Cogent Conversations: Episode 19 - Cogent

Cogent Conversations: Episode 19

COVID-19 MINI-SERIES 

Alex Burke, CEO of Education Perfect

Covid-19 Mini-Series - Education Perfect

“I think there is an opportunity, once everything settles down, for schools to spend a bit of time thinking through the pinch points, the things that worked, the things that didn’t work, it’s an opportunity to start to engage more broadly with the technology and business community to try and work through those pinch points, to see where technology can help.”

– Alex Burke, Education Perfect

Covid-19 has impacted us all. It’s changing the way we live, the way we do business and the way we interact with each other. We’ve seen businesses react in a range of different ways, and decided to use this time to share some inspiring stories of digital business who are innovating to survive and thrive. In this short mini-series, we’ll share stories of how businesses are managing this from the coalface, how they’ve changed their product/strategy and how they’ve made it all happen with remote teams, and what they see for the future.

The sudden change we have experienced over the past few months has forced us all to adapt. One of the sectors this has been most true for is education, with the entire school population moving to a remote learning model in the space of just a few weeks. In the fourth and final episode of our Covid-19 mini-series, we talk with Alex Burke, CEO of  Education Perfect. In many ways, the accepted method of teaching has not changed for 20 years but over the past three months, schools have had to rapidly incorporate new technology to facilitate learning from home, as well as negotiate how to best help students, parents and teachers coordinate and collaborate.

Education Perfect has been at the forefront of helping schools, parents, teachers and students move to a new way of learning, while at the same time managing the adaptation of their own organisation at a time of rapid growth and change.

To keep up to date with what is happening with Cogent, including when new episodes of this podcast are released, you can subscribe to our blog at cogent.co/blog. Or follow us on Twitter: @cogent_co or Instagram: @cogent_co.

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Meet the hosts

Adam Murry

Adam Murray

Adam has led digital business, consulted to start-ups and corporates, run co-working spaces, and created his own podcast. Currently, he’s a Product Manager at Cogent, helping organisations verify their venture ideas and enable them to evolve their culture.

Mark Wells

Mark’s an angel investor and the CEO of Cogent. Mark’s a sought-after advisor on topics spanning from fundraising to strategic planning and market entry. He has a unique perspective on digital businesses globally, and has play a key role in some of the most successful projects we’ve worked on. 

Mark Wells

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Full Episode Transcript

Adam: This is the Cogent Conversations podcast made by the people at Cogent. Cogent Conversations is about understanding all the things that go into making a digital business thrive. Helping create these types of organisations is what we love doing best. We also want you to have the opportunity to take the learnings from the best of what Melbourne has to offer, so you can apply them to your own business. To learn more about Cogent, check us out at cogent.co.

Alex: Every school is going to have to think about that next pandemic. Though I think, for future mitigation, you can’t just go back to the old normal. I don’t think that’s possible, but I do think this is an opportunity though, once everything settles down, for the schools, to spend a bit of time to sort of think through what were the pinch points, what were the things that worked, what were the things that didn’t work, and, I think it’s also an opportunity to, start to sort of engage more broadly with the technology and business community to try and work through those pinch points, to sort of see where technology can help.

Mark: Welcome Alex and welcome Adam.

Adam: Yeah cheers Mark.

Alex: Thanks Mark.

Mark: So, this is the fourth in our little mini series of Cogent Conversations where we’re talking to businesses that have been impacted by the coronavirus. And in fact, we’re actually kind of edging out of it a little bit now in both Australia and New Zealand where Education Perfect is based. So Alex, you’re the CEO of Education Perfect and for full disclosure, an old friend of mine. Do you want to give us a little bit of an overview of what EP does and, the kind of impact coronavirus has had on your business?

