School systems are at the mercy of textbook publishers, he argues, and forced to use a “very antiquated system” of selecting, buying, and distributing printed educational content. “It really needs to go away,” he says.
McEwen believes his company, Dallas-based Archipelago Learning, is just the outfit to help make that happen.
Archipelago’s goal is to become a “global, 21st century educational publisher” on par with the nation’s top three textbook publishers—Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—or to replace them entirely. Textbook publishers are vulnerable, McEwen says, because while online content delivery is clearly the future, switching away from print risks cannibalizing their current main source of revenue.
Though it doesn’t offer textbook replacement just yet, Archipelago’s 2009 IPO—which netted the company more than $45 million—gave it a “war chest on its balance sheet” it could use to acquire that missing piece, McEwen says. Such a move would complement Archipelago’s core online product, called Study Island, which provides supplementary learning, assessment, and reporting tools.
The subscription-based service, which is used by schools in 50 states and three Canadian provinces, accounted for most of the company’s $42.7 million in revenue last year.
McEwen understands his competitors’ predicament because he spent much of his career in textbook publishing. He’s also a textbook writer, having co-authored the first edition of Children Moving, which he says is one of the most widely used textbooks in the U.S. on physical education, now in its eighth edition.
McEwen joined Archipelago in 2007, taking the reins as president and CEO from co-founders Cameron Chalmers and David Muzzo. He needed to walk a fine line, implementing internal systems and controls without destroying the company’s valuable entrepreneurial culture. To do so, McEwen used a management style he describes as “eclectic.”
It’s an approach he learned during six years as an elementary school teacher—his first job after college. “Some [kids] you have to be autocratic with; others you really have to give a lot of encouragement to,” he says. As a chief executive, McEwen says, he won’t “put up with screamers and shouters,” but believes in “going overboard to give credit.”
Moving forward, McEwen believes Archipelago will have a tailwind as state and federal governments roll out new public-education initiatives. He notes that in April, Texas Gov. Rick Perry publicly suggested textbooks could be replaced with computer technology within four years. When and if that happens, McEwen and Archipelago hope to be at the head of the class.