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How a Kaikoura-based mobile app for schools took on Australasia

Skool Loop, a mobile application company designed to provide school staff with an alternative to arduous administrative procedures, and alert parents to when a natural disaster has occurred has spread across 720 schools across New Zealand and Australia. Founded in Kaikoura, a coastal town typically known for its abundant wildlife and sperm whale population, the company has become one of the largest employers in the community, and has grown from a $10,000 idea into a $1.8 million business. We chat to founder and managing director, Sharlene Barnes, a 52-year-old Cantabrian grandmother who is taking her app through Australasia.

Skool Loop is a school administrative service that streamlines the communication between teachers and students enabled by a user friendly mobile application. The app is a solution to terribly designed and wasteful web calendars and paper notices and offers notices, newsletters, permission slips, school contacts, absentee messaging, school calendars, and push notifications on a interconnected mobile app with an aim to better coordinate the communication between schools and parents.  

“The app came from my own frustrations with my children going to school and not getting the communication needed. Knowing the logistical nightmares to manage the information from schools, I decided to fix the problem and when I saw apps become more popular it presented a chance to fix the problems," Barnes says. 

She says that its push notifications have proved to be incredibly useful, with alert banners instantly notifying parents about lock downs, flooding and tornadoes. Another key feature is its ability to be individualised for each school, which according to Barnes, can host up to 10,000 unique school pages.

“Anybody can learn something new, I just went out and challenged myself.”

Barnes says while she had no history with interfaces, or technology for that matter, she is a curious person and an ‘entrepreneur from way back’. She adds that she went out to solve a problem, and after tirelessly asking questions, she found the right people to teach her the right things.

“Anybody can learn something new, I just went out and challenged myself.”

Skool Loop has two offices, one in Kaikoura and another in Rangiora, and has 15 staff spread across the two regions.

“After the Kaikoura Earthquake, the infrastructure was unstable, and after an earthquake nothing is certain, so we decided that all our eggs weren’t in one basket, so we opened up an office in Rangiora," Barnes says.

The app is free of charge for schools and the first of its kind in Australasia, according to Barnes. She adds the free accessibility makes a big difference for low decile schools where parents can often struggle to pay for phone calls into the school.

But while it’s a free public service app, it has no shortage of financial support, and its ‘discrete’ integration of regional and local advertising now boasts 15,000 advertisers, made up of small-to-medium-sized New Zealand and Australian businesses.

“Skool Loop’s only advertisers are regional/community businesses related to the area of the school that is on the Skool Loop app," Barnes says. 

"For example, if a school in the Nelson district signs onto the Skool Loop app, they will only see advertisements from local businesses in the area like cafes and shops. Skool Loop provides a list of advertisers directly to the school for approval to ensure the advertisers that will appear on that school's own Skool Loop page, aligns with the school community engaging on the app."

This is supported by a bunch of keen international investors who have collectively contributed $150,000 into the business.

Barnes says: “I put a profile on the New Zealand investment website, and got a number of interested parties. It was super easy, and not nearly as hard as some people would think. There are a number of people out there wanting to support new initiatives.”

The result has quite remarkably transformed her own investment of $10,000 to kickstart the business into a company that records an annual turnover of $1.2 million. Additionally, being based in the commercially reserved regions of Kaikoura and Rangiora, Skool Loop has helped to employ people in areas that don’t have great diversity in their employment opportunities.

Barnes says with the infrastructure and resource available in the regions, it hasn’t nearly been as challenging as she thought it would be. Skool Loop is now entering into various global markets and is currently licensing in the United States, India, the United Kingdom, South Africa, as well as breaking into the South Pacific region. 

Asked what is next on the horizon, Barnes says the Skool Loop app has been an amazing and challenging journey, and still believes there is a long way to go in regards with integrating technology into education. She adds that Skool Loop is constantly looking at more bolt-ons and functionalities to include on the app.

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