“Bringing educators and students together with a common purpose, to reach a common goal is the core of what we do. We are identifying, recognizing, amplifying and celebrating great educators and great learning and teaching resources, to help bring the best lessons to every student no matter where they are and how much money they have“
I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Grauer, CEO and Founder of Course Hero. In 2006, Andrew Grauer founded Course Hero, online learning platform working to bring about a vision of a world where every student graduates confident and prepared. Today, that platform is home to more than 25 million course-specific study resources contributed by a community of students and educators. The company is continuously recognized by elite organizations spanning education, business and workplace culture. Course Hero is more than just a product of Andrew’s passion, it is a product of his upbringing. Andrew was raised in a family that believed strongly in the importance of education and persistence. His father was a professor at Columbia and MIT; his mother one of three women MBA students in the 1972 graduating class at the University of Chicago. These role models infused Andrew’s own academic career and were instrumental to the founding of Course Hero. While a student at Cornell, Andrew experienced first-hand the stress of continuous performance at the highest level. He came to the conclusion that there had to be a better way to study efficiently, learn deeply and do well in school. He initially set out to build the largest online library of course-specific learning resources. As he progressed on this journey his eyes were opened to additional student challenges — such as access, equity and the evolution of the typical student from a teenager to an adult with additional life stressors. Recognizing the very real needs of the community he serves, Andrew pivoted Course Hero’s focus away from mere content aggregation and toward a learning destination; a home where students can share, get unstuck, practice and truly understand the material. Course Hero allows them to generate bespoke learning experiences so they enter the world confident and prepared for life beyond the quad. Most recently, he’s led the company to bring in educators as partners. This has made Course Hero a destination for educators to find material, build assessments, and gain recognition. Course Hero aims to provide all the best supplemental content, demanded by students, and endorsed by educators. Today’s Course Hero includes practice problems, study guides, videos, class notes, and step-by-step explanations to help with every college class — from mathematics to literature, biology to history, accounting to psychology, and everything in between. Course Hero has been recognized as one of the 2018 Technology Fast 500 by Deloitte and named a 2018 Best Place to Work in the Bay Area by the San Francisco Business Times and Silicon Valley Business Journal.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Andrew! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I got to college, I was studying…a lot. And studying was stressful. It felt lonely.
I didn’t know it was a universal need to get more on demand, quality, affordable study help. To help get unstuck on tough homework questions and practice for quizzes and tests.
In upstate NY in January, it took a lot of unproductive time and effort to get yourself anywhere around campus, especially in the winter. And especially for a born and bred California kid.
Which meant that whether it was getting to the library, office hours, study group, etc. — it was hard to get help on demand.
I could hire a private tutor — but that was expensive and didn’t seem that commonplace. I could ask a classmate to be a study buddy — that felt inconvenient, awkward, and disingenuous.
But at the same time, online, I could do so much else.
I could order a pizza with the newly launched pizza delivery tracker.
I could go on YouTube and watch someone teach me to play the piano.
And I could buy stuff from Amazon and have it delivered right to my dorm.
I went to Google and asked questions but it was hard to find just what I needed.
I could check out Wikipedia, got access to encyclopedias, and even research journals
But a platform with course specific help on problem set 7, question 6 in my economics class? That I could not find.
This challenge for students to find the information they need was the problem that I chose to solve. It was a painful, frequently occurring problem in my life — and, it turns out — -in most any student’s life.
This was the beginning of Course Hero.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Sir Ken Robinson, the most watched speaker in the history of TED Talks (Do Schools Kill Creativity?), joined our Educator Summit in 2018, the first of its kind. To have this kind of celebrity educator provide credibility to our cause was amazing. He explained that nobody teaches us how to learn. It’s a natural process. We are born learning to absorb language, behavior, relations, and identity but the formal education model is broken. He identified the cause; we’re providing the solution.
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?
I was listening to the advice of a credible angel investor within the first year of starting Course Hero. I remember him saying to me with gravitas, “Andrew, if you build it, they will come.”
I was energized by his simple and optimistic prophecy.
But I think I took this advice totally the wrong way. I thought if we built and launched a working website that then all of the students would come to the website and many or more than enough would share all of their own study resources. Isn’t that what happened over there at Wikipedia, Google, and YouTube?
When we launched, there were very few students visiting and fewer yet contributing their own study resources. What is a study resources platform with no study resources?
