When Stratford native Becky Splitt graduated from UW-Madison with a communications degree in 1985, she wanted to parlay her experience as a house fellow in the Lakeshore dorms into a career in academia.
Instead, after adding a master's degree in business from Wichita State University, Splitt stumbled into the heady, early days of the Internet boom. She signed on with Brite Voice Systems, a young Wichita company that became a pioneer in computer voice technology; later, Microsoft wooed Splitt, boosting her to the executive ranks as head of a international team that set up the first overseas connections for services such as Expedia.
So what is Splitt doing in Madison at StudyBlue, guiding an Internet startup with only a pittance of income and whose participants - primarily college students - create the Web site content they use?
"It was just a gut feeling that they were onto something and it would be fun (to join)," Splitt said.
"It's very risky; it's everything I said I didn't want to do. But it was clear that it was the best fit for me."
Splitt had spent several years out of the daily business world, working at home as a part-time consultant while her children, Haley, 7, and Andrew, 9, were young. Then, Splitt and her husband, Kelly Splitt, a business development specialist for Pittsburgh-based VOIP Innovations, decided to move the family to Madison to be closer to relatives and to send Andrew, who has special needs, to Sauk Trail Elementary School in Middleton, known for its special education programs.
She is now working on big changes for StudyBlue, a service that lets students study together online, creating electronic flash cards, sharing class notes and even past test answers.
Founded in 2007 by UW-Madison graduates Chris Klundt and Dave Sergeant and called TheClassConnection.com until last November, StudyBlue is used by 9,000 of the 29,000 UW-Madison undergrads as well as by students at 1,800 colleges and universities around the world.
The company has seven full-time employees and 12 representatives at campuses around the U.S.
Q: What do you see as the mission of StudyBlue?
A:We want students to say, this is great because it helps me study better and be more prepared.
We have a tool that lets students turn their own lecture notes into electronic flash cards. They can combine their notes with another student's. They can schedule their tests and organize their studying.
We are trying to revolutionize the way students study by using the tools of their daily lives - laptops and mobile phones - instead of the pens and notebooks of earlier generations. It immediately made sense to me.
What it can do for students is help them learn more effectively. We have a saying around here: The "we" are smarter than the "me."
It's also a great way for students to meet their classmates. They post their names and photos on the Web site and talk online. Studies have shown that when students collaborate, their grades are higher.
Q: But is it legal and ethical to post lecture notes and test answers online?
A:There's nothing illegal or unethical that's happening. The reality is that for centuries, students have shared old exams and have paid people to take their notes. We don't provide the content or take any ownership or tell students what they need to learn. We don't, in any way, replace the professor or the professor's content. We provide the platform and the tools to learn their lecture notes more effectively.
Q: How do you make money with this kind of business model?
A:We do not currently make money. But the company's founders say they had traction and had validated delivering value to students and they said, "OK, it's time to figure out how to turn this into a business." And somebody introduced me to their investor - an angel investor who does not want his name disclosed.
Nobody was even thinking about how to make money off this until 90 days ago ... which, to me, was incredible.
Q: How do you plan to change that situation?
A: In the fall, we will introduce a subscription-based service. We're also working on new features in preparation for that. The functionality we'll be adding, we believe, will be valuable enough for people to pay a subscription fee. We also have started accepting a few ads on our Web site. We have opened our first funding round, which we hope to close by the end of June. I'm very encouraged by the response.
Q: What do you think of Madison and its business community?
A:Madison has a very collaborative, supportive tech community. It's small enough that everybody still knows everybody, and they support each other and want each other to succeed. When I called people out of the blue and asked if they would meet for coffee and talk, there wasn't a single person who said no.
In Madison, though, the focus is on biotech, which is very, very different from Internet businesses in their planning and their monetary needs. The Internet business in Madison is very nascent, very young. But everyone is willing to spend some time and share their best practices.
\ BECKY SPLITT\ Chief executive officer at StudyBlue.\ Address: 602 State St.\ Web site: www.studyblue.com\ Service: Study tools for college students.\ Revenue: Negligible; startup funding from an angel investor.\ Company established: In 2007 by former UW-Madison students Chris Klundt and Dave Sergeant.\ from the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University.