Jemma Phibbs

Founder & Co-Director

Creating Thriving School Communities - Jemma Phibbs of School Space

Jan 18, 2019
Jemma Phibbs

Creating Thriving School Communities

Jemma Phibbs, Founder and Co-director of School Space talks about how they are creating the AirBnb for schools, a service to allow schools to easily rent out their space to local community events.

Highlights in this episode:

  • Mental health of startup founders
  • How an extra income stream are changing schools
  • Importance of community hubs
  • Impact of School Space to local communities
  • Advising schools on the business of renting out spaces
  • Need for schools to be more of an open environment

Useful links:

School Space - https://school-space.org/

Calmer - https://www.thisiscalmer.com/

Zzish - https://www.zzish.com/

Listen to this episode now:

Read the transcription: 

[0:22] Maiko: On today's episode, I'm talking to Jemma Phibbs, founder, and co-director of School Space, what could be called Airbnb for schools, allowing schools to easily rent out their spaces, such as gyms to generate additional revenue. The company is on a mission to eliminate the school funding crisis and has helped schools in the UK make more than 500,000 pounds in revenue through their platform. School Space, just graduated from the TechStars London Program and is now looking to scale across the UK. It's great to have you on the show, Jemma.


[0:50] Jemma: Thank you. That was a nice pitch, I don't have to do anything now.


[0:54] Maiko: Not quite as well as you did, TechStars Demo Day, but I'm getting there.


[0:58] Jemma: I did practice for two months before though.


[1:02] Maiko: So, I want to talk about how School Space started because you actually started School Space while being in school and being in a school that was troubled financially and with that performance, so tell us more about that, how did it all come about? And why did you start School Space back then?


[1:18] Jemma: So, it was a few, kind of lucky occurrences as I think most entrepreneurial journeys are. And myself and my co-founder, James, we were in school, age 17 and we were on the head boy and head girl team, so kind of running around looking busy and important and organizing lots of charity events. And kind of a few things happened at the same time, the school budget crisis was just beginning, this was back in 2011, kind of austerity just starting. And also our school went into special measures, which is a term that the government uses to mean, not great. So, it was kind of a harrowing time for the school community, and we quite passionately believe that our school was better than that label, and all the negative press it was receiving in the local area, you know, it wasn't great for the school reputation. So, kind of all those things was happening and I think we knew that we were organizing events and making the school quite a bit of cash in the evening, we were like, hang on, surely there's something to be done with this. And with the encouragement of a teacher, we entered into, kind of a similar style program to young enterprise, with the idea of organizing events in schools, in that dead time, basically, whether it was evenings, weekends, or school holidays. 

[02:26] Jemma: Schools are actually only used 17% of the time for teaching. So, the facility is just idle, the vast majority of the time. And then we had our one and only, pivot which obviously we didn't realize it was at the time, which was a realization that we shouldn't be organizing the events, actually, there was huge demand from the local community to just come in, use the space. So, it was less kind of, our customers, are not what you think of, a lot of people are like, oh, right weddings, meetings. And that's not it at all, actually, it's kind of, hyperlocal community, often franchise lead event. So, I'm talking, 02:58 [inaudible], a local church group, a language school, any sport that you can think of, we actually have a Quidditch team in some of our schools. And it's very varied, but it's very much grassroots, often in every community in the UK, but it's not events, so, that was our kind of change. And then, for three years, I was at university, studying history, which has no relation to the company whatsoever but taught me a lot. And James had a number of other jobs. And then when I graduated in 2014, we were like, should we try and make this a business? And have just grown it from there.


[3:32] Maiko: And is your school still working with you now?


[3:34] Jemma: It is, yeah 03:36 [inaudible] School, which is in Oxford, it's still not a special measured school. This time, it's actually managed to not get that grading. But we were always quite passionate about the fact that was a brilliant school. So yeah, it's made a bit of cash from us. We've got you to know, the primary school, who we've been working with the longest, we've generated kind of over 100,000 pounds for so it's you know, we've had quite a few long term relationships, as well as the growth that we've had recently.


[4:00] Maiko: Amazing. Since you first started, I think it's been eight years now, what are the biggest lessons and the biggest challenges you had to overcome in that period?


