I'm shocked by how many parents today are still telling their kids the same thing that my parents told me. Do you want to be a lawyer, a banker, a doctor, or an accountant? Pick one. For me, it's just shocking. - John Tan
John is the founder of Saturday Kids - a curiosity school for children - and Doyobi - an edtech startup setting out to become the 21st century skills framework adopted by every school. He is also an investor in tech startups, in particular startups reimagining the future of work and learning such as Padlet, Galileo, Contra and Beanstalk. Saturday Kids runs Code In The Community, a Google and government supported initiative that is the largest free coding programme in Singapore. John is an Obama Foundation Asia-Pacific Leader, Transcend Fellow and Ashoka Changemaker. He sits on the board of Ninja Van and ErudiFi.
He is a father of five whose music playlist alternates between jazz, old-school hip-hop and Japanese city pop. In a different life he’ll probably be a music writer. Or winemaker. Possibly ski instructor. One day when he's tired of tech he wants to open a natural wine and vinyl bar in a ski resort somewhere in Japan.
This episode was produced by Kyle Ong.
Jeremy Au (00:30):Hi, John. Welcome to the show.
John Tan (00:32): Thanks for having me.
Jeremy Au (00:33):
Well, it's an absolute pleasure to have you. You've been someone who's not only an excellent founder, but also someone who has invested and nurtured so many startups from angel to wherever they are today, right? From Ninja Van to the countless education tech founders that you supported over the years.
John Tan (00:52):
Yeah. And I think we are both investors in them. I think the spectrum of ed tech is pretty long. I see ed tech from pre-K all the way through to lifelong learning, and obviously HR tech is a part of that. So to me, it's about investing in the future of work and learning. And that's really where I'm spending all my time and energy.
Jeremy Au (01:21):Awesome. So John, for those who don't know you yet, how would you describe your personal journey?
John Tan (01:28):
So I've always known from a really young age that I was going to be an entrepreneur. I just didn't know what. But I figured that working for somebody isn't really for me. I tried management consulting for a couple of years. And I left because I didn't find it inspiring. And also my manager was rather uninspiring as well. Anyway, I started a frozen yogurt chain with a couple friends. So it's a typical sort of FMB entrepreneur. That's your first attempt at being an entrepreneur and being your own boss. So I did that.
John Tan (02:15):
And then I actually acquired a very small design school for adults, back in 2010, with two partners. And then I found myself with the titled of principal. First of all, I knew nothing about education. Second, I knew nothing about design. I'm not trained as a designer. I have a degree in economics. But I ran that school for two and a half years. So that was how I got into education.
John Tan (02:48):
So I started with adult education. And then I started a coding school for kids called Saturday Kids. And that's been going for about 10 years as well. So I can't say that it's planned in any way. It's just whatever came my way, and I just tried things, and here I am.
Jeremy Au (03:10):
One interesting thing has been your love for education. Right? When you reflect on it, why do you love education so much? Was it something you grew up with? You say that you fell into it. But you didn't just fall into education tech, right? There's so many things to fall into. I don't know. How did you get started?
John Tan (03:31):
I think one thing that I feel very strongly about, and that's probably related to that realization from a very young age that I was going to be an entrepreneur, is the fact that I didn't like school. Not that I didn't do well in school. I went to some of the best schools in Singapore. But I just felt that it's a system to be gamed. Right? So you figured out what exam questions are going to come up, you memorize the answers, and then you regurgitate. So there's a lot of rote learning. And frankly, I just didn't see the point of school.
John Tan (04:14):
and now that I'm a dad, I look at what my kids are doing in school. It's still pretty much how I experienced school when I was a kid. So I think fundamentally what drives me is this sense that schools are not preparing kids, and someone needs to do something about it. So that is why I spend all my time and energy and resources on the future of work and learning. Because I think that that needs to change. I think schools are still very much stuck in the industrial age. And that change can happen from within and without.
