7
 min. read
February 19, 2020

Student-led growth: why we're lifting the content paywall

Platforms charge students for content because it’s what everyone else does– it’s time to rethink that. 

Student-led growth: why we're lifting the content paywall

As a startup founder, there’s a lot of things that keep me up at night, but lately it’s been one main question: How do we accelerate growth at Fiveable? We’ve made an impressive splash in this last year, but the reality is that students are not pouring in.

Since the 2019 exams ended last May, we’ve had an average of 3% month over month user growth. We’re at 10x from last year and have 10k new students this school year.

Sure, that’s a lot of kids. But from a business perspective, we can do better.  And the teacher side of me knows we need to do better.

Because in reality, every new user is another high school student that can earn college credit. Anyone with student debt knows how important this work is.

Each AP exam passed translates into thousands of dollars saved on tuition. Those are entire classes you do not have to take. The weight of student loans is unbearable on students and AP is one tool to fight it.

But more importantly, AP exams are one of the many factors that can change a student’s post-secondary path. College Board found that students who take the exams, regardless of scores, are more likely to attend and graduate four-year colleges. They are more likely to finish in four years and more likely to have higher GPAs (see the data). All of which leads to nearly $1M more in lifetime earnings.

And if you are wondering if that’s because “AP students are naturally smart”, the answer is no because that’s a social construct. Also, that idea comes from deep misconceptions about what “smart” means. ?

Every student can benefit from AP exams, but not every school invites all students in or provides the support needed.

For some students, the uphill climb can be steep if their reading or writing skills are not on grade level. But even for them, a 5 is possible.

There are 2,960,000 students taking APs this year that don’t yet have a Fiveable account. Every one of them deserves the opportunity for success without barriers.

So for us, 3% month over month growth doesn’t cut it when this much is on the line.

How do we reach more students?

To figure that out, I thought a lot about the students in my Oakland classroom. The work I did there changed the game for so many of them. We increased the AP World enrollment by 4x in five years and also increased the pass rate by 250%.

That was incredible year over year growth and with even more limitations because of school policies and district bureaucracy.

Period 4 - AP World History, 2015-2016

Our textbooks were outdated, the classroom would get crazy hot in the afternoon, we couldn’t physically get the Chromebook cart into my portable because there was no ramp, students couldn’t afford the AP exam fees, we had constant disruptions during class, and the list goes on.

All of the challenges I saw as a classroom teacher were rooted in systemic failures. There was never enough money, resources, staff, etc. Teachers advocated passionately for change and were always met with excuses.

And yet, AP World became the fastest growing course at our school with the most sustained growth.

How did I do it? I focused on one question: what’s best for students? With every issue, I found a student-first solution and then championed it until it happened.

The textbooks we had were way above grade level and the school wouldn’t replace them for another 3 years. So I asked the amazing AP World community on Facebook to donate old copies of Ways of the World. We had 30 books within two weeks that my classes could share. Boom, accessible textbooks. ?

Taking the exam cost $95 per student, or $15 if you had free/reduced lunch. Both rates were prohibitive to many students, but they needed to take the test to earn credit. My students loved a shirt I had that said “Friyay”. So I started selling them on Teespring and raised $1k. Boom, tests paid for. ?

My classroom was in a portable, which is like an outdoor trailer, and we didn’t have a ramp. Besides the obvious ADA violations, we could not physically get the Chromebook carts into the class, which meant we had no access to technology.

I relentlessly emailed and called until it was built. And then I became a district tech leader so that I could house one of the carts in my classroom. We now had tech every day. ?

Even Fiveable was built on a “students first” principle. In early 2018, I started live streaming because students needed immediate support. No time for pre-recording things. Just go live.

Every game-changing decision I have made happened when I led with student needs. So I’m leaning all the way into a student-first strategy.

Student-first growth strategy


In my classroom, I saw my students every day and knew what they needed. Also there were just 100 of them. It was much easier to clearly identify problems and solutions on that scale.

At Fiveable, we now support over 40k students from every state.

So in order to figure out a student-first solution, I needed to learn more about the challenges, hopes, and fears of Fiveable students. All of these conversations were then funneled into team discussions about our growth channels, value proposition, brand, and product.

These conversations presented clear data. We found that students are in a serious crisis mode. They discussed intense pressure, stress, and anxiety. I knew they were stressed, but I didn’t know they were that stressed. I left my classroom in June 2017 and I’m pretty sure student stress levels have increased since then.

We also found that our content was having a clear positive impact on student achievement and to some extent, mental health. Our creators not only teach content, but also build confidence.

The students that had access to Fiveable content felt more academically confident than those without accounts. Fiveable users had higher grades, spent less time studying, and were more likely to pass the exam.

From a student-first perspective, the solution seemed obvious. We need to get these resources into the hands of every student.

So that’s exactly what we’re going to do. ?

Starting today, every student can access all of the Fiveable content for free.


No memberships. No paywalls. No catch. Just free weekly live reviews, replays, slides, trivia questions, and study guides.

YouTube and Wikipedia are the main study centers for students because they are free and open to everyone. But we know that they are missing two key things: quality control and community support. That’s what makes Fiveable different.

And to build the platform students deserve, we’ll build new revenue streams that will lead us to sustainability faster than a monthly membership.

This spring, we’re launching a new product called Cram Passes, which includes a series of live reviews before an exam. In the lead up to AP, SAT, and ACT exams, students will have last-minute access to a rockstar group of teachers who will be hosting unit reviews, rubric breakdowns, and Q&As. Group tutoring for $35 per exam.

We’re creating opportunities for branded content that will give colleges, universities, and employers the opportunity to build authority with students. For example, a chemistry program can sponsor chemistry resources, which will put their name in front of students who love chemistry.

And we’ll be collaborating with teachers and administrators to better understand how Fiveable content and analytics could be used to improve student outcomes for schools.

Help us build this movement?

This is a radical shift from edtech norms and we’ve never been more excited to build this vision into reality. Most platforms charge students for content because it’s what everyone else does.

But it’s time to rethink everything because too many students get left out of our best solutions.

We’re at a pivotal moment where so many people are bogged down by systemic challenges. And I truly believe that the way to transform our society is to harness the power of the people.

Education is the “Great Equalizer”, but only if it’s accessible. We have the opportunity to build a movement for and by students and teachers to change the way students can access materials after school. And this can have an impactful ripple effect for colleges, employers, and voting.

Can you help us amplify Fiveable as a resource for all students? Here’s a few ways to help:

  1. Reach out to an AP teacher at your former or local high school and let them know about Fiveable! This is a very powerful way to spread the word.
  2. Link this post on your social channels and @ any teachers or students in your networks.

Our goal is to reach 100k students in the next 10 weeks before the exams.

Let’s do this. ✊