[4:08] Jemma: Great question. I normally cop out of this question by saying that there are different challenges every day and I do think that's one of the hallmarks of running your own business is, there's always something more, there's always something bigger, there's always something you don't anticipate. So, I think life is just a series of very small challenges and each time you try not to do the same thing that you did last time or make the same mistake again. I think I've learned a lot about management, whether it's of people's expectations or people themselves, I think one of the biggest challenges for James and I was always running a team when they were all much older than us and much more experienced than us. And I think another challenge is kind of self-belief. I think, whether it's because you're a woman or a young person, I think, often as an entrepreneur, you have imposter syndrome, and you don't believe that you can achieve what you do. And I think that holds back people, in terms of ambition, but also shouting about what's good about what they've done. So, I think I'd probably have less self-doubt if I were to do it all over again and just a very basic one, not losing sight of selling while you're doing other things like raising. I think that's one that a lot of, I'm kind of on a bit of a diatribe about it at the moment. I think a lot of founders get very distracted from growing the business, while their fundraising and fundraising is so, you know, the topic of the moment the indicator of success. And actually, whilst that is very important, and its great kudos, if you've got wonderful investors and good investment in your company, I think revenue is often the best one for raising. And I think if I were to do it again, I would just remember that, not that I wouldn't have raised the investment but I just would have remembered that more.


[5:37] Maiko: You talked about imposter syndrome, we actually had a whole episode, previously with Tania Diggory from a community called Calmer, which is all about getting entrepreneurs to take care of their mental health and I think it's really great that you just mentioned it as well and more and more entrepreneurs are talking about it. Did you have anything in your past where you really went to challenging times and we're like, okay, is this really worth it? And did you have something that you use to get over that or the how did you overcome that?


[6:07] Jemma: Yeah, it's a really good question. I think, yes, I have gone through challenging times, that most entrepreneurs have. I think the last year has been particularly challenging with being on an amazing accelerated program, but also having to run the business. And we've doubled year on year, and every year, that's more growth. So, it gets harder and harder. I think there's a lot of things that you can talk about when it comes to mental health entrepreneurs, I'm glad that people are talking about it more, I think there are more support and more acknowledgment out there, there's still tends to be an attitude of when you ask someone how their business is going, everyone just says, great job, great. And you don't hear that no one talks about the difficult stuff because you have to be putting up this image of growing both for like investor confidence and customer confidence. And even if that is the case, people don't tend to say oh, you know, it's actually been a really crappy week. 


[06:55] Jemma: I think fair pay for founders is really important. I think often founders don't pay themselves, you'll find nearly everyone I know who's running a business is paying themselves well under market rate, and probably half the amount that they're paying their star employee. We are certainly guilty of that. And I think it's probably not the right time to do something like that in our business. But I think a lot of people hold themselves back from taking the same amount of freedoms that they give to their employees, whether it's time off for maternity leave, or weekends, or, you know, taking some time to go and do some yoga, like simple things. I think founders often become a bit martyr-like in their need to serve the team. So, yeah, I think a recognition of that and talking about it is definitely the first step.


[7:36] Maiko: That's great to hear you're talking about it. Back to the problem, you're solving and the customers you're working with, the schools you work with, can you describe, maybe a story of, impact that you were able to make on the school? So, I talked about more than half a million in revenue for schools, what does that actually mean? What can schools actually do when they start working with you and make some extra money on the side, basically?


[8:02] Jemma: Yeah. So, I think there's, we have a lot of case studies of schools investing the money well, whether it's knowing that it's been spent on books, for children with special educational needs, or whether being safe in the knowledge of the money we've provided, has paid for the salaries of multiple teaching assistants. I think, and you know, reinvestment in facilities, there's a whole myriad of things that schools do and can spend the money on. I think, for me, when it comes to a school journey with working with us, one of the most fascinating things is kind of the turnaround that you can provide. So, a lot of people or a lot of schools rather, view our model as a way to make money, which is great, money is important, as you stated in your wonderful pitch the business, the school funding crisis is kind of the reason we exist and why schools contract with us. But one of the things that I love most about what we do is the community engagement. So obviously, when you start renting out your facilities as a school, in the evenings and weekends, you become a community hub in a way that you haven't previously, you know, we see everything from in areas where English is not the first language for a large portion of the community will have an Arabic school, in at the weekend that's run by the Arabic community. In areas where stem is a particular focus, we might have a coding club in at the weekend, where there are parents who are part of a church group that's kind of non-English, and potentially from an African country, for example, you know, a lot of them will come and use the hall on a Sunday morning for their church session. 


