Learn from Dustin Hoffman

Start-up offering courses taught by people at the top of their game takes off

Businessmen David Rogier (right) and Aaron Rasmussen (far right) are behind MasterClass, a series of online classes taught by celebrities such as actor Hoffman (above).
Businessmen David Rogier (left) and Aaron Rasmussen are behind MasterClass, a series of online classes taught by celebrities such as actor Hoffman.PHOTOS: NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE
Dustin Hoffman.

NEW YORK • Three years ago, Mr David Rogier, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with not much of a track record, had two things going for him: an idea for a start-up and a friendship with Dustin Hoffman's daughter.

Los Angeles, where he was born and raised, has long been a place where everyone, from the slackers of Venice Beach to the doctors of Beverly Hills, has some kind of cockeyed scheme, usually involving celebrities, promising big rewards for those taking part. Few, though, come to fruition.

Mr Rogier's idea was this: a series of online courses taught by people who are the best in the world at what they do.

How about an acting class taught by Hoffman or Kevin Spacey?

Want to finally write that novel? Perhaps you would like to study with James Patterson, who has sold upwards of 300 million books. If tennis is your thing, Serena Williams will share with you the secret of her cunning forehand.

With the help of his business partner Aaron Rasmussen, he appears to have pulled it off. After months of meetings, during which he displayed an easy charm despite a noticeable stutter, he has a roster that includes the people named above as well as Grammy winner Usher, former National Basketball Association star Hakeem Olajuwon, photographer Annie Leibovitz and film-maker Werner Herzog.

"I have something to offer and, selfishly, I get to say I've become a teacher," said Usher, explaining why he decided to take part.

The online classes are available for US$90 (S$128) a pop. More than 30,000 people have signed up for the programme, called MasterClass, since it debuted in May, according to Mr Rogier.

It is fuelled by the more than US$5 million raised from, among others, Robert Downey Jr and Shari Redstone, daughter of entertainment mogul Sumner Redstone.

Mr Rogier understood early on that the people he was courting had to feel good about what they were getting into, not exploited for their names alone. And it would not hurt if they got a little something on the back end if their classes were a hit.

"They literally put money on the table," Patterson said, "and that is what made it real."

Other instructors said the appeal was more visceral. Hoffman recalled an evening at his home in the late 1970s when English actor Laurence Olivier regaled him with tales of his youth on the London stage.

"Those stories are lost forever," Hoffman said. He saw in MasterClass a chance to create a permanent record of what he has learnt.

Mr Rogier, 32, graduated in 2001 from the Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica, California, which counts among its alumni actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Zooey Deschanel. He said he eschewed the celebrity clique and focused on scholarly pursuits and he built a search engine at age 13. He went on to graduate with an MBA from Stanford in 2011.

At MasterClass, which is based in San Francisco, he divvies up the duties with Mr Rasmussen. "I'm the cold-caller," Mr Rogier said.

Mr Rasmussen, 31, grew up in rural Oregon, where he created his first video game at age seven.

A friend introduced both men in 2009. People who know them say their outsider status allowed MasterClass to get off the ground.

"If they were part of the Hollywood system, they would have to follow the rules," said Mr Bob Myman, an entertainment lawyer and company adviser. "They would sit around in offices waiting for people to take them seriously."

In 2012, Mr Michael Dearing, a venture capitalist and Mr Rogier's former boss, gave him some money to strike out on his own. When Mr Rogier landed on the idea for MasterClass, he asked almost all the people he knew to introduce him to their Hollywood friends.

In spring 2013, Jay Roach, director of the Austin Powers and the Meet The Parents franchises, met Mr Rogier. Mr Rogier explained that he had identified potential instructors using methods he had learnt as an intern at design and research firm Ideo. Did Roach know anyone who might agree to direct a class?

The director was wary. "You are reluctant to get too involved until someone is attached," Roach said, noting the "someone" is usually a known actor. Still, he told Mr Rogier to feel free to use his name if it would help open doors.

Weeks later, Mr Rogier had dinner with a friend from his Crossroads days, Becky Hoffman. Soon afterwards, he was taking a meeting with her father. His pitch was appealing: Hoffman could share lessons from his career, much as Olivier had with him decades earlier.

"It was never presented as a money thing," Hoffman said. "Even my agent said, 'Are you getting paid for this?'"

Roach offered to direct the course taught by Hoffman, whom he had already directed in the Fockers movies. The idea was turning into something real.

Mr Rogier decided the instructors would be treated roughly the same. They would not be granted final video approval rights, he said, but they would share in the revenue from classes sold.

And early last year, he was walking along the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica when his cellphone buzzed. For more than a month, he had been trying to land Patterson. And now someone identifying himself as "Jim Patterson" was on the line. "The author?" Rogier asked in disbelief.

Patterson inquired if MasterClass was real. Mr Rogier assured him it was and, soon after that, he signed Leibovitz, Williams and Aguilera.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2015, with the headline 'Learn from Dustin Hoffman'. Print Edition | Subscribe