Vickylynne Atherton - Carving a niche amongst giant competitors
A podcast interview with Vickylynne Atherton Director of Academy Now an online Education platform
Guest profile - Vickylynne Atherton
I am Vickylynne Atherton, Director Academy Now which is an interactive education platform designed for remote learning and is also designed to support children with special educational needs. I am an extraordinarily successful Sales Specialist with over 20 years’ experience. My other business Artemis Sales Consultancy I named after Artemis “The Hunter” as I am a natural born sales leader who now works with a broad selection of organisations to build sales strategies and assist with the generation of new business. I thrive off supporting other businesses in refining their approach and achieving their goals.
Telephone number 07548780753
Tony Radford 0:00
Hello, everybody, and welcome to another episode of the Small Business heroes podcast. Today I am joined by VickyLynne Atherton of 'Academy Now', that's AcademyNow.io. Hi Vicky, how are you today?
Vickylynne Atherton 0:16
I'm very well, Tony and yourself?
Tony Radford 0:18
I am actually Yes, not too bad. And I'm really looking forward to hearing about Academy Now. It's a very, very interesting project. So could you tell us a little bit about it?
Vickylynne Atherton 0:29
Yeah, absolutely. Well, Academy Now is essentially an interactive education platform, which was targeted initially at primary education. And it's been adapted further to support children with special educational needs. And it all came about Tony back in March, when it felt like the world had been completely turned on its head.
And you know, suddenly, businesses were disrupted, or unable to perform the usual functions and education didn't get away unscathed either, as you know, the schools closed. And we faced a lot of disruption.
Academy Now was founded by I, myself, and my business partner, Lee Quince. And he had an idea to create an online learning platform in response to the school closures, and look at kind of how we could collaborate and use our core skills to provide a solution that would bridge the education gap. Because what happened in March 2020, was unforeseen.
And you know, that the learning process and education as a as it was just completely changed overnight. And what we found was that many schools had resorted to a variety of different methods to kind of bridge that gap. And having so little time to prepare, or adapt to what was a really radical change for them. There are a lot of issues. So the platform was created with feedback from teachers, parents, pupils, and they was telling me an AI about the challenges that they had, and what they was doing to try and function as normal when things were so far from normal.
And we observed initially that many schools were posting out information to pupils, you know, parents needed to download information and print information from the school website. And there was using a variety of education applications, which caused confusion, frustration for parents trying to teach the children from home whilst working from home. And Academy Now, was designed to remove the need for all of these multiple platforms and multiple ways of getting information to the parents, ultimately, to the pupils. And, you know, it proved so difficult for teachers and parents to manage, and especially difficult for younger pupils as well, because I said that this is targeted at primary education.
So Lee and I set to work to create this education platform and really look at ways to recreate that class, room environment online. It was inspired by teachers, for teachers, and we needed to incorporate all of the tools that they told us that they needed, which would enable them to engage with pupils, again, in a collaborative manner, and really support essential learning to continue.
Tony Radford 3:28
Yeah, because there are there are plenty of, you know, solutions, virtual learning environments, and video conferencing. What does Academy Now offer that those platforms don't?
Vickylynne Atherton 3:42
Well, it's a good question, Tony. And, you know, our main competitors, a very well known not only in education, but you know, in corporate and in everyday use. So these are the likes of zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Classroom.
So we know we're playing with the big boys here. But the thing about Academy is that this was designed specifically for education. We've had that input right from day darts, what teachers told us they wanted it, what parents needed to make it simplistic, and what pupils needed for them to continue with their education.
So what we what we did was we added in functionality that would enable teachers to continue to teach but remotely And not only that, but in an interactive manner. So we incorporated video and audio conferencing, we've added in the facility for documents to be uploaded. So lesson plans, and any any information that they need to share with parents as well.
Teachers can share their screens. One of the really nice features about this that I like and it's had really great traction is we set up breakout rooms So, if you've got a primary school class with 30, pupils, the teacher can say, Okay, well 10 of you are going to go in with, you know, Miss Jones, and you're going to have some spelling tests. And then 10 of you are going to go into another room with Miss Smith, and you're going to have a math test, and then you're the 10, you're gonna have a nice story. And the teacher can kind of flip in between the rooms just to see how things are going. It's all timed.
