An EP Founding Story | Meet brothers Craig and Shane Smith
In 2004, sixteen-year-old Craig Smith was struggling to learn both French and Japanese at high school. He created a system to help him to learn and revise key vocabulary in a more efficient way than building flashcards by hand.
In 2007, he and his brother Shane took this project and evolved it into a complete platform which revolutionised how students learn all over the world. Their focus has always been on helping students to learn in a more interactive, efficient and fun way, guided by their memories of struggling in school and building the tool they wished they could have had access to.
We asked Craig and Shane to share their journey, some of the highlights along the way, and a sneak peek at what’s in EP’s exciting future.
“We were able to build a product that teachers and students loved to use because it spoke to their deepest needs in the classroom.”
Join us as we take you on the journey of what EP is.
Original Sketches of the platform in 2007
I had two groups of friends at high school – one foot in the ‘nerd’ group and one foot in the ‘we don’t care about grades/exams’ group – so perhaps I was a bit of a nerdy rebel in some ways. I’d make apps to help us hide the computer games we were playing from teachers…It always held an appeal to become an entrepreneur and build a company that had a real impact on the world. To me the goal of learning was to understand the key material in the shortest amount of time so we could spend more time playing sport, be in a band, spend time with friends etc – rather than just spend lots of time sitting in front of a book. It became a bit of a natural merge of interests between education, IT, and entrepreneurship to have a go at building a company that could participate in the enormous change that was coming to learning through the use of digital technology.
I’ve always had a love of learning. I was that guy in high-school who read about all the extra optional topics that weren’t being taught in that particular year just because they were fascinating. So Craig and I have a slightly different slant on this: I love learning for the sake of it, as well as for the practical outcome, whereas Craig is all about getting to the outcome via the shortest path. Over time we’ve learned that both approaches add valuable ideas to any discussion about education. I also really love problem solving and got interested in coding as a result of this. Finally, I always knew that I wanted to go out and do something that made a positive difference in people’s lives – I’m stoked to see what EP has achieved so far and is continuing to do!
Craig and Shane Smith
How did EP start?
Craig: I remember in high school when I used to love playing computer games and our dad challenged us and said “how cool would it be if you could make games yourself!”. So Shane and I learnt to code when we were 12 and 14 respectively. One of the games/tools I made was a vocabulary quiz to help learn all the French and Japanese words I needed to know for my exams. This became popular with friends, and when I got to university I ran presentations showing it to schools. With some great mentors and lots of feedback from a very supportive and encouraging teaching community, we were able to scale the business from early on with a small team and a focus on co-creating the resources alongside the teachers and students.
How has the platform evolved?
Craig: I’d always felt there was so much we could learn from the way computer games engage students, and apply some of these elements into general education. I imagined a world where textbooks had been completely replaced by engaging digital resources that gave much more personalised and immediate feedback both to the learner but also the teachers/parents. In this way I think the original vision has held true for over a decade and still guides us.
Naturally along the way through trial and error we found that many of our ideas needed to be modified quite substantially to build tools that are truly beneficial for users – in particular I think we continued to refine our mindset from being the ones with the ideas initially, to being the ones out there to listen to the user base and working with them to create tools that were really amazing and great to use.
Shane: When I got involved with EP (LP at that stage), I got really excited about the idea that the more we could understand about a student’s learning journey the more we could help them along that journey, particularly when they got stuck.
Probably the biggest shift in our vision of the product happened around 2014 when we realised that the product we were building at that time just really wasn’t hitting the mark. That required us to eat some humble pie and re-orient our vision for the platform. We moved away from trying to come up with a grand vision for how education should be changing, and instead were driven first and foremost by the needs of the teachers and students standing in front of us. When we did this, when we stopped and listened and learned from our customers, we were able to build a product that teachers and students loved to use because it spoke to their deepest needs in the classroom.
What has made EP such a success?
Craig: Listen, listen, listen to your users, don’t assume. Release early and adapt.
Shane: Yeah, very similar: watch and learn, then iterate. If a part of the system feels intuitive, it’s because we’ve sat and watched as teachers or students got frustrated by all the unintuitive bits and have gone and changed these to make them better, over and over again. Equally, where there are bits that are unintuitive (and I’ll freely admit that we still have our fair share of those!), it’s because we haven’t yet done this enough.
April 2015 | Team photo taken during an Education Perfect World Series prizegiving, held at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.
