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Product | People | Potential – our chat with tiney

We caught up with Brett Wigdortz, Founder & CEO of tiney as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’.

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real-talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Jake @ ADLIB: Hi Brett, it’s nice to meet you. Could you start us off with an introduction to you and tiney?

Brett: Hey Jake, great to meet you too. I’m originally from New Jersey, but started my professional career as a management consultant at McKinsey in Asia. I got transferred from Indonesia to London and when I came to London, I’d done a lot of work around talent and how companies attract the best talent and keep them. I worked on a project about how businesses could help education in London which led to me writing a business plan for Teach First which was around how we can attract and retain the best talent into low-income schools to make the biggest impact on the lives of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I took a 6-month leave of absence from McKinsey to think of ways to start it, and that absence ended up lasting 15 years!

I led Teach First for 15 years, and in that time, it became the largest graduate recruiter in the UK working with over a million children. Around 7 – 8 years ago I set up Teach for All with Wendy Kopp, the CEO of Teach For America, which then brought that model to over 50 countries worldwide.

I stepped out on our 15th anniversary in October 2017 and took a few months off knowing I wanted to do something else disruptive that can make a real positive change in the lives of children and to ensure that all kids can get access to the best education possible from a young age.

Jake @ ADLIB: How did the idea for tiney originally come about?

Brett: At Teach First, we started to do a lot of work around younger, pre-school kids and nurseries. The more I saw of it in the UK and globally, I realised that it’s so important to so many people and it’s a sector that needs a lot of help. There’s so much research around brain development and how vital is it that young children must get a high-quality education or, at least, an educational environment that is right at that age.

There’s a real shortage of good care and we’re talking about the most vulnerable people in society, small children, so they need to get it right. Parents also need good childcare so they can go back to work.

On the other side for practitioners, the current system is really broken. Most people in that space are not treated like professionals, they are paid low salaries (which are often minimum wage or living wage), there’s not a lot of personal development, and they’re not as well treated as they should be even though it’s such an important role in society.

I started thinking “is there a way that can really help all sides of this equation and really help the sector?”.

It’s a very broken sector that needs to be improved for lots of children and adults’ lives and it’s one of those sectors that tech hasn’t had a major impact on as of yet, which led me to start tiney in April 2018.

Jake @ ADLIB: Could you tell us about the tiney platform and how it works?

Brett: The main thing that we are trying to do is help people run small nurseries in their homes and build a community around it. We wanted to use the advantages of childminding, which is these small home nurseries, and the advantages of being in a real, professional network and combine these in a way that hasn’t been done up to now, by using tech. On the tech side is my Co-founder Edd Read, one of the Co-founders of Graze; he was their CTO for over 10 years. I would say he’s one of the best CTO’s in the UK and has enabled us to have that tech-first approach.

What we’re seeing is that there is a real shortage of childcare, and we want to treat it as a real profession with people who understand parents and that children deserve, high-quality childcare with an educational backbone but in an affordable way.

What we’re doing is training people to become home nursery owners, doing all of the back-office stuff for them, getting them set up, and pushing out lots of early years foundation curriculum. We deal with all of the billing, payment schemes, insurances, and pretty much everything that could drive you up the wall while also building a community around it, helping people working together by building good practices around the kids’ childcare.

We do all of the training and professional development and through that, we’re building a professional-grade community of small home nurseries that will be better for the practitioners, because they’ll be earning a proper professional salary while not paying big overheads like venue hire, massive management fees, and all sorts of expenses that traditional nurseries have.

The children reap the benefits of having a properly trained, good quality practitioner who will help them along and will give them, at a young age, a personal education in a family-based environment with an adult who knows & cares about them. And finally, for parents, it means they have flexible education for their children at an affordable cost as well.

Jake @ ADLIB: Sounds like it’s something that is really needed! You’re a pre-registered B Corp, could you tell us about that and why you decided to go for the certification?

Brett: The whole goal of tiney is to make social change, it’s a business which is not like Teach First that was a charity.

From day one, with everybody involved, the social commitment we have is an important core of tiney and we want to do right by helping some of the most vulnerable people in society. Everything around it needs to be perfect and we want to do right by our community; this isn’t a short term matching company where we match people and that’s it, it’s a long term community that we’re building where people care about each other and the children, which I think it so much more powerful as the long-term vision of the company.

