Accelerator Diaries: EduGrowth Week 1 – Basecamp

By April 22, 2017Uncategorized

With week 1 of the EduGrowth accelerator officially in the books, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on what we learned, what’s changed for Prevyou and the plan moving ahead.

At 8.45am on Monday the 6th of Feb, the program officially kicked off at WeWork Pyrmont. With the smell of new furniture still lingering in the air and the crowd building for the Superbowl party, we gathered in a small office for some informal introductions.

Introductions

5 teams are taking part in the program. We’re all planning to tackle some big problems using education as the solution. As with all high-performing teams the EduGrowth cohort is a diverse mix of individuals and expertise.

(a group shot of the 2017 EduGrowth cohort on day 1)

Ria

Ria runs Craftsposure, an online community of creatives with more than 300,000 followers on Instagram. Ria plans to help creatives run successful online businesses through tailored courses and community support.

Isuru

Isuru cut his teeth in the education sector building Project Academy for more than three years. Launching his next venture within the EduGrowth accelerator, Isuru is building a mobile app game to help train children in the fundamentals of mathematics.

Liv

The motivation for Liv to leave a successful career in marketing behind was driven by a passion for making a positive impact. BEcoME.Education is focusing on helping children realise their passion early in life, to help them navigate the often tricky adolescent years.

Jack and John Fox (AKA the Fox brothers)

With math teachers for parents, Jack and John bring a good pedigree to their new venture. FoxIBMaths is all about assisting students with their preparation for the IB mathematics exam through an online curriculum.

Leo and Martin (team Prevyou)

Leo and I go back a long way. We’ve previous experience launching a startup called uPool, a carpooling platform built pre-Uber. Despite the eventual failure of uPool we still learnt plenty from the experience, most importantly that we work very well together as a team. Making the big move over from Perth for the EduGrowth accelerator, with a couple of suitcases and fumes for bank account balances were as a hungry as ever.

Riley and Ben (our trusted advisors)

Riley and Ben run the day-to-day operations of the program. They’ve previous experience working together at General Assembly. To say they merely worked there is a serious understatement, they pretty much built it from the ground up in the Australian market. That experience will no doubt be extremely valuable as they guide all of us through the next 6 months and beyond.

With the breakfast line and the SuperBowl crowd building, we all decided to take a break and soak up some of the perks our new workspace had on offer.

(the long line for the bacon and egg bagels)

The Program

After the break, we debriefed the structure of the EduGrowth accelerator. Having previously completed the Vocus Upstart Accelerator we had a rough idea of what the program would involve. However, no two accelerators are the same and EduGrowth is a particularly niche program focusing entirely on EdTech startups.

We are the inaugural cohort of what will hopefully be a long line of EduGrowth programs. EduGrowth was founded with the vision to see 100 million learners educated per annum by Australian companies in 2025. That lofty goal was dreamt up by the group of founding partners including several top Universities and industry heavyweights, Navitas.

The general idea of any accelerator is to create an environment for abnormally fast growth for companies. This usually involves some seed funding, access to mentors and strategic partners. For EduGrowth the plan is no different, with the aim of cramming 18 months worth of growth into just a 6-month period. A prospect that is both exciting and daunting in almost equal measures!

Without going into too much detail, some of the key highlights include:

  • 6-months co-working at the brand spanking new WeWork Pyrmont facilities:
  • Access to a pool of expert mentors within the Education and Technology space;
  • Connections with a range of strategic partners within University and Government;
  • A generous amount of seed funding in exchange for some equity; and
  • Access to investor networks within the Educational technology space.

Following this session, I had an even greater sense of appreciation for being a part of this program. Niche accelerators come with the inherent advantage of being specialised. All the other teams, mentors, advisors, investors and partners are involved with the EdTech industry in some way. That means all the networks, workshops and events align with what we’re trying to do, which is a massive advantage.

To close out our first day we finished with a group pitching session. A point that was hammered home during our last program was the importance of being able to sell yourself as a startup. In the early days being able to inspire action from staff, investors and most importantly customers rest on your ability to communicate the value of what you’re doing.

Pitching is something I feel much more confident about now than 6 months ago but is still something that requires practice.

For our full pitch deck, see here.

The Rest of the Week

The two main action items for week 1 were:

  1. Meet the mentors; on Tuesday and Thursday we had mentor speed dating session scheduled. This involved some quick fire, 15-minute conversations with around 30 mentors.
  2. Set our KPI’s: if you’ve read any of the lean books, you’ll know that data is an essential piece of any startup. Our challenge was to outline some of those key indicators that we could use to track performance over the next three months.

