Jon Tse had always dreamed of becoming a businessman. He pictured himself in a suit and a tie, going to work carrying his morning cup o’ joe and a briefcase. Studying accounting and law at MacQuarie University in New South Wales, Australia, Jon figured he’d be able to leverage his studies to get what he wanted.
Things didn’t turn out exactly that way. Jon got jobs in accounting and banking (reading The Wolf of Wall Street may or may not have contributed to this decision), but found the corporate world too restrictive and uninspiring. He realized that more than being a businessman, wielding power (and briefcases) and making money, he wanted to build products and make an impact in the world.
So Jon and university friends Ahmed Haider and Chris Zaharia, from MacQuarie and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), decided to start their own company. “We knew the student space quite well, the market, the problems students faced,” Jon tells Tech in Asia. “So we thought maybe we could find one of those problems and provide a solution, and maybe that could somehow turn into a business.”
From idea to execution
It turns out that textbooks are a pretty common problem in student campuses. They’re expensive, you need to buy lots of them, and they’re not much use once you’ve passed your exams. Identifying the problem, the team looked to the US for inspiration, where a startup called Chegg does textbook rentals and sales and also offers a variety of services useful to students. And so Zookal was born.
The team borrowed money from friends and family, which they used to buy about 300 textbooks. Within a week, their website had 20,000 visitors and they were able to rent out all their books. Clearly the idea had legs.
Largely bootstrapping up to that point, the team scored a US$1.2 million investment from a London-based angel, that prompted all team members to quit what they were doing, be it work or studies, and focus 100 percent on Zookal. Now the business has 50,000 paying customers in Australia.
Brace for impact
The team still wanted a product that made an impact, however, as well as provide a service that was more scalable than textbook rentals. Part of the team stayed back in Australia to keep working on the textbook rental business while Jon and a colleague came to Singapore to explore more options as they felt Asia presented a huge opportunity in the university education space. “[What is] interesting about Asia is the importance of education, even over health,” Jon says. “Because that’s the stepping stone to a stable job and life, and opportunities for your job and family.”
Zookal answered the education tech call with an online video marketplace. The idea is that senior university students who have excelled in a particular subject can upload a video of themselves explaining this subject for junior students. They can use methods like handwriting, powerpoint presentations, and other materials to enhance their videos.
Students can then access those videos by paying the fee set by the uploader – and Zookal of course takes a cut out of every purchase. Think of it as senior students selling their notes and tutelage to younger ones. Jon says the site is home to about 25 different courses, each of which is about five hours long. There are about 2,000 videos on the marketplace at the moment, with an average running time of 5 to 10 minutes.
So why shouldn’t a student just turn to YouTube and its trove of free material, instead of paying for Zookal’s student videos? One reason is those videos are created by students who attended a particular university with a particular curriculum, and so are aimed at students attending that same institution.
“In our marketplace, in addition to going to the lecture and having your textbook, you can find your subject and educational content that’s relevant to you,” Jon says. “It’s the content you’re studying at your university page, so you know that content is tailored to you. We’re in a world where there’s too much information out there, and students don’t have time. They don’t want to have to trawl YouTube and Google to find the relevant bits. They come to our platform to find that, by someone who’s already done well on that subject.”
Another concern is curation; if you’re going to be charging for this service, you want it to be good. Jon says the startup does vet the students before allowing their content to appear online. These first 25 courses are Zookal’s opportunity for a first impression, so the startup adopted Airbnb’s approach of taking its own photographs of listed properties, setting a high standard early on.
“That meant we had to assess all the students who applied, not just their grades and transcripts, but how well they communicate their ideas.” Zookal wants to see not just students who are good at their particular subjects but who can also inspire by example with their next accomplishments. That sounds a little vague, but prestige concerns could prove vital to Zookal upholding a high standard of content on its marketplace.
Class is in session
At the moment, Jon says the startup has 10 percent class penetration in Singapore. That means that out of all students taking a particular course, 10 percent have logged on to Zookal’s offering for that course. Considering the team has barely done any marketing, it’s not a bad number. Zookal is backed by notable Singaporean investment figure Koh Boon Hwee, who is also the chairman of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. No doubt that helps the startup’s cause with contacts and credibility.
Jon says that between the video site and its textbook business, the company is approaching tens of millions in revenue this year. That means it’s not desperate to look for investors, but it will appreciate the right partners in the education space who can help it grow faster.
In the end, success will hinge largely on Zookal offering good content, so the startup will lean heavily on that. “We want to get to the science behind the art of making good, compelling content, of what makes this educational content fun and engaging,” Jon says. “I think that’s yet to be cracked.”
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