INTERVIEW - Bobby Chiu discusses Schoolism and their new Kickstarter Campaign

This week I had the opportunity to interview Bobby Chiu about Schoolism, which is an online art education organization, and the recent Kickstarter campaign that was launched to lower course subscription fees. The campaign, which met its first funding goal of $200,000 in less than a week, will continue to run until May 21, 2015. As each additional funding stretch goal is reached, course fees will be lowered across the board for any Schoolism subscriber, regardless of whether they were able to participate in the Kickstarter campaign.

If you participate in the current Kickstarter, you can subscribe to Schoolism art courses for $10/month, with the option to switch classes at any time for $1. 

A special thanks goes out to Rich Duhaney of TAAFI for his help setting up the interview and for the bonus question he added in. And now, without further ado, let's get to the interview.

Grayden Laing: How did you come up with the concept for Schoolism?

Bobby Chiu: I couldn’t get a job when I graduated from school, so shortly after starting Imaginism Studios with my brother Ben Chiu and my wife Kei Acedera, I took a trip to the San Diego Comic-Con. While there, I came up with and pitched Stephen Silver on the concept of setting up an online art school that was similar to the ‘Famous Artists School’, but updated so that instead of mailing art back and forth, we could take advantage of the internet and online videos. The idea was to make the teachings from top level artists available to everyone.

I think the concept has worked well because we didn’t found Schoolism to make money, we founded the project to help artists, including ourselves, improve their artistic abilities. It has always been about a quest for knowledge.  

GL: What was Schoolism like at the beginning?

BC: Early on, we actually lived in the house where we were running Schoolism. We made the basement into a studio and so at any hour of the day you would have someone up and painting in the studio. 

We have all moved out now, but Schoolism has a house set up near Montréal with our Senior Artist, Thierry Lafontaine. We regularly invite four artists at a time — from all over the world — to study art while living with their mentor.

GL: How do you approach potential instructors for Schoolism?

BC: I approach the people that I would love to learn from. Many I consider my artistic heroes. I'm a professional artist as well, so I figure that if I'd want to learn from them, then others will too.  

GL: How did you decide on a price structure for courses?

BC: In an ideal world, it shouldn't matter where we happen to be born, how much we happen to make, or what our parents do for a living. Artists should all be able to afford the top education and we should be able to do this without taking out giant loans that take years to pay off. All that should determine our success, is how hard we work at our craft. Through Schoolism's new subscription program, we intend to make this into a reality.

The main thing was finding a price point that artists wouldn’t have to save up to afford. We wanted the price to be an afterthought. That way the artist can focus on their art. Another important part was looking at how to make this art training available in third-world countries. 

An appeal we had from Africa really affected us. A woman contacted us who lives with her mother and her two sisters - one of which has three kids. There were no men as part of the family and their total monthly household income, between all seven of them, was $720 a month. $500 of which went to rent. When she talked to us, she couldn’t afford the other online options and so we wanted to be able to create a pricing structure that she could afford. 

GL: As the concept of online art education spreads, do you feel your business model is threatened by other online schools?  

BC: No, not really. It’s great for the art community to see an increase in options. There are a lot of wonderful, new and talented artists as well so it makes sense to have new online schools. Our core values are rooted in being creative, not in being competitive. 

GL: What do participants get out of Schoolism courses?

BC: They get very practical courses that are taught by many of the top people working in the film, illustration and gaming industry. Everything is geared towards teaching them real-world skills that they can use as soon as they complete a course. 

GL: What made you decide to launch the Kickstarter campaign to lower Schoolism fees?

BC: When we first started our company, we had the mission of making education available for everyone. We started off teaching people for free in the subways of Toronto. Now with the Kickstarter subscription campaign, we'll be able to lower prices so that everyone will be able to learn from the greats like Dice Tsutsumi, Nathan Fowkes, Jason Seiler and Stephen Silver.

Rich Duhaney: With the influx of new students to a more accessible Schoolism, now and in the future, how will you maintain the same access to the instructors as before?

BC: The access to our instructors has always been through our premium classes with personal feedback and will not change. 

The subscription program is without feedback from the instructor so we anticipate a relatively smooth transition. 

GL: How many days did it take to fund the Kickstarter campaign and what do the stretch goals provide?

BC: It took less than five days to reach our funding goal of $200,000. That being said, this is still an incredibly important time, because the more stretch goals we meet, the more affordable we can make Schoolism courses for everyone, regardless of whether they are able to participate in the Kickstarter campaign.