What We Learned

Now for a key summary of the most important learning experiences for week 1:

Narrow the focus

At Prevyou we’re trying to solve a pretty big problem – the skills gap between University and the real world. A big problem is normally a good thing, it means there is a great opportunity to build a thriving company – if we can solve it. However, a complex problem can become blinding. What I mean by that is by trying to solve the problem in 5 different ways, you end up spreading your resources too thin and not solving anything!

The overwhelming advice from our group of mentors was too narrow the focus of what we’re trying to do. Pick a specific target audience (not all students and recent graduates anywhere) and solve the problem for them first.

Strategy > Operations….. for now.

Being in Startup mode can be an uncomfortable place. You’re constantly chasing the grand vision of what you want your venture to become, yet well aware that you’re standing at the bottom of a mountain. In this situation, it can be easy to fall into the trap of building things too early before you’re clear on a direction on the overall strategy. This was certainly a trap we’ve fallen into over the summer, building half a dozen different products which all relate to different business models. Building products that no one wants is a fatal sin, according to the author of the Lean Startup, Eric Ries. It’s a sure fire way to waste time and eventually burn out.

(Leo after a late night strategy session at WeWork)

Being frugal with our most important resource (our time) was the key piece of feedback from our discussions with Ben and Riley. We need to define our strategy before we build anything else!

Dialogue is much better than a monologue

A healthy amount of obsession can be useful when starting a business. Being wrapped up in your venture is an essential ingredient for motivation. However, this obsession makes it easy to lose sight of the world around you.

When meeting our mentors we did the usual pre-work, checking their LinkedIn and personal websites to gain an understanding of their experience. During the Tuesday session they would sit down and we’d usually get straight into talking about Prevyou for the first 10 minutes before actually shifting the conversation onto how we could work together. Of course, we’re happy to talk about Prevyou until we’re blue in the face, but this wasn’t leading to a useful discussion for either of us. The mentors were trying to dig for ways they could help us and we were trying to guess how they might be able to help, without directly asking them.

On Thursday we decided to start by asking the mentors a bit about themselves, to add some much-needed context for the very superficial information that we were able to scrape from their digital profiles. We found that this structure drastically improved the quality of the conversations that we were having. The mentor’s introduction gave us the necessary framework to direct the conversation to the most important questions we needed to ask. It also brought a more conversational tone to the discussion, rather than the monologue style sessions on Tuesday.

Use tools as a guide, but beware distractions.

On Tuesday we used our website to frame the discussion with the mentors and show them what we were working on. Rather than adding useful context to the conversations this only served as a distraction as the computer screen drew the focus away from the conversation. Adapting our strategy for Thursday we decided to prepare a simple one-page lean canvas to outline our entire business model on the one page. Rather than referring to this throughout the conversation we kept it off to the side to be called upon when needed. It helped us in outlining the most important points of our business and helped guide the conversation, but it certainly didn’t draw attention away from what was being said.

Aggregating Feedback

Meeting with almost 30 industry experts in such a short space of time can feel draining. You receive 30 vastly different opinions about your business, all which carry significant weight. Having gone through a similar experience in the Vocus program we’ve learnt to apply the ‘wisdom of crowds’ theory to the feedback we receive. That being, to look for common threads within the feedback, rather than try and action each piece of advice from every single mentor. Our high-level feedback after 30 sessions was:

Choose a more specific target market: try to find a product that serves one group of customers extremely well and focus on that;

Create an outcome driven marketing message: e.g do X and you will get Y, rather than leaving the outcome open to interpretation.

Focus our service offering: don’t try to offer five different things on the one page, split them up and tailor a marketing message for each.       

My experience with mentors has been extremely valuable. All mentors are different and they’ll have their own unique style. Some common character traits in mentors I enjoy working with include:

  • Subject matter experts: these people have deep experience in a particular topic and can offer valuable insights to help with the ideation stage. One conversation with a subject matter expert can equate to dozens of hours of research in terms of exploring potential market opportunities.

  • Big picture thinkers: these mentors help you take a step back from the operations and look towards the long term strategic direction of your venture. They usually bring the critical information out of you, rather than giving you direct advice.

  • Challengers: they ask the tough questions and don’t let you off the hook lightly. Rather than stroking your ego they try to pick holes in your concept from every possible angle. These mentors are extremely valuable in keeping you honest, being able to stand up to this sort of scrutiny is crucial for pitching to investors and great for practice.

