Tanika McLeod: The educator empowering the next generation with an on-demand social learning platform
Meet Tanika McLeod, one of the three co-founders of MinuteSkill, a Toronto-based social micro-learning platform that uses bite-sized content and knowledge-sharing communities to empower the next generation.
Toronto is Antler’s Canada’s first location. Since launching in 2022, Antler Canada has supported over 100 founders who are creating the next generation of startups.
January 26, 2023
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“I’m sorry if this is a little inappropriate—but resilience means eating a lot of s***, and not being afraid to eat another plate of s***. It’s not fun. It’s not glorious. It means getting through really challenging experiences and not being afraid to enter another one. Not necessarily not being afraid, but being willing to.”
Tanika McLeod pulls no punches when discussing the obstacles she and her team have faced on their entrepreneurial journey. For McLeod these included being raised in a low-income family with limited parental support, helping to educate her younger brothers, and moving across Canada so she could attend university—all while working hard to foot the bill.
McLeod showed the requisite resilience to keep fighting for her dreams. Hers is a story of returning again and again to that plate—fueled by her belief in education as an enabler. Which is why, two years ago, she joined her brother, Nathan Knight, in building a startup they hope will become the future of e-Learning.
In a video created during their Antler residency in Toronto, they described their business MinuteSkill as a social network where on-demand bite-sized content and knowledge-sharing communities can drive real-world outcomes. McLeod admitted in this piece-to-camera that MinuteSkill “did not have an easy start—not as a company, not as people.”
She also stressed that these difficulties were “a story for another time.” With MinuteSkill now eyeing “huge opportunities” in a subset of the e-Learning sector worth an estimated $55 billion, is now the right time to tell that story? “Definitely,” McLeod agrees. “I think our challenging childhood experiences are a great place to start because it perfectly informs the vision and passion behind MinuteSkill.”
Reshaping lives through education and learning
McLeod, now 29, and Knight, 25, were raised in a small town in British Columbia around 50 miles east of Vancouver. Alongside younger brother Keon they grew up in poverty and needed to put themselves through school. “Our parents struggled quite a bit—immigrating from different places around the world, from different cultures, dealing with their own challenges,” she recalls. “They made some decisions that we don’t really agree with now but can understand given their circumstances, including substance use to cope with their situation.”
To fill the void, McLeod taught her brothers how to read and how to understand money through games. Curiosity and a desire to learn have since driven the siblings. But inadequate public transportation meant McLeod’s path to attend the University of British Columbia was blocked by the prohibitively expensive need to live on campus in Vancouver. Instead, she moved to Toronto to live with an aunt. There, a complicated bus commute to York University may have taken three hours each way, but it was at least feasible.
At university McLeod helped to reshape her life through education. With a group of like-minded students, she rolled out a raft of initiatives that continue today: a peer-led tutoring academic department for her criminology program, an academic conference series, and a student-run academic journal for students across Canada. “These incredible initiatives really changed my life,” McLeod admits. “I was recognized for a lot of this work. It felt great to have a different experience than you would expect from someone from a small town with lower-income circumstances.”
When Knight later followed his sister to York, he also benefited from the foundations she laid. “The idea of empowering people through education really stuck with us. That’s really what’s behind MinuteSkill,” says McLeod, who followed her criminology major with a master’s in socio legal studies. “We deeply believe in the emancipatory potential of education because many people on the team—not just Nathan and me—have been able to create better lives for ourselves by accessing education.”
The genesis of an idea at a time of grief
While studying for his master’s in engineering, innovation, and entrepreneurship at Toronto Metropolitan University, Knight met Camilla Castaldo—just as everything was starting to lock down during the COVID pandemic. “Their entire master’s was online and they hated the experience,” McLeod says. A conversation about increased screentime and the constraints of digital learning planted seeds that quickly grew.
“They talked about how much people go to social media to learn but how it’s also so distracting. You end up wasting a lot of time and being less productive than intended. They wished there was a social space where they could just go to learn with people through short videos and cut away all this extra distracting stuff.”
What they came up with was a continuous education platform delivering point-of-need learning with short videos to counteract the ever-dwindling attention spans of people looking to upskill on the go and in the flow of their daily work. Initially developed as a piece of coursework, MinuteSkill emerged from a simple desire to make online learning more enjoyable. It took flight once the duo noticed the wider appeal.
Knight asked his sister to join the company as head of operations to help train the team’s collective brain on the mission ahead: providing users with a daily touchpoint to learn and build skills, and a community with which to share and seek further knowledge. In short, a social media application for learning. She and Knight had already tested the water working together on a couple of startup ideas when the pandemic struck.
