We previously reported on Yellow Banana back in July last year, which is a lifetime ago when dealing with a startup, so we caught up with Jessica Banaszak again to see how Yellow Banana is faring after its recent relaunch.
//SN: So, I know we asked you this before, but what is Yellow Banana?
Yellow Banana is the UrbanSpoon of learning, Australia’s first directory to open up access to any and all types of learning by connecting teachers and learners from around Australia in one convenient place. Teachers can be anyone teaching absolutely anything, you don’t have to be qualified to be a ‘teacher’. Learners can also be anyone who wants to learn something, either physically in a classroom situation, a private tutor, or online. So ultimately, Yellowbanana is a directory service that helps teachers and learners find each other in the easiest, fastest and most individualised way possible.
//SN: A marketplace model then, so how are you solving the chicken-and-egg problem?
That question has haunted my nightmares for a while. Eventually I decided to start with the teachers, because if the learners go onto the site and find a lack of classes they’re less likely to come back. But if we offer enough incentive to the teachers to post their classes first then we’ll have content for the learners to see when they come. Plus, the website has been made with assisting ‘knowledge-sharers’ as we like to call them in mind, so any and all feedback we have from our early adopters will be incredibly beneficial and help us to shape and pioneer the site. (NB: EVERYTHING IS FREE AT THE MOMENT!!!)
//SN: When did you start this?
Officially full-time almost exactly a year ago when I won the Intensify scholarship at Spacecubed, which was amazing. In those three months I went from “what’s a business plan?” to having a website that was launchable. I’ve taken it down and launched a couple of times since then, but that was the real starting point. Unofficially I’ve been working on it since about June/July 2013, after my back operation.
//SN: Your back operation?
In 2012 I was walking down the ramp at the old Wellington St Bus Station, and slipped and broke my spine. I got up thinking I’d just pulled a muscle, and about a month later was in surgery, which kept me going until about May 2013 when I had a major spinal operation. Now I’ve been dubbed ‘Bionic Woman’, with some big metal plates in my spine. This obviously meant I was lying down for over four months, and there are only so many TV shows, books and movies you can consume before you start going a bit insane.
I’ve always had a curious mind and loved learning, so I decided to look online to continue my German language studies. I searched for hours for the right fit – online, not expensive, my level, a trusted teacher/provider and so on. Six hours later I still could not find a suitable course and I gave up in frustration. Fast forward to 3am the next morning, when all good ideas come to you, I woke up and thought “why isn’t there one place where you can go and specify exactly what you want to learn and your circumstances and it’ll tell you if there’s anything available immediately instead of taking six hours?”. So that’s where it started, originally just as an idea for tutoring which I’ve had experience in and love doing, but then I expanded it to classes. I worked on that slowly as I began to teach myself to walk again, and it’s taken off from there, really since I got to Spacecubed. Now I tell people that breaking my spine was the best thing that ever happened to me!
But it’s so true, I’m doing something I love and I’m creating something; it’s the first of its kind in Australia. And if it only helps that one person who’s bedridden for five months to keep themselves sane and mentally active then everything will be worth it.
//SN: You’re a non-technical founder, how have you been building this?
I originally had an Australian developer and then realised that our budget could really only afford developers from overseas, so I’ve been using oDesk to find suitable candidates. I was originally really against outsourcing, I was so adamant that I wanted to have someone that I could sit down face-to-face with and talk everything out. Eventually it got to the financial point where that just wasn’t feasible, so I spent ages on oDesk researching people and interviewing them on Skype and eventually found this Ukrainian team and they’ve been just fantastic. They have a project manager who I talk to daily, and then different people in the team who do different specialist roles. They get stuff done really fast, and they keep me informed and the quality of the work is amazing. So I’ve been really happy with the stuff they’ve been doing, and consider myself lucky. But you really have to do your homework.
//SN: Have you got any tips for people considering outsourcing work like this?
Read the testimonials, really narrow it down from a large base to a shortlist of around 5, and then Skype interview all of them to test their language and communication skills which is SO important. Then narrow your list again, give them a small test task to see how they do. Take your time; it took me a good 2 weeks to find my developers.
Yeah, my team are the Banana Minions, like the minions from Despicable Me, and I’m the Head Banana. We love it – it gives us something to giggle about. I recruited an amazing team of volunteers to help me get it together, mostly final year students at Uni. Now most of my original team have graduated and gone on to get these amazing jobs in industry, and I’ve recruited new volunteers to replace them. It’s great to work with these really switched-on, creative people who are all so different but completely enthusiastic, talented and keen to learn alongside me. I’ve been so lucky with my team being so dynamic and responsive, it has allowed me to exercise my leadership skills. I’m so grateful for my Banana Minions!
