Fiona Boyd, Co-Founder and CEO of EdSmart
Learn how Fiona forged her own path, threw the marketing playbook out the window at her startups and built trust and respect in her industries.
Sadie: Hello Fiona Boyd! CEO of EdSmart, coming to us from Melbourne, Australia, I believe. How are you today?
Fiona: I’m really good, Sadie, good to meet you and good to meet the people who are listening to your podcast! Yes Melbourne, Australia, in the little borough of Elsternwick, its quiet cold today so we’re heading into winter!
Sadie: And we’re definitely going to talk about the pandemic because we basically have to, its, you know, for posterity’s sake if nothing else, but, just briefly, what is Melbourne like right now? What are the rules? Are you allowed out? How does that look?
Fiona: Alright, so the pandemic in Melbourne, where we’re at, in the state of Victoria, we’re just about to start easing out of level 3 lockdown, so there’s been an initial easing, people are allowed to go to restaurants and cafes, not all have opened, there’s physical distancing in those environments. Obviously it becomes an economic equation for the proprietors, so, some are opening and some are not, it doesn’t make sense for some.
Some schools are going back next week, in other states, but in our state there are some schools going back next week. They would be some special schools and a few others that are servicing children of emergency service workers, but other than that we’re easing out of the lockdown situation, but it’s not all systems go by a longshot.
Sadie: Great, well, we’re definitely going to talk about what the pandemic has meant for you business-wise. So it’s great to get that snapshot into what your life is like kind of day to day. A lot of my podcast guests have been in different time zones as myself. You’re the first international podcast guest. So I’m really excited about that.
But the first subject of any Scotch with Sadie podcast is the topic of scotch! I am drinking a Gold Label Johnnie Walker. It’s a little bit of a throwback to my early twenties, this was the scotch that I really liked. I try to drink something different each time. And now I believe it is 9:30 a.m. in Melbourne. So tell us what you’re drinking!
Fiona: So I’m drinking what I drink all day long, in a wine glass, which is a natural sparkling mineral water with a slice of lemon. It keeps me hydrated…this is not the time of day to be drinking scotch!
Sadie: If you were I would have been very impressed, but also maybe concerned…
Fiona: I have no judgment against those who would like to have a 9.30 scotch, particularly in a cold climate. However, it is a work day. So I drink natural sparkling mineral water all day! Stay hydrated. Keep my brain working.
Sadie: Excellent, well I’m still going to ask you a few questions about scotch, before we jump into the more important questions which are going to be about you and your business and your marketing activities, but you know, to keep on theme, I have some very basic, pop quiz style questions for you around scotch. There are no wrong—well, there are right answers! That’s true.
Fiona: I probably won’t get those right answers!
Sadie: But let’s see. Let’s see. So the first one is: what is the main grain ingredient in Scottish malt whisky, this is a multiple choice. So it’s either wheat, barley, corn or oats.
Sadie: You got that right! Yes!
Second question is what is the minimum alcoholic volume whiskey has to be to be labeled “scotch”? That is, the minimum alcoholic volume, and it’s either 100%, 37.5%, 40% or 25%.
Fiona: I would have said 40%.
Sadie: You got that right! Two for two! The final one is, the Gaelic term for whisky is uisge beatha, but what does it mean in English? Is it either, Alcoholic Irn Bru, Water of Life, Wreck the House Juice or Fire Water?
Sadie: No! the first X! It’s actually, the correct answer is Water of Life.
Sadie: We learn something new everyday. Okay, Fiona, we got that part out of the way!
I’m very very excited to speak to you today. Not just because you’re an international guest, my first female guest, which we’ll also get into that a little bit. But because you work in the domain, the industry, of EdTech, this is one of Responsify’s specialties, it’s really important during the pandemic. So just so pertinent to what’s going on. Of course, I want to start with you. I want to start with the company, get kind of the basic. So if you could for our viewers and listeners, I suppose, walk us through a bit about your background, what led you to this industry, what led to co-founding EdSmart and a little bit about you and then bring us up to speed with the company.
