The old way of choosing universities was through advice from tutors and parents, a glossy brochure, or perhaps an open day. The new way is by just one TAP.
The Access Platform:
The Access Platform, or TAP, is an ed-tech company offering peer-to-peer recruitment for all higher education including universities. It is a market leader in the U.K. due to the numbers of their clients in ANZ, just opening an office in Sydney.
TAP provides a virtual environment where prospective students can interact with student ambassadors, read their content, and get an insider view of what life is like at the universities they are considering and what careers people on their prospective courses are choosing.
The student market is now virtually all digital, and the TAP programme engages students in ways that glossy brochures were failing to do. It also opens up the possibility of a broader choice of the universities to students who might not have previously considered them or could not have afforded to visit them to find out more.
Peer-to-peer digital marketing is a new way for Universities to market themselves, but the reach is enormous. The founders believe that all universities’ best advocates are their community members, staff, students, and alumni.
TAP has had users from over 180 countries. It was successful before but has become even more of an essential resource since COVID, making it possible for open days to be held online.
I talked to Nik Higgins and George Oleson, founders of the Access Platform, to find out more about their journey and how TAP works.
When choosing universities, George had really wanted to talk to students there to find out more. He chose Durham having met engineering students there through his sister.
George thought that there should be a way of prospective students to talk to the student ambassadors online. He had no idea how to turn it into a business, so instead, he took a job on the Graduate Programme at Amazon Web Services.
But the idea stayed with him and deciding against the corporate route, and he decided to start The Access Platform. He started while still at Amazon, working in his spare time. George says he was fully prepared for the project to fail when he left Amazon but he wanted to go through the process of starting a company as a learning experience.
To stretch the money George had set aside for the venture, he went to live on a friend’s houseboat. He had a tiny cabin and access to a cold shower, so he joined a gym and divided his time between there, which had hot showers, towel service and a lounge to sit in, and the British Library.
Realizing how few people could afford to visit universities, George started ringing round schools in disadvantaged areas to see how this impacted. One of the people he cold-called was Nik.
Nik’s journey was very different. His father’s family were Irish immigrants and mostly builders or hairdressers. His parents were teachers, and he attended his local comprehensive, where places at universities were not a common occurrence.
Never-the-less, by 18, Nik was studying English at Oxford, which he describes as eye-opening, with few “normal” people there. He started to think about how this world could be opened up to others by introducing undergraduates to prospective students. His first job was at the 6th form college, where he had done his A ‘levels, where he managed the local access provision for Pembroke College, Oxford, and started an outreach program.
Nik then took a Masters at Kings College, London. He was working for BSix College in Hackney, East London, where he loved the area and found the students’ diversity and cultures fascinating. He managed the student provision through UCAS and liaised with employers and apprentices. Nik developed an access provision for Pembroke and other Oxford colleges, bringing in students to talk about life there.
From that first call, it was clear Nik and George had a similar goal, from different perspectives. Nik had only ever been interested in education and students, while George wanted to be an entrepreneur.
Nik sees business in terms of finding a problem, then utility to solve it and serve people with. Now, Nik has another part-time business of his own, puckermasks.com, which supports both mask makers and charities.
The Access Platform’s Early Challenges
Nik says that the most formidable challenge of the many they faced was to change the thinking in the market place. Universities are very traditional, even the newer ones. Recruitment and marketing have always been done in the same way, and the big names have been accustomed to people coming to them. That had stopped happening even pre-COVID.
Nik says they are not so much selling a product but a methodology that is very different from selling trainers. Nik volunteered at the start to sell the concept to the universities who were their prospective partners. He was passionate about the product, good at talking to people, and exploring ideas. His sales experience amounted to doing car-washing when he was eleven.
Initially, they were funded by George and the second year by early sales, including a successful pitch to The National Collaborative Outreach Programme. They were using 3rd party technology at this stage to get to market more quickly and to test their ideas.. When they were ready to build their own tech, they brought a third founder in, Dominic O’Neill, went on an accelerator program. Within eighteen months were an attractive investment proposition already generating revenue.
Six months later, when it was ready, they could go for high growth, which they have maintained ever since. They have now done two rounds of Angel Investment fundraising and are working with the Cambridge Angels.
EdTech is worth multi-billions globally. They are expanding in North America as well as ANZ, and soon George will lead a bigger funding round to enable more growth. There is more their tech can do, and they are both full of plans for the future.
New office for the ANZ Universities
In 2021, Nik will be in Australia, opening their new office in Sydney. They already have around twenty-five customers in Australia and New Zealand. He plans to spend around a year fully establishing them over there. ANZ is now their largest market outside the U.K, and they feel it deserves that support on the ground.
There has been an 11% growth in the number of international students choosing to study in Australia since 2017. It is the fourth most popular destination for overseas students after the U.S. The Australian market for international students is vast. They get more support from their Government, who recognizes this.
The result is that their approach to marketing higher education is more advanced and more realistic in Nik’s assessment. Nik finds them a pleasure to work with, more commercially adept, and open to working with private companies.
They understand that potential students are very different in their cultures and their backgrounds and needs, and each of those markets needs individual profiles to recruit successfully. Oxford and Cambridge may have the best research centers but are not necessarily best at recruitment.
The new Customer Success Manager for ANZ has already joined. Tom Dunlop, originally from Melbourne, also comes from an education provider background, having worked for Navitas for eight years.
Nik and George’s Advice:
By the time I asked Nik and George their advice, it came as no surprise to me that it came from very different perspectives.
George: George is wary of offering advice, believing it to be done best on a person-to-person basis, where it can be given in exact circumstances rather than generalizations. There are always nuances, he says.
George recommends avoiding generic advice and seeking out people who can talk to you in a similar context and have personally experienced and overcome any particular issue.
George says that the best advice he has been given is always around sharing a framework or process that enables him to think things through and find his own answers. He advises others to look for processes and frameworks that will allow them to solve their own issues.
Nik: Nik’s first advice is to avoid getting caught up in a business box. Avoid the start-up culture and all the business jargon that goes with it.
When you start a business, just focus on life and the problem you have seen needs solving, who you are, what utility you can provide, and who you can help. He maintains that you need to only worry about the very fundamental business principles of making more money than you spend and keeping the customers happy.
As Nik talks to all sides, the students, the universities, and employers, I also wanted to ask his advice for prospective students in making their choices of Universities. He says massive pressure on them from parents and educators should consider their future prospects and choose courses to enhance those.
One of Nik’s key messages is to ignore this and instead chose something you are passionate about and can get involved in, something that really engages you and speaks to your heart. He says it is hard for the students to remember this under all the pressure, but he tries to help them hear it wherever he has the opportunity.
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