Alice Kahrmann interviews Elspeth Briscoe, co-founder of MyGardenSchool and MyPhotoSchool.

Elspeth Briscoe, co-founder of MyOnlineSchool, is nine months pregnant - her due date is a week away, but will she turn down an interview? She wouldn’t hear of it, because Briscoe is a ridiculously high achiever who will stop at nothing to achieve her ed-tech centric goals. ‘I’ve had two other babies since Duncan Heather (Briscoe’s business partner and co-founder of MyOnlineSchool) and I founded MyOnlineSchool, but maternity leave is not really quite the same as it is when you’re working for a big corporate company!’ MyOnlineSchool has two digital learning schools already live, MyPhotoSchool and MyGardenSchool, with more in the pipeline. Briscoe and Heather have just completed a £500,000 round of funding from a powerful team of specialist edtech investors. Oh and last November, MyPhotoSchool also won The Good Web Guide Website of the Year Award in the education category.

Briscoe has quite the CV when it comes to working for corporates, having worked first for eBay and then for Skype [her favourite internet books are Being Digital by Nicholas Negraponte and Net Profit by David Soskin]. ‘I was one of the first people at eBay in the UK and I worked there for about five or six years working in strategy. I started off working as a photography category manager, which is a bit like being a brand manager. I worked my way up quite quickly and then when eBay bought Skype, I transferred to Skype at a similar stage.’ This was the startup stage, ‘in a grotty little office in Lexington Street in Soho.’

Prior to this (at the age of twenty eight), Briscoe held an account director position at Brodeur, part of The Omincom Group, a PR and communications agency ‘that is quite good when you’re twenty eight, so everyone was a bit surprised when I went to this unknown internet company at the time.’ After ‘about ten years of working in very successful internet companies' Briscoe needed a change: 'I genuinely thought I was going to become a landscape designer. I’ve always been very interested in design and horticulture and it’s in my family so I took a year off to do a postgrad in landscape design.’ The course was at the Oxford College of Garden Design where Briscoe was appointed as course administrator, 'which is basically the dogsbody who collects all the homework. My natural instinct was to put everyone on Skype, because it meant that we were all communicating, and it was easy to group everyone together and we were all sharing work. The principal of the college said that in twenty years of teaching we were the best performing academic year he had ever seen, and he put it down to the fact that we were communicating via technology on a real time basis; we were all sharing our documents - we shared a really strong bond.’

The principal was Duncan Heather, who quickly spotted the potential of Briscoe’s expertise and how it could be allied to his own significant teaching experience. ‘At the time it was the recession, very high-end landscape work wasn’t around, so it was a perfect opportunity to put our heads together.' And so MyGardenSchool was born. 'Quite quickly after that we set up MyPhotoSchool. I’m really the internet geek - Duncan brings over 25 years of entrepreneurial and teaching experience and is the creative behind the business.’ MyOnlineSchool is the only global digital learning community to offer students 1-2-1 tuition with assignments set and critiqued by world leading experts in their field. ‘One of the things I’d never experienced before on the postgrad course, was that I had to stand up in front of a load of people and share my work, my drawings and my plans and critique them in front of the class. Normally in a classroom environment, you hand in your homework and it’s all private - Duncan is very strong on the theory that public and community style critiquing is a much better way of learning, and this open interaction is what sets MyOnlineSchool apart from other online schools.’

‘Operationally I was able to bring in lots of developers,’ Briscoe says of the partnership, ‘people I’ve worked with at eBay, at Skype and I know from the internet industry.’ MyPhotoSchool was started primarily via recognition that in ‘these art type subjects, the methodology of teaching is really important and you can do it online by creating very strong communities.’

‘You might have come across Mooc,' Briscoe says, 'which is a massive online provider of courses where thousands, millions of people learn the same subjects at the same time and they tend to learn things like programming and coding. What we do is put people in touch with quite acclaimed tutors who are published authors. If you’re into growing roses, there are two people who are experts on it in the world and we’ve got one of them, so we aim to get the best in every very niche topic. There are pockets of people in Japan, for example, who are nuts about growing roses, and they never get to go to the RHS and they never get to meet David Austin (who is the king of roses in the world) but we’re enabling that through our site and the same through photography one of our tutors, Michael Freeman, is highly acclaimed. He’s published dozens and dozens of books, so to actually get a photograph critiqued by him is something quite special.’

MyPhotoSchool makes sure they ‘keep course numbers down... We have an eighty to ninety percent completion rate with about twenty people doing a four week course; high touch treatment in community based classrooms. This is a business all about scaling, whilst maintaining extremely high quality, getting groups of people together who are passionate about something, which makes magic happen.’ Briscoe is the first to credit her team with the site's success, ‘There are quite a lot of other people involved. For example, our main customer support person called Amy used to work for me on the forum [at eBay], she was part of my community team. One of the main things I would say is analytical rigour, so really really knowing your numbers and understanding about conversion rates and traffic; some of the stuff people don’t really imagine goes on behind these big quite glamorous internet companies, a lot of it is about the metrics.’

The most rewarding part of the business for Briscoe is seeing the take up of technology in tutors: ‘John Brookes who’s got an MBE is in his eighties and is probably the most famous landscape designer and writer in the world, was quite reluctant to embrace technology to start with… This has actually changed his life; he teaches in virtual classrooms, with someone in Argentina to someone in Brazil to Surrey, and is genuinely still influencing the way people design their landscapes globally at his age. I love the fact that it crosses not just geographical boundaries but age boundaries and any other boundaries that you can imagine.’

Briscoe has her own mentors of course, ‘Tanya Cordrey, Chief Digital Officer at The Guardian (where I worked as part of the Digital Development team) has supported me and Tony Gill, who is now an investor, both of whom I worked with at eBay in the early days. Tanya was actually head of product for eBay and was quite instrumental in the Paypal/eBay relationship when I was there, she was very supportive having me as a consultant’. In addition are Briscoe’s colleagues at Skype, ‘They are a kind of crazy bunch much more anarchic and entrepreneurial than eBay who are far more academic in their approach; people like Saul Klein and James Bilefield, who were directors there. Saul is now part of Index Ventures. James was my boss and he now works for the government in digital.’

Which brings us back to that all important round of funding: 'We couldn’t have asked for more amazing investors, people who would mix with our skill set, people who had great experience of scaling companies. But we were also keen to get someone who understood the ed-tech market, that’s something that’s growing very fast.' Leaf, our biggest investors specialise in education technology, so that’s fabulous, we also have Doug Monro, he’s COO at Zoopla, MD at Gumtree and has great credibility and experience. I’d say he’s actually been an inspiration. When we were first thinking about funding it came via a pub conversation with him. We couldn’t ask for better experience of scaling internet companies than from Howzat Partners; the co-founder of which was CEO of One other mix in there is publishing because we’re essentially a publishing hybrid company and Steven Warshaw is another investor, he was the CEO of Getty images for a while.’

Phew, does she seem high achieving? Well that’s because she is. Now to my final question what would she most like people to know about her journey thus far? ‘I was probably the only woman, let alone the only pregnant woman, I came across in the funding round and I know that in Silicon Valley, women founders are few and far between, but I would say the one thing I would like to highlight is the respect I have for our investors, embracing diversity as they have, investing in a founder who is heavily pregnant, is quite something I think, and it speaks volumes for their integrity that they’re doing this for the long term; it’s not a quick buck.’

Interview by Alice Kahrmann, February 2015