Start-Up Slader Looks to Solve the Math Homework Problem

Slader, a quiet New York-based start-up, is picking away at what the school-attending quarter of this country’s population would probably list as the biggest pain point in their young lives.

Homework.

Of course, textbook publishers, test-prep services and an army of private tutors have been making a fortune from it for decades.

But co-founders Scott Kolb and Kyle Gerrity are building a service to take homework help, or at least math homework help, in a new direction.

For those readers who haven’t been assigned math homework in a while, let me set the stage.

A high school pre-calculus teacher, using one of five or so major math textbooks on the subject, assigns homework — let’s say Chapter 1, Section 1, problems 1-30. Remember to show your work.

Most of these text books have solution sets in the back, usually only for every other problem.

Are you having terrible high school flashbacks yet?

The answers in the back are almost always just that, numerical answers, and offer no help to someone who hasn’t any idea how they might arrive at that answer on their own.

Solutions is where Slader steps in.

Slader spent all last summer with a bunch of math nerds, developing step-by-step solutions to most of the math problems in most of the high school math books used in this country — at last count, that’s about a million solutions in 275 textbooks.

Slader users, who are a mix of math students and the parents tasked with homework help, log in to the Web-based service and spend “points” to see the fully-formed solutions, and, hopefully, to learn something as well.

Users pay for blocks of points, or subscribe for an allotment of points every day, or they buy “gold,” which is transferable to other Slader users and can be converted to points.

While this might sound overly complicated, the reason for the monetary obfuscation has to do with the convoluted economics of high school finances.

Co-founder Kolb explained:

“Our customers are sometimes parents who have credit cards, but we are also seeing demand from students, many of whom do conduct transactions online even if they don’t have a card to do it with. Kids buy pre-paid debit cards with cash, pay friends with credit or debit cards to buy things online, or use PayPal.”

Economics aside, the Slader team does have some serious issues ahead if they intend to scale beyond the current beta product.

According to Gerrity, every three years or so textbook publishers issue new editions of their math books that are then adopted at different rates across the country.

It’s that variation that turned the roughly 100 distinct math texts Slader covers into 275 versions, and in most cases, “Problem 47 would become problem 48 in the next edition,” Gerrity said. “We have the data, but every time [textbook publishers] release a new edition, we have to go through the whole thing with a giant Excel spreadsheet, even though it’s 99 percent the same.”

That means staffing is a huge part of scaling, and for a small start-up, that means a need for outside money, which it has done without thus far, aside from a small angel investment.

And growth won’t simply come from adding more textbook solutions, either.

Gerrity said that Slader’s current growth is driven by word of mouth within high school friend groups.

“We’ll see a sign-up from some school we’ve never seen before, and pretty soon there will be 12 more,” Gerrity said. “A little Facebook digging will reveal that all 12 are on the track team together or something.”

Kolb said he hoped to better monitor, track and understand that kind of viral growth, but that problem is certainly complicated enough to be the value proposition of a whole separate company.

Barriers aside, the 2010 U.S. census puts Slader’s potential market size at near 20 million high school-aged people, not to mention the parents and teachers whose job it is to help with all that math homework.

Even regional market domination could mean big business for the start-up, but Slader hasn’t arrived at that solution just yet.

I met up with Kolb and Gerrity during a recent fundraising trip to the West Coast, and shot a little video interview:


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