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Note: At Job Portraits, we default to honesty. And the truth is, the world looks a lot different now than it did when we began production on the below story. But we also believe that now more than ever, it’s important to share stories of good people doing good work, like the folks at Quizlet. During this time of uncertainty, we’re sending well wishes to all our readers. May you be safe and healthy.

A Product for All of Humanity: CEO Matthew Glotzbach on Quizlet’s Vision for the Future and What Sets the Company Apart

If you ask Matt Glotzbach whether to join an edtech company, he’ll say, “Don’t do it.” But as for Quizlet? “Luckily, we’re not an edtech company.” In fact, after a successful 12-year career at Google and YouTube, Gloztbach says he simply couldn’t imagine passing up the opportunity to lead Quizlet. Below, he explains the unique business model that drew him in and how the team is using machine learning and AI to help hundreds of millions of people learn.

What does Quizlet do now — and what will it do in the future?

Quizlet has grown to become an interactive study platform that uses a variety of guides, games, and other activities to help people learn. Most people use the free, ad-supported version, but we also offer some upgrades for students and teachers who want more features like offline access and formative assessment tracking.

Matthew Glotzbach, Quizlet CEO (photo provided by Quizlet).

What we aspire to be, and are actively working towards, is an AI-powered tutor in your pocket that can help guide and focus your study just like a human would. That means not only understanding your answers and giving you feedback, but knowing what you need next, whether it’s a harder question or a quick break. It’s a complex, cross-functional challenge, but we believe it’s within our reach in the near future; this is a three- to five-year vision, not 20 or 100. We’re already starting to achieve parts of it, and we have the foundations in place in terms of technology, data, and people to go the rest of the way.

Tell us about your background and why you joined the team.

Before I came here in 2016, I spent 12 years in product management at Google, the last five of those at YouTube. My focus was on building freemium businesses; I led the teams that built Google Apps — which is now G Suite — as well as YouTube Premium, YouTube Music, and YouTube TV.

Then I got a call about Quizlet. I’d been interested in the intersection of technology and learning for a long time, but I’d seen very few if any edtech businesses that I thought would succeed at scale. This was a completely different business model — a bottom-up, direct-to-users approach that I thought was absolutely right. And more than ten years in, the company was already having a lot of success, despite the team being under-resourced in terms of both people and funding.

I also knew from experience how powerful user-generated content can be for growing a platform, and UGC is the foundation of Quizlet. With about ten million users at the time, there was already a ton of data in terms of both the content itself and the way people study. It just wasn’t getting leveraged. I could see a clear path for using machine learning to make the product better, and I realized this was a massive opportunity. It was one of those things I couldn’t not do.

Above left: Quizlet conference rooms are named after common school classes like Math, Homeroom, and Band. Above right: Engineering Manager John Lawson grabs some heads-down time on Quizlet San Francisco’s fifth-floor patio, overlooking downtown. On a sunny day (not pictured), you can see across the Bay.
Left: Quizlet Product Designer Catherine Bui hard at work. Right: Senior Director of Design Vickie Chiang (standing, far right) syncs with Product Design Manager Sal Bertucci (seated, center) and Senior Product Designer Memie Huang (standing, far left).

Tell us more about Quizlet’s business model and how it’s different from edtech.

There are a lot of great, well-intentioned products in the edtech space — and almost all of them have failed. One reason is that the predominant business model has been top-down, selling your product to schools and universities, and that’s incredibly challenging and expensive. There are about 20 school districts in the Bay Area alone — and often, the districts aren’t even making the decisions. You have to sell to each individual school. Plus, that model requires you to split your time between building for the students and teachers you’re trying to help and building for the IT people or board members who are buying the software.

“We’re a consumer learning tech company with a freemium product, just like YouTube or Spotify. And that means we can focus on students and build great products for them.”

So we take a different approach. We’re a consumer learning tech company with a freemium product, just like YouTube or Spotify. And that means we can focus on students and build great products for them. The user-generated content approach makes a big difference, too. Because an edtech company has to build its product against official curriculum, they can only publish so much content. If we took that approach, we’d probably only have high school Biology, American History, Spanish 1, and Spanish 2. But we never would have gotten around to a study guide for the Army Ranger selection process, or NCLEX test prep for nursing students, right? Instead, Quizlet is the go-to resource to prepare for any subject or certification. Going bottom-up has allowed us to provide an incredible breadth of content — and it can be customized to each student’s needs.

