Lucy Stonehill in the co-founder and CEO of BridgeU, an incredibly exciting edtech startup using predictive analytics and smart technology to make higher education and early career decision-making, intelligent. For anyone that has been through the extremely laborious and stressful process of applying to university and the subsequent career choices that follow you will wish you had been introduced to BridgeU...and for anyone for whom that scenario is pending - listen up! We talk about the power of bringing machine learning to the traditional and stale education industry, how she approached fundraising and the power of mission-led startups!
Current Job Co-Founder and CEO of BridgeU
First Job Paralegal for a large Manhattan law firm working for the chair of litigation – thought I wanted to go into law!!
Education Dartmouth College. I studied English Literature and Psychology
Go to meeting spot Ozone Coffee in Shoreditch
Necessary extravagance Reformer Pilates. I am not that extravagant though!
Favourite productivity tool/app Todoist
Female inspiration Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein and Gloria Steinem
Top networking tip Be ruthless about your time - maximum of 3 mins with someone – get a business card and follow up.
What was the inspiration (or frustration) behind founding BridgeU?
A typical story of not having enough clarity when going through the university admissions and decision-making process myself. There is an information problem - it is difficult to predict forward as information on future pathways (education and career paths) is just not available. Up until now, information has tended to be fragmented, limited and inaccurate. There is a workflow problem, also, insofar as the process of actually applying is also a laborious experience. It's particularly bad if you are applying to universities in multiple countries, which I was. I started to help friends in similar situations, before founding a business specialising in admissions consultancy, and realised quite quickly that this was a universal and painful problem. I realised that there is no predictive analytics around the experience either, and I felt that there should be better ways to inform and enhance decisions that, for better or worse, are so crucial to future outcomes.
How has your previous employment experience aided you at BridgeU?
It didn’t really! I was only working in a traditional sense for 18 months so was quite young when i founded my first business - Stonehill Educational Consultants - which served as the inspiration behind founding BridgeU. I suppose working in a law firm after university taught me how to create order out of chaos – which has come in handy running a startup, when you are constantly trying to bring structure to what appears to be chaos, or at least something that feels amorphic for a very long time. Being able to communicate well with different people and across teams is also something I had to do a lot at the law firm and those skills have become central to my role now.
Why did you decide to join Seedcamp and what were the highlights?
I had been living in the U.S. through university and early employment and when starting BridgeU, I decided to come back to the UK and London as i knew the international school sector would be central to my go-to-market strategy. I wanted to be involved with a powerful startup ecosystem and Seedcamp seemed to be the pre-eminent programme on offer for technology companies at the time. I’d started to attend industry events and realised there was a hub in East London, centred around Google Campus, and I wanted a way to involve myself with the energy that seemed to be quite unique to that space. One of the most under rated things is how powerful the network of Seedcamp founders is – i've found that if approached in the right way, Seedcamp founders will always make time for you. It’s a very close network.
What is BridgeU and what problem is it solving?
It’s an education technology business using predictive analytics and smart technology to make higher education and early career decision-making intelligent. There are 2 core problems it is solving: it is firstly focussed on the work flow problem and offers careers guidance (as a service) trying to create a one stop shop for 14-18 year olds planning their futures. It facilitates the building of your skills profile and your own personal brand and relates these to various professional and educational opportunities as you are progressing along that spectrum. The other problem we're solving is really a data issue - which is how you connect the inputs of who you are today with the outputs of who you may be tomorrow, if there is no tool or infrastructure guiding in a predictive manner. Also how you relate yourself (today) to opportunities that may exist - tomorrow.
Tell us about the successes of the company to date!
The first big win was Seedcamp in March 2014. First school we won in January of 2015. We then raised $2.5m in seed capital last summer – led by Octopus with Seedcamp and a few other funds participating. This validated the early traction that we had been working towards as a small, scrappy, hungry team. Getting our first 100 schools was also a big milestone. And we've also been lucky enough to win a range of awards, the most significant being named, last year, as one of the top 20 Edtech Companies in Europe. We are now in secondary schools from over 30 countries, and opening an office in Hong Kong - both of which we celebrate, as being global in our mindset and in our product is something that's very core to our identity. It has definitely been an exciting and fast-paced 18 months in particular, and i look forward to the company's continued achievements. Although once in a while, I have to pinch myself, as I still remember so vividly those days back in early 2013, when i sat sketching out on a notepad the initial version of what would become BridgeU, in my mum's kitchen!
