Christopher Klundt co-founded StudyBlue, the largest and fastest-growing library of study materials online. In this episode, he shares his journey from idea to 250 million pieces of user-generated content (and the toughest obstacles he faced along the way)
→ Study Blue is an online library of study materials with over 300 million user-generated notes
→ Platform offers study tools such as flashcards, quizzes, and review sheets to help students learn more effectively and save time
→ Content agnostic and welcomes students of all disciplines and levels
→ The reason for starting Study Blue was to create a platform that gives students tools to learn a subject easier
→ Study Blue started as a personal frustration with existing education systems
→ Goal to create a product for students, focusing on collaboration, organization, and study tools
→ Initially built a massive learning management system, but narrowed focus on features resonating with students
→ Decided to go directly to consumer, rather than targeting educational institutions
→ Emphasis on finding the right product, message, and timing, and doing one thing well
→ And a whole lot more
Bronson: Welcome to another episode of Growth Hacker TV. I’m Bronson Taylor and today I have Christopher Clute with us. Christopher, thanks for coming on the program.
Christopher: Yeah, thanks a lot, Bronson. Glad to be here.
Bronson: Absolutely. Now, Christopher, you are the CEO and co-founder of Study Blue, which is the largest and fastest growing library of study materials online and actually contains more than this is a real number, 250 million user generated digital no cards. Is it really 250 million?
Christopher: Yeah, we’re actually bumping up against 300 million. Keeps moving.
Bronson: Well, usually you’re the kind of guy we want this show. You got enough people to generate almost 300 million pieces of content. You’re doing something right or a lot of somethings. Right. So first kind of big picture, tell us about Star Study Blue. What is it?
Christopher: Yeah. So kind of as you alluded to, we’re a crowdsource learning app for students of all disciplines, really. We started mostly with college students. But at this point, whether you’re middle school to medical school or you’re a lifelong learner, we have intelligence study tools that can really help you study smarter, study more effectively, save time, study on the go. So we offer products, whether that’s notes or flashcards or study guides or quizzes or review sheets, basically great ways to learn what you’re trying to learn and source from the power of the crowd.
Bronson: I got you. So you’re not teaching subjects. You’re giving people tools. So whatever subject they’re trying to learn, they can learn it easier.
Christopher: Yeah, we’re content agnostic, so whatever or whatever you want to bring to study blue, we’re more than happy to welcome you.
Bronson: Gotcha. So why did you started? I mean, were you in the educational space? Was this a personal need or do you just see a big market opportunity?
Christopher: Yeah, no, it started out of, I think, like all good, good start ups started out of personal frustration. When I was a student at the University of Wisconsin, I was pretty frustrated with the learning management systems that existed. So for those not familiar, that’s the blackboards of the world, their desire to learn or the models where, you know, you would check your grade, turn your homework in online, maybe have a discussion with the teacher or participate in a forum. You know, all of those platforms were basically set up by the schools in the districts to run your own, by the teachers. And if the teacher didn’t enable the feature sets, the students couldn’t really use it. It wasn’t really a home for the students. It was kind of a one way communication channel for teachers to the students. Yeah. So I saw a big opportunity to, to really build a product for the students by the students, if you will, that focuses on providing tools and a place in a home for students to collaborate and share and organize what they’re what they’re trying to do. And we originally started by trying to bite off way more than, you know, you can chew. We’re like, oh, we’re going to do calendaring and study groups and forums and homework solutions and flashcards and notes and, you know, tutoring. So we tried to build this massive, you know, learning management system from the get go. And we were fortunate enough to to find out the few pieces that were really resonating with students and kind of narrowed our focus on those.
Bronson: Yeah. Yeah. I’m glad you brought that up. Actually, it seems like that’s what people want nowadays is this single serve app. Like, I go to this app to do this and they’re actually it seems like the portal idea of the nineties and the early 2000s, it’s just getting more of a faint and faint memory. You know, people really want like one thing to do one thing and that’s their go to app is that would you guys have seen.
