Interview | Ellen Siminoff (Part 2 of 2)

(below is part 2 of 2; for part 1 of 2, click here)

If Microsoft builds perfect tools to engage and get a lot of people to approach us on different platforms, then I’m a big fan of that. They’re great at technology. I don’t want to be in that world, so we don’t care what the tools are. I totally agree with you—we have things that we post on Facebook, but I’m not trying to replicate the social network. To the extent that you can tap in, that’s terrific. For example, on our iPhone app we have quizzes, people can tap into Facebook, connect and compete with their friends on Facebook on our quiz. We love that there’s so many people innovating and creating. Nobody can do it all themselves. Our view is that we’re creating great big content that people actually want to read and interact with.

Victor:  Your money model? How will you profit?

 

Ellen: Most of the site is free, and it’s advertising based. We wanted that because—we “get” it: textbooks cost a ton of money. We don’t think people should have to pay $150 for a US History textbook. We charge for different apps on the eBooks and the iPhone—it’s pretty inexpensive—and we charge for some basic teaching modules and quizzes. A lot of the teacher stuff is free. We have a  few things that you pay for. So the bulk of it is advertising based but to be convenient, to go onto other devices, we do have a charge-for model, so it’s a nice hybrid. As a business owner, it’s great because by having a bunch of different pieces of it, we can keep most of the site free. In today’s economy, with the price of education as it is, kids shouldn’t have to pay $150 for a US History textbook.

Victor: It’s not just Facebook and Twitter; hundreds of little social media icons pop up all over the place, like Flickr, MySpace and countless iPod apps. How do you stay focused, how do you choose where to push your content?

 

Ellen: We’re pretty facile. A lot of it, we use smart technology. You know, you have one common database for content and then you try to put it on as many devices as possible—but you do have to choose. For example, we integrate Facebook and we integrate Twitter, but we haven’t done every single social network out there.

Quite frankly, I read the email every single day and read almost every customer comment. I’m not the one who responds to all of them—although I do respond every now and then, but I do listen to people.

Even with the books, the poems or the music, I can’t tell you how many people every day write us and we re-order things based on what they tell us. If someone said to us, “You’ve got to be on this device…” then we look really hard at it. You can’t support everything—you have to be smart about what you go after.

One of the reasons we did The House on Mango Street in our Teacher Edition is that we got a lot of feedback from teachers that they’re trying to be more diverse in what they’re teaching in the classroom and that’s a big one that they’re teaching. It’s not one of the traditional ones you’d think of.

We also did a Top 30 Books in Spanish, and very basic summaries of El Grande Gatsby so that people who might have more difficulty with English could at least get a good summary of it. We worked a lot with experts in non-native language learning to get feedback on what’s the right approach. We don’t try to translate everything, but we translate the basics—and that’s really going to help people.

Victor: You must have seen half a dozen sites attempting to do something similar to you. You’re uniquely positioned, but do you consider a few to be your direct competitors?

Ellen: Yeah, let me group them a little bit for you. I won’t get into names because I never like to—I wouldn’t disparage anyone because I know how hard it is to get up in the morning and do anything—so I’m respectful of everybody. But I’ll put the textbook industry into one group, and what I mean by that is anyone who’s charging $150 for a textbook. We’ve spent a lot of time looking at what people like that have put on the web. For the most part, they haven’t put up a lot of good stuff. To some extent, they basically dumped their same book on the web that hasn’t been changed in 50 years. Some people believe that the Vietnam War is when U.S. history ended and that there’s no point in going from there. We disagree with that, of course—I don’t know how you can look at Iraq and not look at Vietnam. So again, there’s that wanting to be relevant. I would look at that whole industry; where I feel like they haven’t been set up for digital, we try to be digital and relatable.

Secondly, with a lot of what you might call the “study guide” industry, most of those weren’t really built for the web. A lot of them existed when I went to high school, which wasn’t yesterday.

Shmoop isn’t across all devices, although there are some on the website, but we are the broadest if you look at the number of apps we’ve done, the number of eBooks.

Thirdly, we embrace teachers and librarians. A lot of people out there are building sites where they are unabashed about not supporting the educators. We’re doing everything we can to work with them—I keynoted the California Teacher Librarian Conference last year. We’ve really worked hard to say to them, “What are your problems? How do we help solve them?”

One of the biggest problems is trying to stay relevant. That’s one of the ways we compete. We try to keep teaching, let people fall in love with teaching again, let them continue to develop it.

Victor: A few unabashed people or groups? I’m not sure I quite even get that—why would they just disregard teachers or librarians?

Ellen: I think that their goal is to help people cheat. There are sites out there that say to you, “This book is boring—read this instead.” The first thing the first educator that sat down with me said was, “I love that you tell people to read the book in every area.” So, there are lots that say don’t read the book.

