By Marcus Leach
A maths whizz turned CEO has landed a seven-figure contract for his company to deliver maths software and online tutoring services to schools in Russia after attending the BETT international education technology trade show with UK Trade & Investment (UKTI).
Whizz Education (www.whizz.com) is the brains behind Maths-Whizz, the interactive tutor aimed at five-to-13-year-olds and providing online tuition tailored to pupils’ individual ability, whether they are under-achievers or gifted students.
The Paddington-based company was formed in early 2004 after CEO Richard Marett met Creative Director Ron van der Meer, a leading creator of pop-up books, who had begun to devise the concept for Maths-Whizz. Together, they created and developed the online interactive maths tool.
Ambitious from the start, they envisioned a global education company despite admitting being technologically challenged at the time.
“We grew our idea, raised finance and eventually persuaded a UK distributor to take our product before it even fully existed - we didn’t even have a company bank account!”
Richard’s unorthodox approach paid off and the business established a solid foothold in the UK. However, barriers in the UK market led Richard to consider moving overseas.
The company duly set up a subsidiary in Seattle, winning state and district deals against significant global competitors. However, the crash of 2007-08 led to the US districts, responsible for procurement for the schools in their areas, ceasing to place orders overnight.
With a volatile US market and a commitment to continued expansion, Richard looked elsewhere, but when a commercial partner in the UAE collapsed, and with the pressure to continue research and development in Maths-Whizz ever present, times were tough.
In October 2010, Richard attended a UKTI event and heard from fellow SME and London international trade adviser Erik Childerhouse. He was impressed. “I couldn’t believe it when Erik followed up with me the next day,” Richard said. “Erik placed us directly on to the Passport to Export programme for less experienced exporters and together we worked out a strategy to focus our international expansion.”
Richard continued: “Focusing on the BETT show, Erik came to see me five or six times. He has the appropriate commercial expertise and has given me so much strategic advice. Overnight, we changed the company’s mindset — thinking more internationally. We refreshed our branding, readied our staff and began targeting an international audience, proactively chasing international leads, whereas previously we had attended BETT only to approach UK buyers.”
The outcomes from this approach proved to be staggering. Richard explains: “We were visited by a representative group from the Department of Education in Moscow, in particular the people involved with ICT and Learning Environments in education. Following the meetings at BETT, we were invited to Moscow and encouraged to convert our Maths-Whizz suite of online services into Russian and apply, through a local commercial partner, for a government tender to supply elementary schools in Moscow.”
After due diligence, including advice from UKTI staff in Moscow and St Petersburg, the company concluded it was a risk worth taking.
“We worked with a local Russian partner appointed by the DoE and converted the early years content and tutoring service into Russian in time for the Russian tender submission. In late September, we found out that we had won the official tender — worth a seven—figure sterling sum! Since then, we have completed first-stage delivery and training for 200 teacher trainers in Moscow.”
Richard is finding that other doors are now beginning to open, and is looking to other markets. Working closely with UKTI, he is looking to target certain markets strategically, using UKTI contacts and incorporating services such as the Overseas Marketing Introduction Service (OMIS) into his business planning, helping him to evaluate the opportunities.
Whizz Education is growing fast. Richard said: “We are looking to double our staff and move offices next year. Since working with UKTI we have developed a much more proactive strategy, incorporating UKTI’s overseas network and services. We feel well positioned to accelerate our international expansion plans in 2012.”
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