As more tech professionals wield online training to keep abreast of the latest developments, providers of these services, such as Pluralsight LLC, are using M&A as a way to keep up with the pace of technological advancements.
The Salt Lake City, Utah, company contracts with experts in a variety of niche fields to film and broadcast training videos about various types of technology. To expand its catalog, Pluralsight has been busy purchasing rivals and growing its library to more than 2,000 videos.
Pluralsight's most recent acquisition-the $45 million purchase of Digital Tutors-allows the company to include training videos on creative topics, including graphic design, animation and visual effects.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma-based Digital Tutors offers training videos featuring experts from big-name companies, including Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) and its subsidiary Pixar Animation Studios, which Disney bought in 2006 for $7.4 billion. The Digital Tutors deal, however, is just the latest in a series of transactions within the e-learning sector.
European private equity firm Charterhouse Capital Partners recently acquired Skillsoft Ltd., a provider of online learning courses to corporations, for a reported $2.3 billion. (In 2010, SkillSoft agreed to a $1.1 billion taking-private sale to a trio of Boston-based private equity firms: Berkshire Partners, Advent International and Bain Capital Partners)
Pluralsight-backed by $27.5 million in Series A funding from Insight Venture Partners in December 2012-tapped private equity pro Greg Woodward as chief financial officer in April 2013. The former senior vice president of HGGC has since helped steer the company with an aggressive M&A strategy, says Pluralsight CEO Aaron Skonnard.
Over the past year, Pluralsight took over Seattle-based PeepCode in July, Chicago-based information technology TrainSignal for $23.6 million in August and Raleigh, North Carolina-based Tekpub in October. Terms of the PeepCode and Tekpub deals remain undisclosed.
The acquisition of Digital Tutors, Skonnard adds, comes at a time of consolidation in the space. In addition to the sale of Skillsoft, online tutorial video provider Lynda.com is hunting for targets, while John Wiley & Sons Inc. (NYSE: JWa, JWb) wraps up the $175 million purchase of CrossKnowledge.
More recently, Falfurrias Capital Partners purchased a majority stake in American Safety Council Inc., another e-learning business.
Mergers & Acquisitions recently spoke with Skonnard regarding current trends facing the video tutorial market and what the future holds for Pluralsight and its competitors.
Why do you think there is a land-grab of e-learning companies?
I think there's a lot of opportunity for consolidation now. There are a lot of startups that have sprouted up over the past five years. Most corporations will train people by bringing in a live instructor for a week to teach in front of a class. That's how it happened over the past 50 years, but now there's a trend with all of that moving online. Back in 1995 only 4 percent of American companies used online training, and now it's up to 77 percent. The professional online training space is now the second most common form of training, but back when we first started in 2004, no one thought it would work. We started building our model in 2007 and customers were still saying it wasn't going to work. But we believed in that trend, and we knew it was going to swing in that direction and continue to be the main form of training that companies utilize.
Which transactions have shaped the sector?
The Skillsoft deal is a perfect example. They're the incumbent in this space. They were just acquired by Charterhouse for more than $2 billion. Skillsoft is also a professional training company focused on corporate America, but not individuals. There's no way to see what their content is since you can only get access through a corporate training environment. We cater to individual users, and also sell licenses to our library to corporations. Lynda did a deal after they did their series A fundraise, which was right around the same time as ours. The company acquired Graz, Austria-based Video2brain, which helped it internationalize. They're actively looking and hoping to do deals. So we're in similar places as companies and M&A is another way to accelerate growth because it helps us deliver more value to our customers more quickly. And with every deal, we haven't increased prices. We just add content to our library at the same subscription price-$29 per user. They get unlimited access to training videos that people use to improve at their jobs.
How has dealmaking helped Pluralsight?
We've identified M&A as a way to accelerate our growth in terms of our content and what we can offer. We scope out other companies that fit our model or have the same quality of content. Consolidating those brands allows us to grow at a larger scale. We have a clear pattern when it comes to M&A, so by doing those four deals in the past eight months, we've been able to grow our library three times as large. After this fourth deal, we have over 3,000 courses, 2,000 of which we acquired. Digital-Tutors is the first deal that branches us into the creative skills space, where people are working on games, movies, animation, computer graphics and visual effects. Before, our content focused solely on software developer needs. We also did a deal in July that expanded our services to include hardware, infrastructure, cloud computing and security when we acquired Chicago-based TrainSignal.
Are there any barriers to entry?
The true barrier to entry is curating content, building relationships and getting industry experts invested with our company so they will produce content in the future. Getting these top experts is not an easy task. Digital Tutors' author network includes people form Pixar, Disney and Electronic Arts. They hired several people to be full-time authors and we will now contract with them on a course-by-course basis. We set them up with the home recording system and get the content from that author to our site and share it with the world. We have guys in India learning from someone in Norway. That is what's so powerful.
What industry-wide changes can we expect?
There's going to be a big increase in awareness of the e-learning space over the next year. I think you'll continue to see M&A and a few brands merge, which will only drive revenue. Ultimately you'll see power players emerge. We're looking for brands that fit our model that have high-quality content in areas where we need industry experts who can add value. We'll continue to do deals, but it's just a matter of finding the right companies and the right brands. Right now we're going to stay private, but we think we'll have the opportunity to go public if we decide to do so. By 2015, we'll be in that place. Whether that is the right move or not is still to be determined.