He’s craft(s)y

John Levisay
Update: On May 11, 2017, it was announced that NBCUniversal is acquiring majority ownership of Craftsy. Levisay will continue in a leadership role, reporting to NBCU Cable’s president of strategy and commercial growth. Learn more

John Levisay ’89

Since 2011, John Levisay ’89 has been crafting the perfect online learning experience with his start-up called Craftsy, which offers classes ranging from quilting to jewelry making to photography. Recently ranked #19 on Forbes’s America’s Most Promising Companies list, Craftsy has attracted more than 2.5 million users and emerged as a leader in lifestyle education. The Scene talked to Levisay about his pattern for success.

The road to tech: After getting my MBA at the University of Michigan, I went into investment banking for two years in New York. In 1999, the Internet was still in its nascent stages, and I saw it as a new, exciting opportunity to move into technology.

From cars to crafts: Soon after joining eBay in 1999, I helped launch eBay Motors. At that point, eBay was still a collectibles site, and many people said, “You’ll never sell cars on the Internet.” Six years later, eBay was a $14 million automotive marketplace — the biggest seller of used cars in the world. I then decided I wanted to build an online education company from the bottom up. The arts and crafts industry is a $30 billion U.S. industry, and quilting alone is a $3.5 billion industry, so these were huge markets that were underserved by technology.

Perfecting the classroom experience: We wanted to create an online platform that captured the magic of a live classroom. I thought back to my best classes at Colgate in which the professor acted as a facilitator. There’s legitimate interplay within the Craftsy classes; we built something where people can consume content asynchronously, but also have the ability to ask fellow students and the instructor questions. We wanted to give anytime, anywhere access to people to pursue their passions, while being able to learn from world-renowned experts in any given field.

A people person: In 2014, my focus is on hiring great people, structuring a growing organization that continues to innovate, and being fast and agile to oversee both our category and international expansion. My goal is to create a healthy culture in which everyone who works here can look back on his or her career and say, “That was the best job I ever had.” As we now have almost 200 employees, the biggest challenge is managing scale so that we can maintain that start-up feel.

Working in the Mile High City: I spent 10 years working in the Bay Area, which is typically known as the hub of tech. But there’s a lot going on in Denver in terms of technology — a lot of investment dollars, a lot of start-ups, and a great lifestyle. Colorado was the fourth-highest venture investment state last year. The access to talented engineers is strong, the cost of running a business is lower, and my commute is one-fifth of what it would be in the Bay Area.

Cakes and Cajun: My favorite Craftsy class is Clean & Simple Cake Design. I’ve made several cakes with my daughter using fondant. If I taught a class, it would be on Cajun cooking. My specialty is crawfish étouffée.

The future of Craftsy: I’d love for Craftsy to be the global destination for craft and hobby education, but also have an academic application. I’m a big fan of an undergraduate liberal arts education, but I also feel that no matter what field you go into, there’s a benefit in having certain analytical skills. I envision a school like Colgate maintaining its core curriculum, but having an online element in skills such as finance, accounting, SQL and JAVA code, as well as analytics, which would supplement the liberal arts experience.

Taking the stage: Since my late 20s, I’ve been the guitarist and singer in a rock band with guys I went to business school with. We subsequently played together while we all worked at eBay, and won first place out of 3,000 bands in the Fortune Battle of the Corporate Bands at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. We still get together and play a couple times a year.

— Laura D’Angelo ’14