Confused much? Don’t be. We haven’t turned into fairy tale writers – not just yet. Though this may be a good time to do so, as the next few lines will be about math. And who doesn’t need at least a little bit of magic to turn the solving of equations or, God forbid, inequalities into a game? For what I know, it would have made my primary school math experience much more painless.
The truth is, kids learn faster when they’re having fun. And if 15 years ago my classmates and I weren’t able to learn math while playing a computer game, today’s third-, fourth graders (and beyond) have little to nothing to complain about. Kiril Rusev sure is on it. He, his brother Dilyan, and friend Nikola Kosev co-founded Jumpido earlier this year in their attempt to revolutionise the education system in Bulgaria by providing schools with educational gaming software focused on primary school mathematics. The fairy scenario above is only one of their tricks to get kids interested. “We chose to start with math because it’s more or less universal in every country,” says Kiril.
In the light of all fairness, though, the verb “start” in the previous sentence is slightly taken out of context. Because Kiril’s founding experience started, in fact, five years ago.
‘Every idea is born from a need’
It was in 2008. They were four friends – three guys and a girl with engineering background from the technical university. All of them were avid users of new technologies, and felt the desire to create and launch their own project. “I have always wanted to start something myself,” says Kiril, both of whose parents have previous entrepreneurial experience. But “something” was perhaps as precise as their idea was at the beginning. Coming up with a specific project was difficult, as the areas they could go into were too many.
So Kiril, Nikola, Dilyan and Raya considered Imagine Cup. They knew the team, which had won the local competition in 2009, and had closely followed their progress. As a result, the four were the ones competing for the prize a year later. (For the record, they made it to the worldwide finals in Egypt). Their challenge was to “Imagine a world where technology helps solve the world’s toughest problems”, based on the United Nations’ eight Millenium Development Goals. Although this didn’t really narrow down their choices, one area struck a cord – education. Knowledge, Kiril believes, is the foundation for solving problems in many other areas.
“Every idea is born from a need,” he says. And one look at Bulgaria was enough to identify the need to trigger their idea: School children lacked an interest in in-class activities. Lessons needed to be made fun and easy-to-grasp, and modern technology was there to help. “We wanted to take something familiar and build on the structures that already existed.”
So they came up with Envision – a teaching system that employs a computer for the teacher, a mouse connected to that computer for every student in the class, and a projector, so lessons could be held interactively. Say, the teacher wanted to test how many students knew the names of Saturn’s moons. They would ask the question on the screen, and the students would be able to answer it with a click of their mouse.
Photo credit: JumpidoStarting from scratch
“When we started up, there wasn’t really much of a startup culture in Bulgaria, so many people thought we were crazy,” says Kiril. “Well, maybe we were a little,” he then laughs. He, for one, was in the UK doing his Master’s when he had to decide whether to stay and get a job, or go back home and start a company. Retrospectively, the choice was quite clear. In 2009, the team of four founded Nimero.
None of them came from a teaching background, so they didn’t really know anybody in education. “At the beginning, I used to go to schools and try to sell Envision,” Kiril remembers. “The response was more or less the same everywhere: As long as we didn’t have the approval of MON [the Ministry of Education and Science] or any recommendations, school directors weren’t willing to take things any further.”
Gradually and with the support of already existing contacts, the team got to know three teachers who had heard about Envision and wanted to test it. The only problem was that in order to demonstrate its features, the team needed content. “We didn’t have any, so we sat down and put together two lessons ourselves,” Kiril remembers with a smile, “one about the solar system and one about the coral reefs. Quite amateurish, I have to say.” But that didn’t seem to matter – they received positive feedback.
“The fact that we were a young team working to improve the education system was perhaps what made these teachers believe in us,” says Kiril. The good word of mouth spread, and at the beginning of the school year 2009/10, Envision was introduced in three schools in Sofia.
Content goes beyond the Milky Way
The lesson about the solar system that they put together themselves was a piece of cake compared to the high-quality content they wanted to produce. On the one hand, the initial feedback helped them get the attention of another 30 teachers. On the other, there was a problem. “To create content, people wanted money. And again, we had none,” says Kiril.
So they came up with something “clever”, which Kiril still believes was one of their best ideas. “We asked these 30 teachers to create about ten lessons each and in exchange, we gave them our software at a 50% discount. It was a 3in1 shot – we got money, content, and people who could give us feedback.”
Their pilot in the school year 2009/10 was a lift-off – they ended the year with with revenues of 12.000 leva (about 6.000 euros). And things went up from there. In 2011, the company reported revenues of 90.000 leva (about 45.000 euros) and those reached 150.000 leva (about 75.000 euros) in 2012. Today, over 200 schools and a total of 20.000 students in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and the US, among others, use Envision.
The takeaway from that experience has been that “Bulgarian teachers are looking towards new technologies as a means to their work. Our success with Nimero showed us that there is definitely a market for developing innovative ideas in the field of education.” Launching Jumpido was thus a logical next step.
Photo credit: Jumpido1+1 does equal 2
“Initially, we created Jumpido as a product of Nimero, but we soon had to split the company into two separate entities,” says Kiril. The team applied for an investment from LAUNCHub, but since Nimero’s annual revenues exceeded 50K euros, they weren’t eligible to go any further unless they entered as a smaller enterprise. Jumpido was founded, and it seems it was a good call.
“An investment at the right moment can help a lot in realising a startup’s ideas,” Kiril has come to know. “A few years back we used to think differently. We didn’t want to give out any shares, because we wanted the company to be only ours. Clearly, we’ve matured over time,” he laughs.
Currently, Kiril is in the process of leaving Nimero as CEO and focusing on his work as CEO of Jumpido instead. The newstartup’s team counts four members – Kiril and his brother Dilyan (25), Nikola Kosev (27) – the UX guru, and Dimitar Stankov (32) who recently joined as the “sales guy”, and is going to help the fresh company scale. “Right now, Jumpido is being used by 35 schools in Bulgaria. Another 125 in Turkey will introduce it at the beginning of this school year,” says Kiril proudly. The team has also launched a pilot in Macedonia, is soon to take another country onboard and is looking to expand to the UK, US, and perhaps also Australia.
On the other hand, Envision has been licensed to 1000 classes, each of which pays 199 euros a year. “This makes roughly 10 leva [5 euros] per kid per year,” says Kiril. “And that’s by targeting public schools. If we were to target parents directly, we could be selling licenses for 10 leva per kid per month. The potential is quite big, but we’re not there yet,” he adds with the poise of somebody determined to get “there”.
Looking back, that fairy scenario from the first paragraph may not have been coincidental, after all. If you follow the pointers and complete your quests, you’ll win the prize of being forever smart. Now what if the prize was to bring knowledge to the ones who’d like to be “forever smart”? By following the challenges along their way, Kiril and his team may well be the heroes of their own quest.