After two “salvage operations” where she turned around struggling companies, Susan Kim wanted a break from the fervor of startup life. But when she got a call a year ago about an education company with a vibrant community of teachers, she reconsidered.
“What really drew me to Edmodo was the opportunity to use technology to provide a much better learning experience for everyone,” says Kim in an interview with EdSurge. “This is a platform that can make the job of the educator more easier, and help them create a community of relationships with one another.”
In September, Kim took over as CEO of Edmodo, the San Mateo, Calif.-based developer of a communication and collaboration tool popular among K-12 educators.
A mother of two, Kim reflected on how her children interacted on digital tools, recalling how her normally shy daughter became more engaged with her teachers after getting a school-issued email account. (They do not use Edmodo at their school—yet.)
Kim filled a role vacant since May 2019, after the departure of its previous chief executive, Vibhu Mittal. He and Simon Leung, vice chairman and executive director of NetDragon, had been leading the search for Mittal’s replacement shortly after NetDragon acquired Edmodo in May 2018.
With the support of NetDragon, a Chinese company with roots in the gaming industry and an eye for expanding into education, Kim may well have more global connections, resources and ambitions than what her predecessors enjoyed.
Founded in 2008, Edmodo attracted a large online community of educators, who used the free, Facebook-like platform to communicate and share resources with their peers and students. The company claims that more than 100 million accounts have been created across the world.
Its early growth was fueled by $77.5 million in venture capital, along with which came expectations of financial returns. But turning user loyalty into profitability proved at times to be a riddling challenge. Experiments to drive revenue sometimes backfired. At the time of its sale to NetDragon, the company reported a loss of $19.5 million and revenue of $1 million in 2017.
Under NetDragon, monetization is less of an overriding pressure, says Kim. NetDragon is “passionate about investing in education,” and is providing financial runway to refocus Edmodo’s efforts on building a more robust platform. As evidence, she notes that the company is hiring for product managers, user experience experts and engineers who will increase its current headcount of about 80 employees.
While Kim is committed to keeping Edmodo’s core learning management platform free for teachers, there are monetization efforts in the works. The company has been working on a standalone homework help app, AskMo, that is targeted for parents and students over the age of 13. The idea is to connect students with tutors at any time of the day, for a subscription fee. A public launch of the app is slated for the first quarter of 2020, she adds.
“At Edmodo, as with all companies, there are challenges,” acknowledges Kim. “But there are opportunities, and we have the resources to rebuild in a way that is about the long-term potential.”
She is no stranger to rebuilding. In 2012, Kim took over as CEO of Plum District, which she described as a “Groupon for moms,” and steered the struggling company to profitability and an eventual acquisition. Her next gig was similar, taking over as CEO to stabilize and sell EatWith, a communal dining startup.
Edmodo marks the third time that Kim is stepping in as CEO. But “I do not see this as a turnaround gig,” she states. Compared to the previous startups she led, Edmodo is not as financially distressed, due in part to NetDragon’s financial support and connections around the globe.
The Chinese company also owns several other brand-name education assets, including Promethean, which is best known for its interactive whiteboards, and educational game developer JumpStart. These businesses boast international footprints that could prove useful as Edmodo eyes overseas markets, says Kim.
She did not disclose any specifics about Edmodo’s product roadmap, only hinting that “rather than a broad execution of little features, you’re going to see fewer [but] bigger things that we do that are executed well.”
Escaping the Shadow of Google
Figuring out Edmodo’s identity, and what makes it unique, is key to re-establishing its footing in the market. The platform recently got a design facelift, but its core functions remain largely the same. Educators create pages where they can communicate with students and parents about assignments and other school-related updates.
Since its launch, other competitors have emerged, offering similar features that are now common among learning management systems (LMS). To keep pace, Edmodo has started—and shuttered—various features over the years that aimed to generate revenue, such as an assessment tool.
“In the past several years, there was some confusion about what we are, and what we aren’t,” states Kim. “Are we an LMS? And how do we position ourselves vis-à-vis the big players out there?”
She believes the company overextended itself in an effort to keep up with a giant that emerged in 2014. “With the introduction of Google Classroom, Edmodo tried to do too many things, and didn’t go deep in a focused area.”
Classroom, launched that August, is now one of the most widely-used LMS in the U.S. K-12 market, used in about one-quarter of small and medium-sized school districts, according to LISTedTECH, an education market research firm. Edmodo holds about a 4 percent share.
Kim acknowledges there are overlapping functionalities across Edmodo and Google Classroom, including assignments, quizzes, reminders and communication features. But “those are just a small part of what Edmodo is,” she notes. More important “is the opportunity to enable teachers to create a safe, moderated community for them to not just teach academic subjects, but also how to function in a digital world.”
Exactly what updates will come from this vision remains to be seen, as Kim kept mum on these plans. But in the short term, she wants to keep the company heads down on product development and unfettered by pressure to generate revenue.
Figuring out what Edmodo can do better than Google Classroom is no small task. But perhaps it may help that before her startup-saving days, Kim was an executive at Google, overseeing its global commerce and consumer operations from 2008 to 2011.
“When you have big players in this space with a free tool like Google Classroom, there are going to be monetization problems,” says Kim. “But when companies focus too much on monetization, they can lose sight of what users need, and that can contribute to losing product-market fit.”