Charles Wiles

Founder & CEO of Zzish

The Tailor-Made School Revolution - Charles Wiles of Zzish

Nov 30, 2018
Charles Wiles

The Tailor-Made School Revolution

We talk with Charles Wiles, the Fouder and CEO of Zzish about how their platform helps teachers cater to the individual needs of each student.

Listen to this episode now:

Read the transcription: 

[0:21] Maiko: In today's episode, I'm talking to Charles Wiles CEO and founder of Zzish. Charles is a former Google product manager and investor and started Zzish in 2014 to help teachers personalize their teaching by quickly assessing students’ knowledge and recommending apps and resources that would help the students learn faster and better. Today Zzish is being used by 145,000 teachers across 170 countries and has helped over 2 million students receive more tailored education. As we speak, Zzish is raising funding on Crowdcube which is already overfunded and it's a great pleasure to have you on the show, Charles.


[0:58] Charles: No, thank you very much for having me.


[1:00] Maiko: This episode is very close to my heart like the education system has been very close to my heart. I've been, in the early years of school, I've been a good student, but very soon I lost interest because I felt it wasn't relevant to me, it wasn't really relevant, what I wanted to learn or what I was curious about. So, it's very close to my heart to see companies innovate on that respect and make education more tailored and really look more at individual students rather than what we know otherwise in the educational system, which looks much more like the Industrial Revolution system of putting a standardized curriculum, forcing it into my brain, right. So, talk to us a bit through how you're looking to revolutionize the education system or how your approach is to education for the 21st century?


[1:44] Charles: Sure. So yeah, that's a great way to kick it off, isn't it? Yeah, really, education, classroom education hasn't changed in 200 years, you know, from the Victorian times. And I think most people with a sort of technology background would say that technology should be playing an important part in really transforming the way we learn. And of course, it hasn't yet and what I sometimes talk about is, you know, the first generation of education technology really just digitized, you know, what was already there, you know, you would take a book and maybe make it interactive, or you would, you know, instead of doing a pen and paper test, you turn it into an online test and sell it for homework. And the reality is, that really hasn't changed the way people teach or the way children learn. And as a result, unsurprisingly, you know, the children's rate of learning and achievement hasn't really improved, you know. But surely, technology should be able to solve that problem. 


[02:42] Charles: So, the second generation of education technology, I think, is looking much more at that, how do we actually change the way and the processes of learning and teaching to make it more effective? A lot of the stuff out there is really focused on individual students and learning but we decided to look at the teacher, right, how we can help the teacher be a much more effective teacher. And actually, teachers have a real challenge, every single teacher that teaches a class has a real challenge. It's really hard for them to know exactly what state of learning each student is. And your, typical secondary school teacher will teach 200 students in a single week or more, how on earth can they stay on top of each student's individual current level of knowledge and it's changing by the minutes as they're in the classroom and learning, right and that's kind of impossible. The software can solve that problem; the software can counter that. 


[03:33] Charles: But then the second one was, even if you did know exactly where each of those individual students were and their rate in the stage of learning, how do you know which of the literally millions of resources and applications out there in the real world is going to be the best one to help them progress fastest? You know that's impossible too, there is no way he as a teacher, has the time to go out and research all that. So, we basically build a system to solve those two problems. We have a fun classroom quiz game, which teachers can run in 5, 10 minutes, at the end or the beginning of the lesson to quickly get a reading of all their students, and also set up the homework so you can continue to get those reading as homework. And then what we do is we allow a teacher to assign resources, could be a YouTube video, could be a PDF, could be a mobile application to those students, we measure how effective they are at helping students learn and then when other students come through a similar stage of learning, we can actually recommend them the resources and applications that our data predict will have the greatest effects on their learning. 


[04:35] Charles: This is allowing the teacher to personalize their teaching to each student, effortlessly. Something they're asked to do by the government, but they just can't physically do, because they can't understand every single student's learning stage and they can't, they don't have the time to be able to personalize those resources even if they did. And things like this, whether we've got it exactly right or not, but technology is like this, have a real opportunity to generally transform learning, because we're allowing teachers to teach much more effectively in a much more personalized way.

 [5:05] Maiko: You started Zzish motivated by learning struggles that your son had actually, initially, talk us a bit through those and what kind of challenges did you face when trying to deal with them and help?


