July 22, 2019 | Portfolio

How to leverage product as your growth engine

Costanoa Team

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Costanoa Team

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Quizlet CEO, Matthew Glotzbach (left); Quizlet Founder & CTO, Andrew Sutherland (right)

When many startups take on a funding round, their immediate instinct is to scale the business. Often, that involves massive digital and traditional advertising, as the company seeks to buy and then hopefully retain new customers. Quizlet took a different approach. In this exclusive interview, Quizlet founder Andrew Sutherland and CEO Matthew Glotzbach share their thoughts on how they sought to make the best product they could, one that enabled its users to learn faster, better, and more collaboratively — and to share their success. The results? Explosive growth.

  • Make organic growth the key success metric for your product engine. Quizlet built its audience through improvements in its viral product, not outbound advertising.
  • Drive with smart internationalization and localization. Internationalizing its platform using a strategic set of languages unlocked impressive growth.
  • Improve the customer experience through data. By using AI to uncover how people learn, Quizlet was able to create a popular, new study mode.

If you haven’t heard of Quizlet, chances are, you’re not in school. Currently one of the top 50 websites in the United States, it has 50 million monthly active users and over 300 million user-generated study sets, with revenue that’s growing 100% year over year.

Quizlet’s success, however, has been unconventional, to say the least. It was “founded” by 15-year-old Andrew Sutherland in 2005 and during its early years was much more of a hobby than a business. But then as now, Sutherland followed a simple goal: making Quizlet a great platform for learning anything.

In 2007, the site had a million monthly users, and Sutherland launched Quizlet as a company. But by 2015, the company was hitting a wall in its efforts to scale up and internationalize its platform. To take that next step, Quizlet raised $12 million from VCs that included Costanoa VenturesUnion Square Ventures, and Owl Ventures. Part of the plan was to hire new and first-time CEO Matthew Glotzbach, a former VP of product management at YouTube, and before that, Google. (Sutherland has always been Quizlet’s CTO).

“Quizet had a model for growing the business that was already working,” says Glotzbach. “For eight years or so, they’d invested in a great product experience for students and teachers. It solved a need for them and grew organically. Our strategy was to double down on what had gotten us there.”

Organic growth: the best success metric for your product

Quizlet had traditionally grown by making investments in new product directions, which it calls “study modes.” Needless to say, finding new ways to learn continued to be a major focus of the company under Glotzbach’s leadership. Prior to 2016, for example, Quizlet was built entirely for individual study. Teachers loved it, but they wanted a way to unite students’ learning in the classroom: working independently, stronger students typically finish faster, which could be discouraging to others going at their own pace.

So Quizlet worked directly with teachers to come up with what was eventually called Quizlet Live. This new study mode divides a classroom into teams, with each team member having a device and a question. All of them have to work together to get every question right, and the quickest group to do so wins.

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Sutherland coding MCQs with Quizlet’s Premium Content team.

“When you see it in action,” says Sutherland, “there’s a magical dynamic as students come together to answer the questions.”

Quizlet Live was an immediate hit. Hundreds of teacher recommendations soon appeared on Twitter, and the study mode experienced explosive growth, logging more than one million users during its beta test period alone.

International markets can be a great growth lever with the right approach

Another challenge Quizlet needed to address was opening the platform, and especially for international consumers. Prior to investment, Quizlet was only available in English, and its iPhone and Android apps lacked feature-parity and were limited in an increasingly mobile world.

To tackle the first challenge, Quizlet made smart, intentional choices. Rather than adding the most popular languages, over time, it made the product available in a targeted set of 19 that are spoken by roughly 80–90% of the world’s population.’

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Glotzbach meeting with Quizlet’s VP of International, Richard Gregory.

Addressing the mobile issue required a comprehensive, human-centered redesign — both to improve the customer experience and to unify it across all platforms. “One of the first things we did was a full visual redesign of the site and apps,” says Glotzbach. “It wasn’t just a fresh coat of paint but looking at functionality and modern user experience.”

A big challenge was that the user base varied from elementary school kids to law students and professionals studying for certification exams. To make it work for all, Quizlet embraced a spare, neutral, but highly functional design that makes it quick and easy to find or create the study set you need.

Leveraging data to future-proof the product

Quizlet also added a larger analytics team that today tests and optimizes everything from redesigns of major pages to micro-level optimization, such as the alignment of form fields.

This team also has an advantage most analysts don’t: with two billion questions asked and answered on the platform every week, Quizlet is a treasure trove for AI. Using machine learning models, they have been able to map out how people most efficiently move from an initial encounter with a topic all the way through mastery.

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Quizlet leadership planning for the back to school season.

The resulting findings have informed a study mode called Quizlet Learn. In it, users first answer recognition questions with an easier format, like multiple choice. As they master the material, the platform automatically adapts to more challenging options, like fill in the blank and finally to written answers that require recall of a subject without any prompts.

“When we make the product better and create more success for our users,” says Sutherland, “they’re going to remember that Quizlet is the thing that did that for them, and they’ll use it more and share it more.”

Customer love is the most sustainable path to growth

Overall, Quizlet has massively benefitted from building the best product it can and letting user enthusiasm spread the word. If customers love what you’re doing, in other words, doing more of what they value is never a bad idea.

“These days there’s a view that to aggressively go after an opportunity, you have to scale quickly and take on capital,” says Glotzbach. “But this company has been very deliberate about driving organic, viral growth through the product. It’s working so we see no need to change.”


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