Fiona: Well, in this, I’m more like Steve Jobs, I’ve done all sorts of things and I don’t actually allow the people around me in this society around me to tell me where I need to go to. So, I left home pretty young, at 17, and at school I was very much shoved in to doing the A stream, higher Maths, Physics, Chemistry, English and Lit. And I was pretty proficient at all of those. I seem to be more of a generalist than anything else, and I really just got sick of being told what to do, in a sense I kind of stepped out into the world and did it my way from my late teens.
So I helped myself get through university by designing and making clothes, and selling them at a market, which was fantastic, it was just a really interesting time. The things I’ve done, I have a background in broadcasting with ABC Radio, which is the national broadcasting company here in Australia, I managed radio stations right around the country including one that was the ABC Northern Territory radio authority in Alice Springs, when euthanasia legislation came down there, which was subsequently overturned by a change in government later. So, I also launched the national youth station in Cairns called Triple J, that’s in far north Queensland. At the time, people were of two minds whether to launch in Cairns or not but there was such a hunger in the youth community there and a latent, strong feeling in the arts community there.
I loved it and that that occurred!
So I had a background in broadcasting. I also taught for a year, teaching isn’t really my thing and back in the 90s it was a very different environment, not one I could see myself staying in. I had one great experience working with two other graduate teachers combining our classrooms and we did a news broadcast about school there. In an underserved community where none of these students were used to talking about their issues, they were more used to struggling through them. So doing a broadcast about their day and achievements, it was such an uprising of good spirit and skills acquisition that came out of that exercise.
So that’s my view of things, not to lock people into boxes, it’s to unleash their natural creativity and curiosity. Beyond that, I worked with ABC around the country after teaching. And look, we had a change of government which meant that our broadcaster had a lot of funds stripped from it and I could see it becoming not a fun place to work, and it was the advent of internet here. I thought, I don’t want that old technology, I want this new stuff! So I left and worked with some management consultancies. And with my partner at the time, we started a really rather successful online community called Arts Hub, so that was a jobs and news platform for the arts and creative industries. We grew that for six years and sold to private investors at around the six year mark. So that is still going on, it’ll be 20 years in October. Still serving their communities and growing. I’m really proud to be one of those internet entrepreneurs from the 2000s, whose business is still there! And still serving!
So I did a few little ventures along the way using the funds from that, including, a company called Folk Like Me, it was really about trying to find ways to connect people from anywhere in the world, who looked at world in a similar way. I think you grow up in a family and you’re kind of assigned your role and we yearn to find others that we can chew the fat with and create stuff with and make stuff with. It’s sad that didn’t go anywhere, I’d love to have another crack at that one.
But with EdSmart, if we jump forward to there, that was formed out of a very visceral, real problem in the real world. And that was me taking paper forms out of my kids’ school bags that needed attention. Sometimes signatures, sometimes filling out a whole lot of information on usually the same information over and over, or sending something back to the school, in my children’s’ schoolbags. And it’s bureaucratic and inefficient and I can’t be sure they’re getting back to the school, especially with my son, because on days of excursions, I get these mad panicked phone calls, he doesn’t have permission to go, and they’re asking me to rush a form up to the school.
None of that is conducive to happy life, and I remember saying to my partner, well look, this to me seems like busy work for moms, seems like schools are giving more work out there for moms, and I actually don’t want to do that because there’s plenty of technology that’s developed from a technologist point of view but often the people you are going to be using it and impacted by it aren’t involved in the process.
And the success of Arts Hub was that platform worked in tandem with the journalists, the users, and I think there’s something about, to users, working side by side with the developer and looking at things through a different lens.
So EdSmart was then developed as a parent data capture management reporting tool. Not necessarily a communications tool, there are lots of those around now, back in 2014 there wasn’t so many. And a lot of people thought, let’s just make an app! But the principles we spoke to said we’re already getting inundated with that, can you integrate through different channels so we can choose at a school level which way the parents can go in. We integrate with other systems. And now, we make progress because literally those early schools said, look the way you solved those parents data capture piece, there is so much inside a school administration that works in a similar way, can you do that, so we built out the platform, so now you can call us a digital administration system for a school.