John Tan (05:00):
So these ed tech founders, and I've invested in a number of them who are basically reinventing school. For example, I invested in an online school called Galileo. And Galileo is an online school for. So basically you're doing a sky school from zero. And invested in them because when I look at what they offer to students, things like what we are doing right now, how to launch a podcast, how to be a YouTube celebrity, or how to launch your own Kickstarter campaign, all of these clubs or nano degrees that Galileo offers, it's just so much more interesting and relevant to a 10-year-old than memorizing the periodic table.
John Tan (05:57):
So I started as an investor. And now I'm also a Galileo parent. I actually took my eldest son out of school for him to attend Galileo full-time. So what I'm trying to say here is that I feel very strongly about the inadequacies of the education system. And that's why I'm so deep in the future of work and learning.
Jeremy Au (06:23):Wow. That's a lot there. You mentioned something interesting, which was that you hated school. Right? What were you like a student? And what did you hate?
John Tan (06:37):
I enjoyed the social interaction. I enjoyed being with friends in school. And some of my oldest friends and best friends today are the people I met as a 13-year-old, 14-year-old. So these are the people you grew up with. And I think there's a lot to be said about that.
John Tan (07:00):
But in terms of what I actually learned in the classroom, chemistry lessons, physics lessons. There was no context of why we were learning it. We were just learning it because it's in the curriculum and it's going to appear in the exam. But there was no link between what we were learning in the classroom versus how it actually applies in the real world. So what if I know how friction works? How is that relevant to me as a 15-year-old? Right?
John Tan (07:41):
So it's all of these things that kind of just made me lose interest in learning. And of course, I understood that the system is the system. Right? So you just have to get on with it. And actually, when I went to junior college, I did a humanities program at [Hwa Chong 00:08:06], which is a really probably one of the more progressive programs you can do as a 18-year-old in Singapore. And I didn't hate it, but even with the humanities program, I kind of thought that I'm not really sure why I'm learning certain things. It was a little more interesting to me than what I did in secondary school. But yeah, I think it's that real world context is that whole idea of actually building things, making something that probably would've interested me a lot more. For example, if someone had told me 20 years ago that I can launch a Kickstarter campaign and crowdfund my idea, that is a whole lot more interesting to me than learning about 16th century Europe history. Right?
Jeremy Au (09:10):
Wow. That's very interesting. When you talk about that transition, and now you're a parent, right, and you see your kid kind of go through the same educational consumption of the school system, like you did, did having a kid change your perspective on it? Like now you're the parent. Because many years ago you were the child, and you were just consuming the system. And now you are the parent making decisions around your child. And you're obviously more sophisticated understander and observer of the system. Did you see a shift? I don't know. Did your view shift on that?
John Tan (09:55):
So I actually started Saturday Kids in 2012 shortly after I started investing in early stage startups. And the reason I started Saturday Kids because I was hanging out with all these young entrepreneurs. And I figured that actually learning how to code is a really useful skill. And back then, there weren't any coding schools for kids. And my elder son, at that point, was one. So I figured if I start something now, he can join this when he's a bit older. And that's really how Saturday Kids came about.
John Tan (10:30):
So the idea was really very simple, and truthfully, simplistic. Right? Which is, let's just start a coding school for kids so kids can do some block-based programming when they turn six or seven. Along the way, what I realized is that actually what's far more important than learning how to code is learning how to learn. And coding just lends itself to that because it's engaging, it's interesting, kids find it fun, and it's a learning experience that is so different than what is in school.
John Tan (11:10):
So when you're in school, you're basically set in rows, and the teacher is in front of the class, chalk and talk, sage on stage. Whereas when you come to a Saturday Kids class or any other coding school for kids, you are put in front of the computer, and then you start creating. You start putting your ideas on the screen. And I think it's this concept of being able to express themselves, having that creative freedom to express themselves, that really intrigues kids and gives them that engagement which is missing in schools. So that's one.
