30 Sep 2015
How Pobble, the student literacy platform with a mission to create a more literate global population, is preparing to take on the world
“We aim to get one million pieces of work online, and to be in 1,000 paying schools by the end of the year.”
Meet Jon Smith MBA2015, CEO and co-founder of Pobble, the online venture that’s providing teachers with the means to inspire young writers and help children share their work with a global audience. The digital platform addresses the problem faced by many countries of declining literacy standards and is on track to meet its ambitious targets.
The idea for the business was born from a love of teaching. When Jon’s elder brother, Henry, an experienced primary school teacher and literacy coordinator, asked for support to deliver a taster writing workshop at Brighton School in Abu Dhabi, Jon, who was working in Dubai as a civil engineer, was on hand to help. But he didn’t expect to be wowed by his big brother.
“It was incredible. He was like an actor as he took to the stage and beamed the MVP website on to a wall using a projector,” he says. “Henry shared an IP address world heat-map. He told the kids it depicted visitors to the company website.” Pobble creates a global classroom wall, where young writers are spurred on by the knowledge their work reaches a global audience. Their workshops see English language progress up to two times the expected rate.
As Pobble, formerly named LendMeYourLiteracy, becomes more international, the start-up team is taking advantage of key insights from London Business School (LBS). The business now has visitors in more than 170 countries and has grown to 22 employees in just 18 months.
Pobble means 'people' in Celtic languages – ideal for the company that stands for people and community, coming together to inspire the next generation. It’s also a name that translates across the world, imperative to the venture that aims to access a worldwide community.
Jon came to study an MBA at LBS to help launch the business. He had been considering an MBA for years, but Pobble gave him a real focus. “It was the first time I had looked at the MBA application essays and knew what I was going to write about,” he says.
On exchange in his second year at Haas School of Business, Berkeley, he attended a talk, ‘Going global’, with the CEO of Strava, the mobile app that connects millions of runners and cyclists. Jon asked the CEO for advice on developing an international business. “He told me an almost identical platform to Strava, called Map My Fitness, reached the same milestones, such as the millionth download, at the same point in time. Then, both digital ventures went global.
“Strava means Strava in Spanish. But Map My Fitness was untranslatable.” The consequences were dramatic. Strava doubled its growth while Map My Fitness was left trailing behind. At that point, Jon knew LendMeYourLiteracy needed to change its name.
After working through 2,000 names, the team finally settled on Pobble – but the company still faced more challenges.
“We found out late in the process that Pobble was already a registered name and our lawyers said we had to drop it. In a desperate attempt, I tried to contact the people that owned it,” says Jon. Incredibly, the company that owned the rights to trade as Pobble agreed to release the name after discovering the goals of the founders. The company had aimed to launch as a digital marketing business – Pobble Media – but despite registering the company and trademark, the founders hadn’t got the business off the ground. “The owners cancelled the company and the trademark for us,” he says.
The core courses at LBS, such as corporate finance and accounting, enabled Jon to accelerate the launch of Pobble. “I’m an engineer, so I’m good at projects, but I didn’t have any knowledge of accounts or balance sheets,” he says. “Now I understand the accounts and how to negotiate funding.”
To get the start-up off the ground, Jon took advantage of the solid negotiation and bargaining skills he acquired on the programme, proved by the release of the trademarked name.
“I learnt new skills like negotiation in every single class, and then went out and put them into practice,” he says.
It isn’t just academia that’s helped Pobble’s accelerated growth. LBS mentorship has also been key. Jon has connected with experts and followed their advice at every stage of the venture. It was through the Entrepreneur Mentor in Residence programme that the team secured Jurek Sokorski, a mentor in residence at LBS, as chairman.
Jurek challenged and questioned Jon. “He told me to read the first 150 pages of a book called The Founder's Dilemmas,” Jon says. The book addresses how to deal with issues when founders first form a team. How is equity split up? How do you recruit your first employees? What are the various share options?
Jon says: “There are so many things that are almost mythical when you start out. Jurek’s advice was invaluable.” And Jon is able to apply his knowledge to less traditional business people, such as teachers.
“When I first met the core team – teachers – I said, ‘We should create an excel spreadsheet to start tracking key metrics.’ I quickly discovered that they didn’t use excel.
“I had to learn to explain things in a different way. Teachers have such drive for helping children, so it’s my job to balance out the team – to commercialise the business,” he says.
But Jon is not just about the numbers. He’s proud of the business’s potential and its impact on children globally.
Author: Anna Johnston