Sadie: Excellent. That was a great background introduction to yourself and bringing us up to speed about the problems that you were solving in the market, listening, what you had learned even from a previous company that helped you serve your audience. But what I’m really curious to hear about though is, once you had those early wins, you know, the product was being adopted by those original users really well, you were working with them. Tell me a bit about what the growth stage for EdSmart was like. How did you market the administration software across Australia? What did you figure out worked best? Because it sounds like you were introducing something that was new to your market. So that’s really interesting to learn.
Fiona: It is new! It’s a very different journey to bring a product to market that is just an improvement on something, or someone already knows what its purpose is, so that’s just trying to take market share away. We were adding a new new thing for people to understand, and we had to make people understand why adding that new new thing could make their school run better. And its even more by the fact that EdSmart integrated with their other systems. Student Information Systems. And with their LMS. So we’re integrating to other systems, it’s starting to get really complicated from the point of view of marketing!
It was not an easy journey, Sadie, so half of this was us, since we’re a market maker. And Arts Hub was a market maker. We’re making the market by doing things different. It’s around convincing people that the way they looked at running their school before is not the most optimal way. And that things can be run better with something like EdSmart.
Our key sales points were around, you save time and money, you are less overburdened workers in our society. There are numerous studies that show a good chunk of teacher workload is around non-teaching activity. It’s around compliance and paperwork. And that’s the piece that we solve. We digitalize that, we make it easy, click click done. And we have process automation, so let’s say for an excursion, end to end a teacher might spend 3 months setting that up and getting approvals. With using EdSmart, the process can be set up so all those approvals can be captured in a two week time frame.
This stops teachers who are so important to society from doing donkey work! We don’t treat them with enough respect. The respect piece is the face-to-face. Face-to-face work, and knowledge transfer. Helping others learn is hard work! What they don’t need is all these administrative layers sitting on top of them. So that’s the piece we’re talking about. By taking the frustrating piece out of their life.
Sadie: Well that brings me to my next question. You were introducing something that you believe has this value. It’s going to save them time and the admin and it helps the teacher. However, what I understand is that the decision maker that you are selling to is ultimately the administrators, though it’s the teachers who benefit from it, who are kind of at a different level. So I want to understand how you went about pitching and convincing them that this was something that was a net value to schools and also, maybe weaving this in, I definitely want to touch on, being a female entrepreneur, so going up against school administrators, what that taught you, and being a pioneer as a female leader in Tech, maybe two separate topics here. But yeah, we’ll start with…
Fiona: If I lose my way just bring me back to the second part. And I didn’t really complete your answer on marketing. Truth is we just keep on trying different things, and we roll with a frontrunner!
Each audience we’re talking to, the community, if it brings us more sales, we keep doing more of that and refining and tweaking, and when it starts to loose legs, we do something else! So if you were to say to me, you know, do you have a coherent marketing strategy? Well, no! We’re a startup and we shouldn’t really! That’s all big company talk!
What we do is we figure stuff out and we use whatever we can find to help us with our messaging. But what we are trying to do is we’re trying to meet that audience or that community. We’re trying to find that space with them and us and we are all in alignment around what it is we’re trying to get them to sell.
And for us, we’re mission oriented.
So if you’re an EdSmart school, you’re a school who actually believes that running all of your administrative functions digitally is good for the planet. And it’s good for your school. And it’s good for your school community. So you know what? Yes. You save time, money, and that’s been a key thing. Business managers want to hear that. But also less trees are not cut down because you use EdSmart, and carbon load is taken out of the atmosphere. Parents have less forms coming home.
Look, you know, it’s an eco-system of positive benefit. And I think that benefits your mission. If you have a mission, you’re marketing somewhat different to someone who just has a better widget. I think as a marketer you could say that? Would that be true?
