Going on an adult education course to study garden design planted the seed for Elspeth Briscoe’s edtech business Learning with Experts. She recalls the first session: “The others all turned up with notebooks and pens, while I’d brought my laptop. I put us all on Skype, so we could communicate easily amongst ourselves. We collaborated a lot throughout and at the end of the course, our tutor told us our class results were the best they’d ever had.”
Fast-forward eight years and Briscoe is celebrating raising £800,000 in the latest funding round for Oxford-based Learning with Experts. Not only did she and her team smash their £750,000 target but the cash comes from an impressive line-up of high-net-worth Angel investors including Rupert Pennant-Rea, ex-deputy governor of the Bank of England and former editor of The Economist.
The Learning with Experts business model is deliberately disruptive, explains Briscoe. It draws on her earlier experience with the garden design course, combining what she describes as “the magic that results from the tribal environment in a school classroom,” with the best elements of online distance learning, to allow scale-up.
Learning with Experts offers courses on six main subjects – gardening, food and drink, jewellery, photography, floristry and antiques. All 55 tutors are experts in their field, hence the name of the company. The line-up includes Royal florist Shane Connolly who designed the flowers for Kate Middleton and Prince William’s wedding; ex-De Beers and BBC TV Antiques Roadshow jewellery expert and presenter Joanna Hardy; ITV’s The Wine Show presenter Amelia Singer. There’s also a raft of cookery and gardening courses from the BBC’s Good Food and Gardener’s World magazine teams.
The BBC Good Food courses, including one on how to make sour dough, are “selling like hot cakes,” Briscoe says, revealing she’s already in talks with celebrity chef Raymond Blanc and other ‘A-listers’, as she uses this latest funding to expand the company’s squad of expert tutors.
Learners have access to weekly video lessons, presented by an expert and supplemented by downloadable notes. The really clever bit is the interactive element – students are placed in a group and can see and respond to live comments from classmates. They’re given regular homework assignments and are able to see not only their own one-to-one feedback from the tutor but also that of everyone else in their class – leading to Great-British-Bake-Off style levels of friendly competition.
Class sizes are deliberately kept small to encourage bonding, according to chief technology officer Daniel Rosewarne, who joined in 2015 after initial seed funding raised £450,000. He’s racked up 25 years’ experience at international organisations such as Oxfam, Xerox and Greenpeace plus a succession of startups. He explains: “We deliberately cap the class at 20, so everyone gets to know each other and feels comfortable. With our courses, you can buy and start them at any time and because everything that happens in the classroom is transparent, you see what’s gone before. It’s not just about getting to the end of it: people love the experience of learning.”
This camaraderie mixed with healthy rivalry, Briscoe believes, is the reason for Learning with Experts’ course-completion rate of 80 per cent – a stark contrast with the online learning sector en masse, which suffers from an 80 per cent drop-out rate, on average.
She says: “We believe people study better when they’re not alone, because you’re in a class with a lot of others motivating you to keep going.”
The business has amassed 33,000 registered learners – it’s possible to sign up and access a certain amount of free information on the website without doing a course – and 7,500 paying students. Some stick to one subject and work their way through related courses, while others are ‘magpies’, who prefer to collect knowledge across a disparate range of topics. Learners are drawn from 58 countries, adding an extra layer of interest. “Learning should be fun,” points out Briscoe. “It’s not about ticking boxes or rote learning. It’s richness and diversity and it’s incredibly diverse to be learning with, say, classmates from South Korea, Michigan, Florence and Surrey – comparing notes about floristry which you’re all passionate about.”
Sales doubled between 2017 and 2018 and more than 10,000 lessons have been taught. The company has won awards for its website and business model and was shortlisted for the Innovation category at this year’s Oxford Trust Enterprise Awards.
The model works equally well for the business-to-business market and Learning with Experts already runs certified courses for trade organisations such as Goldsmiths and the Royal Horticultural Society.
Speaking of credentials, Briscoe has the kind of background investors adore, having held senior strategy roles at tech giants eBay and Skype. She was also involved in helping turn The Guardian newspaper digital. At eBay, she was manager of the UK community team and in charge of top sellers, while at Skype she was telecoms director. “I’m one of the ‘Skype Mafia’,” she jokes, alluding to how many Skype alumni have gone on to start ventures.
Briscoe, a mother of three, points out wryly that only two to four per cent of Angel investment goes to female entrepreneurs, something she would like to see change.
She cites Oxford’s startup and innovation ecosystem as key to her company’s success so far: “The turning point was last year’s Venturefest,” she says. As contenders in the Dragons-Den style Pitch for Success event, they also became more closely involved with the Oxford Investment Opportunity Network (OION).
This second connection, spearheaded by OION managing director Jens Tholstrup, proved crucial, as this led to a showcase investor pitch at an OION event at Rathbones in London, where they met Rupert Pennant-Rea and subsequently secured the £800,000 Angel investment. Pennant-Rea, who has also joined Learning with Experts as chairman, is a walking advertisement for life-long learning, having just completed a GCSE in Science aged 71.
Meanwhile, Briscoe has her eyes on the prize ahead: “Our ambition is to own the online adult learning space. More than 60 million people have said they will pay for an online course in the next year and that’s just the UK and US, so if we get three per cent of that…”