A Strong Purpose –Our True North in the Edtech Revolution

We established Studycat with a single purpose; to revolutionise the way kids learn a foreign language, by making it fun.I began my career teaching English as a foreign language to young kids in Taiwan and, candidly, my first lessons back in 1989 were uninspiring. The established curriculum and method of teaching were centered around memorisation of uninspiring textbook materials that didn’t seem fit for purpose and that were, frankly,utterly boring.Rote learning can kill off a thirst for education very quickly, so I started bringing cards and using games to teach, trying to ignite the students’inherent curiosity and joy of learning. It was my first experience of the power of game-based learning and I was converted.

It became apparent early on in my teaching days that most of the educational content for English language learning was geared towards children learning it as a second language known in the industry as English as a Second Language (ESL). But there’s a big difference between that and learning English as a foreign language (EFL). Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that learning a language is easier when you live in-country and you can immerse yourself in what you’ve learned daily.

As my co-founder Mateo and I realised that using the content that was available at the time wasn’t doing the children we taught any favours, we wrote our own game-based curriculum. We started out in a brick-and-mortar format back in 1999, gaining invaluable practical experience, really getting into the weeds of how children learn languages, how to overcome the key bottlenecks and how to unleash the kids’innate ability to become motivated self-learners. We saw terrific results,with enthusiastic students and excited parents;within months,our first school had hundreds of students. 

Going digital

In 2002 we started using flash-based games on computers in the classroom and the effect was amazing. The engagement levels were off the charts as kids focused on their screens and we discovered how much young children loved both gaming, repetition and how quickly they acquired vocabulary. Our first games website was made in 2005, by which time we had four schools teaching about 1000 children. In 2006, after successfully testing what we’d made, we decided to develop a full digital version of our curriculum targeting what was then referred to as ‘new media’. This content went on to get over 35,000,000 views and 61,000 subscribers on our YouTube channel.

Two of the most important pieces of knowledge that those early days gave me were that everything you do as a teacher needs to be rooted in the fundamentals of education, and everything you create needs to be easy to use. It was the combination of front-line teaching experience and game-developer nous that ultimately led us to the business that we have now, although the road did have some bumps.

Timing is everything

We saw e-learning as the way to go very early on. From 1999 to 2006, everything we did was with our own money, but we could see there was an opportunity. No one else was making the content that we were, and we needed to get investors on board so we could continue to innovate. We were aiming for $250k in our first seed investment round; ultimately we raised more than double our target amount.

Following that success, we were aiming to launch a further round of fundraising in the third quarter of 2008. We were optimistic but, like most, we couldn’t know what was coming. We formally launched the fundraising round on 15th September 2008; the day that Lehman Brothers fell.

After that, no one was investing. We had innovated to the point where we were arguably too far ahead of the market; e-learning was in its infancy then and as soon as the credit crunch started, betting on future trends just wasn’t as likely, but that’s exactly what we wanted people to do.

Trend spotting and growth

We wrote to our investors and said we’d spend three months analysing the market and consolidating what we knew. After the three months, we went back to our investors and nailed our colours to the mast. Apps were the future.

In spring 2011, we launched in the app store. We put one app out for free then relied on in-app purchases. Next was buy one, get one free, then buy two, get one free and so on. As we continued to build the content, we developed the apps. The turning point came when we did localisation into nine different languages. Our revenue went from $2,000 per month to $40k per month. Our business had turned the corner.

The crisis impacted us because we couldn’t get investment but, looking back, it’s clear that we were too early, ahead of our time. Since then, the market for e-learning across our territories has increased dramatically; there were around 15,000 apps in the app store in 2010, in 2019 there are more than 1.8 million. The increase in popularity of smart phones and tablets, primary drivers for us, seems inevitable now but back then it felt like more of a gamble.

Partnerships, content and development

A partnership with Discovery Education and a pedagogy award from Finnish-based Kokoa followed and we knew we were on the right track. We continued to develop content and build our user base and it was this focus that made the difference. Keep your head down and do what you know works.

After that, our growth continued at a pace. Our App Store ratings were consistently over 4.5 stars and Apple named Fun English as one of its top educational apps. With over  seven million users we knew the market was ready for more.  So we’re now launching a school- and teacher-focused version of our product suite with an integrated learning-management system, including a powerful dashboard that really empowers the teacher, provides real time results,connects parents into their child’s education and minimises administration. We combine screen-time with practical games for a blended, fully connected approach resonating with young learners because, as teachers and parents, that’s what we value. We believe in leveraging the latest academic research findings that kids learn best when they have fun and are self-motivated and also when students, parents and teachers are collectively engaged and connected in the learning process.

Keep pace

With hindsight, our journey to date has been tremendously rewarding but has also seen its share of bumps in the road. Anyone who has survived in edtech for 15 years will have similar stories! We stuck to our true north and focused on making learning effective by making it fun, igniting kids’ inherent curiosity and love of learning.We feel like we frequently innovated and developed content that was ahead of its time and the market opportunity. On balance, this probably made us better and more mission driven. I believe that if you can build a business that stays true to its original mission, with a people-orientated culture focused on great content and on harnessing the smartest technology to help deliver it, you’re on the right track.One thing we always did was to be data driven in the creation of new content. We always watched the user data to see what games the kids enjoyed most. Engagement is our lifeblood and is what drives learning outcomes for our users.

Looking forward, the potential that emerging tech has in our market is enormous. AI makes it possible for us to leverage the vast amounts of data that flow through our solution to offer insight into how children learn, from activity to activity and country to country, with precision. The insight helps us analyse the impact of our content, and continue to evolve it, developing tools such as adaptive machine learning and voice recognition to make our solutions fully interactive, smart and interconnected for teachers, parents and children. In our field of education, with academic research underpinning effective methodologies, and a veritable tsunami of emerging tech tools enabling more effective learning, including AI allowing us to iterate and continuously improve,I believe we are only at the beginning of an industry-wide transformative mega trend. We’re excited to be part of it, while reminding ourselves that the best businesses never stop learning and innovating, and, crucially, they never lose sight of their purpose.

Mark Pemberton is a former teacher and co-founder of global edtech company, Studycat.