JumpAgrade is an online tutoring service making education more equitable for all students, regardless of their circumstances. David Neville, who created the service with fellow University of Limerick graduate Pádraic Hogan, speaks to ThinkBusiness about the benefits of personalised academic assistance.

Why did you set up JumpAgrade?

There are 25 students to one teacher in a classroom and that makes it really hard to get personalised support or one-to-one attention. To counteract that both students and parents turn to grinds. But with that comes a whole host of other headaches, like finding the right teacher, travelling to the grinds, the scheduling conflicts and the cost barriers. We looked at that and said how can we extract the most important factor of what people are looking for in a grind and make that more accessible online.

We focused on working with top quality teachers. All of our teachers are qualified, registered with the Teaching Council and have corrected for the State Exam Commission.

“Our students get to work with top-quality teachers on a one-to-one level each week. We make personalised support accessible without having to leave the house and at a time that suits”

Within our first year, Limerick Youth Service reached out to us because they had, initially a small group of students from families that didn’t have the financial means to pay for grinds and they couldn’t find teachers to support them. The grinds culture is creating massive inequality – students lucky enough to be able to afford them are at an advantage over those who can’t. We realised that our delivery method could help reach students who ordinarily wouldn’t be supported without an offering like JumpAgrade. 

What makes you different from other grind services?

Our students get to work with top-quality teachers on a one-to-one level each week. We make personalised support accessible without having to leave the house and at a time that suits. Normally, if you want to get one-to-one support from a top-quality teacher, experienced in correcting for the State Exam Commission, you’re likely to have to travel to their house and pay expensive amounts or you have to sit in a grind school where you have up to 40 other students with you, so you don’t get that one-to-one support.  We counter that.

What were the challenges of setting up the organisation and how did you overcome them?

It’s really hard to grow consumer businesses. Getting your name out there and having people spread the word is really difficult. We got our early customers from going car door to car door outside schools, speaking to parents waiting to collect their children. That’s obviously not something that can scale so that was tough. We got Northern Trust on board as our first corporate sponsor, so we can afford to take on less fortunate students without passing the costs on to them. They have sponsored a number of projects since we started out, leading to other partnerships like the DCU Access Programme and Folens publishers. We’ve had some amazing partnerships that have helped us grow our impact.

“It’s really hard to grow consumer businesses. Getting your name out there and having people spread the word is really difficult”

Being forced to run a business without money, savings or investments really focuses the mind. You have to be doing something that’s valuable to others and can generate an income to be sustainable. We had to prove that the business was viable with customers willing to pay. Things like keeping the cost painfully low, going a number of months without paying yourself is difficult, but it forced us into knowing how much we wanted to make it work.

What supports did you receive and what impact did they have?

From a very early stage we got support from our Local Enterprise Office, which continues to support us. Recently we got an employment grant that covered the salary for a new hire, which is massive in the earlier days. We have our office here in the Nexus Innovation Centre on the campus of University Limerick, the team here is really supportive.

Going through the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland programme was huge, in terms of financial support and support from partner organisations they work with. Being a Social Entrepreneur Ireland award winner really put us on the map and opened doors for us in a huge way. 

Is there anything you would do differently? 

We should have tried to align ourselves with partners in our space that had more student reach or more experience in the area.  As a start-up, we were probably too insular – looking at how to improve our offering rather than how other organisations could help by partnering with them. A very small partnership with a recognisable name can have a disproportionately large knock-on effect, in terms of accessibility to other partnerships. It always comes back to people. Finding people who buy into what you’re doing helps open doors in a way nothing else can.

What is the culture in Ireland like for setting up a social enterprise and is there anything that could be improved on?

There is nothing new about social enterprise but it feels like it has started to build momentum that would have been unheard of even five years ago. I’m really excited about the idea of applying a growth and a scale mind-set to societal problems. Wanting to have a social impact doesn’t make us any less ambitious than other start-ups that might be less socially minded.

What are your greatest successes to date?

The Social Enterprise Ireland awards night was a big one for us. It was the spark that helped us build real momentum in the last year. Another has been growing our team, getting people on board, the buy-in we see from our teachers. We have had 850 teachers apply to work with us in the last 18 months.

“Being forced to run a business without money, savings or investments really focuses the mind”

The biggest success – what really brings it home is hearing individual stories of those who have benefited from the service. For example, one student who was struggling with a health condition and wasn’t attending school enrolled with us and ended up getting over 500 points in the Leaving Certificate and is now studying nursing. It makes us realise the impact of the service we provide.

What are your plans and hopes for the future?

We have a lot of big things in the works that will be piloting in the next year. The most exciting area for us further down the line is a more holistic view of students progressing in education. We know there’s massive supports for young people needed in areas outside of academic intervention. We are looking at the pillars of confidence, motivation, mental health, exercise, nutrition, mindfulness and meditation.

“Going through the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland programme was huge, in terms of financial support and support from partner organisations they work with”

There are ways that we can help students that is not just all about their grades. Helping young people to progress as individuals will help them perform better in exams as well. We’re reaching young people through our delivery method and the fact that it’s online means it’s a comfortable way for them to engage. There’s huge scope for us expanding our offering beyond the academic side into the student wellness area.

Interview by Olivia McGill

Published: 9 March, 2020

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