Obrussa: Bill Hutchison

The edtech founder tells us what he has learned on his second time round as a start-up and why a good software engineer is like "gold dust"

Name: Bill Hutchison
Company name: Obrussa
Date launched: 15/08/2015
Location: Bristol
Website: www.obrussa.com

Tell us what your business does:

We’re a social network for learning. This means that we help teachers and learners to interact online, whether they’re in a classroom together or on opposite sides of the world. We enable learners to take tests and get feedback online from their teachers. People can also post messages and talk via IM.

Meanwhile, we’re building a learner analytics engine that will recommend connections and content to the platform’s users. We’re starting with Maths in the UK, but this is a platform that could be used for any subject.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

Mainly, it came from my experience as a parent. I was amazed that schools in the UK still do all their day to day assessment on paper, which gives them an enormous amount of unnecessary work and pain. It also means that no data is ever captured. If you could find a way to capture that data you could really transform learning. This is where our open assessment comes from.

At the same time, we want to break down those traditional silos in education. It will benefit everyone hugely if there is an online environment in which teachers, tutors, students and parents can communicate and collaborate.

How did you know there was a market for it?

My education industry knowledge told me there was a market, but earlier this year we were able to prove the concept through a pilot in local schools. The feedback we got from teachers and students was overwhelmingly positive.

In terms of market size and growth, you can nail that quite easily. A lot of people might be surprised to know that education is the fastest growing consumer expenditure category worldwide, ahead even of smartphones and internet.

In many parts of the world, consumers put education above everything else.

What were you doing before starting up?

Immediately before starting I worked for two of the biggest names in education as an enterprise architect, Pearson and Cambridge Assessment. That gave me a very good view of education markets from a business point of view.

Before that, I started and ran an enterprise software vendor called Wordmap. We were backed by Reuters and we had some wonderful clients like AstraZeneca, Harvard Business School and HP. Wordmap was the taxonomy software leader around 15 years ago… perhaps we were a bit early!

Have you always wanted to run your own business?

I started my first business when I was 20, which was a theatre company and we took a play to the Edinburgh Fringe. That was an amazing experience but not a great way to make money!

This is now my second start-up, and it has been wonderful to build a talented team and see an amazing product reach the market.

How did you raise the money?

Our first big milestone was winning a grant from InnovateUK. This brought in around £230,000 to us and £90,000 to our partners, the University of Essex. At the same time, we raised £175,000 from private investors.

Right now we are crowdfunding on Seedrs, hoping to raise our next £100,000.

Describe your business model and how you make money:

It’s a freemium model. We allow self-driven learners to use the network for free, including taking tests.

As soon as there’s a private interaction between learner and teacher, a premium subscription is needed. Along with that privacy, there will be a lot of features for premium users, including reporting and dashboards.

What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?

It’s always hard work to build a team of really high achieving software engineers. They exist in the UK, but they are like gold dust! Fortunately for us, a lot of hiring effort has paid off and we now have a superb team.

Our next big challenge is building awareness. However brilliant your product is, people have to hear about it. That’s beginning to come good, mainly through what we’ve been doing on social media and word of mouth!

What was your first big breakthrough?

The grant was a big breakthrough, and so was our pilot. We got a huge amount of valuable feedback from our teacher users and that has shaped the product we’ve launched.

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?

You have to find a way to spread the word about what you are doing before you’ve even done it! That’s the way the world has changed.

It will be much easier for you to find customers and investors if the buzz is already out there. You can’t build first and then tell people about it anymore.

Where do you want to be in five years’ time

We want to have a big vibrant community of educators and learners, with enough of them subscribing to pay our bills!

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