A Brief Primer on Primer
By Bala Chandrasekaran & Sid Vashist
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The roots of today’s public education system can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution, a time characterized by a shift from agriculture-based economies to one largely based on mechanized manufacturing at scale. While the workforce of the past had been farmers, artisans, and the like working individually on their schedules or in small groups, the new workforce operated in large factories and was expected to be docile, punctual, and sober. This Prussian system of education brought to the United States quickly became the system we know today; students grouped by age, 12 years of mandatory instruction, a regimented pace for everyone, etc. Schools of thought argue that the public education system grew out of the need to train the future workforce to be compliant and efficient in the regimented work environment of a factory, subsequently referring to it as the “factory model” of education. While some historians argue that this “factory model” label does not paint the full picture, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t some truth to this interpretation.
The public school system is designed to educate the masses as efficiently as possible, with little room for personalization for individual students. This one-size-fits-all model worked for the time it was designed for, but in this post-Industrial age we live in, it’s time to rethink our education system into one that fosters personalization, creativity, and independence.
“It is pathetic that the education system has not changed in hundreds of years” - Anant Agarwal, edX CEO
Covid-19 has affected countless aspects of our lives and the world, and these effects will be studied for years to come. One of the things that Covid has shined a light on is the shortcomings of the public education system. As parents work and students learn remotely in the same house, many parents are asking themselves a seemingly provocative question: “What part of the ‘go to school’ ritual is quality education vs. child daycare? Are there better and more efficient ways to educate my child?”
The unprecedented shift to entirely virtual schooling has worried many parents about the quality of education their child is receiving and catalyzed increasing consideration of alternative education options, namely homeschooling. Across the country, we are seeing record levels of interest in homeschooling. Nebraska reported a dramatic increase in the number of students homeschooling this year, marking the first time in more than 15 years that enrollment in public schools has declined. In North Carolina, more than 10,000 new families filed notices of their intent to homeschool between the beginning of July and the end of August last year, which was more than 3 times more than were filed in the same period in 2019. Interestingly enough, on the day that North Carolina families could file their homeschooling notices, the state website crashed due to record traffic. In 2018 and 2019, there were a total of 14,800 students filing for intent to homeschool in Wisconsin, while in 2020 alone, there were over 23,000.
In the midst of this drastic change, the internet will play a major role in what the homeschooling world looks like in years to come. Perhaps the company best positioned to serve this market is Primer, a startup building infrastructure for the homeschooling community.
Homeschooling has been steadily increasing in the United States in the past several decades. The modern homeschooling movement began in the 1970s when the Supreme Court ruled that it wasn’t unconstitutional to remove prayer from schools and Christians began homeschooling. At the time, homeschooling was illegal in 45 states. By 1993, homeschooling was deemed a parent’s right in all 50 states. For a variety of reasons, the numbers have continued to grow since then.
The National Center for Education Statistics notes that in 2020, 56.4 million students are projected to attend elementary, middle, and high schools across the United States. Of those 56.4 million, 50.7 million students are attending public schools, and 5.7 million students are attending private schools. Looking at homeschoolers in 2019, there are about 2.5 million homeschool students in grades K-12 in the United States (or 3% to 4% of school-age children). While private school attendance has been proportionally decreasing, homeschooling continues to be the fastest-growing education alternative in the country.
For a long time, the stereotype of homeschoolers has been that of ultra-protective, conservative parents indoctrinating their sheltered, socially-inept kids with religious scripture.This is moving further and further away from the truth. What does the landscape look like today? In its surveys, the National Center for Education Statistics asked participants why they chose to homeschool their kids. 36% of participants chose religion as the most important reason in 2007, while only 21% did in 2012. In 2016, the number fell to 16%. Concerns about safety at schools and a desire for nontraditional education emerged as the most common reasons for homeschooling. Homeschooling as a sector has become increasingly diverse and more popular among minorities, with roughly 40% of homeschoolers being non-white today. These increases in numbers are not without reason as the home-educated student typically scores 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on standardized academic achievement tests and go to college in disproportionately high numbers. This is the rise of the “secular homeschooling” market.
As you might imagine, the homeschooling market has grown even more during Covid-19. According to a majority of principals and superintendents surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center, enrollment in schools and districts have declined across the US, as a result of the pandemic. In a mid-October survey, 58% of schools saw homeschooling as the most major contributor to enrollment declines. While many of these families will re-enroll in public and private schools once the pandemic ends, there will likely be a permanent increase in homeschooling as the movement gets a boost on its already promising momentum. Parents who were on the fence before or were forced to consider other options will see the benefits of homeschooling and a considerable amount will continue the practice after schools reopen.
