Best friends Alex Somervell and Jonny Pryn are on a mission to transform the foreign language skills of British children through their publishing group, OneThirdStories.
The pair, who have known each other since school, produce storybooks for kids aged between four and nine years old that start in English but gradually introduce French or Spanish words to aid learning.
It includes stories about a T-Rex called Terrance who’s on a search for the perfect pair of shoes, and Wilma the Whale and her adventures with a family of sardines.
The duo’s own start-up tale is equally as colourful, ranging from missionary work in South America to taking inspiration from classic novel “A Clockwork Orange” and turning down thousands of pounds from Dragon Peter Jones.
Business Advice sat down with co-founder Alex Somervell to hear more about the story so far.
Who are you and why have you focused on foreign languages?
I’m Alex Somervell, and myself and (co-founder) Jonny have very different backgrounds when it comes to language. I was brought up in Paraguay by my Mum and Dad who were working as missionaries there. My Dad was bi-lingual – English and Spanish – and I got fully immersed in both languages as I grew up. I now speak three foreign languages.
In contrast, Jonny dropped foreign languages as soon as he could at school, But it is something he really regrets now, and I believe that is reflective of what most people in the UK think. Most wish they had learned another dialect but for a variety of reasons, such as teachers not being supported as well as they should, the UK does struggle with learning foreign languages.
Through our books we hope to give children the first spark of learning a foreign language and make it so fun that they stick with it through their lives. It helps them in their career and to travel the globe and make friends. I’ve certainly used my skills to have some great life experiences living abroad.
How does the business work and how did it get started?
Jonny loves stories and I love language. About five years ago he came to me saying he had read Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange”. There are a lot of slang type, made up words in the book but Jonny, who remember is a very bad linguist, thought he was making sense of some of them.
We created the Clockwork Methodology, which we have now trademarked, where we put foreign words in an English sentence. So instead of “the little boy looked at the sun”, we end the sentence with the word “soleil”.
At the time I was at Exeter University and Jonny was at Nottingham, so it was a side project involving hungover Skype chats once a month. We thought it would work well as an app with stories and games, and after we both left university we produced a prototype which got us on to a three-month accelerator programme in September 2015. It was based in Newcastle and so we both gave up our jobs and moved there. I swapped sunny Madrid for the cold North…
Was that a success?
It was in the sense that by the end we had changed the business model. We had assumed that our customers would want to use apps but after carrying out consultations and chats with parents we realised that we were completely wrong. We had the wrong product.
Parents told us they preferred a physical book, they wanted a shared experience with their child and didn’t want them exposed to too much screen time.
We then decided to raise money on Kickstarter to get our first books published. We set aside 5 months to prepare properly and we got a £10,000 Virgin Start Up loan to help us.
In May 2016 we raised £35,000 on Kickstarter in pre-orders. They were mainly Mums who loved the idea and we sent out the first books in June. We then decided to launch an activity book alongside the main book and in January of 2017 decided on a subscription model. So, customers get one main book, an audio book narrated by a native speaker and activity materials every month.
We’ve done 14 books now and over 1,000 customers. We also have a team of 15 freelance authors, illustrators and designers and have hired three full-time staff in marketing and customer service.
You also went on Dragons’ Den recently. How did that go?
Yes, it aired in February this year, but we filmed it back in the summer of last year. We asked for £60,000 in exchange for 7.5 per cent of the business to expand our book range and accelerate growth.
Peter Jones was very keen, but he asked for a lot of equity and he valued the business at £300,000, which was lower than the £800,000 valuation we had. We turned him down which was helped by the fact that we already had a £310,000 funding commitment from angel investors and the University of Nottingham.
Have you had any major setbacks or challenges?
I find that managing a team is a challenge as it is something I have never done before. The challenge is how to empower your staff and build a company culture.
The other setback was not talking to our customers early enough and just assuming that we knew what they wanted. You have to speak to them and really understand their loves and pain points with your product. You need to ask a lot of questions and not be satisfied with people telling you what they think you want to hear. It is an art in itself.
Is it difficult working with your best friend?
No, it’s gone quite smoothly. Well, apart from when we lived with each other in Newcastle. That was way too intense and something we will not do again. But on a business level, being friends means we are very open with each other. We do disagree, but we have never fallen out. We tend to go with who feels most strongly about a decision.
What are your future hopes for OneThirdStories?
We want to develop more languages and target more age groups including adults. We are also eyeing up international expansion and looking at different channels such as using video.
What advice would you give a fellow startup?
One big learning is that “action beats inaction”. You get a lot of advice and given a lot of different options as a start-up. It is easy to be overwhelmed and not do anything. But you need to choose one of the options and do it with conviction.
Who is your business idol?
I don’t really have one because you don’t know them personally do you? With people like Richard Branson we see what the media portrays but that is all.
The person who is more inspirational for me is my friend Oli Monks. He has a younger brother who is autistic and Oli dedicates a lot of his time to raise awareness about the condition, including running the London Marathon at 18 years old. They are so under-employed in society and he is working hard to change that.
After almost 13 years on Britain’s TV screens, Dragons’ Den has become the definitive place to watch wannabe tycoons pitch their business ideas to investors. But have you ever wondered what the cameras don’t show?
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