Secondly, there are a lot of tools out there on sites where they try to help you cheat. If you want to cheat, don’t come to our site. I’m willing to say that. I’m willing to lose all of the cheaters. Our goal is to attract all students and all teachers who love teaching and want to reinforce teaching, and all students who we think about as wanting one more leg up. Not everybody’s going to go to the Ivy League, but our goal is more aspirational: we want to help people get one level above where they were going to be. So, if by really being passionate about this and really having a deep understanding—you can go to a better college than you were going to go to, then that’s terrific. We feel then that we’ve done our job.  If you’re cheating to get there, then we don’t want you—go to another site.

Victor: Passionate people attract more passionate people. How’d that go? How large are you now?

Ellen: Everybody’s smarter than I am, I can tell you that. And it’s big because not everybody has contributed [a large amount]. Like, you can’t just say to someone “Okay, sit here and write a ton of stuff about American Lit.” It’s: “What’s your passion?” We’re pretty deep on a lot of Greek Lit, Agamemnon—and I guarantee you that not a ton of people read that, but we happened to find people who are passionate about it. Just look at the resumes of people who apply to write for us and, man are they smart! Not only are they usually Masters or Ph.D. students in either lit or history or whatever, but they write really well. We ask for writing samples; we ask them to be passionate about it. A lot of it is, areas we want—mixed with the skills of the people. We’ve had a lot of success with certain areas. A lot of books I would love to have done, but we haven’t yet found the right person, so I’m always anxious to find the right person.

Victor: Any further anecdote about the development of Shmoop you care to relate?

Ellen: Call of the Wild was our first piece of content. It took us forever. We did it like 30 times. By the time we were done, if I never looked at Call of the Wild again, that would be fine. We looked at it in every different direction. It took us a long time to get that right. Once we had it, the right voice, the right content—we spent a lot of time on it. The poor book was over-analyzed.

Victor: You’ve worked as a Senior Vice President of Yahoo. Did your experience there influence you in coming up with a catchy name?

Ellen: It’s the Valley, so you want to have at least two O’s. When we first looked at this, it was very literature-oriented. That was the first thing we did; we weren’t at all contemplating history. Eventually, we got much broader. But we didn’t want to limit ourselves. I wanted to take more of a look at it. Like with Amazon, where I thought Jeff Bezos just came up with a name that was—you know, when he first started—he started with books and obviously Amazon has gone much broader than that. We wanted a fun name that actually meant something, but we wanted the ability to take it where people took us—we didn’t want to be limited just to one area by a name.

Victor: Because there are so many different places and devices where people might access your content, you also wanted it to be easy to remember?

Ellen: Yeah, you can go on Amazon, Apple or Google and type Shmoop. You can type the URL directly into your browser. We’re big. You want it to be memorable. When I first got to Yahoo!, someone said, “Okay, now you’re a grown-up company, so you need a real name.” But the founders were smart. They thought very hard and said, “No, no, no. This is the name. We’re a bunch of yahoos and that’s a good name.” By the way, it’s taken out of Gulliver’s Travels, which will be going up soon on our site. So we wanted to be different and memorable. You could do a lot of market analyses on names, but generally you want them to be memorable and in some way, relatable.

Victor: How much does Shmoop cost? What are the options?

Ellen: Everything from free to the highest priced thing we probably have is $5.95. It’s all pretty reasonable. If you want it, it’s not going to hold you back in terms of the cost.

Victor: Is that $5-9-5 for some big piece, or…

Ellen: No, that’s five dollars ninety-five cents will get you a teacher module. Believe me when I tell you, we’ve tried to do this in a way that is—you know—in this economy, with the cost of education, we’re trying to make it reasonable for people.

Victor: Examples of Shmoop in action? Teachers? Librarians?

Ellen: There’s a great deal of examples. If you’ve looked at one we’ve posted on YouTube of teachers talking about it, then those were really people just talking. We didn’t do a heck of a lot of prompting. We just stuck a video on them and it’s just people—real teachers—talking. So we felt great about that.

Victor: Your target audience?

Ellen: It’s targeted to high school and college students, high school and college teachers, and teacher librarians. It is not targeted at the cheaters of the world, those people who don’t want to actually learn.

Victor: Do you have a younger cutoff age?

Ellen: It’s seventh or eighth grade for people, depending. Some get the Gold Rush earlier. California. We have a really good thing on the Gold Rush. It depends on when you study these things—you can appreciate it at a lot of different levels. With Harry Potter and such, a lot of that goes earlier.

Victor: Your thoughts on education in general these days?

Ellen: Unfortunately, a lot of money is spent on education and not enough of it makes it to the teacher and to the classroom. I don’t know where it goes along the way, but we’re not doing enough for our children today and our children are the future of this country. I’m very supportive of everything that helps—that helps teachers make teaching easier, helps students engage more. One of the biggest industries everyone’s got to look at is what the curriculums are costing. There’s a lot that goes between building the curriculum and it getting into the hands of the teacher.

Victor: Are you following Race to the Top? Technology funding? Federal initiatives? Or is that all noise to you?

