Andrew Sutherland was a sophomore at Albany High School in California when he founded Quizlet in 2005. He was 15 years old. For the first 420 days of Quizlet’s existence, Andrew took it upon himself to do all the designing, programming, debugging, and perfecting for his concept. Boy, how things change. Now, still a student—albeit, a junior at MIT—Andrew’s little project has a dedicated team of people and has helped 13 million users (in 2010 alone). Quizlet offers 5,017,611 flashcard sets, provides 154,264,083 terms and definitions, has logged over 430,364,928 answers, and currently boasts 1,760,735 registered users (it’s free and will remain so). It’s the largest independent study site in the U.S. “My mission is to make learning not a chore,” he says. In fact, Quizlet is an immediately useful, personalized learning experience with direct learning results—and it’s rather addicting. Go ahead and try it out for yourself, but before you do, read this interview with Andrew to find out a bit more of its interesting backstory.
Victor: Why did you create Quizlet?
Andrew: I created Quizlet for my French III class in high school. I had to learn a giant list of 111 french animal vocabulary terms and I didn’t have a good way to do it. So I had this idea for a tool that would help me learn all this vocab I had to learn every week. If I had looked online for such a tool I probably would have found something but instead I made my own thing…and now Quizlet is more than 10 times bigger than all the other study tools like it. But I had this vision for a really easy to use and efficient tool, and that’s what I built. What keeps me motivated to keep working on it is knowing how many people need something like Quizlet and how much they appreciate that it exists. If you take a look at our testimonials page, http://quizlet.com/testimonials/ , there are literally thousands of people who’ve written in to express thanks.
Victor: What does the name mean?
Victor: Who uses Quizlet?
Andrew: A lot of people! It’s mainly students in middle school, high school, and college. Quizlet is great for both the high-achieving types who want to study efficiently and get good grades, and for the lazier types who might not study at all but do because Quizlet is easy and quick to use. We have a lot of teachers who use it to create lists for their students, and there are ways to see who studied the most and got the top scores on our games. Finally, we have plenty of people who use it for all sorts of things I didn’t expect: bartenders learning drink recipes, soccer referees using it to learn rules of the game. The other day a nuclear technician got fired for using Quizlet to learn about the procedures at a nuclear plant (he posted all the data publicly, see http://bit.ly/gRkVmh )
We get 3.5 million unique people using Quizlet a month, and that number is growing quickly.
Victor: What’s the ultimate vision for Quizlet?
Andrew: Quizlet’s already a great tool for learning vocabulary, but what about grammar? verb conjugations? If you think of language as writing, reading, listening, and speaking, I think Quizlet should help you develop skills in all four of those areas. For example, one of the problems with foreign language learning is that kids don’t spend enough time speaking, because it’s hard for teachers to spend time with students to listen to them individually. But that can be addressed if we build really good tools. I want Quizlet to be a one-stop shop for everything a language learner needs to do. After we get that down, there are lots of other exciting subjects for which to build high-quality tools.
Victor: How does being a student yourself influence how you design Quizlet?
Andrew: Quizlet has always been very student-focused. We haven’t built a lot of features that would be helpful to teachers, because we want students to want to use Quizlet, not use it because they’re forced to. I think this is actually a pretty key reason for Quizlet’s success: we’ve created something that students see as valuable and worth their time. It’s not caught up in a lot of theory or big ideas about how to teach any particular topic. It’s extremely practical.
Andrew: Social interaction was built into Quizlet from the beginning. It’s very easy to share your sets with your classmates. When you’re studying for a test, there are probably 30 other people who have to know the exact same material. They should be working together and helping each other out! Quizlet lets you create one canonical list of words and then have other students collaborate to make the best possible lists. They can also have live discussions about the class or the material. Having a social environment also creates a very positive learning environment, where kids reap social rewards for helping each other, and you don’t have to be the smartest kid in the class to do it.
Victor: How do teachers use Quizlet in their classrooms?
Andrew: Teachers have come up with lots of cool ways to use Quizlet. Some just assign it for homework, some take their students to the computer lab to use it, and some just say “Hey, this is a great tool, use it.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YzSk1jTo90
Andrew: We wanted to make Quizlet an open platform that would allow other people to build cool stuff using our data. We’re a very small team, so we just don’t have the resources to build an iPhone app, an android app, a windows phone app, a WebOS app, a blackberry app, etc. So we let other developers do it for us, and that’s worked out really well. It’s cool to see a lot of creative things people do with our data, some things we would never think of.
Victor: Why did you develop the new audio feature on Quizlet? How can teachers and students use it?
Andrew: People learn with all their senses, and hearing words is essential to retaining them and integrating them into your own speech. So it was obvious to build audio into Quizlet. Pronunciation is also a really important skill that can really only be done in one way: by listening.
We also have some new projects that we’ll be releasing soon that do really cool things that are only possible with voice.
Victor: Volunteers have translated the site into additional languages. How did this come about?
Andrew: Some people in other countries were already using Quizlet, but we thought a lot more would use it all over the world if we translated it. Quizlet’s community is already very diverse and many of them already know or are learning multiple languages. We found dozens of people using Quizlet who wanted to help out by translating Quizlet to their native language. So sure, why not? It’s very cool to see the Quizlet interface written in characters I don’t even know how to pronounce.
Victor: Why free when you could probably charge for Quizlet?
Andrew: Because the biggest opportunity for Quizlet is for it to become the platform that everyone uses to study, and the only way to scale like that is to have a free product. I think we can build a very strong business on a ad-supported model, with premium subscriptions available for some extra features. Also, the costs of running Quizlet are pretty low, so why should we charge a lot of money for it?
Andrew: It’s all about having a quality product. People share Quizlet with their friends because they find it very useful. It’s really that simple.
Victor: How relevant are flashcards these days?
Andrew: Well, when I started Quizlet I didn’t even think of it as flashcards, because I thought I had made something much better. I’ve never used flashcards in my life — it doesn’t make a ton of sense to me that just looking at a card and telling yourself you know what’s on it actually works very well. Quizlet forces you to type stuff out, and really prove that you know what you’re saying. Quizlet also presents material in a lot of different ways, so you can tell you’ve mastered the material when you can handle each of the study modes easily. We call it flashcards because people understand that, and that’s what people are looking for when they find Quizlet, but really Quizlet is a lot more than that.