McLeod admits that she—like many others—felt ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of lockdown. “I don’t think our society does a good enough job of taking care of its people and their emotional and mental health, spiritual health, financial well-being, and cognitive development. It’s something I could rant on about. So, when an unexpected disaster happens—and most people have already been treading water for some time—many can suddenly feel like they’re drowning. That was certainly the case for me.”
Forced to leave her full-time role as a research and evaluations coordinator for her mental well-being in the wake of a family bereavement, McLeod freelanced as a programs evaluator to help ends meet while building the startup. “Entrepreneurship helped me refocus my attention as I dealt with my grief. It’s been my sole focus ever since,” she admits.
As head of business, Knight focuses on sales and partnerships, while Castaldo is head of product. McLeod’s decade of experience in the education sector helps keep the co-founders and wider team on their toes while raising their critical consciousness. “It’s not just about having a good idea or good execution,” she explains. “For a startup to be successful everyone needs to adapt quickly. You need someone on your team who can help everyone learn—and that’s what I do for MinuteSkill. I consider myself thoroughly an educator. That’s my core passion. I really love that I’m able to be an educator to my team.”
Antler acceleration: pre-seed to early growth
During the conception of the idea behind MinuteSkill, the co-founders benefited from what McLeod describes as “a phenomenal experience” with the Treefrog startup accelerator in Canada’s technology triangle in Southern Ontario. The critical feedback the trio received helped them move the dial and led to a highly positive collaboration with Slidebean, a platform for startup founders to get investor ready. The educational videos on Slidebean’s YouTube channel helped them to upskill at a fast pace—learning everything from Cap Tables to writing one-pagers and the importance of pivots.
Slidebean’s reliable and relatable content was exactly what the trio wanted to make available on their app, which they envisaged being the go-to central network for continuous learning for people looking to execute on their businesses faster.
Chris Carder, a mentor from Treefrog who is Executive Director of the Schulich School of Business’s Office of Innovation & Entrepreneurship—as well as an Antler Canada Venture Partner—put them on the path to Antler, whose global community and founder-focused approach held much appeal. After a successful pitch they joined the Antler Canada residency in January 2022 and raised $220,000 in pre-seed capital. “It worked well based on our shared values and because Antler’s approach to supporting good founders is something that intrigued us and was very different from the general approaches we’d received at the time,” McLeod explains.
The collaborative and supportive framework of the residency helped nurture MinuteSkill. But the ongoing pandemic also meant most of the experience took place online and involved little in-person involvement before the lockdowns were lifted. If anything, however, this further solidified MinuteSkill’s mission to improve the e-Learning space.
A solution to digital fatigue and online workshops
Anyone recalling the Zoom gloom of 2020/21 can relate to the digital fatigue experienced during the pandemic following the rush towards online working and learning. This digital surge served above all to expose the shortcomings of the sector. With large online course providers struggling for people’s attention and time, users instead flocked to social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram, where their learning journey was diluted.
“It became clear that there needs to be a better way for people to learn online,” McLeod stresses. “We need to find something that fits into people’s daily workflows. It shouldn’t be that learning is a disruption to somebody’s work and their ability to do it well. Rather, it should be an enabler. It should be something that helps people get through their day.”
McLeod sees it as a travesty that modern educational institutions have failed to adapt to human behavior as well as the market demand. “People go to social media to learn not because they love it there but because it’s pretty much the only option where they can find a really quick answer. They put up with the rest of the chaos and the garbage content because they don’t have any other options.”
Not only do established online learning platforms such as Coursera, Udemy, and LinkedIn Learning overwhelm the younger audience, McLeod says they are also too costly. The pandemic was “a huge wake-up call” for those who believe sticking to the status quo is the way forward. “We need to do better for our younger generation,” she says. “We need to provide them with tools that help them perform better and achieve incredible things in their work—something educational tools do not do today.”
Overseeing a technological transformation for the next generation
MinuteSkill aims to place itself at the forefront of this revolution by transforming the experience of online learning to better support the next generation. “Millennials and Gen Z will make up most of the workplace in just a few years. We need to seriously contemplate how they’re going to be successful at whatever career path they choose—whether that’s working for a company or creating a business themselves,” McLeod says.
It's this next generation, McLeod stresses, who will oversee the technological transformation of our economies—sparking the need for an increase in digital skillsets in the future. “In Canada especially there’s a huge cry for digital upscaling but there is a digital skill shortage,” she says. “If we’re serious about those challenges then we need to think about the technological infrastructure that we expect people to build those skills upon.”
