What It’s Like to Be Both a Tech Start-Up and a Non-Profit Organization

*This is the third part of a three part conversation series with Rumie founder Tariq Fancy.


Rumie has had success using a model that’s pretty unique, especially for a start-up/non-profit, bypassing a lot of the bigger development organizations to partner directly with local, on-the-ground NGOs. Given Rumie now works with organizations in over 20 countries, what do you think contributes to the success of this model?

Though we have non-profit status, we’re built from the ground up like a traditional tech startup – one with a lot of support. We’re based at the DMZ in Toronto, a leading incubator in which we’re the only non-profit. We’re backed by Y Combinator / IK12 in Silicon Valley and the Leap Centre. The Boston Consulting Group does pro bono work for us to evaluate impact and build our model. Harvard Business School published a case study on our work that they’re now using to teach second-year MBA students. So while we’ve got the look and feel of a fast-growing startup, our non-profit status communicates to people something that is built into our core as an organization, a single bottom line that our team, our Board, our partners, and our community of LearnCloud volunteers care about: building a new and affordable model of education.

For a long time Facebook’s motto was “Move Fast and Break Things.” Taking more of that start-up approach, we pride ourselves on being aggressive, trying new things, and questioning existing models. By contrast, we’ve often found that large development organizations, which tend to be paralyzed by bureaucracy, may as well have the motto, “Move Slowly and Break Nothing.” So when we’ve encountered that, we’ve sidestepped them and found faster moving local partners with whom we can implement and continue improving our solution. There’s no shortage of dedicated people working on the ground to improve access to education. Our tool is perfect for them, we just need to find them.


In the sphere of development and education, there has typically been a lot of skepticism towards the use of technology. Where do you think this skepticism stems from? Do you see 2017 as a year of continued skepticism, or more embracing of tech innovation in development? Why?

I think that the skepticism stems from the fact that every new technology fails to live up to early expectations simply because it gets too hyped too quickly. In my early career, I was an investment banker for the tech sector right on the tail end of the dot-com bubble, and then later worked on turnarounds of distressed technology companies. I noticed time and time again that tech utopians correctly predicted ‘the next big thing’ with a high degree of accuracy, but they almost always messed up the timing. They expected faster uptake than would actually occur. They either assumed that everyone was an early adopter like themselves or they viewed the technology component as the sole key to success rather than just one necessary ingredient – ignoring the importance of business, economic and social factors in driving adoption.

The research firm Gartner has a term for this: the Tech Hype Cycle. The development space is just as vulnerable to this cycle. Take for instance the early promises of the One-Laptop-Per-Child initiative which, while noble, were never fulfilled because they were too early. OLPC was founded in 2005, back when no one had a smartphone- in fact, back then I was still working on bringing basic feature phones into emerging markets as a “leapfrog” innovation. Besides the difficulty in getting the cost down enough to make it usefully scalable, there wasn’t even a tiny fraction of the free learning content available online that there is today.

Fast forward to 2017 and the timing is finally right. Today you can learn nearly anything online for free, especially in basic education. Hardware costs have plummeted and one can get a basic, durable and power-efficient smartphone or tablet for a fraction of the cost of the early OLPC devices. Internet connections are far more common and improving every day. The GSMA, the largest global association of mobile operators, projects that there will be nearly 6 billion smartphones in the world by 2020, 80% of them in emerging markets. The evidence is clear: infrastructure is rapidly expanding to drive a books to bytes learning revolution around the world.


Written By: Merone Tadesse Business Development Associate at Rumie


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