Christopher: Yeah, yeah. We really you know, to be totally honest, the kind of the note sharing and the flashcard creation and the study tools that we have were almost a late addition to the product offering and those were the things that were. Yeah, those are the things that that took off with, you know, us not paying close attention to. And it’s pretty clear, yeah, if you do something really well and you’re really focused on and you’re best in class at that, you know, people will want to use that product.
Bronson: Yeah, it reminds me we just had Eric Reece on a couple weeks ago and he talked about the zoom in pivot where you zoom in to the feature that is actually the product that you should be. You know, the main thing and I always love that, you know, some people need to zoom out as a pivot, but a lot of people need to zoom in because I think it’s more likely you’re biting off more than you should than that you’re doing too little.
Christopher: Yeah. In terms of the scope, yeah. I mean, it’s all about, you know, timing the product and the message and you kind of got to get all three of those right. And, you know, finding the the piece of the product that sticks is key.
Bronson: Now, you know, I’m trying to imagine myself in your shoes. You know, you have this startup, you know, you’re figuring out what’s kind of working. And it almost seems like you have two growth paths which are very, very different. And I want to get into this because I think a lot of startups in this situation where they can choose Route A and, you know, they use these kind of growth levers and it takes this kind of energy and this kind of personnel or they choose growth path B, which looks very different. So you guys, you’re kind of ed tech, but you’re also kind of consumer mobile. I mean, you’re obviously educational in technology together, so you’re edtech, but a lot of edtech. Companies. They’re not going directly the consumer and you guys are. So tell me about that. You know, how did you decide to go directly to consumer? Why did you decide that? How has it played out for you guys? And really, would you do it the same way again?
Christopher: Yeah. Yeah. No, it’s a good question. And starting from the next thing, we would do it the same way again. I think it’s been kind of a real advantage to us. One thing that we’ve kind of learned as we’ve been going down this journey is it is what we call the three explanation. So there’s a lot of people in India trying to transform education through technology. And the first explanation is where the teacher kind of explains the material to the students, you know, dissemination of information. So there’s a lot of companies focused on doing that, which means you’re focused on a teacher perhaps, or a school. And then the third explanation is kind of where the student has to explain that information back to the teacher, get accreditation, pass a test, get a grade, get a certificate, prove the knowledge, if you will. And so there’s a lot of companies focused in that realm. And this middle realm is is where a lot of time is spent in there, where all the consumers actually are. It’s where the learning happens is where the students explain the information to themselves. It’s where they collaborate with other students to to learn the material. And, you know, building a business that focuses directly on those students who they’re the ones, they’re the end customer. Everyone on both ends of the spectrum is trying to service the student or the learner. And so building something direct to them is has been a great challenge and also really rewarding and a good place to be because I think it’s often overlooked.
Bronson: So yeah, when you talk about the three phases, they’re the three kind of compartments. That’s when the light bulb went off for me because honestly, it’s in the middle that all the magic happens. The end is just accreditation, and that’s not that hard or difficult or magical in the beginning is just a teacher teaching what they know in the middle is where your mind is being transformed into a new thing. I mean, that’s really where the cool stuff is taking place. So that’s awesome. You guys kind of pick that. And just to make it clear, you know what a lot of people are doing that are doing edtech, they’re going and trying to get deals and partnerships, right? I mean, what is their growth path? What are they trying to make happen?
Christopher: Well, it’s been a it’s why I think one thing, you know, education’s been one of the last frontiers to be transformed by the Internet because that’s a slow process. It’s a difficult process. It’s also why, you know, venture capitalists have been slow to fund that. It’s kind of one the last things that has been getting attention, you know, more so in the last three or four years. But it’s just not as a sexy as SAS player, direct director business. And because of those sales cycles, because of the slowness of which education has moved in the past, and I think people are now finding, oh, if, you know, students are going to empower themselves and they’re going to take learning into their own hands. And it’s not just high school students or college students. People are going back for, you know, different accreditations all over, you know, lifelong learning, learning a new skill. I mean, just about everybody is learning at some point in their in their life. So it’s a it’s a wide market and it’s ripe for opportunities.
