Interview with George Burgess, founder of Education Apps

George Burgess is surprisingly relaxed for a 21-year-old whose company has just received $1 million in investment.

“Let’s go to the comfy area,” he suggests, directing me past the ping pong and table football sets towards a set of sofas.

George Burgess, founder of Education Apps

George Burgess, founder of Education Apps

His company, Education Apps, produces smartphone apps to help with revision and last week launched Gojimo, an online learning platform letting pupils and teachers interact. His investors include the founders of Innocent Drinks and Index Ventures, a backer of Skype.

The office exterior masks the success story inside. It’s found in a side street, next to a job centre. Education Apps doesn’t even have its name on the buzzer. George is subletting office space and you have to go through another company, Songkick, to meet him.

He’s polite, well-spoken and smiles throughout our meeting. He was “born and bred” in west-London, attending the £7,000-a-year St Paul’s School in Barnes.

Aged seven, he was already taking his first commercial steps. “I’m odd in the sense that I’ve always sold things. I started selling drinks outside my house, then sweets to friends at school.

“At 15, I ran a filming company with a friend. We filed tax returns and had a business bank account, it was quite a professional outfit. It didn’t matter what it was, I just knew I wanted to run my own business.”

He seems to have a natural talent for spotting opportunities. “When I was a kid there were sour sweets in America that my friends loved. We’ve got family there so I’d fill my bag on holidays, bring them back and flog them to my friends.”

So he smuggled in his youth? “Exactly, I was illegally importing food into the United Kingdom,” he says, laughing.

He claims not to have inherited his entrepreneurialism. “My dad works in the city. My mum’s kind of entrepreneurial, she’s done a few little things, but not in the same way. I’m quite different.”

He started Education Apps in 2009, aged 17. Again, he spotted an opportunity when he couldn’t find any apps to help his own revision. “I thought, ‘I’m a student, I could fill that gap’.”

He planned to spend his gap year travelling but the business took over, and he secured content deals with the BBC and Oxford University Press. “I loved it. There’s always a little regret that I didn’t get to travel, but I’ll do that later.”

He went to the prestigious Stanford University in California, but dropped out after 18 months. “The opportunity for business was then or never. My health was deteriorating from trying to do everything. The hardest thing is trying to focus when you’ve got 5,000 emails to reply to, assignments and classes. Juggling all that is chaos.

“There’s stigma attached around dropping out, but as soon as I’d done it I knew it was the right decision.”

Since returning to London he’s poured all his time and energy into the business. He can’t run me through a typical day because it varies. “It’s really long, which you can probably tell from the dark shadow under my eyes, and almost my entire work life goes through email.”

He’s not wrong. As well as emails from publishers, investors and his team, he even gets emails from George Burgess. When we meet, I point out that the company website gives the office postcode as NG1 6NG rather than N1 6NG – directing people 100 miles away to Nottingham.

“Whoops,” he says, swiftly reaching for his phone. “I’m just emailing myself a reminder to fix that. Thanks.”

He admits having access to his emails at home, through his phone, laptop and iPad, so does he ever switch off?

“I’m much better now. During my gap year when I worked from home there were two issues. During the day there were distractions. The flipside is that in the evenings you still feel like you should be working because you don’t have that work/home divide.

“As soon as we got office space, I said to myself, ‘when you’re here you work, at home you don’t’. But if something urgent comes up I’ll deal with it and there are times, like this week, where you just work flat out.”

George’s investors have spoken about their confidence in him as a person, so are they investing in the company or him?

“Practically, it’s an investment in the company. But with start-ups, it’s always about the team. If they trust me or think I have potential to get it right, that’s what they’re investing in.”

Since November, his staff levels have increased from two to five, but George doesn’t let the added responsibilities affect him.

“Some people are like, ‘you’ve got employees with kids, doesn’t that bother you?’ It doesn’t because I know the people we hire are really good and could get jobs anywhere else.

“The stress comes in day-to-day management. Because I’m used to doing everything, I need to learn to delegate a bit more. I’m 21, I’ve never managed five people before, it’s a learning curve.”

I suggest he should create an app to help with that. “Yeah,” he laughs, “teaching me how to distribute tasks.”

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