John Tan (11:59):
And then I think the second point is that as I was meeting all these entrepreneurs, I just felt that schools really don't prepare kids to be entrepreneurs. They only prepare kids to think about how to launch a business. What does that involve? And how do we get a business from zero to one. How do we convince other people to join us on our journey when it's so lacking in visibility of what's going to happen? So all the qualities that a great entrepreneur needs. Some of it is talent, but I think a lot of it is also nurture. And schools are not doing that nurturing.
John Tan (12:59):
So i kind of repositioned Saturday Kids, in 2016, to be a curiosity school for kids. So rather than telling people that we are a coding school and we teach kids how to code, I tell people that our mission is to inspire kids to be curious self-directed learners. Because when you're curious, I mean, when you're a self-directed learner, that goes a very long way. The possibilities are endless. Because I don't have to teach you anything. Right? You figure out what excites you, what makes you curious, and you go learn on your own. If kids have that curiosity in them and that motivation to learn on their own, then the sky's the limit. There's really no need to force them to learn anything. And that's so much more effective than forcing a child to sit at a desk and memorizing multiplication tables or whatever it is that they have to learn.
John Tan (14:02):
So to me, the starting point has to be, how do you get a child curious? Or rather, all kids are born curious. How do you preserve that curiosity in kids? How do you push them to go beyond their initial curiosity to learn things on their own, to figure things out for themselves?
John Tan (14:26):
And I think many entrepreneurs are like that. They look at a situation, and they figure out what the problem is, and they ask themselves, why is this problem pervasive? Why is there still this problem now? What can I do to solve it? And that's how some of the best companies are founded.
Jeremy Au (14:49):
Yeah. Wow. I mean, I love how you drew the line between, obviously, your own personal experience to curiosity and learning to learn, all the way to what it means to be a founder. I think interesting, right, because we're talking about something which is pretty meta, learning to learn. I think that's something I didn't really understand because I also built an ed tech company. At first, it was like learning how to do all these things. And you're like, "Wait, learning to learn is like a higher order thing."
Jeremy Au (15:19):
But it feels so hard to teach, right? Because if you are asking a kid to learn math, it's like obvious. Can you do plus? Can you do subtraction? Can you do multiplication? If you needed to learn a language, then it's pretty obvious as well. But learning to learn feels like a very fuzzy thing, which makes it difficult, at least for me, it was difficult to structure and difficult to think about. How do you think about that, John? Because I know that's something you really care about is learning to learn. And I know that's something you look out for as well.
John Tan (15:56):
Yeah. That's absolutely something that you cannot teach a child in an academic way. It's not like these are 10 things that you need to remember in order to learn how to learn. Doesn't work like that. I think learning how to learn, it's about doing something and not realizing the skills that you are picking up as you are doing that thing. For example, if asks a group of three kids to launch a podcast, the kids have to figure out what the podcast should be about. They have to learn to agree among themselves. They have to learn to collaborate. They have to learn to work with their guest. They have to learn to research the history and the biography of their guest. They have to learn to prepare questions. And then they have to learn to present themselves as a podcast host. And they have to learn to edit the podcast later. There's so much learning going on through that process of doing a podcast.
John Tan (17:13):
So I don't think the kids themselves are realizing that they're learning all these things. It's just a byproduct of doing that thing. So I think that's how learning how to learn works. It's not limited to technology. For example, Saturday Kids actually ran an unplug camp, in Karuizawa, in 2019. So this is pre-COVID, obviously. We actually worked with EtonHouse Japan to bring 20 families from Singapore to Karuizawa, Japan. And it was a three-day outdoor camp. And we called it Saturday Kids Unplugged.
John Tan (17:59):
And during that camp, the kids were learning from nature. They were learning how to use found objects in the forest like logs and branches and whatnot to construct a bridge, for example. They were learning how to play without toys. So you play with what you can find in nature. So they learned to play in the creek. They learned to play in the waterfall.
