Learning the easy way: Elevate Education’s Douglas Barton

Douglas Barton, 34, was a high-school kid who could recall and regurgitate knowledge in the exam rooms.

He found himself in law school and realised students could bring notes in to exams. He realised “the key skill isn’t being able to simply memorise a lot of information, it is being able to learn and understand the information that you’re given”.

His realisation turned into Elevate Education, a business that employs about 100 trainers (with an average age of 21) who go into schools in the UK, Australia and South Africa, and teach students how to learn and study. The business has annual revenue of approximately $3 million and Barton expects it to grow by 120% next year

A lot of Elevate Education’s expansion has been due to word of mouth. As teachers see results in their students, they take their experiences with them to other schools and spread the word.

Number one I’ve tried to build the kind of business where, when I wake up on a Monday morning, I want to go to work. Unlike a lot of start-ups, we didn’t build this to sell.

At the end of the day students don’t really care about how the brain works, what they want is something they can take home and use immediately today or tonight.

The presenters who do all the training are young guys and girls who have recently graduated their final year class.

For the first six months we ran everything for free as a chance to get in there and show what we could do.

I don’t think cost is an issue. But I think risk is. Most schools have been burned by sub-standard providers in the past and that makes them fairly risk averse.

If something’s bad people will talk about it very quickly and, equally, if something’s good then the word spreads very quickly.

To keep everything tight-knit there’s a high focus on technology to organise presenters and schedule them across schools.

The company almost lives a virtual existence relative to our staff, so it means we’ve spent a lot of time developing team structure in each state, and spent a lot of time developing culture so there is a sense of identity across each of these states, even though they don’t have an office.

One of the things I’ve learned over the past 10 years is the more responsibility you throw at staff and the more ownership you allow them to develop around their role and around the job, the more they identify with it.

We basically developed our own systems from scratch. Finding something that’s out of the box or off the shelf is pretty difficult. We’ve borrowed a lot of social networking elements so a presenter in Melbourne can share best practice in Brisbane.

One of the things we really prioritise in our recruitment is value-based recruitment, finding the right staff member who will really buy into the mission that we have. Similarly, we’re looking for presentable staff who have a track record of leadership and working independently.

Staff are in on options agreements and once the options agreements are exercised then they’ve got shareholder agreements and so on. If you’re going to get someone to pick up and move their life overseas they’re going to want a bit more to go on than a gentleman’s agreement. 

The challenge over the next two to three years is to maintain that 100% year-on-year growth. Luckily at the moment we don’t need a lot of strategic change to get there, we just need to maintain what we have.

We aim to change the way students view their potential and create opportunities for them at school, and more than anything we want to change the opportunities for what happens after school.

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