Vodafone xone Innovators Series: Linc-Ed's Paul Sibson on starting up, quitting your job and listening to advice

Paul Sibson, co-founder of education software company Linc-Ed, wants to make education more efficient and transparent. We ask him about about his journey.

To mark the arrival of the Vodafone xone business accelerator, Idealog is interviewing a whole heap of established New Zealand innovators, as well as the founders of the 10 startups selected by Vodafone to receive mentorship, funding and the potential benefits of working with a global network. One of the startups in the xone is Linc-Ed, a software platform for sharing education results both within schools and with families. We talk to Linc-Ed co-founder Paul Sibson.

Idealog: What is Linc-Ed and where did the idea come from?

Linked is a web app that allows schools to share the learnings of students internally, and externally with families of those kids.

The idea came from my frustrations – I was a teacher in London and then I came to New Zealand as a principal. I was a school principal for nine years here in Christchurch. I was frustrated in the early days with the way we communicated with our parents. I felt that it was too late in the year. Often it was a lot of work for teachers and not as much gain as it should've been. I felt that we could use technology to actually make that whole process a lot easier for teachers, but also make it much more effective for the parents.

Effectively what we do is provide a real-time reporting on kids learning and throughout the year for parents. We're also parents so it's great for us. We get to see what our kids are up to in school. We get notifications to know what's happening. The school updates it and it's aggregated off the school data. It was incredibly useful for me as a principal so I built it specifically for my own needs I guess. From there, it grew into something that became a little bigger than I expected.

What made you realize that idea could be turned into a business?

When we first launched it at my school it was hugely popular with our parent community. Word kind of spread around to other Christchurch schools and the principal community in Christchurch, is quite tight knit.

A couple of other schools approached me and said, "Look we really like what you're doing. Can we have it in our school?" We explored how we could actually commercialize it I guess and turn into something we could share with those schools. Actually, the idea was just to do it in two or three schools and just help improve what we were doing and do it from that point of view. It went really well with those two other schools. That turned into three other schools and then the middle of last year it turned into seven other schools. Now we're at 40 schools and heading up.

What sort of choices did you have to make to turn the idea into a business? Did you have to quit your job, mortgage your house?

Yes. The tail end of last year we took the decision for me to leave my job as Principal and go and do this full-time. Amy, my wife, who is MCEO as well and decided recently that she was also going to leave her job as a teacher. She's also a school teacher and she's leaving that position too. We both are taking the big step really to actually go out and do this full-time to make it a go.

Was there anyone that you had to convince that your idea was good enough to start making personal sacrifices for?

Yes. Each other.

How did you convince each other?

I think we looked at the collective hours we were pulling and the excitement that was being generated and just the sheer interest. We haven't done any marketing. It's all come through word of mouth and through our network. [inaudible 00:03:34] just grew and grew and grew. It became a relatively easy decision in the end. We both had jobs that we both really loved, but this was just taking off and the potential is enormous. For us to help kids and families and teachers in lots of schools, not just in one or two.

Where did the motivation come from?

Making a different for kids. That's why I went into teaching in the first place. That's why anyone goes into teaching in the first place. We love working with kids and we love making a difference in their lives. I guess at every stage of their careers, as we've sort of moved through the ranks, you have a bigger influence on more and more people as you get to principal. I've influenced a lot of families and a lot of kids and a lot of teachers in a pretty big school. Now being able to do that across multiple schools. The next step will be multiple countries is great. That's motivation enough for me.

What was the first road block that slowed you down?

Probably we took the decision really early on that, actually, we wanted to make this a one stop shop. Rather than having it as a separate app that schools have to use alongside a separate student management system, we needed to be everything integrated. To do that, we have to work with the Ministry of Education to make sure that we were fully accredited and that we could do everything we needed to do. That was quite a time-consuming process. It was a great process. The Ministry were very supportive and very helpful. It took a long time. We got that, we received accreditation at the beginning of, approval at the beginning of 2015. That's made a huge difference for us but it did take awhile.

You're part of the Vodafone xone ...

Yes I am.

What prompted you to look for external help?

We're educationists, we're teachers, when we go to a vast array of knowledge in that sort of realm and we understand the technology, what we didn't have as much expertise in was building a business and building a business that was going to go global. We recognized early on we need some help here. Actually an opportunity to get one of the big boys behind us. [inaudible 00:05:52] Global Reach and what that can do for us will be enormous. Also just the opportunity to get some help and advice and support on how you sustainably grow a business from one and a half people, two people to a much bigger team and a much bigger organization.

What have you learned from your experience with Vodafone xone?

Probably the key thing is listening to advice. We're being exposed to a whole load of world class mentors and experienced people who've been there and done it. Actually sitting down and listen to what they say and seeking out their advice. We don't know a thing and there's lots we need to learn in this area. Listening to this advice and taking these opportunities has been essential. I suppose we've also learned to do things like this which was kind of outside our experience. Although I did similar things in principalship. It was never on this kind of scale. So being on TV and being on the radio is a whole new ballgame for us. We're learning lots.

What are the things you're doing differently since you started working with a mentor?

I suppose we've lifted our habits and our eyes and looked to the horizon more. We always had great plans for the business and what we wanted to do with it. Certainly within New Zealand, but now we're looking further afield. We're looking into national, into global, and saying, "Well what do you we need to do now to make that journey easier?" The whole way we're looking at the tech, the whole way with the developers we've appointed and how we're building our technology is very much with the mind to being able to extend it into a global market and not just New Zealand.

What's the key thing that you know now that would've made the biggest different to your journey to get LinkEd to where it is now?

Probably to just do things a little bit earlier. I think we probably waited to build a team a little bit longer than we needed to. Which is just having faith in yourself and believing in yourself and thinking, "Yeah actually we can go now." We probably did [inaudible 00:07:53] a little bit more than we should've, in hindsight. You go back a year and maybe do things a little bit sooner.

From this experience you've had with Linc-Ed so far, what's the one piece of advice you'd give to someone with a really good idea that wants to turn it into a business?

Find some good help. Identify what are your strengths, but also what are the things where you've got gaps and things you don't know yet. Go and find out people. The wealth of experience out there. People are really willing to help actually. People who want to give advice and who want to share their experiences. Not necessarily for lots of money either, they want to do it much more goodwill reasons which is wonderful. Actually seek their advice out and find the experience.

That's great. Thanks for your time today Paul.

Thank you. That was not too bad.