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Schoolshape – A Tech-Fluent Language Lab That Has People Talking

The current golden age of startups has been a boon for foreign language learners – whose numbers continue to rise as businesses grow increasingly international. Most of the language learning apps I’ve come across the last couple years focus on tailoring learning to individual learners. Keep ‘em coming. At the same time, it would be silly to forget about teachers.



No matter how many programs come along, my personal experience with learning Spanish has been that there’s no substitute for supervision – someone who can guide discussions, make corrections, and help students navigate all of the available resources. Schoolshape is a cloud-based language learning platform that makes teachers lives easier by integrating strategies.






At its heart, Schoolshape creates a virtual language lab that is an effective place where teachers can give assignments and tests, distribute shared learning materials, while also giving students a chance to practice communicating wherever they might be. Online, Schoolshape is a convenient platform for remote students and mobile connected learners – anyone with Internet access. Over 1300 schools now use Schoolshape software. James Smith, Co-founder, CEO and Product Manager, tells us more:


What’s your company about? What do you do? Who are your customers?

We make educational technology for teachers. Our main product is the Schoolshape Language Lab, which is used in over 100 schools mainly in the UK and US.


What’s the greatest thing about your company/website? Why is it better than the competition?

A Language Lab is a vital tool for teaching languages as it gives students a place to practice listening and speaking skills that are hard to exercise in the classroom. Traditional language labs require you to install special hardware, need a very large upfront investment, and may take weeks to set up. Further, using the lab requires the teacher to book in advance and decamp the entire class to the lab room, meaning that these labs are not used much. Our Language Lab can be set up in 5 minutes, needs no special hardware, can be used in the classroom or at home with an iPad or laptop. It requires no up-front investment at all – there’s a choice of a free version or a premium version for a monthly subscription. And it’s fun to use!






What time do you usually start work each day? How many hours a day do you usually work?

Usually 9am to 6pm, but I do frequently rearrange my hours to spend time looking after my 1-year-old daughter Melody!


When’s the last time you went on vacation and where did you go?

Running a startup is a non-stop vacation (if you’re a like-the-adventure type)! I spend a lot of time in our China office, so my wife and I have been to many places here. Last trip was to Harbin to see the Ice Lantern Festival.


What’s the very first thing you do at work every day?

Check the list of newly registered customers and contact those that seem interesting.






When do your best ideas come to you?

Midnight while lying in bed! This usually gets me too excited to sleep…


How many people did you start the company with and how many people work for you now?

We started with just two, but now employ 8.


A lot of people have big ideas. What gave you the confidence to actually go after yours?

Support from family and friends.


Remember the early days of starting up? Describe the struggles you went through.

When people talk of the ‘Ramen’ startup, they usually don’t mean it literally, but in the early days, I was living in China running the startup office and living on $400 a month, literally eating noodles every day!



hard at work



How do you handle frustration? What has been your biggest professional frustration?

Go for a run on the beach. Guaranteed to solve any problem. The biggest frustration has been finding reliable staff and keeping them, always tricky for a small company on a budget.


What’s your office environment like? Do you listen to music? Watch movies? Play video games?

We have music, free fruit and a large African drum to take out frustration.


How do you picture your company in 5 years?

A little bigger, a little better every year.






Who or what inspires YOU? Role models? Quotes? Running? Video games? Snack food?

My wife’s mum. She grew up during the cultural revolution in China and spent the years most people spend at college doing hard labour in the countryside. She was never allowed to go to school beyond primary, and had never taken a holiday until my wife and I took her on one. However, she still managed to bring up two amazing children and build a successful business at the same time. How? She never rests. Ever. If you tell her to put her feet up, you’ll find her cleaning the house or working within seconds. Never a moment wasted! I wish I was that hard-working…


How’d you fund this venture? VC? Self-funding? Crowdfunded?

Self-funded. Saved about $60,000 from working in the corporate world.


Got any great bootstrapping tips for the lean startups out there?

Don’t do it alone!. If I were to do the whole thing again, I would definitely go the conventional startup route by applying to an incubator, search for investors, etc.






What other advice do you have for other entrepreneurs struggling to get started?

Every day you just need to make a little progress on something. In a year, 365 bits of little progress add up to a masterwork!


What would you do if you had a year off and $500,000 to spend (on something other than work)?

Buy a ticket on Virgin Galactic, donate the rest of the money, and spend the rest of the time living in a Tibetan monastery.


Do you consider yourself a successful entrepreneur? If not, what’ll make you feel successful?

I feel as if I started without a clue, but have learned a lot through the last four years, and have now acquired the skills that are making us successful.


Top 5 websites you couldn’t live without and why?

  1. Gmail / GDocs / Google – nuff said
  2. ArsTechnica – best tech news reporting
  3. BBC News – best non-tech news reporting, period.
  4. & 5. EdX & Coursera – great for dipping into lots of topics in a depth, which isn’t possible anywhere else, and is more accessible for learning than Wikipedia.



crew eating



Number 1 country you’ve always wanted to visit but haven’t yet? (And why that country?)

Japan – always been fascinated with Asian culture, and hear a lot of different opinions about the Japanese from my Chinese friends. Would like to judge for myself.


Three people (other than you) we should follow on Twitter and why?

  1. Joe Dale @joedale: no-one knows more about Web 2.0 web apps
  2. Kevin Gaugler @gaugler: top pedagogy thinker
  3. French Resources @frenchresources: lots of great resources for learning French


Where else should our readers find you online?


Photo Credits


Author : Keith Liles

Keith Liles is a freelance writer who loves travel, music, wine, hiking, poetry, and just about everything. He practices saying "yes" to life vigorously, rehearsing for the phone call when he's asked to tour with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Follow Keith on Twitter @KPLiles.

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