Bronson: So, yeah, that’s awesome. I let’s dig into kind of the user generated content piece of study blue. Like you said, you’re pushing 300 million pieces of user generated content. Is all the content from the users right now? 100%.
Christopher: Yep, yep, 100%. Everything’s been put into the system.
Bronson: All right. So earlier, you know, we talked about you can kind of go and create these partnerships or even go direct to consumer. You guys decide to go direct to consumer and give them the product. So the question is, you know, that was the strategy. How did you make it actually work? Like how did you actually get 250 plus million pieces of content from these people? And I’m really interested in the journey here, so I don’t want the quick answer of like, Oh, it was really hard, but then it just kind of started working. Yeah, yeah. Did it work day one? Was it crap day one like yeah. What was the journey of getting this content, you know.
Christopher: Yeah. Well I think with any, any user generated content site as people know, it’s, it’s chicken and egg. You are, it’s the people want the content. And if you don’t have the content, you won’t get the people. And if you don’t have the people, you don’t get the content. So, you know, what do you go after first? How do you see things? How do you get it? The ball rolling down the hill. And we had that same same exact challenge from the early days and we tried a lot of different a different tactics, some of which, you know, don’t even really apply. And this is five years ago, you know, and one of them, for example, is we knew we wanted to start with college students, so we would go after it’s it’s it’s a clearly identifiable, identifiable demographic. You know, we can go, okay, Ohio State University, big university, lots of students, you know, how can we reach those students in masses? And at the time, one easy thing to do was contact schools to get email lists. For example, we could, you know, purchase an email list or buy an email list to just blast out to the students and say, hey, here’s this great free service. Check it out. You know, tell us what you think. You know, those days have probably come and gone for girl strategy, but that was pretty. Effective for us. And then in terms of seething content, I remember days in the basement where we would just be on the phone or on email all day with students at different campuses being like, you know, we’ll pay a little bit to see the content. Are you a great note taker or are you a great student looking to make a little extra cash? You know, I’ll give you 20 bucks if you put your content under study blue for other see. So we did that for a while and what’s been cool is you see these little network pocket effects take place, a scoop of, you know, word spreads on a campus, you know, specific college campus, you know, kind of like meningitis in the dorms or something. I mean, if if one kid learns about it and it’s awesome, like it just spreads and everybody hears about it. So the working with college campuses was pretty effective for us to grow. And, and then people have a brother or cousin at a different school and you can start to see where the network effect starts to spread out. And not too. And similar to Facebook basically when it started.
Bronson: That’s the thing come to mind obviously and I was interested in this idea of at the beginning, it’s just pure hustle. It’s emailing and calling a student 20 bucks, put your stuff online. And then at some point, obviously that you’re not doing that. Now, you’re not calling right now, hey, 20 bucks. Put your stuff out here. You know, like was there a moment when you knew, you know, to use the cliche, the tipping point where you’re like, you know what, I don’t want to get on the phone a day and I don’t have to get on email today. Like, I think today I can focus on something else. How did you know the moment when you went from hustle to you had a process and a system kind of doing it for you?
Christopher: Yeah, yeah. I think a big piece was well, I recall kind of the I know remember the exact day, but I recall the moment was we when looked at our system and we hadn’t even tracked the number, we hadn’t even reported on internally and we’re like, Oh, how many pieces of content? How many flashcards do we have? How many notes do we have? And someone’s like, Can someone just go query the database and find that number? And it came back and it was 50 million and we’re like, Where did that come from? Like we didn’t even know it was on it, even been paying attention to that. And so that was definitely I remember the aha moment around the around the table. But yeah, up to that point I think the key thing was just responding to customers needs. When you have a few people who are interested in your product and like, Oh, I really like this, we had a good tool, we had a best in class to offer for what these students wanted to do. We were solving a problem for them. We were making it easier, saving them time, and that we kept focusing on the tool. And that’s what drives the content is people want to use you as a tool because it helps them directly. So yeah.
Bronson: And do you find that people are using their own content primarily or they actually using other people in their class who took notes and that kind of thing?