Sadie: Yeah. I think, you know, working in EdTech in general because that’s one kind of socially impactful industry, you as the leader, with the mission driven ethos, yes that does change the way people market their companies. I do also appreciate what you said about the flexibility of a startup. What was your marketing plan? Well, what was it on Tuesday? What was it on Wednesday? It’s going to change all the time. So like you said, I mean, because I kind of combined two questions previously…
Fiona: Yes, so, Woman Pioneer? I completely avoided that. Look, and I’m an older woman. So I’ve done startups and I blended family and business and life and all of that for all sorts of reasons, but mainly because I saw that feeding in to corporate culture was a real crunch and it crunches everybody’s time. And the thing is about being human is, you’ve got to have time to be human. We’re not machines.
And, you know, nowhere did I learn this more than when I was teaching one year, teaching in this, you know, considered underprivileged community. It was this full weight exercise on doing a great broadcast together and learning how to write news. And I’m showing the kids the principles of cinematography for a news broadcast. And some of them are doing makeup and styling. Everybody had a role and I could see the rise in self-esteem, in those kids, that normally, you know, were pretty defensive, pretty sad, really, sad and depressed. So that has sat underneath my own underpinning. So I probably do things way differently. Don’t do a rule of thumb in a kind of masculinist way. People say, you need to pop. You need to follow this. You need to jump that hurdle and then that hurdle and then that hurdle. And by this time, then we might acknowledge you.
I learned certainly in the ABC world that if you want to play that game, the guys can change the rules on you at any time. So don’t go for that. Make up your own rules and apply them to that. So, go the other way around. I’m probably really quite different to the women you will meet, who probably are trying to fit into the system. I’m kind of really not.
And so we do have a good gender balance on our team. We are probably slightly more female than male in terms of numbers, but we have a transgender person on our team and we have people from all over the world. So it’s a tiny team, but the Australians on the team are only two of us, who are Australian born. There are some from Pakistan, from India, Europe. And I love that. So, as a woman, that’s a great divide. Isn’t that when you say, as a woman, it’s like this, you’ve accepted the other label? I probably look at it more like this: we need more leaders of all types, not just white men in the boys’ club.
Now, they’ve managed to be running the world for quite some time. I think it’s time that that changed. So the only way it’s really going to change to people who aren’t like them, step up, and do some interesting things. So that’s my present.
Have I had had some blowback and negativity? Hell yes. Including, just as an example, and I think any every woman listening would have experienced some version of this, which is we had a really rather lovely organization, a well-run organization that was getting started, just as EdSmart was getting started. And it was about bringing startup entrepreneurs and founders together to learn from each other and support each other. And I went to this event and I had a young guy come up to me and say, What are you doing here? So, you know, I wasn’t made to feel welcome, did I? He knew nothing about me. He didn’t know that I’d done startups and got a successful exit. And yeah, I think that’s incredibly rude. I think it goes on a lot. That should stop.
Sadie: Yeah, well. I love that perspective. I think it’s a hard question. What is the right answer? And I think hearing your opinion about the label. But it’s a reality. Yeah. It’s an evolution, I suppose. And I don’t have a very good segue to my next question, because I want to talk about Covid-19, this international pandemic. You know, there’s no precedent for it for in our lifetimes, of course.
But tell us how has the pandemic affected business? You’re in a sector that has a lens on it. What’s going on?
Fiona: For us, it’s been really, really interesting for us. One really encouraging piece was that our schools from pretty much the beginning February started to use us four times more than peak usage before. And it’s because, we figured this out, through talking to them, which is, the channel that is EdSmart for notifications, is quite a formal channel to parents. So it’s about all sorts of compliance forms in the school requiring data. So medical data or phone numbers or whatever it is to enable something to occur. And that means parents are used to getting an EdSmart notification and dealing with it. And it’s very believable. It’s administrative. It’s official in their minds!
So in Australia, we also have, I’m not sure if this is the same in the US, but we have a lot of international students who come from China. And our school year starts at the beginning of February, late January, beginning February. So many of our schools, and that includes there’s a level of students who go to some private independent schools for the year 11 and 12. So they’re the senior years here. And they’re hosted by families. And anyway, there was really early warning for us by late January when these students were coming back to the host families, that Covid-19 was a thing and our schools were really on it.