What’s the company culture like?

I like to say it’s the best of both worlds at Quizlet — we have the maturity that comes from being around for a while, and we’re still growing fast. So you get the opportunity that comes with joining a relatively early-stage company, but no one’s running around with their hair on fire. We believe work-life balance is an important part of a sustainable business, and we respect and encourage our team to have lives outside the office.

“At Quizlet…you get the opportunity that comes with joining a relatively early-stage company, but no one’s running around with their hair on fire.”

I think another common trait here is natural curiosity. We need to be lifelong learners not only because those are the people we serve, but because of the pace of change in tech. Our team has to be open to new ideas. And we do put our money where our mouth is on that! Every employee gets a $1,000 annual stipend to spend on anything learning-related.

Above left: Web Engineer Evelyn Chan shares a quiet corner with a teddy bear wearing vintage Quizlet gear. Above right: Quizlet’s SF HQ recently expanded into part of an additional floor, which includes a second kitchen, seen above.
Above: Lunch is catered every day in SF, and ordered via DoorDash in Denver. Below left: Engineering Manager Kerryck Jones shares a story over lunch. Below right: Engineer Grace Patuwo (standing, center) gets some post-lunch R&R in her Comfy™while catching up with the QA team.

Tell us about the challenges Quizlet is facing.

One thing we’re working on now is international expansion. We’re already well-known in the U.S.; about two-thirds of high school students and more than half of college students use Quizlet. That growth happened pretty organically, through a combination of good decisions and good luck — but it’s going to take a lot of work to replicate it on a global scale. We’re learning some new things and building some muscles we haven’t used much before now.

“[Our U.S.] growth happened pretty organically, through a combination of good decisions and good luck — but it’s going to take a lot of work to replicate it on a global scale.”

Our team is growing quickly, too, and that always comes with a lot of change, which can be a challenge. But it’s also incredibly exciting, especially as we open new offices. Our second HQ in Denver is a year old and about 25 people now, and we just made our first few hires in London. There are smart, skilled people everywhere, not just in Silicon Valley — the people we’re finding in our new locations have been spectacular — and I’m hugely excited about tapping into those talent pools.

I think one of the hardest parts of all this growth is deciding what we aren’t going to tackle. There’s so much opportunity in learning and education; there are countless product road maps that would be reasonable to pursue. But as a leadership team, we really believe it’s important to stay focused on doing a few things well.

What’s most exciting about Quizlet’s current moment?

We’re in a great place right now where we’ve had a lot of success and the business is very sustainable, but there’s still tons of room to grow. The last few years, we’ve been getting the foundation in place, and now we’re able to push forward with more velocity. We’ve scaled to the point where we can make progress on a number of things in parallel.

One thing that’s particularly exciting to me is seeing us deliver on the promise of all that data we were sitting on four years ago. When our Data Science leader, Ling Cheng, joined last year, we had one or two other data scientists. Now she’s built a team of more than 10 people, and we’re starting to see the quantum leaps forward we’ll be able to make by leveraging those core assets of our data and our scale.

Senior Manager of Data Science and Machine Learning, Ling Cheng.

So we’re off to a great start — we have almost 60 million people using Quizlet every month now, and no competitor is anywhere close. But at the same time, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. There are 1.5 billion students on the planet right now, and in 10 years, there will be 2.5 billion. And that’s just by the formal definition, not to mention the massive trend toward continuing education. So the sheer scale of our opportunity is exciting, and not just because of the business we can build, but because of the impact we can make on our students. It’s a core belief of mine that with tenacity and guidance, anyone can learn anything. The more accessible and available we can make Quizlet, the more people we can help.

Want to build a product for billions of global users?

Get in touch or check out open roles.

Your moment of Zen: VP International Richard Gregory chats with Senior Director of Marketing Laura Oppenheimer in one of the SF office’s many light-filled corners.

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Job Portraits

Job Portraits specializes in Managed Employer Branding We use the truth to help teams find their people.