From life partners to business partners
If the husband and wife Leo and Elaine De Velez took big risks in founding their edtech startup Frontlearners, deciding to become business partners could be one of the riskiest.
“Initially we had doubts that we will be working well as business partners, but because his strengths and my strengths are different, we’ve learned to trust and to rely on each other”, says Elaine.
Frontlearners aims to disrupt how educational materials are delivered to students. Leo was first in deciding to pursue this idea full-time and retired from his corporate job. “I was really afraid that I may not be able to do it because I don’t know everything in running a business. I know the technology, I know how to develop the content, I have some experience in financing, but there are other aspects of the business that I don’t know”.
Before Frontlearners, Leo and Elaine were both senior executives in multinational corporations and were based in their respective regional headquarters in Singapore. Eventually Elaine also decided to retire from corporate life and that’s the time both headed back home to the Philippines to start their new journey in the edtech space.
Despite their doubts, the couple found out they could work well with each other, and their skills in fact complement. “For us to be successful, we need to have mutual trust and respect — I need to trust her that her understanding of the customers is a lot better than mine. So I have to tailor make our product so that it will suit the customer as she sees it. She also has to trust me and rely on my knowledge in technology. So we were able to avoid disagreements, and even if we do disagree, it can be easily settled,” shares Leo.
Their decision didn’t only change how they worked, but how they lived.
“When I was working in my former company, normally a day will begin going to meetings, discussing strategies, business plans with my own team as well as with other departments. But in a startup, a day is usually more than that. Aside from thinking about the big picture, I also have to take care of the execution details myself. Sometimes it involves making 100 calls a day to schools just to get an appointment for a presentation. Or if schools do not have an IT person, we do the actual installation of their wifi system ourselves. We have to go out and do what it takes to make our startup work.”
Business and personal life intertwined. “If the startup is really a part of your life, there is no separation of work and life. In reality, they should always go together. For a startup team like us, there is no need to separate personal life with business life,” Leo says.
Like in most, there were many points of struggle. The couple believes that building their startup together helped a lot.
Elaine shares how they survived. “The key is to be able to admit when one approach is not working.” At first they thought that as an e-learning company, they can operate virtually. They tried to do everything online from communicating and managing employees to advertisements.
“When we realized that it’s not working, when we were not getting the output and the customers that we were expecting, that’s the time we asked ourselves: are we doing things right; do customers really see a need for our product? That could have been a turning point to simply give up,” Elaine recalls.
But they kept on and changed their methods instead. They realized that since they are just starting to form a team, they needed to work closely together in one physical location, and that building a company from scratch entailed real human interaction. “It was a good turning point for us because our initial mistake led us to a better approach to do things. And it led us to produce the outcome the we wanted.”
Leo mentions how they had to tweak their product constantly to cater to their customer’s needs.
“You cannot get it in one shot. The customer will always need something else or something new so we have to keep modifying and upgrading our product. But customers cannot really define what they need in terms of technology — they know what they need in terms of performance or benefit. So the challenge for us is to be able to deliver the experience desired by our customers by capitalizing on our knowledge of the technology. And we need to keep innovating because customer needs keep evolving.
Being adaptable wasn’t the last lesson the couple had to learn the hard way. Selling the value of their e-learning solution also posed a tough challenge.
“Education is social good. You cannot immediately see nor measure its impact. But we are patient and we are committed into this for the long haul.”
One may ask how the De Velez’es stay so committed to their startup and making sure it really takes off. Leo explains they always go back to their “Why”, their purpose in starting FrontLearners in the first place.
“Our belief is that quality and affordable education can be made accessible to many Filipino learners through the help of technology. Elaine and I were fortunate to be recipients of government scholarships throughout our high school and college days. We had access to quality education and have personally experienced how it changed our lives and opened up opportunities. We want this same story for many children out there. This is what keeps us going, despite the many uphill battles we have to face.”
Elaine shares this passion. “You really need to love what you are doing. The heart of the founder has to be there not only 100% but 200%. Being a startup is difficult, being an education start-up is extra difficult. But we keep telling ourselves, that we are doing this for a higher reason. And if we will not do this ourselves, perhaps no one will. That is what keeps us moving forward. It is that thought that if our endeavor succeeds — it will make a big impact to our country.”
Presently, more than 50,000 K-12 students from both public and private schools are using Frontlearners e-Learning solution. The team is still working on rolling it out to more schools. There’s still much work to do, but we know that the De Velez’es will take it on hand-in-hand.
This story was written by Yma Cuervo and Ella Fucanan, with significant contributions from the De Velez’.