//SN: Talking of that, how did you arrive at the name? What does it mean?
I started by looking at all the free website addresses for (now I think) very unimaginative names: TeachAndLearn, TeachIt, so on, but nothing clicked. So I thought about what I loved learning, and one was Water Polo, which I played for years until the accident. My team (Go Dolphins! Eeeee!) called me Banana because of my surname, and that reminded me of those posters in school, you know “A is for Apple, B is for Banana”, that started my mind rolling and so I went with that and ended up with YellowBanana (also, the website address wasn’t taken!).
My ethos behind the product is that knowledge and learning opportunities are all around you, and learning doesn’t have to be traditional learning in a classroom environment aimed at gaining a qualification. You start out life as a green banana when you’re learning something new, and as you learn more you become a ripe, yellow banana, and then you start again on something new.
YellowBanana also means that teachers in the community don’t have to stick up an index card in the local IGA any more, there’s a place for this, and you can teach anything you want to, you don’t need to be qualified. But we will be vetting the site to restrict dodgy classes.
//SN: You’ve soft-launched and it’s now live, is that right?
Yes, both sides of the marketplace work at the moment, so teachers can sign up, create a profile, and put up a class listing for a class. Which is, at the moment, all free. Learners can sign up for those classes. Then we’ve got a lot of features and possibilities in the pipeline depending on user feedback.
//SN: So you’re really releasing this with the minimum feature set, is this your MVP?
This is about the fourth launch of the service. I finished reading the Lean Startup book about 2 weeks ago, and probably should have finished reading it about two years ago! If there’s one thing I would recommend anyone doing before they starting this, it’s read that book before you start, and then go and talk to someone who has implemented the ideas into their startup. I would have saved myself so much time and money if I’d done that. So now I’m doing this according to Lean principles mixed in with everything I have learnt so far from mentors, other entrepreneurs and making a million and one mistakes – I believe that the MVP will prove that this mix works!
//SN: What’s your key take-home from reading the Lean Startup at this point in the project?
Really the thing that stood out for me is how to word the questions to your customers so you get the right feedback for the product, and how to turn into what you should do next. So rather than the simplistic “would you buy this?” which always gets you a yes answer, to a more involved set of questions that drill down on what the customer’s problem is, what they’re looking for in a solution, and how to take that back to the product to implement features or pivot your idea. I’m glad I know all that now, and I probably should have known it before I started. However, I think if I had to know everything before I began then I’d never have started. The amount I’ve learned over the last 12-18 months has been gut-wrenching, exhausting, exhilarating, overwhelming, and fantastic all at the same time. But it’s the best way to learn.
//SN: How’s the community interaction been?
It’s been amazing, I’m the kind of person that doesn’t mind asking for help, and the community has been a constant source of help. I use the Spacecubed yammer a lot and ask a lot of questions there and get a lot of help there. It was strange at first, I come from a corporate environment where if you ask someone for help it is a bit more political, but here people are always freely offering advice and help, you sit down at the kitchen table and suddenly you’re throwing ideas around with people. I love the fact that everyone’s so generous with their ideas and expertise and willing to help each other, it’s fantastic. I hope I can get to the stage where I can help others at some point.
//SN: How have you experienced being a female founder?
I’ve experienced a few awkward and frustrating situations. For example, I’ve attended a function with a male friend they’ve assumed he’s the founder. It an awkward few seconds – do I correct them or just move on? I haven’t worked out to deal with that one yet, but I come from a legal background and have a strong European heritage so I definitely don’t let anyone walk all over me. I sought out some fantastic female mentors who’ve run some successful (and unsuccessful) businesses and have really offered me advice on situations like that, and much more! I had to really get out there and ask for that though, and I’d advise anyone to do the same – entrepreneurs are super busy 24/7, your company idea never leaves your brain, so get in contact with people and lock them down for a coffee.
Everyday is a challenge but if you are really committed and believe in your contribution to change through your product, just keep swimming.
There have been so many times where I’ve wanted to give up, but I’ve followed Dori’s advice and have just been nominated for WA Today’s “City of Perth Young Entrepreneur of the Year” and “People’s Choice” awards. One day at a time!
//SN: Wow, good luck with that! Thanks a lot for talking to us Jess, and the best of luck with the project, we look forward to catching up again next year!