by Kirsten Campbell-Howes on July 18, 2013
I’ve known the team behind Night Zookeeper for several years now, and have continued to be impressed by their creativity and grit when it comes to turning their startup into a proper education business. I’ve watched them win competitions, secure seed investment, work with more and more schools and expand and improve their product offering. During that time, I’ve seen many other startups wither or falter, which made me keen to talk to Paul Hutson, NZK’s Education Director, to find out how to build a successful edtech startup.
KCH: The Night Zookeeper journey has been an interesting one. For those who aren’t familiar with NZK, can you tell us your ‘origin story’? How did NZK come about? What is NZK today?
PH: The Night Zookeeper concept was developed eight years ago during Josh’s (co-founder and CEO) masters degree. He was studying in Melbourne and discovered that the zoo was open 24hrs. This got him thinking about what happened to the animals as the moon shone above the zoo. He then began writing a children’s story about a Night Zookeeper that cared for the many magical and mysterious animals that lived in his zoo.
This has now manifested itself into a number of different products. The first being an online destination where children and adults can display and celebrate their creativity. They are encouraged to use the deepest corners of their imaginations to create an animal that nobody has even seen before. This has now happened over 10,000 times and each animal is unique from the one preceding it!
We have also ventured into the world of mobile apps. This has seen us create two iPad applications to date, the ‘Drawing Torch’ and the newly released ‘Teleporting Torch’. The Teleporting Torch sends daily creative tasks for children to complete, such as ‘decide where you would travel if you had your very own Teleporting Torch’. Parents and teachers can also send these challenges to their children from an online dashboard.
KCH: You won Startup Weekend EDU in 2011 and went on to win investment from Wayra. How have these two events helped you build your brand and business?
PH: These experiences have been vital to building awareness around the Night Zookeeper brand. We have also been very fortunate to establish some great relationships with experienced professionals based on these two experiences. Wayra has been especially useful for us as it provided us with a stable environment for us to work from in the early days of our company, which ensured that we could get our heads down and build some really great apps to accompany our website. We have also since gone on to host a Startup Weekend of our own and we hope that in the future we may be able to encourage more creative education startups to form in the UK.
KCH: Your team does a lot of hands on work with schools and you have teaching experience. How crucial is that to your success?
PH: Night Zookeeper started life in schools so it seemed very natural to continue to visit schools and develop our events further. The whole team have now visited schools a number of times. We believe that this really gives everyone a great insight into how Night Zookeeper is being used by the children. It really is a wonderful experience to see the excitement on children’s faces as they step into the world of the Night Zookeeper for the first time.
We hope to visit many more schools during the forthcoming academic year as we see that part of our business is vital in order for us to continue to develop products and services that children and teachers want to use on a daily basis.
KCH: I’ve watched NZK grow and develop over the past couple of years while many other edtech startups have stalled or disappeared. What’s the key to your success? What advice would you give to other companies who are starting out?
PH: This is a really tough question. Ultimately Night Zookeeper is still here because we love it and have received investment. The investment came due to a multitude of factors. Personally, I think the reason investors have supported our vision is because they can see the passion we have for it. We haven’t been afraid to dream big and have written realistic growth plans because we know it isn’t going to happen overnight.
KCH: Having watched you grow, I’ve come to the conclusion that part of your success is down to the team you have: you and Josh in particular (I don’t know the rest of your team so well) are resourceful, energetic, clear-headed and optimistic. You also have different but complimentary skills. Would you agree with that and what advice would you give to other start ups about how to go about building the right team?
PH: Thanks! I think the most important thing is that the whole team here are just really passionate about what we do. There is an infectious energy and we all bring the best out of one another by being critical, challenging but ultimately encouraging one another. If I was to give advice on building a team, I would say you need to have a strong bond with those around you and it is important that you all share a vision for the project from day one. It is vital that you all pull in the same direction and are not afraid to step out of your regular role now and again to take on a variety of tasks within the team. These qualities are not always easy to find, but if your idea and ethos is strong enough then these people will find their way into your team.
KCH: You’ve mentioned your apps, including the Teleporting Torch app for iPad, which has been very well received. Are apps the future for NZK, or just part of your overall strategy?
PH: Apps will play a big part in the future of Night Zookeeper. We have a number of exciting ideas in the pipeline, which we will be working on at the beginning of 2014. However, our main focus at the moment is develop a web experience for people to enjoy across platforms. We will be launching an updated version of nightzookeeper.com later this year.
KCH: What next for NZK? Do you know where you want to be this time next year and, if so, can you tell us your strategy for getting there?
PH: Night Zookeeper wants to be in as many homes and schools as possible. We are increasing our user base month-on-month and our strategy is to work with our fans to improve our existing products and develop new ones that really make a difference to children’s education. We have lined up a series of trials in schools next year and alongside this we are currently developing a couple of top secret new products that I think everyone is going to be really excited about! Essentially this time next year we want to be bigger than elephant ears.