The social startup that nurtures talent
Chances are, at least one kid did not bring in homework today for lack of understanding. As much as we hate to admit it, the education system is struggling, and over 100 million euros are spent each year onextracurricular tutoring in Austria alone. Local startup talentify tries to take this problem head on. Bernhard Hofer (29) is CEO and cofounder of the online platform talentify and built his company with a strong belief that one can learn anything with the right support.
From junior company to startup
After a pilot project with 75 students earlier this year, talentify launched their private beta phase several partner schools in mid-October. The idea for the business, however, started over ten years ago when Bernhard went to school in Innsbruck and experienced an interesting development. While he entered the technical high-school (HTL) from a private school background and took up new subjects and challenges easily, some of his classmates, entering from public schools (especially from “Hauptschule”), struggled or even dropped out within the first months. “I was wondering about that and when I had a closer look on where the kids came from, I realised that those from private schools just came from a better social background or had a higher household income than those from the public schools,” says Bernhard.
Talentify plays the matchmaker for tutoring sessions; Photo credit: talentify
So, Bernhard and some classmates came up with a concept for a social buddy system where an older student would help a newbie with homeworkor studying. Eventually, the tutoring project lead to the founding of a JUNIOR company project called “Easy Learning”. For a fixed rate of eight euros per hour students provided tutoring lessons. Six euros went to the tutors, and two euros went to the JUNIOR company to be spent on basic advertisement like flyers or brochures. “The students liked it, the school liked it and the parents also liked it. For some, our mutual support service was even a reason to send their kids to that particular school,” the CEO explains with some pride.
When Bernhard talks about education his thoughts seem to race, his voice sometimes reaches a higher pitch and he starts quoting facts from student indexes or reports on the Austrian education landscape. One gets the feeling that this is a topic he holds dear. For him, it is unimaginable to run a business without a social background as this is his core drive: “Most people say we’ll probably kill ourselves in 100 years, if we don’t care for our environment. But I think this will be a much quicker process if we forget how to take care of each other.”
Most people say we’ll probably kill ourselves in 100 years, if we don’t care for our environment. But I think this will be a much quicker process if we forget how to take care of each other.”
Having finished school, Bernhard started studying business informatics and founded the student magazine “zeitlos” together with fellow students. Other things gained importance and the Easy Learning idea slowly ebbed away. “The school was not able to keep the tutoring service going. They had other problems and did not have the energy and the resources. That’s when I realised that such projects need to be driven by great motivation to sustain.” After his studies, Bernhard went to Vienna and worked at the marketing agency kraftwerk and later got a job with a software development firm to build up their branch office in Vienna.
“Although I had a job as a branch manager, many people envied me for, I decided to build my own business because I knew that was not a job I wanted to do for the next ten years or so. I wasn’t happy and that also influenced my work and I was not able to give a hundred per cent anymore.”
A sleepless night and a rebirth
In November 2013, Bernhard attended the Austrian Business Angel Day where he heard a discussion about social entrepreneurship and was surprised by the reaction of the audience. The panel asked the investors if they knew about social entrepreneurship or would give money for that and when only one person raised their hand Bernhard started pondering. “I asked myself, why? Because I found this concept very interesting – the mix between non-profit on the one hand, and the capitalistic business part on the other hand.” After the event he was so excited, he literally couldn’t sleep and describes his inner struggle of staying up all night and rummaging in a box with his old JUNIOR business documents. “I looked at my handwritten notes from years ago, woke up my wife and started talking about a business idea. In the end, I was up until four or five in the morning writing a new business concept.”
A major boost in finally realising the project was also the Social Impact Start programme run by SAP where he got office space in Impact Hub Vienna, met people from Ashoka, Teach for Austria, i2B, AWS and exchanged experiences with other founders.
Learning to listen
Students mapping their interests in the talentify workshop; Photo credit: taletify
From May to June Bernhard started a pilot project where he and his team talked to students and parents and organised workshops. Rather than developing detailed plans and timelines, talentifybets on the feedback of students to further develop their services according to their needs. „There is no point in writing a business plan and after half a year realising your calculations were wrong. That’s why we decided to get our idea out as soon as possible. We ask students what they lack in school, what topics interest them most and how they want to improve their skills. Based on the outcomes of the sessions we then develop, for example, creativity trainings, or sessions to explore one’s skills and at the same time provide learning assistance.”
The rapid development and the good feedback motivated them to take this idea to the next level by developing an online platform that connects the students and was just started as private beta. Users can sign up for a workshop, offer and search for learning assistance and collect or spend bonus points for services they offer or use. “This ensures a sustainable circle of the peer-to-peer network and they keep motivated by an incentive system with some playful elements. We want to set the basis for the matchmaking – all other steps are left to the students.”
A win-win for businesses and students
Today, the cofounders of talentify Bernhard Hofer, Doris Hofer and Clarissa Böck, are an active trio when it comes to shaping opportunities for young people in Austria. The responsibilities in the young company are clearly divided but the transitions can be fluid, as Bernhard explains. While the young CEO focuses on strategic issues, his wife and co-founder Doris cares about Marketing and PR. Clarissa Böck, the third member of the founder team, is responsible for the pedagogical support and connects their services to schools.
“We wanted to build talentify as a social business and want to finance ourselves without being dependent on donations or funds,” says Bernhard. And in establishing partnerships with businesses such as SAP and Erste Bank he saw a chance to solve two problems at once. “What students learn in school is very often not what they need in a normal work setting such as creativity, problem solving or teamspirit. And companies, on the other hand, are especially looking for young minds with those skills.” So, the partner companies decided to work together with the service of talentify in order to recruit a new generation of motivated employees. While Bernhard and his team provide workshops for those who aim to improve their skills, talentify again play the matchmaker when businesses are offering jobs. “A company is not great by itself but it is great because it has great employees.”