Anyone who has enrolled in a college course has experienced the same sense of sticker shock—how can a single textbook cost that much?! And when you’re taking multiple courses at one time, those costs can add up at dizzying rates.
No one wants to pay hundreds of dollars for course materials, but the price tags are particularly onerous for lower income students. Many are still waiting for loan money to come through, and they are forced to start their courses already behind the curve because they don’t have the materials they need. Others can’t afford them at all, greatly reducing their chances of success.
Kim Thanos, co-founder of Lumen Learning, believes that there has to be a better way. Here, she tells us more:
The spark that inspired the birth of Lumen Learning: Predating the company, The Gates Foundation had put out a call for proposals to tackle the challenge of using open source content for disadvantaged learners in higher education. We submitted a proposal for an 18-month grant project that aimed to replace traditional textbooks with open resources. When our proposal was accepted, we weren’t sure how it would all turn out – we weren’t sure if it was even possible. We worked with eight institutions and took on eight different courses. The impact we saw on student success was really phenomenal. We realized that yes, indeed, this makes a difference.
The problem you’re solving: We address affordability, access challenges, and poor outcomes in higher education. Currently, only a small percentage of students are actually able to earn a degree, and this is a problem that leaders want to solve. Following our grant project, we formed Lumen Learning to create a scalable solution.
How you differentiate from your competitors: Our biggest competitors are traditional textbook publishers. But because of the market dynamics for textbook publishers, it’s impossible for them to adjust their pricing and delivery strategy to compete with us.
Many publishers now offer e-texts, but these still tend to be expensive and static. We offer a replacement to the standard publisher e-text, including a full set of digital materials with video, interactive exercises, and sometimes online homework systems. We aim to be more adaptive and personalized to students’ needs. And the cost of our solution is $5 per enrollment.
How you came up with the name: Our original grant-funded project was called The Kaleidoscope Project. The idea was that each institution used materials in slightly different ways, and we liked that the kaleidoscope metaphor played off the idea of light and illumination. We continued to build on that concept with the name “Lumen.”
How you make money: We charge institutions, who work with us to put a program in place so that they transition to our materials. They pay us a per enrollment fee, which they usually cover with a $5 material fee on course. So the institution isn’t taking on additional cost, just finding a way to shift model. Students are happy to pay $5 instead of the $100+ it costs to buy a textbook. And the biggest benefit is that all students have access to materials from first day of class, regardless of whether or not their loans have come through yet.
The best thing about being an entrepreneur: I don’t like to have my work fit in a nice box. In large organizations, people are usually in very defined roles. I love the cross-functional problem-solving opportunity.
The biggest surprise: There’s no down cycle. I keep thinking, oh, we’re going through a period that’s really crazy and then things are going to settle down. That hasn’t happened yet. You have to learn to balance things. Not everything is urgent—some things need to be deprioritized or let go. The market is moving fast, and it’s creating a daunting pace of change for us.
Your #1 piece of advice for a budding entrepreneur: I’ve received similar advice from lots of different people, and I would echo it as well. You can’t underestimate the importance of persistence and creativity. When you look at successes at companies, you always see a nicely charted path toward success. What you don’t see is all the missteps, side steps, and back steps, where they didn’t move forward. Everything you try gives you better information about the right solution.
What wild success looks like: The educational publishing industry as it exists today would be gone. There would be a completely new model for how materials are created, curated and evolved that’s centered around student success. We want to redesign the industry to better support its purpose.
What you wanted to be when you grew up: When I was really little, I wanted to be a nurse and a lady wrestler. I did my undergrad in international relations, and I thought I might want to be a diplomat. Then I did a software startup in education in the late 90s—that’s when I started grasping the deep systemic challenges in our education system. There is so much opportunity to identify new and better ways to do things.
Benefits and challenges of starting a business in Oregon: There is a very connected startup community in Oregon. The challenge is that when you’re initially trying to navigate that, it’s a little difficult to figure out where the entry points are for access to capital. But the upside is that once we started to engage with some of the leaders in the angel community, we found immense generosity, support, and good will.
What’s on the horizon: We kicked off work with our second Gates Foundation grant early this year, and just closed a traditional funding round led by the Oregon Angel Fund. We’re also seeing incredible growth in the adoption of our core open courses. We expect to see some really exciting adoption numbers and student success numbers this fall.