11 March 2010

WikiPremed: Making Money from Free

The virtues of free are pretty inarguable, but advocating the open release of stuff inevitably begs the question: but how do you make a living from it? So it's always great to come across a *thriving* business built on giving stuff away, like WikiPremed MCAT Prep Course, "an open access comprehensive course in the undergraduate level general sciences".

Here's some background:

WikiPremed was created to make it easier for an intelligent, motivated person anywhere in the world to become a doctor. For premedical students in the United States, there is no better learning program than the WikiPremed MCAT Course for securing the level of mastery that earns a superior MCAT score. In addition to improving the accessibility of science education, the WikiPremed MCAT Course is an important contribution to educational design. This learning program teaches the physical and biological sciences within a unified curriculum, an approach developed over many years working closely with college students in small group teaching. The WikiPremed MCAT Course consists of twenty modules. Each module contains fifteen to twenty hours of videos and assignments. The resources here can be utilized as a stand-alone MCAT course or in combination with another course. There are no restricted areas on this website. You can study at WikiPremed for as long as you want. It is often useful to begin WikiPremed several months prior to beginning a live course to establish the conditions for the full realization of the potential of the live course within a more ambitious program.

And here's the key thing:

The WikiPremed MCAT Course is open access. There are no restricted areas. Although registration is free, when you find yourself relying on this site in a significant way for MCAT preparation, please make a one-time $25 Tuition Payment.

But that's not enforced, so there's always the risk that people won't pay. Happily many do, but more importantly, the site generates money from products that are complementary to the online content.

Given that many remain sceptical about the viablity of this approach, I emailed the creator of the site, John Wetzel, who filled me in on how things work:

Basically, the development of the WikiPremed content has been going on since 1994, and at this point, it is a very large body of work. I think it helps to look at the content from an object oriented programming model and think of the various modes of presentation as methods of the content objects. Everything is licensed creative commons attribution, and we make the online methods freely available, so for example, you can find the entire set of Physics Flash Cards online. We offer the printed versions of the things for which print may be appropriate for sale for a very reasonable price, and students do buy them because print has its own advantages. We put the whole set of physics cards online (three years of work!) and the students still buy the printed cards any way. Even if they want to support the work, I think they like to have a commercial arrangement and a simple value proposition.

There is one work, however, the Premedical Learning System, which sells for $32.95, where the advantages of the print version are so great, compared to the online presentations of the content, which are extensive, that we call the printed work 'essential' for the course, and it is definitely a good value. It's also a board game!

Students need printed study materials, and they get sick of the computer, so I definitely think there is room for creative commons educational content supported by print publications. I think there is an ethic to not holding content hostage to purchases, but I think there are commercial advantages to the open model as well. I don't doubt that the average customer at WikiPremed has 1000 page views before purchasing anything.

I am sure that if there were registration walls and missing chapters I would have fewer customers.

I'm not getting rich or anything, at this point, but it is working.

What's interesting here is that once again it's analogue goods that bring in the money, while the digital side does the marketing - a pattern that is emerging in many sectors.

But irrespective of the how, the simple fact of WikiPremed's success is good news: it means that Wetzel is likely to continue to offer his content for free, helping who knows how many impecunious students in the process; it also means that free content has another great case study showing how you can make money from giving stuff away.

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Unknown said...

The article is sort of irrelevant without a general figure about how much he is making. If its only one sale per month, for instance, than the premise of the article isn't noteworthy.

Glyn Moody said...

@Janice: irrelevant? I don't think so: the ideas are still interesting. And in fact he does say he's not making a fortune but doing OK, which I took to mean making enough to live on. It would be unreasonable to expect him to give specific figures.

beermoney said...

Giving stuff away in my eyes has always been a good way to get followers and build a customer base. Everyone likes getting free things no matter how much money they have. It is a psychological hook.

Brian said...

You have to becareful when it comes to giving stuff away. People that want stuff for free will never pay for anything. At least it will be a smaller number.

Unknown said...

There are several reports on the website guestbook that show that they are no longer shipping product, and even some accusations of the products being a scam. This does not seem to be a good business model.

Glyn Moody said...

@Ryan: I can only see two such comments - are there more? Still, troubling if true - and worth pointing out, so thanks.

PreMedStudent said...

I paid for the Bundle sold from their web-site over 2 1/2 months ago and have still not received it. E-mails/Phone Calls go unanswered. BUYERS BEWARE!

Unknown said...

This is John Wetzel, the creator of WikiPremed. After spending nearly twenty years on the projects leading to WikiPremed, and finally getting it going, I experienced a series of personal and health crises that incapacitated me earlier this year. The website kept taking orders, though, but the credit cards of those who ordered at that time weren't charged. I've been trying to make it up to them now that I have finally rebuilt things. I'll be doing my best to make up to the people I let down.