John Tan (18:30):
So I think there's so much learning that can happen indirectly, and we just need to give kids that opportunity to have that time and space to do things. I think the problem with Singapore and maybe many developed countries is the fact that kids are so overshadowed. There is just no time and space for them to actually try things, to be free, to let their minds roam. I think that is something that is super valuable, and parents don't realize that.
Jeremy Au (19:19):
Wow. That's some deep stuff there. I think that's a big debate point because we talk about Asia, it's kind of like there's an interesting tradition of education from the Chinese Imperial Exam. And then you enter into Vietnam and the Chinese diaspora of which we belong to right now. But this education is very clear. It's rote-based. These are the outcomes. And there's a test. They're always going for.
Jeremy Au (19:50):
Versus I think the way that you're talking about, ed tech is the love for learning and learning how to learn, which there's no test for that yet. So how did you start forming that thesis to be like, "I want to build this new model of education in Asia." I think that's rare, right? So I'm just kind of curious. Because I think, to some extent, America has been leading a lot of this innovation as well. But what does that mean for you personally within the Asia context?
John Tan (20:27):
Yeah. I view ed tech broadly as falling into two buckets. One is academic help, and then the other bucket is everything else. I'm far more interested in everything else. To me, academic help is not interesting. Obviously, kids need to have basic literacy and numeracy skills. Without that, you can't go very far. But beyond that, there's so much more kids can learn that's not in textbooks. But the truth is that in Asia, or Southeast Asia, it's really the academic help ed tech startups that are getting funded. So you look at. You look at these are all that have done very, very well out of helping parents or helping kids get better grades, and sending that to parents.
John Tan (21:30):
So for me what is far more interesting is that exploration, that creative expression. And I shall give an example. So just yesterday, I wired funds to a YC startup called. So they are doing live online learning in South America targeted at lower middle class families. So for 20 US dollars a month, a child can attend as many live classes as she wants, across multiple categories. So there is wellness, so they may learn about meditation or yoga. There is culture and history, so she may learn about the pyramids in Egypt. She may learn about, I don't know, the Chinese Asian history. There is, obviously, technology, so how to build something.
John Tan (22:37):
The point is that it's a buffet of different things, non-academic things, that a child is learning. And just through that process, I think two things happen. One is a child discovers what she's interested in. And as she becomes interested in something, she spends more time on it. And then the second it happens, which is she discovers that actually she's really good at something.
John Tan (23:08):
So helping a child identify her interests, passions, and talent, is so powerful. But so little of that actually takes places, whether it's in developed countries like Singapore or developing countries. Because, obviously, with developing countries, some kids are struggling with basic numeracy and literacy. And then in developed countries like Singapore, it's so competitive, and there's so much at stake with high stakes exams. Right? So one of the people who really made a big difference in how people think about education [Sitaramo 00:23:58] Vincent. And I think he wrote a book called The Element. And it's really that whole saying that if you try to teach a fish how to climb a tree, the fish will fly. But I think that fish is stupid.
John Tan (24:20):
So I really just wish that more parents would be willing to let their child try new things. And actually that's been one of the biggest challenges for me running Saturday Kids, which is that during school holidays, we do a roaring business. All our camps sell out. But during time, where are these parents, and where are these kids? They all go back to tuition centers. So that's just the reality of trying to do something different or trying to do something that it's not immediately obvious where the benefits are.
Jeremy Au (25:00):
Wow. It's so true. I really resonate with that because it's such a difficult tussle between what the school system requires of us, to hit these goal posts. If you get a F, that means bad. Your teachers will call you. So you got to do those fundamentals. I don't know. The structured stuff. And then how do you divide between the academic and then everything else?
Jeremy Au (25:33):
I think one thing that's also interesting hearing from you as well is that you're also looking at this not just as a parent, as well as an operator, but also you're someone who's also angel investing in these education companies, so in other founders, operators. And I think you also mentioned something interesting as well, it's that you're looking at founders who are learning about the space, learning to learn, having some of that same spirit of learning. I'm just kind of curious, how did you get started angel investing? And then we can go for what you look out for and everything.
