- Player: Stacey Brewer
- Co-founder: Ryan Harrison
- Company: SPARK Schools
- No of schools in network: 15
- 2019 goal: ± 12 000 students and 20 schools
- Est: 2013
- Visit: www.sparkschools.co.za
In 2012, Stacey Brewer raised R4,5 million in her first round of funding. It gave her an 18-month runway to focus on launching her low-fee private school model, SPARK Schools. This was followed by R28 million from an international fund, the Pearson Group’s Affordable Learning Fund. The business’s most recent round of funding was a Series B round that raised R150 million in 2016, taking SPARK’s overall funding to R200 million.
“We’ve committed to having 20 schools by 2019, which will enable us to educate 12 000 children,” says Stacey. “Our investors still expect a 10X return, but it’s ‘patient’ capital, designed to support impactful business models. Educational companies are highly valued. They provide a good annuity income, but investors also love what we do because we’re focused on achieving systemic change, and funds are looking for that. More and more, funding mandates are focused on the greater good.
“This is still a business though. One school is not a business — you can’t scale it, and so there’s no growth opportunity. If you can build a network of schools however, you can benefit from economies of scale.”
Here’s how Stacey and her team are turning the traditional education model on its head, and in so doing, are providing value for children, parents and their funders alike.
If that’s how it’s always been done, it’s time to do things differently
As a low-cost private school, SPARK aims to make a quality private school education accessible to parents who cannot afford traditional private school fees. What Stacey and her team soon learnt however, is that everyone is looking for quality, irrespective of social and economic status.
“When we started, we thought our price would be a huge selling point. We soon realised it actually switched people off. There was an assumption that you get what you pay for, and that low fees mean a poor-quality education,” says Stacey. “South Africa is very aspirational, and people want the best for their children.
“We needed to reposition what we were doing and focus on the fact that our schools have a modern, aspirational look and feel, and that we deliver a quality education. Once we had driven those points home, we could discuss price. Now that we’re becoming known and our kids are our ambassadors, this is a different story, but it was very important when we launched.
“Parents vote with their feet — just being cheap isn’t enough. We’ve received the investment we have because we’ve developed a model that’s both affordable and can compete internationally.”
A full year’s tuition at SPARK for 2018 is R21 000. How do you provide a quality educational experience at a fraction of the traditional price? To start with, you need to embrace a disruptive mindset.
Stacey says ‘no’ to doing anything the traditional way, as this will immediately drive up the school’s price point, and the business will lose its ‘why’.
So, what’s the solution? “You need to embrace your constraints. It takes a special person to be involved in our team. We need individuals with a high level of accountability, and who can focus on being lean and agile. But it’s amazing what we come up with when we’re forced to think out the box. Raising our fees is the easy answer, and once you go that route it doesn’t stop. Instead, we need to be excited by the opportunity to come up with solutions given the constraints we’re faced with.
“If I hear the words ‘because this is how we’ve always done it’ or ‘that’s how it works’, I immediately know I have to change it. Too much is done simply because it’s always been done that way. If you want to change an industry, you need to find completely new solutions to the same problems.”
The big idea
Let’s take a step back to how the idea for SPARK Schools originated. Stacey was studying an MBA in Entrepreneurship at GIBS (the Gordon Institute of Business Science). During her economics lectures she discovered that although a high percentage of South Africa’s budget is allocated to education, South Africa still ranks amongst the worst education systems in the world. “I wanted to understand what was going wrong, and to research what the solution could be,” she says.
Stacey wasn’t planning on launching a new and disruptive education model, but she did need a theme for her thesis, and she wanted to address a real problem.
“I believe that all entrepreneurs should be advancing the human race. We need to question what we’re doing to change society. What problem are you solving? How are you making the world a better place? How are you making it more sustainable?
“This view meant I gravitated towards one of the biggest problems I believe we face as our country. One of my professors agreed. She liked the thesis topic, and advised me to start networking in that space. I needed to get on the map and speak to other like-minded people who were interested in education.”
Stacey took her professor’s advice, and started networking. “This was how I met our first angel investor, David Gibb, who was on sabbatical after resigning from his position as head of research at STANLIB. At the time I had no plans to start this business, which meant funding wasn’t even a thought, but I found a very supportive mentor who is very passionate about business and education.
