Interviews

Top of the class: The SME that’s helping teachers manage their workload

7 min read

23 November 2015

While teachers are largely responsible for equipping the next generation of business builders and entrepreneurial leaders, what about helping them do their jobs better? It's this question that served as the inspiration for Educater.

Ask any teacher about their workload and they’ll tell you that preparing teaching plans and dealing with administration takes longer than ever. According to a poll published by the Guardian Teacher Network, a remarkable 82 per cent of teachers said their workload has become unmanageable. On average, respondents to the survey gave their school’s management a rating of just six out of ten.

It was to help teachers deal with the ever expanding administration that they’re saddled with that James Sutherland launched his company Publishing Foundry, which delivers a work and document management system called Educater.

With Educater Central, whenever teachers log in they’re immediately presented with a notifications area that shows them the tasks they have set or have been assigned to them. It also breaks time-consuming administration processes into simple, manageable chunks with modules for Attendance, School Tracking & Assessment, Journal and SEND paperwork. Schools then have the freedom to choose to subscribe to whichever modules suit their needs, according to Sutherland.

Sutherland’s original idea was to supply a system to help schools process documents on a specific workflow, designed around specific requirements. However, the final service is much more integrated – supporting the sharing of information both within the school as well as helping with external communication.

Before starting the Publishing Foundry in February last year, Sutherland had 12 years’ experience selling document management solutions to schools.

“I had built up a strong customer base and found it quite easy to get appointments with schools to talk about their document management because it was an issue for them – they were processing huge amounts of documents daily,” he said. “It was a more difficult to persuade them to buy software to solve this problem and that was because the software was designed for business environments. I realised that if schools were willing to meet me and had recognised that they had a problem, it meant that what I was offering wasn’t solving the problem. This is where the Educater concept originated.”

Sutherland had mainly worked for other company, but he was a freelance salesman for a short amount of time before setting up the Publishing Foundry because he had to leave full-time employment for personal reasons.

“I spent this time looking at the marketplace to see what I could sell on a freelance basis, for commission only, that would solve the problems schools have but I couldn’t find anything,” he said. “By chance, I was meeting with a developer about another business venture and realised through conversations with him that we could use technologies from other industries to address the problems that schools were facing.”

Investment came from an individual backer who was impressed with the idea and shared Sutherland’s vision. “It was very much a case of being in the right place, at the right time, having the right conversation,” said Sutherland.

He believes that the company has been successful so far for two reasons. First, because it’s solving a real problem suffered by teachers that has so far not been addressed from a technological or strategic point of view. “The second reason is that we’ve worked with schools right from the beginning and have invested a lot of time in understanding the problem in detail and exactly how we can go about solving it, before we even designed the system,” said Sutherland.

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Despite his freelance experience, like many directors and owners of SMEs Sutherland found that running a business is not the same as being self-employed. “The most difficult challenge has been learning to run a business,” he said. “I was so naïve when the business first started and thought I knew a lot more than I did. In fact, everything was a first – managing accounts, recruitment, customer service, software launches, marketing – I had to learn to do all of these things as we went.”

That said Sutherland believes that thanks to demand from teachers for help in managing their workload, the company has the potential to grow very quickly. The ambition is to be supplying ten per cent of the marketplace by the end of 2016. With this will come an accelerated growth plan, involving added infrastructure, more staff and greater awareness.

“Having spoken to many other small businesses, one of the things that helped us was the advice to find good, reliable financial backing from the start to support us throughout, as many small business directors will spend a great deal of time securing funding and trying to make sure their income is secure,” said Sutherland.

One of his first customers as the primary school that he attended as a child and it’s since become one of the company’s development partner schools. “Although I’ve been selling various things to them over the years, I never imagined that they would be so intrinsic to my career,” said Sutherland. “It’s crazy to think that after everything they taught me growing up, I’m now helping them to run the school more effectively.”