This week our Q&A is with Sharlene Barnes, founder of The Skool Loop App, a means by which parents can keep up with all the activities their children are doing at school.
ISB: What inspired you to start your own business?
SB: For me, it was more about bringing an idea to life than getting into business. When my kids were at school, and I was a working mother, I felt constantly behind the eight ball, struggling to keep up with their school activities. I’d get calls in the middle of meetings saying things like, “Dylan has forgotten his runners and it’s athletics today”. It was so embarrassing and unprofessional having to rush off to deliver shoes to your son! I knew there had to be a better way of keeping up to date with this sort of thing, I just couldn’t see what form it needed to take.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I discovered smartphone apps – thanks to my son– and I knew this was the technology I’d been waiting for!
I’d also come out of two bouts of melanoma, and realised that life was too short not to chase your dreams. So, I had the idea, the technology and the impetus to make the change. I just bit the bullet and went for it.
ISB: And what was the driver behind app development being your chosen route into business?
SB: Before I discovered apps, I couldn’t see how to bring my idea to life. It was the only platform I’d come across that could deliver the solution for parents and schools that I envisioned, so it was a no-brainer really.
ISB: What were the biggest challenges you faced shifting into tech and app development and how did you overcome them?
SB: There were so many challenges. My knowledge of tech was really limited, and I knew nothing about app design. My first challenge was finding the right developers. I did the ring around and finally found someone who took me seriously and who thought I had a good idea. Then I had to get the idea out of my head and into code. The developers often said to me, “We can’t do that, but how about this?” so I was flexible and took their advice.
Running my own business was also a huge challenge. Getting my head around employment law, managing staff and marketing was a steep learning curve. When I first started, a lot of people didn’t know what an app was. I had to educate them and convince them that this was the future! Persistence was the key.
ISB: How did you fund getting the business off the ground?
SB: I had about $10,000 of my own money – not much but enough to start conversations with the app developers. The rest, I sourced by selling advertising space within the app that would go live once it was released. That was key to its success because it’s enabled me to offer the app to schools for free.
ISB: And what about marketing – how did you get the message about the app out?
SB: I took an old-school approach, phoning schools I thought might be interested. I started with public primary schools and talked to them about the difficulties they had in communicating with parents and let them know that this app could help to alleviate those stresses. The fact that it’s free is was particularly appealing for schools that don’t have the budget to pay for something similar, such as small schools in rural areas.
ISB: What is your vision for the app and the business in the next few years?
SB: There’s a lot more I want to do on the app. It’s in more than 720 schools across Australia and New Zealand, but I want to make it accessible for at least another 5000. There are more features I can add, and I’ll listen to what schools want to make sure it remains relevant and useful.
I’ve also had some interest from schools in America and India, so I’d love to take it into new markets overseas.
ISB: Finally, what piece of advice would you give to anyone who has an idea they’d like to turn into a business?
SB: Do your research before you invest any time and money into it. Make sure your idea is original, and that it’s something that will be useful. If it is, then go for it! aND once you’ve decided to launch, do it properly. Spend time on finessing the idea and getting the business up to scratch before going to market, because you only get one chance to make a first impression.