“Dave and I had incredible discussions around the problem, and what the solution needed to take into account. I still had no concrete ideas of actually launching a school, but I was on a path that clearly showed we needed to create something completely new. Tweaking the current model wouldn’t be enough.
“The MBA and my thesis also forced me to take a deep dive into my research. I’m not sure start-ups always do this, and certainly not to the level I took it. But it’s been a very important success factor for us. The research I conducted while completing my thesis has allowed us to position ourselves very well within our market. More importantly, it helped us get from ‘what?’ to ‘how?’”
Thanks to Dave and Stacey’s own tenacity, she was also developing a strong network in the educational space. “Dave introduced me to the blended learning model in the US. He then offered to fund a trip overseas so that we could evaluate if the tech the blended learning model is based on would be feasible in South Africa.”
It was at this stage that Stacey asked Ryan Harrison, a tech-savvy friend from university, to join her on the trip. “I understood the educational landscape, but not the tech — I asked Ryan to join me so that he could evaluate whether or not it suited our local conditions.”
Stacey and Ryan returned to South Africa, and she knew this wasn’t just an idea or a thesis anymore. “I knew I was going to open a school. Ryan was also excited by the concept and wanted to join me. Our trip introduced us to Rocketship Public Schools, who have pioneered blended learning in the US. They were very open to us, and shared everything they’re doing. This feeds back to purpose — they want to change education and solve a real need, and they’re supportive of anyone who shares that passion. Two of their staff came and joined us when we launched, and one is still with us today.”
The lesson: Stacey didn’t start out thinking she wanted to launch a business and trying to figure out what that would be. Instead, she found something she was passionate about — something she knew was broken and needed real, innovative solutions to fix. That passion led her down a path where she learnt as much as possible about the topic, met other passionate people with ideas and solutions to share, and finally developed a model that would help her solve a societal need and drive systemic change.
Matching problems with solutions
Once Stacey and her co-founder Ryan had their big idea, they needed to launch. A school (or more specifically a network of schools) requires capital. You can’t bootstrap a school. This is one more reason why you need an idea that will drive real change (and returns) — something investors are increasingly looking for.
“David Gibb gave us some seed funding and bridged the gap to find formal investment, and GIBS introduced us to a network of angel investors. This was how we raised our first round of funding of R4,5 million to launch our first school.”
Interestingly, raising funding isn’t just about pitching your business to investors — it’s also a dialogue between the entrepreneurs and their investors. At the end of the day, it’s in everyone’s best interests for the business to do well.
“At that stage, we were looking at buying or building a school,” says Stacey. “Our investors disagreed. Their advice was that we prove the model instead of focusing on property. We needed to focus all of our attention on the problem at hand. What makes education expensive?”
The basic premise of all innovation and disruption is starting with the problem. If you can clearly define the problem, the solution will often start to present itself.
In the case of education, particularly providing low-income earners quality but affordable education, the problem is cost. “Infrastructure and salaries are the two biggest costs. To bring down fees, you need fewer teachers and smaller spaces. You also need to achieve both while improving quality. That’s the benchmark. Once we knew that, we just needed to figure out how to do it.”
An added element was the investment component. Funders are interested in businesses that can scale. As we’ve already mentioned, one school is not a business. But a network of schools is. Once you have a network, you can leverage economies of scale, which is when investors start seeing their returns.
“Once we were introduced to the blended learning model, we realised it was exactly what we were looking for. The traditional model doesn’t support low fee solutions. We needed a different solution. I did not want to rely on donor funding.
“NGOs become too dependent on donors and end up struggling over time. They’re also constantly needing to raise cash. I want SPARK to live far beyond me. If we built it properly from the beginning, with decent margins and a sustainable price point, we knew we’d get investors on board — particularly because so many funds are now interested in creating systemic change as well.
“We quickly realised blended learning was the solution we were looking for. It’s a model that drives cost efficiencies by focusing on the utilisation of assets. It’s also data rich, which drives quality. Most importantly, it can be scaled.
“At first, we were fast followers, now we’re evolving into leaders in this space. Our delivery of quality at our price point is one of the best in the world. We never, ever throw cash at a problem. Instead, we rethink and redo the system — that’s where we know we’ll find the solutions we need.”
