[quote style=”boxed”]To keep productivity I divide my tasks into large and small items. The larger items are often postponed until weekends or when I have a few hours to spare.[/quote]
Christopher Pruijsen was the youngest-ever President of Oxford Entrepreneurs when he attended the University of Oxford, where he matriculated at age 17.
Recently Chris was the Lead Growth Strategist at Raising IT, which helps charities improve their digital efforts via a unique and proprietary platform for events, appeals, ecommerce and more.
He helped start several youth enterprise programmes in the UK and abroad (FounderBus UK, StartupBus Africa), helped expand others (Kairos Society), and received several fellowships as a result (Royal Society of the Arts, Startup Leadership Program, Young Entrepreneur Council, Global Shaper of the World Economic Forum, Global Economic Symposium Fellow, etc).
He organised the Startup Launchpad conference for the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs (NACUE) in London (April 18-19 2013) which counted over 435 attendees and 75 speakers during 2 days.
Currently Chris is co-founder and CEO of Sterio.me, which reinforces learning through a simple pre-recorded and teacher-generated inbound voice call to the student. We call the recorded lessons “Sterio’s” and call the process “Learning Out Loud”. Sterio.me is accessible via feature phones and only requires GSM connection in order for educational content to be delivered. Sterio.me was developed on StartupBus Africa and has received approval for initial pilot programs in Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Nigeria. Market research and development is ongoing in 11 African markets.
Chris was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands and has been living in the UK since 2010. He has a passion for cooking, hiking and travel (exploring new cultures). He has travelled to over 30 countries, mainly in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He prefers dogs over cats.
Where did the idea for Sterio.me come from?
The StartupBus process requires everyone, who applies as an individual, to pitch their competencies and ideas on the first day, after which they form teams around ideas and start hacking on the evening of day one. Danielle, Dean and I instantly bonded around ways to teach people via feature phones. Initially we were discussing text message based learning, but Danielle and Dean advocated for audio learning as a more engaging method (they both have years of experience in audio startups). We then explored various audio learning applications and on a thought from Dean we ended up at an application to help teachers deliver and assess homework and content outside the classroom, thereby reinforcing learning (as opposed to an app that would displace teachers altogether). The last 4 days were spent on developing a demo, interviewing teachers and learners to validate our ideas, and arranging our pilot scheme!
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My typical day (since I started Sterio.me) starts at 9am with a skype meeting somewhere in Africa (either for StartupBus Africa or Sterio.me). I then do calls until about 11am, after which I take some time for lunch and creative tasks. I then have a meeting around 2.30pm and after that again do 4-6pm calls or other work. Around 8pm I often meet someone for dinner and when back home I finish some last tasks before going to sleep.
To keep productivity I divide my tasks into large and small items. The larger items are often postponed until weekends or when I have a few hours to spare. The smaller items can be done in between other tasks.
How do you bring ideas to life?
It all starts with the team. When starting Sterio.me I was very fortunate to have a team which also is dedicated and passionate about solving the problems in education that we’re tackling. If Dean and Danielle hadn’t continued working on Sterio.me it would have been much harder to continue – an experience I have had twice before in 2011 and 2012 with student entrepreneur teams, where dedication is often an issue.
And then a whole lot of hustle comes into play. I have been on dozens of calls with foundations, telecom providers, entrepreneurs, etc in Africa to get their support for Sterio.me either by pledging us access to schools, introducing us to government officials or potential backers, conducting market research etc.
So overall, in our case and I suspect in many others, it was mainly grit and dedication.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
The mobile revolution in Africa is the trend that excites me most. Both the proliferation of mobile devices (>80% penetration) and the rise of services such as mobile payment, mobile education and mobile-first applications are building the new African innovation age. With connectivity being more readily available throughout the continent, we see a surge in the number of people connected to the internet as well as to wider services via GSM. Africa is leading globally in several fields of mobile technology and we founded Sterio.me on the back of this wave of progress.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I tend to keep in contact with a large number of people, from various industries, countries and generations. My close friends are also quite diverse – and the cumulative effect is that I tend to see and receive more opportunities for cross-sector collaboration.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
The worst job I ever had was at a call-centre in the Netherlands, when I was 16. I was asked to sell telephone and energy contracts, and the only way to sell these was really by under-informing customers. For weeks I had been under-performing as I was always completely honest, and the day I found out that by being a bit shady you could get record-breaking performance, I quit.
LESSON 1: through talking to hundreds of people and facing continuous rejection I quickly lost my fear of pitching to strangers.
LESSON 2: no matter how good the money, it is not worth selling your soul or your integrity.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
Overall I’m quite happy about how the initial period for Sterio.me has progressed in terms of furthering discussions with potential partner schools, telecom providers and investors as well as conducting market research in 11 markets.
If I were to start again I would put a lot more effort towards talking to telecom providers as soon as possible to get them on board with a partnership agreement. If we had been able to speak to them before Christmas, we might already have had a partnership on the table, which would have helped us raise funds sooner.
It was a struggle talking to educators, government and corporate employees in Africa around Christmas as these are the main summer holidays of the academic year in Sub-Saharan Africa, and most people have an extended vacation (of up to 8 weeks) which they take quite seriously. So with Sterio.me considering our timing I think we did a good job in setting up for the exciting growth space we are in right now.
But that is just one project. I made two major mistakes over the past year:
1. I was evicted by a shady landlord in Whitechapel, London last summer – the mistake was that I had neglected to demand a paper signed contract and had thought that written email agreements were legally binding as tenancy if combined with a payment trail… which they are NOT in London, UK.