Learnings in starting and growing an Edutech Business
Craig: The first one that came to mind was actually reading the book “Only Two Seats Left: The Incredible Contiki Story” – it was the journey of the NZ founder of Contiki Tours who built a brilliant business, but at the point in his life that he stepped away from being CEO he didn’t fully separate the business from himself. This disempowered the management team and led to some disastrous decisions that ultimately meant he lost everything, and the business took a huge step backwards in the financial crash in the late 80s.
I read this book 4-5 times in the 18 months leading up to me stepping out of the CEO role after 10 years. It was extremely challenging to really 100% let go and trust in the team we had built, but they all rose to the challenge and I think it is their complete ownership of our future direction that has propelled the business and our platform to the next level over the past 2 years.
Another consistent theme I saw with people that were starting businesses, was the ones that wanted ‘fame’ and the image of being ‘successful’ had some success but often floundered. While the ones that were more focused on long term wealth/value creation seemed to have more longer term success than their counterparts. They were happy to wait a decade for their work to bear fruits, carefully planted seeds, and continued to learn.
Shane: One of the special things about education is that teachers and students tend to be really receptive to engaging with people who are trying to help make their lives easier/better. This means that one can actually go in and watch them using the system and hear what they think about it. Make the most of this!
EP stories to share
Craig: They say that what doesn’t break you only makes you stronger, and it’s actually the stories of the biggest obstacles we overcame that are many of my fondest memories. One in particular that comes to mind was in 2012 when at the very start of the Language Perfect World Championships, our website was taken down in a Denial of Service Attack (basically where millions of ‘fake’ computers try to access your servers at exactly the same time so nobody else can use the site and it appears to be down). We got 18 hours into the competition with hundreds of thousands of frustrated competitors unable to participate and we were close to having to pull the plug and cancel the event. It was our team thinking out of the box, getting advice from Rod Drury (founder of Xero), and finding a professional team that could protect our site during the event, all within a few hours, that got us back up and going and saved the day.
I vividly remember the way in which the attack brought a tremendous unity and pride into every person in the team. We all have differences, but those are put to the side in the case of a shared challenge and that energy carried us forward for the next 12 months to greater heights.
Since then I’ve always felt a tremor of genuine excitement along with the natural nerves when we come across a seemingly insurmountable hurdle – it is all those war stories that we won that are in our memory banks to encourage us to look outside the box, and embrace these challenges as some of the most wonderful things that could happen in a day.
Shane: We’ve been so lucky to work alongside an amazing team of people, and my fondest memories are mostly about otherwise mundane moments which our team have lit up with their personalities. Whether it was Scott Cardwell and Tania Christie lighting up a concert hall of teachers with their energy and enthusiasm, a casual witticism from Ben Crowl in the development room, seeing Tim Vaughan effortlessly find mutual connections with a random stranger, or seeing the genuine care and passion that so many of our team have expressed when they are with our teachers and students, it’s been a journey of a million special little moments which I’ll carry with me for a long time.
December 2015 – team retreat in Queenstown
Craig: From day 1 it has been the early adopters of the platform that have been our greatest contributors, and I feel like I have thousands of ‘mums and dads’ with the teachers that embraced not only our product but our vision.
For me the first 10 years was spent largely on the phone or in person with these teachers, getting to know them, about their lives, their schools, their challenges, their ideas. It was so much more than a job, but a rather family that kind of adopted me and our team into their community. I’d like to thank them, as well as everyone that supported us, and of course every one of our past and present EP team members.
For me I really do feel very privileged to stay involved on the board of Education Perfect, and to see our team and product grow and evolve, and it’s wonderful to maintain these links with our users and vision.
2012 Team Christmas party.
Everyone’s families were invited and we set up a bouncy castle outside our office. It was great fun!
Where do you see EP in the next few years?
Craig: In many ways we are just getting started. There is an opportunity for learning to become more personalised, and for students knowledge to be more relevant to the rapidly changing world around us.
I see a big shift in how we assess students, with more focus on knowledge which can be viewed through analytics of all student learning rather than a high stakes exam. This will enable anywhere anytime ‘assessment’, and classes with students progressing at their own pace, supported by the teacher. I’d love EP to be involved in that change as I believe we are well positioned to enable truly transformative learning experiences.
Within the next 5 years – 10 years from now, I think that a classroom along with the structures in a school may be almost unrecognisable from today.
Thanks Craig and Shane! What a journey it has been. Your passion for learning is obvious, as is your ongoing drive to improve the experience for teachers and students.
As we head into 2020 with our refreshed brand and expanding team of passionate and talented EPeeps, we are excited for the future and know that together we can improve learning outcomes for all.