Last night, I attended the launch of School of Everything, a new web service that acts as a kind of eBay for people who have something to teach. Potential teachers list their areas of expertise (anything from knitting to programming to driving to yoga to TIG-welding to whatever) and potential students find teachers with a simple search that can be geography bounded (for in-person instruction) or not (for online instruction). It's one of those great, simple, smart ideas that make you want to smack your head and say, "Why didn't I think of that?"
The site is admirably simple, but has the elements that you'd expect from a thoughtful consideration of similar buyer-seller connection services like Etsy and eBay: reviews, pushpin maps, and a notification service that'll send you an email if an instructor shows up in your area willing to teach you something you've expressed an interest in learning. The site makes money by skimming a small transaction fee for people who arrange payment through the service -- everything else is free.
The thing that struck me as I watched the launch was that this is the kind of thing I mean when I give lectures about "profiting from the information economy." Historically, the "information economy" has been assumed to be about reducing the supply of information so that only paying customers get it, and only on the terms that they pay for -- for example, the record companies would like an Internet where the only music that's available costs money, and once you buy the music, you can't sell it again or give it away.
But School of Everything turns this on its head. The economic proposition is simple: you know something I want you to show me, and School of Everything will make it easy for us to meet and transact commerce to make this happen. It doesn't depend on no one else being willing to do this for free, nor does it control what you do with the information once you learn it. Indeed, this is a service that benefits from the wider spreading of information: the more information there is about knitting, the more knitters there are, the more knitters there will be clamouring to learn knitting from an expert retained for this purpose. A knitting teacher doesn't want you to hoard what you learn: she wants you to tell everyone about it.
Furthermore, it creates opportunities for commerce from people whose skills have historically been undervalued: for example, new immigrants who are native speakers of languages that you're trying to learn have something valuable in their fluency with colloquial, conversational speech in some other language. But this very fluency has been an historic economic handicap, because it often accompanies a lack of fluency in English. By eliminating the cost of connecting language-learners with native language-speakers, the handicap is turned into an advantage.
The service is only available in the UK now, but the plan is to spread it around the world. Now I just need to find something I want to learn and give it a spin.
(Disclosure: My wife works for Channel 4, one of the investment partners in School of Everything)