Next in our series on people who’ve made the break into ELT Entrepreneurship is the three-man team behind StudyBundles, an English language teaching and learning digital product provider specialising in preparatory pre-arrival courses for learners who want to study in English medium Higher Education.
How would you sum up StudyBundles?
We have created an online learning environment that academic English language learners can use as a self-access resource, that tutors can use as part of a blended/flipped approach to teaching, or that institutions can use to provide pedagogical and academic support to their teaching staff and student base.
What gave you the idea?
In early 2011, while part-way through my MA EdTech and TESOL I [Dan] had been experimenting with a variety of online learning tools such as online whiteboards, blogging and podcasting websites. Having had positive feedback from the students I was teaching online, I sent an email to Declan (which on reflection absolutely stinks of naïvety) mooting the possibility of us getting together to work on a teaching based website. We looked around at what was available for English language learners on the net, especially in terms of video-based instruction, and decided that we could do better.
Do you think of yourselves as entrepreneurs?
Declan works full time on StudyBundles whereas I allocate one full day (plus any extra time in the evenings and weekends that I can fit in) to it. While he probably does consider himself to be an entrepreneur, I still consider myself to be a teacher first and foremost. Perhaps a teacher with an untamed entrepreneurial streak.
During the process were there times when you ‘pivoted’?
A major pivot for us came when we altered the focus of our teaching and learning resources from general to academic English. This decision was made fairly early on in the process. We had started out trying to be all things to all people, offering resources for students in all manner of different learning contexts. It quickly became clear that this was way too ambitious and that we would need to find a more focused niche. Academic English, an area that we both had a lot of experience in, was an obvious choice.
Did you have to raise money for the venture?
We have pretty much bootstrapped the whole project. Starting out, we invested a lot of time and a little money wherever possible. This allowed us to get an example platform up and running (built open source in Sakai) and to produce a number of sample materials. This meant we had a useable demo — an approximation of what we wanted to achieve in the long run.
In early 2013, we registered on the B-innovative programme being run by the University of Bedfordshire. They provided a series of business lectures and workshops before asking all those involved to submit a business plan and present their idea. StudyBundles was deemed the best business idea and we won £1500. Shortly after this, with Declan moving back home to Ireland, we applied to Enterprise Ireland (IE) and were enrolled on their New Frontiers Entrepreneur Development Programme. The money from IE has been crucial to our progress; it has allowed us to put more time and effort into the business, to pay for our online platform to be developed and our resources to be of the quality that we wanted.
Even with the IE support, money is a constant concern, that perhaps comes hand in hand with entrepreneurship. There is a background tick-tock sound that undoubtedly won’t go away until (if and when) we have gained some traction in the marketplace.
What have you learned along the way?
The learning curve has been long and steep. Our team includes two teachers, a graphic animator and a freelance web developer. Although we all have a little experience of business, none of us are ‘business people’ so we’ve had to really work hard to bring ourselves up to speed with this alien world. Working on our learning resources, trialling them, responding to feedback and improving them has been tremendously enjoyable and rewarding whereas working out a route to market, cost plan and, in particular, a sales pitch, has been a real challenge.
Is there anything you would have done differently had you known then what you know now?
What has come as a huge surprise to us is the institutional division between academic and non-academic staff in the establishments we have been working with to trial, and hopefully eventually sell, StudyBundles. Academic staff are understandably interested in the learner experience and effectiveness of the materials; the non-academic budget holders really only care about enrolment figures and success rates, so any discussion of the actual product and resources often falls on deaf ears. With this in mind we have had to heavily adapt how we present the project to suit the context and audience.
What have been the biggest setbacks and how did you overcome them?
Having built our own usable teaching and learning platform is perhaps our biggest achievement. We were in a real quandary, having tried several LMSs (Sakai, Moodle etc.) that we didn’t feel offered the levels of customisation and functionality we wanted. The flipside to this is that creating a platform with the robust levels of support and security required by HE institutions was way out of our league in terms of cost. We managed to overcome this by creating a working platform with the ability to plug in to institutes’ own VLEs/LMSs, thereby giving them the convenience and peace of mind that comes with using their own systems while allowing us to retain overall control of the look, feel and functionality of the resources.
Did you have any mentors? How were they helpful?
We have had several mentors along the way, all of them had a business rather than academic skills set. We’ve gained something from all of our mentoring sessions, even if it’s not always what the mentor necessarily intended us to. One memorable mentoring session ended with the unforgettable line, ‘This is business, we’re here to make money, get your balls on the table or get back in the classroom!’
Did you need a team to add to the skills you had yourself?
After a year or so of Declan and I working on the project, we asked John O’Hagan to join us in partnership. As a graphic illustrator and animator, he has had an enormous impact on the quality of our teaching and learning materials as well as all of our visuals and branding. In addition to John joining the team, we work closely (if that’s possible, with us living in London, Manchester, Co. Leitrim and French Polynesia) with Benjamin Fouassier who has provided all of the web production and development input along the way.
What three pieces of advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time?
When referring to your project or business, always imagine you’re talking to someone with no idea about your field. It is impossible to overstress the importance of explaining everything with clarity at all times.
Find a project management system you’re happy with and use it to maximise workflow and efficiency. Working remotely is becoming more and more common but can be tough; we experimented with a range of systems such as wikis and shared calendars before settling on a combination of www.leankit.com, GoogleDocs and Skype chats.
Spend time thoroughly researching the marketplace before putting a lot of effort into creating the product or service. Speak to the decision makers who are your potential customers and validate your USP. Start a blog (here’s ours) and use it to measure interest, reflect on your decisions and interact with potential customers.
What are your hopes for the project now?
With several trials of StudyBundles under our belt and a range of expressions of interest, it might be time to do what doesn’t come naturally and begin selling, before working hard on producing the teaching and learning content customers require.
Daniel Hinkley and Declan Sweeney are both from a background in EFL teaching, in the private language and academic sectors, with a long list of ELT qualifications. John O’Hagan is an experienced Motion Graphic Designer whose CV includes work for Virgin Media and BSkyB.
If you’d like to be featured in the ELT Entrepreneur series, drop us a line at blog editor at eltjam dot com.