Jake @ ADLIB: Absolutely, and as becoming a B Corp is quite tough to achieve, it just demonstrates that you really are trying to make a difference.

Brett: How have the first two years been at tiney and what has the reception been like going to market?

It’s been really interesting. The first 6 – 9 months we made a few pivots as we really needed to understand the market as well as possible, where we were looking at things like whether we’d work with existing suppliers or focus on new supply by bringing in new people to the sector.

Overall, this is a massive space that needs lots of change and it feels like people have been very open to us. One thing that has been great working within the space is that there’s tons of talent that we’ve been able to find, lots of experienced people who are interested in us because of the social mission that we’re trying to create.

We’ve also managed to get two pretty good fundraises which I wouldn’t say were easy, but they also weren’t any more difficult than fundraising for a charity, I can tell you that! We have great investment partners like LocalGlobe, Index Ventures, and JamJar Investment with also some really experienced individual angels. All of them have been fantastic and I can only say positive things about them so far.

Jake @ ADLIB: Can you tell us about how you went about the funding rounds and why you chose the investors that you went with?

Brett: Leading a charity for 15 years meant that I had to raise a lot of money, so I’ve already had some experience from that angle. I think what makes it easier from the VC or Angel perspective is that you can be a lot clearer on your goals and what you’re trying to achieve.

The first round we did was mostly Angels and friends. I wrote to people who had supported Teach First, a lot of our funders who knew me and they provided the first round. In our second round, we partnered with LocalGlobe, Index, and JamJar.

JamJar & LocalGlobe are very focused on early-stage companies and both seem very entrepreneur & founder-friendly. I’ve been to a lot of LocalGlobe events where they’ve shown that they really respect entrepreneurs. I’ve genuinely felt like they’re investing in the people and the idea, which I think is important at that early stage. Before they invested, I knew a few people at LocalGlobe, I spoke to a few founders and all I heard was positive feedback, and they genuinely have been bending over backwards to help their entrepreneurs and they seem to have a good social mindset. With both LocalGlobe & JamJar, they have certainly seemed to be attracted to the social good that we are trying to do.

We brought on Index Ventures back in January, so we’ve only just started working with them. They’re also interested in the early stage start-up space and they’ve bought into our story and our ultimate goal which is to change the sector. What I liked about Index is that we’ve said we aren’t interested in massive growth right away in the first year or so but we wanted to get the safeguarding and quality right and there’s a lot of things that we need to get 100% right before we can scale to the level we want, as there are such vulnerable small children involved, which they’ve bought into.

All of our investors were interested in my Teach First experience and thought that it was very relevant to the start-up space. Some people would say going from the charity world to the VC world doesn’t come over that well and that the skills & experience that you learn in the charity world doesn’t translate to dealing with VC’s, but I would disagree. While some VC’s that we spoke to didn’t see it that way and didn’t want to invest in me or the idea but both LocalGlobe & Index were really interested in the fact that I had been able to grow a charity and have a big impact with Teach First and saw those skills as very relevant to what we are doing at the moment.

Jake @ ADLIB: I actually looked at Teach First when I graduated from university….

Brett: I hope you did! Teach First is huge, it’s the largest graduate recruiter in the UK and, when I left, we were creating almost 1,800 new teachers a year and it’s running a lot of other programmes and had over 600 essential staff and had £65 million a year turnover for a charity.

I imagine if Teach First was a for-profit business, it might be called a unicorn now!

Jake @ ADLIB: Coming to the People section of the interview, attracting and retaining great talent is something that founders often struggle with when they are scaling a tech start-up company. What advice could you give founders of early-stage companies around talent and maintaining culture as they grow?

Brett: You really need to get the values right. I know people joke about having a “no asshole” rule but I think it’s a really important rule to have.

Jake @ ADLIB: Something that comes up a lot is don’t hire people with big egos, especially if you’re an early-stage company.

Brett: Exactly, I do think no-ego is important. I’ve worked with a few big egos before and you think “this is a talented person” but once you strip behind the façade they’ve achieved less than you think and often their ego makes you think they’ve achieved more.

It’s also the negative poison that they can bring to an organisation and you cannot overestimate that. If you have a no-ego rule and values-based hiring policy to start with it means that people are more open, you can talk about problems openly, there’s a no-blame culture, and it means that you can move more quickly as an organisation with less politics. The more experience I’ve had, the more I am a firm believer in this being a core part of being a successful organisation.

