Simon Hay and Joe Mathewson
Sometimes businesses get started for the most every day reasons. In our case it was procrastination. We were both studying for our GCSEs and were happy to do anything other than revision.
It was 1999 and the internet was really taking off. We were frustrated that we couldn’t access any school work online. During study leave we’d need to cycle back and forth to school to pick up printouts, revision advice and tests. Our bedrooms were in complete chaos with paper and revision notes everywhere.
There’s no denying we were techie teenagers. We surveyed the mess, applied our teenage ingenuity, and thought it would be fun to write some software that could make the situation better.
And that was much more interesting than actually doing some revision. We didn’t know it then, but seeing a problem and not being able to resist ‘scratching the itch’ is pretty common amongst entrepreneurs who found businesses.
At the same time, our Physics teacher who was an early evangelist for technology, ran a student competition to develop ideas for using the Internet to improve learning. We both entered, and he encouraged us to collaborate.
School success and encouragement
We created the very first version of our platform with the Physics department. From there, pupil power really spread the word and soon teachers from other subjects were asking if they could use our software. By the time we started A levels our school was using it across all subjects and we were being called out of lessons to set things up and troubleshoot.
It was incredibly exciting to have made such a difference at our school, but we soon realised schools across the world faced similar challenges with technology. Encouraged by our initial success we approached other schools and by the time we left sixth form we had a handful of founding customers.
Taking the plunge from hobby to full time business
However, we still didn’t see its full potential as a business. We went to university, travelled, Joe became a semi pro DJ, and we took up jobs in the City. I think our families maybe thought we would settle down. But all the time we were working on the trading floor we had a second job running Firefly.
It was challenging as we’d be taking calls from schools in the middle of the day.
These constraints forced us to produce a really strong product that was easy to use and reliable – and it reduced the calls.
Looking back, it is clear that despite the City being exciting and fun, we really wanted to run our own business and have greater control. We secured our thirtieth school customer and thought “right let’s do this”. It was a hugely important moment. We were leaving well paid, enjoyable jobs to launch into the unknown. But we knew we had a product the market wanted.
Since then, Firefly has grown rapidly. We’ve raised £10m in investment to support expansion into 40 countries and now have nearly 1.5m students, teachers and parents using the platform. It’s been hard work but the sense of purpose we have and fulfilment it gives us makes it worth it.
Advice to others
- Find a buddy– We constantly challenge each other, and develop and refine our thinking. We have known each other for 20 years. It’s the combination of ‘us together’, which makes the special sauce that is Firefly.
- Don’t drop everything straight away– We slowly incubated Firefly whilst we went to university and got jobs. Starting a business isn’t always about dropping everything immediately. We wouldn’t have been successful without the experience we got along the way.
- Tightly focus your tech product– Think really hard about the right shape of your product – what should be in and out of scope. Early clients will want you to build features that won’t have widespread application, learn to say no nicely, but firmly.
- Ask for help – People are ready to help young entrepreneurs. We received lots of advice and people were really generous with their time. Just remember to say thank you!
- Don’t stand still– Continually look ahead to help ensure your product remains relevant. We are still doing this and recently launched our Parent Portalin response to what schools now need.
The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated how innovation, courage and dogged hard work can make a difference to individuals, communities and the world. These are the qualities needed to launch business ideas. It’s a tough economic climate, but history shows that many of the strongest and longest-lasting companies have been started during downturns.
As technology advances, the barriers to getting started are getting lower and lower, and there are also more successful UK tech start-ups to light the way. We are keenly aware that young people have been affected significantly by the pandemic. However, we know they are also going to be key to taking us forward. We really encourage any young person with a smart tech idea to give it a go. Scratch that itch and you might well have a roaring success on your hands.
Simon Hay and Joe Mathewson are co-founders of Firefly Learning, an education technology company.