Making Learning Easy: An Interview with Lee LeFever of CommonCraft

In this exclusive interview with The Content Wrangler, Scott Abel interviews Lee Lefevre, Founder of Common Craft, creators of three-minute videos designed to help educators and influencers introduce and explain complex subjects.

TCW: Tell us a little about yourself and your background.

Lee LeFever, Founder, Common Craft

LL: I’m originally from North Carolina, but have lived in Seattle since 1998 after completing a Masters in Health Administration. I moved to Seattle without a job, and ended up at a company called Solucient (now merged out of existence) that created benchmarking software for the healthcare industry. I started the Online Community Program at the company in 1999 and managed it until 2003, before quitting to start Common Craft.

TCW: What is Common Craft and how did it start? What was the initial idea behind it?

LL: Common Craft started as an online community consulting company.  From 2003-2006, I worked with Boeing, Microsoft and the March of Dimes on community strategy projects. The videos came from this experience. I needed better ways to explain the basics of the social web, so I wrote blog posts like RSS Described in Plain English. In 2006, the idea was born to make videos out of those blog posts.

TCW: What was your first video? How did you market it and was it a success?

LL: We made the video RSS in Plain English in April of 2007.  We put it on YouTube and it was an immediate hit, appearing on the front page of Digg the next day.

TCW: How did your initial idea for Common Craft — the custom video model — morph into what it is today? What were the motivating factors (both business and personal)? And, how would you describe the Common Craft of today?

LL: At the beginning of 2007, we decided that Sachi (my wife) would join me and make Common Craft a two person company, not knowing exactly what we’d be doing together. Within two months of making the first video, we added a link to our website that said something like “Like this video?  We can make one for you.” Soon after we were contacted for custom videos and our second custom video was for Google and called Google Docs in Plain English, which now has 2.9 million views on YouTube.

We still make a limited number of custom videos, but our focus is creating videos we own and license for use in education and training.  This model means that:

  • Our business is product-focused instead of a service-focused.  This means that the business scales more easily without hiring a team of producers. We can license a single video many times over many years.
  • Our videos are educational vs. promotional.
  • We’re more comfortable in the educational and training world.
  • We can be more independent.

Because there is more demand for custom videos than we can serve, we created the Explainer Network, which is a group of talented producers who specialize in videos that make complex subjects easy to understand. These companies are independent from Common Craft and are a great example of the niche industry that’s growing around these kinds of videos.

TCW: What types of clients purchase access to your content today and for what purposes (provide a few examples)?

LL: There are basically three groups that are all outlined here:

  • Individual educators and consultants – They purchase videos via our “Individual” license, which is perfect for a single person’s uses in classrooms, workshops and presentations.
  • Corporate education and School Districts – These customers purchase videos using the “Site” license, which means they can share the videos with everyone on Intranets or private networks. These videos are often part of training programs and staff development.
  • Website use – Just recently we’ve made it easy to embed Common Craft videos on websites, using embed like YouTube. This is called our Web License and it’s for customers who want to use the videos to educate and engage site visitors.

TCW: What is the plan for the future of Common Craft?

LL: We plan to continue building our library of videos while always looking for new directions for the Common Craft brand.  We feel that the videos are a jumping-off point for new adventures.

TCW: We discussed the importance YouTube played in the early growth of Common Craft. How did YouTube help you and why are you minimizing your use of it today?

LL: YouTube certainly helped us become known on the Web. In the early days, it was our biggest marketing asset and something that is still valuable for us.  However, it offers a free low quality alternative to licensing our videos. So, it makes business sense for us to make Common Craft the home of our videos and not You Tube.

TCW: What advice would you provide folks who are considering making content available through YouTube? YouTube can be a valuable asset, but if you’re trying to build a brand, make your website the home of the brand and not YouTube.

LL: Sure, upload the videos there and embed them on your site, but try to attract links and attention at your domain, not YouTube’s. This way, if YouTube went away tomorrow, your brand would survive.

TCW: Mobile devices are playing an increasingly important role in training and education. Technical content, marketing content, eLearning all have found homes on devices like the iPhone. Do you see a need for Common Craft content to be made available via iPhone and like devices? If so, why? What types of uses can you see for Common Craft content on mobile devices?

Apple iPhone 3G

LL: Potentially. We’ve always been focused on the B2B opportunities – making videos for educators to use in classrooms and training sessions. Moving into mobile/iPhone apps is a B2C play – which would be a shift.  We’re open to it and have looked at the possibilities seriously, but mobile isn’t a big priority right now.

TCW: We’ve talked about how your approach to video is being mimicked by others. That’s very flattering. How do you feel about being copied by others who find your approach to be a very good model?

LL: We are flattered and always happy to see educators and students be inspired by our work. However, we have to be careful about protecting our brand identity and intellectual property.  In the long run, we’re interested in ways that we can evolve to turn what seems like a threat into a business opportunity.

TCW: What goes into making an “In Plain English” video? What does the process look like (steps) and how much time does the average on take to create?

LL: Every video is different. Sachi and I are the only people who work on the process – I am the creative lead and she is the technical lead. We’ve written about the process here and here.

TCW: What video projects do you have in the pipeline?

LL: We don’t discuss future projects, but we do release new videos on a regular basis.

TCW: Where can people learn more about Common Craft?

LL: We blog at CommonCraft.com and your readers can follow us on Twitter at @CommonCraft.  Subscribing to our “Video Updates” newsletter means you’ll always be notified when we publish a new video.

TCW: Thanks for your time today, Lee. I really appreciate you helping us learn a little about Common Craft and the videos you produce. Keep up the good work!

LL: Thanks a bunch for the opportunity Scott!

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