Start-up snapshot: App to help South Africans improve their school grades

Start-up: Learning Lab Apps, South Africa

Adrian Marnewick, co-founder and managing director of Learning Lab Apps.

Adrian Marnewick, co-founder and managing director of Learning Lab Apps.

A new South African tech start-up, Learning Lab Apps, aims to make learning easier by building web and mobile educational applications. Last year the company released its first app, WorksheetCloud, which gives children, parents and teachers access to hundreds of downloadable and printable school worksheets and revision tests based on the South African school curriculum for Grades 1-12.

The app works on any internet-enabled device, and covers English, Afrikaans, mathematics, natural science and life skills. It costs parents or learners a R120 (US$10.50) once-off payment, followed by R50 ($4.50) per month to have unlimited access to all the subjects in the grade/s signed up for. There is also an option for schools to allow their teachers access to the platform. WorksheetCloud was recently announced as the winner of the CAP40 Innovation Award for 2014

How we made it in Africa speaks to Adrian Marnewick, the company’s co-founder and managing director, to find out more.

1. How did you finance your start-up?

Up until today we’ve bootstrapped the business. Thanks to the customer bases we had built up in our other companies, we knew that we’d start making money with WorksheetCloud from day one. We went from zero to 200 paying WorksheetCloud users after sending just one marketing email to a small, targeted list from one of our co-founder’s other businesses.

I’m personally averse to getting any business into debt, and the ‘bootstrapped’ style suits us at the moment. But there could come a time when we need outside investment, particularly when we consider adapting our product range for other countries, languages and school curriculums. But when that time comes we’ll only look for outside investment if we don’t have enough of our own money to invest.

2. If you were given $1m to invest in your company now, where would it go?

We’d use it for two critical components of Learning Lab Apps – content development and marketing.

There are many other educational apps that use algorithms to automatically generate content, but algorithms can only be used for basic content, and even then only within certain subjects, like mathematics for example. We also use algorithms for some questions, but the vast majority of our curriculum content is created by real, live human beings called teachers. That’s why we’re able to focus on a broad range of subjects including English, Afrikaans and natural science.

We’ll be introducing other subjects too, as well as curriculums for other countries, but this takes time and money. Teachers already get paid so little doing their normal jobs. We prefer to pay them well.

Of course, our second main objective is to run effective, in-house marketing campaigns to parents and teachers (because no one understands education like we do). Some of that $1m would definitely be allocated to our marketing budget.

3. What risks does your business face?

The thing about education is that it never stays the same. Yes, one plus one will always equal two. But all over the world, education departments frequently ‘update and improve’ their school curriculums. Take South Africa as an example. We’ve seen huge changes over the past few years.

Every time Learning Lab Apps spends money on content development we take a risk, because it’s difficult to predict when the curriculum will change next. Each time the curriculum changes, we need to spend more money updating the content in our apps in order to remain 100% relevant to the curriculum.

We’re developing ways to lower this cost, and ultimately lower the risk.

4. So far, what has proven the most successful marketing method?

Email marketing is proving to be a winner for us. I’ll often get phone calls from eager print advertising sales reps trying to get me to agree to spend R40,000 ($3,500) or more on a full page printed advert. I’d much rather spend that money building our email marketing campaigns and investing in email subscriber list growth. That way, we control our audience and we maximise our ROI.

We’ve also allocated some of our budget to Google Adwords and other forms of direct marketing via schools.

5. Describe your most exciting entrepreneurial moment.

My defining moment as an entrepreneur was when WorksheetCloud was announced as the winner of the CAP40 Innovation Award for 2014, a mere 30 days after we launched the app.

WorksheetCloud was originally my idea, and I’d be lying if I said my heart didn’t skip a beat when they announced it as the winner against over 30 other ideas submitted. I was almost speechless, but fortunately I had prepared a few words to say in the ‘unlikely event’ that we won the award.

Winning that award gave me validation that we are onto a winning formula with our education apps and that we have chosen the right market.

6. What has been the biggest mistake you have made with your start-up, and what have you learnt from it?

Without a doubt our biggest mistake when forming the business was that we didn’t formalise our partnership agreement in writing before commencing our development work.

The thing I’d do differently next time is to ensure that each partner entering into the start-up understands precisely what is expected of him or her, and that everyone knows what everyone else is bringing to the table.

We’ve had a few ‘heated’ discussions over the past few months, not because anyone was not pulling their weight, but rather because a verbal agreement over a few beers is no way to start a business. Things can go wrong when you have discussions without putting anything down on paper. People tend to genuinely forget what was discussed.

Fortunately for Learning Lab Apps we have level-headed partners who care about one another, and so we ended up formalising the business in a way where everyone wins.