Connect Spotlight: Stairway

Posted: 1 Apr 2021

Our journey with Stairway began in 2019, when Connect led the pre-seed round of this promising digital learning startup. Back then, Stairway was only 6 months old, but it was already changing the way students felt about studying — specifically about studying Maths. They’ve since added courses in Biology and Physics, working towards making STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects more interactive, fun, and social for everyone.

A year and a half later, we’re thrilled to check in with Stairway’s founder and CEO, Charles Williamson, to chat about how they’re inspiring the next generations of STEM learners, how they’ve built a dedicated following of students, teachers, and parents alike, and what their vision of the future holds. Curious? Read on.

Sitar Teli: Take us back to the beginning: When did you start Stairway and why?

Charles Williamson: The ideas that led to Stairway’s creation started quite a long time before the company was formed. My thoughts around education began when I was a student myself, around sixteen years old. I came to realise that there were no good products for students which were designed specifically for students. My peers shared the same frustration, and we’d often find ourselves hunting for answers to our questions in obscure forums online. There were so many resources, such overwhelming information — none of which met our needs as students. I’ve been thinking about education ever since, and how there could be a better, more engaging solution.

At the time, so many amazing product companies were popping up in adjacent spaces: Instagram, Snapchat, Airbnb, Square… But no products of that calibre arose around education. Initially, I set out to solve this problem for myself. Fast forward a few years, I started Stairway for everyone else.

ST: Amazing — using technology to help students engage with their education. Speaking of engagement, it’s amazing to see your interactions with customers on social media. Why do you think parents and students love Stairway so much?

CW: We make an effort to listen very closely to parents and students — students in particular. I think the majority of products out there, despite having great intentions, are too far removed from the students they’re built to serve.

As a team, we structure everything we do around students. How to learn from them. How to understand their needs. We speak to them daily, if not hourly, through user research, social media, as you mentioned, and other communication channels we’ve put in place.

That closeness has helped us build solutions to actual problems students are facing. That’s important because — especially over the last year — student needs have changed very rapidly and having that level of understanding about where they’re coming from has really helped us make the right decisions.

If we ever have a tough decision to make, we ask ourselves, “What impact does this decision have on the student?” We always go towards the answer that most closely aligns with what the student needs — even if there’s a short-term trade-off for us. This student-focused approach has helped us go a long way.

ST: There’s nothing like spending time with your customers to really get a sense of what they’re thinking. As you know, Connect loves products. We back “opinionated products, crafted with love, and loved by many.” Can you describe how Stairway is an Opinionated Product?

CW: I think within EdTech especially, many products come into the space with the default assumption that traditional education is working. They’re coming into it thinking their role is to bring it online and scale it up. I’ve seen that even more over the past year as learning has gone remote. Stairway’s default assumption is different.

We believe, through no fault of anyone working and doing great work within education, that traditional education doesn’t support students adequately enough. We don’t just think about how to leverage technology, we think about how to use technology to be the best learning experience for students, first and foremost.

We’re very opinionated about the idea that technology should reinvent education rather than just bring it online, and we’ve already witnessed a transition in that direction.

Towards the beginning of EdTech’s evolution, many companies were just posting videos online. We’re starting to see a new generation of EdTech companies that are moving beyond that and thinking about new paradigms of education that actually leverage some of the benefits and potential of technology and the Internet.

ST: Obviously, product is very much at the heart of everything you’re doing. How would you describe Stairway’s product culture?

CW: We like to work as collaboratively as possible on solving the problem. Everyone across the team, whether they’re working directly on the product or not, is welcome to contribute ideas and suggestions. We bring evidence to these conversations as much as possible — both from a qualitative perspective, speaking to our users, and from a quantitative perspective, looking at the data of how people are engaging with the product. We also encourage a healthy culture of challenge. Having a different viewpoint is OK and debating on some of these topics ultimately brings us to the best solution.

But what makes our product culture thrive the most is that from the very beginning, we’ve hired people who were very passionate about the problems we’re solving.

They are either passionate about STEM, or about education, or about increasing diversity within STEM sectors. One of our engineers is a volunteer maths tutor. Another engineer is an instructor for Code First Girls, a great organisation in London. I think this shared passion is fundamental because without a team that cares about the problems we’re solving, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to build an empowered product team like ours.

ST: 100 percent. More companies could definitely work on designing their cultures with that in mind. Thinking about yourself as the Founder/CEO, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since starting the company a year and a half ago?