Christopher: Yeah, it’s we have a really divided market. We’ve got, you know, we have our little user personas, if you will, and one of them’s the do it all who goes to every lecture, who reads the textbook three times, who is, you know, diligent about rewriting their notes and and they have their routines and they’re really good with their own content. They don’t need much help from other people. And then you’ve kind of got people who are like, no, just enough who like maybe it’s the struggling students, a C trying to get to a B or I just need to pass this class. They’re like, I want to be an aid student so I can get into, you know, law school. But I don’t know how to do that. And a lot of those students will really find the power of crowdsourcing, collaborating with each other online to help them fill their gaps and find out what what they don’t need. So we have different different groups.
Bronson: Yeah. And, you know, tell me what you think about this. But as I think about Study Blue, it seems like the genius of it is the fact that you’re taking an offline behavior, which almost everyone does who’s trying to get a good grade. You create flashcards, you know, you take notes. I mean, these are just the basics and they’re so basic. Everyone does them all over the place. No matter what the system is, they’re happening. And you basically created a way to bring that online, to give less friction to the process and make it more accessible and make it easier. Do you feel like it was that online or offline behavior being brought online? That really is the genesis of this whole thing and why it’s working?
Christopher: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s a big part of it. I mean, we often say you start with imitation and then you move to innovation. So I mean, we were imitating paper flash cards. You know, you imitate note taking in a spiral notebook. Kids are used to that. It’s an easy thing. Oh, I did this with pen and paper. Oh, I can do this on my laptop or I can do this on my iPhone. It’s an easy transition to make. Now we’re at the stage where we can innovate. Now you can do it when you have all the data points, when we know everybody who’s looking at every piece of content, what they know, what they don’t know, how long it takes them. Those are things that pen and paper can’t do. And so now you start to really provide even a more powerful service that doesn’t just replace what they were doing, but augments it as well.
Bronson: So yeah, I really like that imitate. And then you innovate, you know, and here’s another question to, though, is it seems like the ideas or the ability to take things from offline online are getting more and more scarce. You know what I mean? It’s like you guys now, you got notes, you know, somebody else could compete, but you guys kind of got no cards. And that’s just what you do. And. The go to place. Do you feel like that all of that kind of low hanging fruit, offline activity like Facebook, hey, we’re social people. Let’s have a social network online. Yeah, yeah. There’s a lot of opportunity for that stuff still because to me it feels like there’s not as much.
Christopher: Yeah, no. You know, my personal thing, I think social’s maybe a little saturated. You know, I think that there’s every niche thing for dating and social that you could possibly imagine. And I’m sure there’ll be three more that come out this year but in a hit it big but the the Internet of things is is being coined you know I think is really it isn’t so much things I did offline per say but it’s smart technologies around the home, smart technologies around the car, smart technologies around things that I use every day. That may be technologies in nature but aren’t plugged into the Internet and the share and resources and tracking.
Bronson: So, you know, I you know, it’s funny you just said that because, again, it’s kind of like, okay, the first version of the Web was is bringing offline stuff online. This new version is the Innovate stage. We’re not just imitating, we’re innovating. And so it knows how long I’m sleeping and it knows where I’m driving and it turns on the lights to my house with you when I get close. Like, it’s all these things are working together now. And there was no offline version of this really. It’s, it’s something new. It’s an innovative thing. So that’s a cool way to see the trajectory of online and to make sure people watching this are going to where the puck’s going, not where it’s been. And so they’ll get ahead of of where everything’s moving to. Okay. So on your homepage, it says that you guys are a mobile first company. That’s one of the headlines, you know, half way down, three fourths, way down the page. So did you all begin on Mobile or do you begin on desktop? What was that journey like for you guys?
Christopher: Yeah, I know. That’s a funny one. So we kind of we’re coming out right as the iPhone was being introduced. So we were, you know, we didn’t know. So we definitely started with browsers and building for, you know, laptops and desktops. But I do remember a funny conversation where our co-founder was presenting to myself and another board member, and it was kind of saying like, Oh, we got to build for mobile. We got, you know, we got to go after mobile. And we were kind of looked at and we’re really angry and we’re like, What are you talking about? We haven’t even nailed the web yet. Like, forget mobile. Mobile. No, no, no. Nine on mobile is wrong. And in hindsight, you know, he was maybe a year or two ahead of where is thinking where we where we wanted to be.