The nub of what McLeod describes as her “controversial opinion” is that nations like Canada need to get on board or face economic stagnation. “I don’t think we have an education system that can support the kind of technological transformation our economy is demanding. We need to get serious. We need to provide the younger generation that will guide us forward with the tools that will enable them to grow. It’s important that we accept that, embrace that, and take inspiration from that.”
She cites research that suggests micro and mobile learning can reduce the amount of time it takes to learn online “by almost 50 percent compared to desktop learning.” That today’s younger generation prefers to engage through shorter, bite-sized videos and mobile-enhanced social media is no big secret. By immersing users in high-quality actionable content, MinuteSkill hopes to go one step further by capturing the markets that social media can’t—in the same way that LinkedIn captured the professional market from Facebook.
Learning pathways and creating a community
The MinuteSkill philosophy is to break down content into the smallest unit of value—one step of a process, rather than the entire process—to help people who are at different points in their learning journey. “Users need to be able to access that small bite of information as quickly as possible so they can continue with their work,” McLeod says. “It hinders their ability to get the job done if they have to sift through noise to find it.”
The company’s research shows that the best time frame for a video is three to five minutes. Videos can be shared or connected in a playlist to help deepen users’ learning. MinuteSkill has also developed Cliq, a unique AI-powered tool that repurposes long-form content—quickly and efficiently—into more shareable bites for use on social media, blogs, or newsletters. It will be rolled out late February 2023.
A longer-term focus is the development of a recommendation algorithm to help steer users through their learning journey. “If Spotify can predict what kind of music I might like and YouTube knows what genres of content I prefer, why don’t we have a platform that can anticipate what I need to learn? Both right now and for the next step—so I can achieve whatever goal I’m working towards,” McLeod asks.
In addition to curating its own content, MinuteSkill has partnered with an array of content creators with a strong focus around entrepreneurship and business—notably Slidebean and the American software producer Hubspot. Both see the value in having a centralized space that helps users work faster.
“But MinuteSkill is not just about content,” McLeod stresses. “We quickly learned that community is very much part of the learning experience.” In these public and private communities, users can ask questions that the content can’t answer while receiving valuable insights from specialists and other users. “These communities are taking over a lot of the space on MinuteSkill—they’re essential now to our offering.”
Seeking a slice of a $522 billion market
MinuteSkill is currently a subscription-based service. The Schulich School of Business in Toronto, for instance, uses the app to deliver videos to their classrooms via a paid subscription for a private community. Down the road, in-app transactions will capture value from premium memberships and communities as the co-founders help their creator partners monetize their content and communities. “It’s a bit of SaaS [Software as a Service] and a bit of social commerce,” McLeod confirms.
The convergence of micro and mobile learning with a rapidly shifting job market will create an estimated $522 billion opportunity over the next five years. By putting itself at the forefront of this massive market shift, MinuteSkill is perfectly positioned to capture the micro and mobile learning demand which the company estimates make up a $55 billion subset of the larger e-Learning market.
McLeod makes no bones about her aim to make MinuteSkill the market leader in the sector. “That is exactly our goal. The market is enormous and I’m focused on capturing these customers in a phased approach that will take us to the next level.” Healthy competition comes less from the established online course providers—“the old guard”—than the social media platforms that appeal to MinuteSkill’s target market.
Several startups—such as EduPops, Insightful, 5Mins, and LearnReel—are also trying to occupy the middle ground by combining the engaging elements of social media to a learning application. McLeod is confident MinuteSkill has an edge over these competitors by selling not just to individual users but to businesses with a vested interest in delivering content to an audience. This has opened opportunities to partner with big institutions such as the Schulich Business School, HubSpot, and—if all goes to plan—Future Skills Canada, “who have a very similar vested interest in upskilling”.
Looking ahead, McLeod sees scope for growth beyond the realms of business and entrepreneurship. She cites other learning verticals such as sports and recreation, lifestyle learning, and life sciences. “These markets need disruption,” she says definitively.
The grit and resilience driving the “goofy” team
Since inception, MinuteSkill has grown beyond its three co-founders with the addition of a CTO, product designer, head of community, and three developers. “We also have a gaggle of student interns intermittently cycling through,” McLeod says. “We love to empower students to take ownership over their projects and to feel part of the team as much as anyone else.”
The team, she says, feels like family. “It works well because we’re very goofy and don’t take ourselves very seriously. We take our work very seriously, but we love to joke around.” Several canine mascots help make up the numbers including Knight’s “absolutely wild” Border Collie / German Shepherd mix, Mira—“an awesome pup with enough energy to power several galaxies”—and Castaldo’s “beautiful and sweet” Husky, Cielo.
