Entrepreneurs with chalk dust in their hair;The Great Escape

12th February 1999 at 00:00
Teachers with expertise in technology are moving over to successful computer companies - often their own.

Were you teaching in school in the early Eighties when computers first arrived? If so, which of these three people were you? Were you Steve, who lay awake convinced that his terror of the new technology would blight his career? Or were you Sally, who shrugged and went to sleep, assuming that she would get by somehow, just as she did with Cuisenaire Rods and the film-strip projector? Or were you Jane, who dreamed of being able to use her Sinclair Spectrum so successfully and creatively that she would make a fortune, wear big shoulder pads and drive a red BMW?

There were, without doubt, plenty of teachers who thought as Jane did. Not necessarily techno-buffs, they were the ones who saw the future, learned quickly and, well, took the machines home to practise with and became the information technology leaders in their schools. Sometimes they were kick-started by their heads - Bill Bonham, founder of Sherston Software, recalls his head saying of their first BBC computer: "There you are, Bill - do something with that."

So, typically, Jane would have started using her Spectrum to support her teaching, with some maths and vocabulary activities. Soon she would start pushing it to the limit. The local adviser would have homed in on her, using her expertise for courses and demonstrations. Eventually she would have been seconded to the authority to go round sharing her expertise with other teachers.

At that point, there were a number of possibilities. She might have continued to write more and more classroom software, freely sharing it at first, and then gradually realising that here was something she could sell to other teachers.

Or - perhaps after speaking to a conference - she might have fallen into conversation with a senior person in a big computing company, and he, anxious to move into the education market, may have indicated his interest in recruiting people with schoolexperience.

In either case, there would eventually have come a point of decision. The software writing would become so time-consuming that Jane had to make up her mind whether she could continue to teach. If she deferred for too long, it would be the head who asked her to make the choice. Being offered a job also made for a difficult choice - stay with the security of school life, or launch out into a world where, very clearly, not everyone was going to survive.

So perhaps Jane would do as many people in her position did and settle back into school, continuing on the promotion ladder, significantly helped by her experience of new technology.

There were those, however, who did take the plunge. The software writers set up small businesses in their spare rooms or their attics, juggling home life and child care, and usually supported by their partners.

Progress was sometimes slow, and the security of the classroom seemed a distant dream. In those early days when - to quote one who started then - "you could put a 100k disk in a plastic bag with a duplicated sheet and sell it to schools", there were many who tried and only a few who succeeded.

Those who did ended up running successful businesses, working in pleasant environments, surrounded by keen and agreeable people, and enjoying the pleasures of worldly advancement.

What, then, were the ingredients for success? The obvious answer has to do with the quality and timeliness of the product, and this is what the successful people will you tell you themselves. Talk further to them, though, and you start to identify some other factors, not least of which is a feel for running a business - when to expand, when to draw back, how to make a bold decision. Bill Bonham of Sherston Software had always been something of an entrepreneur - he ran a part-time printing business long before hiscomputer days.

Similarly, the people who work with Bob Gomersall, founder of the CD-Rom firm Bradford Technology, speak of his ability to make good business decisions. He, too, was making and selling electronic devices for some time before he started in his current field.

It seems to be important, too, to be working with the right people. Perhaps there have been some lone eccentrics but, on the whole, the successful software businesses have arisen from a working partnership between, say, a specialist programmer and a teacher, or between a gifted author and a teacher-programmer. Husband and wife teams have also often brought complementary skills into play.

Always, though, it was their understanding of schools that gave successful people the edge over some of the "outside" businesses trying to break into education. A school, particularly if you take into account its complicated relationship with the local authority, is quite unlike any other business.

Realising this difference was particularly important in the early days of school administration systems, when SIMS very comprehensively saw off its early competitors - largely, according to its founders, because they were teachers who had developed the earliest version for their own schools.

Recognising the importance of school experience did and still does make it possible for teachers to jump from school to the computer industry. A teacher who has made a name locally as someone who knows about computers in schools can expect to be approached by computer firms which know they have to have people like that on board to succeed in the education market.

Some of these, such as David Heath, who was once a secondary science teacher and is now Compaq's education general manager, have risen to the top, working in more than one company on the way. All these people, though, are characterised by their wish still to be seen as having some chalk in their hair. Heath says: "I could go back tomorrow and do general science, because that's my love and passion."

Bill Bonham, too, says: "I still consider myself a teacher in lots of ways - my wife and I, as the teachers in the firm, are the ones who oversee the educational content."

