I’ll admit it: I was the student that tipped the teacher off that half of our English class, including me, was using SparkNotes to “read” "Twelfth Night" by Shakespeare, instead of actually reading the text itself. The site, which offered summaries of books on a chapter-by-chapter basis, was the best way to review novels before a quiz -- or, was the best last-minute savior if you procrastinated too much and never got around to opening the book in the first place.
History in mind, it makes sense that the creators of everyone’s favorite procrastination tool, SparkNotes, are getting noticed by an edtech unicorn. LitCharts, an offshoot of SparkNotes, got scooped up today by a newly minted edtech unicorn, Course Hero. The price of the deal was undisclosed. That said, Course Hero last raised an $80 million Series B in August 2020, and assumedly a portion of that check went to this deal.
The creators of SparkNotes, Ben Florman and Justin Kestler, created LitCharts as an extension of their initial success. LitCharts provides notes, definitions and translations on over 2,000 literary texts. Similar to SparkNotes, LitCharts is all about making complex passages less complex. Course Hero founder Andrew Grauer estimates that about 30% of LitCharts’ subscribers are teachers and educators.
“We want to make sure that we have the best solution for a specific area, and then at the right moment in time, be able to make a really authentic recommendation of another tool or another offering that can be helpful for you [as a student],” Grauer said of Course Hero’s long-term ambition. That webbing — or connecting students from one resource to another — could be one of the benefits of virtual education, because there is essentially a history log of every error, stumble and pause that a student makes as they’re going through a lesson.
The heart of Course Hero, says Grauer, is to create a question-and-answer platform with extreme levels of specificity for students. It sells subscriptions to students that unlock access to all of its learning and teaching content, which include course-specific material created by teachers and publishers. Naturally, a big part of Course Hero’s strategy is to offer material on common subjects that students struggle with — English being one of those subjects.
“We've been looking at the data on the platform, and where students are actually getting stuck the most, where they need the most help, and where they are asking the most questions,” said Grauer. “And that's quite informative.”
The company has been building out its literature library for the past five to six years. With LitCharts under its wing, Course Hero is putting a significant investment in its literature library, which is chockfull of videos, illustrations and notes on texts.
This is Course Hero’s second acquisition in the past eight months. In October, Course Hero acquired Symbolab, an artificial-intelligence-powered calculator that helps students answer and understand complex math questions. That deal helped bolster Course Hero’s math offering, and today’s acquisition should help Course Hero deepen its literature resources. Both of these brands will continue to operate independently — a choice that Grauer says is part of his operating thesis of supporting the "decentralized empowerment of entrepreneurs."
"If you centralize everything, maybe there's power to that [since] it all looks the same, but actually in doing [that too] many times … you can actually move slower and not be able to move fast and make decisions and make progress toward the goal because you're optimizing for so many small specific use cases," he said. The two recent startups that Course Hero acquired have been operating for over a decade, and Grauer thinks that their scale and brand power is worth keeping as is, instead of forcing into an umbrella brand.
Across its various platforms, Course Hero estimates that it will hit between 2 million to 3 million paid subscribers this year, up from 1 million subscribers the year prior.