[5:17] Charles: So yeah, this all started for me about, over five years ago, when I was running a big data advertising technology company. And I'd leave home at 7:30 in the morning, you know, get home at 7:30 pm at night just in time to kiss my son goodnight before he went to sleep. And I was quite frustrated that I couldn't help him with his learning. And if at the weekend, I suggested we do some, times tables, he'd argue with me for half an hour before he realized it was better to spend 10 minutes doing times tables with me than argue for another half hour and he can get back to playing Minecraft. So, I was quite frustrated that I couldn't help him with his learning. And whereas my daughter was doing very well at school, my son was actually doing quite badly at school. So, you know, I really wanted to do something about it. 


[06:02] Charles: And then one afternoon, I was sitting in the office at 4 pm in the afternoon, I got a notification on my phone, to say it was my turn to play solo pop against my daughter. And solo pop was one of the very first early social mobile games. And of course, kids love games, right? I thought though, wouldn't it be great if this was a math’s app, or English app or history app, and I was playing it in my office against my children sitting at home? And wouldn't it be great if it was diagnosing and analyzing my children's learning whilst we were playing it? Wouldn't it be great if it was then recommending me the resources and things to help them learn better? Actually, that's a great idea. But why don't they did is in school? Teachers using technology like this in school. And so, that started me off my journey, looking at the education technology space, and I realized there was a real opportunity there to build a platform, not just a single app, but a platform to really transform learning. And because I'd help build the Android platform at Google, I only played a small part, it's a team of 100 people, I'm just one person. But, you know, I could see that the power and impact that platform technology could have and started down that route.


[7:11] Maiko: Talk us a bit through how teachers are actually using Zzish in schools. So, what do they do when they start using Zzish?


[7:20] Charles: Yeah, so a typical teacher would use it like as follows, they'd probably come in, they'd probably have a quick search in our marketplace to see if there was a quiz on the very specific curriculum-based topic they're teaching. If there was, they'd just select it from our marketplace. They're all free at the moment, though we call it a marketplace but everything's free at the moment. Or if that wasn't there, they use our quiz editor to quickly create one themselves, it might take them out 5, 10 minutes to create a 5, 10 question quiz. They can tag each of those questions with specific learning objectives as well. And then they give it to their students to play in class as a team class game. So, while the students are answering questions on their devices, which could be laptops, or tablets, or even smartphones, on the electronic whiteboard at the front of the class, the kids are playing a team basketball game together against the computer. And so, it's incredibly engaging for the kids. 


[08:18] Charles: But off the back of that in real time, we sort the kids into three buckets. So, we can tell the teacher, you know, which students are struggling most, and the teacher can actually go and talk to those students in real time, while they're still playing, right. So, you know, real-time intervention, so you're not setting something for homework and having it done three days later, and then checking it another three days later and giving feedback in the class, a week later. You're immediately seeing that data and can immediately do something about it. Another one of our screens takes those curriculum tags and does a bit of analysis around that. So that, you know, one child might be doing okay on one area, but might be really struggling on another. And that allows the teachers to then, do things like you know, like one teacher in Texas, who, you know, who thinks our technology is the most amazing thing since sliced bread, what she'll do is she'll split the children into four groups and have each of the four groups focus on a different part of the curriculum based on the data that our technology delivers. 


[09:18] Charles: And then the final pieces, they can automate the assignments of these follow-up resources. So, I can say, as a teacher that the students are scoring less than 50% of this quiz, I want them to watch this YouTube video, could be a Khan Academy video, could be different YouTube video, because those students obviously still need some basic learning material. For students scoring 50 to 80%, they can assign them a PDF, and if they score 80 to 100%, they might give them a link to a website or a mobile app for some extension activity. And we automate that process for them. And at the same time, if a teacher has previously used that quiz, we'll tell the teacher about these other resources teachers have used and also tell them how effective they are. So, they can actually just quickly click can use one of these other resources if it's proved to be effective. And this whole process means that a teacher with 30 students in a class can very quickly personalize the teaching to each student, using the best resources in the world and that's incredibly powerful. The result, children at the end of term are scoring 8 to 10% in their standardized end of year test scores, 8 to 10% more than they would have done otherwise. So, it's already having a real impact on students’ rates of learning.


[10:31] Maiko: Is there any stories you could share from students that have struggled and were able to really boost their performance in their education?


