Felix Ohswald of GoStudent: “Identify what it is that you want to solve, and why”

Identify what it is that you want to solve, and why — I’d always advise someone that is looking to found a company or create a new technology to think about two things: What do you want to solve? Why do you want to solve it? Choose something that you are passionate about, or that you have […]

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Identify what it is that you want to solve, and why — I’d always advise someone that is looking to found a company or create a new technology to think about two things: What do you want to solve? Why do you want to solve it? Choose something that you are passionate about, or that you have encountered firsthand. Work out why this area matters to you and if it also matters to wider society. If you can firmly see what it is that you want to change, improve or advance, then you can likely work out how to make it happen.

In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Felix Ohswald, CEO and co-founder of GoStudent.

Felix Ohswald, 26, is the co-founder and CEO of GoStudent, the Vienna-headquartered digital learning platform providing tailored, 1:1, video-based tuition to K12 students. Felix holds two degrees in Mathematics and a master’s degree in Quantitative Finance and is a founding member of the EdTech Founders Club — a community dedicated to supporting individuals within the EdTech space. Felix is passionate about ensuring that every child has access to top quality education and believes that technology is the key to achieving this.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?

Of course! I was born in 1995 and grew up in Vienna. I was always a curious child, and from an early age I loved to learn — I would even play school with my grandfather, who was a science teacher. He taught me how to think logically through chess lessons, and would always take time to explain the how and the why. He would take mathematical and scientific theory and apply it to real life situations, teaching me how to overcome challenges or solve problems in a measured way. He really is my greatest mentor.

I was fascinated by how things worked, so as a child I would always try to analyze each game so that I could play it better than everyone else. I wanted to understand everything, and so while other kids were enjoying the game, I was trying to break it down and learn from it. I took a similar approach to my academic studies and excelled at math. At the age of 14 I was sent to university early, to complete a Mathematics degree, alongside my wider school studies. I was a tall kid, so I fit in and didn’t feel out of place.

When I was 18, I travelled to the UK to study for a second Mathematics degree, at the University of Cambridge, before moving to Switzerland to complete my master’s degree in Quantitative Finance at ETH Zurich. Many people ask me why I didn’t choose to pursue a career in academia. Education is a huge passion of mine, but it wasn’t the path I wanted to take. My biggest goal is to help every single child ignite a love for learning that matches my own, and so EdTech was the best route for me.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

One story that I like to remember is from when we first started our homework chat service. Within it, we had a category called “Other”. Kids used this section to ask all kinds of random questions, but we realized that a lot were around love, flirting and relationships. Because of this, we decided to introduce a service called “Dr Summer”, which was specifically for questions around love and relationships. It became popular quite quickly, and a leading German erotic company wanted to acquire it. We decided against this route, as it was too far removed from our long-term goal to support kids from across the globe with their academic studies, and we eventually closed the chat down so that we could focus 150% on our core mission; however, it was an incredibly unexpected outcome of our initial service, that I could never have predicted.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Honestly, my biggest cheerleader, and the person that got me to where I am today, is my grandfather. He is the person that first saw my potential and understood how to nurture my analytical brain. He spent years teaching me to think logically and deeply, and it is because of him that I have been able to think ahead in the business world. Founding a startup isn’t easy, it takes a lot of courage to try something new. Because my grandfather taught me how to consider every option — eliminating risk and working out the best possible result — he prepared me to be able to make the right decisions as GoStudent grew.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ve always been told: “look for role models who are far better than you and learn from them.”

This lesson has deeply resonated since a young age. By adhering to this guidance, I developed the mental resilience to accept the fact that someone is always going to be doing something faster or better than me, and I learnt how to respond objectively. Once you have this mindset you are able to take that person’s success and analyze it — you learn to look at what they are doing and then you work out what you can do to try and match it. Personally, that’s what drives me.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I’d describe myself as curious, resilient and strong-willed. The combination of these traits has allowed me to think big and succeed because they are incredibly complementary: one has to be curious in order to continually strive for more — you need to question and explore every option. You also need to be strong-willed and resilient. You are likely going to be told no several times, so you need to have the ability to accept this and the willpower to keep pushing back. You need to have courage in your convictions.