As the market continues to grow, Primer is building solutions not just for homeschoolers, but also for parents who can't homeschool but still want their kids to experience a non-traditional education.
What is Primer
Technology penetration in education ebbs and flows. Access to content outside of school in specific areas was galvanized through Khan Academy, which came to fruition in 2008. Following suit, MOOC companies (massive open online courses) like Coursera and EdX championed the open-source movement where access to in-depth course material was proliferated throughout the internet. In 2015, companies like Guild Education became popular for their focus on investing in education for the existing workforce. The next wave of transformational education technology companies will be in education alternatives, like homeschooling.
If you look at the examples listed above, Khan Academy, Coursera, EdX, and Guild are supplemental efforts to an existing primary education flow. Primer is an ed-tech company with the mission of empowering the next generation of kids to be more ambitious, more creative, and think for themselves - starting with homeschoolers.
One of Primer’s key objectives is to help kids discover the interests that they naturally gravitate towards. Primer believes that these interests should be nurtured from a young age and that they can serve as the engine by which kids learn other subjects as well.
This approach is very reminiscent of the Montessori method of education, a model developed by Maria Montessori in the early 1900s that emphasizes self-directed activity, hands-on learning, and collaborative play. Contrary to conventional education, a key pillar of Montessori schooling is that children are naturally eager to seek knowledge and do not need exterior incentives like tests and grades to facilitate their learning. It was developed through scientific experimentation and extensive evidence exists for its effectiveness. Primer is democratizing this type of education model for the homeschooling community through its product and content.
Product Deep Dive
Primer’s initial product was a simple way for parents to understand the homeschooling regulations and compliance in their state. Every state has different compliance and regulation standards, where parents are responsible for the extensive research and paperwork to begin homeschooling their child. This arduous process is unnecessarily repeated by countless parents across the country. Primer launched with the initial goal of making this homeschooling upstart process much easier for parents. Today, parents are able to use Primer’s homeschooling compliance tool to get a detailed report of all the considerations they need to make to get started homeschooling.
Primer wrapped up their private beta in September and they have transitioned to sending out invites to people on their waitlist of over 30k+ people. In the fall, Primer launched an online community of internet-based clubs, where students can create personal profiles along with little blurbs to describe themselves, and hosts all the projects that a student has worked on.
Primer is currently a supplemental piece to a homeschooler’s core curricula where they offer themed clubs in the form of online communities. Primer students are encouraged to explore Primer Clubs, try projects, and meet other club members. Primer currently supports four different clubs:
Over time, Primer kids can also get access to experts. For example, a kid interested in rockets would get the opportunity to learn from a SpaceX Engineer.
Primer Clubs are peer-interaction-based communities with moderators that serve as a guide rather than a traditional instructional teacher. The critical value proposition that students receive is the ability to learn alongside students both older and younger than them. Interestingly enough, this also a key tenant of the Montessori model.
Primer had an exciting end to 2020, releasing a few more products that all double down on the importance of communities for homeschoolers.
The first of these was Challenges. Inspired by user feedback from parents asking for more student collaboration, Challenges give students two weeks to work on a particular prompt with other Primer students. Challenges are complementary to the clubs that students are a part of, it was created following the guiding principle that collaboration is extremely beneficial for homeschooled students.
After this, they launched the Activities Library, which was their first offering specifically directed at parents.
The Activities Library is a compilation of activities, lesson plans, and hands-on projects that can be filtered by grade, interests, lengths, and subject.
Their most recent product launch was for Primer Units. Building on the groundwork of the Activities Library tool, Units allows families the creativity to build custom combinations of activities, empowering them to have more of a say in their child’s educational goals. The Units product echoes Primer’s continual effort to emphasize the importance of community. All units created by Primer kids and families are open-sourced to others in the Primer ecosystem.
The direct competition in this space was surprisingly sparse, which goes to show the antiquated nature of this space. The startups that do exist in ed-tech are as follows:
Based on a survey of the competitors, Primer seems to be flying solo in a growing market and solving the problem of homeschooling in a very unique and disruptive fashion.
