In Founder Focus we introduce entrepreneurs and change-makers working on innovative startups, social enterprises and SME’s around Aotearoa New Zealand.

At a glance

Founder: Joanna Smith

Business: Pukeko Learning Solutions

Founded: 2016

HQ: Auckland

Can you tell us a bit about your business?

Pukeko Learning Solutions provides both services and products. We provide eLearning development services to organisations in New Zealand in Australia. We partner with their subject-matter experts to understand what the organisation and learner needs are, then develop a curriculum and materials accordingly. Most of our work is digital, developing eLearning packages that the organisation will host on their own LMS, but we also develop face-to-face programme design and materials.

We also have collections of eLearning courses that can be used off-the-shelf.

Our flagship product is Language Fuel. This is a collection of 90+ eLearning courses designed for professional development of English language teachers. We’ve worked with expert authors globally to build these, and map them on to an internationally recognised competency framework.

eLearning course collections are not new. Many industries have had them for years, but in 2016, there was nothing for the English language teaching industry, and I set out to fill that gap.

The initial idea was to develop a SaaS platform for English teachers to subscribe to and access the professional development courses on, but we’ve recently changed our focus. We now license the collection of courses to other organisations who are already providing PD to English teachers. They can load our courses on their own LMS, to complement the other PD services they offer.

What’s the backstory for your business idea?

I started as an English teacher, then moved into corporate training. I cut my teeth in this space as a growing tech company’s first training manager. Over that time, I refined my understanding about the difference between academic education and workplace professional development.

The idea for Language Fuel came when I learned to appreciate the value of off-the-shelf eLearning. I saw how quick and easy it was for staff to meet their own learning needs when provided with access to course libraries.

Developing any new product is of course time-consuming and expensive. To help with cashflow, I bought and ran a small online bookstore for a while. I also ran a shared office space. But what has proven most sustainable is our eLearning development service. We now have ten people in the team, and a great Learning Design Lead, which frees up my own time, so I can continue to work on Language Fuel.

What programmes, learning or mentoring, or resources have been of assistance so far?

I got some help from the Regional Business Partners’ fund twice. I used it to get mentoring specifically about marketing, but it was really wholistic business support. My mentor stressed the importance of getting some income in the business, even if it meant doing something that was not in the original plan. I didn’t have the mindset for raising startup funds, as I’d seen some great examples of successful bootstrapping. With my mentor’s help, I have created a sustainable business, with reliable cashflow. And we are now enabled to do the product development we want to do. (Within our budget of non-billable time!)

I also took advantage of the COVID funding for business owners’ mental health. I wasn’t sure if I needed it, but my mentor advised me to get it anyway. I surprised myself by crying every time I spoke with my counsellor for the first handful of sessions. I hadn’t realised how much I had been carrying on my shoulders. I now recommend counselling to everyone, regardless of whether they’re a business owner!

We’ve also benefitted greatly from working together with Education New Zealand. We’ve participated in some pilot programmes they’ve run, and we have sometimes advised them on matters that we have expertise in. We were fortunate enough to be the recipient of a grant for attending BETT Brazil, a large EdTech conference. This was a joint opportunity between NZTE and ENZ. We’re also joining in with the ENZ delegation to Southeast Asia in November later this year. There’s no better research than getting in front of the target market and talking about your product. We gained more market understanding attending this and two other conferences this year than we were able to get in two years prior.

All of this help has come about because I was brave enough to ask within my existing networks for help. People are always happy to point to someone they know, and that keeps going, until you find the support structures that you never knew about. Never be afraid to ask for help.


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