Quizlet CEO Matt Glotzbach tells the story of a small app that grew.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
After 12 years at Google where he was VP Product Management at YouTube, and before that on the founding team of Google Apps, Matt Glotzbach certainly has a background that serves him well in his current role as the CEO of Quizlet, one of the largest student and teacher online learning communities in the world. The company began 10 years ago when Andrew Sutherland created a tool to help him study for a high-school French vocabulary quiz. He aced the test, so his friends asked him if they could use the tool too. Friends shared with friends, and Quizlet grew—a lot.
More than 10 years later, students have completed more than 2 billion study sessions, they have a fast-growing team of more than 50 employees (and they’re still hiring), and they’re backed by some heavy-hitting investors including Union Square Ventures (USV), Costanoa Ventures, Owl Ventures and Altos Ventures.
In education more broadly, we’ll see the continued unbundling of content, with teachers creating their own lesson plans and curriculum — using the technology and content that works for them.
Every month, over 20 million active learners from 130 countries practice and master more than 140 million study sets of content on every conceivable subject and topic. Here are reflections on growth, mission, the use of feedback, words of wisdom for entrepreneurial minds, the state of edtech today—and more from Matt. Enjoy!
Quizlet has an interesting history, and has come a long way from its origin to today—your thoughts on that?
Matt: It’s pretty incredible to see how Quizlet has evolved, from a student-created application for studying French vocabulary to a global learning platform. Today we’re much, much more than flashcards and rote memorization. Two initiatives we’ve launched in the past year that I’m particularly excited about are Learn, which is built on the Quizlet Learning Assistant Platform and uses machine learning to power effective student studying; and Diagrams, which allows students to see what they’re learning in a whole new way. Today, we’re the largest online learning platform in the U.S., and we help more than 25 million students each month practice and master whatever they are trying to learn.
Has the central mission moved slightly, or has it remained the same? If so, why and toward what?
Matt: Our goal has always been to help people practice and master what they are learning. And while the ways that we do that have expanded and improved over the years, our underlying mission remains the same. At our core, Quizlet exists to supplement existing modes of learning, enabling students to engage with any material in the ways they learn best and providing a knowledge base for teachers to share content with one another.
You’ve now got Live, Learn, Diagrams, Mobile and more. Could you talk about why you developed these features in particular, in response to what sort of feedback and from whom?
Matt: This summer we introduced Diagrams, which enables users to incorporate images into their study sets to help them learn more visual, interactive topics. Many of our users expressed interest in a learning mode that would be ideal for the sciences and social studies, where analyzing and interacting with graphs/charts/maps is vital to understanding. Diagrams was our response to this request – and students are now able to use Quizlet for more subjects than ever before.
Another example of the evolution of the Quizlet platform is our Verified Content Program, launched this week, which offers official study sets straight from textbook and course publishers. To kick off the program, we’re partnering with educational content creators (i.e., Pearson), non-profits with educational initiatives (i.e., National Academy of Engineering, Jane Goodall Institute), test prep providers (i.e., MCAT Self Prep) and even individual teachers.
Our goal here was to celebrate and promote quality content creators and give them a platform to serve even more students and educators. And from a business perspective, we know that edtech faces its own challenges when it comes to monetization, so this program has opened up the door to new revenue streams for the company.
Finally, over the past year we’ve made Quizlet available in 18 languages, so it’s now accessible to 90 percent of the internet population. Prior to localizing we had seen strong organic usage of Quizlet around the globe, but we’ve really seen that growth accelerated since embarking on this localization effort.
What does your growth look like in terms of some numbers you might share?
Matt: With 25 million active users, Quizlet is currently the most popular online learning service in the U.S. – beloved by a growing community of students and teachers. In fact, one in two high school students and one in three college students in the U.S. uses Quizlet because it makes studying engaging and accessible. And, we’re growing quickly internationally as well, which is really exciting. We’ve been focusing on growing a few international markets this year, and in Brazil, for example, we’re seeing year over year growth in the triple digits.
What words of wisdom do you have for edtech startups – any tips?
Matt: First, build products for your users and understand what problem they are “hiring” you to solve. If your user is a student, then build products that serve students’ needs first, and worry about the buyer (the school, the district, IT, etc.) second. Next, one of the most important things I can share with edtech startups is to think about revenue early. Especially in edtech, monetization is difficult. Quizlet was bootstrapped; in fact, it was cash-flow-positive before we decided to raise any money. The combination of existing revenue plus millions of users was attractive to investors – they were willing to invest in us because they knew that we not only had huge aspirations, but we had the business acumen and grit to chase them.
They were willing to invest in us because they knew that we not only had huge aspirations, but we had the business acumen and grit to chase them.
What is the state of education these days?
Matt: Why does every student in a classroom need to purchase a certain textbook to learn about a particular subject in school? Why would a job applicant need a college degree to be invited to interview for a potential employer? More and more technology companies are asking themselves these questions and coming up with an interesting answer – they don’t, and they wouldn’t.
Why? Because advances in technology have finally made it possible for us to unbundle learning.
Gone are the days where school districts issue top-down edicts on the specific textbooks students need to buy, and prohibit the use of personal devices. Instead, the educational system is now putting its faith in its educators to create individualized content and lesson plans that they feel will have the most impact on their students, and in students to know how they best learn.
Students are increasing their resourcefulness and finding customized ways to access the information they need. Online coding classes, specialist courses from MOOCs, and updated qualifications for screening job applicants are creating an environment where we can pick and choose the skills and information we want to acquire based on our own, unique goals – setting ourselves up for success in a way that was never before possible.
What do you believe is technology’s role in education?
Matt: With the unbundling of education and learning comes the unbundling of content. Fewer formal textbooks are being used in K-12 classrooms and teachers are looking for more interactive and collaborative ways to work with their students. They’re taking advantage of technological advancements in studying and learning to create customized material to support their lesson plans. They are working to make learning more applied and relevant to a student’s world, which in turn helps engage students and keep them interested. At Quizlet, our goal is to be a supplement to great teaching and great content. Whatever students are learning in the classroom, we can help them learn it more efficiently, and more effectively.
Anything else you’d like to share about Quizlet’s current direction?
Matt: In addition to launching the Verified Creator Program, we’re also making big investments in the Quizlet Learning Assistant Platform, which combines machine learning with proven techniques from cognitive science to help make studying more effective. This platform powers Quizlet Learn, which helps students work their way through study material with an adaptive study plan that gets them test-day ready.
What’s on the horizon for Quizlet, for edtech, for education more generally?
Matt: Mastery of skills and concepts is more important than ever. The world is getting more competitive – no longer is a graduate competing with people in their city or state, they are competing on the global playing field with a billion other people.
Mastery of skills and concepts is more important than ever.
In education more broadly, we’ll see the continued unbundling of content, with teachers creating their own lesson plans and curriculum — using the technology and content that works for them. That’s a trend we’re following closely. And at Quizlet, we’re looking toward more investments in the Learning Assistant Platform, working with new partners as part of our Verified Creator Program and investing in international growth in the coming year.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]