Australian edutech startup Practera experienced a huge spike in demand as the COVID-19 lockdown hit. Co-CEOs Wes Sonnenreich and Beau Leese, and CFO Suzy Watson, outline how it has adapted.
What we’ve seen through COVID-19 is the compression of a decade’s worth of innovation in higher education into months. It will have extensive repercussions for strategic competition for universities, peak bodies and professional groups.
Work-integrated learning is a rapidly growing $50b industry within the global higher education market. Practera was incubated in Deloitte’s innovation program — I was director of innovation, Beau head of consulting. We were trying a bunch of things with how we engaged with higher education, a graduate recruitment and brand awareness play. It started in 2011 and took several years to break through.
We had closed a partnership with Northeastern University after a long initial engagement proving what we could do and building the business case. They said they had been doing the same model for 120 years, but the world had changed and they needed new models. In March, we were working with the university, anchoring a capital raise. We got that bedded down, but it was like being on a ship in a crazy storm, not knowing if you’re going to get washed overboard. I was on the phone every night to ensure the deal got signed and the cheque got in the bank. We were relocating with my wife and kids to Boston to support our expansion, but that will happen a bit later than planned — we’ve got some runway of 12–18 months now, even under conservative scenarios. I’m working on the next business, Beau is working on where it is this year and Suzy is working on where it needs to be this quarter.
COVID-19 has prompted a shift to increased online learning and work from home. Practera builds collaborative programs between universities, industry, students and government. But the programs we support are among the hardest to take online — to build student and professional skills for the future of work, such as team projects, skills credentialing, work simulations, accelerators, mentoring networks and internships. One example is a global trade accelerator program, an online market research project platform where teams of globally diverse students research offshore markets for Australian exporters. Global Victoria completed a variant of it recently — 400 students from nine universities with 50 exporters. COVID-19 saw a big spike in demand.
As a startup, we have a small board — myself, Wes and our VC partner, CSIRO Innovation fund Main Sequence Ventures general partner Bill Bartee, who co-founded Blackbird Ventures and Southern Cross Venture Partners and is a board member of StartupAUS. I effectively act as company secretary, preparing papers, agendas, decisions and minutes. We also have an advisory board, which includes Gerhard Vorster, former chief strategy officer for Deloitte Australia and Asia-Pacific.
These are not normal times and we are venture-backed. We don’t know how it will impact our cashflow, but we have a reasonable runway and there may be more opportunities for our business than negatives. We are being careful and prudent, but it will require really smart governance, risk management and innovation.
Beau and I met at the University of Western Australia. The company spun out via Wes and Beau, and I helped grow and administer the business from a governance point of view. The tech wasn’t particularly mature. Wes and I were in it from 2012–13 and Beau, who was part-time, joined to relieve me when I went on maternity leave. We have three children and all of them were born inside the startup. We have forward parental leave policies because it’s very much who we are as a company.
We have 40 staff in six countries, 70 per cent of our leadership team are culturally and linguistically diverse and 50 per cent are female. We have innovation leave and flexible work policies — many of our employees are parents who are both working. We do company-wide standups twice a week — one set in the early hours and one late —using Zoom, Slack, Asana and Jira. Remote working will continue because COVID-19 will continue for a while, but having gone through this change, there’s no reason to roll it back. I hope the changes that make companies workforce-friendly also stick. You get more out of people when you acknowledge they have other priorities — and they appreciate it.
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