When Jenny Atkinson was sitting at home one day with sick kids, she never in her wildest dreams thought that she would stumble on an idea that would revolutionise children's literacy. But that is exactly what happened!
Prior to starting her now hugely successful business Littlescribe, Jenny worked in business transformation, helping companies navigate through changing business models and implementing new technology.
Yet despite that being her day job, she always had an entrepreneurial spirit:
"Ever since I was a teenager, I had an entrepreneurial spirit. When I was 14, for example, I accidentally became a swim instructor! It wasn't something I set out to do, but when I was asked to help teach some local kids, it sounded like a good opportunity."
"Before I knew it, word got around and I was operating my own little swim school that stretched from Dubbo to Orange!"
Years later, when Jenny found herself at home looking after two sick kids, she stumbled upon another opportunity that she felt she just couldn't pass up:
"I was working at home and the kids were doing a word puzzle that featured the word oboe. They didn't know what an oboe was, so I brought up a YouTube clip featuring one in the musical Peter and the Wolf."
"Before I knew it, they starting mimicking the music that oboes make and they wanted to write a story featuring an oboe. They were really into it, they wanted to play writers for the whole day!"
And the stories they created were brilliant. They photocopied them, stapled them, laminated them, and they wanted all of their friends to read and borrow their stories. I was truly amazed at their engagement and sense of pride and purpose.
Seeing the kids engagement with the activity spawned something in Jenny:
"It really got me thinking, if they loved doing this, surely others would too? I was interested to see how I could turn what they'd created, with their illustrations and their words, into a real book."
When Jenny realised that there was nothing out there that could achieve what she wanted, she decided she'd just need to create it for herself. So she started mapping out a platform with some wireframes, and decided to chat to her daughter's teacher about her idea:
"I wanted the platform to have an educational focus so I decided to chat to my daughter's teacher about it, see whether she thought it might be something teachers could use.
She did think it was a great idea - in fact - she loved it so much she came onboard as a business partner."
Jenny then set out to research the market. To do this, she approached different schools in her area to and asked them how she could turn the platform into a simple tool for teachers, how it would fit into the literacy curriculum, and how, from a business perspective, she could get it to connect with kids and teachers alike.
Armed with the research she'd conducted, Jenny felt ready to create an MVP.
She reached out to the Department of Innovation (DOI) and Jobs NSW to help her do so, and they provided her with a grant. Jenny says that she secured the help from government agencies because their agenda was similar to the aims of her business:
"We secured a grant as both Jobs NSW and Littlescribe wanted to spend time focussing on deep literacy learning outcomes. We both wanted to work in the space where we use technology to turn on children's brains; for example, we wanted to activate their editing, spelling and creative skills as opposed to them simply relying on autocorrect and copy-paste."
Jenny says that the research she conducted helped her define the goals of her business that she then used to apply for her grant:
"Our research confirmed that teachers had no effective way to look back over 2-3 years of a student's original writing and understand their full literacy skills. We wanted teachers to be able to chart student's progress and gauge their individual ability, and Littlescribe could help them do that."
Jenny's research also helped her realised the magnitude of the problem that she was trying to solve:
"Kids in Australia have been going backwards with literacy and specifically writing for the past six years, and we believe that technology is part of the problem, but that it can also be part of the solution.
Children don't get enough handwriting practice these days, but they need to. Handwriting is visual, it's tangible, and illustrations are the same. This skill is crucial for helping kids to communicate effectively."
Following the development of a successful MVP, Jenny decided to expand the Littlescribe team to include a number of directors, including a CFO, Iain Bartram, who went on to assist Littlescribe in securing seed funding.
With the funding, Jenny has ambitious plans:
"We want to be a global business, for sure. Imagine your favourite author anywhere in the world writing two pages and then inviting you to be a co-author and make the story your own? Littlescribe can offer that.
"What really excites me, though, is what we can do for children. It's a big world but we can connect people through our platform, for example, we can get children in Rwanda swapping real and digital books with children in Sydney! These are our dreams and we feel like it's absolutely within our reach."
Despite the success of her business to date, Jenny says that it hasn't been all smooth sailing for her. She's run into the common struggle of many mums in business: balance. But she's decided to take a unique approach to it:
"Honestly, I don't buy into the concept of balance. There are huge demands placed on startups, and so you've just got to choose what you spend your time on.
For me, I make the choice that every 20 minutes counts. So whether I'm spending 20 minutes engaging with my kids, talking to a teacher about our product, conducting a webinar with literacy leaders or simply having a wine with friends and stopping for a bit, I want to get the most out of that 20 minutes."
Being a female tech entrepreneur has also presented some interesting challenges for Jenny:
"So we decided to participate in the Cebit Start Up Pitch competition, the biggest tech industry forum in Australia. It was fascinating as I was the only female pitching.
We were one of over 80 applications, and then we were shortlisted down to 20 and had to pitch for the semi-finals. It was very nerve-wracking and frankly it showed in my pitch. In the end, I was one of 10 selected to participate in the final pitch. We came third, which we thought was pretty good for our first pitch."
In addition to Cebit, Jenny also entered the Mums & Co MPowered Pitch Competition. Of her experience with Mums & Co, she says:
"On reflection It was a very different approach, it felt like a safe journey more than a hard-core competition. It gave everyone the opportunity to be included, to give it a shot."
Jenny says that she's often asked for advice on how others can follow in her footsteps. But her advice is different from most:
"Be comfortable and bold to ask for help. Learn to ask for help often. I have only experienced support. That's what I've done throughout my entire journey and it's what I believe has been responsible for Littlescribe gaining momentum."
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