How David Blake founded Degreed and BookClub
The Founder Series is a column by and about Utah founders and how they got to where they are today. Click here to read past articles in the series.
I grew up in Utah. When I was in high school I was a 4.0 student, racking up over 12 Advanced Placement courses. I loved to compete to be at the top of my class and I was an exceptional student.
I had a bit of an epiphany when I sat to take the ACT at American Fork High School one Saturday morning. You know how it is— it’s like 8:30 in the morning and you’re there for three hours, in a gymnasium with the desks spread out so that you can’t cheat. As I sat in those rows of desks, I remember thinking, “I can’t believe this is how people get sorted in and out of their futures.” It just seemed so ridiculous.
None of our normal classes focused on preparing us for this test. I personally knew the importance of this test and I had studied for it. But I know a lot of people didn’t. I couldn’t believe that this was the system we were using to decide who got to go to what college and who got scholarships there. Additionally, at the time, a lot of colleges used your ACT score as an admissions factor. How was it that half the equation for your college experience was decided by a three-hour test taken when you were only 17 years old?
It just seemed wrong.
It wasn’t about my score; I did well on the ACT, but it still bothered me. I visited my high school guidance counselor for the first time ever and asked for the history of the ACT. No one in the counseling office had an answer for me—they knew why the test was important now, but they had no idea how it had come to be.
This betrays me as an elder millennial, but without Google, I did the next best thing and I went to the library. I wanted to find a book on the ACT or the SAT. Not how to prep for them, but why they existed. There wasn’t a book on that topic, but there were books on the general history of education. I started reading those, and then I had a realization, another epiphany.
I realized that those books were the first thing I had ever truly studied that weren’t assigned to me by a teacher. I had managed to become a great student—but I realized that I was truly a terrible learner!
It took me a minute to understand the difference between being a student and a learner. But pulling those two things apart was like this revelation for me. Once I saw it that way, I appreciated that I was a product of an educational system that had turned me into this temporary sponge that would soak up information and spit it out for a test.
Being a great student was about checking the boxes and jumping through hoops. Learning wasn’t the actual goal of the system.
I was genuinely a very bad learner at that point. But I was committed to changing that so I made this promise to myself that I was going to reform my own education and become a great learner, even if it came at the expense of being a good student.
Of course, I needed something to really learn about. I had already kind of started learning about education, so I kept after that and my curiosity blossomed into a passion. My passion turned into a bit of an obsession, snowballing until I spent the summer after high school writing a business plan on what the “university of the future” would look like.
I was finally becoming a better learner.
And finding fellow reformers
I went to BYU and tried to study education, but all their programs were focused on teaching, which wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to work on educational systems, and there wasn’t anything at BYU that fit what I was looking for.
So I went into economics instead. The typical economics path at that point pointed you either toward a Ph.D. or consulting. I opted for out-of-state consulting but eventually learned of a Utah-based startup called Zinch. Their focus was on showing that students are ‘more than a test score’ by creating a sort-of LinkedIn for high school students. Using the platform, students could build these robust, holistic profiles to be used for college admissions. It felt like the kind of reform I had been wanting to make in education.
I traded a couple of emails with the founder and at first, they were responsive, but they eventually went dark on me. I couldn’t get time off work to go visit them in person, but when our first child was born I used my paternity leave to fly to Utah. I knocked on the door of their office totally unannounced, introduced myself, and asked if I could take the founders to lunch.
I convinced them to hire me.
Zinch was eventually acquired by a company called Chegg, which is now one of the larger education companies. My personal mission became to “jailbreak” the college degree…and that meant it was time to leave the company and strike out on my own.
It isn’t easy to convince people that established systems need to change so I explain education reform this way: Imagine I asked you to tell me about your health. Your response is “I ran a marathon sixteen years ago.”
I think that is an absurd way to answer for your health. It isn’t current and gives me no indication of your health today. And yet, when you ask people to tell you about your education, they will tell you they went to college 16 years ago and graduated in XX.
