Lucy Stonehill - Re-imagining the Education Workflow!

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! 



Meet Lucy

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

Favourite book/blog/podcast Blogs would include: First Round, a16z and Tomsaz Tunguz. Books include: Crossing the Chasm and 4-Hour Work Week – this got me into the whole start up world.  

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. 

Hottest tech company at the moment (apart from BridgeU!) Property Partner and what3words. I also like Farmdrop...I find increasingly that I am drawn to mission-led startups. 


The Journey

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.

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Vanessa Gstettenbauer - Investing in our Future Founders!

Over an early breakfast at The Wolseley I was dazzled by the energy, passion and vision of Vanessa! We met at an investor networking drinks where we were able to discuss a little about women in VC and the future of investment but I was excited to hear her full account! Vanessa is a senior investment manager at Founders Factory (more on that later) and has been trailblazing the investment eco-system ever since leaving her graduate investment banking job. She is passionate about education and health and the opportunity for technology to have an impact in these arenas. Enjoy her honest and fascinating reflections! 


Meet Vanessa

Current Job Senior Investment Manager at Founders Factory 

First Job Research analyst at Simon-Kucher & Partners (strategy consulting) throughout my three years at University. I worked with them c10-15 hours/week doing everything from excel jobs to pricing models. 

Go to meeting spot It was Campus London but now my office is West so I have been frequenting the Blanche Eatery

Favourite book Hooked by Nir Eyal 

Necessary extravagance Barrecore classes! 

Favourite productivity tool WorkFlowy 

Favourite place in London Archer Street - I grew up doing lots of Musical Theatre, especially at University, and absolutely love the atmosphere in there. Best place to have a few drinks and get into a great mood!

Female inspiration in business Martha Lane Fox 

Top networking tip It's not about 'working the room' and artificially instigating as many conversations as possible. It is to start conversations until you find someone you genuinely click with and actually enjoy talking to. That will form a much deeper bond and the chance of you staying in touch is infinitely higher.

Most interesting tech startup in London right now The Skills Academy 


The Journey

How and why did you enter the investment paradigm? 

I studied chemistry and grew up in DaimlerChrysler city in Germany so I imagined going into business meets tech/engineering. But upon moving to the UK I was hit hard by the bank propaganda, and was led to believe that I would learn the most starting my career in banking. After only 6 months I realised I was unstimulated and bored.

I wasn't targeting to get into VC but I happened to come across a job spec and everything it said I wanted to do! There were so many synergies between my passions/background and Holtzbrinck Digital as they focus on edtech and science software, I think this is ultimately why I got the job over the third year analysts they were initially seeking. They were very patient and so I finished a year at Bank of America Merrill Lynch and I joined them in summer 2014. I was an analyst for 6 months before being promoted to investment manager of the education fund - an incredible baptism of fire. I then made the leap to Founders Factory upon the deal between Holtzbrinck and FF.  

What is your motivation? 

My ethos is that tech can do so much good for the world, I feel we have only begun to scratch the surface of tech's potential to revolutionise. Currently there is still a bit of a money race chasing after valuations and not enough money and focus is being directed at the big problems facing society (Magic Leap is valued at $4.5bn with no product! If there is this much attention and investment into a VR game imagine the advances we could make if more was aimed at addressing health/refugees/education). I love the Founders Pledge for this reason - it allows entrepreneurs to make a difference and commit to donate 2% of their personal proceeds to a social cause of their choice following an exit. 

What is the most exciting thing you are working on right now? 

At Founders Factory we also build our own startups in the incubation side of the business. The concept is to launch a new company every 6 months in each of the identified sectors. There will be 6 sectors and we will work alongside a relevant corporate for each to help us figure out the trends and pain points. FF have partnered with Holtzbrinck for education and The Guardian for media and we will announce the partners for fintech/beauty/telecoms and retail imminently! 

So it was very exciting for me to chair the latest edtech ideation workshop with Holtzbrinck! We had 5 of the most knowledgeable edtech sector experts in the room resulting in a huge outpouring of ideas. We prioritised and begun doing more research into market sizes and where we might have the best advantage in the Factory to build upon. 

What has been your biggest challenge? 

