IT ALL began in 2016 with three people sitting around a makeshift table, with S$200,000 in out-of-pocket funds for their shared goal: using technology to help people overcome learning challenges. Those were the early days of edutech company Flying Cape, recalled founder and chief executive officer Jamie Tan - the "tech person" of the trio, alongside a graphic designer and operations staff.
Months later, in 2017, a serendipitous car accident with the founder of parenting forum KiasuParents.com created a connection that eventually led to an investment. After bumping into the car, Tan handed over her Flying Cape name card with her contact details - sparking interest.
Just 17 months after the first meeting, the company was cash flow positive; less than four years into operations, it was profitable.
Now, six years after it began, Flying Cape has some 40 employees across four offices in Singapore, India, China and Indonesia. It made more than S$1.5 million in revenue in 2021, and expects to more than double that figure this year.
Flying Cape runs an online marketplace for children's education, on which over 2,500 brands offer enrichment and tuition services, serving slightly over half a million active users in 39 countries. (*see amendment note)
It also licenses its administrative and aggregator technology to industry partners in tertiary and adult education, who run platforms for older learners similarly hosted by Flying Cape.
While early education partners were engaged on a pay-as-you-use basis, the company has since shifted to a "cleaner, simpler" software-as-a-service model in which partners pay a monthly fee to be listed on Flying Cape's marketplace, with a significantly lower commission for sales.
Flying Cape's expertise is in matching students to educators that suit their learning needs. Tan observed that many people pick educators by word of mouth, but children do not all learn in the same way.
Potential students are assessed via diagnostic tools such as games and tests. The results are run through Flying Cape's matching system, built on data analytics and artificial intelligence. Based on the child's profile, an adjusting algorithm then recommends education providers.
"There was a huge communication gap, because education providers were not seen as being able to really demonstrate what they did differently," said Tan. Flying Cape can highlight each provider's differences, such that "people no longer choose based on lack of information".
Finding a market
While the company is flying high now, Tan remembers its early struggles. In addition to having limited resources, the education matching portal initially proved unpopular with its original target audience.
Tan had focused on the Singapore market, expecting customers to be Singapore-based. But she found that many parents already engaged their own tutors and did not need a platform for academic classes. Today, only about 30 per cent of Flying Cape's providers specialise in academic subjects, with the rest offering enrichment-based classes in areas such as robotics or culture.
Furthermore, instead of going online, parents could just walk to a shopping mall and have access to myriads of education providers, Tan said.
Rather than Singapore dominating its customer base as expected, there was instead an even split between local and overseas users. "The people who needed this service were actually outside of Singapore - there were people from China, from Indonesia, from Vietnam, from the Philippines, that actually do send their kids in for holiday programmes instead," she said.
But the pandemic changed the game. "I think at that point in time, everybody was kind of locked at home and couldn't go out to the shopping malls," said Tan. "And then the Singapore communities started coming in and said: 'Now tell me a bit more about what you do.'" Today, about 80 per cent of its customers are from Singapore.
During Covid-19, Flying Cape's education partners also began providing more online and hybrid learning options, with about 60 per cent now offering lessons at least partly online.
A longer-term trend that has affected Flying Cape's offerings is the progressive removal of examinations in schools, said Tan. Some parents treated the freed-up time as an opportunity for their kids to gain more academic practice than their peers, for a "head start"; others took the time to explore their children's interests.
Responding to these diverging interests, some educators stuck to their book-learning strategies, while others introduced more non-traditional methods into their curricula, such as puzzles or coding.
Apart from introducing more flexible and diverse options, Flying Cape has expanded its geographical footprint. Following its first office in Singapore, it opened an office in India in late 2017. In 2020, it entered China, where it has since met its S$1 million revenue target; this year, it acquired an Indonesian marketplace of education providers.
Both a recent China scale-up and the Indonesia acquisition were enabled by its Series A funding round last year, where it raised US$1.5 million through venture firms Start-up O and EduSpaze, as well as angel investors.
While it has not drawn down its finances as quickly as expected, it expects to announce another round of funding in the first quarter of next year.
Existing funds have been set aside for ongoing research into more diagnostic tools to enhance Flying Cape's matching service, which is the company's "number one priority", Tan said.
"Any funds that we raise going forward is to identify good companies with strong fundamentals that are willing to join to build that global education ecosystem," she added. "It has to be a combination of merchants worldwide."
*Amendment note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Flying Cape serves 29 countries. It in fact serves 39. The article has been revised to reflect this change.