No, I learned, this would not be a one year journey to helping millions of students study, learn and graduate. C’est la vie. I learned that a website with no content was no worthwhile website at all. I learned that growth does not just happen magically and in short order. Duh! But at least we then had a functioning website — launched and live — to keep building and improving incrementally with persistence and optimism.
Can you describe how your organization is making a significant social impact?
Getting through college today is hard — too hard. The average college completion rate in the US is 60%, after six years of school. When 40 percent of students drop out of college, something is terribly wrong. One reason they are dropping out is cost: 69% of college students take out loans and the average college student graduates with over $29k in debt.
Students are also busy. First, over 25% of students have children. Second, many are working to pay for college: in fact, 40% of students have jobs, working at least 30 hours a week.
It’s no wonder that college students feel unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety. They want better lives for themselves and set big goals. But the resources that could help them academically just aren’t available. Specifically, they don’t have timely access to quality help.
But just because college is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. Or that students should stop working towards a degree.
We need people who can ask good questions; differentiate between truth and fiction, fact and opinion; and strive to understand the world.
We know today’s students have different needs than students from previous generations. That’s why our product is available 24/7, 365 days a year. We’re here when the learning center isn’t open, when students can’t meet a study group, and when they’re terrified to go to a professor’s office.
We give students quality help, with the convenience and speed they need at a price they can afford. We’re committed to building the optimal learning destination for every course. Our vision is a world where every student graduates, confident and prepared.
Wow! Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted this cause?
Two years ago, we held an event at USC to introduce students to Course Hero. Our student interns had set up a table in the quad. A woman came up to them and, without prompting, told these students how much Course Hero has helped.
This woman is Lisa Trujillo. Lisa is a single mom of 6 , she was 53 years old when she decided to go back to college. School was an enormous challenge for Lisa and her family. She doubted her abilities, she wondered if her financial sacrifices were worth it, and she commuted over an hour to school every day.
She’s hard working, curious, optimistic, and dedicated in the way she approaches school and the world around her.
She’s a single mother of 6 children, two of whom are adopted and special needs.
She decided to go back to college at 53 years old, to show her children that anything is possible.
She has had to overcome every hurdle you can imagine to reach her goals, from self-doubt to financial sacrifice to having to commute into school in the pitch black of night and sleep in her car — just to be able to get to school on time and prepared.
The odds are stacked so high against her.
What Lisa made us recognize is that she is not an outlier. She’s the new norm.
We have been proud to support Lisa as she makes her way through college. And we are ecstatic that we will join her at her graduation from USC this May!
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Understand and help communicate the context of US college students today, given that the non-traditional student demographic is the new normal.
- Help make great teachers and teaching materials more accessible to more students. Help recognize, celebrate and reward great teachers and their teachings.
- Understand and help communicate the context of US college teaching faculty
- Under 30% of teaching faculty are tenured or tenure track. The majority, over 70%, of teaching faculty are adjuncts often paid per course that they teach. The can make anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000 per course. Teaching faculty are often teaching courses at multiple institutions and working additional non-academic jobs to make ends meet.
- Help make education more flexible for more busy students, especially working and parent students.
- Support education innovation to work better for today’s students, especially being open to using digital technology, resources and innovation to learn and teach.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
- To lead is to serve
- Lead by example.
- Golden rule: Do unto others as I would have them do unto me.
I believe it’s important to look for, focus on, and enjoy people’s strengths, especially their biggest strengths, more than their weaknesses. Everybody has weaknesses and things that annoy. Focus as much energy identifying what someone is great at that is also important and valuable your team and company. And recognize, reinforce and celebrate that. Yes, identify, manage and improve weaknesses, but I say be careful the path that focusing only on foibles leads. I don’t think it’s a happy or fulfilling one.
I tell my colleagues that we operate as a team, “We ultimately succeed and fail together. If we fail as a whole… I fail. You fail. We fail.”
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- “We overestimate what we can accomplish in a year or two. We underestimate what we can accomplish in a decade.” — Bill Gates
I wish Bill Gates, or maybe my future self, had told me this when I first started. While I believed in the concept of this statement when I first started Course Hero, I love the specificity of years here. As a heuristic, it resonates with me still today whenever we are starting or scaling a new project, plan or strategy. It takes a lot of time and grit to build something amazing. And being willing to commit said time and grit in of itself is often a comparative advantage in entrepreneurship, life and value creation.
