For people who want to spend their leisure time learning to bake gravity-defying cakes, construct duplicates of their favorite jeans or stitch a quilt, a group of guys who have never sewn a button have built an online hub.
Craftsy, an 18-month-old, Denver-based service, is teaching skills that people used to learn mostly from adult-education classes or YouTube. Like Etsy and Pinterest before it, Craftsy is benefiting from the dovetailing of women's interests in hand crafting and spending time online.
Craftsy has found tens of thousands of people are happy to pay $20 to $50 per class to learn and perfect their skills in a range of domestic arts and crafts: "Advanced Fondant Techniques," "Explorations in Brioche Knitting," "Mastering Lace Shawls" and "Stupendous Stitching" are among the most popular. About 170,000 students have enrolled to date, mostly women, the company says. It's just one player in a growing online market for crafts and fine-arts instruction that also includes the Museum of Modern Art and Sotheby's Institute of Art.
Janice Lochhead, 39, was prepared to spend more than $2,000 to fly from Calgary, Canada, to San Diego, to take cake decorating lessons from Jacqueline Butler, a well-known teacher of cake arts. Then Ms. Lochhead, who works in the energy industry and took up the hobby of cake decorating three years ago, learned Ms. Butler would be teaching "Handcrafted Sugar Flowers" on Craftsy's website. She decided to try the class in May.
Since, Ms. Lochhead has spent about $450 on 14 other classes from Craftsy. In one, she learned how to make from fondant—a sturdy icing—a cake that looks like a designer handbag.
Ms. Lochhead says the money spent on Craftsy classes is insignificant considering she has invested several thousands of dollars on the appliances and tools her hobby requires. "This is my golf," she says.
Building a technology business on the interests of women who like to make things with their hands wasn't what founders John Levisay, Josh Scott, Todd Tobin and Bret Hanna initially envisioned as they prepared to launch a company in June 2010. Messrs. Scott and Levisay had worked together for eBay Inc., managing the resale of automobiles and industrial equipment.
The foursome got together to create Sympoz, an interactive e-school website that would connect teachers and students more closely than other online tutorials.
They tried premium classes like "Wine Demystified," "The Expectant Father," "Money Rules," and "Quilting Quickly." Demand for quilting was triple that of any other class. Messrs. Levisay and Scott then spun off Craftsy into a separate unit in June 2011.
Unlike some other online-education services, which offer back-of-the-auditorium access to university lectures, Craftsy spends upward of $15,000 to develop and film each class. Most courses, which last several hours and are broken up into lessons, are targeted at intermediate-level to advanced quilters, embroiderers and bakers.
The company has invested more than $5 million in technologies meant to mimic the live classroom experience, the founders say. For example, a single-click, 30-second repeat feature allows students to back up and catch any bits they might have missed in a fast-moving video. Videos are layered with 3-D models and magnified graphics that help explain important words and methods.
Recently, Craftsy's studio was filled with whispering producers, a video editor and a camera operator. The set was decorated with an antique sewing machine and balls of purple yarn.
A camera zoomed in on Amy Detjen's face, with another hovering over the 54-year-old knitting teacher's shoulder as she sat at large drafting table, demonstrating how to make a sweater with a decorative yoke around the neck.
"Remember, you can use the 30-second rewind," said Ms. Detjen said as she explained how to make a particularly tricky stitch.
The director interrupted her: "Sorry Amy, it's the '30 Second Repeat.' "
Ms. Detjen undid the stitch and prepared to reshoot. To gather the footage for a five-hour class, the production team shoots for about 20 hours over the course of a few days.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York began offering courses in 2010. Instructor-led classes, including studio workshops like "Experimenting with Collage," cost between $200 and $350. The first year, the museum attracted 374 students. The next year, 1,064 enrolled. Students come from 60 countries, a spokeswoman says.
Sotheby's Institute of Art launched an online program teaching classes such as "Art as an Alternative Investment" three years ago that cost $1,485 per six-week session. It is doubling its class offerings in the next 18 months to keep pace with demand, says Jonathan Friedlander, global marketing director.
Craftsy concentrates on helping people master hobbies that many have spent considerable sums of money on already.
"When you've bought a sewing machine, the cost of failure is high," says Mr. Scott, a co-founder. "Spending $20 to get better is a small investment."
To date, Craftsy users have paid for 410,000 classes and thesite had 50,000 paid enrollments just this past November. Fifty percent of students who have paid for a class go on to pay for a second. The company says nearly all of its users are women, 83% are over 41 years of age and 75% attended college. Their average household income is more than $80,000.
Craftsy also sells materials like knitting yarn and fabric for quilting. Nearly a quarter of the company's 2012 revenue of about $12 million came from this e-commerce, Mr. Scott says. November was the company's first profitable month, Mr. Scott says. It hasn't touched its latest venture-capital investment of $15 million, and plans to reinvest profit.
The site can be a lucrative outlet for craft teachers. Stefanie Japel, now a Craftsy staffer who helps find other instructors, has taught three knitting courses, including "Circular Knit Lab: Hats Four Ways." More than 20,000 students have paid to take her classes and she has netted more than $60,000. Teachers get between 10% to 15% of the revenue from a class.
Steffani Lincecum of Cross Plains, Wis., an author and mother of two who teaches sewing classes at a local shop. She was tapped to film last month a Craftsy class, "Pattern Drafting from Ready-to-Wear." The five-hour class will cost $49.99 and launches Jan. 30.
After filming, a video is layered with explanatory graphics. A team of former newspaper editors looks for inconsistencies, technical glitches and spots where more explanation could be helpful. A group of 18 engineers in Crafty's basement work on interactive features such as an on-screen box for students' notes.
Any question asked by a student in a particular class appears in a scroll alongside the video, with answers provided by teachers and other students. The displayed questions are synchronized to the moment during the class when they were typed. Teachers are required to respond to queries.
Messrs. Levisay and Scott are developing a few other noncrafting classes that use the Craftsy technology platform, but are offered separately on Sympoz.com. One is called "The Nuts & Bolts of Starting a Company," which costs $29.99 and is co-taught by Jason Mendelson, a venture capitalist who was an early investor in Craftsy.
How is the class selling? "Not as well as quilting," says Mr. Levisay.
Write to Katherine Rosman at email@example.com