Now that COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of digital education tools, edtech has become one of the hottest areas of investment.
As someone who has been in edtech for nearly 20 years, this sounds like the precise moment to capitalize on all the newfound interest. Which is why what I’m about to say might be surprising: I’m leaving edtech for the world of gaming with my new company, Solitaired.
I first got into edtech in high school, when a friend and I founded EasyBib, a website that helped students cite sources for their papers. At the time, we were just students who felt there had to be a better way than formatting tedious citations for research papers by hand. But as we dove into the business further, we realized there was a lot to like about bibliographies and education technology in general.
For one, the education market is large. There are more than 56 million K-16 students in the U.S., and over 1.3 billion globally. Federal, state and local governments spend an aggregate of 5% of GDP on education, and that doesn’t even include what students and parents spend on content and technology.
Secondly, it’s structured. Students generally all go through the same curriculum together. That means most students have the same problem in the same way; if you solve a problem for one group of users, you’ve probably solved it for most users.
The citation problem was just like that. When we sold our company to Chegg, we were already reaching four out of five students that needed bibliographies, or over 30 million students in the U.S. Edtech companies that help students with math, chemistry, homework help, tutoring and other curricular needs can build massive audiences quickly.
Edtech that’s part of the curriculum also has high engagement. EasyBib users stayed on our site for nearly ten minutes per session, creating one citation after another for their bibliographies. For direct-to-consumer edtech companies that are ad and subscription driven, this behavior creates many monetization opportunities.
While we grew fast, our endemic market opportunity was limited. Why? The strengths of edtech can also be its downsides, especially for a startup. On the user growth front, we focused on school relationships, marketing and SEO. But once we reached four out of every five students in the U.S., there wasn’t much more room to grow.
To increase engagement even further, we tried a number of things: encouraging more citation creation, adding research and note-taking features and building a Chrome extension to be more ever-present in the user’s research journey. Those efforts fell short too. Ultimately, the school calendar dictated how often students needed to use us, and we were constrained by the number of research papers teachers assigned.
These challenges can certainly be overcome. But as a startup, we had to decide if we wanted to pursue adjacencies and expansions ourselves. Ultimately, this realization was one of the reasons we decided to sell our company to Chegg, which had a wider user base and product synergies that we couldn’t achieve on our own. As anyone who follows Chegg might know, they’ve been very successful in accelerating the edtech digital transformation.