Home Human Asia Jonathon Tse -Shaking Up the Textbook Market in Singapore

Jonathon Tse -Shaking Up the Textbook Market in Singapore

A disruptor in the textbook industry, Zookal has changed the way students rent textbooks, and helped them save money in the process.

For higher education students, buying textbooks that are only used for a semester used to be a pain point. Zookal has changed all that by allowing students to rent textbooks.

Human Asia talks exclusively with Zookal founders Ahmed Haidar and Jonathon Tse.

Ahmed Haidar – co-founder of Zookal

Tell us more about the beginning of Zookal.  Why the online textbook rental?

Ahmed: As students ourselves we personally felt the high costs and inaccessibility of education in its current form, we wanted to build the tools to make education more affordable and accessible.

We initially started out by renting textbooks which was a universal problem many students faced being expensive and cumbersome. We found that students were technically already renting, they would buy new books and then sell them off when they were done effectively paying for the time they used the books.

So we created an online platform to make this much more effective and simple. Through this platform we managed to gain a large number of customers and allowed us to leverage the student base to release new online tools in order to further help the students themselves.

How much would a typical student save over the course of their study by using Zookal?

Ahmed: Whilst difficult to say as we have varying services in different countries so there is no typical student. We serve different customers with different requirements based on their geography and learning needs.

If you take an average textbook student however, they are looking at as much as $1,500 savings during their life as a student. But I think more importantly to us, as their quality of learning goes up, so do their grades!

Tell us about how the renting process works, and how you go about maintaining quality.

Ahmed: The student is given the book for the duration of the semester which is typically 3-4 months depending on the country we are in. If a book is damaged or returned in a condition that can’t be rented out again we hold the customer’s credit card details on file and they are charged the cost of the book.

This is a fair approach that allows everyone to enjoy the service and have a high quality inventory of books available.

Tell us more about the video learning platform you are providing.

Ahmed: The Zookal digital video platform is a new learning tool that we launched to allow students to learn from their peers who have performed exceptionally well in any given subject. We realized that students are helping one another or tutoring each other and we wanted to take this experience online.

Video was the best platform as it allowed them to articulate their understanding at a greater depth than a written document would. We find great students who have excelled in their subjects, and give them a tablet and headset which allows them to create a quick and easy-to-understand summary of their subjects along with hints and tips on how they did so well.

You recently launched in Hong Kong and Singapore. Tell us about your expansion plans and where do you see Zookal in a few years?

Ahmed: We’ve always thought of ourselves as a global company. We realized that the problems we faced wasn’t just a local one and so we aim to help students globally. The company is currently headquartered in Singapore as our first phase of expansion is for Southeast Asia.

Once we feel we have made adequate impact here we will start introducing our services across the globe. Unlike other segments, education is highly customized from region to region so it’s not something you can scale globally overnight.

Is Zookal profitable? And who is your biggest competitor?

Ahmed: Zookal is already profitable and growing 370% year on year. Last year alone we did $10M in revenue. At this stage we don’t have any direct competition in terms of the suite of services we provide.

We do have a few direct competitors in the individuals services we provide but we don’t look at competitors. Our focus is on making sure the customer has a tremendous experience on our platform.

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For those who want to work for Zookal, tell us about the company culture.

Ahmed: We’ve fostered a go-getter attitude across our company. Every individual on the team brings a high work ethic and truly believes in our vision. To give you an idea we have a revenue per employee of $2M which means for every fulltime staff member employed, they bring in $2M.

So compared to companies our size we are very efficient and hard working. For us it’s always been like we are working with a group of friends, so we’ll have fun at work but at the same time we get things done. If you’re they type of person who wants to change the world and make a global impact, come work at Zookal as we are hiring!

We found out more about Jonathon Tse, Zookal’s other cofounder.

Jon Tse Zookal
Jonathon Tse – co-founder of Zookal

Tell us more about your childhood, and dreams growing up.

Jon: I was raised in Sydney, Australia to an Australian mother and Hong Kong father. I have a twin sister and also two younger sisters. We lived in a very suburban and green area called Hornsby for most of our lives.

I played a lot of sport when I was younger – although soccer was my main hobby. I was quite shy and self-conscious growing up, particularly in my mid-teens – with braces, pimples and being very lanky. I was my own worst enemy.

