Blaine Vess harnesses the Internet to help students succeed
The gig: A couple of weeks into his first semester at North Central College in Illinois in 1999, Blaine Vess co-founded Oppapers.com, a website to search for essays, reports and term papers. He’s now the chief executive of StudyMode, a West Hollywood network of educational websites. StudyMode offers three core services: a website with online flashcards, a test preparation website and a subscription website with essays and reports to assist with research and writing. “We’re trying to help college and high school students succeed,” Vess said. Its chief competitors include SparkNotes and Course Hero Inc.
A cry for help: In the midst of writing an essay about global warming, Vess experienced writer’s block. He wanted to see what other students had said about global warming, but the Internet didn’t offer much help. He had picked up computer programming in high school. By winter break, he built a fully automated website for people to share their papers online. “My grades weren’t that great that first semester,” Vess said. “I didn’t really understand I was in school until I was a junior in college.”
FOR THE RECORD:
Blaine Vess: In a “How I Made It” article in the July 21 Business section, the business school where entrepreneur Blaine Vess started his business was misidentified as Stanford University. It was North Central College in Illinois. The article also incorrectly identified Aisha Wynn as his wife. They are only business partners.
The Chicago native said he always knew he wanted to work in technology and work for himself.
Easy money: Vess started charging for access to papers in 2005. Until then, the site relied on selling banner ads. By 2007, revenues and profits topped $1 million. But Vess earned only 60% of his income from the website.
Triple duty: While keeping a watchful eye over Oppapers, Vess worked as a marketing consultant for New Line Cinema for four years and freelanced as a computer programmer. Vess’ desk was inside the office of his boss. That allowed him to sit in on hundreds of meetings and learn about business without ever going to business school. He worked on the campaigns of films such as “Wedding Crashers” and “Snakes on a Plane.”
When New Line merged with Warner Bros., Vess lost his job. “I was kind of glad — it was a sign that this was the end,” he said. That’s when he ramped up efforts on the essays website.
Growth through acquisitions: Vess scoured the Internet for educational websites that received a lot of visits or had interesting content. He has acquired 15 websites since 2008, mostly for about $100,000. The websites were typically run by one or two people, including college students and retired teachers. StudyMode remains self-funded, having never taken on a loan or investors.
He decided to buy FlashCards Exchange while he was studying for an adult class on Mandarin Chinese. All the websites with Chinese-English flashcards looked awful, he said.
“There were a good number of players not putting in the time,” he said. “We believed we could take it to the next level.”
He has applied the brakes on some deals too. Vess wanted to have an entertainment section and liked the content on a blog run by college students in the Midwest. But they weren’t keen on moving to L.A.
“We wouldn’t have the knowledge to keep it successful,” Vess said.
The company’s biggest property is Spanish-language website BuenasTareas. About 40% of the site’s 3.5 million daily visitors come from Mexico. Knowing that people in Mexico and other developing countries may not have the money to subscribe to StudyMode services, he wants to add “game-like” elements to the site that provide incentives for people from poor areas to submit content and review other people’s content.
Math is next on the expansion list.
Direct ad sales: With tens of thousands of subscribers on its main website, StudyMode now generates more than $10 million in annual revenue. Vess wants 25% of revenue to come from ads, though, so it has started to boost its advertising pitches.
The first hire: Remarkably, Vess and his co-founders went at it alone until 2011. They had a team of about 30 contractors who helped with the Web development, but no one in-house. And by in-house, they literally worked out of a house. “We were that mom-and-pop business that we ended up acquiring a lot of,” he said.
Realizing how inefficient that system had become, Vess went on a hiring spree and opened a real office. “It was kind of scary because we had never done any of the things most people would do when starting a company,” Vess said. “We wanted to get more work done so we took those risks.”
StudyMode now has 20 employees and 12 contractors.
Still pulling triple duty: Vess runs independent film production company Four Henrys with business partner Aisha Wynn. They have a show, “I’m Married to a ...” on VH1. He also volunteers for Liberty in North Korea, an organization that helps refugees escape to China and elsewhere. Vess said his interest was sparked by documentaries about North Korea that he stumbled upon on Netflix. He visited North Korea in September and just returned from a trip to South Korea.
“I’ve got a lot going on, but I don’t feel overworked,” Vess said. “Now, I have more of a focus and more freedom than I have ever before.”