Alex: Yeah, so, we’re a tech company. We started in Dunedin, in New Zealand, which is in the South Island, 12 years ago. It was founded by two brothers who were studying at Otago university. They were also studying languages and they were kind of keen to see how technology could improve their learning experience. So that was kind of the start of this, the build out of this online learning platform, the technology that we’ve built… So fast forward to today, the technology that we have, is very much a kind of a toolkit for teachers. So it’s technology that will help, kind of enhance the learning experience and kind of save time for teachers. So we have everything from, a large library of kind of resources across all different subject areas that, a teacher could use, or they can edit and create their own content, and set lessons for students.

They can set assessments, tests, and it’s all backed up by data reporting so they can measure kind of student engagement, student progress. And there’s also some technology smarts in a platform that can help, differentiate learning. So, based on, what a student might be doing, they could be recommended a particular pathway. So really kind of helps, if a student say just requires support or they need, some kind of further challenges. The tech now, we’re in about 4,000 schools globally. About 1.2 million users, of the platform. And, definitely when COVID started, the platform whilst it’s being built for classroom to help teachers in classroom is very relevant to distant learning.

Mark: Alex you’ve got multiple sites. So, do you already have a strong remote culture?

Alex: Yeah, so we have 110 people in Dunedin, so that’s kind of, the core business. And that’s where, I have finance operations, we have our customer support team. We have the heart of our engineering team, but then in addition to that, we have about 50 to 60 people that work remotely. And, those individuals are kind of placed where most of our customers are. So we have offices and people based in Melbourne, Sydney, in Brisbane in Perth, in Christchurch, in Auckland, in Singapore, Southeast Asia, Shanghai, the Middle East. So is quite an interesting culture, in the fact that we’ve got this sort of big, large team, as part of its core, but we do have a kind of a remote kind of working from home type culture as well, for all the people that are kind of based in the smaller locations.

Adam: Alex, I want to take you back to that turning point for all of us and, just reflect on your own moment in that time. There’s a couple of questions circling around my mind, but probably the first one is I just want to try and get an understanding of, how did that sort of unfold for you? I guess there was like, a building realisation for most of us, but was there this moment where you went, “Oh wow, this is going to be different for our organisation.”

Alex: Yeah, I think we saw it pretty early actually. So, we first got an impact of this, just around Chinese new year, so late January. We were already speaking to a number of schools in China. We have a number of customers in China, and we got very early news that the schools were going to be closed, and we’re going to be disrupted. And so, we kind of jumped on that kind of idea and we reached out to a whole load of Chinese schools and said, “Hey, we can provide you our platform for free, during that period to kind of support you.” We then, going through then February and then March, obviously then the whole world kind of caught up. And then we started to see that more and more schools were going to be disrupted and closed. So we then made the decision to make our platform free for everyone.

So globally, till the 1st of May, over that period, we had over 500,000 additional students, using the platform, which was just fantastic for us actually just from, a business purpose perspective. I think all of us in the company were pretty proud that we could help, kind of support schools, teachers during that kind of uncertain time, just to give them some kind of business continuity. But the impact that that had, on the business was pretty big in that we had then, AWS costs, went through the roof to hire. We added over 30 people over that period, in terms of additional support. Obviously the team were kind of, stretched in terms of trying to onboard new teachers and schools into the platform. And typically, we would have a trial period and, for schools that could be a term or a couple of terms, and we were having to kind of get schools on board within days.

So it was a big impact. And that was… it was fantastic for me, from a culture standpoint. You always hope these things, but what was really pleasing was there was a real kind of, everyone kind of in it to help make it work from the team side. And so everyone kind of came together to… Particularly in those early weeks to sort of support, how we were going. And then as we kind of got ourselves in place and we started to make a few additional hires and we kind of reset a few of our processes, it became easier for us to manage over the course of the months of March and April.

Adam: So with that, we talked a little bit offline about, values and that kind of thing, and I’m interested in what your values are, but then also how you’ve gone about, I guess, with that rapid on boarding of new people, how you’ve gone about kind of on boarding them and, really know about your values and the trajectory that you’re on, as well.