John Tan (26:10):
Yeah. Actually, people ask me that all the time. The simple answer is that my neighbor in London, when I was a student, he started Chope. So that was my first angel investment. And then I got hooked. So I just became really interested in how technology can be used to, A, make a difference, to help people live and work, and B, how these multimillion, billion, dollar companies can be created because of the internet.
John Tan (26:46):
So since 2011, I've been actively angel investing. And I find myself always torn between trying to be an operator and trying to be an angel investor at the same time. It's impossible to do both well. So then what I figured is that since I'm dedicating all my time as an operator to education, then I should do the same with my investment. So about 12 months ago, I stopped investing in other verticals, and just focused on investing in the future of work and learning.
John Tan (27:31):
So actually one thing I didn't mention is that besides Saturday Kids, I actually spun out a new entity from Saturday Kids called Doyobi. And Doyobi is squarely b2b rather than b2c. One of the reasons I did it is, because like I said, it was really hard to grow Saturday Kids into a meaningful business because parents don't come to us during some time. And also what I realized is that as powerful as Galileo is in terms of the students' learning experience, at the end of the day, they are still reaching a couple of hundred kids. And they may grow to a couple of thousand kids. But there are hundreds of millions of kids still stuck in school. So to me, it's really exciting, and obviously is an immense challenge.
John Tan (28:28):
What can I as an entrepreneur do to modernize the way schools work? So without tearing out the infrastructure, can I put in the software? And when I say software, I don't necessarily mean SAS products. But can I change the ethos of how principals and school leaders are thinking about what kids should be learning? And that's what Doyobi is about. So we have our flagship courses called Coding with Science. So we integrate coding and science together. And through that, we make it more engaging for kids during science class. and the reason we do that is because by integrating with a core subject, it makes it really easy to get into the school.
If I was offering something like social-emotional learning 101, then the school leader who is interested in this will have to cover a new period to use the content. So I need a way to get into schools. But at the end of the day, I'm not trying to sell STEM with Doyobi. There are already many other ed tech startups doing that. What I'm trying to sell with Doyobi is 21st century skills. So all of the different qualities that you find in the best founders, how can school leaders and teachers start helping kids develop these skills? So things like critical thinking and communication, elaboration, resilience, all of that is completely overlooked in schools.
John Tan (30:12):
So I'm excited about the possibility of getting schools to start introducing these skills to the curriculum without tearing up what is already in the school, without overhauling the entire curriculum. Because that's going to take decades, right? And we don't have time. So what are the little things I can do to improve the way kids are learning in school? That's really what's making me excited about what we do in Doyobi.
Jeremy Au (30:52):
Obviously, you and I were talking about how we as operators and angel investors and other founders can help improve the system from the outside in. Right? I guess, I'm just wondering, do you have advice for those who are a part of the school system? They are a policymaker, they're an educator. I'm just kind of curious what your advice would be. Would it be like, "Your lane is good, and continue to focus on doing that lane while the rest of us do the rest." Would it be like, "Hey, we need to see some fundamental stuff." I'm just kind of curious, what would your advice be to policymakers and educators?
John Tan (31:35):
Yeah. I think the first piece of advice is to zoom out a little bit and look at the bigger picture and look at what the research is saying. For example, actually put out a report to say that curriculum is forever playing catch up to what kids need to be prepared for the future. So obviously nothing's going to change if school leaders don't recognize that there's a problem. So my first piece of advice is to take some time off to read and to look at what's out there in terms of the reports that have been written.
John Tan (32:23):
Another often quoted statistic, and this one I think is from the World Economic Forum, is that 65% of primary school children today will work in jobs that do not yet exist. So with statistics like this, how do you as a school leader prepare kids for jobs that don't yet exist? I think the first step is you have to recognize that there is a problem. Fortunately, through the different conversations I've had with school leaders, actually, many of them realize that there is a problem. But then their hands are tied. There is a curriculum load that has to be delivered. And there's nothing they can do about that.
