Zero To Scale: Damilola Soyombo — Founder/CEO of Skooqs and TCKZone

In this edition of Zero to Scale, the founder and CEO of Skooqs and TCKZone Oluwadamilola Soyombo talks about how edtech startups can get more spotlight and Skooqs milestones and impact in less than a year with only grant funding.

Zero To Scale: Damilola Soyombo — Founder/CEO of Skooqs and TCKZone

Zero To Scale (ZTS) is a web series that focuses on the journey of African founders and their startups from day zero until the day they achieve scale. ZTS is produced in partnership with OneRoute, an all-in-one tool for your customer communication needs.

Skooqs is an online learning community enabling children from ages 5 to 18 to develop 21st-century skills, including technology and creative skills, through online video classes, one-on-one tutors and personalised self-served artificial intelligence.

In this edition of Zero to Scale, the founder and CEO of Skooqs and TCKZone Oluwadamilola Soyombo talks about how edtech startups can get more spotlight and Skooqs milestones and impact in less than a year with only grant funding. TCKZone was launched in 2019 and Skooqs was launched in July 2021.

Why edtech and how did Skooqs start?
The journey dates back to my university days. Upon graduating from the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, where I studied Computer Science, I was still wondering how I’d launch into the real world — which job to take, the kind of company I’d fit in and where my skills are best applied. Because, interestingly, even though we studied computer science, we were doing mathematics and statistics and not necessarily the application of computer knowledge like coding or design.

During this time, I was introduced to HNG Internship and that was what exposed me to how technology is applied in solving real-life problems. And that was the way I got into UI/UX design. Then I thought, if I had this issue of figuring out what jobs I’d fit into after graduating with a computer science degree, there must be other people facing the same issue. That’s why we have many unemployed graduates — not necessarily because they’re not smart or didn’t do well academically, but because they lack the necessary skills needed to fit into jobs.

After speaking to a couple of friends and they all had similar issues, I decided that if I actually want to solve this issue, I have to start from the foundation. I didn’t want to start from the youth level because I believe the foundation — primary and secondary schools — is very important. It’d be great to build our children from the ground up with the necessary skills.

The first thing I did thereafter was to start my not-for-profit, TCKZone (that was three years ago, in 2019). We went to rural communities like Sabokoji Island, Ikorodu and Agege and organised free training for them. We got up to ₦2 million sponsorship from corporations. We were able to reach 4,000+ children; we also partnered with other non-profits to provide welfare for the children in addition to our free technology training.

But I later realised that after the training there was no way for the children to continue learning. There was also no sustainable way of continuing to reach out to them. And then COVID-19 happened. Everyone had to go online. Physical training was no longer possible because of the lockdown. So we moved our TCKZone training online; we started using Zoom. And surprisingly, the number of kids we reached tripled. And the people who didn’t have an internet connection, we gave them a stipend to buy data. We also ensured the training was simple enough for them to use their mobile phones to learn. For example, we did graphics design with Canva. We then started thinking of ways to reach millions of kids.

And coincidentally, I had applied for an accelerator programme with TCKZone but the programme does not fund not-for-profit. The organisers said if we could come up with a for-profit idea in five days, they would accept us into the programme. So we kept brainstorming on how we can move TCKZone online completely and have a profitable business model. And that was how Skooqs came about.

We built the platform [Skooqs] in two months. And started recording courses after surveying parents to know skills they want their kids to learn. Most of the parents mentioned coding, robotics, design and music. So we decided that the platform would give kids access to technology and creative skills courses. The main thing is 21st-century skills and they are not restricted to technology.

How does Skooqs work now?
We run a subscription model. We have silver, gold and enterprise plan. The silver plan is ₦2,500/month and that gives you access to introductory courses. With the gold plan (₦4,000/month), you get access to all the courses on the platform. Then if you’re coming in as an organisation — like a school — you can use the enterprise plan which is ₦6,000 per student per school term or ₦2,000 per student/month. And that gives you access to all the courses on the platform.

And for people who just want to try out the platform, we have up to five free courses they can take. And after completing those courses, they will have to subscribe to a plan to keep learning on the platform.

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How are the courses delivered?
We have in-house instructors who record the videos and upload them on the platform. We also open the platform to external instructors. Professionals, youth corps members and individuals who have any of those skills and want to train children and earn a substantial amount of money for it can apply to become instructors on the platform. We would train them, vet their videos to ensure it’s up to our standards and agree on how they want to be paid — either a revenue-sharing model or per course.

How do you acquire users on the platform?
Our major target market is schools. We reach out to schools and we can onboard up to 300 students from one school. We also reach out to parents. And we’re big on religious organisations and communities that care about children like parents teachers associations.

