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Victor Tubotamuno: Why I’m promoting STEM education for kids across Africa

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Victor Tubotamuno, a graduate of theatre arts from the University of Port Harcourt, has always wanted to be a positive change-maker in Africa. Now he has successfully built an educational platform that bridges the gap between teachers and students online. He speaks to Ibe Saleemah on his journey and progress so far.

Can you tell us briefly about your business?

The name of the firm is Earlybrite. We are a live educational experience platform that connects experienced teachers with K-12 students online and on-site in small-group settings to explore everything— from developing mobile games to building 3D animation characters, designing websites and mobile apps, to basic subjects like maths and financial literacy.

We also provide cutting edge integrated education technological solutions that help advance the learning experience in classrooms. We enhance the learning experience of kids with innovative technology, and identify resources that are aligned to specific learning objectives, facilitate instruction for teachers, and offer tremendous value for schools.

We offer accredited STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] courses for kids ages 5 – 20. We partner with schools and organizations to empower learners by integrating technology into the classroom in a way that works for students. Our unique solution enhances the traditional education system, ensures learners are future ready, and make the most of in-demand technological skills.

Our curriculum is designed in collaboration with leading innovators, pedagogy experts, and tech companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We are accredited by global certification organizations like STEM.org

We implement technological skills, such as Web3, coding, augmented reality, robotics, game development, and animation, into the curriculum of schools we partner with.

What’s your backstory and how did you come up with this idea?

My name is Victor Tubotamuno. I am from Rivers state. I have always loved to explore and build innovative solutions that address the needs of Africans. I’m a venture builder, and I feel like there’s never much to do in a rapidly growing world. As a little child, acquiring knowledge has always been my passion; it doesn’t end there for me; I go further to see ways I can apply this knowledge to make the lives of others better. Aside from the obvious reasons for creating jobs and making money, I realized it was more than that. I wanted more. I have always wanted to be a positive change-maker in Africa and achieve my dream of building a unicorn, as there are only a few in Nigeria.

As I grew older, the desire to solve local problems using global standards became clearer.  As each day passed, the dots began to connect and fall into place. After I finished my degree at the University of Port Harcourt in 2012, where I studied theatre arts, I transitioned into tech and worked for a couple of companies as a product manager and head of IT for a few years. In 2016, I built my first startup called Workaholic, a freelance marketplace which was later acquired.

In 2018, I enrolled in Y Combinator Startup Online School, where we were taught how to start a startup regardless of who we are, with help from the world’s top startup accelerator partners.

We learned how to build a top startup – from the same people who helped Paystack, Flutterwave, Airbnb, Doordash, Stripe, Reddit, and Coinbase get started.

This was an essential part of my entrepreneurial journey, and I began to collaborate with startups, both in Africa and beyond, to develop their businesses. So far, I have engaged in consulting services with clients across six continents. I have partnered with innovative businesses with amazing partners in Europe, Latin America, the United States, and Africa.

In 2021, I volunteered to be part of the Tony Elumelu Foundation Program. I served as a business mentor and coach, working with innovative startups and founders to shape the future of Africa.

That same year in  October, I decided to start building another startup that would fix Africa’s tech talent pipeline, which is broken. I did intensive research to know how valid this problem is and how I can fix it. I realized that 90% of African children leave school without acquiring a skill, most schools still use an outdated curriculum to teach, and they still apply a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching.

Becoming aware of all these problems, I birthed Earlybrite. My team and I began to build a foundational layer that bridges the emerging technology talent gap across Africa by introducing edtech solutions in the classroom.

How did you validate the idea?

It is excellent news for the worlds of education and technology that the EdTech business is expanding rapidly. It implies we are fast preparing students to become digital global citizens. It signifies that people are investing substantially in EdTech solutions like Earlybrite.

However, for our EdTech solution to be validated and accepted in this competitive industry, we ensured our services were effective before we began to sell them. We searched creatively for means of gaining validation before we reached the masses.

We partnered with top academics, and we used the information we were able to gather from trusted educational institutions to help sell to others.

Secondly, we attended many education and education technology conferences, which helped us design the best courses with students and teachers in mind. We were able to find out what was happening in the classroom currently and the technology students and teachers needed.

Thirdly, we found early adopters of our EdTech solution by reaching out to our networks and schools in our local area and offering some of our services for free to get constructive feedback.

