Co-Founder Lynda Weinman, Leader Of The Online Education Pack

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The site was so successful without outside capital that it didn’t really make sense to accept it. But today, lynda.com is a 400 person company with plans to expand its content and platform (Weinman won’t say more than that just yet). It can use the funding.

By Ariel Schwartz (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)

If you’ve been tracking the Silicon Valley startup world over the past few years, you can be forgiven for thinking that online education is only now beginning to take off. But Lynda Weinman, the co-founder of video learning library lynda.com and a speaker at last week’s Women 2.0 conference, has been quietly plugging away in the space since 1995.

Today, Lynda.com has two million subscribers. The site had over $100 million in sales in 2012. And in January, lynda.com raised a $103 million financing round led by Spectrum Equity and Accel Partners – the biggest U.S. venture financing round ever for an online education company.

Lynda.com didn’t exactly start as an online education company. Weinman, a former special effects animator and university graphics and animation instructor, began to sense in 1994 that her art students were going to need to know how to use computers for their work in the near future. So she looked for books on web design and discovered that none existed. Weinman, a self-taught web design expert, decided to write one herself.

“I thought ‘I know how to write a curriculum, teach, I’ve written some magazine articles and done some public speaking,’” she says. The book became a much bigger success than I ever could have imagined.” Weinman’s book, Designing Web Graphics (1996), was a seminal text for web design and the first of many that the entrepreneur would publish.

Before Weinman published her web design book, she purchased lynda.com for $35; it became a sandbox for her own web design education. The site started to pick up in traffic when Weinman decided to use it as an example in her ever-popular books. One day, Weinman’s husband Bruce Heavin suggested that the pair rent a local high school over spring break, offer a physical web design class, and spread the word on lynda.com. The class sold out.

“Someone came from Vienna, Austria. That validated to us that the website was getting national and international attention,” says Weinman.

In 1997, Weinman and Heavin rented their own space in Ojai, California – fairly far from Silicon Valley. People streamed in from big companies and destinations around the world (remember: this was all during the dot com bubble, when there was an insatiable thirst for web design knowledge), and in the first year of business, the school booked $1.7 million in revenue. At one point, the school had 35 employees.

Then the dot com crash happened. Weinman and Heavin were forced to shut down the school in 2002, but they had already started to make videos. At first, she edited everything herself, colleagues and friends filmed the videos, and Heavin drew the covers of the VHS tapes that they sold. Weinman quickly started making the she to online video, and the online training library opened in February 2002. Around 2007, it became big enough that Weinman decided to focus on it full-time.

In the first year of its existence, the site attracted just 1,000 subscribers at $25 per month for an individual membership (the same fee that the site charges today even though it now has 1,612 courses).

“I think we were a little early to market. A lot of people still didn’t have broadband, and there was little precedent for a subscription service,” says Weinman. But as the years went by, lynda.com’s training library expanded and broadband became ubiquitous. The price was unbeatable, and the site took really off around 2005, when Weinman noticed that membership was doubling every year.

One of the big reasons why lynda.com stayed under the radar for years is that it never took on funding until very recently. The site was so successful without outside capital that it didn’t really make sense to accept it. But today, lynda.com is a 400 person company with plans to expand its content and platform (Weinman won’t say more than that just yet). It can use the funding.

lynda.com certain has its competitors; sites like Udacity and Coursera are growing at a rapid clip. But lynda.com doesn’t supply tests and grading like other sites – it’s purely a video library. It also has a rich well of courses on design-related topics that other sites don’t delve into, like animation, photography, and video.

Says Weinman: “We know there are a lot of competitors, and right now it’s a hot space in the investor world and the marketplace. That never influenced why we were doing it.”

Photo credits: (above) Erica Kawamoto Hsu, (below) Bruce Heavin.

Women 2.0 readers: Is your business moving “slow and steady” to win the race? Let us know in the comments.

About the writer: Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Fast Company’s Co.Exist, where she covers transportation, healthcare, education, urbanization, green technology, and more. She has contributed to a number of publications, including SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, and GOOD Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @arielhs.