I remember clearly thinking as a 10 year old that when I grew up I wanted to wear a suit and hold a briefcase and work in the city. I never wanted to be a fireman or anything like that. However, my fantasy dreams these days as an adult is being a Detective in Miami like in CSI, or being a celebrity chef with my own TV show.

Perhaps if there is another life I will pursue them, but I am very content on the path I am walking down and the things I want to achieve. In my childhood I was risk-averse, which is quite interesting as I am now quite risk-seeking in business and in life. My friends and family probably think I have come too far out of my shell.

When and why did you decide to bec0me an entrepreneur?

Jon:  I remember being at university and walking past a job board for a big bank or accounting firm. It described the ideal candidate – being well rounded and having extracurricular activities and leadership experience.

The next poster I saw was for the Asia-Pacific Student Entrepreneurship Society at Macquarie University which was recruiting for a Marketing Officer and I applied for this role pretty quickly. I’ll always remember the poster saying something along the lines of ‘Don’t climb the ladder to success, build it yourself!’.

This was my first insight into entrepreneurship and I stumbled across it whilst applying for corporate roles. I later became President of this organisation a few years later and travelled to Stanford University and got exposed to the idea of Silicon Valley start-up life . Nonetheless, I still completed my double degree in Accounting and Law at Macquarie University and worked for a big four accounting firm as an intern, followed by a graduate role at a big Australian bank.

Long story short, travelling to and from the Sydney business district from Hornsby in a suit everyday for about a year led me to do a lot of daydreaming. This daydreaming was about walking down my own path, building my own company, hiring people and so on.

I started a little side business helping students to become more employable and made some good pocket money from this on top of my full-time banking role. One of my friends from university, and current co-founder and CEO of Zookal, Ahmed Haider, had started his own education company and in 2013 we decided to combine forces and I have been full-time at Zookal ever since.

What’s a typical day for you?

Jon: I am usually an early riser and early sleeper. I usually wake up around 7am and get to bed before 11pm. I go to the gym first thing in the morning.

At the moment I am focused on building digital education tools for students in Asia so my role is very product oriented. In the past year we have expanded our digital video platform to Singapore and Hong Kong, and also just launched a test preparation application for school and college students in the Philippines.

My day might revolve around liaising with the designers and developers in our team to get the Zookal tools functioning well and looking good. For our quiz application, we have a team of amazing teachers and students in the Philippines curating questions and quizzes – so I will also be liaising with the progress of these teams.

I am also pretty diligent in making sure I take care of myself with the food I eat and the exercise I do so that when I do work, it is productive and effective. In the earlier days, working unproductively 24/7 will lead to burn out and poor results, so these days I am focused on productivity and results.

Define what success is for you.

Jon: Not to be cheesy, but for me success is about the journey as much as it is the outcome. Yes we all want to make money for ourselves and the people that backed us emotionally and financially to build our dreams, but for me the reason I chose to go down this path of entrepreneurship is to make a big impact on our customers, on our community of students and leave a great legacy.

The strategy is to think big, grow quickly and sustainably and make as big as an impact as we can. The tactics of how we get there really comes down to our product offerings and services available to our customers in the different markets we are in.

What or who motivates you ?

Jon: Fortunately and through pure luck I am pretty highly self-motivated. I don’t need to read a quote or be inspired by someone or something. Repeat, this is pure luck and the way I am wired – to want to build something amazing and impactful, to work hard, to take chances and leave a legacy.

Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Jon:  There’s no perfect first step. Often the product you start with is not the one you end up with. Don’t wait for a great idea to come to you –  go through your daily life and see if you encounter a problem.

Look at this problem and think about if there is a way you can solve it, and if there is a market big enough to matter. For example, a problem is running out of toilet paper. Maybe you could solve this by creating an application that tallies how much toilet paper you have at your home and notifies you when you are running out. But is this problem really a big enough problem to create a business out of, where a stranger would actually take money out of their pocket and put it into yours for this service?

Furthermore, is your solution really that much better than the current situation? Look to create a scalable solution to a problem that is seen by the users as a painkiller (a must have) rather than a vitamin (something that is nice to have).

Visit Zookal at https://www.zookal.com/

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