It had been a typically mellow day at Manhattan's New School for Social Research for Bill Zanker, 26, who was cruising through a master's program in filmmaking. Then came a surprise phone summons from his father for lunch. When they met, Dad's message was "Get a job."
Every father should have a son who listens so well. Zanker did not just get a job; within six years he built himself a business whose $1 million a month in sales put him at the top of one of the fastest-growing sectors in U.S. education. It began when he reflected that many of his fellow students were not interested in a degree but paid hefty fees for credit. "So I thought, gee, set up a film school that was just for information—quick, and no credit," he says. Friends suggested adding a pottery class and a course on surviving the ordeal of job interviews.
For classrooms Zanker first used borrowed offices or living rooms, then began renting public school rooms at $5 to $10 a night. To promote his curriculum, which he dubbed the Learning Annex, he took $5,000 that he had saved from his Bar Mitzvah, printed a course brochure, dressed up as a clown complete with whiteface makeup "to differentiate myself from people giving out porn stuff," and handed out the booklets in Grand Central station. Then he raced back to a tiny basement office in a building just off Central Park and waited for the phone to ring.
Ring it did, right off the wall, and the Annex was in business. Today 3 million Annex catalogs mailed out monthly offer short-order evening and weekend study programs on everything from boudoir photography to computer programming to women's body building. There are more than 300,000 adult students in twelve cities coast to coast. A typical course like Belly Dancing meets once a week for only four weeks—just right, says Zanker, for "people who don't have the time or the energy to take long-term courses and who don't care about credits." The price is right too: an average of $40.
"We took a very, very boring industry—adult education—and we created a little pizazz," says Zanker, who rarely speaks below a shout and tends to sound like an LP played too fast. "Quality education we give, but in a showbiz atmosphere," he adds, drawing his legs up beneath him on his office chair and rocking back and forth as the words rattle out. "I give an average of 150 shows a night." The Annex is not the only show of its kind. In the past decade some 50 similar enterprises have started up, from California's thriving Learning Exchange and Learning Tree to Chicago's Discovery Center to the Open University in Washington. Zanker, who takes a modest $70,000 salary but holds $5.5 million worth of Annex stock, sweepingly dismisses the competition as "mom-and-pop operations." He has, however, bought out the Open University. "I am the Ziegfeld of adult education," he proclaims.