Marathons are great and so is a college education at some level, though I have my critiques. So it’s not even really about being pro- or anti-university, it’s just that a degree and the kind of place that holds and our world doesn’t deserve the amount of space we give it.
There wasn’t an organization out there with that type of focus, so it was necessary to become an entrepreneur if I was going to do the kind of work I was passionate about. I wanted learning to be a lifelong thing, not a one-and-done exclusive experience.
That’s the mission of Degreed, the first company I founded.
Starting my first company
I think most entrepreneurs have some version of a harrowing startup experience. My year of consulting paid well, but then I switched jobs and wasn’t even making a living wage. When we moved to San Francisco, which is so expensive, we weren’t able to save a lot. It was a challenge just to keep food on the table. I felt like it was never going to get easier and if I was going to start something, I was just going to have to bite the bullet and do it.
I was married with two kids by then, and my wife wasn’t working. Rent in San Francisco at that point was $3,000 a month for government housing in an old Army barracks. When I decided to start Degreed, we had saved $13,000—which was only about four months of rent, if we didn’t eat.
I immediately knew I was going to have to raise money to survive. I pitched all the VCs and actually got a few of them interested. But it’s hard to raise money, you start at the bottom of this “totem pole.” To move up is a whole process—you start with analysts and move it to associates, then maybe move up to a partner.
Of course, it’s nearly impossible to complete this process in three months. So what we were doing in the meantime was signing up for every credit card we could get our hands-on. I still keep those credit cards in a binder on my desk. We were just living off of debt, watching it grow. But my pitches for funding were working, so I felt like we could make it if we just hung in there for a bit longer.
And then every single VC came back, after this very lengthy process, and ultimately said no. At that point, we had accumulated tens of thousands of dollars in debt. I knew I could give up, but I also knew it would take years to undo the financial hole I had dug. I also felt like I was never going to get another chance at this, so I decided to keep going. I started pitching angel investors, and I kept working to make connections.
These connections would later prove crucial to the success of Degreed.
Making meaningful connections
Eric Sharp, my eventual co-founder at Degreed, lived in Salt Lake, so I would fly back and forth between Salt Lake and San Francisco about once a month. I was on an airplane flying back home and the guy behind me saw that I was wearing a Canadian pin, which is where I served my LDS mission. He said, “Oh, are you Canadian?” and I said no, but mentioned I had lived there for two years. He asked if I had served a mission there, and I said yes, in the Canada Toronto West mission.
He told me that he was the president of the Canada Toronto mission, he was called to serve just after I left. He asked me what I did, and I shared that I was an entrepreneur. When I asked him about his career, he replied that he was a venture capitalist.
It must have been fate—he became my first investor.
A lot of startups raise rounds of funding, so the money comes all at once, but we were surviving on a check-to-check basis. At some point, we had hired four or five people and had raised probably about $300,000.
We were running out of money again when Mark Cuban wrote a blog post about how universities were failing American students. That caught my attention, I knew he was interested and cared about the idea of continuing education, which is what Degreed provides, so I went and bought his email address off a shady website. I sent him a two-sentence email that just said, “We’re jailbreaking the college degree, I saw your blog post, I know you care, would you be interested in learning more?”
He emailed me back within two hours and wanted to know more. I replied with a two-paragraph email and our pitch deck. His next response was basically “I’m in, what do you need?”
And that’s how Mark Cuban saved us when we ran out of runway.
As we grew and education changed with the first adoption of online courses, I was kind of this lone voice saying, “credentials, we’ve got to change the credentials.” Everyone loved that debate, but everyone thought I was wrong. I’d end up with VCs and they would just say, “the college degree is not going away.” It was hard not to get lost in the debate.
That’s when I eventually came up with the “Tell me about your education” lead where I’d compare their decades-old degree to their health the same length of time ago. They’d say “Oh, I went to Stanford 33 years ago” and I would say, “If you told me you ran a marathon 33 years ago to describe your current health that’s an absurd way to respond” and that’s what started to resonate with people.
