Popular study app Quizlet faces a moment of truth as a new school year begins

Key Points
  • A study app called Quizlet is on a quest to reach the world's 1.5 billion students.
  • The app is already used by 1 in 2 high school students in the U.S. and 1 in 3 college students.
  • Quizlet released a slate of new features on Wednesday, heading into the 2017-18 school year.

A study app used by half of U.S. high-school students, Quizlet, is getting a back-to-school makeover.

The changes represent a turning point for the 11-year-old tech venture and its new CEO, Matthew Glotzbach.

A former vice president of product management with YouTube, Glotzbach wants to grow Quizlet from more than 20 million monthly active users, some 80 percent of them in the United States, to 1 billion or more users across the globe in coming years.

That's a hefty ambition for an app focused on learning. It took Facebook four years to reach 100 million users, and 8.7 years to reach 1 billion users. But that's a general interest social network. There are only about 1.5 billion students in primary, secondary and higher education schools globally.

Quizlet has money in the bank to help reach its goal. After nine years of bootstrapping (running on its own revenue and credit lines), it raised $12 million in venture capital in late 2015. The round was co-led by Union Square Ventures, a firm that also placed early bets on Zynga, Twitter, Twilio and other tech start-ups that ultimately went public or were acquired for more than $1 billion.

Still flush with capital, Quizlet hired Glotzbach last spring to help it expand with founder Andrew Sutherland moving into the role of CTO. The two often collaborate, Glotzbach told CNBC, including by hosting quarterly internal hackathons where employees cook up potential new features to build into the app.

Quizlet, which started as a simple online flashcard builder, now includes seven study modes. Among other things, users can create digital flashcards, matching games and games that can be used to get students playing quiz show-style games in the classroom.

Additions to the platform for the new school year include Quizlet Diagrams, allowing students to upload images and pin information to them. The new feature could prove handy for students of subjects heavy on visuals like geography, anatomy and architecture.

Students use Quizlet, a mobile app, to study anatomy.

"Believe it or not, using a two-sided index card to study is not universal, even if it's popular," Glotzbach said. Quizlet employees learned, however, that students globally adopt visual study aids. International appeal was one motivation for adding Diagrams to the app.

While Quizlet has regarded itself as a platform for user-generated study materials, Glotzbach said it also has just begun to offer study sets from educational publishers. Its first partner in this endeavor is Wordly Wise 3000, a vocabulary curriculum publisher.

The CEO declined to discuss the terms of the partnership, but given his past experience at YouTube, it seems clear that Quizlet could one day generate revenue by distributing and displaying ads alongside its partners' content.

Perhaps most importantly for Quizlet's bottom line, the company has also created a new premium offering, Quizlet Go. Users pay $1.99 per year to use study materials in the app, ad-free, on or offline.

Today, Quizlet dominates the U.S. study app market. According to App Annie, Quizlet racked up 20 million installations of its mobile apps since introducing them in 2012 in the United States. But it's facing increasing competition from education tech start-ups including, most directly, other study tools like Memrise and Studyblue.

Glotzbach said competition is not what's keeping him up at night. Instead, he said, Quizlet faces an uphill battle when it comes to hiring in the San Francisco tech hub. "The Bay Area is such a competitive market," he said. "There's Google, Facebook, Snap and Uber here, all hungry for talent. Especially when it comes to software engineering, design and product management."

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