One thing that binds everyone is the grit to succeed where failure would be far easier. “Most of us have had to pay our way through education and we don’t have the funds to bootstrap our business,” she admits. “That’s been one of our biggest challenges—being able to get through really low cash periods and still motivate our team to commit to the work and do it more efficiently and effectively in shorter periods of time.”
At tough moments like this, the team has had to be “scrappy and creative.” They have also had to step up to the plate and show the kind of gut-wrenching resilience McLeod spoke of so candidly in the opening quote. Such obstacles are a daily reminder not to get ahead of themselves—no matter what. “Founders and early-stage startups are not guaranteed success because of perfect performance, perfect execution, or anything related to merit—especially when coming from a low-income background. You can do everything perfectly and it still may not work out—for reasons beyond your control.”
Rather than hold them back, McLeod feels these challenges have made MinuteSkill more determined. “Our socio-economic circumstances have really tested our ability to be creative problem-solvers, tested our faith in the mission, and in our team to continue to commit and try to pull this off. Every time we overcome a challenge together, we become stronger. Beyond MinuteSkill and whatever happens at MinuteSkill, we want to continue working together as a team. A good team is about the people.”
Switching off in splendid isolation
With so much at stake and such little leeway, does McLeod ever get the chance to wind down and relax? On the surface, it seems not. “When I’m taking a break, I may actually watch videos that teach me things—even if they’re not tasks I’m trying to do at the moment, just overarching philosophies about foundership and startups. I feel like learning feeds my soul so I like to consume a lot of content that does that.”
It’s not a case of all work and no play, however. “Sometimes I do just like to binge-watch anime in my evenings to completely disconnect from work,” she admits. Neo-soul, R&B, and rap music are also important for McLeod as well as working out, mindful meditation, stretching, and yoga. “I think some people feel like doing these things are counterintuitive because you need to stop working. But they help me to be more effective and efficient. It’s all about knowing yourself and what you need to keep a clear sight as well as a grasp on your vision.”
There’s also her partner’s small cottage—located in supreme isolation by a lake two hours north of Toronto. “If I’m lucky I get to go up to the cottage, which is beautiful and peaceful. It’s rare that we get to go, but we love going up there to unplug.” She spent part of the Christmas holidays at the cottage and managed to drop tools—to an extent. “I was working on a project for MinuteSkill throughout, but just casually and without having to worry about managing external comms. It was amazing,” she says.
A decade since moving to Toronto, McLeod continues to reshape her life—and the lives of others—through education. One positive anchor for her and Knight has been seeing more of their mother, who last year made the same move from British Columbia. “Our mum has come to restart her life. She’s been sober for around 10 years now. She’s really changed her life. She’s one of the strongest people I know, and we have such an incredible relationship. I draw so much of my inspiration from her journey.”
More recently, younger brother Keon joined the exodus to study at the University of Windsor, around 230 miles west of Toronto. This has allowed the family to spend more time together. “We all went to the cottage for my birthday recently. It was really nice to have both my brothers and my mum for the trip—we were all experiencing a completely different life than 10 years ago.” Is Keon—who has yet to turn 20—ready to join the “family” business? “Yes, absolutely—he’s already very entrepreneurial. We’ve got some plans in the works.”
Learning lessons from everyday people
Asked from where she derives her inspiration, McLeod replies with a small caveat. “Do you have an extra minute or two because this might be a long answer?” Given the tide against which she has had to swim to get—and stay—where she is today, it is perhaps no surprise that McLeod admits that she looks up to “everyday people” who struggle to make ends meet more than celebrities or “icons.”
“Folks who work two or three jobs to survive; folks not able to watch their kids grow up as much as they’d like to; folks who come from different countries under circumstances that were life or death to be treated like crap in this next country which maybe doesn’t value their existence because of who they are and where they come from; people like that who still wake up every day and work tough jobs to provide a better life for their family. Many of those people I know from my life—many of them are my family, people like my mother. We went through that. Those people inspire me to continue what I’m doing.”
These are precisely the people McLeod hopes to give a leg up through MinuteSkill. “People who are courageous without knowing it,” she elaborates. “Typically, these are people looked down on in our society: lower classes are seen as lazy even though, ironically, they work harder than anybody else. These people inspire me to continue to do what we do so that we can hopefully one day make access to education more accessible to folks who don’t have as many options available to them.”
Thinking about these people keeps McLeod and her team grounded. “As hard as it is, creating a startup is also an enormous privilege. It keeps me appreciative of the work we do—even when I’m working 12 hours a day,” she says before her closing thought: “As much as I gain inspiration from figures who do incredible things, I think it’s important to look at everyday folk who are doing just as incredible work but with less admiration.”
Unleash the power of learning, engagement, and collaboration at minuteskill.com. Discover the future of content creation and repurposing at onecliq.io.
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