The lesson: Start with the right problem and you will find a solution. If you aren’t clear on the problem though, you’ll be working around it, either following existing solutions or making assumptions about what people need. You need to dig into the detail. The problems that really need solving are often complex, so learn to interrogate things from every angle.
Forget IQ and EQ, what you need is AQ
Stacey is a firm believer that the success of SPARK is rooted in her team’s AQ, or Adaptability Quotient. “We’ve gathered a team of smart thinkers who are able to adapt quickly to new challenges, based on the ingrained idea that the old solutions won’t work. The problem is that you’re unlikely to be adaptable if you don’t also have passion.
“The name for our schools comes from William Yates, who said that education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. It’s about igniting passion, and we needed that same passion to really start solving our education crisis. We want to spark a change across the country.
“I bring passion, and my team has passion and common purpose — when you have these ingredients, you figure things out,” says Stacey. “When you’re constrained, both in terms of cash and human capital, you need to be smart. We call it ‘frugal’ innovation. If you don’t throw people or cash at a problem, you really find solutions. You can also seldom cut back costings once they are there. I love a constrained environment — I see it as an opportunity.
“We had one major advantage: We didn’t have an education background, which meant we questioned everything. More importantly, it means we’re not precious about anything. We’re willing to try new things to see if they work, and if they achieve our objectives. I’ve learnt that too often, people don’t even know why they do things — they just do them because that’s the way it’s always been done.
“Infrastructure and salaries are the two highest costs we need to solve. We’ve combined two blended learning models to address this. The first is lab rotation. From Grade R, our students are in and out of learning labs. Our teachers introduce a concept in the classroom, and then the students rotate to a learning lab, where they practically work through problems related to the concept on computers. Data is gathered during these sessions and addressed. Our teachers see multiple students based on this rotation. The learning labs are run by facilitators, not teachers. At full capacity it’s a highly operational schedule, and our students are always in small, flexible groups of four to six children. Our staff cover multiple classes and are experts within specific areas.”
The lesson: What skills and attributes does your organisation need most? This may change as you start scaling, but in order to know who you need in which positions, you need to understand your organisation.
Don’t do what’s always been done
Following an accepted industry or business practice will only help you achieve more of the same. If you really want to radically improve your business, a sector or the lives of your customers, you need to question everything.
Start with the problem
If you can’t clearly define your problem, you’ll never come up with a solution that suits your target market.
What’s your AQ, or adaptability quotient?
Forget IQ and EQ — businesses that are looking to scale need to be highly adaptable.
Scale fast, but learn faster
You’d think that finding a model that solves the cost versus output problem South Africa’s education system currently faces would have been Stacey’s biggest challenge. It wasn’t.
“Our biggest challenge has been scale. We’ve doubled our network of staff and kids every year since we launched our first school in 2013. In 2017 we had 4 000 students and 450 staff. This year we are educating 7 000 kids with a staff of over 700.
“We understood 4 000 kids, but towards the end of last year we needed to seriously consider what 7 000 kids would look like. You have to think about it before you get there. What does 20 000 kids look like? You’re going from a village to a city. There are changes, and you need processes and systems to cope.
“I personally need to grow faster than the organisation. I need to reinvent myself and my role every six months and stay ahead of everyone else. It’s imperative that leaders of organisations are self-aware and willing to improve themselves.
“I have mentors and coaches. I’ve built a network of people that I can reach out to when I have questions or challenges. I love feedback, and I’m always asking ‘what’s next?’ What does the company need from me? Today I’m less operational and more focused on strategy. What are we doing? How do we start leading our industry? Are we engaging other stakeholders?
“These aren’t only local questions. What are people doing and thinking globally? We can’t solve this by ourselves. We need other people to open schools, to offer more choice for families. People vote with their feet, and that’s good for business. I’m all for competition. The people who benefit from healthy competition in this sector are the families and their children, because it puts the power in the family’s hands in terms of choice and accountability. The problem is also so big, there’s room for multiple players.”
A big part of Stacey and SPARK’s success is the team she’s built around her. This frees her up to focus on strategy, but it also gives the business a growth foundation.
