Course Hero, a profitable edtech unicorn, raises rare cash
He started the business to create a place where students could ask questions and get answers similar to Chegg, which launched 15 months before Course Hero . But as he slowly built it, he was tempted by a larger question: “What would a university look like if it was built by the internet?”
And so, the Redwood City-based startup itched at that nebulous goal throughout the years. Course Hero tested and failed products: free curated e-courses, in-person tutoring and teacher advice and ratings.
Clarity only came when Grauer realized that the core goal Course Hero launched with — giving students a place to ask and answer questions — wasn’t simply one product that should be fit into a broader suite of services. Instead, it was a thesis around which to build products. So, the startup began looking for different ways and formats to organize knowledge and questions and answers.
“That was a breakthrough insight,” Grauer said. The startup stopped launching other business verticals and decided to stick to Q&A as its core — and only — business. It sells Netflix-like subscriptions to students looking for access to learning and teaching content. Teachers and publishers can put course-specific study content on the platform.
In 2020, Course Hero is a profitable business with annual run revenue upward of $100 million.
Today, Course Hero tells TechCrunch that it has raised a new tranche of capital in a Series B extension round of $70 million. The round is now totaling $80 million, bringing Course Hero’s total known venture capital to date at $95 million.
Its $80 million Series B round is one of the largest U.S. funding deals of 2020, and brings Course Hero’s valuation to $1.1 billion.
From a high level, the new raise is not surprising. Other edtech companies have also recently added on more capital to their balance sheets to meet remote learning demand amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But in Course Hero’s case, the new capital comes as a stark contrast to how the business functioned before 2020. After launching, the startup waited eight years to raise a $15 million Series A. Now, after going another nearly six years without raising venture capital, Course Hero has closed two rounds in this year alone.
Grauer tells TechCrunch that the capital will be used for operations, product innovation and feature development. It also plans to use the capital for future acquisitions (in 2012, Course Hero bought an in-person tutoring business).
Course Hero’s change of heart with venture capital boils down to the company meeting new scale demands. Last year, it passed 1 million subscribers on the platform. Now, it is eyeing “many millions” of students, the co-founder says.
Paraphrasing Bill Gates, Grauer said, “We do overestimate what we can do in just three years. And we dramatically underestimate what we can do closer to 10 years.”
Any edtech company that raises money off of current momentum in remote education will have to face the reality of what it is like to grow when remote learning is no longer a necessity. In other words, when the coronavirus pandemic ends, will these same platforms still find surges in usage?
“That’s the risk and reward of raising capital,” Grauer said. He added that “if you raise too much money early on, you can get misaligned expectations based on different time horizons set up by different terms of incoming shareholders or investors.”
Course Hero sees tailwinds in a dynamic that has been brewing since before the pandemic, and will likely grow during and after: the growth of “non-traditional students” enrolling in and participating in higher education. Grauer noted that more than 40% of students work 30 hours or more per week. Over a quarter of students are parents, and of that quarter, over 70% are single moms.
“Because that’s the reality, and because we can make an affordable subscription and the economics can work, Course Hero is aligned to serving the majority, the real majority, and that’s the beauty of opportunity,” he said. There is a freemium model, but on an annual plan, a subscription costs $9.95 per month. On a monthly plan, a subscription costs $39.99 per month.
It’s not an opportunity the company hopes to expand into, its a reality of its diverse customer base. An internal data analytics survey of Course Hero shows that 58% of students that subscribe are employers part time or full-time. Over 1/4 of subscribers are 35 years old or older, and 22% of subscribers are parents.
Looking ahead, Course Hero hopes to continue to broaden its multi-sided marketplace.
In July, the business announced it is launching Educator Exchange, which allows college faculty to make money by uploading study materials for fellow teachers or students.
The “direct-to-faculty” relationship could pacify earlier tensions between the platform and teachers by giving the latter a way to monetize on how Course Hero “open sources” creative content on the point of copyright infringement.
Grauer compares Course Hero’s long-term vision to that of Google Maps, in that the platform can make recommendations of content based on other people’s usage.
But we’re not talking recommendations for the closest gas station. Based on how a user learns, Course Hero can recommend a specific professor who has a specific syllabus on a topic in which the user is interested.
“We’ve seen that specificity level differentiates us from others,” he said. “It helps students when they’re doing their real work, that one homework, that studying for one test. And I think that’s where the magic is for us.”