Making connections is the name of the game, in business and in early education.
Nathan Li left a very well paid job as a programmer to launch a start-up business in October 2011. It was a leap of faith and one he took a while to make, but Li believed in his idea and in himself, and the entrepreneurial bent was strong in his family.
“My grandmother was an entrepreneur who believed that if you put your mind to something, you could do it. My mother also runs her own business – and their encouragement alone has been huge for me,” says Li.
“After several years in IT consulting and working for big companies, I knew I wanted to do more. I saw a need, and began working on the prototype for Educa when my daughter started going to a preschool in Lower Hutt.”
Designed for early education centres, Educa is a secure tool that allows parents and educators to communicate via a range of digital platforms. It’s a modern alternative to the hard-copy portfolios preschools compile on each child. Instead, authorised users (including parents and grandparents) can log on from anywhere and view and comment on photos, videos and written records created by a child’s teachers to chronicle their daily learning.
“It’s a web-based app and an iPhone and iPad app,” explains Li. “Adoption of these devices in families and early education centres has been phenomenal. Now you can extend the learning from the centre to the home and vice versa – something that was impossible until Educa.”
While the exact numbers are confidential, uptake of the Educa system into early childhood centres in Wellington and throughout the country has been excellent.
Li’s mobile strategy involves working closely with the early childhood sector and helping centres to adopt and use new technologies. He also sees this technology as easily adaptable to other areas of the education system.
“Going into primary schools is definitely an option. We’re very nimble and can adapt quickly. What we’re doing is totally transferable, both vertically, to different age groups, and horizontally, into different countries.” Educa began in the Creative HQ business incubator and, keen to learn as much as he possibly could, Li also completed a Grow Wellington business training programme.
“Starting up a company is hugely difficult, especially financially, and the extent of what I didn’t know was overwhelming. But the learning I’ve gained from this is phenomenal.
“I started as a tech person and had to teach myself business skills and selling, and now I’m running the company.”
Li attributes Educa’s fast growth in part to the support he’s had from companies such as Grow Wellington, Creative HQ and BNZ.
“Creative HQ gave us access to various resources, strategic support and experience, which have been hugely valuable to us. And BNZ have done all they can to support us, not just with our banking needs but by using their resources to help us make connections – for example, through initiatives such as sponsoring the Webstock conference and investment challenges like Start-up Alley.
“They’re looking for opportunities to promote young businesses and to give them connections – that’s over and above what you would expect from a banking provider.”
Educa was one of six finalists in BNZ’s Start-up Alley challenge at Webstock ’12. The initiative gave new business owners a chance to promote their start-up to the movers and shakers of the New Zealand web industry.
BNZ business manager Bianca Van Graan says that while Li didn’t win, he had a very impressive pitch and clearly knew what he was doing from the start. BNZ is working hard to support him to grow his business and believes Educa will be one of its success stories.
“Nathan has that entrepreneurial sense of skill,” she says. “He’s confident, enthusiastic and really stood out for us. With start-up businesses, usually in the first couple of years you don’t see much movement, but Educa’s first few months were just booming.”
Li is grateful for the tailored solution he’s received from BNZ, saying that everyone at BNZ is very welcoming, professional and easy to work with.
“They put themselves in your shoes, trying to understand your business before making any recommendations. It’s certainly not a one-size- fits-all answer.”
Foreign currency accounts are likely to be Li’s next requirement. He believes Educa has huge opportunities globally, especially given the excellent reputation of our education sector. He’s been actively evaluating the overseas market to determine the best point of entry.
“New Zealand is really world-leading in terms of assessment and philosophy,” he says. “Around the world, they’re looking at what we’re doing. From day one, we set out to be a global scalable business.”