“Hiring the right people for their specific roles has been essential for us. You need to understand your organisation and its needs to get this right. At head office, we need two different types of people: Those who can build and improve schools, and those who can focus on operations and structure.
“Scale is tough on people. Things break when you’re scaling, and you want them to break quickly so that you can fix them. If you’re too slow you’ll actually miss stuff, but it takes a very specific type of person who can operate at that pace.”
The lesson: Organisations that are in scale-up mode are changing quickly. Does your team have the tools and skills they need to handle that change? Do you support them? Does everyone understand why changes need to happen quickly so that you can solve problems sooner rather than later?
SA Entrepreneur Takes First-Of-Its Kind Business To An International Level
Jo Farah shares some insights on his entrepreneurial journey as Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) gets underway.
South African-born entrepreneur and creator of the world’s first environmentally friendly sneaker care product – Jo Farah says entrepreneurship has always been part of his DNA, and making a valuable contribution to society his ultimate goal.
The founder of Sneaker LAB – an innovative business that’s managed to create a first-of-its-kind, biodegradable sneaker care product, delivered his sentiments on entrepreneurship and his entrepreneurial journey as Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) kicked-off in 170 countries around the world this week.
Farah, who’s been mentored and groomed by his entrepreneur father, says developing a successful business has always been part of his life’s plan. And while he managed to establish a few start-ups during his entrepreneurial journey, which includes founding a guerrilla marketing agency in South Africa, and producing ads for the likes of Adidas, New Balance and Puma it still wasn’t enough.
After returning from the United States in 2008 with just one thing on his mind – to help cure South Africa’s conundrum by creating jobs for the unemployed, and in-turn fostering economic growth, Jo invented a one-of-a-kind sneaker care product, and put shoulder to the wheel to establish his business in 2013.
Starting a sneaker care product range was a natural choice, especially considering Jo’s passion for sneakers, street wear and urban culture. He also wanted to create a complimentary product to accompany the list of sneaker brands that has inspired him over time. Jo’s work behind the scenes commenced in earnest and in no time he conducted enough research to support his theory – there was a gap in the market for branded sneaker care products. He knew that he was on a good wicket.
“There already was a range of non-branded products on the market, but my research revealed there was a healthy appetite for branded, environmentally friendly sneaker care products. That spoke directly to my business model,” he says.
Today, Sneaker LAB has placed Cape Town on the map with its premium global status – it’s the only sneaker care product range in the world to be Green TAG certified, environmentally friendly and biotech driven. Its products are water-based, readily biodegradable, and the packaging is suitable for recycling. The business also operates internationally, in 50 countries across Africa, with an experiential brand store in Braamfontein Johannesburg; as well as downtown Los Angeles in the USA; Asia and Europe. The business is growing by the day, with a store in Tokyo set to open soon.
As an entrepreneur he’s grown in leaps and bounds, and despite many changes along the way, his sentiments on entrepreneurship remain.
“Inspiring potential entrepreneurs to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and embark on an entrepreneurial journey is one way of solving some of the world’s most critical problems, and freeing the economically marginalised,” Jo says.
He urges young aspiring entrepreneurs with an entrepreneurial mindset to take the plunge and to channel time and energy into developing their business ideas into something tangible and workable that could generate good long-term financial returns.
“People will tell you that it can’t be done, but believe me, it can. All you have to do is to believe in your idea and to work hard and smart and you’ll reap the benefits,” Jo says.
9 Ways Successful Entrepreneurs Spend Their Weekends
All work and no play makes for a very dull entrepreneur.
Successful entrepreneurs have a passion for what they do, so working hard is part of their DNA. But anyone who is successful also recognises that life and work are a marathon, not a sprint. Even they need downtime on the weekend to ensure they’re up to the task of being creative problem solvers and innovators Monday through Friday.
Sure, they may spend some time catching up on administrative work. They may spend time on a big project that needs special attention. And they should definitely spend time thinking about the future and considering the big picture.
But what successful entrepreneurs don’t do is spend the entire weekend buried under work. We all need a break, and entrepreneurs are no less immune to burnout than anyone else. Their weekends are spent restoring their bodies and minds, and getting prepared to function optimally come Monday.
Here are nine things successful entrepreneurs do over the weekend to unwind and re-energise for the week ahead.