John Tan (33:13):
So then my second piece of advice is to think about little ways that you can effect change in the school. I'm not asking you to take out the curriculum. I'm not asking you to tell teachers that they don't have to prepare kids for exams. But can you change the way the class is taught? Can you maybe get kids to work on little projects that are related to the core curriculum? Can you integrate maybe some aspect of a growth mindset into how a child learns about physics or chemistry or whatever it is?
John Tan (34:01):
So my second piece of advice really is that there are ways to work with what you are given. And it's all about creativity and about the tenacity and guts to try new things. So yeah, I think to sum it up, school leaders need to first recognize that there's a problem, and two, have the courage and curiosity to figure out how to make things better. Which goes back to what I was saying earlier about Saturday Kids. It's about making kids curious self-directed learners. So that curiosity allows them to recognize that there's a problem. And that self-directed learning allows them to figure out a way to solve that.
Jeremy Au (34:57):
As you're building all this out, your journey in terms of education, in terms as a parent, in discovering your love for ed tech as more of a founder, operator, and angel investor, were there any tough times along the way? Kind of so curious about that?
John Tan (35:16):
Yeah. As an operator, there are always ups and downs. And I guess such is the life of an entrepreneur. I'll give you one example. When I was fundraising for Saturday Kids, and I wanted to scale Saturday Kids through technology and reposition Saturday Kids as an ed company rather than a brick and mortar ambition and this, this, nobody wanted to fund me. And I know practically 80% of everybody there is to know in the startup ecosystem in Singapore. And nobody wanted to fund me. The reason being that they saw Saturday Kids as an enrichment business. And for me to position Saturday Kids as an ed tech startup was probably too big a leap. So that's why I had to spin up Doyobi. My original intention was to raise money for Saturday Kids and push out the ed tech product. So that was tough, having to spin out a new entity and also still managing Saturday Kids.
John Tan (36:41):
And then one of the things I did when I spun up Doyobi is I resigned as CEO of Saturday Kids because I know that I'm not Elon Musk or Jack Dorsey. I cannot be CEO or two startups. So I resigned. And I start a new CEO at Saturday Kids who is very, very capable. Promoted from within. But then last December, she left. And I took it quite personally and took it quite badly. Because you assume that people are on a journey with you, they believe in the cause, they believe in the mission, and they will stick around. But then I've also come to realize that with Saturday Kids, with Doyobi, I'm always going to be the last man standing. Everybody else can leave, but I cannot. And whatever happens, I just have to deal with it and tell myself you know what you signed up for. Nobody else signed up for it with you. They come with you on the journey. Doesn't mean that they will do it through good times and bad times. So yeah, it's been hard, and it's still hard today. There is still Saturday Kids and Doyobi. And I still have this portfolio of founders that I work with.
John Tan (38:25):But I try to find energy in other people. So you bring onboard new people to the team. And sometimes I bring the right people, really energizes you. So that's fun.
John Tan (38:39):
And then the other thing is I am also energized by some of the founders I meet and I invest in. For example, [Gonzalo 00:38:52], who is the CEO of [Prindia 00:38:54], looking at what he has managed to build with Prindia in less than 12 months, I'm so inspired. And I feel like, wow, after 10 years, Saturday Kids is nowhere close to what he has built with Prindia. And one, I feel bad about that. Like I should really do better. But two, I also feel like there's so much I can learn from these guys I'm investing in.
John Tan (39:24):
To me, the investment, or investing in ed tech founders, is not a one-way journey where I am imparting knowledge or I'm telling them what to do. I'm also learning so much from all these founders. And that's the other reason why I've decided to just focus my investing on the future of work and learning. Because I'm also getting so much domain knowledge from speaking to these founders.
Jeremy Au (39:58):
Wow. That's something that was very true. I think you shared something, you can call it synergy between founder and angel investor role, but I think the other part you're talking about is more than that. Right? It's the energy. It's the inspiration. It's the domain knowledge. It's the motivation. It's the community. Wow. That's really a thoughtful thing there.
