Sunday 23 October 2016

Practice and persistence makes perfect for siblings' revision apps

Six years ago, two Kilkenny siblings saw their engineering company hit by recession - so they responded by sidestepping into education technology and set up to help students revising for exams. Now they have moved things up a gear with the launch of their biggest business venture yet - taking on the UK market

Published 08/11/2015 | 02:30

‘We might eventually sell the business at the right price and retire early. I don’t want to be still working at 50,’ says Ailish Ryan of
‘We might eventually sell the business at the right price and retire early. I don’t want to be still working at 50,’ says Ailish Ryan of

Anything worth doing is never easy - and one woman who knows all about this is Ailish Ryan, the co-founder of

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It's about six years since Ms Ryan and her brother Eoghain set up - an online resource for exam students - and the siblings recently ventured into what is probably their biggest business opportunity yet. A new site - - is the company's bridgehead as they attempt their assault on the British market.

"The UK has 8.4 million secondary-level students versus 340,000 here," said Ms Ryan."Without any promotions, we had 3,000 students creating accounts within two-and-a-half months of our launch into Britain. And within a month of the students going back to school in Britain last September, there were about 70 students creating accounts on the site every day."

It hasn't always been plain sailing for the siblings, however.

At the time they set up, both worked in their own engineering practice, Ryan & Associates. When the recession hit, the practice wasn't getting as much work as it had previously.

"In 2009, we were faced with the recession and neither of us like to sit idle," said Ms Ryan.

At the time, more than 5,000 Irish students were failing ordinary and foundation level maths in the Leaving Cert - and it was this stark statistic which gave Ailish and her brother the idea for

"It seemed astronomical that you had 5,000 people failing ordinary level maths," said Ms Ryan. "We decided to investigate if there was a way we could help people to pass exams. Being maths inclined, we thought there must be some way to help people pass their exams.

"We knew that practice makes perfect - so we developed a maths program in 2009 where students could get practical exam questions."

As well as allowing students to practice exam questions, the company also provided a correction service so students could discover exactly where they went wrong when answering questions.

"We had had a good take-up on the maths program and correction service," said Ms Ryan.

In 2011, the siblings also started supply the hard copies of mock exam papers. This almost broke them. "Teachers told us that there were only two existing mock exam paper suppliers - and so we thought there could be a gap in the market," said Ms Ryan.

In its first year of offering this service, supplied over 40,000 exam papers - and arranged corrections for 10,000 of these. Although this meant that the business had secured a 5pc share of the market, that share didn't increase that much in its second year.

"It was a very challenging line of business," said Ms Ryan. "It was a volume-based exercise rather than high margin. We broke even in the first year - but not in the second year.

"We were almost broken by it because we had two jobs at the time - the engineering practice and There was a lot of time pressure - we'd be working with teachers who were dealing with parents and so on.

"We'd often be working 48 hours without sleep. So we made an executive decision in 2012 to stop supplying the hard copies of the mock papers."

Despite the time pressures of supplying hard copies of mock exam papers, by 2012, the company had already developed two apps - an aural app and a multi-choice question app. The aural app helped secondary school students revise for their listening exams, while the multi-choice question app allowed students to practice questions from past exams.

The company had initially charged €1.99 for its aural app - and was selling between 200 and 300 of the apps a month when it charged for the app.

However, Lord Alan Sugar inspired them to offer their apps for free - and it was then that the siblings discovered the power of free apps.

"We were watching The Apprentice one night and Alan Sugar challenged the contestants to develop an app which could be downloaded for free," said Ms Ryan. "We decided to put the aural app on the website for free. Within the space of three weeks, over 25,000 apps had been downloaded. That gave us an understanding that there was a demand for free apps."

So Ms Ryan and her brother took a step back and reviewed their approach to the apps. They then decided to offer a free app where 60pc of its products are available for free - with the rest available to buy through in-app purchases. It is the company's premium products - such as revision notes, sample answers, and a correction and feedback service - which can be bought through the app.

"There are already hundreds of millions of websites but there are only tens of millions of apps, so it is easier to be found - and there is less competition," said Ms Ryan. "Also, for in-app purchasing, there is less of a payment barrier."

In 2013, a private investor approached the company. This marked a watershed for the company because it was also around this time that it decided to target the British market -and to focus more on generating advertising revenue.

"By 2013, we had 30pc of the Leaving Cert market and 20pc of the Junior Cert market creating accounts on and using our products and services," said Ms Ryan. "So we saw that there would be advertising revenue around that."

The company also recently decided to adapt a dual business model, where between 50pc and 60pc of its revenues are generated by advertising, and 40pc of its revenues by product sales.

The siblings did some research to find out the best ways to advertise to young people. "A lot of children aged between 15 and 19 are not on Facebook much anymore - for advertising purposes," said Ms Ryan. "They're on Snapchat and WhatsApp. We found that students want to be advertised to online - through email or through a website. But they don't tend to go for Facebook ads if it's a serious matter."

The company also sent out surveys to students to find out exactly what they want when preparing for exams.

"There's a huge demand for mock papers, revision notes, multiple-choice questions and sample answers," said Ms Ryan.

The company is now selling its products through subscriptions - rather than on a pay-per-product basis, which had been the case previously.

It charges €46 a year or €5.99 a month for a subscription to its revision notes and exam questions.

Ms Ryan's main ambition for the year is to increase her company's share of the British market. "We know the UK won't be an overnight success but if it's anything like Ireland, it will grow organically," said Ms Ryan.

The siblings were born in Kilkenny but moved to Galway about 20 years ago.

Although Ms Ryan said she always performed "relatively well" in school, she wishes she had the hindsight she has now back then.

"In college, I didn't really like my course but I wouldn't be a quitter so I completed it," she said. "That gave me a good foundation and helped me to go on to do the masters. I found that the more exams I did, the better I performed. I wish I had had the benefit of that hindsight when doing my Leaving, as I may have been a 600 pointer."

Ironically, just as is expanding into one of its biggest markets yet, the siblings' engineering practice is getting busier.

"With the construction industry recovering, the engineering business has bounced back," said Ms Ryan.

"We're still very much concentrating on growing the business though.

"We might eventually sell it at the right price and retire early. I don't want to be still working at 50!"

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