The most popular startup you've never heard of

Millions of college students visited the ed tech platform StudyBlue in the past year. CEO Becky Splitt tells how she's quietly won them over.
Written by Audrey Quinn, Contributor

For Becky Splitt, CEO of the educational technology company StudyBlue, the company's success boils down to thinking like a tween -- or at least like her daughter.  

“She was making her flashcards and she typed in Homo erectus,” Splitt says. “She had to know how long ago Homo erectus lived. And up came the card from StudyBlue that said, 'Homo erectus was YOLO 2 million years ago.' It was another middle school student, making cards that said, 'YOLO,' You only live once. Homo erectus only lived once, 2 million years ago! There's no teacher, there's no textbook that would have explained it that way, because they don't think like a middle school student thinks. She saw that and she never had to study that again.”

It's that ability to connect like-minded students that has made StudyBlue the most popular startup you've likely never heard of. The site reports 5 million users, 80 percent of whom are college students, as well as a growing number of high school and middle school students. Students can upload class notes to create flashcards and practice tests and glean study tips from other students who've shared their notes on the same material.

The Web site and app operate on a “freemium” model, where most visitors use the platform for free with a few ads. Premium users can spend a few dollars a month to go ad-free and get features like an equation editor, advance search filters and an offline mode. Splitt concedes that StudyBlue does sometimes get erroneous study notes, but other users are quick to report inaccuracies -- the tool loses its value if the study material isn't correct.

When StudyBlue wooed Splitt in 2009, the company was prototyping online study groups at the University of Wisconsin. She guided its growth to a primarily mobile platform with users across the globe. 

Splitt's just arrived in New York City the night prior for a routine business visit. I caught her refueling between meetings at a midtown cafe and am struck by her straightforward kindness, though her drive shines through simultaneously. Before I've finished removing my layers of outerwear and taken my seat, I’m briefed on her life hack for one of travel's biggest inconveniences -- jet lag. She's been up since 6 a.m., which is sleeping in for her, technically. When at home in Madison, Wis., she rises daily at 5 a.m. And when she's visiting StudyBlue headquarters in San Francisco, her alarm's off at 3 a.m. This is a woman immune to time zones.

The tech world hadn't been her goal, she tells me. “When I finished graduate school, I was intending to go into student affairs and higher ed,” she said, chuckling. “I was in love with my now-husband, we were dating at the time, and he had a year of engineering school left. So I said, 'OK, I can stay in Wichita, I can stay here for a year.'” A friend of a friend brought her on as product manager at his Kansas voice recognition software startup. She stayed six years.

Then in late 1994 she was sitting on her couch, flipping through a magazine with Craig Mundie, Microsoft's new head of research and development, on the cover. The article mentioned his interest in exploring voice- recognition technology. She looked up at her husband, Kelly Splitt, sitting beside her.

“They need somebody like me!” she joked.

“Oh, you think you could really get a job there?” he said, playing along.

“Yeah, I think I could,” she said. She carried through on the lark, and wrote Microsoft a letter detailing her experience with voice recognition technology.

A few weeks later, she got a letter back from the company's human resources department. They flew her out to Seattle soon afterward. She never ended up working on voice recognition there, but instead went on to spend six years as head of MSN International. At the time when the company was developing Hotmail and Expedia, she expanded the early Internet service provider-turned-information portal into 22 countries.

“You see an opportunity, you ride it as far as you can go,” she said. Now at StudyBlue, she sees another chance to transform another tech sector.

“What's really disruptive about StudyBlue is we are quietly amassing this huge library of shared material,” Splitt said. “We have over 200 million pieces of material now. Everything in it now we know a lot about who made it, what school they’re at, what level they're at, who their teacher was.”

Splitt says the company currently does not have any plans to use that user data for purposes beyond fueling its recommendation engine. The Web site or app will offer unprompted study tips, or alert students to scholarship opportunities or graduate admissions information.

I ask if she sees StudyBlue eventually offering online course material. Her eyes brighten.

“Already today,” she said, “if you want to learn about yoga poses, if you want to study for the wine sommelier exam, you can come today and type that in and find a lot of content on it, and you can learn it using our tools. We'll quiz you on it and you can flip through it while waiting on the train. And if you're not trying to get a credential, it's a great way to learn it. But some day, when there's new credentialing models, maybe you just come to StudyBlue, and you learn all the concepts on StudyBlue enough that you went and took a standard AP test and passed it, that's not far off.”

She imagines the demand for online learning tools is only going to grow. “Even if it's teachers having to get re-certified every three years or taking a CPA exam when you're 30, or whatever it is, we believe that we will be the place where anyone in the world goes to learn something when there is value to them in connecting with the other people who are trying to learn the same thing. And more and more, we're always trying to learn something.”

Success, she said, will depend on giving users what they want.

“So many companies are product-focused and not user-focused,” Splitt said. “In fact, we struggle with this. Even though I’m constantly aware of this and harping on it, it's hard to get our developers not to talk and think and build product. And I say, we are not a product team, we are solving problems for users. That's critical.”

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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