[09:25] Jemma: So, I think one of the biggest transformational impact stories that we see is that usage of the school and how that benefits the school. So, I'll probably use a school to talk through it, so we have alive school in Cali and Oxford, which is one of the kind of, airy, deprived, more deprived areas in Oxford. Obviously, there are some very, very wealthy areas in Oxford but Cali is very diverse. And one of the schools that we work with that, kind of, had previously run lettings or rather let people in to use its facilities after hours, they're making a decent amount of income. But the fact of the matter is, when you start renting out your facilities as a school, it is a separate business and things like thinking about how will people perceive the school when they come in, you know how to create the customers, how to provide a good experience. You know, when people were coming to that school, it was kind of people was turning up to use it when they hadn't booked, people were not quite, dealing drugs in the car park but it wasn't a great image when you arrived. And also, it was very difficult to book because obviously, even with the best will in the world, the administrators weren't there after three o'clock and in the holidays. 

[10:24] Jemma: So, now when you come to book the school, you know, we have an amazing customer base, which reflects a diverse community. But also you come and you meet one of our staff members who's got a high vis jacket on, you know, meet and greets every customer, it's a well-run place when you attend there in the evening, you can really feel that it's a hub that's used by the community and represents the school well. And that's really important. So, that's one case, just very quickly, there's another one, one of our key customers is Stagecoach, which is a group, it's kind of like a supplementary drama group that uses the school on a Saturday, a really good example of kind of how our impact goes full circle. And so, we have Stagecoach using 11:01 [inaudible] school and they did use more school, they also use Matthew Arnold school in the west of Oxford. And they come in, they use the facilities on a Saturday, and they pay quite a bit of money, it's kind of in the hundreds of pounds to use multiple facilities on Saturday morning, obviously, that goes back to the school and that's our first layer of impact. 


[11:16] Jemma: The second element is that when they come in, they're providing drama, teaching and resources to quite a few of the students that are at the school. And they also provide scholarships to the students at the school. So, we've got the school community benefiting in a second way. And the third way is obviously that there's that resource there for the community, and they feel at home in the school, it's the best drama facilities for a few miles around. So, that group flourishes and also gets more attendees, because they're in a school so it's a more viable community organization. And then finally, the person that locks and unlocks for that group is a local mom. So, although you know, she's one of our team members, and she's employed, and she is paid the living wage, she's also contributing to her school community and coming back there after hours and being paid to do that. So, that's a really good example of how just one booking can have a lot more value than just the money that goes back to the school.


[12:03] Maiko: And the whole community that's involved with the school and even involving communities that haven't been involved with the school before.


[12:08] Jemma: Exactly.  


[12:09] Maiko: Yeah. I want to mention that a big part of what you're trying to do or what happens as effect of what we're doing, is making schools think a bit more like a business, not saying that schools need to be completely working like a business, there might be downsides to that as well. But in terms of, hey, we actually have all these assets, maybe we should be doing something with it or maybe we should do it more efficiently. Do you think that's a big part of what you're doing and is that a challenge to get, like school administrators who are not business people to think like, okay, we could actually, not just complain about a funding crisis, but actually do something about it?


[12:45] Jemma: Yeah. It is certainly a challenge and I think anyone that works in the education sector, if you've interviewed anyone before that sells to schools, I'm sure they've told you what a challenge it is. That challenge doesn't, I don't think, yes, lots of people in schools are not very business minded. But I would say the real challenge comes from their time, you know, in a financially stretched environment where people are doing eight jobs at once, teachers are underpaid and overworked, you know, no one has the time to think about these things. They can't, they employ a business manager but if you look at the salary that schools pay business managers compared to the budget size that they're meant to be managing, like, that just doesn't add up. And I think what we can do most when guiding schools to be more entrepreneurial, is to just provide that extra time and resource so they can reinvest in their staff members, they can do things like provide the pay, and the additional administrative team members to be able to think about things. Because it's not the schools aren't entrepreneurial, there are plenty of cases of schools being extremely entrepreneurial. But when they've got 1000 things on their mind, ultimately, running a good letting service or thinking about becoming more businesslike, is not going to hit the top of the list. When they're being assessed on their results, they have to worry about safeguarding the pupils, obviously, you know, there are a few things that come first, which is why we offer a model where we take care of everything. So, I think, yeah, some schools aren't really entrepreneurial, but some are amazing and all we're doing is trying to support that by reinvesting cash in in the system.


[14:08] Maiko: And at the moment, you allow them to basically sell the space that they have rented out? Do you see yourself expanding beyond space or even beyond schools to other sectors? Do you think there's more potential besides the space element in schools?