1. Wake up at about the same time
Successful entrepreneurs understand that staying on track for the week ahead means keeping the same sleeping patterns, even on weekends. That means going to bed and getting up at about the same time all week. This is because your circadian rhythm will stay consistent, so your body will naturally know when it’s time to sleep and wake up.
As tempting as it might be to sleep in, doing so can throw off your sleep/wake cycle, disrupting sleep patterns and giving you a poor night’s rest. Make sure you aim to get seven to eight hours of sleep every night to avoid a sleep deficit. Also, getting up early means you’ll be ready for whatever the day brings and you’ll have time to accomplish all the things you hope to do.
2. Spend quality time with loved ones
It’s no surprise that weekdays can be hectic and filled with obligations. There’s a good chance you spent more time in front of your computer (and with co-workers and colleagues) than with the most important people in your life. Make sure you’re tending to the quality relationships in your life by making them a priority on the weekends.
Have a date night with a partner. Go for a long walk or enjoy a leisurely lunch with a friend. Make sure you’re building and maintaining those relationships by really listening to them. And then share what’s on your mind and how you’re feeling. The support and connection you feel with others will give you resiliency and can support you in stressful times.
3. Pursue a passion
Is there some hobby or activity you’ve been wanting to try but have never made time for? Dedicate some weekend time to pursuing a passion that’s outside of work and beyond your normal day-to-day obligations. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to paint, take up photography or write a novel.
Whether it’s a long-lost hobby or a labor of love you’ve dreamed of embarking on, stop telling yourself that you’ll get around to it “someday.” Set aside a quiet weekend morning or afternoon to work on it. Pursuing your interests beyond work improves your mental health and reduce stress levels. Plus, focusing on activities outside of work will improve your creativity and give you a chance to look at life from a new perspective.
4. Find time for a mini-adventure
Weekends give you a chance to unplug from life, put aside your daily responsibilities and go have some fun! Let loose and break out of your rut by taking yourself on a mini-adventure. Get out of the house and find a change of scenery.
A mini-adventure means sticking close to home, so hiking the Grand Canyon may be a bit much, but an overnight camping trip or a day hike is totally doable. Spend an afternoon at the beach or take your bike out for a long ride. The point is to get out and make a memory that will give you a smile for the rest of the week.
5. Fuel their creative mind
Successful entrepreneurs make sure they take time to feed their creative minds by finding ways to connect with the arts. You don’t need a degree in art appreciation or music theory to enjoy the benefits of engaging with the arts. Simply visiting a local museum or spending time listening to music will suffice.
Viewing art can be like a mini-vacation for your brain. It activates areas of the brain that are involved in processing emotion and engaging your pleasure and reward systems. Listening to music can have an even more dramatic effect. In fact, music has been found to stimulate more parts of the brain than any other human function.
6. Relax, reflect and renew
Savvy entrepreneurs have learned that they must give themselves the space and time to decompress and mull over the events, issues or dilemmas they face. Giving yourself time for self-reflection allows you to link and construct meaning from your experiences. Reflection is one of the main ways we gain insight and foster complex learning and personal growth.
In our busy world, we are often dealing with packed schedules and juggling multiple issues. Make sure you find time on the weekend to disengage from your hectic schedule and just chill. Try journaling, going for a walk, taking in the beauty of a sunset or even just focusing on the present moment and being aware of all the sensations you’re experiencing.
Related: Get Your Weekend Started
7. Get outside and exercise
Whether it’s getting out for a walk through the neighbourhood, shooting some hoops or taking a run through the park, high-achieving entrepreneurs get outside on the weekend to stretch their legs and soak up some vitamin D. There are some great benefits to an outdoor rather than indoor workout (although the most important thing is getting exercise, however it works best for you).
Getting some natural sunlight may be a welcome reprieve from artificial lighting if you spend most of the week in an office. Studies have found that adults tend to exercise for longer when they’re outside. You also tend to burn more calories and work slightly different muscles because of the wind resistance and changes in terrain. Perhaps most important, you’ll have a chance to admire nature and the outside world, which is good for your mental health and well-being.
