Category Archives: venturing

#OpenForWork

I’ve been keen to learn and to help others to grow as I look for a new job. 

New (ad)ventures

Edtech has been a natural focus and I’ve connected with about 60 edtech ventures across the spectrum. How inspiring and energising!  In the meantime, I’ve invested time and money in four of them, in all cases because of their learning impact, business potential and highly talented leadership. From a personal perspective also because I can add value through my expertise, experience and network.

  • Kognity, provider of digital courses for K-12 (Stockholm)
  • School Day, data platform for student well-being (Helsinki)
  • Edurio, provider of school improvement diagnostics (London)
  • Hypocampus, digital courses and platform for higher education (Gothenburg)

Go with the flow

I’m advising two financial sponsors. This is a great way to work with excellent people on the latest deal-flow in the industry from early stage to IPO.

  • EdtechXHoldings, is coming with their Special Purpose Acquistion Company II later this year focusing on the future of work and education. It will be listing in New York, and is working on acquisitions in the range $300m-3bn.
  • Sparkmind.vc is a Helsinki-based venture capital fund, investing in early stage edtech

Scale-up

I’ve been working a strategy consultant and coach to two scale-ups in higher education, which has been an excellent opportunity to help them with their growth strategies and to learn more about that market segment.

Always Learning

Always learning, right now I’m working on a MicroMasters in Educational Innovation and Improvement on edX (for the learning) and various courses on MasterClass (for the fun – beautiful design and production quality).  If only the two could find each other …

#OpenForWork

Until I find the next big assignment, I will have some availability again after the summer.  I’m especially looking for consulting, advisory and interim work mainly in the following areas:

  • Sector: education, science, healthcare, medicine
  • Expertise: digital transformation, leading change, commercial, strategy

If you have a challenging assignment and if you think I could help your organisation to prosper, feel free to reach out at johnmartin@contentconnected.com.

Looking forward >>

Sanoma’s Start-up Challenge Five Years On

Five years on from Sanoma’s Start-up Challenge on the Future of Learning at TNW2014, I checked out how the five finalists have fared.  I’m impressed!

Winner Labster raises growth funding

Winner of the Challenge Labster has been prospering and announced at the end of last month raising $21M in a series B round to develop more digital lab simulations and to grow in the US market.  Next stop the World.

DragonBox joins Kahoot!

Maths app developer DragonBox announced today that it has been acquired by Kahoot! for $18M.  Their claim is that together they are going to make learning maths awesome!

ClassCharts wins BETT

Edukey’s ClassCharts, a seating planner and behavioural management tool, has gone from strength to strength based on the close understanding of teaching and the classroom underpinned by a strong data and analytics capability. Edukey won Company of the Year at BETT2019.

Jumpido combines movement with software to boost maths learning and looks like quite a fun thing to do in primary schools.  Although the website is still active and the company was a finalist at the Forbes e-volution Award in 2016, they have been rather quiet since.

The website for the final contender Eduvee, an intuitive learning and tutoring platform, now re-directs to the education page of custom software and consulting company Elinext, likely indicating that some form of major pivot has taken place for this company.

Impressive

Overall it’s really impressive to see how much success these companies are achieving.  We were lucky to have selected such a strong cohort for our Start-up Challenge.

Inspiring

What I found inspiring in all of the contestants at the time was their deep understanding of their customers and their passion and drive to make a difference.  Five years on you can see the positive impact of the energy they have put into their ventures.

Looking forward >>

I’m curious on how far these companies will go in the next five years, and wish them every success in turning their ambitions into reality.

Where are the giants of edtech in K-12 education in Europe?

We’re committed to playing a leading role in renewing education for the next generation and believe we can add value by supporting pupils and teachers on three fronts:

– Achieving excellent learning outcomes
– Enabling efficient ways of working, and
– Supporting engagement and motivation.

Technology can be a key enabler on making progress on each of these three fronts, Today, Sanoma Learning is one of Europe’s leading edtech companies, with roughly € 40 M of pure-play digital and € 100 M of multi-channel sales.