Primer was co-founded by Ryan Delk (CEO) and Maksim Stepanenko (CTO). Ryan was homeschooled for 9 years (K-8) and Maksim skipped traditional high school and decided to focus purely on physics (see: Mike Solana’s Anatomy of Next: School is Not a Place). Both of them learned through their own experience that the homeschooling path is counter-narrative but highly advantageous. The founding team has a breadth of startup experience across companies like Gumroad, Omni, Square, and Coinbase. The Primer team currently sits at 12 people split across people focusing on Engineering, Education/Content, and Design -- they are currently hiring for engineering roles.
Primer’s pricing is a monthly subscription model that charges the families’ first child $49/mo and then an additional $19/mo for each additional student. Assuming a family has only one child that’s being homeschooled, this translates to an ACV of $588. This coupled with Primer’s waitlist of ~30k+ people for their initial release, signals a healthy revenue target very early in their company lifecycle. As discussed previously, the market for homeschooling has seen consistent growth over the past few years and is expected to continue to grow because of the pandemic’s effects on school systems. Research from the National Center for Education Statistics argues “homeschooling was more prevalent among students in rural areas than for those in cities and suburban areas, and was also most prevalent among households with three or more children”. This research proves that our ACV mentioned above is a conservative estimate and the actual value is probably considerably higher.
For some customer segments, a child’s education is a very inelastic expense and they are willing to invest for a brighter future. Primer has a very attractive rate when considering other expenses that generally come up in a child's education.
Primer is at an affordable price point for the customer as well as for Primer given how much organic interest they are already driving. The cherry on top is that Primer drives natural network effects with the way it has built out its products. The more people that spend time on Primer, the better the offerings become. Products like Units and Challenges become all the better when the community strengthens. Due to these network effects, Primer is in a position to increase in quality while consistently offering a relatively affordable price.
Long-time horizon for Primer validation leads to delayed brand recognition
One area of concern is with Primer building a household brand. Based on their waitlist as well as the increasing trend in homeschooling, Primer has a ton of organic growth. However, to continue growing in the future they will need to develop Primer into a recognizable brand. Building a brand that consumers love is an extremely difficult feat, but one that Primer needs to do in the broader education space. Like Lambda School starting to appear as a credential in job requirements, Primer needs to aim for similar visibility for people that have gone through the Primer journey. This will be particularly challenging for this company because, as Ryan states in their Mission blog post, “the first student with a full K-12 Primer education will graduate in 2033, so we’re buckled for the long journey ahead.” The fact that the feedback/validation loop for someone to go through the entire Primer journey is so long, means it will likely take longer for them to build a reputable brand because they won’t have many full-on Primer graduates for at least another decade.
Looking back at elementary, middle, and high school, the redeeming quality of being in public education was being involved in extracurriculars. Whether it was chess, robotics, speech & debate, or basketball, the school system fostered a way to compete while learning. An interesting area for Primer to delve deeper into with the community model is to create a competitive aspect to it. For example, Inventors club participants build robots. Would Primer be able to build out competition at the end of a “project” phase where participants could compete and showcase their projects? Similarly, Storyteller club participants write original oratories. Would Primer be able to craft a Speech competition and bring out judges to have people showcase their creations?
This competition aspect was critical in high school. Decisions to study engineering were not made because of a love for physics exams but more so because of extracurriculars like VEX robotics where there are opportunities to go out and build robots after school. This experiential learning coupled with competition creates everlasting core interests.
Enabling social interaction
One of the biggest criticisms of homeschooling has been the organic social interaction with other kids of the same age that homeschooled kids miss out on. This is largely overstated, as many homeschooling parents will have their kids participate in sports and other activities in the local communities. Nonetheless, the lack of social interaction is a barrier that many parents have to overcome when making the move to homeschooling. And so, if Primer were able to solve this, it may benefit their customer acquisition strategy. For example, what if parents were able to organize local meetups, field trips, social events, and the like for kids in the same city/radius? Something like this built into the Primer product could not only provide social opportunities for students but also strengthen the communities of Primer parents.
As the popular narrative against homeschooling fizzles away given the ongoing pandemic, the homeschooling market continues to grow and Primer is perfectly positioned to capture a large part of this market share. In 10-15 years, Primer will be associated with the likes of Khan Academy, Coursera, EdX, and Lambda School, making a fundamental dent in the education space and shifting the way we think about the homeschooling narrative for the better.
If you enjoyed this piece and would like to chat more, please reach out through Twitter at @bchandras3karan or Email at email@example.com