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Meet The Disruptors: Shivram Venkatasubramaniam Of Edfinity On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shivram Venkatasubramaniam.

Shivram Venkatasubramaniam is the co-founder and CEO of Edfinity, an innovative, collaborative online homework platform for collegiate STEM courses that unbundles expensive publisher packages of textbooks and homework platforms. With 25 years of international experience in the technology sector and an expert in commercializing advanced technological innovations, Shivram is also the technical lead for Edfinity’s adaptive learning capabilities and its authoring tools for educators to create, curate and crowdsource richly interactive problems for greater student engagement.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My wife, an Edfinity co-founder, was pursuing her late-career PhD at Stanford University at the same time that our older son entered Stanford for undergraduate study. Between the two of them, we were suddenly spending a fortune on textbooks. We realized that the textbooks were expensive, cosmetic packages of two components: expository content that is otherwise easily available; and difficult-to-find problem sets, which are crucial for learning. In other words, the problem sets, something really critical, was being superficially bundled with something that was easily available and should be free, the textbook content. Faculty members were following this model out of habit and a lack of alternatives. It’s not unlike healthcare where the pharmaceutical industry pushes doctors to mandate the purchase of their drugs for patients. It was a classic “broken market” — faculty were making the purchasing decision, but students bore the brunt of the cost of the expensive textbooks. I was coming off a sabbatical after my previous venture and this appeared to be a prime opportunity to make a difference in something that is a great source of frustration for many college students. To preserve the focus on our mission — to provide college students and educators with affordable access to intuitive, enabling technologies and high-quality instructional content we decided as a company that we would not accept or seek venture funding. 2017 was a turning point when our narrative resonated with the National Science Foundation and we received crucial federal funding to get off the blocks.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

There are two powerful themes underpinning what we’re doing — unbundling and disintermediation. My favorite analogy for what we are doing is the music industry, which saw the traditional album unbundled into individual tracks for purchase by iTunes and witnessed services like Spotify eliminate the need for record labels as intermediaries between artists and consumers.

Instruction in collegiate STEM courses has always hinged on quality problem sets that are crucial to learning outcomes. Traditionally, these problem sets have been bundled with instructional/expository material in the form of copyrighted textbooks sold by large publishers. So, the textbook has been the de facto unit of purchase and publishers have exploited this opportunity fairly mercilessly. For instance, every year a cosmetic new edition of the same Algebra textbook with only a few minor edits is sold for an exorbitant price. Hapless students have to purchase these textbooks at the behest of their professors just to get access to the problem sets — the average college student rarely consumes the copious expository materials in textbooks. So, the real value lies in the problem sets. In fact, with the explosive growth of self-publishing and OER (open educational resources), the cost of expository content is headed toward zero, which further underlines the importance of access to quality problem sets.

Edfinity has unbundled the traditional textbook and decoupled problem sets from expository content, offering ready-to-use homework mapped to more than 300 textbooks as well as hundreds of thousands of interactive, algorithmic homework problems. These can all be mapped to any commercial or OER textbook or paired with any curriculum. We are solely focused on providing high quality problem sets for any STEM course regardless of the choice of curriculum or instructional content. We focus on meeting the most important need of educators and students — high quality problems — without any excess, costly baggage. Our platform also provides an environment in which educators can easily author sophisticated problems and share them with peers within and across institutions, which creates a strong networking effect. This disintermediates publishers who have historically contracted with educators to author copyrighted content that is then sold to the broader community.

These two themes of unbundling and disintermediation have propelled us within a short time to adoption by over 350 institutions. By cutting out the middleman, so to speak, and unpacking superfluous content bundles, we’ve reduced the cost of access for students by 75% and positioned ourselves as a change agent for democratizing access to quality content. As I often say to educators, it’s not so much that we cost so little, it’s more that the incumbent products cost far too much. Just to put this in perspective, in displacing a publisher product that charges $100/student/term we could save as much as $97/student, and no less than $71/student — this is per student per course per term. At any institution, this amounts to a very compelling throttling of massive economic waste.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There’s an aphorism by writer and political activist Upton Sinclair: It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. In our early days, we explained our value proposition to a large publisher who represented the problem we were trying to solve. It was naive to hope for change from within, but just 15 minutes into our presentation, I could read what they were thinking — adopting our product would essentially bring down their carefully constructed model and render more than half the people in the room obsolete. It was like reasoning with a block of concrete. They didn’t want to hear what we were saying because our approach was flipping the status quo on its head. That was the last time we tried to give incumbents a eureka moment.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

