We have the pleasure of diving into the visionary mind of Sathish Bala, one of our mentors at BHive and a driving force in the Ed Tech sector. As the founder of Schoolio, a company dedicated to empowering parents with a vast repository of resources and support, Sathish brings a wealth of insights and expertise to our entrepreneurial community. Through this exclusive interview, we will explore Sathish’s remarkable journey, gaining invaluable wisdom from his experiences, and uncovering his advice for aspiring entrepreneurs making their mark in Canada.

Sathish Bala with a concrete background

Tell us About How You Started Schoolio

Schoolio started as an idea in 2019. I was trying to figure out how I could help parents who need tutoring have a more affordable option, as most tutoring costs between $50-$70 per hour. Tutors also didn’t have much accountability to the school system because they weren’t mandated to follow a Canadian curriculum. On top of this, I thought, why are we only focusing on one subject when we need to look at the student as a complete package? The second challenge I was trying to solve is, why shouldn’t teachers who went to school teach my kid and not someone random? 

We developed version one of Schoolio, where teachers who are retired, teachers who are new, coming out of school with certification, can join our marketplace, and then parents can, on-demand, hire educators who not only know the subjects but also know how to teach them. This product went live at the end of 2019, which is when the pandemic started. With the turbulent school environment, tutoring was set on the back burner for many families. I realized the bigger opportunity here was creating a model that empowered parents to take back the power of education. I realized that when the schools shut down, we have now given our power for education to a teacher and a school system, and they dictate what my kids learn, when they learn it, how they learn it, and they measure them, engage them, and there’s no second opinion. There’s no option to do anything different. 

So the new entrepreneurial idea was, how do I take back control through educating myself? Schoolio pivoted from a marketplace for tutors to a library of resources for parents. Our mission for the last three years has been empowering parents globally with access to accredited Canadian and American curricula, written by teachers for parents, so you can teach any subject without fear.

How Was Your Experience in Entrepreneurship, and What Did You Find Most Challenging

I’ve been an entrepreneur since graduating from Toronto Metropolitan University, with Schoolio being my fourth startup. My first venture started in university, where I fell in love with entrepreneurship and never looked back. I’ve been through the pain already of being an entrepreneur three times and successfully exiting some startups. This fourth time, the typical challenges of finding resources, raising capital, and understanding the blueprint weren’t an issue because I’ve done it three times already. 

The challenge that I was facing this time was that I’ve never had a B-to-C business. Most of my startups were B-to-B, with sales being very different, including pitching and marketing, compared to B-to-C. It includes more storytelling, and it’s much more on the ground, focusing on brand building. We now sell to thousands of customers versus ten or fifteen customers on a B-to-B model. This became a really interesting challenge for me. 

Another challenge is that I enjoy working in an office and interacting with people in person. Building a fully remote company for the first time was very challenging as I’m an extrovert. A question I come across is how do you build a remote culture that feels connected?

How Did You Discover Your Passion for Helping Other Entrepreneurs Through Mentorship

Until I sold my agency, Blue Band, in 2017, I was just in my own world. I was building my companies and also growing up. In South Asian culture, entrepreneurship is frowned upon, leaving many entrepreneurs including myself feeling isolated. Most of the time, I wasn’t proud of being an entrepreneur. I always felt like it wasn’t appreciated or it wasn’t supported. I never talked about my journey, and I didn’t really talk about my challenges and successes because it felt like nobody cared. 

However, after being the only South Asian CEO in the mainstream agency world and selling my company, I started getting a lot of attention and being invited to seminars and speaking panels. I realized as much as they celebrated my success as an entrepreneur, what they really wanted was diversity. In the panels that I was invited to, I was now the diversity card. Then I started realizing that there are not a lot of South Asians that are represented in these panels. This is partly due to the culture not supporting entrepreneurship. 

My goal was to encourage more of us then to become entrepreneurs and follow our dreams. I started creating content in 2018 to inspire and motivate other South Asians, especially South Asian women who are getting into tech, and tell them that regardless of the cultural noise, if this is what you want to be, you should be that. I have a common trend in all my businesses where if I could start a company that also helps to break down stereotypes and cultural assumptions, I’m in it 100%, even if there’s no money in it. I started networking, mentoring and supporting some of these BIPOC founders. 

As much as they got some help from me, I became really addicted to helping others. Very few entrepreneurial mentors have done it from zero for 30 years, like me. When I speak to entrepreneurs, I connect with them as this is the life I live too. I worked for ten years, found an idea and started a company. I’ve always relied on myself to be successful. I’ve never had a paycheck for the first 15 years of my life that I didn’t go and earn. So that brings a lot of credibility and trust into the ecosystem, which I take very seriously.

How Will the Edtech Sector Develop and Grow in the Next Few Years

I think there are going to be three different things that are going to happen. One, I think anybody who got into Edtech during the pandemic to make a quick buck will disappear in the next twelve months. Loose business plans around monetizing a pandemic are going to move on. 

