How We Started
a Digital Learning Platform
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
We’re Gauthier and Matt, friends since school, and we founded Perlego (which means “I read through” in Latin) – a digital learning platform with the mission to make education accessible to all.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
The idea of Perlego came to us during our studies, when we found ourselves paying hundreds of pounds for textbooks that we might have used only once or twice, and then it would be only a couple of chapters sometimes. We knew this was unsustainable and that students were suffering – something had to change. As to what that change would look like?
We realised that we had subscription services for everything from music to films, yet no such thing for students and academia. We wanted to create something that would offer the ease of access and simplicity (as well as price-point) as these other services but for university textbooks. And so, Perlego was born!
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
The biggest challenge Perlego faced has been that on one hand publishers didn’t want to dive straight into a subscription model before we’d been able to prove the revenue opportunity. On the other hand, students, of course, didn’t want to subscribe to Perlego if we didn’t have the content they needed.
Fast forward to now and the industry has generally accepted subscriptions as the model for the future and the rate at which we’re adding titles to the library is increasing rapidly. Three years ago we had 350 publishers on board, and now we offer more than 2,000. As for the increase in titles, we started with 15,000 in September 2016 and now we have around 400,000.
We’re seeing new subscribers doubling month-on-month, have started expanding into new strategic markets in Europe and are entering our second stage of fundraising.
Who is your target market?
Firstly, we, of course, have students who originally would have turned to university libraries to access their books, but with libraries facing cuts to their budget students have had to look elsewhere. There’s the option of buying new textbooks, but with prices rising at roughly three times the rate of inflation over the past 50 years this is clearly infeasible for many. The only options they are left with are to turn either to the second-hand book market (which is, of course, limited with books quickly becoming outdated) and academic piracy.
However, we also work with university libraries themselves. They have faced numerous issues in recent years with reference requests and book loans steadily declining. Libraries have chosen to respond by investing heavily in electronic resources by purchasing ebook packages directly from publishers. Unfortunately, these agreements are not often to the benefit of the university libraries and cut even more into their budget.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
As you might expect from a paperless company, we also market our business in non-traditional ways. This includes sponsored posts on social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, and we’ve recently ventured into TikTok. As with any business, you have to follow your market and with students that means being aware of which social media platforms are used, when they are used and for what purpose.
We also work with organisations such as UCAS in the UK to gain access to thousands of students whom we email in the run-up to the start of the academic year.
When it comes to our B2B arm (our university and corporate clients) we rely mainly on unpaid methods such as word of mouth and spreading brand awareness through events and personal networks.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
At Perlego we’re quite lucky in that we have an incredibly unique product, one that manages to retain customers by virtue of what it is. Otherwise, we work very hard to ensure that we offer our users the best experience possible by continuously improving our product and listening to what they have to say, the good, the bad, and everything in between.
Whilst it’s not glamorous, we strive to offer the best possible customer service – so that even if something does go wrong, we have a team of people on hand, from customer service representatives to those working on the product behind-the-scenes, to ensure that it’s fixed.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
Company culture is incredibly important to us as we know we wouldn’t be anywhere without our team. We’ve scaled incredibly quickly over the past couple of years and a key worry of ours was that we would be unable to maintain such a great work culture, but thankfully we needn’t have worried!
The results of a recent employee feedback survey show that over half of our employees stay because of Perlego’s culture and team. This not only means that employee engagement remains at a high, but that we have a team of people that genuinely enjoy spending time with each other.
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
We use a range of internal tools to keep everyone on the same page. On the product team, we use JIRA to manage product development tasks and stay aligned, whilst for the wider business we document everything on Notion. Around this, we use tools like Typeform to keep a constant feedback loop on how we’re doing and identify opportunities for improvement and Google suite for comms and collaboration on documents.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
One of the most significant struggles of growing your own business is hiring the right people. Now due to economic decisions, we made the mistake of not hiring someone we should have – a designer specifically. Initially, it would have been quite a cost but it would undeniably have made the product far superior to what it was when we first started out.
We now have a dedicated team of designers who get involved across the whole design process and this is part of what makes Perlego so special – that our product designers are so holistic and all-encompassing.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Our favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur has to be the team that we work with. Being surrounded by people that come to work every day motivated and inspired – which in turn motivates us to push ourselves. We know that Perlego wouldn’t be where it is today were it not for everyone involved.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
The least favourite aspect has to be that sometimes you need to make very tough decisions that can drastically alter people’s lives – whether that’s in a positive or negative way.
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
Gauthier: It would have to be Shoe Dog for myself, which is a memoir by the co-founder of Nike – Phil Knight. Bill Gates called it “an amazing tale, a refreshingly honest reminder of what the path to business success really looks like..a messy, perilous, and chaotic journey” – and this really exemplifies how I feel about it as well. That journey is messy, it’s also going to be tiring, difficult and it’ll sometimes feel like it’s going nowhere. But it’s also exciting, inspiring, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
Perlego’s next steps are to further secure our position in the European market and explore global user growth opportunities whilst nurturing and building the team and constantly adding high-quality content to the library. We most recently added Spanish content to the platform and are looking at other regions, like the Benelux, Scandinavia and France, to do the same.