My most impactful mentors have been my NSF program officer Rajesh Mehta and fellow Edfinity colleagues Sid Grover and Bob Carmichael. Each of them has been singularly responsible for navigating critical forks on our path thus far. Rajesh was instrumental in helping us focus our energies on technical innovation first to build a gap between us and imitators, instead of being distracted by low hanging fruit. Sid was the driving force behind our steadfast refusal to accept any form of capital until the NSF offered non-dilutive funding without any strings attached — this ensured a clear runway for our company without any adulteration of our agenda or intent. Bob shepherded our company’s commitment to break away from the pack and conceive a consumer, end-user educator app that could supplant an enterprise app, which provided the foundation for the substantial and perpetual cost advantage we have over our competitors, both old and new. There have been several helping hands and shoulders to lean on, but these three individuals have been most consequential to my entrepreneurial journey.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Disruption may well be a misnomer if it doesn’t have a positive impact on society. The simplest litmus test for a bonafide disruption is whether it has moved the needle on some combination of affordability and access in conjunction with societal benefit. I would argue that iTunes, Spotify, Pandora and others have moved the needle in the music industry. In real estate, Redfin and Zillow have made strides in addressing the costs and redundancy of expensive realtor services, but they haven’t yet dislodged realtors to any meaningful degree yet. You could argue that streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime have really turned the heat up on the traditional TV and movie industries by dramatically increasing access to quality content, but whether they have delivered overall societal benefits in terms of productivity and economic impact is debatable at this point. Similarly, Facebook may have succeeded in its goal to serve as the ultimate digital glue for social connectivity but its impact on society as a whole as well as the wellbeing of young people has been questioned. In our case, Edfinity is aiming for the rafters on all three vectors — access, affordability and societal benefit.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

“Your best bet is to build a product that exemplifies high technology risk but very low business risk.” — My program officer at the NSF chanted this mantra both as a prerequisite for funding our company and as a recipe for success. It has been a leitmotif in our journey and given us tremendous competitive advantage, making us more likely to be the meteor than the dinosaur.

“Your customers are your best salespersons.” — This was drilled into us by one of our early adopters who had grown weary of the large publishers. It validated our inclination to go against convention, making Edfinity more of an end-user educator app that relies on organic customer acquisition through referrals and word-of-mouth. Our educators drive and inform our product development and swift feedback from them has improved our product and our performance very quickly.

“Get the founding team right. You won’t get a second chance.” — These are mildly cliched but profound words nonetheless from a Harvard Business School professor who authored the case studies chronicling my earlier venture. We delayed Edfinity’s commencement by 18 months to wait for one of our co-founders to come free from his commitments and it was worth every second. A hurried or conveniently constituted founding team is always an expensive fracture point for any venture.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Edfinity is in the early stages of a marathon and it’s all consuming. My field of vision doesn’t extend beyond Edfinity at this stage. There are concentric circles of opportunities and challenges that we will continue to work through over the next several years.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t by Jim Collins is a terrific read and has significantly influenced the building of our company. In his book, Jim talks about companies with virtuous flywheels and positive feedback loops that trigger non-linear growth. Edfinity plays in a field that has traditionally had enterprise sales attributes, with salespeople walking corridors at colleges, wooing faculty with bagels and donuts, offering tickets to concerts and paid events, etc. In contrast, we’ve conceived of Edfinity as an end-user educator app wherein educators can self-onboard quickly without even speaking to a sales rep. Edfinity also caters to every educator’s natural inclination to share their content with peers with a single click. With our platform, educators can collaborate and instantly share problems with peers, creating a constant supply of peer-reviewed problems for the entire academic community. By enabling crowdsourcing and leveraging untapped educator skills, Edfinity ensures equitable access for the entire ecosystem. This has created positive network effects and virality without a single salesperson. Our educators are our de facto salespersons.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Sun Tzu: “If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by.” Endurance and resilience are grossly underestimated competitive strategies. Over the last three years, the mere passage of time has claimed several casualties in our competitive field. Some of the most enduring companies of our times have been built brick by brick over long periods of time because they were built to survive first. Most young companies forego this due to ill-timed, excessive or redundant capital raising during their formative years, all of which almost always dilutes the pedigree of the team and the purity of mission.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

It is evident that the wheels of repercussions have already been set in motion for the large academic publishers and there are deep reservoirs of resentment building up against their practices. Against this backdrop, it feels like there is a moment to be seized by the community as a whole. If the educator community could come together to commit individually and collectively to developing educational materials, it could be a powerful cooperative moment that straddles institutional boundaries — it could be a moment of true disruption for publishers. It’s sort of a ‘flash mob’ cooperative movement that is more systematically orchestrated at scale. Just to anchor this in practicality — the average introductory STEM class requires 300–400 quality problems over the course of the term regardless of where it is taught. It is incredibly practical and feasible for the community to jointly author a critical mass of 400 problems and supplemental instructional content for use by the entire community term after term to ensure a fresh supply — the same applies for supplemental instructional content. Innovators like Edfinity can provide the technical plumbing for authoring, auto-grading, delivery, analytics and everything else for a modest sustainability fee. There are two imperative building blocks for this to become a reality, though: (a) sooner or later, I expect educators will be required to take some sensible equivalent of the medical Hippocratic oath and commit to prioritizing student affordability over other factors; (b) Edfinity and other technology innovators have a prime opportunity today to empower educators with modern, easy-to-use tools for authoring and collaboration at scale. We’re already seeing all this play out at a certain scale — a more systemic change in attitude feels imminent and inevitable.

How can our readers follow you online?

Website: https://edfinity.com/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/edfinity-com/about/

Twitter: @EdfinityUS

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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