StudyBlue CEO talks collaborative learning, Madison’s startup culture

University of Wisconsin-Madison alumna Becky Splitt joined StudyBlue as its CEO in 2009, when the online study service incorporated. Founded in 2007 by UW-Madison graduates Chris Klundt and Dave Sergeant, the service now has 5.5 million users. Originally targeted for college students, it now reaches middle and high school students, too. Splitt recently spoke at TEDxMadison about the power of collaborative learning. She talked to The Capital Times about what’s new with StudyBlue and educational technology.

Cap Times: What drew you to StudyBlue?

Becky Splitt: The opportunity to make a huge impact in the space that I think is, other than health care, arguably the most important segment — not just in the U.S., but in the world. For anybody to improve their outcomes, achieve their goals, it starts with good education.

StudyBlue has grown quite a bit since it incorporated in 2009. What have been some of the biggest changes along the way?

A couple of the biggest changes were in the first… years. The initial concept — Chris Klundt, the original founder who had been working on the technology before I met him — was, we were pursuing a concept for online study groups. Again, bringing the power of working together to students. Some of the changes were stepping back and realizing that you have to first provide a better solution to a problem that students are already solving. Hold them one step at a time, not try to do this big leap. One of the biggest changes along the way was just kind of watching and seeing what was resonating, and learning that oftentimes, technology is way ahead of where consumers are. So you have to really go to where they are today and not ask them to make too big of a leap or change in habits. That was one of the biggest changes and maybe challenges, too.

One of the other surprises was, about 30 percent of our users are now middle school and high school students. That has happened organically on its own. And while they’re using the exact same platform, it’s a very different on-ramp, if you will. Most of our middle school students come to us because a teacher recommends it.

Has that been part of an attitude shift, too? Not too long ago, schools were telling students, “Don’t bring your phone to class.” It seems to have flipped to the opposite.

It’s a huge attitude shift. We still have, anybody over the age of 30 will say, “Students are sharing together online. Isn’t that cheating?” This whole survival of the fittest: You have to fail the bottom 10 percent, all the top 10 percent get an A, is so antiquated and completely counter-intuitive to actually helping everybody learn. Today’s students … they’re saying, “I want to get an A, but shouldn’t we all get an A? Isn’t it about us all learning the best we can? And if we can do that, by helping each other and collaborating, but we all have to prove on our own that we know the information, isn’t that the endgame?” And that is. But a lot of people that grew up and were programmed when the attitudes were very different really have to step back and be educated and to think about that, and say, “I guess that makes sense.”

What are the benefits of having this collaboration in a structured environment, as opposed to students just getting on email or Facebook and doing it that way?

I think there has to be a common taxonomy and a common platform to be able to take advantage of the computing power that can sift through tons of digital content in milliseconds, and you tell it enough about you to be able to give you what’s relevant. It’s completely different from doing it on your own, even on Facebook. Your classmates or the other people that are studying the same things that would help you most, are not your friends. A lot of people don’t think about that. It’s not true in small colleges, and it’s not so true in middle school or high school, but in most colleges, especially at the University of Wisconsin, there’s some overlap as you get into higher level courses, but there’s very little overlap in the big lecture courses. And you don’t want to become friends with that person in the first row who has the best notes, but for the semester, you want to be able to benefit from collaborating with them.

How do you measure the success and the impact that you’re having on students?

The best vote for me is their time. This is not something students want to do; it’s not a game, it’s not a communication tool. It’s not fun. It’s something you have to do. If students are choosing to invest their time using our app, that is by far the best measure that we’re making a difference and that it’s working. The average time on site for a study session on StudyBlue is 18 minutes, which is pretty high. We have a lot of 40-, 5-0, 60-minute study sessions. Those students are outlining their notes, taking notes, etc. But total time for study session, actually for us, we want to see that go down. And we are seeing it go down with mobile apps. So students using our mobile apps more than our web app actually spend more aggregate minutes using StudyBlue, but their sessions are more 5-10 minutes. They study more in the morning, they get out of bed and they flip through a deck of cards, or they’re waiting in line or they’re in the coffee shop or whatever. So that’s pretty cool, because that also feeds into a lot of research about more effective learning.

What’s it like running a startup in Madison?

Madison is wonderful for startups. It’s wonderful for seed stage. There’s great talent out of the university, lots of energy, obviously intellect and people that are willing to think big and invest big. Madison is definitely in the early days of building up an ecosystem to build businesses to that second and third level. Epic is a great example of somebody who’s done it, but almost singlehandedly, and very quietly. In the space that we’re in, where social media/marketing managers and people who understand managing big data server architectures in the cloud, there’s a huge ecosystem for that, you can go find those people and hire them in a heartbeat in places like San Francisco, Seattle, New York. They don’t exist in Madison. And the venture capital community is very young and early here, for that later stage investment, because we just don’t have people who have the experience to have the competence to know to assess good investments. It’s happening, though. It’s pretty exciting. There’s a lot of undercurrent that’s growing. I’ve been here five years, and there’s more and more of the kinds of people and investments happening. It’s still very early.

We now have two-thirds of our team in San Francisco. We opened our San Francisco office two years ago, because we just experienced firsthand that once we got to a certain size — it isn’t that I think StudyBlue couldn’t succeed without having two offices and having employees in San Francisco, but you want to take all the risks off the table you can. So you don’t want to make it any more challenging than it might be.

What else are you excited about in education and technology right now?

(StudyBlue is) really one piece, one example of what’s happening there. But I really do think that it’s possible that we will find that the only cost-effective and scalable way to improve education around the world is through a platform that basically allows anyone, anywhere to connect with each other and all the material that’s out there, that can help them sift through it, and basically help students help each other. We see it every day, budgets are going down, costs are going up, expectations on teachers, on everything are going up, and there’s only so much you can expect teachers, schools and others to be able to do. They’re limited in their capacity. On the flip side, you have everyone around the world with a phone that’s connected, with intelligence in it, and it’s got cloud-based architecture with the computing power … I think it’s just ripe for being possibly the most transformative thing to help people.