[10:41] Charles: Well, yeah, I mean, actually, there's a great video on YouTube, you can watch on some of our teachers in Round Rock and, you know, Tammy talks about and it's my favorite bit of the whole video and it has a longer version, which is like 10 minutes. And still my favorite video where she talks about, there's this one student, who was always failing the test, was completely demoralized, didn't like school but now he's succeeding, now he's making progress, and he's enjoying school. And you know, when you see Tammy explaining this, you know, and the reward that she's getting as a teacher, I mean, those are the moments I love, so, and, you know, they also talk about how some of the children are turning up early to school, because they want to come in and play this game. And what was really interesting actually the first time I met Tammy and Carolina, and Rebecca, who are the three teachers that Round Rock, you know, our very first time that I met some teachers who loved our product, you know, towards the end of our half an hour chat, you know, Carolyn goes to me, thank you, you've made teaching fun again, you know, you brought new life into my teaching career. 


[11:45] Charles: And that was a really other massive moment, for me, as a founder, you know, that teaching is a tough profession, you know, a lot of teachers, wherever in the US or the UK, you know, they've fallen out of love with it. Because it's hard, you know, they're expected to do so much, it's quite demanding on, you know, stats and numbers at the end of the year, and so on and performance. So, a lot of teachers are leaving the profession, and retention is a real issue. So, the fact that we can actually transform our teachers enjoying to teaching is incredibly powerful. And why is it? Well, it's because they're able to actually help children, we save them hours of time, because the technology saves them hours of time from doing the analysis that they'd have to do manually otherwise. And they're able to focus their efforts on the children at the right time, and the right points, and the children are progressing and they're finding, you know, they're getting that love of teaching back again.


[12:34] Maiko: Most founders I talked to in the educational space, they really struggled to get into schools at all, not even mentioning selling to schools. What's your strategy, you obviously got a really good distribution, and people are using your product? How did you get in? Did you pitch to schools? Did you pitch to teachers? What are some of the best practices you might be able to share with founders in the educational space?


[13:00] Charles: Yeah, so I mean, you're absolutely right. I think selling to schools, education technology is going to that market is actually, well, it's not really hard, actually, it's actually quite easy, right. The trouble is, if you're selling to a school in the UK, it's not that it's hard, it's that your cost of acquisition, for a software product to the UK school is typically around 2000 pounds, you know, if you average out all your sales and marketing and everything costs over the course of the year, and then saw how many schools you'd sell to it would be around 2000 pounds. And most people sell their product for, you know, 500 pounds, 1000 pounds a year. Now, actually, you know, the chances are that school will keep using your product for 5 to 10 years, so the return on investment is not that bad, to be honest and sometimes you'll use it even longer. But the trouble is, if you're a startup, you don't have the cash to fund yourself to the scale, at which point it becomes that self-fulfilling business. If you get to that point of scale, education technology, businesses that sell to schools become cash cows, right. 


[14:06] Charles: So, for example, my mass is used in 80% of secondary schools in the UK, you know, the account management team have to do virtually nothing every year, they have to do very little on the product, and the sales just renew every year. So, once you're at that point of scale, it's a very profitable business. But because you need so much funding to get that point to scale and most Ed-tech companies don't get it because the VCs know that it's tough to scale an Ed-tech, so you've got this kind of, you know, what's the, not a virtuous circle, a downward you know, an in-virtuous circle, it's really hard for UK Ed-tech to get off the ground, that's the problem. But if you are well funded, and you have this fund to get to that point of scale, you'd actually do really well. So, you know, very early on, we realized that selling to UK schools is going to be really tough and one of the things we decided to do was focus instead on the US school system. And there's one really important difference between the US school system and the UK school system, which is that the US school system has a district system, right. So your average, the districts are sort of like location based, region based and the average school district in United States has seven schools. Some of them, the biggest one is actually New York City, the school district, which has a million students. 


[15:21] Charles: So, I mean, if you manage to sell to New York City district, you know, $2 per student per year, that's a $2 million annual contract, right? Very different than selling to an individual school in the UK. So, the market dynamics of selling to schools in the US are far better than selling to schools in the UK, so that's one of the things we focus our efforts on the US school system. The second thing is, how do you get to those district leaders in the first place? You know, and there's a model we've taken is, let's go with the whole freemium model, let's have a really great free product that teachers love. And what we do is once they've signed up to our free products, we turn them into active users. And when they become an active user, we say to them, great do you do you like our product? And you know, we use Net Promoter, so to get Net Promoter Score, we get really high Net Promoter Score. And if they give us a really good score, we go, fantastic, would you recommend it to your district to buy it to districts? And all of them will say, yes, so then we go, will you introduce us to your district leaders? And they do. 