Jeremy Au (40:30):
Based on what you shared also, I see it going other way around. I think the reason why you can be a great angel investor is because you care about learning as someone who's coaching them as angel investor, early supporter. But also, yeah, your own domain knowledge, your own experience, is helping them as well. How do you think about that direction? Do you find yourself drawing upon your own Saturday Kids experience and Doyobi as you share and work with the founders that you angel invest in?
John Tan (41:01):
Yeah. I think putting domain knowledge aside for the moment, one thing that I definitely have is founder empathy, because I'm a founder myself. And I know how hard it is and how hard things can get. And without stepping on anyone's toes, I think it's fair to say that not every investor has the same founder empathy. Because there are many VCs who have never really founded anything. And similarly, with angel investors, there are angel investors who have done very well and are out of their corporate job, and that's why they are angel investing.
John Tan (41:46):
But that founder empathy is something that either you have it or you don't. So I think just being able to learn and listen, and just being able to support founders when things are not going great, i think that goes a long way. I always like to give the example of]. I actually invested in their previous startup, which was probably one of my worst investments in terms of financial outcome. But then I really believed in these guys, and I saw how hard they worked, and how it just didn't work out for them with the previous startup. But I still invested in.
John Tan (42:33):
So I think founder empathy is a big part of that. And then with regards to domain knowledge, I see a lot. That's the other benefit of just focusing on one vertical. I see a lot of startups in that one vertical, so I can tell founders what other people are doing and what are some of the ideas that they should consider. But like I said, I don't believe that it's one way. I believe that as much as I tell them, I'm also learning from them. And I think that if you believe that there's a lot you can learn from your investees, that makes for a better relationship than if you just think that you are Yoda and you are imparting knowledge.
Jeremy Au (43:40):Wow. That's pretty thoughtful. I'm just so curious, where were you in 2011? And if you could travel back in time in a time travel machine, what advice would you give yourself back then?
John Tan (44:00):
If I could turn back the clock, I think I would have, A, figured out that ed tech or future of work and learning is my thing, and dedicate all my time and energy on that. Because actually when I started Saturday Kids in 2012, I didn't run it for the first four years. I hired someone to run it. Which was probably not a bad decision because it was so slow going that if I was running it full-time, there's a good chance that I would have shut it down. But if I could turn back the clock, I would have told myself in 2011 that there is a big opportunity in education. There are lots of problems to be solved. And let's figure out a way to use technology to solve those problems.
John Tan (44:53):
So perhaps if I could turn back the clock, Saturday Kids wouldn't have started as a brick and mortar enrichment business. I would have started it as an ed tech business with scalability top of mind. Because ultimately, the number of kids you impact, or how big an impact you make, is a function of how many kids you reach. So that's what technology affords is that ability to reach many, many kids.
John Tan (45:33):
But one thing that maybe I didn't share earlier is that Saturday Kids is actually a social enterprise. So we are actually for this program that we run called Community, which is funded by Google and also the Singaporean government. And I'm very grateful for that funding because I also deeply believe in equity and equitable opportunities. Because I think President Obama, he said that talent is equally distributed but opportunities are not. So how do we give kids from disadvantaged families the same opportunity to thrive? So that's something that we do at Saturday Kids.
John Tan (46:35):
Actually, because we are so mission-driven, not just in terms of changing education outcomes but also giving access to disadvantaged families, I'm able to attract really, really good people without necessarily being able to afford them. So people are willing to join for less than they would make elsewhere because they want to make a difference. So actually that's for me another piece of advice I would give founders, which is that if you can find a mission that people can rally around, you'd be amazed how many people are willing to take a pay cut and work extra hard to join you on your mission.
Jeremy Au (47:26):
Yeah. That resonates a lot with me. I mean, I also built a social enterprise. And that was one of the toughest parts was just like dealing, I think you talked about earlier, in the mission, the team, the last man there, and also the gratitude for stakeholders like the government and sponsors like Google as well. And I think the equity part is very true. I think that's something I'm glad you reminded me about because, yeah, the fact that talent is equally distributed but opportunity is not, I think that's really the crux of almost every education text that I've read. It's like we all assume, we all know, I think we all believe that every kid no matter where you are, no matter what your background, has the same raw potential. It's almost a given, I think.