Bronson: Was Fred Wilson, was it you?
Bronson: He’s the one that was championing mobile for a lot of people.
Christopher: Yeah. So but I think we ended up doing it and doing it right. We stumbled a little bit. We built a BlackBerry app that was the first app we ever built. And also, I think by the time we released that, BlackBerry was already toast. So we quickly moved on to iPhone from there. But we started yeah, we started primarily browser and as mobile devices and smartphones in particular started really taking off and it was clear that there was no turning back from that. We got on that bandwagon pretty quick and now we’ve kind of reversed the the trend. I mean, if you look at our our product staff, for example, were, you know, three people, for example, in mobile development, two, two in web. And so we were we staffed the team to focus on mobile first.
Bronson: What percentage of your users are on mobile?
Christopher: So we’re pretty we’re 50, 50 about two years ago and across that 5050 mark. But again, it’s it’s kind of the right screen size for the right tool. And, you know, if I’m studying on the go mobile’s perfect or at any enough review some content waiting in line for the bus or on my way to school or whatever it may be, you know, short bursts that sessions of studying a novel is great if I’m going to like write down some notes or really study apart the textbook and have all my content with me, you know, I’m probably going to use a laptop or desktop. So we see a lot of people using both platforms and I think we can’t afford not to be everywhere.
Bronson: Yeah. So it makes sense when you’re, you know, 5050, you just kind of have to be both. You’re in a place where you have to serve them both. Yeah. Next question I want to ask is because, you know, so many people come on the show and we talk about the highlights. This is what went well and this is what went well. And this other thing went well, too. And people watching sometimes get the impression that we’re all just moving from success to success with very few bumps in the road when in reality we both know is quite different than that. I’m talking about some of the hard times you’ve had getting this big and really growing a community this large. What are some of the toughest jobs, the toughest obstacles that you’ve had to overcome to study blue? The times when you go home and you’re just like, Man, this may not work or We’ve wasted six months or something.
Christopher: Yeah, yeah. No, it’s been a it’s a long haul. I mean, for people out there to think that everything’s going to be, oh, in 12 months, this thing’s going to be a rocket ship, and then, you know, you’re going to sell $4 billion in life. It’s going to be great. I mean, those stories exist and that’s what people like to write about. But I mean, your odds of that are like winning the Powerball. So, I mean, it’s just not not reality. Most people will have to, you know, slog through it. And you have nights where you go to bed sick because you don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring or if you’re going to be alive tomorrow with your business. And, you know, that’s more the reality of it. And so I think it’s about staying alive as a as a business. I mentioned earlier, you know, you got to have timing in the market. You’ve got to have the right product and you got to have the right message. And you need all three of those things to hit for you really to take off.
Bronson: And so, I mean, those three, again, I feel like there’s something there. One of those three things you said need to hit.
Christopher: The timing and the timing and the market is correct. You got to have the right product for the market and you got to have the right message that you’re delivering to the market and.
Bronson: Spread it out. Each of those real quick, cause I feel like there’s some good insight there. So timing, I think it’s kind of obvious, like you can have a great product at the wrong time and it just kind of falls flat. You can be ahead of your time, you can be behind your time, the time you just kind of like surfing. You got to get right on the wave as it’s, you know, when it’s ready to be served or it doesn’t matter how good of a surfer you are. And the second one, those product, do you mean it has to be the right product kind of for that time and for that community? Is that what you mean?
Christopher: Well, for the market, I kind of goes back to the how much how much narrow focus do you have? You know, are you servicing how many needs are you trying to service? How many types of people are you trying to service? Like if you know, it’s got to be the right you got to box it up in a nice package and make sure that it’s not too much or too little.
Bronson: Yeah. And so the first two, you know, the timing and the product, I think people understand those. But the third one you said message and usually messaging is like, oh, that’s important, but it’s not core. I mean, it’s not one of the three, you know what I mean? So you put messaging. That’s like one of the main things that you have to get right to really have a success. What do you mean by that?
