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Course Hero is an online learning platform that provides a suite of digital education resources including free, curated courses, online tutoring service, digital flashcards and crowdsourced study materials. Course Hero was born out of the desire of its founders to democratize education and provide access to quality materials and services that will help students get more value out of their investment in higher education, obtain tangible rewards and increase opportunities for success.
Andrew Grauer founded Course Hero in 2006, while a student at Cornell University, frustrated that so much knowledge was bottled up in private hard drives and individual brains without a convenient, accessible forum to share and distribute this knowledge. The site now attracts 2-3 million visitors per month and differentiates itself from others in the space by using game mechanics to make learning more engaging and by offering students Real World Rewards to incentivize build knowledge.
MO: You took a semester off from school and launched Course Hero with your brothers David and Jared. Did anyone think that you were crazy or did you have a strong base of support from the beginning?
Andrew: I was really lucky and always had a strong support base. No one ever told me I was crazy, at least not to my face. When I approached my family about taking a semester off, I had already been working on Course Hero for two years. I wanted to do what it took to get the site development accelerated. The idea for the company was always solid and everyone understood there was a market for study help. There was a revenue model from the beginning – the only question was about how big education on the Internet could really be. My family just made me promise to finish my degree, and I agreed to do that.
MO: What resources were most useful when first developing your company?
Andrew: Cornell actually had a full entrepreneurship program and I made sure to not only take the courses, but also talk to key faculty in the program to learn more. I got great advice and mentorship from John Jaquette and I’ve carried that relationship with me after I graduated and as I continue to move forward with Course Hero. Cornell also offered an entrepreneurship-specific lecture series which I found really inspiring. Speakers like Bill Trenchard did a great job demystifying the process of building a company from scratch. The key takeaway was “just do it” and I haven’t forgotten that.
You can rev on ideas all day long and it takes a certain type of person to just start acting and keep going with an idea. In the end, being an entrepreneur is not just about having an idea – it’s about having the initiative to go out and make that idea happen.
MO: There are a lot of online learning platforms out there. What are some of the key features that separate Course Hero from the competition?
Andrew: There are many aspects that separate Course Hero from the other learning platforms including adding gaming mechanics to make learning on our platform more engaging and offering Real World Rewards like the chance to work for Course Hero or enter a business plan competition.
One area we haven’t talked as much about is that separates Course Hero is that we have a full product suite including videos, documents, quizzes, flashcards, online tutors and offline tutors so students can use the tools that best fit their needs. This provides students with a lot more flexibility.
Additionally, many MOOCs out there are offering standalone classes which you may or may not earn college credit for. Course Hero is also helping students perform better for the courses they’re already taking. In addition to providing courseware, Course Hero is a supplemental learning platform that can help students either learn new topics or provide them with tools to help them perform better in subjects they’re already learning.
MO: Can you expand on how many of your courses have been developed or influenced by the feedback and suggestions of your customer base?
Andrew: When we launched Courses in April 2012, we were looking to bridge the gap between the skills students learn in university and the skills required to obtain a job. We launched with 22 curated courses in three different learning paths where we saw the greatest need: business, web programming and entrepreneurship.
We leverage the power of crowdsourcing both to improve our available Courses as well as solicit feedback to meet user demand. We’ve had more than 400 suggestions for new Courses and developed 18 new courses based directly on user suggestion in August, expanding the catalog in highly demanded subject areas including business law and calculus. We also introduced the Course Creation Platform to empower experts to publish their own Courses on the site.
We believe subject matter experts take all forms which makes the crowd a powerful resource for fresh, high quality content. By allowing anyone to create an engaging educational experience on Course Hero, our Course Creation Platform provides a scalable way to continuously generate content that matches the interests of our users. Experts now have the option to either make their courses free to all users or to set a price for others to access their Course.
MO: After Course Hero reached 1 million visitors a month, you received a $1.5 million round of funding from YouTube co-founder Steve Chen and StubHub’s co-founder and former CEO Jeff Fluhr, among others. How has this funding and the help of such visionaries influenced the direction of the company?
