Susan Burton is the CEO and founder of Classlist, a rapidly expanding community app for school parents. Their mission is to create thriving school communities by making it easier for school parents to connect with other parents, help each other and fundraise for their schools. More than 300,000 parents use the app in 16 countries – and this reach is growing by the day.
Susan initially qualified as a Chartered Accountant and worked as a PwC Management Consultant. However, after personally experiencing the difficulties of networking with other school parents, Susan decided to set up Classlist in 2015.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I’m an ex-management consultant. I worked for PwC for a long time and this training means that you’re always looking to solve problems – problems within the organisation and problems for clients. I’m also quite impatient with the status quo, I have a low tolerance and I always think something can be better. This definitely drives me.
It was through my own personal experience that I recognised the need for Classlist. I found it difficult to contact other parents because I was told by the school it was against GDPR. I realised this needed to change, so I founded Classlist to enable school parents to form a network with each other in a way that was fully GDPR-compliant. Through solving my own personal problem, I also helped out a lot of other people. We are very customer driven and so there is a constant improvement of our product based on the small problems or requests customers bring to our attention. For example, some people came to us saying they wanted a way to arrange gatherings with other people in the school community, so we created an event management tool.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship is identifying a pain point for a customer and solving it, although it also needs to make commercial sense. There are, of course, social entrepreneurs who are solving a problem for a particular cause. However, entrepreneurship is generally about solving a pain point where people are prepared to pay for a solution because otherwise it’s not sustainable.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
I built a prototype of a solution and just threw it out there to parents. They started using it and recommending it to others, so I began to accumulate schools organically. I think it was when I reached about 20 schools that I thought yeah, this is something. The first iteration of the product was quite amateurish but if you’re not embarrassed when you first put it out to the market, then you’ve put it out too late. People still used the prototype even though it was quite clunky, which I think demonstrated the magnitude of the problem.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
There are particular personality traits needed to be a successful entrepreneur. The first is bravery because you can be fearful about the process, you have to do it anyway. It is also very important that you’re not a perfectionist because that would kill you as an entrepreneur – you’d never get your product on the market. The third trait is that you must have a high-risk threshold. There is a lot of risk being involved with being an entrepreneur so you have to be a risk taker.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
It’s the positive feedback we get from people using Classlist – how we help to transform their school community and help with the job of parenting. It’s also working with like-minded entrepreneurial people. The team around you are all aligned and striving for the same thing.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
Quite a few people inspire me. The CEO and founder of Nextdoor, Sarah Friar, is inspirational because I think their platform cultivates a great network for communities. I also know the two co-founders of OLIO and they inspire me because I know them as truly fantastic individuals. Nextdoor and OLIO also have female founders/leaders, which I draw inspiration from.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I’m actually in touch with them both already – I texted the CEO of OLIO yesterday! So, for the CEO of Nextdoor, I’d like to ask her what her typical day looks like, because I’d like to compare it to my own. So, how does she spend her time? How does she spend on investor relations? That sort of thing would be interesting to know.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
Yesterday, we were listed as the best app for parents by The Good Web Guide. Classlist was above Headspace and GoHenry, which are both titans of the industry, so being a competitive person, I was very happy to have been placed ahead of these. We also won start-up of the year in the edtech industry in 2018. But I think one of the problems with being an entrepreneur is that you’re never truly satisfied because you’re always pushing.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I’d say one of my mistakes was trying to do everything myself. Of course, at the start you have to but then it’s actually really hard to let go. Once you get to more than 15 people, it’s impossible – you have to delegate. It’s important to take a step back and realise that you need to recruit people who know how to do different areas better than yourself, such as marketing.
I’d also say a second mistake is that I didn’t spend enough time on recruitment. As a CEO, you actually have to spend a lot of your time looking for other people, interviewing, persuading them to join, and onboarding them. So you should spend at least as much time helping them to integrate them into your organisation as you did to recruit that post. I now spend more time on the people management side but in retrospect I should have spent more time on that earlier.