[14:25] Jemma: I think there's a huge potential. And I think any good management speak will tell you that you shouldn't expand in too many different directions at once and I think we're very conscious of our focus. And there are 25,000 schools in the UK, we work with under 50 of them so we have a long way to go on our current model, and just improving that and making it work for our partner schools and our customers. However, and I think one of the things I would say is that the amount of kind of opportunity and the money that we're generating for schools is vast. So if we're able to generate, you know, half million pounds, not just one school, but for a single school, every multiple years, you know, that money being reinvested in a smarter way, and potentially bringing in other organizations to provide discounts for how that money is spent, means that we can kind of further impact and creates a more of a network effect. I think I would also say that, on the customer side, these micro communities that people don't really realize exists, you know, there is an 800 million annual market of people hiring sports facilities in the UK, and that is just not really realized and 40% of sports facilities, or at least tools, and 15:31 [inaudible] just sit in schools. 


[15:33] Jemma: And people just don't really know that, you know, until I started doing this job, I didn't know that people wanted to rent holes for Quidditch, or church group or any other type of bizarre and wonderful activity that we have across our schools. And when you start to realize what massive demand and potential there is there, I think you can see opportunities for us to expand into other spaces, once we, you know, capture the market of customers that want to rent schools. And by the way, it's a market that's based on repeat revenue, which is really exciting as people that week in week out, it's not ad-hoc. There's a huge posse for us to start working with libraries and community centers and other spaces. However, it's certainly not the first step for us, because I think our model works specifically well with schools and that's also where our impact is, obviously the education sector needs the money more than ever, and they also have much better facilities than libraries and community centers most of the time. So, those are kind of a secondary option for us and it's about whether or not that's what our customers want and whether that's a sensible kind of next step.


[16:32] Maiko: You mentioned selling to schools, I think we had a few founders before in the education space, just as we record today, today published episode with Charles Wiles, from a company called Zzish, they do an educational tool for teachers. And although they have massive distribution, I mean, again, everybody mentioned the 16:52 [inaudible] job, actually getting schools to pay and getting schools as customers. For you, it must have been very easy because you make the money, right? Is that the case? What other challenges you faced? And how can, if somebody listens to it and wants to sell to schools, what do you say, to stay away from it or would you have any tips to share?


[17:15] Jemma: I've certainly got a lot of tips to share and I'm happy for anyone to contact me about that. And I always meet with founders of educational businesses, as much as I can to see if we can improve what we're doing. And yeah, there's a few things I'd say and for the first time this morning, I went into a meeting with a CEO of a college chain, which is a great meeting, that's really exciting. And he says, he said to me, wow, I think your business model is really tight, I'm really impressed. And I was like, good, I'm really glad that you said that. You know, when you're a startup, and you kind of feel that you're frantically peddling underwater, but I think that's something we've worked on really hard, we have to make sure that all aspects of our model are really clean. Because what we do is actually quite complex. Yes, it's a no-brainer, all schools want to make money, we get lot of first meetings, because schools are like, of course, I want to do this. 


[18:03] Jemma: But the fact of the matter is, there's no framework from the government as to how they should generate revenue as a public organization. So, we do run into a few basically, just fear, uncertainty and doubt, objections from business managers who are thinking, you know, yes, I could make an extra hundred thousand pounds but if there's an insurance issue, or a safeguarding issue, or even a clash with one of our exam usage or parents evening, in the evening, you know, that's the kind of thing that could really affect my job, and taking this entrepreneurial risk, may not and that's a problem across the public sector. And I think we've just had to make sure that we have run this model for seven years, because we can now say to people, any objection that you raise like that, yeah, we're experts when it comes to safeguarding, you know, I know, quite an inordinate amount of detail that would bore all of my friends at parties about insurance. You know, it's just things like that, that you have to be able to come back and say, we've covered that, you know, we have an answer for everything. 


[19:02] Jemma: And I think in the public sector, you have to have an answer for everything, you can't, you know, it's got to be low risk. And we take on that risk for the schools, because we, you know, it's just a revenue share model. And, you know, we're the provider so we have to make sure we have all that, right. So, I think the idea of piloting, while you work things out is really sensible, because it means that you can show that you've got that evidence of having thought about everything, worked through everything, and then you move on to selling. And that makes it a hell of a lot easier. But yeah, I think our main barrier is just people worrying about the complexity of actually, you know, other people in my space, and what does that mean and what might go wrong. And we just have to be able to adjust for rather than the best-case scenario, every single possible worst case scenario, and as long as we have an answer to that, then schools will partner with us.


[19:48] Maiko: So, you actually have somebody on the ground that's actually employed with your company, and you then also cover the insurance right, for, so anything that happens that goes wrong, you know, basically kind of saying, don't worry about it will take care?


