Founder Brett Wigdortz is making the leap from the world of non-profits to the startup scene. After building Teach First, a charity with +3000 employees, he is now on a mission to transform early years education with his UK-based startup tiney. Through an online platform and training, tiney is proving educators with the resources they need to set up early learning centres in their own homes and reinventing childcare in the process.
Founded in 2018, tiney is growing quickly. Already a dedicated and diverse team of +35, the startup has big plans to make high-quality early years education accessible to all. A leading voice in the ‘new normal’ of education, Brett is also focused on raising the profile of early years educators in the UK and beyond.
We spoke to Brett to find out more about tiney’s mission, his transition into the startup scene from the non-profit space and his thoughts on the future of edtech post-COVID.
tiney is on a powerful mission to ‘unlock the potential of every child’. Was this the main driving force when you founded the company back in 2018?
Absolutely. During my time at Teach First, I was focused on closing the attainment gap for children and ensuring all young people had access to a world class education. But the more time I spent in underperforming schools, the more I understood that many educational disadvantages are entrenched before pupils turn 5. This is backed up by recent science.
We need brilliant early years education if we want the next generation of children to thrive. That means attracting talented, passionate people into early years roles, providing them with first-rate training and support, and then creating environments that allow children to learn through play. Tiney’s mission is to make this high-quality early years care accessible and affordable for every family in the UK.
As founder of the well-known, UK-based charity Teach First, how has the transition from running a non-profit to a VC-backed business been?
It’s been a fantastic change of pace. With every year that passes, hundreds of thousands of children and their parents are failed by our patchwork early years system. So the focus on scaling that a startup brings is wonderful fuel to grow quickly and reach as many children as possible.
It’s also been very freeing. With a large charity, there’s naturally a lot of regulation and compliance that’s essential, but that can water down innovation. With a small, nimble startup we have more bandwidth to be creative and experimental; it’s a change I’m really enjoying.
Tiney is now a dynamic and fast-growing startup. Why was it important to you to found tiney with a startup structure and environment?
I think the culture of startups can lend itself well to driving positive societal change. You can build a strong team around your mission, work with investors who believe in your objectives, and embrace cutting-edge tech to help drive the project forward. Being able to take advantage of these elements was a core reason why I established tiney as a startup, rather than a charity.
You’ve raised an impressive $6.5 million (approx 5.4 million) in investment this year, what’s your advice to other founders also looking to raise funds?
My biggest advice is to only work with investors who you truly trust. If you can’t trust your investors as true partners, you won’t feel comfortable sharing key details and they won’t be able to provide you with nuanced advice. Someone once told me that a term-sheet signed in haste with the wrong people will be repented at leisure. Better to keep pitching until the right people come along.
The tiney team is not so small – it now includes over 35 employees from a range of diverse backgrounds. How has the team played an important role in tiney’s growth?
We’d be nothing without our team. Tiney is an extremely mission-oriented organisation and that really shines through across our work. Having a diverse, passionate team – many of whom are parents themselves – has enabled us to build an incredibly strong foundation for tiney. It means we’ve built something that is truly accessible, inclusive and impactful.
Each hire we’ve made has been all-in from day one and I think the positive impact of that was truly felt when the pandemic hit in March. Despite the disruptions it caused, we’ve not wavered from our goal of transforming early years and, if anything, our team has got more creative and dynamic as a result.
Edtech has been one of the sectors most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. What changes have you noticed in the edtech ecosystem over the last few months?
There’s obviously been a lot of talk about online learning and how we keep children engaged during the disruption, so the pandemic has definitely accelerated our willingness to explore what edtech can bring to the table. But what I think is a more important conversation is how we can use technology to empower the educators themselves.
Teachers and early years providers have been going above and beyond to support children this year. Many of them are exhausted by the admin and regulations they’re now grappling with. I’d love to see more edtech coming to market that frees up educators time and allows them to do what they’ve trained for; helping inspire and support children and young people.
What do you think will be the next big digital transformation in edtech over the coming 5 years?
I’ve seen so many brilliant ideas that people have come up with recently. What’s most excited me are some of the ideas that really put the educator front and centre and help them to be world class. Some edtech that I’ve found impressive helps educators to track student performance and push more individualised learning. Personally, I think that will make a bigger impact than some of the more showy tech that sometimes comes out.
What’s your stance on online vs offline education? Can online ever replace the in-person approach?
Digital education is a great addition to the sphere, but it should always be an enabler rather than the whole offering. We see technology as a great way to empower teachers and pupils, allowing them to focus on what they’re best at. In-person education should remain the ‘North Star’, but technology can definitely help us bring light to new corners of the sector.
What are some of the next steps we can expect to see from tiney in the future?
We want a tiney home nursery on every UK street and then hopefully in countries all over the world! Having affordable, high quality childcare on the doorstep should be a human right, not some parental pipe dream.
We’re very focused on attracting new people into the early years space and rehabilitating the concept of what it means to care for our youngest children. Childminders are educators and the work they do has a major impact on the fortunes of the next generation. Tiney intends to raise their status and ensure more children can benefit from incredible early years childcare.