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Startup Spotlight: tootoot

tootoot has been on a massive journey. The company, which has created an app that has enabled thousands of children and young people to report safeguarding issues in a confidential manner. Having just won a Tech Nation Rising Star award, and now preparing to take their product into workplace environments, we thought now was a good time to catch up with the company’s co-founder and CEO, Michael Brennan to discover more about tootoot’s Startup Story. 

For anyone who might not have heard of you, can you say why you won that award, and a bit of an overview of your company?

We are tootoot. We started off as the world's first reporting app for children and young people to report a concern, such as bullying or mental health issues, directly to their school. 

Effectively, our mission is to give children a voice. And as we went through that journey, supporting 500 schools and over 600,000 children, we have supported 60,000 concerns of wellbeing issues, extremism, child abuse, anything in between that.

We soon realised that the same principles that we were supporting in education were very similar in the workplace sector. It’s very, very difficult for business leaders and managers to understand their teams, and to listen to their teams, whether they had a suggestion, a concern, a new idea. It was all about creating an environment in which employees and staff could speak up to report such concerns, suggest ideas, and then ultimately leadership listening to that suggestion and concern, understanding the trends. 

Our goal is to make organisations happier and safer places. It's been quite an organic journey from start to finish. Effectively, we entered Tech Nation Rising Star awards explaining that journey. We're just at the point of launching our new workplace platform. And we felt it was a good opportunity to showcase what we've done in the first of the three years in the education space. And ultimately then, launching our new model into a much larger market. We believe we've created a product that has real market fit.

What made you, initially, want to work in the education space?

Education was a personal experience for me. I was bullied very heavily throughout primary and secondary school. And despite being in small schools, I found it very, very difficult to speak up when I had a concern. So what was a small issue at the start, turned into quite a significant, serious concern of a number of years for me, where I used Childline, had counsellors to get extra support.

And it was at that moment, I realised it was very difficult for other people to report concerns, such as bullying, friendship issues, problems at home. And after some research and working with my school, I realised that there was no platform or app for young people in the modern world, to be able to report their concerns directly to school. So it was born out of effectively personal circumstances, and what I identified as a need for others.

And moving into the workplace?

Our workplace product began very organically. We work with 37 schools, with Wigan Council, who procured our services for a four-year period. And ultimately their HR team saw what we were doing in the school environment, in terms of giving individuals a voice and have helped us to develop tootoot Workplace, which initially started off by giving four and a half thousand staff Wigan Council staff a voice, a way to report a concern, when they can't do so face-to-face, directly to the HR team.

From there, we’ve secured Barclays, and other local authorities. We quickly realised our app was doing more than just getting employees to report a concern. It was helping leadership to understand what their team is thinking and feeling. We now have the ability to pulse questions daily, weekly or monthly to the employees, as much as listening and waiting for that feedback to come, offering push-pull support.

Could you explain what your role is within the business, and what you get off to on a day to day level?

Official title is co-founder and CEO, but, as in any startup, a jack-of-all trades is probably a fairer description.

My current focus, as we've launched a new workplace platform, is ultimately to be focused on learning. So I'm out selling and understanding, and making sure that as we grow the team, I understand what those challenges and pinch points and opportunities are, so that we can scale and bring those learnings back into the team.

But ultimately, my number one duty is to care for and support and nurture my 14 employees that work for me, to ultimately help them to deliver, grow, and increase the growth and revenue of tootoot.

Looking into the future, what level of disruption can be expected within the education and safeguarding space, via technology?

The future for technology in education is really exciting. It holds so much potential. 

We believe technology should work in harmony with schools to enhance processes and support teachers and pupils. Ultimately helping with efficiencies and budgets whilst also making schools happier and safer places to be. 

For tootoot that means there’s a huge opportunity. We’re the only app in education in the UK and globally, doing what we're doing. If we can continue to encourage change, we can get young people to speak up via technology at the earliest opportunity and  hopefully start to speed up the interventions, and help young people in schools.

And in terms of being a startup, what was it that made you decide to choose Manchester as your location?

We started tootoot in Berwick Upon Tweed, where part of our education team are still based, after our initial growth we knew we needed to focus heavily on developing our app. Manchester presented a great opportunity particularly in terms of mobile app developer talent. 

We feel that a lot of organisations naturally progress to London, which is a great place for business. But we really love the community in Manchester, it has a great network of tech businesses and start-up’s at similar stages to us.  

And do you feel like you made the right decision?

Absolutely. I think the luxury we have, as a technology business, is that we can base our centres around where talent is, where the opportunity is. 

As we've scaled across two offices, communication has been key. To make sure that we keep those open communication channels and learnings, to make sure that both offices have as much support as one another.

If I was to speak to your employees, how would they describe working at tootoot, and what have you done to implement culture?

Honestly, I think if you spoke to our employees today, they would be 100% bought into our mission of making organisations happier and safer places. Most individuals that have come to us, it's more than just a job. They've had personal circumstances or challenges that they can relate to, and therefore they believe in what we're trying to do.

I think on a daily basis, there'll be a number of challenges. Communication, strategy, structure, all of the points that are part and parcel of a startup and a scale up going through its growth pains, and trying to adapt and change. By that I mean, I think the long-term vision is clear but they’d probably say that sometimes they feel the short term vision might not be understood, because we're constantly trying to adapt in a new market to support the growth of our existing market.