Two, I think the rise in alternative education, which is what Schoolio is working on, is going to become the norm. I think more and more parents are going to question the idea of ‘is traditional school the best choice for my kids and family’? And is that the best educational opportunity for them? I think more and more services and products are going to be developed to cater to a lifestyle versus a traditional model of delivering education. 

Third, I think we’re going to see a lot of companies that are already in the school system starting to look at people like Schoolio for acquisition, to expand their reach because the schools don’t have the budgets or efficiencies anymore. In North America, public school education enrollment has dropped by almost 8%, while alternative education has grown by 52%. So I think there’s going to be a lot of interesting shake-ups in the marketplace. In fact, I’m banking on it. That’s the whole reason I’m excited to be a part of this really global disruption. These kinds of things happen either once in your lifetime or once through a major pandemic. And I’m excited to see how the puzzle is breaking and how we’re going to put it back together.

What Challenges Do You Foresee for Startups in the Coming Years

The biggest thing that startups have to really sit down and think about is – how do we really solve a customer problem? Most of the edtech companies out there are solving a broad problem, a principal problem, or maybe even an educator problem. But I think as alternative education and parents start to take more power, we really have to think about what we are solving in a household, and that’s a longer process. So how long do you want to sit in that seat as a founder? It took us four years at Schoolio – literally, Q four of 2023 is when the market product fit finally clicked. 

Number two is really understanding the future of learning. We get caught up in AI and automation and other things, but really, at the end of the day, we’re talking about a little human being who’s learning about the world for the first time. So how do we best teach them? 

And then number three. When I look at the startup ecosystem in general, I think founders need to become better storytellers. So many founders, especially at a top level, from a CEO or Co-founder level, continue to focus only on their skill set. The founder’s job is to articulate a vision and a dream in a storytelling narrative. As a culture, as humanity, we are storytellers. That’s what we’ve done through our entire history as humanity. So becoming a storyteller is such an important skill. And looking back on my secret sauce for success, yes, I studied computer science, and I started a bunch of tech companies. But all of my success comes from telling a believable, authentic story that a customer thinks they want to be a part of. And that skill is not taught well enough and not taken seriously enough. A lot of my mentoring focuses on what is your story, and how do we build that out.

How Can Startups Breakthrough in the Edtech Industry

I think it’s tough because Edtech, as a category, has so many different channels and pillars. I think you should come back to your story and understand why you want to be an edtech founder, and what problem you really care about. If you’re going to be pivoting over the next five years to figure things out, what’s the one thing in the middle, the nucleus? That will never change, because if you don’t have that centre, then the pivoting is very exhausting. 

What do you believe in? I think, really, founders need to sit, and especially in the tech space, understand why. Because the measurement of success can’t be just revenue, it’s impacting young people and educational systems. You can’t see the ripple effects for another eight to ten years. So how do you build a business plan where you can’t see the impact you have on your students for another few years? It’s a different ecosystem where you need to be in it for the long run and believe in your product.

Why Did You Decide to Become a Mentor With BHive and TBDC?

I’ve always wanted to help immigrants mainly because of my parents, who are immigrants. While we weren’t living in poverty, I am always in awe of human beings who, at a later stage in life with kids and a family, could plug themselves out of that ecosystem in search of a new life. I never chose to move, when I did. I was born in India, and then we moved to Singapore. I didn’t have a choice then from Singapore to Canada, but my dad and my parents did. 

When I think about all of the hardship, you have to go through to unplug yourself and plug you into a whole new ecosystem and then add on top of that startup or entrepreneurship. For me, I’m humbled by anybody I meet in that category and how brave they are, and the least I can do is share my blueprint.

What is Your Advice to Entrepreneurs Looking to Come to Canada

Come to Canada because you believe in Canadian values. Come to Canada because you believe it’s a great place to raise a family. Don’t come with the expectation of building a great business because, at the end of the day, you can have a great business and hate the country. I think that’s the choice that I would encourage more entrepreneurs to look at. While we have great support systems like BHive and TBDC, government funding and mentors, there’s no guarantee a business will ever make it. Nobody can guarantee your idea will work or work long enough. You should come here because this is a great place to live.

Grow With BHive

And there you have it- a glimpse into the brilliance and passion of Sathish Bala, founder of Schoolio and a guiding force at BHive. We are truly grateful to have such exceptional mentors within our community, whose invaluable support fuels the growth and success of our startups as they expand their ventures in Canada. If you are inspired to connect with mentors like Sathish, check out our Global Entrepreneur Incubation Program and expand your business into Canada today! Come, join us in Brampton, the city weaving success stories, one venture at a time. Together, let’s shape our future, make meaningful connections, and create a thriving ecosystem that propels entrepreneurs to unprecedented heights!