By now you’ve probably heard all about Natterhub’s mission, its platform and its amazing content. What you might not know is the story of how the company was actually founded, and began its mission to prepare children to thrive online.
Our co-founders, Caroline Allams and Manjit Sareen, were recently invited to appear on the Sheaf Valley Podcast - a show dedicated to celebrating the startups in the Steel City. On the podcast, Caroline and Manjit talked to host Denislav Ivanov about Natterhub’s origins, discussed the benefits of working with TwinklHive, and gave some advice on how other entrepreneurs can get the funding they need to get their idea off the ground.
Answers have been edited for clarity and length. To listen to the full, unedited interview, go to the Sheaf Valley Podcast website.
So when, why and how did Natterhub come into being?
Caroline Allams: Whilst living in Hong Kong I set up my first business, The Pedagogs, which is still running and is Natterhub's sister company. We were supplying schools with certificates and stickers and teaching resources on paper, but it became clear to me that the future of the business was going to be on screens, not on paper. I had the idea of creating a sandbox environment where children can learn everything they need to live with (and through) screens. I was looking at it from an educational perspective - what children needed to learn - and a parent’s perspective, the fear of just letting children be online with very little guidance.
When I met Manjit I'd already put the idea to bed. I thought it was too great a task - to try and rescue the children of the world from social media! But then I realised Manjit’s skill set perfectly complemented mine, and together we've honed the concept of Natterhub and how it needed to work and thrive.
Manjit Sareen: We've known each other for six years. Caroline's son and my son were best friends at the school where Caroline was a teacher. I'd taken some time away from my career to raise my boys, and when they went to school I was up for another challenge. I had a clear criteria, I wanted to do something in the education space, something that would be sustainable and would make a massive difference.
My husband actually overheard Caroline at a children's party. He came back to me and said: “Caroline's got this idea, it's about teaching children about social media via social media.” As soon as I heard that, I absolutely loved it. I didn't know how we'd do it, or even if Caroline wanted me to do it with her - I just knew that I wanted to be involved.
Caroline has a billion ideas, so when we sat down there was so much she'd thought of. We spent quite a while stripping it back and fine-tuning what we wanted to achieve; we carried out many focus groups, spoke to thousands of teachers and children and parents, just to work out what they wanted and how it could help.
You launched last year, and you already have 3000 teachers signed up in 50 countries. These are some astounding numbers for a product that launched last year.
MS: We launched in March, in the first lockdown. The product wasn't ready because we weren't planning to launch then, but we just decided to tell teachers that. We said: “Yes, we know we've got lots of bugs, and it's not quite finished, but it’ll help children to connect in a child-friendly space rather than going off and jumping on a game to talk to their friends.”
My next question is about education; both from your point-of-view as a teacher, Caroline, and from both of you as entrepreneurs in edtech. What do you think are the key areas [of education] that need improvement?
MS: Teachers need to be valued more, because they do so much for our children. Parents are learning that now that so many of them have had to homeschool their children, they realise what goes into it.
The second thing is simple: we would make online safety a priority for every single school in the UK and across the world. We’ve become members of the IWF [Internet Watch Foundation, an organisation dedicated to removing child sex abuse from the internet], and the statistics we’ve seen during lockdown are horrific: self-generated child sex abuse [images taken by children] has increased by 77%.
Last year, online safety did become compulsory in the UK curriculum, which is a fantastic step in the right direction. But it needs to be something that teachers pick up on when schools reopen, because [children] have access to devices from a young age and need to be educated in how to use them safely. These are real-world life skills, because we're all in a digital world.
CA: Our education system is still built on this Victorian hierarchy of subjects, where English and Maths are at the core and everything else seems to sit underneath them. The world has changed so much, and yet we still have an education system that's like a sausage factory, that teaches children knowledge instead of skills in order to pass a fixed type of exam. Knowledge is cheap nowadays. We can find it so quickly from so many sources. But what about teaching children to problem solve and develop social missions? How important is creativity? How important is it to resolve emergency situations? How important is it to have life skills?
Everybody went to school with someone who was failed by the education system but went on to become very successful. Making best use of tech skills that our children already have, and using those skills creatively for the better good - surely we have to make that a core subject?
What is it like being part of TwinklHive?
MS: We're both really grateful to be in the Hive. We've been fully supported from the beginning, and we're so excited about the future of working together. We wouldn't have gotten to this point so quickly without them on board. Cash is great because it helped us grow our team last year, we're now a team of 10, but what's been really important for us is the services.[TwinklHive] have helped us to work on our content, with our tech, with marketing - basically everything. It's been a partnership.
Lots of people get funding by joining accelerators, but I think it's rare to join one with exactly the same mission as you, which is fantastic for us. We both want to make a massive difference - [Twinkl] already are, we're just starting out - so we're completely aligned. Every month we talk with Twinkl’s CEO [Jon Seaton] and COO [Daivd Angrave] and bounce ideas off them; it's great to be able to use their knowledge and experience of both business and education to point us in the right direction.
You mention that you've already been funded - can you tell us more about that?
MS: At the beginning we were self-funded, we put some cash in to get it going, and then we went out to raise some money. We spoke to anyone who wanted to listen, and the great thing is that not one person didn't like the concept.
The problem was that at the time, [online safety] wasn’t compulsory [in schools]. Most people said to us “We're not sure how you're going to get it into schools, but we love the idea and we know it's badly needed.” Since the RSHE curriculum came into effect, we've actually had people approach us, which is quite nice.
Do you have any advice for startups who haven't been able to get funded?
MS: The key is to talk to as many people as possible. The worst thing that can happen is that they say no, and then you pick yourself up and try again. But I guarantee you will learn something in every single meeting with every single investor. Reach out to as many people as possible, find a mentor to help you, or go to an accelerator. They’re always looking for people with ideas.
The other thing I'd say is that it's great having an idea, but you have to back it up with a plan. You need to do your research. We had so many versions of our pitch deck, and we were constantly fine-tuning it. We were ready, and we knew what we wanted, we just needed the support to make it happen.
If you could talk to yourself at 20 years old, what would say?
CA: I remember leaving uni as a trainee teacher at 21 and telling my lecturer that I was going to cause a revolution in the education system! I said it as a joke, but I'd like to tell 20-year-old me that she really can do that. With a decent idea, the right business partner, and some grit and determination, you can make it through.
MA: “Think as big as you possibly can.”
There’s no more relevant issue for young children today than online safety. That’s why Natterhub combines 50 years of educational experience with a realistic approach to create a leading-edge platform that can make a real difference in children’s digital lives and turn them into safe, kind digital citizens.
Natterhub’s cleverly-designed interface looks and feels like social media, allowing pupils to create valuable learning moments through ‘structured play’. Our resources allow teachers to not just deliver against the demands of the online safety curriculum, but create truly impactful digital citizenship lessons. As well as learning the skills they need to safely use devices on their own, pupils are taught skills like empathy, kindness and resilience - skills that are vital both online and offline, and will last them a lifetime.
With the backing of TwinklHive, Natterhub now has users in over 50 countries. TwinklHive is a part of Twinkl, a global educational publishing house which offers primary and secondary learning resources to over 10 million members worldwide.
Return to blog posts