Fast Talk: When Is A Startup Like An Attack Submarine?

Meet Roy Gilbert, a former Googler and the CEO of “social learning” company Grockit, who finds similarities between his experience aboard a nuclear attack sub and the world of Silicon Valley.

Roy Gilbert is the CEO of Grockit, a 3-year-old social learning company that aims to make test prep more fun, and in the process hopes to democratize what companies like Kaplan typically peddle to the relatively well-to-do. Grockit’s users are on track to soon answer their collective 15 millionth question, and each day the site gains more users than would fill the chair-desks of a pair of American high schools. Fast Company spoke with Gilbert to talk about education in India, his ambivalence over the term “gamification,” and his experience working on a nuclear attack submarine.


FAST COMPANY: What is Grockit?

ROY GILBERT: Our company is focused on social learning, the idea that people that study together or work together to learn new things tend to do better, and tend to enjoy doing it more. What we’re focused on right now is people studying for big events like standardized tests. When people study together, chat together, and answer each other’s questions, they tend to do twice as much work and get answers right 10 percent more often than we would expect. Social learning predates Grockit by decades, but only recently has technology and the Internet made it possible to do group study and social interaction with the same fidelity as offline interactions.

I was at Google for seven years, and for about half the time, we lived in India. My family and I had the cool opportunity to move to Hyderabad to open and grow the office there. The office had about 20 people when I got there, and by the time I left, it was about 1,100 people across three different cities. If you walked into my office, it looked like a very sleek Silicon Valley office building. Meanwhile my wife Leigh Anne Gilbert, who is an incredible entrepreneur, took over a school in an impoverished area in Hyderabad about a half mile from my office. The school was literally a tent with 30 kids in it. She built an actual building, created a foundation to hire teachers, and it ended up being the second- or third-best-performing school in the state. We were in two different worlds: I was living in, essentially, California, and she was living in the poor areas of a developing country.

So she was the slumdog and you were the millionaire?

[Laughs.] I would never say that to her! The things that Leigh Anne lacked while there was the ability to scale. When I was ready to leave Google, our brains were attuned to, “What are some ideas that can scale, that can use technology? What kind of technology can we use to fundamentally transform education?” My daughter is 9 years old. If you took me when I was 9 years old and time-traveled me to now, a classroom wouldn’t seem that different. Everything else in my 9-year-old daughter’s life is wildly different, but the classroom is virtually untouched by technology.

You want to make education more fun and social. But it doesn’t seem like you throw the term “gamification” around.

We don’t use it just because it sounds like such a fake word. But the biggest problem that we see in education is, how do you keep someone on track to do the next question, read the next paragraph, or to solve one more problem? There are a lot of different incentives boiled into the product, badges and experience points and sharing points with friends, but we don’t have one person sitting here focused on, “How do we make it more fun and gamey?” We spend a lot of time thinking, “How do we get someone to just do one more incremental bit of work?”


Are you taking on Kaplan by offering a lower-priced alternative?

Most people actually don’t use high-priced tutoring. Most people do almost nothing to prepare for standardized tests. Over a million people take the SAT each year, but half do nothing to prepare. What we do is charge a monthly subscription of $29 a month, the cost of a book or two, and you get the same level of treatment you would if you went to high-end tutoring. You work with other people, you work with tutors online. We’ve opened up access.

Here is a question I don’t ask my interviewees often…

Are you going to ask me to dinner?

How did your experience as a navigator on a nuclear attack submarine influence your work as an entrepreneur?

I graduated from the Naval Academy, and I was on a nuclear submarine for almost four years. The longest I was submerged was three-and-a-half months. On a nuclear submarine, you can make your own electricity, water, and air. The only thing you can’t make is food. Before you deploy, you fill the freezers on board, and then there are cans of food on the floor. People walk on the food for months at a time, and you sort of eat your way through the passageways. It seems radically different than working in Silicon Valley, but it actually has a lot in common. Submarines are highly stressful, engineering-focused environments. You’re making a lot of decisions based on very limited information. In many ways, it feels a lot like a startup, except now I see sunlight and work in SoMa and am much happier. In terms of stress, coming to periscope depth in the middle of the night in a shipping lane is much more stressful than fundraising or figuring out acquisition metrics.

This interview has been condensed and edited.


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[Top image: U.S. Navy]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.