I do think everyone understands what's expected of them. I think we are as flexible as we can be as a startup, but also making sure that we watch the bottom line and we watch the spend, as we're trying to grow through those models. So we're really trying to break the boundaries at every stage. I will try and please everybody. I never will be able to, but ultimately, it's a team game in which we all bring our different skillsets together. 

Most of the startups that I speak to say investment is a huge challenge. What's been your experience in this regard?

Highs and low. The biggest advice I'll give to everybody, is just be aware of how much time it takes. So we effectively have to choose investment over me selling, because the time it takes to build those relationships, to court those investors, to walk through your business, to do the due diligence, to be honest, open, of where you're trying to get to, to share your challenges, to validate your opportunity to your customers. In a small startup, when you're doing that, you're not selling and focused on the business. So that for me was the biggest challenge.

The first time we raised our seed funding, we had an incredible network, and our chairman, Terry Flanagan MBE – North West entrepreneur genius, and my mentor – brought his network to the table. 

That was an experience that I would love to have every single time because it was a yes or no with the right people in the room, which we delivered upon.

The second round, as we went for VC investment, we had a number of quite unpleasant experiences that I don't really want to go into which tainted our view of investment. 

However, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the Growth Angel Fund have been absolutely fantastic. They're both so supportive in our journey, both short term of what we're trying to do, and long term.

Overall, it's been a very interesting and huge learning curve for us. We've initially secured friends, families and angels to suddenly, some institutional investment. With that comes a big step up in what you need to deliver upon, and you just need to be ready and prepared.

Away from investment, what other challenges have you faced?

Stickability in our early days. Because we gave our product away for free initially to grab the market, we did a brilliant job of grabbing the market, but we weren't prepared or expecting to face such a challenge of schools and education. When not using our platform, they didn't see value necessarily after a period of time. And with multiple stakeholders in an organisation, it's making sure that at the point of sale, and the revenue coming in per school can support the level of support that school required. We've put a huge team on that and worked and have been delighted to have increased that over a period of time and focused. 

Focus is another challenge. Over our journey we have entered into the education market, the sport market, and the workplace market, with three similar products, in terms of the model but, ultimately, they are three very different markets, and very different value propositions. The nuances of integrating and getting a platform launched for young people to report a concern, is very different to supporting business leaders to understand their teams, and therefore getting employees to suggest ideas and raise concerns.

Because of this we were ultimately running three businesses in one. So we took a big stance to bring that together and just focus on two of those markets, education and workplace in the short term. Get that right, hone that in, and then drive forward with the growth across the rest of the markets.

What are your plans for tootoot in the near future?

I’d love for tootoot Workplace to get to a million pounds of ARR over the next 24 months. And with that ARR create a CSR program where we can look to give tootoot to schools for free, and businesses can sponsor local areas of schools. So we have this beautiful organic model where all the way from the point in which you come into school, to the point where you come into an organisation, you've got a reporting channel, or a way to give feedback to your organisation.

What message would you give to the Manchester and Northwest community looking to support tootoot?

Put simply, we'd love for you to pilot our services in your organisation.

From the workplace point of view, we are looking for organisations of all shapes and sizes to pilot our program. We've started on a pilot costing model, which is very reasonable, compared to the market average of workplace software. But we really want to learn. We'd love to put our services, which is the ability to pulse questions to your employees, the ability for employees to raise concerns or suggest new ideas, and a resource hub in which you can host your policies and wellbeing resources. We'd love to put that into your environment, and just see how that reacts, and support you fully. 

From an education point of view, if you're a practitioner, or you work in a school we have a wellbeing measurement tool, in which you can pulse questions to your young people, to identify how they are feeling. And then we have our pupil reporting platform to allow pupils to speak up about anything making them feel unsafe or unhappy. All supported with free resources throughout the year.. So if any of those resonate with any of your challenges of getting children to report concerns, speak up, we'd love to have a conversation with you, no obligations, to tell you what we do.

What advice would you give to any prospective startups, based on the journey you've had so far?

Be prepared to make it your life. If you're not prepared to get up at 4:00 AM and not go to bed for a day to really make a success of it, in the early days, and still four years on, then it won't work. I mean, ultimately your idea could be a lot better than what tootoot's are, and therefore you might get market traction quicker than what we do. But you still have to be prepared to put the hard yards in.

I think I spent two or three years in schools, hoping that people would take my idea, make it, and therefore make me a rich man. But that wasn't the case. Ultimately, I had to take this idea from conception. I had to adapt the idea, and still adapt it today. I have to get a team around me really, really quickly. Do not underestimate that you can't do it all yourself. You need to be growing the business as fast as you can and finding great talent to help you to grow. Otherwise, you will just be a small startup, which is okay, if that's what you want to do.

And I think the final point is, just know where you want to go. 

For me, as simple as it is, I want to be an impact business, that creates huge profits for our shareholders at the same time, and tech for good. I want to get to a million pound ARR as quickly as possible. 

That might not be what another entrepreneur wants to do. They might want to create a platform that becomes a lifestyle business that sustains themselves, and that's okay. But if you know what you're trying to achieve on your journey or the different levels of that, that will support you, so to sense check where you're at, those different stages. And just have fun.

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