“Don't necessarily count on existing publishers to supply your content," George Burgess says to Molly Flatt in this edition of her FutureBook 2015 Book Tech Awards Showcase series. One of The Bookseller's Rising Stars whose Gojimo is the winner of London Book Fair's 2015 Publishing for Digital Minds Innovation Award, Burgess is among the year's most-lauded startups founders—and one of the youngest. "One of those whizkid go-getters who makes one despair of a wasted youth," as Bookseller editor Philip Jones described him, Burgess' eBay shop was pulling down more than £40,000 a year when he was 15. Now, as Flatt relates, Burgess won't be waiting around for the industry to provide what he needs. "They are most often too slow to work with" he tells her. Don't blink.—Porter Anderson
Do you ever feel slightly nauseated when you hear about those teenagers who build startups in their bedrooms and become Founder-CEOs without having to endure a single rubbish entry-level job? Well, prepare to barf.
“I came up with the idea for Gojimo when I was studying for my A Level exams,” George Burgess blithely explains. “I was 17, it was 2009, and the App Store had been released a year earlier, but I couldn't find any apps to help me revise. Spotting the opportunity, I recruited a bunch of my teachers to write content, and found an iPhone developer abroad.”
The upshot of this embryonic epiphany was Gojimo, a mobile exam preparation app for students available on iOS, Android and the web. A year later Burgess did his first business deal, teaming up with Pearson Education to produce nine BBC Bite-sized apps for BBC Active; three years after that, he dropped out of his undergraduate degree at Stanford University to pursue Gojimo full time. More than $1 million in seed capital swiftly followed, and now Gojimo is the UK's most successful exam preparation app, boasting partnerships with some of the world's largest educational publishers, including McGraw-Hill Education and Oxford University Press.
It has also just been shortlisted for FutureBook’s BookTech Company of the Year. However, the nod isn’t so much down to Gojimo’s proven success—six of our eight finalists are still in beta—but because of Burgess’s tenacious efforts to innovate at a crossroads of two old and unwieldy sectors: education and publishing.
“Don't necessarily count on existing publishers to supply your content,” he warns other aspiring entrepreneurs. “While many publishers are willing to experiment, they are most often too slow to work with. We encountered a lot of challenges, and we found we were better off producing our own content than relying solely on publishing partners.”
It was only once Gojimo began to generate in-house content, with the help of a team of teachers and grad students, that the application really took off. Now offering more than 160,000 free questions on English, maths, biology, chemistry, physics, history, geography and more—covering GCSE, A Level, IB, iGCSE, Common Entrance and international qualifications including Junior Certificate (Ireland), SATs (US) and the Matric (SA)—Gojimo digests revision into bite-sized chunks by generating quizzes between five and 25 questions long. Links to further content allow students to explore topics in more detail, while continual feedback and cross-device synching helps them track their progress and stay motivated.
Partners haven’t been the only problem, however; students proved a particularly tricky target audience. “We spent most of 2014 with the app in beta, trying to find market fit,” Burgess says. “It took us a while to build an app and a user experience that students really needed. Finally we got there and from January 2015 we started to see massive organic growth, with our user base growing by over 50 percent each month.”
No-one could quibble that Gojimo has achieved impressive traction. But does Burgess’ team—which has now expanded from its original two to eight—have any actual evidence that their product improves users’ grades?
“We do,” Burgess says. “Firstly, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence. The app is rated 4.5 on the App Store, with nearly 1,000 students having rated it. If you read their reviews, you'll see many put the success of their exams down to Gojimo. Secondly, we've performed statistical analysis on our data and have found that in the vast majority of cases, students' scores are increasing over time.”
Gojimo also qualified for the BookTech shortlist because Burgess’s team obviously has a whole lot more (barf warning number two) disruption in store.
“We're beginning to expand internationally and have recently released content for the US, Ireland and South Africa,” he says. “We want to eventually reach all English-speaking markets, but each has its own challenges. South Africa is an interesting one; we want to see if we can add value in a developing market, and the challenge there is that students are a lot more cautious when it comes to using their data, as most pay per megabyte.”
Burgess believes, too, that the education sector is approaching a tipping point for change. “I always loved what Inkling were doing,” he says, referencing the San Francisco-based company founded in 2009 with an aim of revolutionising textbooks before refocusing on publishing tools. “Their initial vision of changing textbooks was inspiring and the amount of interactive and engaging features they were able to add was extremely impressive, and it's a shame that they ultimately had to follow a different path. The education sector hasn't seen much in the way of true innovation to date, but that's starting to change. Movements like big data will make a real difference.”
Gojimo’s final hurdle, of course, is the M-word. “Now that we've built a killer product that students love, the next, and hardest, problem for us to tackle is how we monetise,” Burgess says.
Even as he deploys his plans for world domination, he might have to flip a burger or two after all.
The BookTech Showcase (#BookTech) is a new element of the FutureBook Conference. Hosted by tech and culture journalist Molly Flatt, the session invites eight book tech companies to take part in a live pitch-off for a panel of industry and tech experts. A real-time vote will then determine the winners of the bronze, silver and gold FutureBook Awards. The overall winner will be named The FutureBook BookTech Company of the Year 2015.
The judges of the showcase, who will interrogate attendees from the selected book tech companies, are Hannah Telfer, Group Director of Consumer and Digital Development at Penguin Random House UK; Dan Kieran, CEO and Co-Founder of Unbound; and Eileen Burbidge, Partner at Passion Capital and one of the UK’s most influential tech venture capitalists.
In Molly Flatt's series on the contenders (in order of publication):
- BookTech Showcase: Where book and tech come together
- BookTech Showcase: oolipo
- BookTech Showcase: Shulph
- BookTech Showcase: Reedsy
- BookTech Showcase: The Owl Field
- BookTech Showcase: ooovre
- BookTech Showcase: Gojimo
To book tickets, please visit the FutureBook Conference site.