Author: Wade Tyler Millward
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For venture-backed education companies, the path to sustainability—and profitability—can be full of difficult twists and turns. Oftentimes, change can come at a cost.
EdSurge has learned that LearnZillion, a Washington, D.C.-based provider of digital K-12 curriculum and software, laid off about 20 employees on May 3. That has left 34 full-time staff remaining, according to LearnZillion CEO and co-founder Eric Westendorf.
Most of the people affected were part of the company’s professional development team, which worked with educators to implement its supplemental curriculum offerings. Over the past couple years, as the company re-focused its business to sell core curriculum to K-12 districts, some of those personnel were no longer core to its operations.
This is the second round of layoffs for the company in as many years. In late 2017, as the company began shifting to this new strategy, it also axed some staff. Westendorf did not disclose the exact numbers but said it was a smaller figure than this current round.
Founded in 2011, LearnZillion had long offered online supplemental resources for K-12 English and math subjects. It relied on a group of paid teachers, which the company dubbed “The Dream Team,” who would convene during the summers to create these materials. LearnZillion amassed a library of lessons, videos and assignments. As students worked through these exercises, teachers can track their progress on a dashboard.
The company had offered these materials for free to teachers, and charged districts for additional features and professional development services. A 2014 profile from The Washington Post estimated that the company charged about $5,000 per school.
Today, LearnZillion is focused on selling to districts. Its offerings include core curricula for middle-school math and K-5 English language arts that were originally authored, respectively, by Illustrative Mathematics and EL Education. The curriculum built by these two nonprofits are openly licensed for commercial re-distribution, meaning that LearnZillion—or any other organization—can provide additional tools and services on top of these materials and sell them (usually with some revenue-share arrangement in place). Other organizations that do this include Open Up Resources and McGraw-Hill Education.
The company also sells another set of English language arts curriculum for grades 3-5 and 6-8, which was built based on work done via an earlier partnership with the Louisiana Department of Education. The company continues to offer its library of digital supplemental materials to teachers for free.
Today, LearnZillion claims that its materials reach 1 in 3 U.S. teachers. Earlier this year it secured a 3-year deal with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, which will use LearnZillion’s middle-school Illustrative Math curriculum.
Slimming down the company has put it on course to break even this year, projects Westendorf. He adds that the company may not even need to raise more capital. To date, the company had raised more than $22 million in venture capital—the latest coming from a $13 million round in 2015.
Tony Wan contributed to this report.