A steep learning curve: Interview with educational entrepreneur Seb Francis

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Daniel Evans talks to a young entrepreneur who has worked around the clock
to establish his educational technology software company.

Running a global business can be tough at the best of times but, occasionally, Seb Francis says his Skype isn’t working for a discussion with clients in China because, although it’s the middle of the afternoon in the Far East, it’s 5am in the UK and Francis is actually still in bed – not quite the image he wants to project.

But Francis, who set up Titus Learning in 2013, is part of a small team and knows he needs to be available around the clock. “Even though we’re now three years in, I still find myself wearing a whole load of hats,” he says. “Dealing with international clients, the working hours are fairly long, so I often find myself doing Skype calls from 5/6am with current or potential clients in East Asia, mostly China and Hong Kong. These can be product demonstrations, discussions about the implementation, or even discussing longer term IT strategy.

“I spend a lot of time with the guys in the office where we tend to discuss product development and customer projects. There’s of course the finance and management side, which means plenty of time with our accountant, forecasting, planning which regions to target, etc. etc. I am often on the road as well, at conferences and events, to meet clients, and keep up relationships with partners and suppliers. I’m regularly in London, but have been fortunate enough to venture to a lot of Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia.”

So what does Titus Learning actually do? “In short, we provide education technology software,” explains Francis. “It’s a range of online tools to assist with teaching and learning, increase the efficiency of admin tasks for teachers, and report vital information to parents.

For example, the teacher can use our system to set homework for students, which is then available via an app anywhere, anytime. They can add interactive games and quizzes, and even teach lessons remotely when there may be no access to school for various reasons such as natural disasters, or in the case of good old England, just a bit of snow. All the data is logged online and can be reported back to parents, students and teachers.”

And what were the main challenges in the early days? “I get this question a lot and the most honest answer I can give is time,” says Francis. “I think everyone has a level of naivety when they start their first business, and you underestimate just how much of your time will be consumed by the day-to-day running, instead of being able to focus on what your key strengths are, whether that’s development, sales, raising finance or whatever.

“The pressure was certainly shared between my co-founder and me but of course you then have double the wages going out in the early days so they need to be covered. As soon as we could we started to outsource – this would be with roles that we weren’t as good at, things that took a lot of our time, and quite honestly, jobs we didn’t like doing that much. We’ve since grown and have more internal staff but still regularly use contractors which gives us a level of flexibility with outgoings, and also allows us to increase resources when required.”

Unsurprisingly, Francis’s decision to launch his own business had a pretty mixed reaction. “I think my mother thought I was pretty mad as I’d quit my job, bought a house and started the company all within about one month of each other. I’m sure she still worries but just leaves me to plough on.

“I’d like to say my friends thought it was a bold move, and it’s exciting now chatting with friends about new ventures we can work on. My girlfriend was also super supportive which was needed as you’re working some crazy hours, watching money more carefully, and there’s the mental stresses of running a business as well.”

When I ask him about the secret of success, Francis gives me two words in reply: “Work hard.”

He goes on: “Without a doubt this would have to be my number one. No matter how great the idea, how big the problem you’re fixing, without putting in the hours and hustle, it won’t get to the place you want it. You need to be willing to stick in the work and the rewards are tenfold.

“Alongside this, being adaptable is massively important, especially in the early days when you need to switch between sales, support, accounting, marketing, development, and everything in between.

“Trust is also vital so when you do get to the stage where you can bring on contractors or full time staff, you need to trust them with your ‘baby’. This is something I still find hard, but you have to appreciate that there will always be experts out there, and you need to trust their knowledge and experience.”

As with all new businesses, it’s important to have support and Francis’s story is no exception.

“I was lucky enough to have lot of people around me when starting up, whether this was family and friends, our enterprise partner (Airedale Enterprise Services), Virgin StartUp, and even other businesses in the sector. However, without a doubt it was being able to work with my co-founder Mike Bennett. We are 50/50 with Titus and have been able to achieve what we have so far organically.

“Not only do we have a different skill set which helps immensely, we have a different (but complementary) outlook on a lot of decisions. We work well together and so decisions are made quickly, but because of our sometimes differing views we cover a lot of bases.

“One thing that’s not discussed as much within business is the psychological side, and I think this is massively underestimated. There is a lot of stress associated with starting and running a business, and to have someone there who is going through the same thing is a comforting thought.”

Looking to the future, Francis has big plans for Titus Learning. “We’re in 10 countries at the moment and would love to see that number keep growing, especially in East Asia and the Middle East,” he says.

“Africa should also be an interesting market for us. The team is growing and we’d like to add to our development resource to keep pushing what’s possible within education technology.”

And regarding his personal development, Francis adds: “I’m in the process of starting a podcast, Startup Secrets, for new and aspiring entrepreneurs. I’d like to see this gain some traction, as well as doing more speaking appearances. Anything I can do to increase the profile of entrepreneurship as a career choice would be really great.”