StuDocu is announcing $50 million in funding on the heels of huge growth a sign of demand and opportunity in the space.
The Series B is coming from Partech, the French VC, and it comes as StuDocu is gaining some critical mass: the startup says it now reaches 15 million users across 2,000 universities in 60 countries. What’s notable about that scale is not just the size but the fact that it had been achieved while the company was previously largely bootstrapped.
A lot of the focus in edtech in the last year of Covid-19 living has been on technology that helps people learn remotely as well (or maybe even better) than they might have done in more traditional, physical environments: improved streaming experiences, better approaches for teaching via a screen, tools for managing the experience, and so on. StuDocu both fits that mold, but also, in a way, is a throwback to the more basic approach we associate with learning: sitting in a class and taking notes during the lessons.
That was the environment in which four students came together and first formed StuDocu.
In the Netherlands, where StuDocu is based, a large amount of one’s evaluation in an undergraduate class is based on how you do in the final exams, and so the notes have perhaps even more disproportionate value.
CEO Marnix Broer, along with his friends Jacques Huppes, Lucas van den Houten and Sander Kuijk, saw an opportunity while still students back in 2013 to leverage the power of the internet and crowdsourcing, to make it easier for people who were studying the same course at university to connect together online and help each other by uploading notes from their courses and exchanging them with each other — the power of many being one way of better covering your bases in the knowledge department.
Initially the product was “completely free,” he said, and was organically a popular enough concept that it not only picked up users at their university in Delft, but also a number of other schools. Then, as the founders approached graduation, “we decided we needed to earn some money,” and with the concept still going strong, they turned their attention to making their tool into a business.
Through a couple of iterations, “We finally came up with trying to keep as much free as we can in a freemium model,” Broer said. In StuDocu’s case, using the data they had amassed about how much certain documents were viewed, downloaded and recommended over others, they created a top 20% of all documents, which were labelled premium, “so you either upload your own docs or pay a small subscription fee to access them.” Conversely, this also means that 80% of documents on the site are all still free.
StuDocu also built a few pieces of technology into its platform to help fight against scammers or people trying to game it: the only users who it now measures to determine what is premium content are premium users themselves, who do not get any indication of what is premium content on the site and what is not, and are more likely more serious and heavier users of StuDocu.
“We want the best quality documents to stay up and the rest to drift down the pile, so that our users only experience great notes,” he said. “But we know if a few upload garbage we haven’t lost money on it. We just gave access for free and should not have. At the end of the day, it’s a community and we believe that will ensure the quality stays high.” They also incentivise people to review documents with lottery tickets and other rewards.
And it has increasingly been adding in more ways of scanning materials to determine that what people are submitting are actual notes about the subject at hand, rather than blank documents or random unrelated writing. A recent search partnership with Algolia, Broer said, should also help with more granualar document searches, rather than simply searching by university and course to find materials.
It’s a compelling business model that helps square the issue that a lot of user-generated content sites have, which is that the vast majority are consumers rather than creators. Broer said that currently some 15% of its users pay for the service, 15% access it by uploading content, and 70% of its base are using it free and not uploading anything.
Through its gradual building up of a business from a tool that they built to help themselves, StuDocu went, Broer said, from “working in a squat“, to taking a small and cheap space with interns, to what Broer describes “a normal office.”