November 29, 2018

FlatWorld is Helping Reduce the Pain of Buying Expensive Textbooks

The cost of textbooks is high. Way, way, way too high.

FlatWorld’s digital-first platform is not only lowering the cost of textbooks for students, but it is also allowing students to access them on all kinds of devices.

FlatWorld Co-CEO Alastair Adam spoke with us about the company, how they have scaled to start including digital teacher’s material, and what their plans are for the future. Adam also went into detail about him and his team’s experience with edtech.

Colin Barry [CB]: Everyone has a story to tell when it comes to starting your startup. How and why did FlatWorld come together?

Alastair Adam [AA]: Students, parents, professors, university administrators, and the general public all seem to agree that college textbooks are too expensive. But nearly all discussions about how to solve this problem focus on either for-profit publishers selling Netflix-style subscription offerings or open-source publishers developing “free” materials.

My partner, John Eielson and I, saw an opportunity for a third, preferable route to providing students with high quality and affordable learning materials: A digital-first business model where each individual book is priced fairly.  

Alastair Adam

Alastair Adam, Co-CEO of FlatWorld

We assembled the necessary team and assets, including purchasing much of the former Flatworld Knowledge business, which we relocated to Boston, and we launched a simple pricing model: Most textbooks cost between $24.95 and $39.95 for digital access. With FlatWorld, students don’t have to pay for an all-you-can-eat subscription that includes many books that they don’t need. And while there is always a market for free textbooks, professors looking for more consistent quality appreciate that all of FlatWorld’s digital learning materials are peer-reviewed and contain all the necessary supporting supplements, such as homework solutions, teacher guides etc. that are typically missing or incomplete with the “free” solutions.

CB: What experience do you and/or your team members have with edtech?

AA: John and I spent 15 years consulting to the information and education industry. When we decided to build our own business in the digital learning materials space, we hired people with deep experience in the industry for a number of positions. For instance, we brought on Sean Wakely as our VP of Editorial. He's spent more than three decades in the higher ed publishing industry.

But because we wanted to disrupt the textbook industry, we knew we also had to bring on leaders from other industries who could offer a fresh perspective. To give you an example, we hired Corey Lewis as our VP of strategy and marketing. Corey comes from Boston Beer Company, where she was head of marketing.

CB: If I am a student who is about to use the FlatWorld, how would I go about it? Tell me, in detail, on how the platform works.

AA: First, professors decide which FlatWorld book they are going to assign. They can distribute a link to their students, which takes the students directly to From there, students can purchase digital materials and have the option of a companion print copy.

Students can access all of their FlatWorld materials from any device, from laptops to smartphones and tablets.

CB: Besides textbooks, what other educational material can a user find on FlatWorld?

AA: Professors and students have access to a wide variety of materials on FlatWorld, including test banks, PowerPoint slides, videos, homework questions, and instructor manuals for faculty. Supplementary materials are included in the price of each textbook — there are never any additional charges.

FlatWorld Image

CB: FlatWorld is currently being used by professors at more than 1,000 institutions nationwide. Would you be able to name some of the colleges adopting the technology for their students? Also, care to share any uses cases involving students?

AA: We see professors at universities across the US assign FlatWorld textbooks, including Bay Path University, MIT, Stanford, University of Alaska, University of South Florida.

For instance, The American Women’s College adopted financial and accounting materials from FlatWorld for the fall 2018 semester. Students and professors access FlatWorld materials through the university’s own adaptive learning platform.

CB: Your platform is currently scaling in the edtech world. Care to share some advice to aspiring edtech companies?

AA: The education industry is one that adapts to change slowly. Edtech companies must understand that no matter how compelling their technology is, it will take time to change behavior.

Also, edtech companies should not focus on technology for technology’s sake, but rather on how they can create a product or service that will facilitate teaching and learning. I see too many edtech companies start with a technology, and then try to figure out how they can build a solution around the technology. It should be the other way around — identify a problem faced by a specific person or role, consider carefully how to solve that problem, and then find the technologies that can be part of that solution.  

CB: What is the most expensive textbook you’ve ever purchased for a semester? And was it worth it?

AA: I studied law and bought an enormously expensive law dictionary. I don’t think I’ve ever opened it, but since the book cost so much, I’ve had a hard time parting with it. Decades and many home moves later, the book is still sitting in my basement.

CB: What is next on the horizon for FlatWorld?

AA: 2019 is all about scaling. Over the last two years, we’ve built out a product that thousands of professors and students across the U.S. love, and an incredible team that has helped us get to where we are today. We look forward to having thousands of more professors adopt FlatWorld learning materials in 2019 and beyond.

Colin Barry is an Editor & Staff Writer to VentureFizz. Follow him on Twitter @ColinKrash

Images courtesy of FlatWorld