- Learning from edtech founders (2): Teacher Tapp
In this series of blogs, Aircury’s Joshua Perry talks to inspiring edtech founders and captures the lessons we can all learn from their startup’s success. This second article in the series focuses on Laura McInerney from Teacher Tapp. Aircury worked with Teacher Tapp earlier in 2020 to help them rebuild their mobile apps using React Native.
There’s a good chance you already know of Laura McInerney as a leading education thinker and writer. It could be that you rely on her tweets and Guardian columns for authoritative (and occasionally blunt) views on education policy. Perhaps you saw her on a panel once and still remember the wise words (and yellow outfit). Or, maybe your current bedtime is the influential book she’s written recently with David Carter entitled Leading Academy Trusts: Why some fail, but most don’t.
However, the reason I caught up with Laura is that she is also a hotshot businesswoman, and I’m not sure that’s quite so widely known. Together with co-founders Professor Becky Allen and Alex Weatherall, Laura has grown Teacher Tapp to be one of the most exciting edtech startups of the past few years. In her role as CEO, Laura has overseen the app’s expansion to the point where over 9,000 teachers answer their three daily survey questions, providing rich quantitative data to academics, researchers, companies and journalists across the sector. They’ve also recently launched Parent Ping, which is bringing a similar approach to parent surveying. So while there are noisier startups out there, not many can claim the Teacher Tapp team’s blend of rapid growth, user enthusiasm and a solid business model.
That makes Laura a perfect person to go to for advice on how to build an edtech startup, as I found out when we spoke last week. Here an edited transcript of our conversation.
Tell me how Teacher Tapp came about.
It all began in 2017. Becky had been thinking for years about having some kind of texting system for researching trainee teachers when they were in school, and by 2017 smartphones were just about ubiquitous enough that you could probably come up with something that messaged or nudged people. Nesta said they’d be open to funding some tech to do it, if she could get some matched funding. She got a commitment from the Gatsby Foundation, and then had some money to build an app!
Sometime later I was talking to Becky about something media-related, as I was the editor of Schools Week at the time. She told me about her project which was planned to be called something like the Teacher Education Research Project App, or TERPA, and I thought there’s got to be a better word! She said “well it’s an app, and you’ll tap it three times to answer some questions”. So I said “if it’s an app that you tap, why don’t you call it Teacher Tapp?’ There was a moment when you could almost hear us thinking “ooh, that sounds like a real thing!”
So what you’re saying is that in the Teacher Tapp origins story, you’re the Sean Parker character from The Social Network?
You mean “drop ‘The’” from TheFacebook.com? Yes, that’s basically been my contribution! But, in the end, that’s very important, right?!
Anyway, we talked more, and I asked if the app could be used for all teachers — not just trainees — so we could use the polling for the newspaper. And Becky said ‘yes, but only if you help me set the company up.’
I managed to figure out how to register the company in June, and then nearly five days later I ended up in hospital with Sepsis and nearly died. So I spent most of summer 2017 in and out of hospital recovering, which is actually not a bad place to be when you’re trying to put together an app. It meant I had a lot more time to think!
Becky knew someone who she’d randomly been on a panel with once, Tom Forth from a small company called Imactivate, so he built the first version of the app for us. Thankfully, at some point Becky also realised we needed a database as well as a front end system for inputting questions. I just thought the app would do that!
Luckily we knew Alex Weatherall, a physics teacher and former programmer who we’d known for years through Twitter and other education projects. As it was the summer, he wasn’t working, so he spent his time building our systems, so then eventually he became a founding employee!
We launched in the September and then ran it for a year while we all had other jobs, mostly working Sundays and evenings. By the following March we had clients asking if they could commission questions. It was a surprise, we weren’t expecting that to happen, but we said “yes, sure!” and then furiously googled the market price for surveys! By the summer of 2018 we had more clients commissioning questions and running it became a proper job as we had about 2,500 daily users at the point. Me and Alex worked on it pretty much full-time from September, followed by Becky at the beginning of 2019. In other words, after 18 months of fiddling about, we finally had a proper company!
You talk about things in a very relatable way and it’s clear there have been some key moments and conversations with others that helped you to make the company a success. Tell me about some of the advice and support you received.
