In 2008, two BYU graduate students, Devin Daley and Brian Whitmer, became frustrated when they were forced to conduct their software usability studies on, ironically, very unfriendly software. They hooked up with investor Josh Coates, who provided mentorship and seed money (and later became CEO), and undertook a âproduct validation tourâ before writing any code.
The tour took them to 17 universities in the western United States, where they gathered feedback and ideas from students, instructors, and administrators. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available for the tour was Whitmer’s Geo Metro, which was sorely lacking in air conditioning, but all survived, and the feedback gathered helped lay the groundwork for the first LMS (learning management software) product. of Instructure, Canvas. (The learning management software enables the delivery of online courses and training materials, college programs, workshop courses, etc.)
In 2010, Instructure, then operating with just 20 employees, won a contract to have Canvas be the statewide LMS at all Utah public schools and state-funded colleges and universities. (over 100,000 students in total), also replacing Blackboard, the dominant player at the time. as beating seven other potential competitors. Instructure then officially launched Canvas nationwide in February 2011 as the only cloud-native open source LMS software on the market. In 2015, the company launched Bridge, a side product designed as an employee development suite for businesses and then traded on the NYSE that same year. Today, Instructure has more than 20 million users worldwide, who are supported by 1,200 employees at its headquarters in Salt Lake City and in offices around the world.
On January 1 of this year, Coates became Executive Chairman of the Board and Dan Goldsmith, previously Chairman of Instructure, assumed the role of CEO. I recently had the chance to speak with Goldsmith.
Micah Solomon: How did Instructure manage to grow so quickly?
Dan Goldsmith, CEO, Instructure: The open nature of our technology has been a major contributor. The learning market is changing rapidly, with our customers relying on us constantly to provide solutions that meet new market demands. As an open source provider, we are able to deploy these new solutions without complex implementation or integration projects.
Solomon: Outside of this architecture, is there anything philosophically unique about your approach?
Goldsmith: Our company aims to support the human experience which we believe is at the heart of education. We’re a tech company, of course, but we use this technology to make human interactions more powerful. By removing the complexity of the process and providing consistent and reliable access to educational tools, our intention is to allow educators to fully focus on the real value they can add. While our solutions do not by themselves provide education, they are designed and refined with the goal of providing the optimal learning environment where educators can do what only educators can do.
Solomon: Who are Instructure’s competitors?
Goldsmith: Canvas competes with other LMS providers like Blackboard. Bridge competes versus other talent management software suppliers, such as SAP SuccessFactors. That said, our solutions are based on an open architecture and this has fundamentally changed the competitive landscape. Where in the past third-party tools and applications were a competitive threat to a solution like ours, by taking the open architecture approach, we can now see them as opportunities, as third-party solutions can be easily integrated. with our platform as they develop.
Solomon: Aside from the competitive landscape, what are your most pressing challenges?
Goldsmith: Without a doubt, the biggest challenge we will face is the pace of change in this market. The days of the static program are over. The days of education in reading, writing and arithmetic are long gone. Today’s learners are faced with an unprecedented universe of content that is constantly growing. Add to that the demographic changes: we are all living longer than ever before and the lifecycle of learners is changing. Between the first day of school and the last day of work, we may have three, four, or five different careers, each requiring us to learn and apply new information and skills.
And that’s only on the âdemandâ side of the equation! On the âsupplyâ side, the multiplicity of content sources, formats and media makes getting the information we need in a logical and constructive way also increasingly a challenge. Finally, we are entering a world where machine learning and artificial intelligence will play more of a role in guiding us in daily learning and growth.
Solomon: What’s next for Instructure?
Goldsmith: Bridge is now enjoying success in the corporate market, which is similar to how Canvas transformed the education market. So it’s very exciting and certainly a big boost. We are also excited about the opportunities in international markets and encouraged by our successes in Europe, Latin America and Asia to date. Every market is different, which is definitely a challenge, but the strength of our solutions lies in their openness, which can provide a user experience in any geographic market suited to cultural norms.