Interview with Susan and Clare, founders of Classlist

Susan Burton and Clare Wright are founders of Classlist, a free social network designed to make parents’ lives easier. Find out how their desire to help parents communicate better led to them raising £850,000 through private investors and crowd-funding for their startup. And how they’re now moving things to the next level.

What are your career backgrounds?

Susan: I used to be a management consultant for PwC. I then started my entrepreneurial journey as Finance Director of a Dotcom in the late 90s in the pets e-commerce space and an online venture capital service. I also set up a recommendation site for expats while I was living in India.

Clare: I worked as a management consultant and later an advertising planner at Ogilvy & Mather.

How did your career change after having children?

Susan: My career changed dramatically after having children. Prior to kids my work involved a lot of travel: Beirut, Oaxaca, Dar Es Salaam, Addis Ababa, among others.

I was actually working for a startup just when I got pregnant and had been offered a dream job with a well-known dotcom based in New York. I took a career break for a few years and earned a first class honours degree in fine art. When the kids were young, I felt studying was a better option, as my work has always been more 24/7.

Clare: I worked for the first four years after having my first two children. But when my eldest started school, I couldn’t sort out good childcare around the school day and holidays, so I decided to have some time off.

I was planning to get back to work when my youngest daughter was one, but instead we moved to Brazil. When I came back after a five-year career break, I was ready to work again, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do until I met Susan.

Where did the idea for Classlist come from?

Susan: I had just returned from India when Clare had returned from Brazil and having moved around a lot we realised that the school contact list was very much hit and miss. Sometimes there would be a super-organised class rep with an Excel sheet or a Word document where we could add our details to a class list.

Sometimes there wasn’t, or the list was wrong or out of date, or we lost it. And then next year, the same again… For three children each.

Clare: We thought there must be an easier way to connect with other parents, without the whole world getting your personal details.

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How did you move from idea to actual business?

Susan: While in India, I registered the domain name schoolclasslist.com with the idea of creating a parent community to help facilitate birthday party invitations, play dates, homework, and that sort of thing.

Clare: Then we created a pilot site and asked parents to register and share their details. Parents signed up so fast that we decided to roll out another pilot. Now we are operating in hundreds of schools across the UK. You can see here how other parents are using Classlist in this video.

What’s your USP?

Susan: We make parent life easier by offering secure, mobile class lists, and also function as a private social media network for each school. From trading hours of childcare, to lift-sharing, to exchanging hand-me-downs, we believe that practical assistance received from fellow parents who become friends offers a real life-line. It is our mission to facilitate that.

Clare: Through Classlist, parents can join interest groups and post photos. They can also sell used items, look for babysitters, find holiday lets, and much more. The functionalities also include a school-run map for sharing lifts.

PTAs can use Classlist to inform parents of what’s happening at the school and organise events. We want to create a virtuous circle where regular events forge friendships and a willingness to give back to the school by volunteering and fundraising.

Who’s your target audience?

We are reaching out to parents, class reps and PTAs.

How do you spread the word about what you do?

Susan: Word of mouth goes a long way. As we first tested Classlist at The Dragon, where both my and Clare’s children attend, we already knew the Christmas sale organisers and the parents there. So that has really helped spread the word.

Clare: We have a blog series and we also use Twitter and Facebook. We know that busy mums look at Facebook a lot for events and information. We also have a YouTube channel with a tutorial on how to use Classlist. You can see it here.

What’s been your most successful marketing strategy?

Susan: Our blog has been one of our most successful campaigns. Here, we offer advice for parents on how to deal with school issues and for PTAs on how to have more creative fundraising ideas and get more people to volunteer, for example.

We’re not just concerned about making software that offers functionality. We also want to engage with and be inspirational to both parents and PTAs.

Clare: One of our strongest strategies has always been trying to understand our audiences and the channels they use, so that we can reach them more effectively. As parents ourselves, we were already familiar with the ways in which busy Mums communicate and search for media content online.

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

Susan: There are obstacles every day. You just need to build resilience, know that’s part of the job of being CEO and get on with it. In the case of being a female founding team, we know it’s statistically much harder for us to raise funds than our male counterparts.

And your proudest moment so far?

Clare: We haven’t enjoyed champagne moments yet. But I think one of our proudest moments was when we managed to raise £850,000 through private investors and crowd-funding. This really meant a lot for us, because we received so much interest and support from the community.

Why is work so important to you?

Susan: Work sounds like a job. Being a founder is more of a vocation. Given the chance of success and the effort required, you have to be crazy to set up a tech company.

Who inspires you?

Susan: Sheryl Sandberg. Her book Lean In should be compulsory reading for men and women. And also Sarah Wood, Co-CEO of Unruly. Her insights on how to recruit a talented team and how she has introduced innovative ways for tech teams to work together to achieve amazing results is very inspiring.

Clare: Jeff Bezos who founded Amazon. He said that if one customer complains about something you absolutely have to solve their problem, because others will be having the same issue, but not telling you.

So whenever we get feedback about Classlist we try hard to solve any issue and make improvements as a result.  Keeping the customer happy is the only way to grow.

How do you balance Classlist with your family?

Susan: Balance doesn’t really come into play with a startup. You need to be obsessive to make it work. I hope I am setting a good example to my children, that with hard work you can make something amazing happen – such as creating a service for parents that never existed before.

Clare: Classlist is an all-consuming job, but one that we can normally juggle to ensure we never miss a school concert or sports day. Working for a start up means you never ‘go home and switch off’. Last night I was emailing a reply to an enquiry while my children were on a fairground ride!

What are your three top pieces of advice for fellow aspiring entrepreneurs?

Susan:

  1. Build a prototype. You do it. Don’t commission someone else. Teach yourself how to code and make your own product by following tutorials on YouTube if you have to. I built my first website that way.
  2. Test it out on real people. If you’re not embarrassed by your first version, you’ve missed the market.
  3. Understand there are sacrifices. You won’t have much of a social life for a while.

Clare: If someone has an issue, phone them up. Talking direct solves most problems, and often they become your greatest advocates.

Could your school community do with a bit of help from Classlist? Find out more and join for free here