Lastly, we used social media’s power to validate our Edtech solution. We engaged in online dialogues with prospective clients to establish rapport and identify their pain points regarding existing EdTech solutions. Additionally, there were several educational forums where an open discussion was encouraged, but we did not take advantage of these opportunities to sell our product yet. Instead, we contributed to conversations and identified individuals and institutions eager to test and evaluate our solution.

So far, we have been running the company from our pockets and the revenue generated from offering our courses to schools.

 What is the hardest part in doing this business?

Hundreds of entrepreneurs have entered this field, and hence the competition has become tough, making it difficult for startups to exist.

However, with an innovative and unique approach to our solution, we have been able to stand out from the crowd and make positive progress within the space of a year.

Also, to make sure our value proposition remains unique, we constantly develop and modify our solutions by updating our curriculum regularly and introducing high-quality programs to meet a broader range of target groups and their specific goals.

 What makes you love the business?

I love the EdTech business because, when employed and validated appropriately, it is a fantastic learning tool. Here are the reasons why I appreciate the edtech industry:

  •         With Edtech solutions, students from all walks of life can have quality education at an affordable cost.
  •         The Edtech industry in Africa is rapidly closing the tech talent and building tech giants that will solve global problems in the not-too-distant future.
  •         Teachers are now able to automate some tasks that can be overwhelming.
  •         EdTech solutions have made people lifelong learners. You no longer need to be physically present in a classroom to learn. From any location you are, you can enroll in an online course.
  •         EdTech has made it easier for us to hold every education stakeholder accountable through the use of learning and data analytics.

Above all, The Edtech industry in Africa is a huge market, there are currently over 600,000 private schools and over 17 million students are enrolled in these schools. As a matter of fact, a report from ResearchAndMarkets, the world’s largest research market store, gathers that Africa e-learning market reached a value of US$ 2.47 billion in 2021. They expect in the future that the market will reach US$ 4.71 billion by 2027, exhibiting a CAGR [compound annual growth rate] of 11.2% during 2022-2027.

 What are the procedures someone has to follow to be successful in this business?

Running an Edtech startup is not an easy one, especially in Nigeria, but through these feasible processes, you can be sure of overcoming the numerous challenges and becoming successful:

  •         Research the EdTech industry and discover a current problem that you have a strong desire to solve. It may be Machine learning, AI-based solutions, integrating technology in the classroom, immersive learning, or multi-layer management tools, among others. You can even identify a unique problem that no one has solved. Never forget that a niche may be concealed within a niche.
  •         Create a business strategy centred on your unique idea and outline strategic steps to meet market demand. At this stage, you should not be concerned with how much money you will raise. Focus instead on constructing a business structure that will stand the test of time.
  •         Build an integral team and build partnerships with domain experts in the Edtech space. This will assist you in accelerating the development of your project.
  •         Expect great outcomes from your project, but start small. It is preferable to make gradual progress instead of waiting for tremendous funds to build a perfect solution that the market might not value. The best course of action should be to offer your Edtech products/services to early adopters and schools in your area, receive their feedback, and improve your product based on this feedback. After that, carefully position your EdTech solution to prospective clients, partners, and investors.

 What resources did you read that helped your business to grow?

The books written by successful business leaders and entrepreneurs were the most useful to me.

I have read more business books than I can count. However, I compiled a list of my favorite books that have assisted me in my entrepreneurial journey:

  •         Strategize to Win by Carlie Harris
  •         Zero to One by Peter Thiel.
  •         The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
  •         Essentialism by Greg McKeown
  •         Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki
  •         Dare to Lead by Brene Brown
  •         Mindset by Carol Dweck
  •         Give and Take by Adam Grant
  •         I Got There by J.T. McCormick                                                                                                                                             

What’s your annual revenue in terms of sales and profit?

We integrate our pricing into the school fees of schools we partner with. We are currently present in more than 10 schools in Lagos, and we generate revenue of over $200K+ per annum.

How do you grow your business?

Our primary business growth strategy was interviewing our target audience (parents and schools) to understand their needs, interest in EdTech solutions, their level of satisfaction, and overall feedback on the free courses we offered their kids when we started. It helped us to build a user-centric ecosystem that the students, parents and the schools appreciate.

