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Chicago’s Dabble creates a Craigslist for casual learning

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Updated. Interested in trying your hand at worm composting or grant writing? Want to learn the difference between an Islay Scotch and a Speyside? Ever felt the desire to make your own sausage, jam or kimchi? Well, there’s a good chance someone on Chicago-based startup Dabble’s website is teaching just such a class this month, and for the price of $20 you can sign up.

It’s a bit difficult to describe exactly what Dabble does in a few words. In essence, it aggregates, curates and sells one-off in-person classes on virtually any topic. Anyone can teach a class if they follow a few rules. Every class has to be aimed at the relative novice. You need to have a reasonable knowledge of the topic you’re teaching, but you don’t have to be a professional in the field – one Dabble instructor is an architect by day who teaches pasta-making classes on the side. And finally, each class costs only $20, though instructors can charge additional materials fees.

For a prospective teacher, there’s really no barrier for entry. You don’t need a classroom. Classes can be held in a park, at the beach, in a coffee shop or even your garage. Dabble also recruits businesses to host classes for its teachers if they don’t have access to the proper space. While Dabble approves every class, its requirements are minimal. It looks for experience and organization skills when selecting initial class submissions, but the few bad instructors that make the initial cut are eventually weeded out through its reviews process, CEO and co-founder Erin Hopmann told me during a recent interview.

Jessica Lybeck and Erin Hopmann

As for customers, Hopmann said that Dabble has a particular target in mind: the time-pressed, commitment-phobe with a wide range of interests. That description certainly fits Hopmann and fellow co-founder Jessica Lybeck. Since college the two former marketing consultants have been on a quest to expand their horizons, Hopmann said, but often hit logistical obstacles to learning new skills.

Taking a two-hour class on printmaking or a half-day workshop on the basic phrases of conversational French was never an option, Hopmann said. Instead, those classes were 6 to 8 week commitments coupled with hefty tuition bills. So Hopmann and Lybeck founded Dabble as means for time-pressed professionals to discover new interests on the cheap. “We want to be the Craigslist for classes,” Hopmann said.

There are a lot similarities between Dabble and New York-based startup Skillshare, though the latter is more focused on building a largely unregulated online marketplace that pairs teachers and students. Dabble approves every class that goes into its portal. And while many of Skillshare’s teachers tackle some pretty intense topics, ranging from Web coding to business development, Dabble — as its name implies — skews more toward lighter subjects and casual learning.

Growing one class at a time

Dabble launched in May of 2011 in Chicago and recently expanded into Denver and Milwaukee. It’s now scheduling about 20-25 classes a week. Each class ranges in size between 5-50 students depending on the interest and the level of one-on-one attention required between teacher and pupil. Dabble takes half of the $20 registration free.

Taking in $10 a student may not seem like much if you’re a prospective teacher, but Dabble has had no trouble finding interested instructors, according to COO John Gels. The number of new class submissions is doubling every month, he said. Dabble feels one of its missions is to promote the “democratization” of classes – letting anyone with knowledge instruct as well letting anyone with interest learn – but “a lot of people with a significant amount of domain expertise are showing up to teach,” Gels said.

While there are plenty of teachers like the pasta-making architect, Dabble is seeing caterers local chefs teach cooking classes and even Chicago’s famous comedy troupe Second City offer improvisation workshops. Hopmann said professionals are starting to look to Dabble as a marketing and promotion tool, using it drum up interest for their services or recruit new students for their more in-depth classes.

Dabble is even trying to recruit Chicago’s controversial mayor Rahm Emanuel to teach a class on … well, any topic he wants … with all proceeds going to charity. A former White House chief of staff, Congressman and Democratic Party enforcer Emanuel is easily an expert in politics and government, though the topics the Chicagoist blog suggested Emanuel teach are certainly more colorful.

Having recently taken up residence in Chicago’s new incubator-slash-kibbutz Catapult, Dabble is in its early stages. So far, it’s raised only $145,000 in seed funding from angel investors, friends and family, but it is working on its Series A funding round. Once it gets more cash, it plans to scale big, targeting 50 new cities for its service.

The startup’s immediate next step, however, is to expand to the tech mecca of San Francisco, where it began soliciting instructors and class ideas earlier this year. “We have enough classes submitted to launch in San Francisco, but given resources and lack of automation on the admin side of the website, we’ve held off the launch a bit more,” Hopmann said. “Stay tuned, though. Not much longer.”

Get your welding masks and pickling jars ready, Bay Area.

Update: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Dabble only offered classes aimed at beginners. In fact, Dabble has begun offering”201″ classes for students who already have rudimentary knowledge on a particular topic and plans to expand into more advanced formats in the future.

Feature photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Losevsky Photo and Video