Christopher: Yeah. No, I think I mean, part of that is core to, you know, what what growth hacking is all about here. I mean, it’s the idea that you you create a brand and a feeling. I think design has become and messaging has become more and more important. People are realizing that last five, six years is that’s taking on more prominence. But the the fact that you people people users today of technology want to affiliate with your brand. They want to feel like they there’s something they can tweet about. They can share with other people. I mean, most companies, they grow by grow word of mouth. If they are really going to be viral, it’s going to come from other people telling other people. And what do they say about you? You know what? How do they feel about you? Are you delivering good customer service so that people they feel like you, even if you screw up, that they still are loved by you? And having that message right and knowing that you communicate that everywhere, from the homepage to in the product to messages, the notifications you may send out in the app to your social media presence, to what is your company saying on Twitter or on Facebook or other places that it’s, you know, prominently portrayed. So, yeah.
Bronson: No, I love.
Christopher: Having that right and unified and clean is is key.
Bronson: Now, I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, I think messaging just matters. I mean, you think about you know, you go to any any marriage counseling and all you can talk about is your communication. You know, are you communicating, you know, are you understanding each other, saying, but we don’t think of that same way, like our message to the market and we communicate incorrectly at the wrong time with the wrong thing. And it hurts the relationship between us and the market. So I think messaging is huge because you can have a good product for somebody at the right time. But if you don’t say the right sentence, that clues them in that it’s the right prior to the right time. They can miss it when it was like the best thing that could have happened their life this year, you know?
Christopher: Yeah. Well, a lot of your messaging can come from your users. I mean, some of our key phrases that we use a lot are save time, stress less, you know, give better grades. Those value propositions, we didn’t invent those. We asked our users, why are you using Study Blue? And that’s what they told us in spades. And so we just spit it right back to them because it’s like, okay, here’s what other people like you are getting out of this service. Here’s why you should care.
Bronson: Yeah. No, that’s awesome. All right, so right now, and this interview’s over, you’re going to go work on something related to Study Blue. I’m sure this is a fun question to ask to see what you got going on today. What are you going to work on after this interview? And it could be boring or stupid or it could be some awesome new strategy.
Christopher: Well, besides, of course, we’re in January, so that always means year end financials and all that other boring stuff. But what you probably really want to hear is we’re working on a a content creator is kind of a loyalty program stuff. One of the big pushes for us this this quarter is kind of, you know, loving the VIP users, you know, those people who are your best users, identifying them, showing them that we care and, you know, giving them a little high five or little a little love. So we’re kind of trying to build out a program for that.
Bronson: Yeah. No, I mean, with your emphasis on messaging, it makes sense that you would want to roll out the carpet for the VIP people. All right. So to end here, what’s the best advice that you have for any startup that’s trying to grow? Maybe something already said or might be something new?
Christopher: Yeah, probably. Probably focus. I mean, I think you’ve really got to you have to focus on a few things. You have to place bets. You got to go out there and say, like, we stand for something, it’s narrow enough. We’re going to place a bet on that. You got to execute maniacally on the bets that you place and then you need to assess those bets pretty quickly and say, like, did that that pay off or did it fail? And if it paid off, you should double down. And if it failed, you need to move on. And I think kind of making that cycle a habit and knowing that it’s hard work to get to get there is how you can move quickly and get to the next thing or keep growing what you’re doing.
Bronson: And just knowing that’s a process. Maybe I’ll keep you from getting too discouraged that you give up just knowing that is what it feels like and that is the process that it’s a million failed experiments to get to the one that didn’t that you know that startups.
Christopher: That’s I think I think the quote came from the founder of LivingSocial which I really like he said, you know, if you aren’t making a decision at least once a month, that makes you very uncomfortable. You’re not making enough risky decisions like you’re not placing bets.
Bronson: So, no, I love that one. Or Christopher, this has been an awesome interview. Again, thank you so much for coming on growth after TV.
Christopher: Yeah, I appreciate it. Thanks a lot, Brownson.
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