"Nowadays, the need for quality education is fundamental. There has always been a need for education in one form or another. The challenge stems from the fact that people in the system and in business are afraid of a scenario in which they seem incompetent and unable to cope with the school system and do not offer the required high quality of service. One has to take risks." That is how my conversation with Polly Yankova, co-founder of MindHub, a chain of schools for programming for children and adolescents in over 30 schools in Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Macedonia, Denmark and Finland, started. With her, as well as with Svetlana Savova, Director of Partnerships and Sales at VEDAMO, a web-based remote learning platform, and with Svetlin Nakov, co-founder of SoftUni, we talk about education technologies that have proven to be one of the growing sectors in the current crisis.
All three of our interlocutors are a step ahead and have already entered different international market. The advantages they offer are universal - they rely on technological solutions that are objective and measured in quality, they "sell" universal knowledge and develop skills for the future. At the same time, they are trying to find their place on the local market, the right business model and partners, striving for sustainability, competing with sufficiently strong national alternatives. But the risk is worth it. According to a Holon IQ study, global spending of governments, parents and businesses for education and training will reach $10 trillion by 2030.
"When we started developing the platform in 2013, the idea was to provide flexibility to the Bulgarian education market. Neither the people nor the organizations were ready. In 2015, we created an online school in Bulgaria called "Proznaniе" ("Proknowledge") for additional training from 1st to 12th grade, as well as for Bulgarian students abroad. We have further developed the software and decided to go outside of the country where there are established traditions for using technology in education", says Svetlana Savova. VEDAMO has customers on 6 continents, mostly in the USA, Europe, Asia and Latin America.
SoftUni had the most recent international start in outsourcing destinations which have a hunger for developers and need for IT education. The company tried first in the Philippines and Malaysia, where cultural differences turned out to be the most challenging aspect. "A year and a half ago, we chose a strategy to develop in many markets simultaneously, in an online environment. We focused on markets where the official language is English, but it turned out that the basic education level is low there and the attitudes are different. What we have validated is that through online marketing from Bulgaria, we were able to enroll a lot of people, but it was difficult to retain them”, explains Svetlin Nakov. Adaptation of the business model is required. As an example, for Romania, SoftUni created a new product in Romanian, based on their own methodology. We are now faced with the most challenging part - to create a brand without the support of local partners for the time being.
MindHub prefers franchising. "We have a strict selection of franchise partners. For some centers we have to make more changes to the product and courses than for others. The choice of markets depends on a number of factors - the presence of a stable IT sector in the country, the level of digitalization of education, interest at national level in small and medium-sized businesses, as well as the ability to travel to the country, the level of English, etc. The test period continues for several months after the opening of a center, and we consider the center a success if it manages to grow according to our standards in 2 calendar years”, explains Poli Yankova.
VEDAMO made its breakthrough abroad after participating in the European Commission competition Ready2Go, which provides assistance for entering new markets. The team participated in an accelerator program in the US Silicon Valley. "After a month in the US, we began to build a solid network of contacts. A number of educational events in the US followed, where we presented our platform. We have partnered with leading remote learning leaders - Canvas, Moodle, Schoology, D2L - Brightspace, Google for Education, Global Grid for Learning, The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and more. We have put our focus on carrying out a detailed competition check, bringing forward our advantages, and traveling”,explains Svetlana Savova.
Despite the three different approaches to the goal, having and validating your own methodology and platform is key to success. SoftUni is changing its business models for its markets abroad, but it relies on the same programs, teacher selection process and community management as in Bulgaria. Validation of training and methodology comes from the employers who hire their students. "It is important that when people come to study programming, they can succeed, no matter if the training happens on per-scheduled basis or is on request, or in which language. The challenge in Romania, which is very similar to our market, comes from the fact that they are not familiar with us, but we are working on the platform. There is no major educational service provider on the market”, Nakov explains.
Svetlana Savova adds that although it initially took them about 6 months to research a market and start operating on it, VEDAMO is now a recognizable brand. Marketing, mainly in the online environment, remains a challenge because "when we are on a market abroad, we compete with a lot of advertising / marketing “noise” and people prefer their (local) products". "I think now is a turning point in the field of education in every country in the world. Our biggest competitors are in the US. It was very difficult for an Eastern European company to compete with the big players, but it works", she said.
Nakov adds that in the future he would also rely on partners - educational institutions to develop the SoftUni network outside, but so far, the operational work is being done entirely in Bulgaria, including marketing. "I believe that soon we will be “opening” online in 20 countries at a time, which is normal when you have a good product", he explains.
Polly Yankova is also optimistic: “We are trying to reach 100 locations by the end of 2020. Our focus is in several markets - Bulgaria, Romania, Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands. Then we will focus on the UK and the US".