We were really lucky: all three of us had the ResearchEd network; and as former editor of Schools Week, I knew a lot of people. Also, Becky is a professor in education, and everyone knows Alex because he’s always volunteered on so many education projects. We’d all spent years and years thinking through education issues and really knew the sector inside out. As you say I’m lucky to be considered a relatable person too, which means people will usually speak to me if I phone them! People are happy to give advice, and I try really hard to listen. I’m so grateful for the hundreds of people who have helped us build Teacher Tapp.
Here’s an example. At a certain point we knew GDPR was coming in. I had an ex-boyfriend who was a lawyer. I literally bumped into him in the street while I was thinking about GDPR and so I said “we need someone to help us out”. As luck would have it he’d become a tech startup lawyer. So I asked if he’d become our lawyer and he said “yes, sure!”. That helped sort the first versions of our privacy policies and terms and conditions. Which is why you should stay in touch with people you split up with!
Ha. Yes, I try never to burn a bridge as you never know where they’ll lead. OK, so that’s the early startup period. At which point did you personally get a sense that this was going to be big?
The first week. We had something like 500 users on the first day. That felt massive. Then within a couple of weeks we were over a thousand, and I knew that was how many we needed to be used in newspapers. The other moment was about five or six months in, when someone mentioned normal app retention rates. We had been beating ourselves up because we’d lost around a third of users over three months. Then someone told us that the average app only retained between 10 and 24% over a single month, depending on the sector!
It got to the point when we started having conversations with investors that nobody would believe us. We’d be asked “how many people answer your survey?”, and we’d say “2,000”. Then they’d say “yeah, but how many answer every day?, and we’d say, “that IS how many people answer every day.” Or they’d say things like “I know you put this in your pitch, but what’s the real number happening?” And we’d say “we put it in our pitch because it’s true!”.
It is strange isn’t it — some parts of the startup world almost just expect you to have a bit of padding in your statistics.
Yes, but we made a decision early on about the kinds of people we wanted to invest in us, given what Teacher Tapp is and how seriously we take our ethical duties.
I also feel a bit of responsibility as a two-female-founder company to show that we can raise money, though, and not be pushed to do things via only charitable routes. The year when we were raising, over 90% of startup money went to all-male founded teams. And I don’t often get my feminist hat on very often, but when you look at the questions women are asked, on this question of honesty vs bullshit, women often get marked down for being honest. They are asked more negative questions than men, so it was important to me that we could go in there and prove that we could raise money while still being true to ourselves.
There is also an extent to which when someone starting a company falls outside of the norm — by which I mean white, male, British — there can be nervousness on all sides. So many routes to investment seem to be about informally hanging out and being buds rather than more formalised routes and that doesn’t seem fair and can muddy the waters of relationships. That’s one of the reasons why we went through the Capital Enterprise Greenlight programme, and took investment via StartUp Funding Club and the London Co-Investment Fund, which is the Mayor’s programme — because it was a very formal programme. We had other angel investors, but it was only people that we knew and had a close relationship with already, and who had offered, rather than going into a situation of sweet-talking people.
And did you come out of the raise with any specific advice you’d offer people about to go through the same thing?
We needed quite a bit of help understanding the legals. I never found anything very good online that helped me understand what all the phrases and words meant. I’d recommend finding three of four other co-founders who you trust, maybe in a slightly different area to you, but who can talk you through these things. Someone who’ll be on the end of the phone when you need to say “someone just used the word ‘vesting’ and I can’t figure out if that’s some kind of a dress?!”
We also got our own lawyers and didn’t just accept the ones offered to us by our investors. It was a good move — quite an expensive one, but worth it. They helped to do some negotiating for us — which opened up more possibilities.
Let’s come back to those amazing engagement stats — what are some of the clever things you do to keep people engaged with your product?
We only put gamification in the form of badges in the product about a year into Teacher Tapp, which made a big difference!. The other decision we took — which is still controversial — is that Teacher Tapp runs every day of the year, and that keeps the habit strong. We only drop something like 10% of users on Christmas Day. Not everyone likes that because of work-life balance, but notifications are controlled at the phone level so if people want to, they can switch them off.