We’re ambitious and like to partner with and acquire other edtech companies to help us to support customers on the three fronts mentioned above. Significant amounts of money are being spent on education each year, of the order of 6% of GDP. This is approximately € 800 bn per year in the EU: the market is sizeable and K-12 is a big slice of that. Yet there are relatively few edtech companies established on the continent today that generate more than € 25 M of annual sales. To be honest, I couldn’t name 10 off the top of my head.

Plenty of talent, ideas and capital

IBIS Capital estimates that there are approximately 3,000 e-learning ventures in Europe today. These companies employ a lot of entrepreneurial talent, many of them working on potentially high-impact ideas. Also, it seems to me that it’s not impossibly difficult to find funding for promising edtech ventures. In the USA in Q1/2014 about $ 500 M was committed in new funding to 99 edtech ventures – the biggest quarter for the last five years.

“The market is rich enough in talent, ideas and venture funding.”

So why hasn’t this large and transforming market in K-12 education spurred the growth of a handful of European edtech giants?

To be frank, I don’t know. Let’s start by looking at the context for K-12 education in Europe today. The great majority of the money in the market is spent (directly or indirectly) by the government through schools, many of which are not yet ready for e-learning. Also, the great majority of overall funding is spent on the salaries of teachers; this is absolutely right – teachers are the most critical factor in providing excellent education.

Within this context I think there are probably three main reasons that make it difficult for an edtech giant to emerge from the European continent on the short term:

1. A rather immature ecosystem
A well-functioning e-learning ecosystem can be built if we can make progress on four dimensions in schools: i) a clear vision on what we want to achieve and committed leadership to make it happen ii) good ICT infrastructure iii) availability of content and software and iv) teachers equipped with the skills to get ICT to work for them and their pupils. Although good progress has been made in many countries on many of those dimensions in the last ten years, most of these ecosystems are still relatively immature. In many ways progress needs to be made on each of these dimensions simultaneously in order for the ecosystem to flourish. There are a lot of data available on this. To name one important element – today there are of the order of 5 devices per household in northern Europe but five pupils per workstation at school. The home is a much more advanced digital ecosystem than the school. Surely this is just a matter of timing? Maybe BYOD tablets will provide the impulse the ecosystem needs? In any case, the early stage of the ecosystem hinders the adoption of educational technology.

2. Long sales cycles but narrow sales windows
The great majority of spending on education in Europe is channelled through institutions. Most of those institutions are organised around an annual cycle. Sales processes into them tend to be long and complex and the window of opportunity rather narrow. If your service is great, but you are not well-positioned to make the sale, the opportunity can be lost until the next year, or for many years. This can be killing for start-ups managing their monthly burn rate and can be a big disincentive to some investors and entrepreneurs.

3. Lack of scale
The final area that is probably hindering the emergence of new European edtech giants is the lack of scale in the market. Education systems tend to be organised very locally and can be prone to political influence. There are relatively few things that scale across multiple countries. Even if your business does brilliantly well in one country, it will be very hard to capture that same position across the continent. Edtech ventures from the USA or China enjoy a clear advantage, with large home markets that can attract significant funding.

How can we improve?

Europe has many natural advantages in the edtech space. For example, it’s home to some world-class education systems such as Finland and there’s a rich start-up scene in a number of leading cities. There’s also a reliable and significant commitment to spending on education.

I’m sure there are lots of smart options about taxes and skills and common standards and so on that the EU is working on in building a big single European market, and I imagine many of those things will help. In addition to that I would like to see us getting more proactive as an industry in two areas. Firstly, it would be good to get more transparency on the market. Which of these new ventures are really starting to fly? Initiatives such as Edtech Europe and Sanoma’s Start-up Challenge help, but are not enough. It’s hard (but not impossible 🙂 ) to see the wood for the trees amongst the 3,000 of today. Who should we partner with? And secondly, are there ways for us to create a European network that can bring scale to the market so that we can more rapidly deploy new technology for the benefit of our customers?

I’m interested to hear your views on this. Feel free to drop me a line if you have inspired ideas.