Alex: Yeah. So for the business sort of mission and value standpoint, so I’ve been a year in Education Perfect. So when I came into the business, there wasn’t really anything written down in terms of how the organisation was set, and it’s something that I’d done in a previous role. And I thought it was really important because I think for any business that wants to scale, you kind of have to have something that you can point to, around your culture and how your way of working, particularly if you’re scaling globally. So we ran a process of kind of setting a mission statement, which is around humanising technology for lifelong learners. I felt that was a real kind of connection, that we’re not just sort of providing technology to takeover a teacher in classroom, we’re actually trying to, create technology that works, kind of hand in hand with teachers.

And then we then interviewed the team and we got feedback around, what it meant to be part of EP, what things were important to them, and from that, we sort of crafted, a number of values, that were all kind of around, support and care, continuous improvement, being innovative and creative, and ending today excited by tomorrow. Which is one that talks to resilience and, all those sorts of elements, I think then are just part and parcel, of how the business runs now. I think in the on boarding process and kind of having that mass usage from what we were used to, I think probably the biggest thing really for us, was sort of creating, helpful kind of information, on boarding videos, whatever it might be to just kind of try and help people into the platform, kind of understand its capability. So we spent most of our time, creating short videos from scratch. We created a whole new webinar program, which we never had.

And then suddenly we’ve been running 25 to 30 webinars a week, just to kind of help people, get across the business, get across some of the context, because obviously they’re hearing from our team. So they’re seeing the values, but also just helpful content that will, ultimately get them kind of up and running quickly.

Mark: Alex, I’m interested in two layers of this. One is, the impact, because obviously your customers, I think are teachers and schools right? At that level, so your users are certainly teachers, right? And they’re very variable, you’re operating in 18, maybe a hundred countries now?

Alex: Yeah. Now, I have variety of countries, and very variable schools, international schools, government schools, independent schools, religious schools, Catholic schools. Yeah, it’s quite broad.

Mark: I mean, that’s an interesting kind of, interface between your values and different cultures. Have you seen that kind of play out in any way? 

Alex: I think in education, there’s obviously… There’s differences in, I guess people’s belief of how they should, teach their students. And I guess one of the interesting things about Ed Tech really is, almost, the process of getting teachers even comfortable about using technology in the first place, and how technology could help and kind of aid the teaching learning journey. So, that’s probably from a sort of a cultural sort of aspect is probably more around their change management piece of bringing, digital tech, into schools where we’ve seen an opportunity with COVID is really, for us to just get ourselves on the map around our value proposition, and just kind of, make people understand where we can enhance the experience, and we can add value in that learning journey. And that’s always been, maybe one of the things that’s been, a constant change management piece is just making people feel, comfortable around tech and how tech could be used with some purpose, and some value.

Adam: Kids have been doing school from home during this time. And, I mean, one of the things I’ve noticed is just how this has accelerated their familiarity and their, I guess, comfort and skill with technology in general. And so it’s got me reflecting on, well, I wonder where home or remote learning or homeschooling, fits in long term now and what might change with schools, but I’m wondering if you’re starting to form a position on that or you’re… It might be too early, but what are you starting to see emerging in the conversation in people’s attitudes?

Alex: I mean, you got a concept of a, let’s say a virtual classroom. I think we feel that our platform… I mean it works and enhances platforms like Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, Zooms and the like. A lot of tech, a lot of schools have kind of had to have been sort of thrown into using that technology. And most of those tools really relate to the management of a school, document sharing and other bits and pieces, I guess that technology is very much around how to help, someone through their journey. I think what’s interesting around what’s happened is that parents are probably the most engaged they’ve ever been in education, because they’ve obviously got a great insight, in terms of how education works. And I think it’s our view that, particularly when you think about differentiated learning, I think technology can really be used to help people on a different stage of journey and maybe push those students that want to be pushed a bit further, or kind of pull people up if they’re slightly behind.

