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Could This Welsh Town Be the Next Edtech Silicon Valley?

06/04/2016 10:57

The Welsh coastal town of Fishguard in Pembrokeshire is about as far away from London's Silicon Roundabout as you can get. With the town is situated in the UK's only coastal National Park, surrounded by mountains and a picturesque shoreline with colourful fishing boats dotted along the quay. Tourism and fishing have long played a key part in its economy but, thanks to former teacher Duncan Wilson, it is now rapidly becoming an Edtech hotspot as well.

Duncan is a paradigm example of a "teacherpreneur": a passionate teacher, honest, open and caring, with an eye for finding innovative ways of helping fellow teachers to save time. He got a job as a chemistry teacher in Fishguard 20 years ago, and has since spent his whole career there. Four years ago, however, he made a life-changing decision to leave his job to run his own tech business full-time.

Something happened at his school that, no matter how unlikely, gave Duncan one of his greatest tech inspirations to date: an Ofsted inspection. The imminent inspection led Duncan to be given a Mission Impossible by his headteacher - to generate PowerPoint slides containing an accurate seating plan of every class in the school featuring detailed information about pupils.

Duncan found a tech solution. Indeed his seating plans wowed Ofsted, who commended them as an example of excellence. The genesis of what would become his flagship Edtech product, ClassCharts, was born.

Determined to drum up support for his new idea, Duncan applied to pitch his idea for digital seating plans to a Dragons' Den-style panel of at the Bett Show, the world's largest education exhibition, in 2012. To his surprise, his application was successful, and he was asked to deliver his pitch.

It was after this experience that Duncan decided to go "all in" and leave his job as a teacher to work on his company, EduKey, full time. This was a risky decision leading to "a year of sleepless nights". But Duncan decided he needed to commit wholeheartedly to working on his product ideas for them to succeed, working with his colleague, Lithuanian maths champ Gintas Sasnauskas.

For a whole year, the EduKey project was touch-and-go. But Duncan says he put his "heart and soul into it ". And, gradually, it paid off. He launched ClassCharts, where teachers digitally record the behaviour of students in class, using a clever algorithm to provide teachers with an ideal seating chart that helps to minimise disruption in the classroom.

A powerful tool, not least when the UK is facing its worst-ever teacher shortage. Word of ClassCharts spread from school to school and he now has a rapidly growing user base of over 350,000 teachers and four-million students.

This attracted the attention of one of the biggest names in European Edtech, TES Global, which acquired a stake in the company sum last month. EduKey has this week also been approved as a full member of the British Educational Suppliers Association, meaning schools can have full confidence in the quality of the products they purchase from them.

Duncan claims he now plans to recruit a new member of staff every week for the next 16 weeks. The secret to his recruitment strategy? Hire your students! "This is something I would advise to any fellow teacher entrepreneurs," Duncan claims. Currently 70% of his team are ex-pupils. "It is my 'ace in the hole'," he says. "You've known them from 11, you know they're reliable, that they're smart and have a trustworthy personality."

It seems to work: his staff churn to date is an unbeatable 0%. Duncan recalls that his first hire was former pupil Jamie, who had a 2:1 in Business Information but, prior to joining EduKey, had been working as a butcher in a local supermarket. His next employee, Nia, had a first-class degree in criminology but had been working in a pound shop.

His recruitment tactics are unorthodox, but incredibly effective. He gives his employees £30 to, "go round pubs and find people who you know I used to teach". They then pass on details of job openings at EduKey, which has led to numerous successful hires.

Duncan's ambition is global, but he is deeply committed to "building a sustainable business in Fishguard with jobs for local people that have a worldwide reach". No map of the UK's Edtech hotspots would now be complete without Fishguard on it, and it seems only a matter of time before other companies join him there.

"It's great for tech businesses," Duncan says, "overheads are low, there is Welsh Assembly Government support, it's a peaceful lifestyle with lots of high-quality graduates." And to top it off, the surfing is apparently great too. Surely it would be hard for Silicon Roundabout to compete?

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