We interviewed Anders Krohn, co-founder and CEO of Aula, a communication platform for education that is looking to transform digital infrastructure in education, by replacing learning management systems (e.g. Blackboard and Canvas) and emails. The Aula team works with universities like Nottingham, Derby and the Royal College of Art to help them increase student engagement and improve learning outcomes. The company closed a Seed round earlier this year to invest in building the case for a ‘digital campus’ with existing partner institutions, to find new partner institutions and to make it easier to build integrations with the Aula platform
Aula is a fantastic company with an inspiring mission and we are proud to be backing such a great team!
Anders, could you briefly introduce yourself?
I’m originally from Denmark, where I lived until I was 18 years old. I then went on a - slightly random, but very inspiring - educational journey which shaped who I am today and my interest in using technology to enhance the way the world learns.
First I got a Rotary scholarship to study for a year at a university in rural Georgia in the US, which completely changed the way I viewed the world. I then went back to Denmark to study for a year until I started my undergraduate degree at University of Oxford with a brief stint at Peking University in China. For me, travelling and meeting other learners from around the world has been a massive privilege and I hope that one of things we can do with Aula is to bring learners from around the world closer together.
Prior to Aula, what was your work experience like?
I dropped out of Oxford to start Aula, so I don’t have that much ‘relevant’ work experience, but I’ve worked in bakeries, supermarkets and restaurants since I was very young and I worked for a year at an insurance broker next to my studies in Denmark.
However, I have started, and been involved in starting, a few other things. I co-founded a global mentor network called Project Access (it now counts 5,000 people), which provides low-income students with a level playing field for applying to top universities. I also founded a conference called DSA Careers, which is an annual conference hosted in the buildings of the Danish Parliament to help Danes studying abroad get inspiration and meet role models for their career decisions.
What are your hobbies?
I’m extremely geeky about food and wine. I was a guest blogger for a Danish food blog when I was younger, I read cookbooks instead of fiction, and you can put me on the overly ambitious part of the home cook spectrum - You can quote me for saying that one day I’ll open a tiny restaurant somewhere people won’t find it unless they know. (Those are usually the best ones!)
I also (try to) read a lot of management, economics, psychology, and learning sciences literature and on the sports side, I’m starting to ramp up on my running and cycling again after a few slow years. I ran a couple of marathons when I graduated from high school and really enjoy the meditative states of long distance running.
How did you identify the opportunity to disrupt the academic LMS industry?
We realised this frustration was shared by our educators and started reading blogs from educators all over the world that had “broken out” of the LMS and started testing alternatives - using platforms like Facebook Groups, Slack, and WhatsApp with great successes in terms of student engagement and learning. That made us realise that there was a real need for rethinking the core infrastructure universities use and that we, with our experience as students and with our advisors’ expertise in pedagogy, could build a product that had the potential to radically change the experience of teaching and learning across whole institutions. A lot of it came from my own and my co-founders’ experiences as students. Studying at a bunch of different universities all over the world made it very clear to me that student engagement is central to everything a university does. But also that the current core infrastructure used by universities (the LMS or the VLE) simply wasn’t built for engagement but rather for an age of digitisation of paperwork. It was built more for learning management than actual learning, as many commentators have pointed out.
What kind of Aula thoughts keep you awake at night?
I’ve started to appreciate the unknown unknowns of the startup journey and the baseline learning opportunities that come with creating something new, so I actually sleep quite well ;-)
The things that make me nervous at times are the known unknowns - those things that are incredibly hard to predict and which can be detrimental even after reaching massive scale. For example, realising that there are weird second-order effects of the product, that the product isn’t well-suited for a specific type of teaching, or that the idea was not defensible in the end. It’s still early days, so there are many daily ups and downs, but for me working with the dream team compensates for all that.
Tell us more about the fundraising process - How was your latest round (Seed) compared to the previous ones?
We raised a £400k angel round in January 2017 in a round led by Nordic Makers. That round made it extremely clear to me how important it is to get not just any investors, but the right investors.
The biggest change when it came to our Seed round of £3M in April 2018, where Brighteye participated alongside Project A, Sunstone and Nordic Makers, was probably that our previous investors had given us access to the right people for that stage.
In January 2017, I knocked on every door I could find and sent lots of emails that never got responses - or just got a ‘no’. For the April 2018 round, I didn’t send a single outbound email. It was all inbound or referrals, which made a massive difference and we ended up having quite a few offers. That obviously doesn’t mean it was easy and it was certainly time-consuming for me and the rest of the team (even though we ran quite a tight process), but the outcome exceeded our goals in all respects.
Do you have some piece of advice for European EdTech entrepreneurs?
For edtech entrepreneurs, I think I’ve learned two important things:
Edtech (at least the part that deals with teaching and learning) is incredibly hard because of the idiosyncrasies of the sector. For example, we’re not just developing software, we have to develop ‘the Aula way’ of implementing as well, which means that thinking carefully about pedagogy and change management early on is an essential part of what we offer. I think a lot of edtech entrepreneurs think about educational impact too late. But I sometimes find that edtech startups have thought more about their cool product than about the specific educational impact they want to create
At some point, companies need to make money. I have to say I’m sometimes surprised by the number of edtech startups where revenue is a second thought
From whom do you learn the most?
I learn the most from our team. We have a very feedback-driven culture, where it is seen as bad performance if someone doesn’t provide thoughtful and honest feedback. For example, I’m currently working on (based on input from our team) getting better at:
Blocking out time to execute on essentials so I can get better at delegating
Deepening, and especially articulating, our shared vision and values
My main mentor is angel investor Hampus Jakobsson who also sits on Aula’s board. He is a constant source of inspiration for me and is often very hands-on.
Bonus question: Aula is recruiting incredibly talented and smart people from prestigious consulting firms. What is your secret sauce in terms of recruitment? :)
I don’t want to take credit for that. I obviously play a role in defining our vision for talent and recruitment, but our recruitment process is the brainchild of Rune, our COO, and Lillian, our People Associate.
It is still early days, but I think we’re good at:
Setting a bolder vision for our team members than what they have previously set for themselves.
Being more structured about processes related to management and people than other startups. For example, we take the onboarding of new team members extremely seriously and have well-defined personal development objectives.
Also, there’s a lot of path dependency in recruitment. A players hire A players, B players hire C players, C players hire D players etc., so we’re constantly iterating on our recruitment process.
Interview has been condensed and edited.