September 2021 · By Andrew Sutherland
After founding and leading Quizlet for nearly fifteen years, I left last year. This is the first time I’ve written about it.
I started Quizlet while I was in high school because I wanted a tool to help me learn French. It has become a ubiquitous tool, used by the vast majority of teachers and students in the U.S. and soon the world. They use it to learn every imaginable thing.
I worked on Quizlet non-stop—through high school, through college, through all of my twenties. I didn’t really have other hobbies. I poured my heart and soul into making it work. The company almost died several times in the early years. But Quizlet continued to grow. In 2015, after ten years of bootstrapping, we raised money from a group of investors.
After raising money, Quizlet kicked into high gear. We grew quickly—the team, the users, the revenue.
I loved the work. I loved making a product that people adored, and that genuinely helped them. We had many stories of kids who’d transformed their whole outlook on education after finding Quizlet. I loved interviewing new people to join our team. I loved mentoring engineers. I loved getting 360-degree feedback from everyone on the team and seeing how I’d grown and how much further I had to go.
I loved staying up late at night, writing code that would change how millions of people learn. I loved chatting with teachers during classroom visits all over the world, hearing what they wanted from their students and their tools. I loved working with a team that deeply cared about learning.
Eventually I found myself adrift. I was the founder and CTO, but I wasn’t the CEO, and I had begun to disagree with the direction the rest of the exec team wanted to go. And if I’m honest, I was tired of working on roughly the same problem I started thinking about when I was 15. Sure, there were a million new problems encountered along the way. Quizlet was succeeding, but I needed a change.
So I left. I felt like I had been riding a train, the same one I’d been riding since I was 15, and it had just dropped me off in the middle of nowhere. What now? I’d poured my entire adult life into this one cause, my identity tightly intertwined with my software-baby. Who am I without Quizlet, I wondered.
In the past year, I’ve redeveloped a sense of wonder and nurtured a wide breadth of interests. I’ve been exploring the depths of education policy, which led me to housing policy and structural political reform. I’ve taught a course on programming, a class about learning at MIT, and life skills to teenagers deep in the wilderness. I’ve invested in a number of new companies. I’ve joined two boards. I’ve been spending time on the proverbial and literal beach.
A profound change has been one of loosening. When I was at Quizlet, I was too keenly aware of the impact of my words and actions; one improperly phrased suggestion could send a team on a wild goose chase. Now, as a unit of one, I can be weirder. Weirder and goofier. The website you’re on now reflects this new changed me.
In some unexpected sense, I don’t feel like I have anything to prove to other people anymore. I just have things to prove to myself. I would like to use my talents, wealth, and connections to do great things in the world.
This thought comes to me often: If at age 15, being a beginner at everything, I could set myself on a path of such incredible growth, joy, intensity, then what, at age 31, is the equivalent beginner state? How do I get as much hard-won growth out of the next 15 years as I got out of the last 15?
There are seismic changes happening in education, in our climate, in politics, and in technology. I’m immensely enjoying being fully open to new possibilities. I’ll find something big to do when it’s time.