So they literally set kind of set a time, whether it's 30 minutes an hour. And you can, you can tailor that to what you want, if it's only a few minutes. And then they come back into the main hall together. And we set up private and group chat. So this can be used in a variety of different ways. In there a teacher can messenger, a pupil or send a message to a parent. And in the group chat, likewise, if they're asking questions, you know, what is the answer to this maths problem, then the pupils can respond in the group chat. And we added shared notes in there, which again, is really useful.
It's another way of the teachers sharing documents and sharing information with the pupils. So it could be a spelling test, for example, that the printer or handwriting test, you can literally copy and paste from any word documents or any PDF and drop that in there. We added a virtual whiteboard, which can be used in every way that a whiteboard would be used in a classroom environment. And we even added emojis in so that pupils can express themselves, how they're feeling, whether they're happy, whether they sad, whether they're confused. So the kids love to tinker around with that. But another nice thing about this platform, Tony, and you asked me, How do we differentiate ourselves, I suppose against, you know, the likes of zoom, and teams, Google Classroom, this platform is entirely customizable.
So we're not just branding it as Academy. Now, the schools can brand it in their own way. So they can use their own school logos, they can change the imagery. So it replicates the same look and feel as what they've got on their website. And it's important that they kind of identify with this as being their own, their own platform and their own solution. Something else that we needed to consider a great deal more security and safeguarding within the design of Academy. And we applied features that can be turned on or off. And in line with a school or LEA outlines, so that's the the Local Education Authority, as I'm sure you know, and they can turn off pupils videos, they can mute certain pupils, they can mute all of the pupils to make sure that the you know, the protected and that the everything is set up in line with their own security guidelines. But the thing that really kind of gets me about Academy and this is why I'm so passionate about it is we adapted the platform for children with special educational needs. And here I'm talking about and you know, not limited to but these are some of the things is dyslexia, you know, autism, ADD ADHD.
And in my discussions with teachers, I was absolutely astounded to hear that 1.3 million pupils in the UK have some form of diagnosed or undiagnosed challenge that is related to the way that they learn. And the thing that really kind of, I was quite upset about to actually tell you what the disruptions are landing. And wasn't only about educating pupils, it was also about the effect that the school closures had on children with special educational needs. And you know, that disruption to their routine. I was there in daily, multiple times a day, the distress that that was causing. And for me, it's something that is very close to my heart because I have friends and family members and also children of my friends who have some form of special educational need.
And that's why I was so eager to get behind this. And so really in the middle of a global pandemic, Lee and I sat down and said, You know, we're not trained medical professionals, we can't do anything to help in that way. But we can use our core skills from a technology perspective to try and make a difference and see what we can do. And so Lee created a platform it was just slightly before Academy actually called go assemble. And we offered that free of charge to I don't know if you remember the NHS campouts in support of the the NHS workers.
Tony Radford 9:47
I don't actually know.
Unknown Speaker 9:50
well, he called it 'Around the Campfire' and what people was doing to show the support for the NHS and they was camping out in the gardens. It was amazing. caravans in the driveway. And we even heard about some people who was making dens underneath the dining tables with the children. And they used our platform to maintain contact with friends and family members. And I thought that was a particularly lovely thing to do.
And so that was how we kind of got the idea for for Academy. And since then I offer it to my friends, children as a safe means of keeping in contact with, with desco friends, because we're still seeing at the moment, you know, schools closing, we're still seeing pupils being sent home, if a classmates tested positive for COVID, or a teacher has the children in my family use, go assemble, which I suppose is the little sister to Academy, because I wanted something safe for them to use to keep in contact with the grandmas keep in contact with a school friends keep in contact with you know, anybody that they need to. And over the last few months, we've seen some very interesting things in the crash relating to video and audio conferencing platforms. I'm not going to name names, I think we may have seen some things ourselves. But you know, security was really Paramount and always at the forefront of our minds when we created it.