What other growth levers have helped Skooqs achieve its current milestones?
Another thing that’s helped us so far is the reach we’ve been able to get through media. So far we’ve not done any paid marketing, but we’ve enjoyed word of mouth, especially through competitions — we’ve won four competitions now. And winning competitions comes with publication on media platforms and that spreads the word about us. We’ve been able to move fast in six months. Imagine what will happen when we now put money into our marketing.

I’ve only seen that you won the Softcom and Standard Chartered competitions, what are the other two competitions?
We won the Injini virtual bootcamp. There were about 10 startups that participated and we won. We also won the Stem in Africa venture competition. And all of these came with grants which have kept us moving. So we’ve not raised money from investors, but when we do, we will just go off the charts.

Since your users are not your paying customers, how do you manage that relationship?
We keep in touch with the parents as much as possible to ensure their children are actually getting the skills they need. Because a lot of parents are usually curious and ask a lot of questions like how many hours should my child spend on the computer. Our relationship with the parents is top-notch.

How do parents track the progress of their kids?
We ensure that all our courses are project-based. That means every course requires you to complete a project at the end. For instance, an introduction to web development would have a project that requires you to create a landing page. So at the end of that particular course, the child would have developed a landing page or website. And in between, there are quizzes and assessments like fill in the blank and multi-choice questions. Once the child submits their project at the end of the course, they receive their certificate.

So what’s the relationship between TCKZone and Skooqs?
Skooqs is a standalone company and TCKZone is a standalone not-for-profit organisation. But what we do is that we give 5% of every profit we make from Skooqs to the non-profit so that we can keep reaching under-served children. And once we’ve been able to organise training for those children, they can continue their learning on the Skooqs platform.

Does that mean Skooqs is profitable?
Skooqs is not profitable at the moment but we’re revenue-generating.

Is Skooqs a distributed remote team or is there a physical office?
We’re a distributed team but we have two recording studios on Lagos Island and the Mainland. So instructors that want to record but don’t have the necessary gadgets can come to our recording studios to record their courses.

Are you a sole founder or do you have co-founders?
Right now, I’m the sole founder of Skooqs. And we have a strong advisory board that include individuals in edtech and growth. And thanks to Standard Chartered and the WITI  programmes, we also got advisers from them.

However, in the coming months, I’m looking forward to a co-founder joining me. So this is an open call to individuals who are interested in the edtech space and are passionate about business. They can reach out to me to be a co-founder of Skooqs.

Are you actively raising or you’re still good with the grants?
We are actively raising, we’re trying to raise our pre-seed. However, it’s not a must. If investors reach out, awesome — we’re open to the conversation. If there are angel investors that want to join us early, we’re open to the conversation. But I’m not expending so much energy on it because we need to achieve some milestones in our traction and impact before we can reach out to investors and say bring your money. Because we’ve had conversations with a lot of investors but they want to see more oomph in our metrics.

Also, a lot of people want to see how far we can go with the grants. But I’m always open to having conversations with investors.

Does Skooqs have a mobile app or it’s only available on the web?
It’s a web progressive app for now. It’s accessible on the web and it can also be installed or saved on mobile and desktop as a shortcut. But we have plans to build an application because there are features we still want to add that will require a native app.

What is the unique selling point of Skooqs compared to other platforms in the edtech space?
I see Skooqs as a marketplace, a learning hub where students can get access to as many resources as possible to acquire technology and creative skills. Take Coursera for instance, it has courses from MIT and the University of Michigan. So all these companies that have coding or robotics resources for children can upload their courses on Skooqs. And we can discuss the terms of the partnership and revenue-sharing.

For instance, we just signed a partnership with Codejika, a South African company that helps children to learn website development. And now you can find all their courses on Skooqs.

So that’s our unique selling point: You can find as many courses and resources that will equip children with technology and creative skills. We are always open to partnerships and discussions that would help us achieve this.

Another selling point for us is, in addition to training these children, we’re also following how they grow in the skill they’ve acquired or make it a profession. We are all about the journey of these children; we want to see how they grow year on year in technology and creative skills.

How can edtech startups be in the spotlight more often?
We need to share more success stories. What child have you trained through your platform, and what is the child doing now? Sharing these success stories would help more children, parents and schools to connect to what edtech startups are doing.

So apart from being a company focused on making money, you should also focus on your impact. Can you pinpoint about 10 children, youth or whoever your users are, that you’ve impacted with your platform? And can people see or track what the impact is? This is something edtech startups should do more of and not just have a two-sentence testimonial on their websites.

For instance, we deal with children from ages 5–18, and we’re already thinking about what the children can do once they are 18. And thanks to the likes of AltSchool. With a partnership with AltSchool, children that pass through Skooqs can continue their learning with AltSchool and get internships at the end of their course. That journey is important to measuring impact.

Are there any success stories like that you want to share?
There are a lot. But I will share the story of Iremide. He was 13 years old when he took our graphics design training with Canva and since then he has become an entrepreneur making designs for people.

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