StartUp of the Week: Way We Learn

The word 'disruptive' gets chucked around a lot, but our StartUp of the Week - Way We Learn, an educational app company that's created an innovative new reading app, Read With Phonics - deserves it. Developed by a teacher for both teachers and parents, it's been designed with children in mind every step of the way and takes a tech-based approach to solving the problem of poor reading skills in children. We caught up with co-founder Sophie Cooper over a cuppa.

Business name: Way We Learn (Fonics)

Founders' names: Sophie Cooper and Henry Bomby

Loan funds received: £30,000

Based in: Exeter


Twitter: @ReadWPhonics


Fonics header

1. Explain your business in the time it would take the kettle to boil or drink to be poured

Fonics is a revolutionary new app which teaches 3-6 year olds how to read more efficiently. It works by turning lessons into games to make learning to read fun. Each student has their own game, allowing them to learn at their own pace. It's like having your own personal tutor with you anytime, anywhere. While the children play, Phonics is tracking their progress, allowing teachers to quickly highlight any gaps in a student's knowledge. Teachers can then tailor upcoming lessons specifically to each individual student's needs.

2. Where are you based and why is it a good location for your business?

We're based in Exeter. It's a great city with a growing tech scene. Lots of big tech companies are based here, a £97 million computer for Met Office is currently being built, there is a science and technology park for companies in the industry and lots of support for startups, not just in the tech industry but across all sectors.

3. How did you come up with the idea?

I'm a primary school teacher, and I still teach full time. One of the first things we have to teach children when they start school is to learn to read. It unlocks the rest of a child's education. Without this skill, children will constantly fall further behind. At the end of Year 1 students take the first test of their school career, testing their ability to read 32 out of 40 words correctly. In 2014 one in four children failed this test. One in four children falling behind in their very first test. I wanted to create the best resource in the world for teaching children to read, knowing if I did that, more people would be able to read and therefore pass the test. That's where it all started.

4. What’s the business model?

We want to keep Phonics free, and that isn't easy. But we know it will have the biggest impact around the world by being free, therefore we need to be clever when it comes to looking into the ways in which we can monetise it. It's a slightly unconventional business model but hopefully one which will ensure far quicker growth and then a much bigger profit down the line for our investors.

5. And what’s unique about your business?

There is no one really doing what Phonics does - we like to consider ourselves disruptive! The education market hasn't really had its big technology upgrade yet in the way that many other industries have. We hope to be at the forefront of that, looking to adapt and change the way we learn, working on ways to use the latest technology to make learning as efficient as possible. If you consider that as humans we aren't using all of our brainpower, then what else could be unleashed through more efficient learning?

We believe learning happens anytime, anywhere - sitting in the back of a car on the way home from school, on a flight, or while sitting at home in the evenings. At Way We Learn we hope to create products that fit into modern lives, using the latest technology as our tool to increase learning efficiency.

6. Who are your competitors?

There are other 'learn to read' apps out there but they are all paid for, have adverts, in-app purchases, hidden fees. All these are a big no-no when working with parents in the children's app market. The main thing that sets us apart though is that we are primarily a resource for schools, meaning we offer teachers analytics on how each student is doing. Nobody else is doing that.

I am a teacher, and so I created Phonics to make teachers' lives more efficient. The fact that we also have the home market is a bonus, and in fact home users like the fact they are using a resource used in schools. It gives us credibility.

7. What stage was your business at when you applied for the Start Up Loan?

We had a deal with our developers to start the first three months of development work. They effectively gave us a loan that will be paid back through revenue. We are super lucky to have found developers who shared our vision and could see the business potential in creating the best resource in the world for teaching children to read. The start up loan is helping us take our product to market. We started speaking to Virgin very early on after committing to the idea. Financially it has been hard, but we both have full time jobs still, meaning we had to find less start up capital.

8. How have you used it to grow your business?

We have primarily used it to develop our route to market. We have partnered with another educational company that has direct access to 18,000 primary schools (of the 22,000 primary schools in England) and this will be our primary route to the UK market. We hope the parent market will then distill down from there - it's much easier to get into every school in England than it is to get into every home. We're also looking to partner at the moment with other educational organisations that can help us expand globally.

9. Who is your regional delivery partner and how have they helped you?

We've been working with Alyson Eyval from Business West and she has been a great help, especially putting up with us both as we work on this in the evenings and weekends! It's taken much longer than most applications because of this, but we're thankful she has stuck with us!

10. Biggest achievement so far?

Our biggest achievement so far is that we have over 5,000 schools and parents registered and/or expressing an interest in Phonics, and we haven't even launched yet!

11. What’s next for your business?

Launching! On the business side we're now looking to find investors that will help us grow and scale as quickly as possible without the need to charge our users to stay afloat. We'll also concentrate on fast-tracking our other projects to start generating revenue as fast as possible. On the product side we will of course carry on work to develop our app. We have a few new games and features in the pipeline which will be added shortly after launching. It is, and will be, a never-ending process to fine-tune how we teach children to read. We think we have got off to a great start but the Phonics app you see in five years' time will be very different to the one you see today.