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Unlikely Unicorn:’s Journey From Garage To $1.3B Sale

A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.

I recently interviewed Bruce Heavin, Co-Founder and Head of Innovation at, as part of UC Santa Barbara’s Innovator Stories series. Bruce, along with his wife Lynda, created a learning company from their garage, initially by holding in-person classes and later selling VHS tapes via mail order. Under Bruce’s innovative guidance, the company was an early adopter of the Internet, creating online videos long before platforms such as YouTube became ubiquitous.

Bruce and Lynda eventually grew their startup into a global powerhouse, offering 5,700 classes and 255,000 video tutorials to over 4 million users.

In 2015, LinkedIn purchased for $1.5 billion, making it a bonafide unicorn. The outcome was especially impressive, as the company was entirely self-funded for its first 17-years.

You can listen to our discussion in the background, while you work, run or play. If you’d rather download my talk with Bruce for free on iTunes, you can do so here.

For those who don’t have the time to listen to our entire talk, I’ve highlighted several key takeaways below, along with the corresponding video timestamp, to facilitate quick access to issues of interest to entrepreneurs.

1) Frustrated Students Create A New-Fangled Learning Company

The book Summerhill School greatly impacted Lynda as a child. Like a true entrepreneur, even though she was young, she took control of her life and pursued an alternative education.

Bruce also experienced a challenging time at school, struggling with the limitations of a 1970’s public school education which emphasized conformity over creativity.

[3:27] “I had all kind of disabilities that I didn’t understand and I was failing in third grade. I had problems with reading and writing and comprehension and a lot of social abilities. While the kids played in the playground, I was in the trailer learning speech, how to write my letters the right way right and that was really hard because I did really well at everything, but then there are areas where, no matter how hard I work, I’d I’d fail and… it just made me really hate going into the school every day. I would go there knowing that I can’t get through certain things and that was very frustrating.”

Because of their unsatisfying academic experiences, Bruce and Lynda shared a desire to create an alternative learning organization by which students would only answer to themselves.

In 1995, Lynda wrote one of the first books on web design, Designing Web Graphics. The success of her initial book established her as a thought leader and made it clear that a sizable market existed to educate non-technical enthusiasts about the then-emerging Internet.

[04:29] “What I’ve learned, in time, is that there are different ways and styles of learning. We don’t have any units, we don’t have any credits, we didn’t have any tests. It’s just like, ‘Oh, I’ll learn something, I’ll learn it for the sake of learning.’ You don’t have to prove to anyone else but yourself.”

Lesson: Identify a problem that you passionately want to solve.

2) Self Taught Is Well Taught

Both Bruce and Lynda were both self-educated technologists. In Bruce’s case, he was fortunate that his father was a rocket scientist, which afforded him access to computers at an early age.

[8:54] “My dad was literally a rocket scientist. He worked for Boeing… I had access to computers in 1977 in (my) home. They wouldn’t let me have video games, so I’d program my own. I learned programming, Basic and, God forbid, COBOL and later Fortran.

These really were things I did that built the bedrock for going in other directions and understanding computer graphics, even when they weren’t that great. Just understanding these things early… (was important because) when they started coming out on the consumer level it was a lot easier to explain to the consumers what they’re getting into.”

Lesson: Be curious and never stop seeking new knowledge.

3) The Failed Knife Salesman

Bruce attempted to pay his way through art college by selling knives. He didn’t last long. Interestingly, when she was a teenager, Lynda worked at a hotdog stand, making $80/month. In this interview, she told me that this failure taught her, “That doing something you hate makes for an unhappy life. That there is always a way to get what you want, for me, it was to pay for a private education, even when it seems like there is no possibility.”

Similarly, Bruce’s short-lived career in sales reinforced that his talents were better applied creating technology, rather than trying to sell it.

[10:10] “I completely failed. I did not do well. I lasted about two weeks doing it and I just learned I was a horrible salesperson. I don’t have it in me to pressure people. I’m not a high-pressure person. I don’t push myself on people and what they wanted out of me is not who I was.

It’s very important to understand what you are not… (it) is one of the hardest things as our company is growing. When you start your own company, you do everything. You take out the trash, you wash the windows, you go buy office supplies. If it’s just you and your wife, or you and five others, there’s almost no organizational level with that small size. You’re doing everything.

You have to keep giving your jobs away as you get bigger and bigger and bigger, but it’s understanding how to surround yourself with the people that are really smart that can help you with your deficiencies.”

I then pointed out the obvious fact that you must be self-aware to recruit people who can shore up your weaknesses. Bruce agreed, stating, [11:29] “It’s painfully hard (to be self-aware). I just thought I was good at everything but it’s horrible how many things I just couldn’t do. Certain things like sales was a good example. I am NOT the salesperson.”

Lesson: By understanding what you are not, you’ll get one step closer to discover what you are.

4) The Opposite Of Work Is Boredom

Bruce also shared that he was taken aback by how quickly the deal came together, causing him to initially become bored, once the sale was consummated.

[15:30] “(Initially) there’s a lot of boredom, not as much now, but you know, I didn’t have a plan B and I didn’t think the company was going to sell so fast. From the initial, ‘Maybe we’ll buy you’ to, ‘we’ll buy you’ was under a month and, when they said they would buy us to when it sold, was under a month. Things went by very fast, so even up to the last minute I’m like, ‘I don’t think this is going to happen.’”

We then explored how Bruce initially dealt with the company’s sale. Given the rapidity with which the deal closed, he didn’t have enough time to consider what life after would entail.

Per Bruce, the day after the transaction closed, [16:50] “I just sat home on the couch. I was kind of dumbfounded. It wasn’t my goal, it wasn’t my endgame. I thought there’s some bigger goals within what I was doing. I thought I could take this much further, so I was just kind of shell-shocked, to be honest.

You know it’s a first-world problem when you actually sell. I had a lot of self-worth in what I was able to do there. I’m more of a maker and a creator, so I am more happy when I am doing it, when I’m making, and when I had that taken away from me, I was like, ‘Wow.’ I think I just invested so much in that company that when I left it, I didn’t know what I had, so it took a little while for me the kind of find my feet.” 

Lesson: Don’t dwell on your potential exit, but invest enough time to thoughtfully consider life after your venture.

You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse


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