Explo alumna and accomplished entrepreneur Ellen Siminoff is President and CEO of Shmoop, a robust online educational resource with more than 10 million users each month. Shmoop, “a digital company with a point of view,” is particularly good at “speaking student,” and teenagers, teachers, administrators, and school districts are reaping the benefits of this innovative enterprise.
Founded in 2007 by Siminoff’s husband’s David (also a well respected investor and entrepreneur based in Silicon Valley), Shmoop started out small, consisting of a handful of online literary guides that David penned and posted from his home, almost as a hobby.
Shmoop, a Yiddish word that means “to give something a little nudge forward,” was named by and for the Siminoffs’ daughter Sophie (when Sophie was younger she was nicknamed Shmoop for the bit-by-bit crawling she did around the family home). In fact, Siminoff decided to focus on an educational venture because of her kids. “There are really only two times in your life when most people are interested in educational materials,” she says. “When you are using them and when your children are using them.”
Siminoff discovered that not much had changed in resources since she was a student. “The materials were awful, boring, and expensive.” And they did not take advantage of the internet. “Even $150 textbooks that claimed to have a web presence really only had the same content dumped online.” In short order, David Siminoff’s hobby had attracted a huge following to Shmoop, and Ellen Siminoff decided to develop the company and start generating revenue.
Siminoff excels at directing entrepreneurial businesses and making them successful. A founding executive of Yahoo!, Simonoff ran business development, corporate development, and the small business and entertainment divisions of the company. Later, she led Efficient Frontier, a pioneer of dynamic Search Engine Marketing, to become one of the 25 most valuable privately held companies in Silicon Valley.
Named a “Master of Information” by Forbes Magazine, Siminoff combines savvy and skill with a passion for education in leading Shmoop. The company has twice been honored by the Webby awards and was twice named “Best in Tech” by Scholastic Administrator. Further, it received two Annual Education Software Review Awards (EDDIES). National educators have also taken note. Utah purchased accounts for every public and charter school student, teacher, and administrators in grades 9 through 12. School districts in Pennsylvania and California have seen their test scores rise dramatically with Shmoop’s help.
Shmoop differentiates itself in the marketplace with several key factors. It offers both breadth and depth, with Learning Guides for every imaginable high school subject--English, social studies, math, science, and also things like “life skills,” and “college 101.” The writing and editorial staff is primarily comprised of PhDs and PhD candidates from top universities such as Stanford, UC Berkeley, and Yale. But having vast content knowledge isn’t enough to get you a job at Shmoop. Yes, all Shmoop writers are experts in their fields, but they are also “hopelessly devoted to [their] topics.” What’s more, they value educating and teaching, and know how to connect with kids.
Having the ability to “speak student,” as Shmoop’s tagline proclaims, is essential to living out the company’s mission. Shmoop is as successful as it is because it has an authentic voice that’s connected, passionate, and relevant. And when that enthusiasm gets conveyed to kids, and when kids start to be able engage with material that previously seemed distant and confusing, real magic happens. With Shmoop, students can access their curricula, and even learning itself, in fresh and exciting ways.
As important for accessibilty, Shmoop is both funny and affordable. Siminoff is adamant about a “democratization of materials” as well as more support and resources for teachers. “We wanted to do something funny,” says Siminoff, “but we had no idea if it would work.”
Siminoff herself is accustomed to taking chances, pursuing unique ideas, and embracing opportunities wherever she lands. Though she grew up in the midwest, Siminoff came to the east coast for a summer at Explo and loved the program. She engaged in courses, formed lasting friendships, and confirmed her desire to attend a college in the area. Siminoff went on to Princeton, on a pre-med track and in pursuit of an economics degree.
Siminoff did well in school but got more enjoyment from selling ads for the school magazine and making money. Siminoff continued to enjoy unforeseen, entrepreneurial paths after Stanford Business School. She and David (also a Stanford grad) “somehow decided to go to the (former) Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War and sell Western-style tv programming. What kind of programming? The Care Bears! After that experience, it was hard [for her] to go back and work for other people.”
Siminoff has made a life and a living out of pursuing her passions and creating successful businesses from unique and often unexpected ideas. She works hard and infuses that work with a sense of humor, making her easy to admire and appreciate as an individual...and to honor as an alum.