Quizlet's Growth Puts It on the Top of the Edtech Stack

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The Quizmeisters: Andrew Sutherland (L), Dave Margulius (R)

Quick: Name the edtech firms that reach the largest number of students and teachers. (Yes, this is a quiz, with an embedded hint!) 

When most entrepreneurs think of education technology reach, they point to Edmodo. Its growth has been spectacular: since its founding in late 2008, more than 13.7 educators and students have signed up (including more than 1 million educators). Edmodo's business model is still evolving. Along the way, it's raising something like $40 million to fuel that growth.

But there's another company that boasts about 12 million unique visitors a month. They love the site, spending an average of eight to 10 minutes there. And most impressive: the company has yet to raise a single penny of outside money.

Quizlet, the leading digital "flashcard" company on the web, defies many of the truisms about education technology firms. It's grown without advertising or venture capital. Its founder headed off to college. And now it's trying to break its own mould by moving beyond helping students drill the facts they want to know and instead encouraging complex thinking through a unique multiplayer game that the company is fine-tuning for classrooms.

"We've used the flashcards. Many teachers aware of Quizlet," says Lauren Schryver, who teaches French at Castilleja. "But it's one thing to learn a word--the real test is can you use it in context?" she adds.

Working on that kind of higher-order thinking skills is what Quizlet's leaders have in mind for its next act.

But first the context: Quizlet got its start in 2005 when then 15-year old East Bay high school student, Andrew Sutherland, was struggling to master French. His father offered to help quiz him. Instead Andrew figured out he'd do better if he had a computer program that would drill him and keep track of what he knew. He whipped together a software program that would let him type in the answers and check his accuracy for him. He aced the next test. And when his friends used it, they won top marks on their tests, too.

By the time Sutherland graduated from high school, he had not only sparked a rash of high scores among his friends but he had coaxed many into helping him build out his product. They "launched" Quizlet in 2007.

This is where the story takes a twist. Instead of, say, quitting school and wooing venture capitalists, Sutherland met Dave Margulius, a long-time entrepreneur and one-time publisher at a Meetup. Margulius was looking for a developer to help him on another site and was captivated by what Sutherland was doing. Margulius would keep the show running while Sutherland headed off for his freshman year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Margulius, who had done stints at Netscape, Evite and had founded Boston.com, had another passion as well--vintage collectables or antiques. In addition to Quizlet, he and Sutherland started CollectorsWeekly.com. It would be a free site, too, producing and curating news about vintage collectables and becoming an "affiliate" of monster vendor site, EBay. That way, every time CollectorsWeekly referred a sale to EBay, a few pennies would drop into the coffers of the umbrella company, Old School Industries, LLC, and help foot the bill for Quizlet.

"We've been generating cash since day one," Margulius declares. Quizlet made some money through advertising. But only within the past year, has Quizlet been weaned off support from CollectorsWeekly. (The two still share office digs and staff.)

In 2010, with Sutherland still working nights and weekends from his Cambridge dorm room, Quizlet began to offer students a premium account. For $15 a year, students can upload their own images (handy for medical students trying to remember body parts). It takes some advertisements but tries to keep them small. "It's a study site, so we don't want to clutter it up with ads," Margulius says.

Its mission grew, too. "We don't want to build a small niche subscription thing. We want to build a tool that can reach every student in the world," says Sutherland. "Our goal is to have most of the users on Quizlet use it for free." After his third year at college, Sutherland took the Silicon Valley exit and left MIT to devote himself full time to Quizlet. (He's chief technology officer and presidents; Margulius is CEO).

Traffic began to rise: In early 2011, Quizlet served about 2 million students a month; that number has grown six-fold. Nifty new features still get rolled out for free--such as a text-to-speech function that lets students drilling on a foreign language hear the words spoken out loud.

Quizlet's iphone app--rolled out in August--is also free, is downloaded 10,000 times a day and has jumped to the number three spot in Apple's iTunes store. (Android and iPad applications are still in the works.)

Most recently Quizlet has been honing a multiplayer game based around words. In essence, Quizlet floats an unusual word and the players (or students) have less than a minute to write a unique (and frequently funny) sentence that uses the word. Sentences are displayed in some common space (such as a white board) and all the students vote for their favorite definition. Teachers who have been trying out Quizlet's multiplayer game say their students love the competitive nature--and they like the learning moments.

"Conversations started as the students wrote their sentences and rate each other," says Bill Jennings, who teaches Latin at Sacred Heart middle school in San Francisco. "Even if the sentences were sometimes ridiculous, they were talking about the words!" "Before the clock ticks down, I stop it and we [my students and I] look at the sentences together," says Castilleja's Lauren Schryver. Students quickly begin competing with one another to write the most creative--and still grammatically correct--sentences. "I was going to use it for 15 minutes but the students wanted to play for the whole period," she says.

What hasn't changed is how carefully the Quizlet team is developing its product. The crew has already taken its multiplayer game to more than 40 classrooms in the San Francisco area. Along the way, they've experienced the challenges that teachers face daily: erratic Internet access, outdated web browsers and so on. It's not the fastest development process in the Valley--but it may wind up creating a tool that teachers find has genuine learning value--and that kids like to play--from day one. "We're iterating, doing rapid cycles," Sutherland says. "We go into a classroom, see how it's used, work on it for two days and go to another classroom and test it out."

"Our goal," adds Margulius, "is to serve the student. To build the greatest study and learning tools for every student on the planet." Sound audacious? Oui, un peu audacieux ou aventureux? To mission-driven Sutherland, it fits what Quizlet is doing to a "T."


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