Down to Business: Quizlet founder Andrew Sutherland
Andrew Sutherland is the Founder and CTO of Quizlet, a learning platform designed to aid study and memory retention through online games.
Reader's Digest: How did Quizlet begin?
Andrew Sutherland: It’s a fun story! I started the project in 10th grade [year 11] when I was 15, in Albany California.
I was taking a French class where I had a really difficult teacher who had really high expectations of us—she had us write our own plays and do skits and cook French food and all sorts. She also had us learn a ton of vocabulary and grammar, and there was one time where we were given 111 French animals to learn in a night. I thought that was kind of crazy, but I started studying and was getting my dad to quiz me on all these random words. I realised that our system for keeping track of what I did and didn’t know wasn’t very good, and if I could just build a tool that would keep track of things, I could study a lot more efficiently.
So for my next test, I did that—I built this little website that would keep the list and keep asking me the ones I didn’t know until I had them all, and with that tool, I got 100 per cent on my test for the first time. I started sharing it with the other kids in my class who started doing similarly, which was when I realised that it was something that could be useful to a lot of people.
RD: Have you always had that entrepreneurial spirit?
AS: I was only 15 then, so it was definitely my first big thing. I started making websites and designing my own blogs for myself from quite a young age, and I had made a few small business websites for friends' parents and things like that, but this was certainly my first big effort.
I’d also say though that when I started Quizlet, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it as a business—it was just a tool for myself, a project that was fun. It was a good year or two later that I thought I could make business around that.
RD: What was that tipping point into realising that Quizlet could be a success?
AS: I didn’t know what was going to happen when it launched publically and everyone could create their own content on it, but it grew so quickly via word of mouth.
Students would see such quick improvement in their skills and tell other students, the teachers found out and got really excited because their students would come to class so much more prepared, and then teachers would share it with their whole class and colleagues. It was when I saw how steadily it was growing that way that I realised it could be a big business.
It wasn’t until 2011—six years into it—that I dropped out of college to work on Quizlet full time. That’s when it stopped feeling like a project and more like a real company trying to go for it.
RD: What did your professors make of you dropping out of college to pursue this venture?
AS: I was a Computer Science student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the time, and at MIT they have a lot of very entrepreneurial students and they encourage that, but they also want their students to graduate.
A lot of professors want their students to go on to do Masters and Doctorates and become professors themselves. It was a real mix of reactions, but some were very supportive and could see why I didn’t want to wait. I was only a year away from graduating, but I can’t imagine I’d ever go back.
RD: What has been your proudest achievement so far?
AS: I don’t know if there has been a single moment, but the thing that makes me really proud is the worldwide impact. I’ve travelled to so many different countries and met with all these different teams and learned from so many experiences.
Last year I went to Finland and met a teacher who was working with Vietnamese refugee students and using Quizlet to get them up to speed learning Finnish—it was something that no other tool could really help do in the same way. Quizlet is all customised content that you can upload for yourself and make it perfect for whatever you’re learning, so it allowed them to do exactly what they needed. Seeing something like that is really rewarding.
RD: The Quizlet brand revolves very strongly around the idea of learning for good mental health and wellbeing as well as knowledge. Why is this so important to you?
AS: It’s something that has come from the very beginnings of my journey with Quizlet and was central to my own experience as a student. We’ve always built for students first and made sure to create something that is enjoyable and simple. We have games that are really fun, which is much more engaging and takes the stress out of more traditional methods that they maybe don’t enjoy at school. We always want people to feel like Quizlet is on their side. The administrators and district side of things are really excited about it, but it’s only when it actually gets into the hands of students that it feels real.
To me, what’s super powerful about Quizlet is that it’s a great supplement, and gets students through the basics so that class time can be spent so much more productively, creating richer discussion and allowing the students to have proper dialogues with each other.
RD: What does an average day of work look like to you?
AS: I split my time between a few different things. One is business and project strategy, which is looking at the long-term and thinking about how we grow internationally, how we make the project more useful internationally. So I spend a lot of time deep-diving on those topics.
I also spend a lot of time on technology—we’re running a top 50 popularity website in the US and probably top 100 worldwide, so the scale of usage is massive, and there’s a lot of moving parts to make sure that the site stays running as it should. I spend a lot of time with our engineers planning and building tools to keep it stable.
RD: What have been the biggest challenges in adapting from a personal project maker up to a CTO and employer of many?
AS: The Quizlet team is about 150 people strong now, and it has been a big transition. When you’re small and doing things for yourself, you have a very strong intuition for what needs to be done—I was the biggest user of my own product for a long time.
Over time, it’s became so popular as the default tool for a lot of students studying topics that I never was. Nurses for example—it’s one of the most popular tools for them to study vocabulary and technical terms, and we have to do a lot of user research to make sure it’s set up in a way that is as useful for everyone as possible.
People management is also huge. Being a high schooler or in college, it’s not something you learn a lot about, but you have to grow to learn how to train other people, how to rally people around the same cause and set expectations for their personal growth. It’s certainly something I’ve had to pick up along the way and learn to focus on.
RD: What career do you think you’d be in if you weren’t working in technology?
AS: I love what I’m doing—it's an amazing way to have a large-scale impact on education in schools, but maybe I would like to go back and teach for a while and see the world from that perspective. I think that would be a lot of fun.
RD: What’s left on your professional bucket list?
AS: We’re really working on spreading Quizlet to the rest of the world; the UK is actually one of our big focuses right now. That’s a major milestone—we just think this is an extremely valuable and useful tool that everyone in the world can use or benefit from. That’s definitely a goal path that I would say we’re a long way off achieving, but we’re working on it!
I also really want to improve the diversity of the kinds of learning that can be achieved through Quizlet—that has space to grow a lot. We’re amazingly useful if you want to focus on French vocabulary, like I started it with, or learn a bunch of other subjects, but we still have a lot of work to do to build a math-specific tool for example. There’s a lot we can do with data about how people learn and implement that—we’ve made a lot of progress but we still have a long way to go.
RD: What lasting impact would you want Quizlet to have on the world?
AS: That's something I think about a lot. I want to have a large positive impact on education. It’s been 14 years since I started working on this, and there are still so many students that don’t know how to study, or their success is impeded just because they’ve never learned how to learn.
If we can make students more confident in themselves, and more successful, there are so many follow-on benefits for self-belief and positivity that lead into every aspect of life. I think it’s a very worthwhile thing to do.
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