So EdSmart schools, a bunch of principals, literally, were using our broadcast function to give a structured message to the school community every evening about what they knew about this situation. And just bear in mind, the first movements were those that had Chinese international students as part of their student body. And some of them had parents who were medical workers in China. So they had kind of advance real warning, real on the ground data to work with.
And they were structuring messages to the school community about what they saw as an unfolding situation. What the school’s position was and what they asked of the parent body in terms of their cooperation and collaboration. I think it was really, it gave our schools like a real strong position to control this, the narrative to the school community. And I’ll contrast that with, and I know from some Facebook postings of some other schools who don’t have the platform and didn’t have this channel, direct channel, and I guess, you know, a voice of authority, really, the channel itself is agnostic. But Marshall McLuhan did say the medium is the message.
And in this case, it really showed to be true. EdSmart was kind of the official message. We had parents who were sort of going off in all sorts of directions, spreading misinformation and rumor and really it created some community confusion and panic. Whilst it didn’t get right out of control here, there was a degree of community panic. Parents just taking their kids out of school before it was a government tip and before even our health officials had a clear take on what this situation was.
So for us, our schools used us in that unfolding scenario four times greater than peak usage. A bunch of our schools approached us to renew early because they were worried that if they went out on lockdown and their renewal came up, because they weren’t necessarily set up for remote payment, they weren’t used to running their school and their payment systems and their usual providers remotely, they were worried that their renewal might lapse. We had a lot of schools renew early, for the continuity of service. And we had some new schools sign up, and other schools back off. So for us, it’s okay. But we’re doing all right, Sadie.
We’re not a Learning Management System, so we don’t have a huge amount of interest yet. But I do believe once everyone’s moving through this, when people start to do a post-mortem on how did you actually handle this and how did you keep school community together? I think that will be our opportunity to show how EdSmart schools were able to shine with that. And just bear in mind, that is a lot of the load on the principal and the leadership team just trying to corral the school community at a time where they’re not really sure what’s going on.
Sadie: Yeah, I think, you know, there will be an interesting post mortem, as you said, on a lot of companies. What’s happened to entire industries? If entire industries continue to even exist or new industries would be created. And I speak to a lot of different business leaders every day, and I think leadership is so important right now. I think you have some leaders who, you know, see this as an opportunity, not in a cowboy kind of way. Like, “Let’s double down”, but just maybe to reinvest in yourselves. But then I see other companies who just say, you know, we’re going to freeze everything, we need to really evaluate. Not saying that’s a bad strategy, but I think it comes from leadership. And it’s just going to be very interesting to do a post mortem on all that kind of stuff.
So I just have one, two last questions, kind of getting back in to some fun facts. You know, we started this conversation about scotch. But I spoke to one of your colleagues before this call and she told me that you have some interests in life around meditation, travelling to India. And I think that’s a pertinent subject because there is a lot of stress going on in the world right now. So fill us in on that! And also how, you know, you continue to practice that and how, again, during a pandemic time that this enriches your life and your work.
Fiona: So I think we’ve become kind of a very reactive society and I think if anything, too action oriented, I do believe it’s good to take action. But, you know, it’s good to take considered action, action you can back, you’re not ashamed of. So meditation is something that really enables me to tap into not just the surface level of what’s going on, but what might be going at a deeper level.
And sometimes it’s good not to react to things, to step back and watch what’s going on. And meditation really allows that. I didn’t actually travel to India for meditation. I traveled to India with my daughter, who has Down syndrome, to attend the Down’s Syndrome International Get Together and conference symposium. And it was the most amazing experience.
So I’ve got to say, I love the subcontinent. I’ve also been to Pakistan. Pakistan is you know, the U.S. doesn’t love Pakistan, but they really showed it’s such a great country. The people are divine, they’re just the most hospitable people on the planet. And they are really struggling with an education system that isn’t delivering the results that the parents would want. And just as an example, you know, parents, they will sell off ancestral lands to fund one of their children to get a Western style education. They believe so much in education that they’ll put their own livelihoods at risk. So, you know, I love the subcontinent. It’s an amazing place. We’ve got so much to learn. The communities, Sadie, you know, just the community stories, the culture. The West loves to report everything that goes wrong there. But when you’re on the ground, there’s so much going right as well. Look, equity is an issue. But just look at how China has got 70 percent of its population out of poverty.