8. Socialise and network
Successful entrepreneurs realise that any event or gathering is a chance to get to know other people and learn something new from someone you haven’t met. Set aside time to socialise with friends and family or get to know colleagues and workmates. If everyone else is busy this weekend, look for other opportunities to socialise and do something fun and interesting.
Check out a local community event. It could be a great chance to learn more about where you live and network and make connections with others. You could also look for a volunteer opportunity with a charity or nonprofit you’d like to support, such as a local animal shelter, senior centre or food bank. If you enjoy active sports, join a local team or club. If you’re into less strenuous activities, consider a joining a bowling or bocce ball team.
9. Catch up on rest
It’s been a busy week, and you’re feeling sleep deprived and run down. While sleeping in isn’t a good idea, successful entrepreneurs know when they need to catch up on some much-needed rest. A 10- to 20-minute power nap may be just the thing to help you feel refreshed and alert – a short snooze is actually much more effective than a cup of coffee in providing an energy boost.
It’s best to keep naps short: 30 Minutes or less. Longer naps are more likely to leave you feeling groggy and can interfere with your nighttime sleep quality. So when that wave of post-lunch sleepiness hits, go ahead: Indulge in an mid-afternoon nap and enjoy the rest of your weekend!
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
How Lorenzo Escobal Bootstrapped His Way To Competing With Titans And Attracting Top-Tier Clients
Inception Automotive Detailing was founded in 2011 by Lorenzo Escobal. He was only 18 at the time, and the business started small, but Lorenzo has grown it significantly over the last few years and aligned it with top brands. His secret to success? Being proactive and not being afraid to ask for what he wants.
- Player: Lorenzo Escobal
- Company: Inception Automotive Detailing
- Location: Toronto, Canada
- Established: 2011
- Visit: inceptionautodetailing.com
As is often the case in the world of entrepreneurship, Lorenzo Escobal launched his own business purely out of necessity. Attending university in 2010, he realised that finding a job shortly after North America had experienced a financial meltdown wouldn’t be easy. If he wanted to be sure of an income, he would need to create it for himself. So, having detailed cars for friends and family since he was 15, he decided to launch his own operation called Inception Automotive Detailing.
He bootstrapped the business — launching with just $1 200 — and grew it slowly. Today, the company boasts clients like Google and Tesla. Here are Lorenzo’s tips for bootstrapping a small business capable of competing against much bigger players and attracting top-tier clients.
1. Build a great website and market online
The fact of the matter is, your company is judged largely by the quality of its website and online presence these days, especially if you’re taking your product/service to the client. Even if you don’t have fancy premises, you can create a professional appearance by investing in a great website.
Most people are going to find you through your website, so make sure it instantly impresses. Also, invest time and money in creating effective online marketing campaigns on Google and Facebook. Funnily enough, Google approached us about detailing work by finding us on Google.
A good website and good online reviews got us a foot in the door. From there, we could prove ourselves through our work.
2. Learn to network
Attracting clients online is important, but real-world networking shouldn’t be neglected either. There is immense value in joining professional organisations and attending conferences. It’s a great (and affordable) way to market, and you never know how the connections you make may pay off down the line. Networking and being in the public eye also builds credibility for your business. I’ve put a lot of time into getting my name and brand out there, but it’s been worth it.
3. Remember that no one is truly ‘self-made’
Every entrepreneur benefits from the wisdom and hard work of others. I’ve had great mentors who have helped me immeasurably in growing my business. I’ve also had the privilege of working with a great team who has helped me make the business what it is today. I do my best never to forget this, and I view myself not as a boss, but as a part of a team. Sure, I attend a lot of conferences and events, but I also jump in and help when there’s a lot of work to do.
As an entrepreneur, you need to be willing to get your hands dirty and do whatever’s needed — even if that means grabbing a mop and cleaning a dirty floor.
4. Make things happen
As an entrepreneur, you need to create opportunities, not wait for them to fall into your lap. I managed to get work from Tesla, for example, simply by asking for it. I filled out the contact form on the Tesla website and got a reply three days later.
Many entrepreneurs think that it’s pointless to approach large organisations because they’ll never want to do business with a small operation. Never simply assume that. Just ask, and see what happens. Sure, you’ll have to deal with a lot of rejection along the way, but that comes with the territory. Great entrepreneurs are never afraid to put themselves out there.
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