Jeremy Au (48:18):
That's very different, I think, I would say in a normal startup. But other startups are very much like, "These are the whales. These are the high payers." There's a very long bucketing of the customers in that sense. But it's interesting because you reminded me that for kids, when we're in that space, I think we look at them and say, "Yeah, they all have the same awesome potential."
John Tan (48:44):
Yeah. And that's actually why I like Prindia so much, because they are not trying to build a product for upper middle class families. They're trying to build something that gives families that previously didn't have access that same rich learning experience that is now affordable even for these lower middle class families. I mean, that is really, really powerful.
Jeremy Au (49:12):Well, coming up on time here, for those who are inbound education tech founders, they're exploring the space, as a founder, what advice would you give them?
John Tan (49:26):
Yeah. Actually, I didn't get the chance to bring up earlier the fact that last year, maybe because there was no traveling, I actually did three different leadership programs. So I did the Obama Asia Pacific Leaders Program. I did the Transcend Fellowship. The Transcend Network is a global network for founders building the future of work and learning. And I also did Ashoka Changemaker Program. And I feel that I got a lot out of these programs that I was a part of, or I'm still a part of. So the Obama program, for example, is a one-year program. So it has ended, but that doesn't mean that you are no longer an Obama leader. In fact, it just means that you are an Obama leader for life, and you have to live up to that. And similarly with the Transcend Fellowship.
John Tan (50:23):
So I think one piece of advice is to find these opportunities to participate in meaningful programs not for the label, but for the learning opportunities and for the people that you meet who can inspire you, who can work with you, who can become collaborators and supporters. So I feel like I got a lot out of being an Obama leader. And I got a lot out of being a Transcend fellow and Ashoka Changemaker, because I met so many people who can help me in the work that I do.
John Tan (51:09):
And I think the other thing that I would say about these programs is that what you get out of it is what you put into it. So I've also seen some people who join the programs, but they weren't really engaged. And then they kind of disappear after the program. So for me, it's don't do it for the vanity value. Don't do it because you want to be called an Obama leader. Do it because you genuinely want to learn from other people, and you genuinely want to make a difference to your community or to society or to the world. And actually, having done these programs, it also got me thinking, things like the Obama leaders program, there's really no reason why you have to be an adult to do it. So there should be a kids version. Can you be an Obama kid leader or youth leader.
John Tan (52:17):
So that's also something that I want to do with Doyobi, which is telling kids to learn that they can be change makers, they can make a difference to the world, whether it's through climate change or food security or ending nuclear weapons, whatever it might be. But to get them in the mindset that they are destined to make a real difference to the world, and that's why they have to learn all of these things in school. It's not for the sake of sitting for an exam. It's not for the sake of becoming a doctor, lawyer, banker.
John Tan (53:00):
And truthfully, I'm shocked by how many parents today are still telling their kids the same thing that my parents told me, which is, you have a couple of choices. Do you want to be a lawyer, a banker, a doctor, or an accountant? Pick one. For me, it's just shocking.
Jeremy Au (53:21):Wow. I guess wrap things up there. When you see your kids today, what's your hope for them for when
they grow up for whatever they choose to do?
John Tan (53:34):
Yeah. To me, it's very simple. There's two things. I want them to love what they do. And hopefully what they do makes a difference to somebody, not just to themselves. So if they can be at the intersection of what they are passionate about and also making the world a better place, I think that's a great place to be.
Jeremy Au (54:03):
Awesome. Thank you so much, John. It's inspiring to hear your passion and your expertise and your leadership in this space. And I think it's really sweet that I think your kids will get to grow up with a parent like you.
John Tan (54:15):Thanks so much. That's a very kind thing to say.