Being a woman you are naturally quite emotional and I do find it hard to work with people who are seemingly incredibly confident all the time. I am a very secure person too but also prone to doubt and question if I have done the right thing. This is particularly challenging in VC where no one is checking your work. However, after a year and a half I have more perspective and I am more forgiving on myself if I do make mistakes - we are just human after all! 

What are your future ambitions? 

I want to start my own company eventually, likely in edtech or healthtech! I have numerous unfinished ideas: reskilling individuals whose jobs won't exist in the future or addressing fair salaries for women. In the long term however, I am passionate about being a smart money investor as I love the variety it offers. 


Founders Factory

Tell us about Founders Factory and your role there

We're a new model in business creation with extraordinary ambition and breadth. Together with our blue chip corporate partners, we build and scale early stage technology companies across multiple sectors.  We invest capital and resources in building the next generation of breakout technology businesses at an unprecedented scale. We will build and scale 200 early stage technology companies across multiple sectors in the next five years. We are born out of the Founders Forum; the top network of entrepreneurs and business leaders, giving us unparalleled access to corporate partners, audiences, and access to capital. 

I reside in the corporate development team as well as doing business development - so I am involved in both the acceleration and incubation parts of Founders Factory - it is a wonderfully varied role! I am heavily engaged operationally with our companies - I help them set goals, track performance, help with their pitches, business plans and partnerships right through to the fundraising. I also develop close relationships with the VC eco-system to ascertain the best mutual fit for our startups. We try to be very bespoke in this regard and perfect the matching of startups and VCs always aiming for more intimate connections rather than large-scale reach outs. 

Do you have an investment thesis? 

Because of our world class team of experienced operators and global network, we have the ability to attract the best ideas and talent. It’s more of a mutual attraction. We’re looking for ideas that will change industries using technology and entrepreneurs behind those ideas that are attracted to our unique proposition. We are getting involved with very early stage companies, hence there aren't always huge number sets to base decisions on - that actually makes it more interesting I believe. It's about the team, their ambition and in the end the trust you have in them delivering on their promises.

What technology trends excite you right now?

Definitely virtual reality! For example, Viorama a Berlin based VR startup recently launched Splash - A VR video sharing platform that aims to make capturing and publishing 360 videos easy - all from your smartphone without any VR hardware. Such innovation taking place! 


Women in Tech

What advice do you have for women looking to start their own business or enter the investing landscape? 

If you have an idea there are some incredible incubators and accelerators to help you get it off the ground. Founders Factory are also in the process of launching a different kind of program called Founders of the Future. Selected members of the Founders of the Future community will enjoy quarterly events, access to a group of exceptional peers and Founders Forum members, funding and career advice, and key guidance towards the challenge to work on making a positive impact on the world. Lastly there is a great emphasis on women in tech so leverage that. Go to lots of meetings and convince as many people as possible of your vision - you never know what could come out of it. 

We are increasingly moving to a new working order yet so many of the brightest graduates continue to go and work for a big bank or consultancy. What would you say to them to cut through that rhetoric and consider joining a startup? 

You almost get manipulated into thinking that banking and consultancy are the only routes to learning a skill set - but it is a complete farce! I have learnt infinitely more after a year in VC and 6 months in the Factory with more responsibility than my equivalents in the banks. In banking you are close to your associate who is close to their VP etc etc - everybody checks your work so you have no accountability. Counter to this, when you are creating what is going to drive the deal that will make you learn anything. Furthermore, the sleep deprivation makes you more dumbed down - I was slower and not excited about anything. Yes startups fail and yes the banks and consultancies pay more initially, but the difference in earning potential 10 years later is huge and it is a lot more enjoyable to be intellectually stimulated on a daily basis, working with future technologies and incredibly passionate entrepreneurs. 

What business support networks do you value?

I like to be friends with my team and get to know them beyond colleagues - it makes me want to do my job every day! I have also kept a lot of my previous bosses as mentors. I also co-founded the London VC Circle which organises networking events based primarily around activities. We have done a polo and a golf day and have an upcoming clay pigeon shooting event. These kind of events really facilitate a bond and help you build a network in the industry - you need that emotional connection. 

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