And that kind of works sort of hand in hand with then, maybe what schools can offer more, and just a general sort of school community around that sort of social interaction, more broader, problem solving together. So having students sort of work together on a project, four or five of them and get used to working with teams. And I think for us, definitely, this sort of hybrid of that sort of social human interaction in the classroom, but then, having a place where, maybe technology, can be fun, can be engaging, can be competitive, and just help sort of, push students depending on their pathway is a really nice, combination that I think schools have got to strike a balance, and a lot of schools haven’t today used much technology. And I think where we see over the next kind of few years is really that the schools are going to have to, invest in this more and just try and think through what that right balance is.

Mark: How much time and effort you put into the schools themselves. I mean, because obviously they’ve gone through effectively, what we call in the industry, a transformation, right? Numerous schools have been forced into this and forced to adapt and we’ve seen this play out in, health tech and other sectors as well. Do you think this is like a permanent change for these schools now then, and that they’ve kind of been forced to acknowledge, the value of online education?

Alex: Yeah, I think definitely, every school is going to have to think about that next pandemic, but I think, for future mitigation, you can’t just go back to the old normal, I don’t think that’s possible, but I do think this is an opportunity though, once everything settles down, for schools to spend a bit of time to sort of think through what were the pinch points, what were the things that worked, what were the things that didn’t work. And, I think it’s also an opportunity to, start to sort of engage more broadly with the technology and business community to try and, work through those pinch points, to sort of see where technology can help. I mean we’ve run some research across Australia and New Zealand and, some of the bigger tech States like Victoria and New South Wales. Schools were using on average three to five technology platforms, in one go. You need to have a right kind of ecosystem of partners and technology providers.

And I think schools should definitely take the time to just sort of assess, where there was value, the things that didn’t work and then push back on the Ed Tech providers to try and come up with improved solutions that will, help kind of aid education going forward. But to your point, Mark, it is interesting. I think, with every industry, I think education, is probably the one industry where, the act of kind of education hasn’t really changed, in the last 10, 20 years since the actual sort of, the process of teaching kids. And, I think this is definitely from a business change perspective. They have been pulled out of their comfort zone in the last few months and there’s many countries around the world that still very much in that space. I mean we’re very lucky in Australia and New Zealand, that things seem to be going back to normal, but, every school will have to mitigate, for future pandemics and future things like this.

Mark: We were talking actually earlier about technology, infrastructure and broadband and because you’ve, got customers in a hundred countries, has that had a… Has been a factor as well in how easily some countries and schools have adopted your technology?

Alex: Well, it’s interesting. I’ve got some… I’m not sure all of these are the precise facts on it, but, we’ve been working with quite a few American schools and we had a huge amount of interest actually from the American schools in early March. And, what I found interesting was that there’s certain States in America where, up to 70% of kids at home do not have broadband. So yeah, I found that really, really interesting, and it sort of, I think it does, through this process, country by country, it’s been interesting to see, the differences of what people have at home and what devices that they have and the ability for schools to, adapt quite quickly to keep that kind of continuity with the classroom. That’s been really interesting and a lot of countries are very, very different in how they’re set up. And, I think one of the reasons why the U.S. is perhaps, so like that is, that is so expensive. I think broadband cable is very, very expensive to have at home.

So a lot of people choose not to use it. And that’s going to… I think that’s a much broader, obviously political and technology piece really in making sure that, countries, are set up and do have freely available WiFi access or hub points in different rural villages or whatever it might be to just help to, provide a kind of more even keel across the board.

Adam: The trajectory that the organisation was on prior to, let’s say January, when you started to pick up on these changes, has it changed that much, and do you see that trajectory sort of now, going in a different direction, going forward? Or do you think it’ll just sort of go back to, the way things were?

