Growing up is child’s play for edtech start-up SAM Labs

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman July 3, 2018
The edtech start-up has implemented NetSuite to bring new discipline and maturity to its back office processes, so that it’s ready to tackle the needs of teachers and pupils in the wider world.

SAM Labs education
In November 2017, a report from the Royal Society - the world’s oldest scientific academy in continuous existence - laid bare the state of computing education in UK schools.

The picture it painted was not a pretty one, with the general situation described by the report’s authors as:

...patchy and fragile.

In England, for example, the news that 70% of pupils now attend schools that offer computer science GCSE may be seen as encouraging, but only 11% pick this option and only one in five of them are girls, according to After the Reboot. Another problem lies in the instruction they receive:

A majority of teachers are teaching an unfamiliar school subject without adequate support.

London-based SAM Labs is an edtech start-up on a mission to change all that, by bringing coding and creativity into classrooms and, most importantly, making it fun for pupils and easy for teachers. The company’s kits, based on codeable Bluetooth-connected blocks, come with curriculum-aligned lesson plans and teaching materials that help teachers to guide their pupils through the process of building and programming a range of products, from night lights and cat toys to voting machines.

It’s still early days for four-year old SAM Labs, but investors have liked what they’ve seen so far. In November, the company closed a €5.7 million Series A funding round led by Touchstone Innovations and E15 Ventures. This follows an earlier £3.2 million injection of cash from Imperial Innovations back in 2016.

Time to grow up

Now, the company needs to grow up fast – and a big part of that has been a NetSuite implementation that went live in April, according to Adam Greenwood, head of operations at SAM Labs:

We were doing quite a lot of distributed sales last year and the data between our three systems – standalone CRM, finance and basic ERP packages – was pretty inconsistent. We realized we needed a holistic solution just to make our business better. 

We’re four years old now and it was time to bring some sort of grown-up element to it. If we wanted to go through another round of investment, for example, we’d have to show our investors that we have clean data and that we can actually provide that at the click of a button.

But it also helps us internally, because we always know where we stand and can generate reports quickly, not spend a couple of hours trying to get a balance sheet or P&L report when we need it.

The main software services that SAM Labs is using from Netsuite cover the quote-to-cash workflow: sales, CRM, order management, finance and supply chain management. The 22-person company has 14 licenses and the implementation was completed in just 80 days. Says Greenwood:

It’s not only given us end-to-end visibility, but it’s also sped up our processes a lot. It was previously taking us three to four days from an order coming in and an invoice going out. It now takes us less than a day and we ship the product on the same day as well. 

In fact, as a start-up, we really didn’t have any formal processes, so NetSuite’s brought in a lot of that for us. The whole business of who owns what part of an order has really been defined and using one system means that data stays clean throughout that process.

Tackling the market

The hope is that this system will help SAM Labs punch above its weight as it continues to tackle what is potentially a huge market. After all, many governments are making ICT and computer science bigger parts of their national curricula, and both schools and teachers increasingly recognize their role in helping to enthuse and educate the ICT workforce of tomorrow.

Around 70% of SAM Labs’ sales currently come from the US; the remaining 30% is split between the EU, UAE, Australia/New Zealand and Singapore, China and Japan. Company operations worldwide are handled by four subsidiaries, which NetSuite makes easy to manage, so that consolidating accounts doesn’t become a headache. Says Greenwood:

Without divulging too much of our plans, we do a lot of market analysis. We know a great deal about where the budgets are and how they’re being spent. We’ve partners with a lot of distributors and resellers in the US - so we’re tackling the market by working directly with districts and schools but also with those distributors and resellers who already have contacts and wider networks.

With its back office now in good working order, with new maturity and discipline - just like a good classroom, the biggest challenge for SAM Labs may now lie in gaining the confidence of teachers and winning their long-term loyalty, rather than being seen as a passing fad. It’s a point that Greenwood recognizes:

We’ve often seen that edtech products make it into the classroom, only to be used a number of times and then put away. So that’s something we’re really working on: how we can get our products to be used time and time again. We believe the key to this is professional training – teaching the teachers – and providing lesson plans so they have the confidence they need to help pupils to the maximum.

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