Layoffs Hit LearnZillion as Company Shifts Focus to Core Curriculum

Startups

Layoffs Hit LearnZillion as Company Shifts Focus to Core Curriculum

By Wade Tyler Millward     May 22, 2019

Layoffs Hit LearnZillion as Company Shifts Focus to Core Curriculum

For venture-backed education companies, the path to sustainability—and profitability—can be full of difficult twists and turns. Oftentimes, change can come at a cost.

EdSurge has learned that LearnZillion, a Washington, D.C.-based provider of digital K-12 curriculum and software, laid off about 20 employees on May 3. That has left 34 full-time staff remaining, according to LearnZillion CEO and co-founder Eric Westendorf.

Westendorf says the cuts were across multiple teams. Several former employees, who requested anonymity due to possible professional consequences, say the sales, customer success and engineering teams specifically saw reductions.

Over the past couple years, as the company re-focused its business to sell core curriculum to K-12 districts, some of those personnel were no longer core to its operations. “As we learned what works and what doesn’t, we had to look at our staffing structure,” he says. “‘Does our staffing match our strategy?’ That was a painful question to ask.”

This is the second round of layoffs for the company in as many years. In late 2017, as the company began shifting to this new strategy, it also axed some staff. Former employees estimated that this round affected less than 20 people.

Founded in 2011, LearnZillion had long offered online supplemental resources for K-12 English and math subjects. It relied on a group of paid teachers, which the company dubbed “The Dream Team,” who would convene during the summers to create these materials. LearnZillion amassed a library of lessons, videos and assignments. As students worked through these exercises, teachers can track their progress on a dashboard.

The company had offered these materials for free to teachers, and charged districts for additional features and professional development services. A 2014 profile from The Washington Post estimated that the company charged about $5,000 per school.

Today, LearnZillion is focused on selling to districts. Its offerings include core curricula for middle-school math and K-5 English language arts that were originally authored, respectively, by Illustrative Mathematics and EL Education. The curriculum built by these two nonprofits are openly licensed for commercial re-distribution, meaning that LearnZillion—or any other organization—can provide additional tools and services on top of these materials and sell them (usually with some revenue-share arrangement in place). Other organizations that do this include Open Up Resources and McGraw-Hill Education.

The company also sells another set of English language arts curriculum for grades 3-5 and 6-8, which was built based on work done via an earlier partnership with the Louisiana Department of Education. The company continues to offer its library of digital supplemental materials to teachers for free.

Today, LearnZillion claims on its website that its materials reach 1 in 3 U.S. teachers. Westendorf says the company currently has 87 paying customers, almost all school districts, and projects to have 130 by the end of the summer. LearnZillion is on track to double bookings year over year, he adds.

Earlier this year it secured a 3-year deal with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, which will use LearnZillion’s middle-school Illustrative Math curriculum.

The company has also relocated from an office space in northwestern D.C. to a WeWork space in the city’s Chinatown district. Westendorf says the move was unrelated to the layoffs and in response to less need for physical space after the company grew to rely on mostly remote workers.

Slimming down the company has put it on course to break even this year, projects Westendorf. He adds that the company may not even need to raise more capital. To date, the company had raised more than $22 million in venture capital—the latest coming from a $13 million round in 2015.

Tony Wan contributed to this report.

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