Andrew: Having funding really allowed us to think more than a year out in terms of what we want to accomplish. This is allowing us to look at the longer roadmap for where we want Course Hero to go. The ability to have a profitable business with decent money in the bank has allowed us to experiment with different tactics and provides us with the patience to work toward a bigger strategy. The board and investors give us both the financial means and the business experience to make this a reality.
For instance, we’re currently working on building out our vision for a knowledge marketplace where students and experts can share and access the education content that students need to achieve their goals, while allowing subject matter experts to be financially rewarded for their insights. Like any economy, in order to be sustainable, both the supply and demand sides have to benefit from the transaction. In education, we see so many inefficiencies where teachers aren’t being sufficiently rewarded for sharing their knowledge and students feel like they are overpaying for the education they are receiving. We’ve started enabling this knowledge economy by offering an option to allow experts to create and monetize courses, however our longer term strategy will involve adding elements of the knowledge marketplace into all of our current, and possibly even some new offerings.
MO: What inspired you to create Course Hero’s Entrepreneurship Path?
Andrew: I really liked taking entrepreneurship classes myself and thought that a wide range of people could benefit a lot from the entrepreneurial way of thinking, whether they actually planned to launch their own business or not. The entrepreneurial approach is valuable no matter what career path you take and we didn’t think most students were getting access to this type of content. The skill set and initiative demonstrated by entrepreneurs is also something that HR reps look for in a potential candidate.
MO: You’re not only encouraging entrepreneurship through free courses but also through your business plan competition. Can you share the story of your most recent winners of the competition and what it feels like to watch entrepreneurs actualize their ideas with the help of Course Hero?
Andrew: One of the ways we differentiate Course Hero is by incentivizing students to learn with Real World Rewards. This year, we offered up the opportunity for students who complete Course Hero’s Entrepreneurship Path of coursework (which includes two core courses and five electives) to submit a business plan and compete to pitch their idea to angel investment firm, SV Angel. The winner also receives $5,000 to turn his or her business idea into a reality. While quizzes and exams are built into the courseware, we think it’s really cool to give our Entrepreneurship students the chance to test the skills learned in our courses in a real world context. Developing a compelling business plan is a great chance to demonstrate mastery of the material. When you think that nearly 53% of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 were jobless or underemployed last year, we think that showing initiative and application of a real world skill-set is one way that will help differentiate a candidate in today’s competitive job landscape.
Our most recent winners are Thete, a team focus on creating games to bring awareness to social issues such as diabetes. Michael de la Maza, self appointed “hustler” for Thete, found a lot of value in the information in the Intro to Venture Capital and Organizational Behavior classes from the coursework and is using the prize money to help launch their first game, The Insulines. Michael and his team are also set to meet with SV Angel for further discussion and tips on how to move forward with their business. Thete is also looking to be accepted into a startup accelerator such as Y Combinator or TechStars. It feels great to be a small part of their journey and give them positive feedback to help them along the way.
MO: What important lessons have you learned from developing your own company that you couldn’t have learned inside the classrooms of Cornell?
Andrew: Being a student in a class, you can’t learn how to manage other people. It’s a process of trial and error and I’ve also been learning a lot from our board, investors and even my own teammates. It was definitely a learning curve as we grew from a company of just three people to a team of 25.
Additionally, in a classroom the syllabus determines your path. When running a business, you’re really in control of driving the agenda. The fact that things can go anywhere is both really exciting and a huge challenge. The real skill I had to learn was how to prioritize. There are so many directions you can take that it’s important to determine which problems need to be solved and how you’re going to go about it.
MO: What are you most looking forward to in 2013?
Andrew: As I mentioned earlier, I’m really excited about continuing to build out the knowledge marketplace. Through the knowledge marketplace, I believe we’ll be able to really scale up the number of experts we have teaching students in all of our products from documents to Q&A to flashcards and courses. By onboarding more experts, we’ll be able to offer more content, more courseware and more subject categories to make our offering appealing to more students. I see 2013 as being a really big expansion year for the company.
Learning is, of course, important from an altruistic point of view but with the knowledge marketplace, we’ll be able to create the financial incentive to make learning sustainable. We look forward to providing experts with more opportunities and students with access to resources to help them learn more efficiently, while having fun.
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