Another funny one is that when Teacher Tapp started you answered three questions, then saw the results, then you clicked to see the daily read. We set ourselves a KPI for getting people to click through to the daily read. Then, one day, we realised we could switch the order, so everyone first saw the daily read and then had to click to see the results. Boom! We got to 100% for our KPI. And it was really important because actually that tip is the professional development. We know we’ve delivered something like 53,000 hours of CPD this year from people reading these tips — and that’s the real genius of the app, because if everybody read one thing per day to make them better at their job throughout their career, I genuinely believe they’d get better.
And what are the moments that have most tested your resilience?
So far we’ve been remarkably lucky, but doing the raise was a bit weird. We were treated with some scepticism and condescension, which Becky and I don’t deal particularly well with! I also found it quite difficult as someone who’s an education insider that a lot of investors have what I would call “entrepreneurial” ideas about education. A common one is a belief that education needs to focus less on facts. And I often don’t agree with those opinions — based on good reasons and evidence — but you have those moments where you’re in a pitch, and somebody who doesn’t really know your industry says something incredibly well meaning, but is probably wrong. So what do you do?! To be true to your product, which is about data and evidence in education, you should probably tackle it, but at the same time you also have a strategic point you’re trying to reach in terms of investment. So that was quite a challenging time!
Let’s find out about your grand expansion plans. What does the future hold?
We would like Teacher Tapp to go international — because the richness of the data would be amazing. We have already done a pilot in Ghana, and there’s a Teacher Tapp Netherlands. There was a question over the summer — we asked what would happen if you went to a holiday complex and a family from your school turned up on the same day; as a teacher, what would you do? And most British people say they’d say hello but then try to avoid them for the rest of the holiday. We asked the same question in the Netherlands, and first of all, they didn’t like it being a hotel complex with a pool — that was very snooty for those teachers. But also they were just baffled by the question — why wouldn’t you speak to the family every day and hang out with them? So the international perspective can really help us understand what’s intrinsic to teaching, or to a subject.
The other thing is to build the app out into different sectors. We’ve just started Parent Ping, to build education intelligence from the parents’ angle, and we’re open to looking at other sectors as well.
So tell us, how is Parent Ping going?
We’ve had several days where parents answer for over 1,000 children, so we’re already up in that area. The next goal is to get to 1,000 parents, and then we can start working on representativeness. As with Teacher Tapp, we went to 500 pretty quickly, and retention seems pretty good. There are tweaks we’ve done that seem to be working — for example parents can pick one of four notification times during the day, whereas there’s only one with Teacher Tapp. But we have more to do to understand what parents actually want from the app and how we adapt it.
And finally, given we’ve been working together on the development side of things, what have you learned about working in the technology sector?
As a non-tech person, that’s been challenging! We were extremely fortunate that Alex has been able to lead a lot for us, but I think we didn’t think of ourselves as a tech company soon enough. It was probably right that at first we thought about users and customers and the app was almost an afterthought. But if you go down that route for too long then you end up with a lot of technical debt, which is a concept you don’t know if you’re not from a technical background but it’s basically the mess you get into when you are constantly hacking everything together for a long time! Alex was looking at those things, but probably we all needed to be thinking about it and being more strategic. So now I realise: if one part of your company is tech, you are a tech company. Loads of people told me that, but I didn’t get it early on.
Do you have any specific war stories that come to mind on that front?
We broke Teacher Tapp once on Easter Friday! Somehow, we hadn’t put any questions into the system. Even worse, we’d designed the system in anticipation of not having any questions one day on a bank holiday so the users saw a message that said “we are off for the holidays” which meant most of them thought the app would be off until the following week. But, to our horror, we discovered that if they didn’t re-open the app again after that, their notifications wouldn’t ever go off again! The next day we had something like half as many users because their notifications didn’t go off. It was a slow road back! But it also made us understand how important notifications were to the business. So the earlier you can break things the better!
Yes, exactly, there’s that need to test things to the point of breaking — and not just from the user’s side, but also your own admin parts of the product.
Yes, and happily we’ve recovered extremely well whenever we have had issues like that. We’ve got a good social network, and we’ve got quite a nice email template we can send out when we mess up. Being really honest with your users is important. Just ‘fessing up and saying “guys, what a mess!”. People love it actually — they like seeing you flounder a bit. Just don’t do it too often!