Your product uses machine learning - keen to understand more...
Admissions is similar to a lot of key moments of our lives, where we make decisions today that might impact our futures tomorrow, and don't really understand, or at least struggle to have any control over the outcomes. One of the benefits of machine learning is that it enables us to close the feedback loop behind those inputs and potential outputs in order to create something that is predictive, based on an ever growing volume of data. This then gives you a more accurate or realistic sense of what for example (in the case of admissions) might be your chance of acceptance onto a particular programme...
There are 40,000 courses in the UK alone and that data (along with new available course information, and employment stats from said courses) is constantly changing, and so its very hard for students and secondary schools to manage that volume of data in an effective way, based on a diverse set of criteria. The machine learning we perform is helpful because it takes real admissions data and closes that feedback loop to expose results that over time, constantly become smarter. BridgeU is really trying to make a notoriously opaque process more transparent, and in so doing we are able to equip schools and students with the tools to make smarter decisions.
What is the long term vision for the company as well as more imminent milestones?
We have a global customer base and will be opening a HK office in the Autumn. We will also launch Singapore and Australia as destinations this year. It's an important part of our growth plan that we are seen as a one destination space where students can compare and contrast courses globally. At some point we also plan to raise another round of funding to fuel growth. However, this year is about taking the early traction we have built in certain segments and solidifying this to become the market leader across those segments.
What are some of the KPIs that you measure success by for both the business and your team?
For a SaaS business, we have traditional KPIs like MoM growth, churn, ARR. However, engagement is an area we are increasingly concentrating on as a way of constantly improving the product, and ensuring high retention. This is with all our user groups - students, parents and schools. Key revenue millstones are also pretty big, particularly year on year, in order to re-establish ourselves as one of the faster growing Edtech businesses.
Women in Tech
Can you share your fundraising history as well as your experience and advice for women looking to raise capital?
On the one hand fund raising is scientific and on the other it’s a complete art. In my experience, institutional fund raising from VCs and funds is very heavy on the relationship side so you need a rock star in your team who has high levels of emotional intelligence and is good at building relationships with lots of people, in a short period of time. Early relationships that I made from Seedcamp became very useful 6-9 months down the line, when I was raising a significant amount. Founders sometimes forget how long they really should be building the relationship with the fund before investment – the average is apparently 6 months. This is something that people need to remember - it’s a slow burn process. So quitting your job and expecting to raise funding very quickly is not realistic.
Parts of the ecosystem, however, are supporting this process in a powerful way, in my view. For example, the accelerator programmes in London and in other tech-hubs around the world can be really valuable. And there is an emerging segment of angels, who are part of the community, and highly incentivised through government schemes like EIS/SEIS. How you tap into these independently wealthy people is not obvious though, and an area that I believe warrants improvement.
Do you consciously think about building a diverse team and how can we do better to attract and retain more women in those teams?
My team is diverse in certain ways, but still quite male --- something my co-founder, Hywel Carver, and i often think about ways to change. We are racially diverse, though, which is unusual for a tech company and something we're proud of, and over half our team hold non-UK passports. We also attract male candidates (largely from traditional engineering backgrounds) who are big fans of diversity, and are particularly attracted by the opportunity to be part of a tech team that actively solicits and celebrates people from different demographic and cultural backgrounds.
How do you learn CEO skills as a young founder - any tips?
I learn through seeing and experiencing, as well as building relationships with others; I have been quite active in reaching out to older founders through my Seedcamp and Octopus networks. Seasoned founders in those communities have embraced me and they have been really generous with their time and energy, which has aided my professional development tremendously. This has been the best way for me to learn and I can’t recommend this tactic enough.