How Rachel Burgon, Co-founder of Student Central addresses the pain points of both the applicants and the universities.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Rachel Burgon: We’re doing well, thanks. Like most families, it’s been challenging to balance homeschooling with everything else. Our startup ‘Student Central’ used to have office space in the Milton Keynes NatWest Accelerator, but the pandemic meant our office moved to our living room. The upside is we’ve had lots of flexibility around the kids, but it’s also made it more challenging to separate work and family life. Our kids have probably learned more about running a startup than about the school curriculum this past year.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Student Central.
Rachel Burgon: We started our company a couple of years ago to help provide services for international students. My co-founder Ross (who is also my husband) and I have lived in a number of different countries and worked in a number of UK universities. We realized that moving to another country to study can be very challenging, and there are not that many student-centred services to help students decide what and where to study. Existing international education agencies are often paid to recruit students for specific universities. We felt strongly that the market was ripe for a disruptive model that puts international students and their needs centre-stage.
How does Student Central innovate?
Rachel Burgon: Our platform studentcentral.io, turns the current international student recruitment model on its head. Rather than providing students with information on universities, we invite the students to create a profile on our platform and then provide all universities with direct access to these profiles and enabling them to connect with students who are a good fit for their courses. It addresses the pain points of both the applicants and the universities (who are incentivized to provide quicker, better offers to secure the best students).
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Rachel Burgon: We’ve always been keen to operate a lean business model (which is vital as a boot-strapping, early-stage startup). We decided early on that we didn’t need big, fancy buildings and that our scalability rests in optimizing and automating our processes rather than building in cumbersome layers of management.
This lean approach has been to our benefit during the pandemic as our overheads are low and so haven’t faced the same challenges of businesses that have large staff costs or commercial rents to pay.
Of course, it has hit our projected revenue streams as the recruitment of international students has been significantly affected by restrictions in global mobility and uncertainty within the market. Despite the lack of income, we actually focussed more on R & D during the past year as we took the chance to think about our longer-term strategy and ensure that our platform offers distinctive value in the space of international student recruitment.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Rachel Burgon: We don’t have a massive team, so it hasn’t been too problematic. If it weren’t for the pandemic, our revenue may have grown quicker, and we may have started to expand the team last year. But we haven’t had to cut jobs which I know has been challenging for other companies.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Rachel Burgon: Our new Student Central platform, which we built during the pandemic, is a great way to onboard international applicants and universities into our system. In addition to this, we tried out various ‘standard’ CRM systems, such as HubSpot, which can be hugely powerful for marketing to users. However, these standard platforms are not industry-specific, so we were pleased recently to find a UK-based CRM provider which specializes in managing international student recruitment relationships. We are currently exploring how we can collaborate more strategically with them to offer extra added value to our users.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Rachel Burgon: Yes, we secured a small pot of funding from our local enterprise partnership (SEMLEP) to help build studentcentral.io, and we’ve also just taken on our first young person through the government’s Kickstarter scheme. Both these initiatives have helped enormously.
Your final thoughts?
Rachel Burgon: If you have a guiding mission for your business, it helps you stay on track even when times are challenging. The pandemic forced us to focus down on our mission “to put students at the centre of the international recruitment process” this meant we focused on our long-term strategic goals (rather than on short-term wins or losses). That approach has led to us investing in and creating what we feel is a truly unique solution for both international students and universities, with the potential to scale sustainably into the future.