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Summary:

Piazza, the social network that lets college students and instructors discuss material online, has closed on $6 million in a new Series A funding round. Piazza’s service is meant to counteract study group snobbery and eliminate students’ fear of asking “dumb” questions.

Piazza founder and CEO Pooja Sankar

Piazza founder and CEO Pooja Sankar

Piazza, the social network that lets college students and instructors discuss material online, has closed on $6 million in new funding.

The funding round, which serves as the Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup’s Series A, was led by Bessemer Venture Partners with the participation of previous investors Kapor Capital and Felicis Ventures. This brings Piazza’s total outside investment to approximately $7.5 million.

Growing beyond Q&A and STEM studies

Piazza will use the money to expand its service to more schools and add more features beyond its existing Q&A format, said founder and CEO Pooja Sankar in an interview this week. Such growth initiatives mean hiring more people: Piazza currently has around 10 full-time employees, and the company expects to double its staff by the end of 2012, Sankar said.

Another priority in the months ahead will be making Piazza friendlier to disciplines beyond science, technology, engineering and math (also referred to as STEM fields.) “There’s a different structure in [humanities] majors such as the arts, literature, and history. A lot of our focus going forward will be in understanding their needs,” Sankar said.

Taking on study group snobbery

Piazza aims to provide a single place where students can ask each other and their instructors questions about their studies and homework assignments. Students can opt to post to Piazza under their real names, or anonymously — which is meant to eliminate fears of asking “a stupid question.” Professors and teaching assistants, meanwhile, can help guide the Piazza discussions and access workflow and stats on the service.

Sankar says she was inspired to create Piazza after feeling excluded from study groups while she was earning degrees in computer science from IIT Kanpur and the University of Maryland, College Park. “I noticed all my classmates were in the computer lab working together, but I was too shy to ask to be included,” Sankar said. “They would all be done with an assignment by 2 a.m., and I would be working on it until 6 a.m…. Google and other search engines on the open Internet would have been too general for my purposes and the questions I had.”

Screenshot of Piazza questions and dashboard

Once Sankar joined the working world — before founding Piazza, she held developer positions at Kosmix, Oracle, and Facebook — she discovered that many other people had similar feelings of exclusion while studying engineering. “Sheryl Sandberg held an interesting event while I was at Facebook for women in technology, and I found that many of the people there said the exact same thing: They didn’t feel they had a support group in their studies.” In mid-2009, while pursuing her MBA at Stanford University, Sankar developed a working prototype of Piazza to help solve this problem.

Big growth, but no revenue yet

During its first few months, Piazza kept a low profile, operating only at Stanford in private beta. But in December 2010, the company opened its service to all universities, and 2011 brought fairly explosive growth: Piazza started the year with 4,000 student users and ended it with more than 100,000, Sankar said. Today, Piazza counts such schools as Berkeley, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Michigan, the University of Texas and Virginia Tech among the hundreds of schools worldwide that utilize the service.

For all that growth, however, Piazza doesn’t make any money. It doesn’t charge universities or students for access to its service, nor does it serve advertisements. Sankar tells me revenue generation will probably not be on the agenda until mid-2013. “For the next 1.5 years, our focus will probably be to continue to grow our user base and expand the product,” she said.

Piazza is by no means the only company vying to be the social network of choice for college study services. Blackboard is hugely successful with its educational software; college textbooks now often come with their own social and online components; and many universities have their own white-label services to help students keep up on coursework. But Piazza’s growth over the past year shows there are still big needs that haven’t been fulfilled by these existing offerings, and instructors and students are willing to try out a free new service. Its challenge now is proving it has staying power as a truly must-have tool for professors and universities for many semesters ahead.

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