[20:00] Jemma: Yeah, I think it's more that we are experts, so we understand what a risk isn’t. So, for example, a school will advertise facilities on its own, occasionally, they'll often make a loss or not as much money as they could, renting it through, you know, doing it with us. But if they are renting out their facilities on their own, there's a hell of a lot that they don't realize about what insurance means and what the customer has to mean, has to have and has to have covered. We don't necessarily change that or take on that liability, but we do make sure that the customer does, and the school doesn't. So, the way, you know, it's just that we understand the way insurance works and we can actually advise schools because at the end of the day schools aren't businesses, they haven't thought about necessarily a safeguarding plan, because they haven't had to think about that yet. And we can say, don't why we've, done that. And that means that renting out your space is, it's got all these things that you need to think about, but we've got the answer to that to make sure it's not more of a risk. So, it's less about us taking on the risk, more about us just making sure that we have de-risk the process for the school.


[21:00] Maiko: Okay, makes sense. Is there any risk for schools, if they make this additional revenue, that at some point, there might be actually a cut in funding? It's like, oh, you're making this revenue, do you ever face that or is that an actual threat or, I'm not in this space, but would there be a threat of government actually cutting funding as a result of this?


[21:21] Jemma: I mean, you need to speak to the DFE about that and I have been speaking to some people in the DFE about that. The DFE, the Department of Education, that means to use jargon, and they are currently tendering for a framework on revenue generation. So, I assume there will be more guidance as to how to do it. I think it's a politically sensitive topic for the reason that you mentioned, you know, providing guidance on how to generate revenue may show that it's necessary because of the cuts and that's obviously not necessarily a good thing for a lot of people. I think it's quite sensitive and all I can really say is that, we have to be aware that that is a kind of threat to our business, if government policy changes, drastically, around whether or not schools can generate revenue or what that means. I think what I would say is that, I highly doubt that, given the circumstances at the moment, the amount that you can generate through revenue would seriously change school budget cuts. 


[22:17] Jemma: And I think, you know, we've been in this period of cutbacks, there's a lot of push-back against it and I think schools are having to turn to revenue generation, that's something that's been acknowledged by both the DFE and schools alike. You know, it's in literature, you know, academies know that they have to be thinking about this on mass now. I don't think that, particularly, and with the current government, there will be any changes to the fact that schools are thinking more commercially, and they won't get you know, punitively, well they wouldn't get punished for that. We just need to be aware of it basically, and keep on top of it, I think, to be honest with you, the biggest focus is, could and should be around education. And this is kind of a supplementary thing that has been considered by the government, and they're just kind of providing framework as to how it can be done better. So, I don't think it’s, kind of on the agenda, as far as I know, to be kind of seriously disrupted.


[23:07] Maiko: If you look at the next 10 years, and think about like your long-term ambitions, I always ask people, what's the kind of world you're trying to create off School Space? Like, what sort of world would you, at least want to contribute to? How does the world look like in 10 years, where School Space actually succeed? So, what's your vision for the business and for, let's say, the education sector that you're impacting?


[23:30] Jemma: Well, I think I would like for it to be a world where all schools are seen as community use hubs. I would like it to be that there is a need for schools to be open to their community and whether that's generating funds through it or simply running, you know, usage programs that self-fund through a supplier or a platform, I think, you know, I would like it to be that schools are not closed environments. You know, it's not the gate shut after 3pm. You look at a lot of the issues that are in the education sector, whether it's kind of parent disengagement or the disadvantage gap, that kind of thing. I think those are things which can be addressed by opening up school premises, it's just that the resource isn't there and no one is, you know, I think there needs to be, dare I say it, private sector intervention to kind of make that possible. 


[24:21] Jemma: So, I think I would like there to be a world with our help, and us having kind of leverage that potential, where all schools are seen as a vehicle for the local communities to come and utilize, you know, it's a thriving hub of the community. I hate using the same words over and over again, but in the evenings and weekends and school holidays, and the usage is not 17%, it's, you know, 90%, and it funds improvement in the facilities, it funds better education, but it also provides a kind of vehicle for the community to have a base, you know, have more affordable facilities in their local area, have a huge uptake in the number of events and classes and groups going on. And also have that school, kind of, as a resource for the community, but also making the most of the community resource. And what I mean by that is, kind of, rather than there just being a coding club on a Saturday, the coding club is able to give some free time to the school because they've given them the premises and vice versa. And I think if you believe that that model is possible, then we're perfectly paced to help with that and also to transition into more of a platform-based model as that becomes more of a reality and a possibility, having, you know, started with the fully managed model that we do at the moment.


[25:31] Maiko: Thanks very much for joining me today, I wish you all the best on this journey. And yeah, thanks for taking the time today.


[25:37] Jemma: Thanks so much.