Many of these stories, of course, are very much of their time. It is difficult to see how anyone now could start producing educational software in an attic. All the same, as Bob Gomersall points out, at any point in history, the equivalent starting points are there if you look for them. "The mind boggling thing is how many opportunities there are."

* David Heath

General Manager, education, Compaq

David Heath taught science and IT from 1979 to 1984 in London and Rotherham, before becoming head of a teachers' centre in Rotherham. In 1989, having failed to get back into school in a senior position - "Governors said I had no experience of the national curriculum" - he became an advisory teacher with Apple.

He then worked in other IT firms before joining Compaq, the world's largest PC company. He is now putting together what he calls "the dream team" of people with education experience, to support Compaq's mission to secure a greater share of the education market.

Crunch moment? "When I became warden of the teachers' centre - a significant change, bringing me into contact with policy-making."

* Chris Powley

Marketing Manager, RM

Chris Powley taught maths from 1982 to 1989 at the Chaucer School in Canterbury, and then, as a senior teacher with responsibility for IT from 1989 to 1995 at Simon Langton Girls' School, Canterbury. His arrival in the profession coincided with the arrival of computers. "I went out on my first teaching practice and, as I walked into the school, I fell over the box with their first computer."

Throughout his teaching he was involved in developing IT both in the curriculum and in administration.

Crunch moment? He answered an advert for a marketing job at RM, and has since been promoted within the company. "Both my schools had been RM schools. I wanted new challenges, using the experience of the classroom. RM is an education company, and so I've not left education, I've just left teaching. At heart, I'm a maths teacher - that's the important thing."

* Tina Detheridge

Co-founder, Widgit Software

A professional potter, special needs and art teacher since 1969, Tina Detheridge has never, in the usual sense, left teaching to go into business. With her husband Mike, she has "always had two and sometimes three jobs".

As well as school work, she has taught adults, been an advisory teacher and worked for the former National Council for Educational Technology on special needs. In 1979, they bought a computer and wrote programs for their own children. "I learned to program at night while I was minding the babies."

Widgit was formed in 1983 and, when the Spectrum arrived, had brief success marketing early years software tapes. "We sold thousands and that's what bought us our nice big house."

That particular bubble eventually burst - as she felt it would - and Widgit rebuilt itself concentrating on special needs in the schools market.

She is keen on the advantage of having been in and out of teaching during the firm's existence, "keeping in touch with the pupils and the difficulties they are having". And she adds: "We still do quite a lot of training of teachers."

Crunch moment? Nothing clear cut - it has been an organic development. A good decision, though, was not to over-expand into the short-lived consumer educational software boom of the mid-Eighties.

"There were all these Spectrum tapes in Boots and WH Smith. It disappeared in the space of three months, and lots of firms were severely hit. We'd decided to keep the business small."

* Bill Bonham

Founder and chairman, Sherston Software

A teacher at Colton junior, a large primary school in Gloucester, Bill Bonham was deputy head when the first BBC computer arrived in the early Eighties. "The head thought it ought to come into my classroom as I was teaching a top year class and I was male."

He became enthusiastic and started writing programs to use with his children. "I started writing phonics programs, because I had a low-level language group at the time. I sat up till the early hours working on them."

Crunch moment? "I met a friend who was a very high-level programmer in the pub in Sherston, and he said I should do something with my work. So we started up Sherston Software."

At first his business ran alongside his job. "For 15 months, I worked as a deputy head and used every hour of my spare time setting up the business.

"Eventually it became apparent that one thing had to go and we decided to take the gamble. My wife was heavily involved in those early years - she's also an ex-primary teacher - and that's how it started up."

The Sherston team is now about 40 strong, and Bill Bonham is chairman of the board.

* Dr Bob Gomersall

Chairman, Bradford Technology

After working in theoretical physics, Bob Gomersall taught physics at Manchester Grammar School for three years from 1977, before becoming head of physics at Bradford Grammar.

He has had more than one foray into business during his career. In the Seventies, he wrote some simple classroom software for the Commodore Pet computer, which went nowhere. In 1985, the need to teach electronics led him to devise and market a device (which continues to sell) to use to measure hearing loss.

In 1989, he moved on to multimedia, and his firm now produces CD-Roms for the retail market (including travel guides and titles for the AA), as well as education. This led to the development of "Virtual College", an extremely successfulbdistance learning venture.

Remarkably, perhaps, he only stopped teaching last year. "Teaching and running a business is good discipline - it forces you to delegate. I enjoy teaching and I was reluctant to leave, but I had to make a decision."

His business is peopled with former pupils of Bradford Grammar. "Every year we have two or three, then some go to university, and I hope they come back. I don't mind what they know as long as they have talent. We can teach them what they need to know."

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