Looking forward >>

Sanoma’s digital transformation gains momentum

Sanoma House in Helsinki

Sanoma House in Helsinki

Last week Sanoma announced the FY2013 results. To be frank they were mixed, with online and mobile sales growing but print media in decline. The vocabulary turned classical: annus horribilis, Utopia, and per angusta ad augusta, could be heard in English, Finnish and Dutch conversations during the week. As is often the case with mixed signals, the good news has been somewhat drowned out by the more negative headlines throughout the year.  Yet Learning had a good 2013. And after a slow start to the year the overall digital platform has gained momentum and performed particularly strongly in the final quarter.

I always find it tricky blogging about financial results given that Sanoma is a listed company. But now that we have announced the results, I’d like to call out a handful of highlights on digital in Finland, The Netherlands, Learning and early stage innovation at Sanoma in 2013, drawing on the published materials.

As a reminder, the core strategy of Sanoma rests on three pillars: i) connecting consumers with content and brands, anywhere, anytime; ii) delivering powerful marketing opportunities to advertisers through our reach and consumer insight; and iii) providing personalized digital learning solutions to pupils and teachers.  Digital is clearly an integral part of that strategy.

Finland

Our share of the online media market grew by 5%-points to almost 40%.  Our online advertising revenues grew by 18% over the previous year and digital consumer sales grew by almost 30%. Digital subscriptions at Sanoma’s single biggest brand, the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, grew by almost 40% to 160,000 (on a total of about 355,000). Furthermore, digital sales at our second biggest brand Ilta-Sanomat grew by about 40%, whereby digital revenue gains now appear to be exceeding print losses; this terrific performance also secured a lead for Ilta-Sanomat over Iltalehti in terms of visitors. We also saw early success at magazines with the Donald Duck library reaching 12,000 subscribers.

Our market-leading position in recruitment got even stronger and we regained leadership in terms of visitors in real estate.  Finally, we made a great start with e-commerce service MSO.fi with more than 120 retailers already on board.

We have seen strong growth in usage via mobile devices and of online video and this is where we have registered our fastest growth.  By the end of 2013, over 50% of all pageviews on our Finnish network came from mobile devices, with mobile visitors growing by over 100% and pageviews by close to 150%.  Correspondingly, mobile advertising sales grew by around 180%Online video advertising sales grew by over 30% and the weekly reach of video platform ruutu.fi by 25%.

The Netherlands

comScore ranks Sanoma #4 of the big 5 in The Netherlands with 8.1 M unique visitors (MUV) in December 2013  – behind Google, Microsoft and Facebook (12.7, 10.7 and 9.9 MUV, respectively), but ahead of eBay (6.6 MUV). Other Dutch media groups are also represented in the top 20, but lack the reach of Sanoma. The state-subsidised NPO, and privately run TMG, De Persgroep and RTL Groep, registered a reach of 6.2, 5.3, 4.7 and 4.4 MUV respectively in December.

NU.nl, the leading news site by visitors and strongest media brand in The Netherlands and a cornerstone of Sanoma’s digital network, further strengthened this position in 2013 delighting readers with more than 10.000.000.000 pageviews, almost exactly 50 per inhabitant per month! Pageviews have more than doubled in the last three years and in the meantime more than 75% of views are made from mobile devices.  NU-apps have been downloaded more than 5 M times so far.

In common with Finland, video also grew strongly (about 40%) totalling 152 M at video platform zie.nl.

Lindanieuws.nl – an extension of the highly successful magazine brand Linda. – came with a new version that resulted in a tripling of the number of visitors to 1.2 M and a doubling of advertising sales.

Digital sales via automated trading increased by almost 25% – a serious money-maker for our digital network.  Our performance-based business had a solid year. In particular, sales at the recently acquired FashionChick doubled, partly driven by international expansion. The introduction of curated search at directory Startpagina.nl has been a runaway success and one of the most rapidly growing digital product innovations we have made in recent years. Net sales of e-commerce service SBC grew by 25%, with sales of home deco performing particularly well with a growth of nearly 50%, And soft launches of new brands leef.nl (health) and yixx.nl (jewellery) and of the international launch of price comparison site kieskeurig.nl in France and Poland have helped to ensure a healthy pipeline of new business lines that we expect will support the growth of the performance-based assets in the coming years.