I’m glad to see that the passion I had for teaching kids about tech birthed Earlybrite. It all started one day while I was teaching my nephew and niece about tech, and I noticed how they loved what they were learning and even wanted more. That was where the idea of building the best EdTech company began. At that initial stage, it was the passion that drove me, and we completely bootstrapped. It was recently we started talking to investors and we look forward to having our pre-seed by the first quarter of next year.

So far, we currently have almost 100 teachers on our platform, some work in schools while others work from home.

What were the strategies you used to attract customers?

In the early stage, we went to places where we could find our target audiences, that is, parents and schools. We reached out to parents in places like shopping malls, churches, and events, and we told them about what we do and how it will benefit their children.

For schools, we wrote to them via email and submitted proposals seeking partnerships.

We got lots of positive results, which was a good sign that the world appreciates what we do at Earlybrite.

What are the tools you use in doing this business?

When we started, our MVP [minimum viable product] was just our basic course packages. We were using Zoom, Google Workspace which include Sheets, Docs and Google Forms. It was mainly a low-cost, effective entry, but right now, we have expanded, and we now have our learning management system (LMS) platform.

What makes your business different from any other business and why?

At Earlybrite, teachers and students can easily access the platforms we use for our classes. They enjoy flexible access to all learning platforms and tools, and they can effortlessly navigate through multiple tools. This enables our students to attend classes from any location of their choice.  All our login procedures are swift and simple so that a student’s learning path is smooth.

 How do you cope in terms of competition with other people doing the same business as you?

In the EdTech space, it’s essential to iterate, iterate, and iterate. This is our mantra at Earlybrite, and we use this strategy to stand out in our ever-changing industry.  By continuously innovating, we are able to beat our competition, satisfy our existing customers, and expose Earlybrite to new markets. It also makes my team members remain focused on the goal while ensuring that our clients are happy.

 What are the challenges you have to face when starting this business?

When I first began, I discovered that technology usage is increasing in the country, but there is still strong resistance to change at every level. Innovation can be blocked or slowed down by numerous stakeholders, frequently due to misconceptions, opposition to change, or refusal to see the necessity and possible benefits.

I saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate that technology integration in the classroom is crucial if Africans must catch up with the rest of the world.

How do you generate profit from this business?

We generate profits through the sale of various in-demand tech courses. We have subscription packages for schools as well. We occasionally hold paid boot camps for kids. We’ve done a summer boot camp where we had astronaut Mike Mullane from NASA as a guest. The last one we had was a game design boot camp in the metaverse.

Also, we have our B2C part, where parents can directly enrol their kids in our courses. Upon finishing any of our courses, students get certified.

Do you have other plans for the future?

We plan to expand Earlybrite to 150 countries physically, deliver our courses in over 50 languages and employ over 500,000 teachers with at least 300M learners across the globe. We have great plans for the future, and we will get there gradually.

What is your advice for those that want to start up this business?

My biggest advice for people who would like to build a business is actually a quote.

“Success in life is a marathon, not a sprint.”

It’s essential to know that the journey is long-term, and you can’t get there overnight.

Solid long-term strategies executed well help you leapfrog the competition, create jobs, gain public trust, improve your product, and richly reward your shareholders.

What have you learned so far?

Entering the market from the onset, we felt we were there to educate our customers and build what we feel they might like, but that wasn’t the case entirely. Instead, the feedback and reviews we got from them helped us pivot the idea to build a viable technology solution tailored solely for them within a short period based on their recommendations.

 If you were to start this business all over again, would you go for it and why?

Yes, absolutely. I will still choose to solve this problem. I have always been one of the frontier advocates for Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) to improve education in Africa, as low-quality education is one of our most pressing issues. I believe that the key to unleashing the potential of Africans is quality education focusing on the future and the upskilling of the future workforce, which may transform our economy from an emerging economy to a frontier economy. I choose to focus on children because they are the future, and we must catch them at a young age.

To start this business now, how much would one need as a start-up cost?

To start, you need two things: passion and mission, as these two are the currency that will determine how far you can go. Once you are passionate about solving this problem and you can align your mission statement with your passion, every other thing will fall into place.

I started with just a laptop when I was trying to teach my niece and nephew as I stated earlier. I was passionate about solving this problem, and it made me start from the basics before I decided to build a platform that would transport my mission, which is to upskill Africans and empower them to contribute to creating a better economy.

At the moment, Earlybrite is still 100% bootstrapped, although we have started making fundraising plans with investors.

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