 

Ellen: We’re hopeful. Obviously, at this point in time, we did list on our teacher site what standards each—we have a bunch of activities teachers can do—and we wrote what standard they qualify for because we know that teachers are being measured and that they have to hit certain standards. We’ve tried very hard to show them which standards that they would be knocking off by doing that. We’re the advocate of the teachers. We’re happy to make that helpful. On the other hand, it’s not the easiest thing to try to legislate. We’re all going to be active in what the government does and try to be helpful in supporting any of that.

Victor: Any formative experiences you might share? How did your own education inform your approach to creating Shmoop? Are you trying to save education?

 

Ellen: You block and tackle, block and tackle—and hopefully you have enough blockers and tacklers that you move things forward.  We have a page where we all talk about our teachers. Everybody who has worked with Shmoop, we’ve always asked, “What influenced you to do… whatever you did?” And every single person will tell you it was some great teacher along the way.

My art teacher—and I’m not an artist—but my art teacher basically had the attitude that we were all artists in our own way, that everyone should love and appreciate art. I thought that was great! I had the world’s best freshman year Algebra teacher, David Johnson at Nicolet High School; he made me absolutely passionate about Algebra. And I had the world’s best eighth-grade English teacher, Joe Coleburg, Maple Dale School, Glendale Wisconsin. I love them. They were terrific. I wouldn’t have achieved any amount of success without them.

Victor: I have your picture in front of me and I’m very curious. What is that on your neck? Does it have writing on it, that jewelry?

Ellen: Oh, yeah! Gosh, you’re good. It should say, “Grow old with me, the best is yet to be” and it’s from my husband. My father actually gave my mother something very similar to that. They were early in their marriage. They’re still married—almost 50 years. Around our tenth or fifteenth anniversary, my husband surprised me and had that replicated.

Victor: Wow, that’s great. Is it from a certain heritage or culture, or just a pretty pendant?

Ellen: The poem, “Grow old with me the best is yet to be” comes from Robert Browning. We cover him on our site—not that particular poem, although I’ll have to get people to do that one. Ironically, well ahead of Shmoop—we were already Robert Browning fans. We have his My Last Duchess which is the actual opposite point of view; it’s about someone who kills his Duchess wife, we have the opposite one on the site.

Victor: Speaking of which, on your site, you mention some things about yourself. I can relate to “loves chocolate.” I don’t know about the Green Bay Packers, but football’s good. “Struggles with golf”—everyone can relate to that. But you’ve got to tell me: you’ve been shot? Now that’s a conversation piece.

Ellen: I live in what we’ll call a nice neighborhood right near Stanford University, although I don’t want this to reflect poorly on Stanford in any way, I’m just giving you that the neighborhood is nice. I was taking a walk in the neighborhood and a—I’ll call him a teenager—was playing around with rifles and accidentally shot me while I was walking on the street.

Victor: Where?

Ellen: The town is—as I said—just there near Stanford.

Victor: No, I mean…

Ellen: Oh, in my knee. I had surgery to have [the bullet] removed.  The same year Peyton Manning was going to the Superbowl and had knee surgery for an infected bursa; I had the same surgery. That’s about all Peyton Manning and I have in common—other than a love of football.

Victor: Ever met him?

Ellen: No. I’ve met Favre; Aaron Rogers; Steve Young but not—he hasn’t been on one of my teams.

Victor: Your outlook on the future of education, especially with Shmoop on the scene?

Ellen: It’s going to get better. Technology is going to make things easier. It’s going to decrease the amount of friction for people who want to go deep in a subject. In the same way that Google made it easier for anyone investigating anything, sites like Shmoop can make it a lot easier for someone to develop a deeper understanding of any area. I wish it had been around when I was in high school and college.

Victor: Are we on a downward slide or moving into a Golden Age of Education?

Ellen: We will be forced as a country to compete. When you look at the countries that are better than us—I don’t think it’s just math and science that we should focus on, it’s all areas. We all need to be good communicators. I’m hopeful because it’s going to be a necessity. One thing that’s great if you look at any history of America—and obviously we’re historians to some extent here—is that you can’t get the American spirit down. We’re a pretty innovative culture. I’d be surprised if we couldn’t take that innovation that we’ve given to technology and give it to education as well.

Victor: Any question you were hoping I’d ask?

Ellen: You’re the best. One of the best interviews I’ve ever had. A really good, thorough interview, down to my football predictions. I thought it was great. I really enjoyed the conversation, you thought a lot about the space. I’d love to keep up the connection because obviously you see things that I don’t and I’d love your insights.

Victor: Thanks. Is there anything else you would care to say or ask before we end off this interview?

Ellen: Yeah, my email is ellen@shmoop.com and I always say to people that if they have an opinion or that they saw something on our site that they didn’t agree with or that they agreed with—or they felt there was something we should do—feel free to get in touch with me and give me your feedback. I welcome it.

Victor Rivero is the editor-in-chief of Edtech Digest. E-mail: victor@VictorRivero.com

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One Response to Interview | Ellen Siminoff (Part 2 of 2)

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