Tony Radford 11:18
I mean, it sounds a very impressive platform. And you're definitely to be congratulated to, for getting something as powerful as this off the ground and it meets the needs that are very, very real. So I applaud you for that. One thing I was going to ask you, is it a paid platform?
Vickylynne Atherton 11:36
It is Tony, but you know, we because we've really understood what a big challenge this has been for education. You know, at the moment, Lee and I kind of we're running kind of free trials of this and lightning playing skills, just, you know, see what benefit it's going to bring to you. But in the grand scheme of things, and, you know, for primary schools, it's just over a pound, per per user per month.
So it's not extortionate, there's a lot more expensive things out there. And because this is so comprehensive from a technology perspective, and you know, I think that that is excellent value. It is for special educational needs and charities. And we're also working with, it's actually sort of around 95 pounds per user per month. And so, you know, we've factored in to our pricing model, how we can support special educational skills, and charities.
Tony Radford 12:37
What about some of your challenges during the process of actually getting off the ground.
Vickylynne Atherton 12:44
And I suppose to me, the biggest challenge that we had really was was time. And you know, something like this should have been in development for months or even years. But we responded quickly. And in fact, when the schools closed on the 20th of March, we launched the first live version of Academy on the 28th of April. I know so you know, time was of the essence and unfair for myself and Lee and the wider team, you know, it was pedal to the metal in terms of research and development, 1214 hour days, weekends, blood, sweat, tears, a feminist book, you know, it was it was worth it. Because after working with leafa, for quite a while now. And it's safe to say that neither Leo or I shy away from a challenge. And we're quite relentless in terms of our work ethic. And but other than that, I would say our biggest challenge was our competitors. And I mentioned that they're the likes of zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom. So we've still got a long road ahead. Rome wasn't built in a day, but we're off to a fantastic start,
Tony Radford 13:51
what's the next step for Academy Now.
Vickylynne Atherton 13:54
The next step, I suppose, is to just carry on doing what we're doing. And we're adding in additional functionalities, we've got a roadmap for Academy, and this is going to include additional features like being able to take a register, give out certificates, assign homework, mark homework, calendar, integration, marking workflows, all of this stuff. And, and, you know, the interactive learning management system itself is also if we're going to include an offline virtual learning environment, which is going to broaden the reach of this product so much, because at the moment, it's targeted, that private primary education and special educational needs but beyond that, what we want to do is open it up for secondary and higher education. And the next phase of development is going to mean that any courses any remote learning can be completed using Academy.
And also this is going to open this up as an education platform that can be used in prisons. So it's about you know, getting people back to work. And when they come out of prison, and you know, Looking at what certifications they're going to need, what qualifications they're going to need. And, you know, using Academy to provide all of these online courses. So, you know, it's been a journey. And we, you know, we're so proud of what we've achieved so far. But we will continue to push the boundaries. And the future roadmap is looking very exciting as well.
Tony Radford 15:21
To be honest, I'll be interested to hear, you know, as you go along, and things are going so do keep us in the loop. What is one thing you wish someone had told you, when you started out?
Vickylynne Atherton 15:31
I think I'm gonna flip that on its head and say that if I was going to give some date, some advice now based on what I've learned over the last few months, and it would probably be to plan a while dream bag, stay out of jail, roll with the punches, but just go for it. Because you think I'm a new education platform like this. There's lots of other things on the market, you know, when I look back, zoom was launched in 2011. And at that time, nobody was interested in it. Because at the time, the video telephony market, and that's how it was referred to back then. We don't call it that now. But it was deemed that that market was already saturated, there was no room for anybody else. But now that business has done over 200 million in revenue. So I suppose if you don't try, you're never gonna No.