Alex: No, for us it absolutely has changed. I think what’s interesting, is that as I said, I think I felt like this is an opportunity for us to get on the radar, across the world in terms of our technology and the value that we bring, and also get on the radar of some of the bigger technology providers as well, like the Googles and the Microsofts because ultimately our technology enhances, what they offer. So it’s important for us to get that story out. But for me, this whole process is probably two years of marketing. So for me, what it’s done is it’s kind of got us out there and we’ve been introduced to, the huge amount of schools all over the world, who have now seen, our technology and now are aware of us. So for me, probably from a marketing kind of sales plan, I may be two years ahead, of where, I thought I’d be from a pipeline perspective, and then what we have managed to do.

And this was quite a careful process for us, but, we had a deadline of the 1st of May, and we were very, very clear with customers, but also the [inaudible] customers that, we’re not a company that gets government grants or government subsidies, so we’re not funded. So we are a private company, but also we needed to be very respectful of our current customers, and very respectful on the service offering, that we could provide them, right? Because, if we’re getting stretched and obviously our service quality, will go down. So we were very clear on our communications then, where we would close off schools for trial. But what we did manage to do was get a new sales on board. So we did actually manage to turn, a lot of [inaudible] schools into customers. And that’s probably had about a 10% lift in our revenue this year. And from a pipeline perspective in terms of those schools and then future growth, we’ve probably seen, who knows, maybe a 20, 30% magnitude growth opportunity now for next year, off the back of the last couple of months.

Mark: I’m interested in your own, journey a little bit here Alex, because I know you personally, I also know that you were… When you took on this job, which you’ve been in about a year now, you’re initially living in Singapore, you’re now living in Sydney. The company’s main headquarters is in Dunedin, and you’ve had to manage A, a pandemic, and B, the hiring of 30 new people, which is around about 20, 30% uplift for you in staff, right? Across multiple time zones and multiple countries and multiple statuses of pandemic. How has this been for you personally?

Alex: When I joined in Singapore, the deal was I was going to come back to Australia. So I came back in January, so I had a good, let’s say seven months or so in Singapore. And, as part of that on boarding process, one advantage of being in Singapore is I set up a, international team. So I set up a Singapore office of which we’ve now got, a team there and sort of set up the Southeast Asia middle Eastern operation. So that was kind of advantageous, I guess, to be in market and have, I guess, a good view of those markets. Because obviously when you’re in Australia and New Zealand, you are actually quite far from international markets and from previous experience, it’s actually very difficult to manage things from Sydney or from Australia or New Zealand.

And then I then committed that I would be visiting New Zealand at least once a month. So I was spending a week in Dunedin, the HQ throughout that process and doing a lot of flying, to the various other markets, which was really, really important. I guess, to my earlier point, what made it easier for me was setting a few ground rules around the company. So, setting a vision, setting a mission. I rebranded the business as well actually, which was a slow process, but we rebranded in November, into kind of what I felt was a more kind of contemporary, current, more global appealing brand. And so I guess sort of, doing that foundation and ground rules, and we set up a new PDP program and we set up a leadership program last year as well for some of the line managers, all of that, sort of background has made it much easier this year in that I had a bit of a, I guess a bit of a foundation and a bit more of a kind of an operating model, that’s easier to scale and easier to manage.

So I think a lot of that hard work in 2019 has probably helped me, this year. And then this year, it’s interesting. I mean, for me actually, the pandemic has obviously been… Had a real impact on our staff and there’s been lots of people that for all sorts of reasons, who struggled at different points. We have moms that have got three kids and, homeschooling is not easy at all. And we’ve just had to be very flexible with people and just say, “Look, work out your new working days.” So clearly not a nine to five anymore. You just got to be open to how things work. And I think that for me personally, that’s also how, I’ve set it up in my own mind and just sort of, adjusted to this. And then, when we’ve seen, what’s been interesting off the back of all this impact is that we’ve seen, maybe points of pain in our process that are more amplified.