[16:27] Charles: And so, that process allows us to actually get to start and have those conversations. Now, having said that, it still turns out to be a tough, long term sell. So, you know, if you're selling to school districts in the US, or schools in the UK, you know, you build your pipeline, in Q4, you know, from September through to through December, that's when you're reaching out to schools and districts, and, you know, starting those conversations, they run pilots in January, February, March, they make the buying decisions in the summer months, and then they'll pay you in September. So, you know, a year's annual cycle, a year's sale cycle. But if you get good at doing it, you know, it's actually very profitable because your cost of acquisition, assume you have product market fit for district United States will still be around 2 or 3000 pounds. But your annual revenue from that district will average around you know, 5 to 10,000 pounds. So, you know, if you keep that district for four or five years, you know, your return on investment is really good.


[17:33] Maiko: Why did you decide to develop tools for teachers that help teachers teach better rather than focus on parents, for example, which might be easier to reach or is a different audience to reach and you wouldn't depend as much on schools?


[17:47] Charles: That as a really great question. I mean, I think whichever, you know, there are various different market segments for education technology, there's the K12 segment, which is where we sell to at the moment, the preschool segment, you know, toddlers, there's the university segment, there's the corporate learning segment. And of course, there are there are parents and actually, usually that's tied in with the toddler segment. But whichever you go for, actually there are challenges. In the Western markets, like the UK and the US, one of the challenges is that parents expect schools to do a good job, well if they do it, it's not a matter but they expect schools to do a good job. And I was looking at chart the other day that I think showed UK at the bottom of the list, that 23% of parents in the UK spend anything on their children's education, privately, right, either by going to a private school or by private tutoring, 23%. Here's in China, it's 93%, in fact, in China 50% of the 300 million school children, K12 children there, go to after school learning centers, that's 150 million children in after school learning centers. 


[19:05] Charles: We don't even have that, the market doesn't exist in the UK and the United States, that same market exists in places like Hong Kong and Singapore and other Asian nations. And actually, in China, 10% of school children, so 30 million school children go to private schools, in the UK it's 7%, right. I mean, so 10%, I mean, it's crazy for a communist country that 10% of the kids are going to private schools. Now both the obstacle learning center market and the private school market paid for by parents, of course, are both hundred billion-dollar markets in China alone. So, that's a roundabout way of selling to parents is a great model if you're selling into Asian markets. But, you know, I actually think if you're selling into Western markets, particular United States, the schools’ market is actually a really good one and actually schools in the United States spend $13.6 billion a year on education technology, right? So, they're spending a lot, if you get yourself to the point of scale and traction and become one of the leading players in the market, the product people pay for, you can do exceptionally well in that market.


[20:06] Maiko: And we see that that is a strategy and obviously that you've, early on, decided to not only focus on the UK, you mentioned the US, you mentioned China, you're in 170 countries, used by teachers, what are the challenges about that approach as well? Because let's say quite early on, you decided to go global, with all the different educational systems, all the different cultures, how do you actually manage that? And what are some of the roadblocks you're facing?


[20:37] Charles: I mean, I don't maybe even notice, I actually published an article on LinkedIn about it about yesterday. And it is challenging. And I think, if you do try and go the global approach, like us very early, it does add overhead, and it does make it you know, you will make slightly slower progress in the short term. I mean, you know, you do to do things, like build internationalization into your products, you know, it's relatively straightforward to do. But then, you know, whenever you change your product, and add new feature, new screens, you know, because our product now is in four different languages, you have to go out and do that, you know, do all the work again to localize it. So, yes, you need, if you're going to, sort of, take this kind of global attitude, you do need to be a little bit better funded than if you're just going to do it locally. But I think it's worth it, I think it's, you know, if you're a founder, you know, if you think about your global strategy, and you include it in your pitch deck, I think it goes down well, because people realize you're thinking globally, and you'll find it easier to raise money, and you can raise more money, and then you can have a bit of a global strategy, you do still have to be careful. So, I mean, you can't just, you know, never go out and set up an office set in another country until you're absolutely hundred percent sure that that's the right thing to do. And many companies and even companies I've been in the past have done that too early, right. So, don't go and set up the US office until you are already selling into the US successfully and have got a reason of how to scale and can support the cost of the office. 