Learning

At Learning, there are also good data to evidence our progress to a more digital future. Much of this relates to bringing content to life by making it more functional through digital. For example, in The Netherlands, more than 1,000,000 pupils in primary education work with Malmberg’s software, reaching 60% of all schools.  In a single week in November, more than 1,000,000 exercises were made on homework platform Bingel.be in Belgium. And in Finland, teachers and pupils logged into Sanoma Pro’s new learning environment 1,900,000 times, with 768,000 hours of active use. In the meantime 800 e-books have been published in Sanoma’s five Learning countries on the BookShelf platform provided by Young Digital Planet.

In addition to transforming its core business, Sanoma Learning is working on providing learning services to the home market with a new online tutoring proposition for mathematics: StudySteps. This has been soft launched in Belgium and The Netherlands, tested in Poland and Russia, and the first results are promising, with 110,000 exercises made in the test period.

Furthermore, Sanoma Learning is exploring the possibilities to build a position in emerging markets and has amongst others made an agreement with the People’s Education Press to provide digital services to support the provision of e-learning in China. It’s early days, but there is clear demand for Sanoma’s high quality Learning capabilities abroad.

Innovation

SanomaVentures had an exciting year, receiving over 400 requests from external startups, which ultimately resulted in 9 investments, bringing the total to 15 to date.  In aggregate the business/financial performance of this portfolio has been promising and these ventures currently employ over 161 people. We expect to make a similar number of new investments this year.

Building on the success of the series of in-house innovation accelerators, we have now launched an Innovation Lab to foster the ventures that are borne out of the accelerators and as a test ground for new ideas from the core business.  We currently have a full pipeline of concepts, prototypes and early stage ventures and have set ourselves the goal to have established five ventures in the next 3-5 years that have an annual revenue potential of € 10 M+. In 2013 we ran four accelerators (Content, Commerce, Talent and NU-lab), two of which were open to external participation. Through these accelerators we trained about 500 Sanoma employees on the lean development methodology and created 15 functional prototypes, about half of which have been given seed funding for further customer validation.

Finally, we have significantly increased our investments and human resourcing on data science including hiring a team of 20 data scientists last year to boost our analytics and insights capabilities across Sanoma. We are currently working on developing the common “big data” enablers, as well as specific cases on consumer sales, online advertising and new business models. We expect to make a quantum leap in our insights capabilities in the coming years.

Good progress on the journey

Overall, reflecting on the three pillars of Sanoma’s strategy i) connecting consumers with content and brands, anywhere, anytime, and ii) delivering powerful marketing opportunities to advertisers through our reach and consumer insight and iii) providing personalized digital learning solutions to pupils and teachers, I believe the highlights above show that digital has made a big contribution in 2013 to progressing this strategy. Respect to the teams who have made this happen and thanks for your hard work!

Sanoma Startup Challenge: the Future of Learning

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We recently announced the launch of a startup challenge, focusing on the future of learning. The goal of the challenge is to identify Europe’s most promising startups in K-12 education and to work with them in finding ways to help them to grow.

We’re encouraging applications from European startups that have a live product and growing customer base, but are still smaller than € 2 M in annual revenues and have been established within the last five years.

The application round is now open and will close on 1 March. Five finalists will be invited (expenses paid) to Amsterdam on 23-25 April to work with executives and experts from Sanoma Learning and SanomaVentures and to pitch their startup to The Next Web Conference audience and jury. The final winner will be announced immediately after the pitches and will receive a cash prize of € 25.000. We will also explore the options with the finalists for closer collaboration with Sanoma in supporting their growth ambitions.

Education is at the dawn of a new era, partly enabled by technology. As interim CEO of Sanoma Digital and CEO Designate of Sanoma Learning I am excited about working together with high potential startups in the edtech space and hope that we can build some successful and long-lasting relationships through this initiative!

For more information on the learning startup challenge, including the application procedure, click here.

Good luck to all applicants and I hope to see you in Amsterdam in April!