- “Becoming is better than being.” — Carol Dweck
This concept is a powerful counterbalance to the 1st concept of long term thinking and planning I just shared. Committing to a long term strategy and execution is easier said than done. The mind moves faster than time passes. So, how do I deal? I wish I had the image in my mind that the mind is a muscle. Earlier on, I would have thought of challenging times and the struggles to learn and understand as analogous as exercise. You go to the gym to stretch and strengthen your body. You go to school to stretch your mind. Struggles in company building are actually opportunities to take stock and understand what “muscles” need flexing and stretching. It’s a simple and powerful way to reframe problems as opportunities for me. And it also helps me appreciate the journey as well as the dream of the future 10 year vision.
- If you build it, they will not just come. Rather, picture a growth strategy as a flywheel that compounds and grows. As Warren Buffet said, “Compound interest is the 8th wonder of the world.”
Some of my worst decisions at Course Hero early had to do with only focusing on short term initiatives that I did not think about how they would compound over time. For example, in addition to my misguided approach to assuming I we build it, they will come, I thought about growing Course Hero through earned media. I believed that if people knew about Course Hero, they would return to it over and over. But earned media is that is not predictably repeatable or scalable, especially when viewed over a multi-year period. I focused too much time on getting an article written and shared, getting excited about how much traffic it would drive to Course Hero, and then getting crushed when traffic settled basically back to where it was before.
- Nothing is as useless as doing well that which should never have been done at all.
We always have limited resources. So how does one choose which 1, 2, or 3 things to work on out of the thousands of options? In addition to understanding the importance and necessity of ruthlessly prioritizing the fewest things possible to work on, I wish I knew the following framework for prioritization. Today I ask and answer the following questions when prioritizing:
- What do I think is the probability of this objective, initiative and/or project being a success by a certain date?
- If successful, what magnitude will the success be?
- How much time, money, effort will this initiative take? What is the opportunity cost in a world of limited resources?
- Does this objective, initiative and/or project hold constant or improve any necessary conditions (i.e. brand, accounting, values, legal, etc.)?
(I think this approach to prioritization works in most contexts and functions I’ve come across in business.)
- Over-communicate. Over-communicate. Over-communicate.
While seemingly trite, but I believe to be true, many problems between capable people are rooted in communication problems. So I wish someone told me the following communication tips:
i.“Andrew! Get comfortable being a recorder. Get comfortable and embrace the positive power of repeating what is important over… and over… and over.”
· And then, “Andrew, if you’re going to need to communicate even more than a few times, then think about recording yourself and/or ideas for review and comment by others without needing to meet or discuss in person.”
ii.Share context early and often to help people understand the “why” behind decisions as well as to empower people to make their own decisions.
iii.Visuals and design thinking are often incredibly powerful for communicating better and faster, especially in product development.
iv.Find and use relevant analogies to explain things (e.g. Course Hero thinks about doing for education what Netflix has done for Entertainment). It’s an efficient method to learn something faster and to communicate something more effectively.
You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂
Bringing educators and students together with a common purpose to reach common goals.
It’s what we are trying to do but we struggle to prove it makes sense for everyone
We are identifying, recognizing, amplifying and celebrating great educators and great learning and teaching resources.
We want to help people move beyond today’s way of learning to new ways; bring the best lessons to every student no matter where they are and how much money they have.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
- “Find the beauty in all moments, good and bad. All moments have beauty in them.” — Fred Grauer
My Dad shared this wisdom with me as I was experiencing and sharing a time of stress and challenge in my life. And the idea resonated with me deeply. So much of what we think lives in between, and only in between, our two ears. I practice taking ownership of and choosing how to engage my thoughts, feelings, decisions, actions and reality. And I practice choosing to find the beauty in the thoughts, feelings, moments and memories I engage, experience and share in my life.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Jeff Weiner — Compassionate leadership. “Dream Big. Have Fun. Get shit done.”
Reid Hastings — We use Netflix as an analogy for what we’re building for education. I admire his willingness to think about, plan for and execute over a long period of time to create meaningful value.
Angela Duckworth — Passion and Perseverance influences our thinking at Course Hero about our values
Carol Dweck — Growth Mindset. This influences our thinking at Course Hero about our values, especially be gritty and always learning.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
@atgrauer on Twitter
This was very meaningful, thank you so much