphones, while recruiting 1,000 food, retail, and other vendors to also accept the digital scrip as money. Indonesia’s Go-Jek already lets customers and drivers use its app as a digital wallet. Adam Minter at Bloomberg explains the rationale:
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BEFORE YOU GO
You people clearly have not been buying enough Lego kits of the Saturn V rocket for $120 or the Millennium Falcon for $800 (granted that it’s not on sale until next month). On Tuesday, Lego reported its first quarterly sales decline in more than 10 years and said it would cut 8% of its employees. Maybe they should have put somewhat fewer than 1,900 pieces in the rocket kit?