[22:06] Charles: You know, it's easier than you think, to, you know, start conversations with people around the world. You know, I mean, we started, I won't say which one it was, but we started a conversation with an Asian Ministry of Education four years ago, simply by looking for their email address on their Ministry of Education website and emailing them and getting a response the next day, and the conversation started. And two months later, we were in their offices pitching to them. And so, you know, you'd be surprised, you know, if you just give it a go and try things start to happen. I mean, like, with China, what actually happened was the DIT, had a trade mission to China, and they, you know, we thought it would be great to start looking at China. And you could only go on a trade mission if you had a Chinese version of your product. So, we spent the next three weeks making a Chinese version of our product. So, we had a Chinese version of our product, I actually never got to go on the mission because I got to Bangkok and they wouldn't let me on the plane because the corner of my passport was torn. And so, I never actually got to go on that mission and benefit from that.


[23:11] Charles: But we then had the Chinese version of our products and other people, we started having conversations with other people. And besides me, other people related to the Chinese market. And before we knew it, we were in China again. And we were having conversations with VCs in China, and one thing led to another. So, you know, once you start thinking about it, and trying to do things, you know, you just slowly build your network and things start to happen. And it's just by virtue of trying really, some things work, and some things don't. So, you know, things can be very serendipitous. But if these serendipitous things happen, because you try lots of different things, and some of them start to work.


[23:52] Maiko: I want to talk about your long-term vision and how you're looking really to shape the educational system and change people's lives and kids live while they're learning. Think about the next 10 years, what sort of impact are you looking to make with Zzish?


[24:07] Charles: Well, so I mean, that's really great question, there's two ways I can answer it. And the first way is a very simple way, which is that, you know, we really think that we would like to get to the point where half the world school children are utilizing our technology, you know, so 500 million school children. But that doesn't really talk about impact. I mean, I think, you know, what we believe is that technology have a massive impact on learning. Now, a lot of what we talked about earlier was about the impact it can have in first world countries where, you know, teaching is already reasonably good, and children get to go to school and everything. But in many countries around the world, students don't get to get to school. UNICEF say that I think it's 264 million children don't get the opportunity of a school education around the world. And that's crazy, right? That's, that's crazy, if you think about it. In the modern world, irrespective of the technology, how can a quarter of the world's children not have the opportunity of going to school? 


[25:06] Charles: And actually, building schools is not the fundamental problem, actually, the fundamental problem is lack of trained teachers, right? So, there's a massive shortage of lack of trained teachers in any country in the world. But when you go to places like Sub Saharan Africa, of course, it is magnified. And so, you know, part of the way we think of our software is, well, actually, it's a virtual teaching assistant, right? It's like having another teacher in the classroom that knows each of your students in really great detail, but it's also been in a million other classrooms around the world and know what's work. And then, because it can do the hard work of analyzing and recommending and finding the right resources, you don't need a teacher who is a real expert subject matter, all you actually need is a smart person who knows how to organize a classroom and, you know, help the children when they get stuck and do things, right. So, you could actually have, you know, our software combined a smart person, and help the children still learn effectively. 


[26:05] Charles: So, I think, you know, we can have an impact on multiple levels. Actually, when I started out this business, I used to say, you know, that our job is not done until a five-year-old child in the Philippines can pick up a smartphone, and 20 years later be a brain surgeon or rocket scientist or whatever they want to be. And that opportunity is the same for everybody around the world. And so, it's kind of like, you know, just by chance, we happen to be now, you know, working with the Philippines Ministry of Education, and, you know, it's super exciting for us that, you know, if things continue to progress with them, that we could be really transforming the education system in the Philippines and helping those you know, five year olds actually become rocket scientists or brain surgeons in the future. I mean, wouldn't that be amazing, you know, so, yeah, that's our aspiration. Yeah and you know, I see no reason why we shouldn't succeed of it. Ten years seems like a good time frame to do it to me,


[27:00] Maiko: I wish you all the best on the journey. Thanks very much for joining me today and all the best for that mission.


[27:06] Charles: Thank you so much.