The plan for next week

Finally, I’ll outline the Prevyou plan for week 2 of EduGrowth. This is the format that we’re following the program, in terms of outlining the key weekly deliverables on Monday and reporting back on Friday with our progress.

The plan is to keep you updated with our progress week to week as a way of showing our progression. My hope is that making this information public will keep Leo and I more accountable to reaching these goals, so please feel free to judge us harshly if you think we’re slacking off!

Note – we’re a startup!

Steve Blank once famously said:

‘A startup is a temporary organisation searching for a repeatable and scalable business model’

What this means is that all of our activity is focused towards finding a business model that we can grow sustainably. This act of searching basically involves running a series of tests to prove or disprove our hypotheses or theories about how we think customers will react to our product. The art of doing these tests in a ‘lean way’ is to prove or disprove a hypothesis in the most efficient way, e.g using the least possible amount of resources.

For each one of our tests below I’ll outline the hypothesis that we’re looking to test and the way that we’re doing it:

GradAccelerator Test

Hypothesis = Students want assistance to help them perform during the Graduate job application process.

One of the courses that we have been planning to create is to assist students with the Graduate application process. For those that aren’t familiar with this process, each year the top companies open up applications for their Graduate programs to students. There are only ever a handful of spaces available for thousands of applicants. The idea for this course was to create a framework to help students better perform during these applications. We were planning on using this content to build an audience for our platform, that we could use to market our full service once ready.

The test that we’re running now is all about seeing if there is demand for this content before we actually take the time to build this course. If we spent 4 weeks building this course only to find out that no one wants it, that would be a bit of a tragedy for us. The test that we’re running is pretty simple. We’ve set up a landing page for this course and we’re running some Facebook ads to see if people will sign up. Our goal is for at least 100 sign ups this week before we think about building any of the content.

Graduate Recruitment Interviews

Hypothesis = Graduate Employers want assistance to prepare their Graduates for the demands of the working world.

When a company takes on a new graduate it’s a pretty big investment. Having been part of one of these programs myself, I understand a number of resources that are invested into new Graduates. The hope of many companies is that their Graduates will be in it for the long haul, remaining with the organisation for many many years. When Graduates leave these companies after a short amount of time it represents a large cost in terms of the resources used to recruit and train them (sorry NAB!).

Understanding this pain we want to connect with Graduate recruiters to see if they would like some assistance to better manage the training process of their Graduates. To do this we will be reaching out to the people in charge of Graduate recruitment at these organisations to see if they believe this to be a problem worth solving. Our plan is to connect with at least 5 of these recruiters to discuss.

Gradamy

Hypothesis = recent Graduates want assistance to help prepare for the demands of the professional workforce.

For Leo and I, we started Prevyou to address the issue of feeling underprepared for the demands of the real world. We only realised this problem, once we had both Graduates and had started working full time. Everything we have done with Prevyou so far has been to address this skills gap before people actually enter the workforce. But what if we could create a solution for recent graduates?

Gradamy is an idea for a platform that helps smooth the transition from University to the real world. It’s built around three key features:

  • Curated learning: targeted learning material to help address any skills gaps for recent graduates;
  • Community: being able to connect and collaborate with an online community of recent graduates.
  • Career advice: support for helping recent graduates navigate the job market and find the right career.

The test – a simple landing page that displays the Gradamy concept. We’re planning on pushing it out to recent graduates through Facebook and email marketing with the hope of gaining some early Feedback.

Wrapping up

Finally, on Friday we finished with a group session to recount the week’s events and share what each team has achieved. The first week was a particularly testing one. Not only were most of us putting in some very long hours, but we all had our fledgling ventures exposed to some intense critique. This session will usually be used to share the results of our weeks work with the rest of the group. As most of us spent the week strategically planning our next steps rather than building anything we used the time to debrief what we’d all learnt from the mentors.

It was clear listening to each team that we were in a room full of extremely talented and passionate people. That group collective support and shared ambition is the most valuable part of the accelerator experience. Launching a startup would seem like a crazy concept if you break it down logically. Taking an unproven concept to a new market, with little to no resources can feel like you’re sailing a dinghy into a hurricane. But there is a sense of adventure and excitement that helps you push on despite the daunting size of the task. Being able to share that experience with a group of other people and lean on them for support when times are tough is a wonderful asset to have.

Finishing up our session on Friday we all celebrated with a few quiet drinks, knowing that there was plenty of hard work ahead. Luckily for those of us on a budget (all of us), WeWork offers complimentary beer and cider to get the weekend started.