FARMINGTON — If one were to track the evolutionary path of Utah's online education giant Pluralsight back to it's earliest incarnation, you'd find 8-year-old Aaron Skonnard plunking away on the keyboard of an early Apple computer, learning how to code in the basement of his family's Portland, Oregon, home.
The company's co-founder and CEO said his father's gift of an Apple II — a text-command driven desktop model most current users would be hard-pressed to identify as the progenitor to the Mac, iPad and iPhone — instilled his passion for elements that, Skonnard said, remain at the heart of the company he would go on to help found.
"That’s where I fell in love with two things — learning and technology," Skonnard said. "And it’s been with me throughout my life. Pluralsight began from that very place, the love of learning and teaching about technology that started with my dad and that Apple computer."
After earning a computer science degree at BYU, Skonnard spent a few years in the tech trenches as a software developer, but those dual loves were never far from his thoughts and led him to enter the world of tech education. Early on, in Pluralsight's first commercial iteration launched in 2004, that meant he and a group of partners traveling around the world and putting on weeklong, in-person classes aimed at keeping information technology professionals on the cutting edge of innovation.
"When we began, it was a classroom training effort," Skonnard said. "Early times for the internet, no cloud-based computing, no video distribution at scale. It was early but we loved teaching people so much and we had a business."
Skonnard and his partners built reputations for offering top-notch training. Their classes were popular, but it meant two to three weeks a month of travel and the ability to grow the company was constricted by time and geography. But on a long plane ride home from a training stint abroad, Skonnard had an epiphany.
"Wouldn't it be amazing if we could take this learning experience from the classroom and make it available to the entire world online," Skonnard said. "All the pieces were now there ... Amazon had just released their web services cloud computing, video distribution at scale was happening, podcasting and blogging was now huge."
Skonnard completed a PowerPoint deck laying out the idea before the plane was back on the ground.
"The idea was to create a way for teachers like us to author content that we could distribute at scale and provide an even better learning experience for clients, without having to fly around the world or charge them thousands of dollars for an in–person class," Skonnard said.
The arc from idea to digital learning platform was relatively brief, and Skonnard said having a built-in team of software developers helped both expedite the digital reboot of Pluralsight and do it without the need for outside funding. By the end of 2008, Pluralsight on Demand launched with 10 courses, and it didn't take long, or anytime really, for it to catch on.
"The first month we sold 40, then the next month 60, then 100," Skonnard said. "And we hadn’t done any marketing or any serious investment."
Skonnard and his fellow co-founders, Fritz Onion and Keith Sparkjoy, knew exactly which 10 courses would be the most popular with new customers, based on their time spent doing classroom instruction, Perhaps most importantly, the new model provided a lot more per-dollar value for clients than the analog, in-person system.
"The value proposition to the customer was you had to pay $3,000-$5,000 to attend one five-day course, now we were offering a subscription to access all 10 courses for $1,000-a-year," Skonnard said. "And we knew the flywheel to continue drawing interest was more courses."
Over the next two years, Pluralsight built its portfolio of tech courses to 100, and that's when, Skonnard said, things really started to click.
"Ten courses was like a bookshelf, but 100 was like a library," Skonnard said. "And people really responded to that and sales really started to pick up. We started growing at 100 percent a year, every year."
That exponential growth, and the decision to take on new venture funding to help leverage acquisition of eight other tech education companies, has put the company at the top of the pyramid in its market. Now, sitting on a valuation north of $1 billion and annual revenues measured in the hundreds of millions, Pluralsight offers some 7,000 courses and continues to build a portfolio of happy and engaged customers.
Among those satisfied clients is Cottonwood Heights-based document management and compliance company Master Control. The tech company's software architecture manager, Colby Litnak, said the decision to engage Pluralsight five years ago has had a transformative impact.
"It's really helped build a culture of learning in our office," Litnak said. "It's not only a professional development tool, but we're also using the platform to assess new technology as part of evaluating what new tools we can incorporate into the work we do."
Litnak noted that Pluralsight's large portfolio of course options, and thoughtful customer service approach, has kept Master Control a happy client.
"For me, the breadth and depth of the curriculum offerings just can't be compared," Litnak said. "And on the occasions when we’ve raised concerns, they’ve responded very well, and they’re concerned with us getting value out of it."
In addition to being actively engaged in the continuing education pathways of their clients, Skonnard and his Pluralsight team have taken a forward position in advocating for a better and more effective education curriculum for his adopted home state of Utah.
At the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in January, Skonnard called on the audience of nearly 15,000 attendees, which included Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, to sign a letter to Utah legislators demanding they take substantive action on enhancing public education policy to ensure today's students are being prepared for tomorrow's high-paying, high-tech employment opportunities. The letter notes some stark statistics reflecting how far short of the mark Utah is currently falling.
"According to the conference board, there are more than 4,000 current open computing jobs in Utah, with an average salary of over $81,000, nearly double the average salary in the state," the letter reads in part. "At the same time, only 405 exams were taken in AP computer science by high school students in Utah in 2017."
"How can we be the future of tech if our kids aren't studying computer science," Skonnard asked the summit audience.
While working to grow the tech proficiency of both his clients and community, Skonnard is also trying to keep up with the growth of his company. Pluralsight's current headquarters at the Farmington Station complex is bursting at the seams, and the company announced in February it was closing a deal on property in Draper that will play home to a new and much more expansive corporate campus. The decision to keep the company in Utah was rewarded with a post-performance incentive package from the Governor's Office of Economic Development potentially worth $21.5 million in tax rebates over the next 10 years. The company plans to invest over $370 million in its new digs, hire 2,400 additional employees in the next decade and put over $80 million into the states corporate, payroll and sales tax coffers.4 comments on this story
What does the future hold for Pluralsight? Industry watchers believe the company is primed for a public offering, but Skonnard's vision continues to be focused on what can be accomplished, still chasing his love of being an agent for technology and learning.
"We're going to continue to bring tech skills into the world at scale," Skonnard said. "Because we fundamentally believe that through technology the human race can create innovation that lifts the human condition and improves our lives."
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Porntepp Ungvichian's name was misspelled Porntepp Unguichian in a photo caption.