We do values-based interviews and really look for those values that we’ve defined at tiney. The other thing I’ve learnt from hiring is doing comprehensive reference checks. There’s been a lot of studies that show that you don’t really get all of the information that you need when you are bringing somebody into your business from interviews. Some people think they are fantastic interviewers but all they’re finding out is how good a candidate does in an interview setting. I would never hire anybody, especially if they are senior or mid-level, without personally talking to a few people that they’ve worked with before and triangulating from references. Usually 4 – 5 references, which might seem like a lot of time, but I want to spend a lot of time referencing to make sure they are right for us.

Within a few references, you usually get a common theme and you might get one saying one thing and then get backed up by multiple people; when you talk to a few people, you get the pattern pretty quickly and it’s usually pretty accurate.

Also, this is my personal preference, but I really hate CVs where people haven’t stayed in an organisation for a decent amount of time. I think you can fake it for two years and I see CVs where people have moved around every 2 years or so and my feeling is I’m not sure if they’ve ever achieved anything of note. If you’re somewhere for 5 years and you’ve been promoted a few times, I think that’s normally a better reflection of quality than someone that’s jumped around a few times working for brand names.

Jake @ ADLIB: How have you managed to attract the team that you have in place at the moment and can you tell us a little bit about the team at tiney?

Brett: We managed to attract some amazing talent, especially at such an early stage, and I think the mission is a major part because a lot of the people who we hired are parents themselves and they just “get it”. If you’re a parent, you’ll particularly understand how big of a problem it is that we are trying to solve.

Jake @ ADLIB: I think you need to have a great mission or product to attract talent which I think is especially important at an early stage as you need people putting their all into something that they really believe in…

Brett: Absolutely, you’re right. It’s a really easy mission to explain to anyone, but especially to a parent. One thing that’s advantageous, from a tech perspective, is that Edd Read, our CTO, was CTO at Graze for a decade and has a great reputation, so we’ve been able to hire great tech and product talent. We have a great Chief Product Officer, John Newbold, who ran & led a successful design studio and has a really strong reputation who can attract talent.

They have great reputations and people know who they are so that certainly made it easier to attract great people and I had my experience from Teach First in the education sector so between the three of us we have a good reputation for doing successful things in the past.

Jake @ ADLIB: From experience, I think the senior hires are the most important for any start-up, as you said, it makes such a difference to making key hires in the future, especially in the competitive talent market in London. Moving to Product, can you tell us about your tech-first product approach and talk us through what problems you are trying to solve?

Brett: The first thing I did when starting tiney is that I knew I couldn’t do this without the right Co-founder as I don’t have a tech background. I know the things I’m not very good at and that’s tech and product, in a good way!

The first thing I did was find Edd and it’s the best move I made which has truly enabled us to have our tech-first approach. What we’re trying to do is to figure out how to use tech in a simple, customer-focused way to create this wonderful community that will make parents and practitioners’ lives easier. It’s easy to use tech to make people’s lives more complicated, but we are focused on a customer-centric approach to our design and tech and make it as streamlined as possible for the end-user.

One of our mottos for our nursery owners is that if they’re not earning money, then they shouldn’t be working. One of our values is around the importance of rest – we don’t want our childminders or home nursery owner working evenings or weekends when they are not caring for children. That’s a great mindset for us, we could easily create a ton of features, but we are thinking exactly what we want them to do and make it as simple as possible for them. We want to make their lives easier and give them better job satisfaction.

There are a few issues, especially around payments, as they get paid from so many different sources and it can be very complicated. That’s been an issue that we’ve been working hard on and trying to solve. That’s our main thing – how can we use tech to make people’s lives easier?

Jake @ ADLIB: Finally Potential, what’s the ultimate aim for tiney?

Brett: I genuinely think that we are creating something that can be used all over the world and we can genuinely make a difference to so many people’s lives.

This is a sector that needs to change, and I struggle to think of a country that has its early-stage education nailed down. It’s not working well, and it’s broken just about everywhere.

I haven’t seen that many ideas that can fix it. What we’ve done is to ensure that everybody wins and gets a great deal from the programme. We want this to grow, become a great company that can help lots of children, parents, and practitioners!

Thanks, Brett!