Tony Radford 16:24
No, that's, that's a really good point you've made there. And you're definitely proving it. Because, you know, you've got some pretty serious competition in some ways, but you're going to probably because you're so agile and so focused, and so Nishi, you probably will be able to, you know, be a Beer Beer, David, basically, to those Goliath and I really wish you off for it. I was wondering if I could ask you, if you could give some advice if somebody was, if somebody gave you 500 pounds to spend on marketing? How would you spend it,
Vickylynne Atherton 16:59
I think I would probably invest in promotion by social media platforms. I'm looking at a few things at the moment. So I'm looking at hosting a webinar on creating a video lien I did produce a video a few months ago about Academy, and we had a great response to that. So I think that I'd like to do another, but perhaps look at ways to record a video that actually shows a demonstration of the platform from all angles. So being able to see it from the teachers perspective, and then also what it looks like as a pupil. Because when I provide demonstrations, you're only seeing one side of it. So I'm often pretending to be the teacher and the school, they will see it in the kind of pupil environments. So every demo that we do, really does come to life. And every demo is different. Each school doc shown as homed in on different features that they like, and even found other applications that we haven't considered to use it for, such as staff meetings, and teacher collaboration. And, uh, you know, engagement with parents, if additional sessions are needed for the children. And when when the schools like back, I heard about an entirely new education gap. And that was worse than pupils, unfortunately, kind of falling behind with the learning. So skills are using it to provide additional sessions to kind of catch them up, which I think is great. Going back to the marketing, I think social media is a great way to promote something like Academy because it's proved so successful in the past, and teachers have reached out to us head teachers or the tutors, private tutors, on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. In an ideal world, Tony, I'd love to have a full time marketing manager to run my campaigns. But that's a little bit futuristic at present. So as I said, I'm looking at all of these things over the next few weeks. And I think that any one of them is a great, great tool to promote the platform.
Tony Radford 19:01
Yeah, imagine a full time marketing person would cost more than 500 pounds, unfortunately.
Vickylynne Atherton 19:07
Tony Radford 19:10
You're you're doing a big project, the scope and the scale and possibilities and opportunities are pretty vast. Really? Do you have you know, support for yourself like a business mentor or some sort of support group or networking group?
Vickylynne Atherton 19:24
Yes. I'm a consultant myself, Tony, I'm a coach and mentor, through my other business, optimise sales consultancy, but I do still tons of my network for support and advice from time to time. And by that I mean sort of on a daily basis. I don't think that anybody is the finished article. And it's always helpful to get just another perspective, brainstorm an idea or, you know, look at collaborating with with somebody. I've been really fortunate throughout my career in that I've met some truly inspirational People and I think that we do naturally lean on each other from time to time, we'll share ideas, we'll talk something out. I'm never sure to people to call upon when I when I need help. And I can always lay my hands on the right people, because I'm so well connected with my business network. I've also got a life coach, and I speak to her once a week and amazing woman, Julia Martinez happy to share her information because she is such a spectacular person. She helps me to practice relaxation techniques. And I've always had a strong work ethic, and I'm very passionate about my work. I've also recently kind of focused on taking care of myself and not not completely smashing myself into the ground. And I think that's a testament to the network of people that I've got around me. And that's so important. And it's really, it's been a key to my success. I'm surrounded by such great people.
Tony Radford 20:59
That's great. And really good to hear. And really good advice as well. I wonder if you could give us one actionable sales tip,
Vickylynne Atherton 21:07
My actionable sales tip, I'm going to talk about fear. My advice is get rid of it. It's an unwanted emotion, and it will not serve you well. I think you can have caution. Yes, but fair. No, I passionately believe that fear is what holds people back. And for salespeople, myself included, we can be great, sometimes it's standing in our own way. You know, Academy has been a long journey. I said before, it's not for the faint hearted. It's really not. But you know, I've had the fear in the past. And so I recognize it in in orders.
And I think that when we face a challenge, if we didn't do something, every time that we face something that was a little bit scary, and we're going to go anywhere, we'd never do anything, and we certainly would get very far in business. And while I acknowledge that fear is good in some ways, because it shows that you've got something to lose, I would say nine times out of 10, get rid of it, shake it off, calculate the risk, and then just make a decision Am I in or am I out. And you know, it my kind of consultancy role. I speak to sales people all the time, and there's normally something there lurking in the background, and that's holding you back, fear that you're going to miss your sales target, fear that that deal won't come in fear that you won't be awarded the tender or even fair that you're not going to get the promotion that you've applied for. And, you know, the reason that I said it's an unwanted emotion is because in my experience, my personal experience and what I've observed in others, if you're letting that fear in, then there's no room for positivity or belief. And I've got a close friend of mine who she talks about negative self fulfilling prophecy.