How have you funded your ideas?
We’ve had funding from angel investors and Crowdcube. Pitching to the angel investors was absolutely fine because the idea was compelling to them and we were introduced to people, so we didn’t have to cold call. Also Crowdcube wasn’t difficult because we have quite a big membership, a lot of our members invested in us.
I’ve had a few discussions with VCs and institutional investors but that is more difficult and we’re not quite there yet. A lot of the VCs I’ve spoken to don’t have kids so they don’t understand the problem. I hate to say it, but the problem we are solving is slightly pink in the sense that 80% of our members are women. I’m trying to make it more 50/50 but it’s a wider societal issue.
Classlist helps to make the job of parenting easier by helping people network, connect and share tasks. But the problem may not resonate when you go to see a VC, who happens to be single white male because they don’t get it. Until there are women on the other side of the table, it will be very difficult to get VC funding.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
The best edtech startup of the year award helped us. I think it helped with our investment because it’s edtech and it’s a recognised award, it gave us credibility in the industry. People see the award as prestigious so know the product must be good. We haven’t done as well with grants – I’ve applied for a few but I don’t really spend much time on them. I actually missed out on a female innovation grant award last year because I forgot to tick the box to say I’m female! But grants aren’t a massive priority because we have a good amount of money from funding. We are also trying to make money through business sponsors, so having ads on the platform. Then we can also sell an ad-free version of the product to schools that don’t want ads to appear. We are also looking into adding premium features.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
The lifestyle in Oxford is great. I can walk along the canal to my office in Summertown. It’s a very high quality of life in Oxford and so you can attract good people but the lack of diversity is a problem. We all know that diverse teams are the most successful.
It can be quite hard to come in from the outside if you didn’t go to Oxford University. I believe the Oxford Foundry should be available to everyone in Oxford, not just Oxford University. As one of the few female tech founders in Oxford, I would love to mentor some of their students and believe the University is limiting itself by not opening up.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I would send them to Oxford Enterprise and I would be very happy to give them my own advice and put them in contact with people I know. I’d also point them towards Tech Nation, which is a wider organisation. London also holds a lot in terms of networks and talent so I might suggest there, but I think this is changing because remote working is more common.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
There was a very interesting report produced by Harvard Business Review, which talks about the difference between when women do pitches and when men do them. Investors tend to give women preventative questions, whereas men often get promotional questions. Having read this report, I recorded the questions asked to me and it’s true. This almost sets women up to fail because you’re not asked the opportunity visionary questions, so your business case tends to be weaker. When you get asked preventative questions, you’re supposed to turn it around and give a promotional answer, but this is so hard to do in the heat of the situation. I also think the networks are very male dominated – women aren’t there.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
I would say learn to code. The reason why I was able to set my business up was because I was able to build the first prototype. I didn’t have to pay someone else to do it. I think that’s a major barrier in getting something out. Being able to build the prototype and then being able to raise money was really important. I think women have to learn to code, even if it’s just initially being able to put open software together. We need more women being able to build tech products.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
Hosting events and conferences is very useful. I don’t know why there aren’t more female founders events. Myself and other female founders that I know are not being approached by the University. This would be very helpful because we are looking to recruit people all the time and it would be useful to have access to talented females. So we are a source of jobs and we are a source of advice.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Women’s networks are fantastic and they are very supportive. For example, ask a question on anything, you get a response almost immediately. So definitely get involved with these. There are so many problems to be solved, especially for women, so that should be your starting point. Ask what’s an itch, what’s something in the world that really irritates you that needs to be scratched. Start to form that idea and develop it.
Any last words of advice?
Join a startup and make your mistakes with someone else’s money. With a startup you have a lot of freedom so can take on as much as you want. Think of it as an apprenticeship. Even in 6 months, the amount of learning you’d get from working in a startup would almost be like a Master’s degree. Then when you’ve got your own idea, you can use this experience.