Founded in Christchurch six years ago, school app startup Skool Loop is now in more than 700 schools throughout Australia and New Zealand, but 52-year-old founder Sharlene Barnes says slow and steady wins the race.
Born out of frustration with school communication, Skool Loop digitises the contact between schools and households, with newsletters and event information being distributed via the app.
Schools can also send permission slips to be signed digitally — instead of left crumpled in the bottom of bags — and the app can send push notifications in the case of an emergency.
Having raised her own family and struggled with the dreaded surprise gold-coin day, Barnes says she came up with the idea for an app, and started looking for a developer to help her build it.
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“I knew what I wanted,” she says, “most [developers] said it would never work”.
Eventually, however, Barnes found a team to help her build the product, and now it’s up and running in 700 schools throughout New Zealand and Australia.
Initially, Barnes says she didn’t spend much on marketing, mainly pushing the product through email campaigns.
Facebook and Instagram help the startup stay in touch with the families of school children. But when one school in an area signs up, Skool Loop will “politely approach the others”, Barnes says.
“Always be that squeaky wheel,” she advises.
Barnes says she took a fairly relaxed approach to growth, thinking through every decision properly, and “trying to hold back on the ego a wee bit, because that can often get in the way”.
Largely, she has let her intuition guide her, she says.
“When things aren’t working, they’re not working for a reason, and you have to rethink things.”
Breaking the mould
Barnes doesn’t have a tech background — her experience lies in advertising — however, she says she always felt capable of running her own business.
While it was scary to “take the leap”, Barnes believes in the old adage of “feel the fear, and do it anyway”.
At 52 years old, and as a grandmother, Barnes doesn’t fit your ‘typical’ startup founder stereotype. However, she says for her this is the best time to launch her own venture.
“I’m sure a lot of women would resonate with this,” she says.
“We’ve bought up our families, done all those hard yards … we’ve got a lot of life experience,” she adds.
“I don’t think I could do what I’m doing now if I was in my 20s.”
As an older-and-wiser founder, Barnes also says she has “a bit more perspective” as to what’s important to her.
“One of the most important things to me is work-life balance,” she says.
“I’ve never put my family or my health on the line. To me, if it was going to work it was going to work. If it didn’t, I knew I could minimise the damage.”
That’s not to say she hasn’t worked long hours, or given the startup her full attention at times, she adds — it’s more about balance.
“Try to get a walk in and to eat well,” she says.
Know your foundations
Barnes advises founders to surround themselves with people who know how to do the things they don’t, “and if they don’t believe in you, walk away”.
In her case, this meant finding a developer and a tech team who understood her vision.
“Technology doesn’t belong to young people,” she says.
She also advises founders to know the foundations of their business. For her, this is in customer service, and she’s trained every employee to be “100% there for everybody who needs the help”.
Another key foundation is a focus on employee development and training, plus support for those who are parents.
“It’s about making decisions about what’s important to you early,” she says.
Looking after both customers and employees means “you get loyalty”, she adds.
“It all pays back.”
Finally, on a more practical level, Barnes advises founders to brush up on employment laws. Not having the right kinds of contracts in place can cause serious problems down the line, she says.
“I’ve learnt from experience,” she adds.
In fact, she recommends taking outside counsel when it comes to contracts.
“It’s much better to pay … for an outside company to help with contracts that to go down an unpleasant road with an ex-employee,” she says.