Curious — Curiosity and combining knowledge from different fields is something that my grandfather definitely taught me since I was at kindergarten. When I was younger, I would ask myself how I could use technology to optimize my Pokémon on the Gameboy and, now I am older, I am continually asking questions around combining mathematical concepts to improve risk calculations.

Resilient — In every step of my career it was a rollercoaster and not always easy. We spent more than three years with zero revenue and fighting hard to figure out a sustainable way to scale our business. That required a lot of resilience.

Strong-willed — One story about being strong-willed, or perhaps the word is stubborn, is a story from when I was six years old. My best friend and I wanted to build a flying hoverboard. Although it was an impossible task, we spent one whole year trying, every second of the day, to figure out how to make something that was even a little bit close to a flying hoverboard. Eventually we realized we could not outsmart the natural law of physics, but this for sure showed strong-willed determination. This drive is something that I carry with me in all of my work.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive social impact on our society. To begin, what problems are you aiming to solve?

At GoStudent, we are aiming to solve the issue of access to top teachers. Having a teacher that a child clicks with really can be a life changing encounter — one should not underestimate the importance of the student teacher bond when it comes to shaping the future. Think about it — did the teacher that you liked best inspire you to choose a certain path, or study a specific subject at a higher level? For the lucky amongst us, the answer is yes.

Education is a gift, and every person with access to a classroom is incredibly fortunate. That said, not every child will connect with their assigned teacher and, because of this, they may not realize their full potential. We aim to pair every child with the tutor that is right for them, based on their specific learning needs and style. We know that in education, one size does not always fit all, so we work with tutors that are not only experts in their field, but also at connecting with kids. We want to supplement the incredible work done by teachers in school by providing tailored, 1:1 tuition in the areas where each child needs it most.

This is where our technology comes in. All our tutors teach online, meaning that families are not limited by geography. We can match a child in the countryside with a tutor in a big city. We can pair a student studying abroad with a tutor from their hometown. We make the match that is going to drive the best results and have the biggest impact, not the one that is most convenient.

How do you think your technology can address this?

Our technology is integral to making our goal of becoming the number 1 global school — and therefore reaching as many kids as possible — a reality. As I mentioned, all our tutors teach online, so that they can connect with students that they would otherwise likely never encounter. By providing an exceptional online classroom environment for each and every one of the tutors we work with, they are able to deliver high quality, visual, engaging and tailored lessons to their students.

Our technology also means that we can focus fully on the needs of the student. Traditionally, access to a teacher has been determined by where a person lives — what school is closest or how far a parent is willing to travel to take their child for extra tuition. By delivering a high-quality experience online — that has all the components of an in-person classroom — we can make sure that the student is assigned the tutor that is going to bring out the best in them, and that is at the top of their game, no matter where they are geographically based. A strong student tutor bond, and access to the best teachers, is essential to ensuring long-lasting academic success, and I truly believe that we have created the infrastructure to enable this.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

As mentioned, I’ve always been passionate about education — and I especially love mathematics. My grandfather was a teacher and, from a young age, he took me under his wing and nurtured my curiosity about numbers. He wouldn’t just explain things to me, he would frame his teachings in a real-life context — making them feel tangible and exciting.

It was in 2015, whilst I was completing my master’s degree, that I realized the true need for far more teachers like my grandfather. My younger brother, Moritz, began referring his classmates to me for help with their math homework. I was happy to help, and word spread. I helped them in the same way my grandfather would help me — by making the math problem feel like it mattered, because I’d framed it in a context I knew would resonate. I was quickly surprised by just how many students were reaching out to me. It seemed as though they all lacked support and had lost enthusiasm for the subject. I knew that this was an enormous issue, and I wanted to find a way to resolve this problem. I wasn’t physically close to these students, I was helping them via WhatsApp, but that didn’t matter — I realized fast that it was the way I was teaching, and not the medium I was doing it via, that mattered.