LESSON: always demand a contract before starting to live anywhere (in London).
2. I was hired by a SaaS company in London, first as Head of Business Growth with a very generous remuneration package. After starting work, this quickly turned into a ‘Lead Growth Strategist’ role with a different commission/bonus calculation – making the total much lower. I only received my written contract a month later, and did not realise that certain terms in the contract were quite… unethical – such as starting commission calculations from the moment of contract signing, instead of from the start of employment (I signed the ‘back-dated’ contract a month after starting employment, and in this way they cheated me out of a month’s worth of commission).
And then finally I made the mistake of not collecting every single bit of evidence of commission earned along the way, as I expected the company to be ethical in dealing with me – I had considered the CEO a friend and wasn’t on-guard. After leaving employment they started to flat-out deny any commission being due. And all this after I had made at least five introductions to leading investors in London.
LESSON 1: be very cautious with contract terms, even when the employer is a friend and a seemingly very ethical person.
LESSON 2: always keep evidence relating to bonus payments in backup – as you never know how people will treat you when they don’t need you anymore.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I make a lot of introductions – not only professionally but also in my personal sphere. It not only results in new value created through discovered opportunities for collaboration and newly found friendships, but also results in a stronger and longer lasting network. Being in contact with many people, and maintaining those relationships, is not always easy. In fact, once you start thinking about global connections in such a way, it can become an impossible task to complete alone. Therefore it is helpful if you introduce people in your network to each other, so that the relationship survives even if you don’t see or speak to them for a while.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
Top down – ask for introductions to telecom providers, governments, foundations that work with large numbers of schools. If you can get them to partner with you, then you can achieve instant scale. This is not the easiest way to scale for everyone – as you have to speak to the right people, who are not always easy to contact – but if you have the right network this can be a much more effective and hard-to-replicate scaling model (partnerships).
An example is that through two introductions, we were able to get to the Minister of Education in Lesotho, who instantly expressed an excitement about Sterio.me and both a willingness to facilitate a pilot in state schools and an interest in funding the development of localised content (without us even asking for the latter part!).
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
One failure was during my time at Oxford – I tried to start a business called ‘Let’s VC’ which was set to revolutionise equity-based crowdfunding by not only screening start-ups but also algorithmically screening investors for relevance to those start-ups (by nature of their experience and/or contacts on platforms like LinkedIn). We won some grant funding, started building an initial product, but then my CTO left as he raised funding for a small side project and had to leave the country, upon which my CFO left as he had a hedge fund job offer. The main mistake I made was not putting in place vesting schedules and equity cliffs, in addition to not properly discussing timelines and risk profiles before founding the company, essentially with friends. From the experience I learned a lot, luckily without too much damage, and I didn’t make the same mistake again!
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I have a genuine need for a tool which helps you plan business trips and people to meet.
With tools like TripIt you can share your itinerary and see where your friends are (if they also use it), but there isn’t really a tool which enables you to input your Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter as well as Gmail history, and then suggests people to meet.
It would be great if it could suggest members of groups you are part of on FB as well as second connections, so that you can meet new people as well as existing connections and friends. And some filters on industry, location etc would be good.
Such a tool would generally be good for business development. When organising things like StartupBus Africa we are continually assessing who we know in new regions – speaking for all of us, we’d love to use a service that could save us some time there.
Tell us something about you that very few people know?
I didn’t grow up in a very wealthy family – my dad (when he was still alive) was a truck driver, and my mother was at first a florist and later a gym instructor (as a single mom). A lot of people assume I come from a background of wealth, seeing I went to Oxford, travel a lot, and am part of a number of prestigious networks… however, there is more to a book than its cover and I actually struggle to fund my start-up activities (such as StartupBus Africa 2013, for which I both had to finance my own flight tickets London-Harare & Cape Town-London, and bus participation – in addition to volunteering my time).
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
Web – Bufferapp.com and the regular social networks. I keep it fairly simple.
I find Buffer a great service to automate and schedule my messages across personal and work-related social accounts.
I’d be quite lost without the calendars app and the great thing about Notability is the flexibility it gives you to edit the note files as well as the export functions.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
For a while I have been recommending Tony Hsieh’s book “Delivering Happiness” as it gives a great emphasis to customer service, retention and loyalty.
However, I’d also like to recommend to read a novel or two (Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged) by Ayn Rand (on motivation, entrepreneurship, libertarianism) and some science fiction novels. Especially Isaac Asimov as a classic and Neil Stephenson as a more contemporary author – you’ll be surprised by the accuracy of some of their predictions in terms of future technology.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
I have a number of friends who have meant a lot to me in terms of inspiration and contributions to my way of thinking. Here to name just two (but there are many more):
Pierre-Simon Ntiruhungwa: http://about.me/pierreSN
Lessons about grit, pushing your start-up forward through financially tough times, the importance of media, and optimism.
Dr. Keyun Ruan: @ruankeyun
Lessons on the relation between art and science, and the importance of switching between creative and execution-oriented states of mind, as well as taking the time to be in nature. Also lessons about how to navigate through storms of criticism and an industry which is not always receptive of young changemakers.
Sterio.me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/steriodotme
Christopher Pruijsen on Facebook: http://facebook.com/christopherpruijsen
Christopher Pruijsen on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/christopherpruijsen
Sterio.me on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/company/sterio-me
Sterio.me on Twitter: @steriome
Sterio.me on Twitter: @cpruijsen