As we raised the funding needed, we created an entirely new category of software—what would come to be termed ‘Learning Experience Platform’ or LXP. Now, the industry is worth tens of billions of dollars. Higher education always felt like this gate and filter rather than a way of being inclusive and kind of helping everyone walk themselves forward. I wanted to build a company that was changing education, but also changing a lot of workplace norms and making that an inclusive atmosphere as well.
Building inclusivity for everyone
While building Degreed (which was my first time as a CEO & co-founder) I had to start making some decisions about our identity as a company. I was very mindful about how we could be inclusive. We set the goal that every team would be gender-balanced. So, not just the company as a whole, but on every team throughout the company. We wanted diversity at the level at which decisions were being made.
Our biggest office ended up being in Salt Lake City. Very quickly we learned that scaling a business in Utah with the goal that every team has gender balance, was incredibly tricky. We had to start being very intentional and deliberate about every decision that we made. Even early on, as a startup, we created an in-home child care stipend so that any woman who wanted to work could get themselves a nanny.
We also created full benefits for part-time workers because we knew that if we were willing to give people part-time roles, but treat them like full-time employees, that we could recruit a subset of qualified, amazing people who wouldn’t be interested in a full-time job. We created a fully paid unlimited parental leave policy. We would pay three months regular payroll and then, if anyone decided to take a leave that was longer than three months, we would pay the rest when they returned as a return bonus. Their full salary without a cap. People could take as much leave as they wanted.
All of those things helped us meet this intrinsic purpose and intrinsic goal of trying to try to be more inclusive.
Along the way, Degreed was starting to land clients, which only helped to further our mission. Our first client was a $10,000 deal with a national used car chain. Our second deal was like a $15,000 deal and then our third deal was a multi-million contract with one of the world’s largest banks. It was like this big domino fell over and from there we landed Tesla, eBay, MasterCard, NASA, Dell, etc.
Eventually, I stepped down as CEO at Degreed to start a political nonprofit called Americans for Common Ground. The goal was to solve some of the political divisiveness and extremism that is fraying American democracy. I traveled the nation with a clipboard in hand for two years, gathering signatures for ballot reform, and was interviewed by major newspapers and made it on every major television network. But I never did crack the code of political fundraising, so I came back to what I know and love best: education.
I’m interested in every aspect of education through K12, higher ed, and lifelong learning. That’s what I love about BookClub, another company I founded. BookClub is focused on creating community and meaningful discussions. It’s very career and skills-oriented, but it’s also about what I consider to be the other side of education: how do you challenge someone’s worldview?
I think education, inevitably, makes us more empathetic of those around us. The question is, how do you scale that kind of empathy? I wanted to work on that kind of education, challenging people with big ideas different from their own. Great literature will do that.
I don’t want my children to become the proverbial cobbler’s children who have no shoes, you know? I don’t want to spend my entire life force on changing education for others, but kind of quietly let them just go through the same system as before. We lived through the bureaucracy of the San Francisco school district and have experienced the frustration of being dependent on a system that isn’t meeting your needs.
The single biggest truth I’ve come to believe for children’s education is the further you can drive it into application, the better the learning outcomes become. We’re starting to see a lot of project-based learning, which I consider to be like halfway there, but what kids really need is an apprenticeship.
So as an entrepreneur, I took on the challenge to give my kids a chance to have an apprenticeship, and that’s why BookClub was born. It felt like the type of business that could hold any child’s attention because there’s always a book that’s oriented with a kids interest. Since starting their apprenticeship, my kids have learned how to shoot video and edit video, code, market, and reach out to authors. They do copy editing and social media, too.
Part of what moved us back to Utah was the desire to launch a micro-school called BookClub Academy. Currently, we have two instructors and 12 students, and as soon as we figure it all out, we plan on scaling.
Hopefully, all these efforts will mean that we, as a society, build kids who are learners and not just students. Then they can benefit from applied learning, democratized higher education, and life-long learning.