And I really believe that that's true, I believe that if you think there's something's going to go wrong, that that deal won't come in that you're not going to win the tender, then the likelihood is that it will be a negative self fulfilling prophecy in the it's not going to happen for you. But I'm not suggesting, Tony that it's all down to belief, I think in order for you to close that deal, when that tend to get that promotion, you need to have completed all of the required actions to actually make that a possibility in the first place and wishing for it is not going to make it happen on its own. But you know, I do believe that sometimes, especially one way around when we're under pressure, you know, we can we can feel overwhelmed. And I've watched people almost compel alized, like frozen by fear. And what it does tell me is it stops people from taking that all important step to change things. So go back and fix whatever's gone wrong, change something that isn't working, do something that's important to get you the result that you need.
I got told a long time ago asked for the deal. Some salespeople are scared of asking for the deal. And it's a simple question. You talking to a customer, you say if this is a great fit for you? And we can agree the commercials, when do you think you'd be ready to proceed? But instead of asking that question, we get the fair instead. And it does really hold people back, you know, when when I set the partners.
My other business I did it in some ways to displace this myth that sales is scary. Because really, if you if you break it down, it's just people talking to people about a problem or a situation that they've got and you're helping them to find a solution. You know, if you if you understand genuinely your proposition, and by that I mean your value proposition. So where you can improve things where you can add value Then, you know, how do you differentiate yourself? What is it that you can do better, faster, cheaper than your competition, then that's a great story to tell. And if you combine that, which is what I tell businesses to do all the time, combine that with telling a similar type of company to ones that you've helped in the past, that makes it a lot more compelling.
And therefore, you're no longer selling a product or pushing your own agenda on someone who's not interested, what you're doing is you're making them aware of how you can help them how you've helped others, something that you can help them do more, something, you can help them do less, save time, save money, improve efficiencies, increase revenue, whatever they're looking to do. And I think by losing that fair, you lose the thing that is holding you back, and enabling yourself to become more confident in your proposition be more impactful, and ultimately, more successful. I'll leave you on this. But when I set out to miss, this is my first business that I set up. And I was scared.
What if I fail? What if I can't do it? What are from all taught my trousers? And there it was, it was that fair. As soon as I decided for myself, you know, I want this more than I'm scared about. As soon as I let myself believe That, you know, I've had over 20 years in sales, I've been an incredibly successful salesperson. This, to me is the next logical step. And not only can I do it, but I can do it well. Then everything clicked into place. And you know, I said, I use my network, when I'm having a little wobble of Christ's confidence, I'm not quite sure how I need to go from here, I take my advice,
I shake the player off, I don't make it work.
Tony Radford 26:40
That's really, really great advice. theory is absolutely a killer. And any encouragement for people just to say, now I've had enough of this, take that co author on the floor, and go for it. So thank you very much for that. And also, thank you for being a really great guest, you've got an amazing proposition there. And as I said, Before, I look forward to hearing how it goes. If people wanted to get in touch with you what would be the best way to do that.
Vickylynne Atherton 27:10
If anyone would like to contact me, you know, I would say please feel free to do so I'm always happy to take calls emails and you know, people can do reach out to me through LinkedIn, if anyone would like to see a demo of Academy. Now, if there are businesses out there who operate within education and are interested in adding this to their portfolio. Please get in contact with me, our reseller program has got a really attractive reward scheme. And likewise, from an artist perspective, even though I think I've alluded to the fact that my time is not my own, I am still offering my one hour free consultations. So if any businesses are looking at ways to increase sales performance drive revenue growth in 2021, or you know, we're planning to revise the sales strategy, even considering sales training to drive performance, don't hesitate to reach out to me And likewise, if any business owners or anybody who's thinking of setting up their own business, I'm always happy to take a call for healing.
Tony Radford 28:05
That's amazing. Thanks for being a great guest.
Vickylynne Atherton 28:08
Thanks for having me, Tony.
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