Henry Lane Fox (left) and Frank Meehan, co-founders of SmartUp. For Business Life.
Identifying a gap in the online education market: Henry Lane Fox (left) and Frank Meehan, co-founders of SmartUp © FT

Would you like an MBA-style education but lack the necessary funds, the time or live too far away from a top school to contemplate full-time study? Well, there is an app for that.

This is the rather bold claim of SmartUp, a London-based technology venture, backed by some of the UK’s most successful digital start-up founders, whose stated aim is “disruption” of the business education market. Business schools need to adapt to a changing market for MBA-level teaching, according to Frank Meehan, chief executive of SmartUp.

“We don’t just want the elite to be able to access business education,” he says. “We think it should be open to the 24-year-old in Bangalore looking to start a company himself who is nowhere near a business school but has a smartphone.”

Mr Meehan is an experienced digital business entrepreneur who, while with Li Ka-shing’s Horizon Ventures sat on the board of music streaming service Spotify and text condenser Summly.

He describes SmartUp’s business plan as a “BuzzFeed for learning”, referring to the news aggregation website that has concerned traditional media companies.

“Interactive learning is hot,” he says during a meeting in the boardroom of SmartUp’s minimalist office, overlooking the rolling parkland of Kensington Gardens. The building is home to Founders Forum, the members-only entrepreneurial networking events organiser, for which SmartUp is a spin-off venture.

SmartUp’s management team includes Founders Forum’s Henry Lane Fox and Brent Hoberman. The two men are seasoned entrepreneurs who first worked together at Lastminute.com, the online travel booking business that Mr Hoberman created with Mr Lane Fox’s sister Martha during the 1990s dotcom boom.

SmartUp is likely to be the first of several businesses created under the umbrella of the Founders Forum, according to Mr Lane Fox. “Everybody will still go to Harvard or Stanford for the network,” he says. “But there is a much bigger market for people who just want an entrepreneurial education.”

Another key to SmartUp’s business plan is the idea that playing games is a better way of teaching than forcing students to learn MBA case studies by rote.

This “gamification” of activities is already widely used by companies in marketing campaigns to increase customer engagement, as well as in the education market more generally.

Business schools have also been trying to reorganise the way they deliver their course material, most widely through the use of massive open online courses (Moocs), which enable seminars and case studies to be accessed on an iPad. Creation of such courses is a growth industry among business schools and universities, seeing the potential to reach a much greater audience than those who study on a campus.

Moocs are also seen as a more relevant style of teaching in a world where ambitious executives increasingly aspire to work in start-ups instead of climbing the career ladder in a multinational corporation. Such people tend to see an MBA, the bedrock of business school teaching, as irrelevant or too time consuming.

One of the most recent examples of the genre is the Digital Business Academy, a joint venture by Cambridge university’s Judge Business School, UCL, Tech City UK and start-up course designer Founder Centric.

This Mooc, aimed at the UK’s tech start-up community, aims to persuade those who have shunned conventional education in favour of entrepreneurship to obtain some formal business training.

Tech City, an agency within the UK government’s Department for Business charged with nurturing British start-up clusters, is involved because it sees a need to teach ambitious founders the necessary skills to raise their game.

Perhaps of more concern for Smart-Up is Google’s recent launch of an app-based gamification teaching service, Primer, aimed at teaching start-ups the fundamentals of marketing.

Immersing yourself in a real-life business scenario is a better way to share understanding of expanding a venture than memorising written accounts of what happened to other founders and company executives, says Mr Meehan.

He claims to welcome Google’s entry into this market, noting that although Primer uses gamification techniques the service is not competing in the broader business education market that is SmartUp’s target audience. The goal of SmartUp is to act as a partner to business school programmes rather than replace traditional learning methods, Mr Lane Fox says. In this way he distances SmartUp from the Moocs, which have so far been seen as a big challenge to classroom teaching.

“We saw a gap in the online education market and were not content with the way that existing Moocs and other platforms were addressing business education,” Mr Lane Fox explains. “Our concept is simple — to provide an interactive mobile-first learning experience for entrepreneurs and ‘wantrepreneurs’ globally, providing them with contextual information about building a business, for free.”

SmartUp is designed to enable users to understand quickly the key points of academic texts, then to apply their learning to real-time simulations of common business challenges, such as getting the most out of a social media budget or developing a new product.

Mr Meehan and Mr Lane Fox claim that business simulations played on mobile devices are ideal for those with neither the time nor money to take up full-time study to get the equivalent of classroom learning with other students.

Unlike a traditional classroom setting, however, playing online means that students can discuss ideas with people worldwide.

“We are not trying to compete with existing MBA providers,” Mr Lane Fox says. “Rather our platform is designed to let educators, start-ups, investors and corporates repackage their education content and business advice in a wholly new format. We are already in discussion with a number of business schools who are interested in using the platform to supplement their existing offline courses.”

SmartUp raised a seed fund of $1m from several experienced entrepreneurs and early stage private equity investors, including Luke Johnson of Risk Capital Partners (and a Financial Times columnist) and Edward Wray, co-founder of online bookmaker Betfair, both of whom have sat on Founders Forum’s advisory board.

SmartUp’s eventual goal is to take business education well beyond the traditional target market for MBA courses to include even the founders of fast-growing companies.

“If you want to start a business, whether it is a cake shop or a plumbing business, you should be able to dip in and learn as much as anyone else can,” says Mr Meehan.

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