CW: The thing I keep coming back to is how critical focus is for a team as small as ours. We’re a team of seven at the moment, and there are so many opportunities within education that it can be very tempting to try and pursue many of them at the same time. What we need is to focus on the one or two things that really matter to us as a company right now, and we need to be obsessive in that focus. When we do this successfully, we consistently deliver great results. It can be tempting to just go broad and try to do everything at once, but that’s rarely worked.

ST: Ah yes, that infamous shiny new thing that distracts us. If we fast forward, what’s the big vision for the future of Stairway?

CW: At the moment, we very much see ourselves as a supplementary educational product for people who are learning. The majority of our customers find us when they don’t understand something they’ve been taught in school and use us to unlock that concept in their mind. In the future, we ultimately see ourselves becoming a fully online school for STEM. We envision a world where everyone learning with Stairway is incredibly interested and excited by what they’re learning. They see its benefits and how it connects to the many innovations happening in the STEM sectors. As a school, we can continue to support people using Stairway in the same capacity as we do now, but in a far more accessible manner, democratising access to high-quality STEM education and acting as a gateway into STEM industries for anyone who’s excited by that.

ST: I know I’m not in the age demographic, but I’m excited about STEM education.

CW: We’ve seen people in the product as old as 70! So there’s no upward bound.

ST: Love that! Back to you: what are you most proud of in your journey so far?

CW: What makes me most proud is hearing from students every day about the impact Stairway has had on them. And that’s not just from an educational perspective; we’ve consistently been hearing about the real confidence boost our product has given them. Getting messages through customer support, speaking to students through user research, and hearing how our product has helped them understand concepts they never really understood before, gain confidence in subjects they’ve always felt unsure about, go from saying ‘maths is just not for me’ to ‘I want to become an engineer’ — that has been the most fulfilling part of the journey so far, both for myself and the team.

ST: On the flip side, you must be learning fast, and failing fast. What mistake has taught you the most?

CW: I’ve had many, but I think I would relate it back to my previous point about focus, and obsessively focusing on a few things. That’s true at the team level — knowing what the team is focused on and what our priorities are — and it relates to me too, as an early-stage Founder/CEO. I hold one title, but I really occupy many roles at the same time, so trying to be ruthless in focusing on the three biggest ways I can add value to the company and not trying to do too many things at the same time has been both the biggest mistake and the biggest lesson for me over the past year.

ST: Wearing the classic Chief Everything Officer hat. We led your pre-seed round and we obviously love having you in the family. What would you say are some of the most valuable things Connect has done for you and the Stairway team since we joined you on this ride?

CW: There are many things, but the one that comes to mind is the earliest memory I have of joining the portfolio: Connect was a big advocate for the value of coaching, particularly for early stage founders and CEOs. You helped me find a coach and I saw the benefits early on, even before we had a team. As a founder, the pace of your learning can be the biggest enabler of the company’s progress and growth. On the flip side, it can also be the biggest bottleneck. If you’re not learning fast enough as a CEO, you can be the thing that’s holding the company back.

Coaching has really helped multiply the pace of my learning and I’m not sure that’s something I would have looked into as seriously without Connect’s support.

As a secondary benefit, working with a coach has helped me see what great coaching looks like. I’ve taken this coaching-based approach when managing my team and, going back to being an empowered product team, I’ve used it to empower them to better understand and leverage their strengths. As the company grows, I can see how this early experience with coaching has had a rippling impact through the organisation, and that’s really exciting.

ST: That’s so great to hear. Our final question before we let you go: what is the product you love most or can’t live without?

CW: I have two answers. The first one is probably lesser known: it’s called Roam Research and it describes itself as a tool for networked thought. Essentially, it’s a note-taking app where instead of having a folder-based structure for your notes, everything connects in a network of thoughts, or notes. This is much more in line with how thoughts are structured in the human brain and how we think about things intuitively. I started using it about a year ago and I don’t think I could be as effective as I am without it. I think it’s a really powerful tool for product management too, and I’m excited to see how it could be used within product organisations to make better decisions. I’ve actually been thinking of writing a blog post on that.
The second product is much better known: Spotify. It’s been keeping me going during the pandemic, both with music while I’m working but also with podcasts. There’s no doubt, life is better with Spotify.

ST: Speaking of podcasts, are there any product-related podcasts that you recommend?

CW: Good question. I can’t actually think of any product-specific podcasts. Maybe that’s a gap in the market. I do listen to quite a few interview-based podcasts. Below The Line by James Beshara is a podcast I’ve really loved over the past few months. He’s a founder himself, based in the US. My coach, Dave Bailey, started one recently which has been really great, The Founder Coach.

Wonderful, thank you for sharing your journey with us so far, Charles. We can’t wait to see you continue to take the educational STEM world by storm!