So for example, an on boarding process, and we might have something in that step that’s not that easy, when you have a hundred people looking at it, you probably notice it, but you don’t think it’s a priority. When you have a hundred thousand people looking at it, and it becomes a big issue, it kind of amplifies the issue. So it’s harder in that respect, but I think then for me, twisting that round, it almost creates an opportunity for you, as a business to change, because it helps us sort of prioritise, the problems in the business and helps us sort of focus the mind a little bit more. And so I’ve probably taken a lot of that in this process of while there’s been some sort of negativity and some hard things there. If you spin that around, that actually opens up lots of opportunities for improvement.

Adam: Well, just a bit of, a more generic, probably personal question, but you touched on there that, there’s been quite a few difficult things, around this time, but they can be turned into opportunities. And I’m just wondering, is there a particular example for yourself personally, a surprising opportunity or surprising benefit that’s come out of all this change and difficulty, something that you would never have anticipated but you’re grateful to have experienced.

Alex: It’s really interesting. So one thing, and this is the power of technology actually, I think. So, we as a business have grown our company through grassroots. So that means that we’re talking to teachers, heads of departments, school leaders, we go and visit them. So we go, and it’s very much a culture in Australia and New Zealand, particularly where you go on school visits. So it’s very kind of, human contact, one-to-one relationships, that’s all part of the process. And it’s super important. I think pandemic strikes, and you can’t do that anymore. And, we were going to go to 110 events, as well and pandemic strikes and you can’t do any of that. And so we had to, start from scratch and actually we started it on Zoom initially, we did a webinar, set up a webinar program. We then very quickly realised that Zoom doesn’t provide any good analytics.

So we then moved to another technology called ON24, which was really good for a webinar platform, and you can kind of customise and you can get some really good data from it. And it kind of integrates with HubSpot and other kind of tools. But we went from kind of this concept of one-to-one, to, we had like over a thousand people on some of these webinars. And so, you just think the power of communication, that’s going from one relationship and interaction, to then getting in front of a thousand people, all in one go. That is pretty transformational. And in some respects, we’re not going to, stop the school interaction, although, I’m still saying we’re not doing any school visits at the moment, but that’s, sort of spinning it round and then creating this whole new webinar program and being able to hit 500,000 people rather than one person, obviously provides much more opportunity for scale. And that’s just a fantastic, positive impact really from something that we wouldn’t not have considered pre the pandemic.

Adam: Yeah. Amazing. So good to hear, all that Alex. It’s a really encouraging and inspiring story, and I guess one that, particularly those of us that have kids can very much relate to as well.

Mark: Yeah, me too. Personal thanks. My daughter is using Education Perfect. And I’ve seen her, adapt to this and actually teach herself how to learn, through this pandemic. So that’s been, a really amazing experience to see her, gain those skills really quickly, which I think, is a real benefit here as a parent, that she will basically have those skills now for the next five years of her school life. All right, so, thank you.

Alex: Yeah. It’s interesting how it kind of… Is called the mastery model, and you kind of, you can’t move to the next step until you’ve kind of mastered a particular topic or a goal that you’ve been set. That is what’s, really powerful about technology, is it does kind of help, people go on individual pathways, and progress and, that’s the opportunity really. And, that system, the transformation journey, I think schools have got to go on. You kind of realise that there is tech that can help that.

Adam: Very good. Well, I think we can wrap it up there. Thank you very much for your time Alex.

Alex: Thanks Adam. Thanks Mark.

Mark: Thanks Alex. And, good luck.

Alex: Thank you.

Adam: They help us get the word out there about all the great digital businesses in Melbourne. You can help by sharing an episode you love with a friend, or by writing and reviewing this podcast, through your favourite platform. And finally, if you want to tell us about how your business is thriving, or you know of another digital business that is having an amazing, positive impact, best way to do that is through emailing us, through info@cogent.co. I’m Adam Murray, and I look forward to hearing your story.