It’s story changing. Some ways they do through opening up a bit to the West. Not totally, a bit. I’m one to say you just don’t go around telling other people how to do things. You’ve got to work with people to find the common ground between you.
Meditation, I think, is the sanity thing for me. I’d really like to stay sane when everyone else is losing their head. So I do meditate every morning from 5. And sometimes if I need more, if I’m not ready to get up and face into the day, I’ll do another hour from 4 to 6 a.m.
So just in terms of health and wellbeing. We identified early and it’s not yet finished because we’re doing it as a team project that would develop a health and wellbeing code to help us move through this time. So the EdSmart health and wellbeing code for our team, but also something that has legs beyond this Covid-19 situation, because we’re human, you know, we’re not machines, we’re human. And we need to acknowledge that, you know, the words “data driven” really annoy me. I prefer data informed because we’re actually human beings and you can have too much data and you can have the wrong data.
So a lot of data driven metrics are sometimes the wrong metrics, just chasing this stuff.
Think about the bigger picture before you rush around with your million metrics! As you can tell, I have frustration with these guys who really just want to shove their data driven processes down your throat. How about data informed? I think that’s maybe a more holistic statement.
And the other thing, I have had a staff member who struggled a bit, and it was the most beautiful opportunity to actually find out where they were at and interrupt some negative patent thinking and to actually sort of like explore with that person, you know, what does good look like for you? Let’s design your day. And he’s just blossomed and flourished. So sometimes you just gotta catch that stuff before people spiral down and work with them to open them up, help them blossom.
Sadie: Well, awesome. Thank you, Fiona. I feel like we could talk or I would personally enjoy speaking with you for hours about all those things that you just said. I’ve never, as you can probably guess, I never got the opportunity to go to Pakistan. I spent months in India. I’ve even spent months in Australia as well. I hitchhiked up and down the East Coast.
Sadie: Literally with my backpack, just hit the road. But yeah, I’ve heard amazing things about Pakistan. And you know, I met Pakistani people across the globe, like you said. So hospitable and so amazing and everything. You talked about education and equity. I feel, I guess that’s a whole other podcast. But wrapping up this conversation, just, you know, how can people learn more about EdSmart? How can they reach you?
Fiona: Look, I’m very approachable, so I am totally fine if they just directly contact me. And that would be Fiona@edsmart.com. We’re very, very interested in, you know, helping schools run better wherever they are. So reach out if you want to and you have an idea and you know you’re committed to your school, you know, as you can tell, we’re on a mission rather than, we don’t just want to sell you stuff. We want to align with how it is your school works and help your school run better.
I’m really keen to sort of like, get on the ground in developing countries when we’re sort of big enough to do that, because I think that’s where we can make a huge, huge difference. So contact me direct or come to our website. Have a little look around. Let us know what you want and we’ll connect with you and find out how we can do stuff together.
Sadie: Excellent. Yes. Ending on a note of coming together. I think that’s a great message as well for our transcontinental conversation with scotch and with sparkling water.
So, thank you, Fiona. And I hope you have a good start to your day over here in the United States we’re wrapping up. And, yeah…
Fiona: Can I just add one more thing, please?
We’ve just had a notification that we’ve won a global EdTech award, which I can’t tell you because it’s embargoed until the 24th of June. However, It’s global, it’s run out of a huge amount of nominations. Anyway, we’ve got to say there’s some news on the horizon and it’s run by a US company. So there might be some interest from your part of the world and what we do sometimes.
Sadie: I’ll keep my ears to the ground on that one. I’ll update the transcript of this conversation so that, you know, if you’re listening to this, just go Responsify.com, Scotch with Sadie, and we will post that award when it’s up!
Congratulations in advance.
Fiona: Thank you!
Sadie: I hope to speak with you soon. Have a great rest of your day!
Fiona: Thanks, Sadie. All right. Bye!