At this time, I also realized that I was extremely fortunate to have had access to such an inspiring and motivating teacher as my grandfather. Knowing how much my education meant to me, I found it really concerning that so many kids seemingly did not have access to top teachers. It dawned on me that this was a fundamental, global problem in the field of education, and I made it my mission to solve this problem. I didn’t yet have the mechanic for how to make this happen, but I had the drive and the need.

It was then that I contacted my friend and GoStudent’s co-founder and COO, Gregor Müller, and together we discussed how to build technology that could connect children all over the world with the best educators. We experimented with a few concepts and what started as a homework chat app evolved in 2018 into the 1:1 tutoring platform that we are today.

How do you think this might change the world?

Education has remained largely unchanged for a very long time, and a lot of this is to do with fear of the unknown. By normalizing online learning, and proving it to be successful, we have an incredible opportunity to create and share data and insights into the efficacy of digital classrooms, potentially leading to positive change in the long term. I genuinely believe that for children to learn, the teacher does not need to be in the classroom with them — rather, the teacher has to be at the top of their game.

If I think of what I would like to see in the schools of the future, the best teacher in the world for, let’s say physics, would teach via video broadcast to multiple classrooms across the globe. In my mind, in these classrooms, there would be a pedagogically trained supervisor who oversees the learning environment, supervises the children and offers additional assistance, but the teachings are delivered via video. This way, every child in the world can be taught by the very best teacher of that subject– totally irrespective of location. At the same time, this would also be a solution to address the teacher shortage that many countries are experiencing.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

Whilst I am a true advocate for online tutoring, and can see just how much of an impact it could have on the academic growth of students, I do not believe that we should transition to a fully online education system, where children learn at home, in total isolation. Essential skills are learnt in the classroom and the playground: from how to debate, to how to share and collaborate with others, to how to empathize.

During the pandemic, we learnt that children suffered, amongst other things, loneliness, and anxiety during lockdown, and research suggests that educational and psychological development was impacted. We know that kids need contact with others, and this must always be taken into consideration. Online tutoring isn’t a full-time solution, but it is a strong supplement to learning. Similarly, some elements of online teaching could effectively be applied to a classroom environment.

Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)

I think here, the five things you need to know are really five pieces of key advice that I’d like to share, that will help a person to identify what social impact technology they want to create and will ensure that they can see their goal through to fruition.

  • Identify what it is that you want to solve, and why — I’d always advise someone that is looking to found a company or create a new technology to think about two things: What do you want to solve? Why do you want to solve it? Choose something that you are passionate about, or that you have encountered firsthand. Work out why this area matters to you and if it also matters to wider society. If you can firmly see what it is that you want to change, improve or advance, then you can likely work out how to make it happen.
  • Understand if your solution is long-term — For me, saying “I want to make education more exciting” was too broad and not sustainable. I had to devise a solution that was scalable, had longevity and would work in all markets. I quickly realized that it is not that education is dull, it is that kids need a connection with a person or a subject in order to really enjoy it, and that not all kids make this connection in the same way. Suddenly I had something to work with, and I knew that it could be achieved through technology. From there, I was able to see what I needed to do, and I worked hard to finetune my ideas before presenting them to others. I needed to be sure that I could achieve what I was planning to do before seeking buy in.
  • Be prepared to face challenges or setbacks — Even if you believe in your idea wholeheartedly, it takes time to convince others of its importance, need or ability to succeed. Almost every founder will have encountered someone that says no to them — most will have encountered quite a few! You must have a thick skin and courage in your convictions. Mentally prepare yourself for setbacks and work out your response. Preempt criticism and be ready to counter it with valuable insight. Overcoming challenges early on will stand you in good stead for the future.
  • Hire a team that shares the same vision — One of the biggest challenges for me whilst growing GoStudent has been hiring the right team. I speak a lot about the importance of teachers being top of their game but also great at connecting with kids, and the same is true for recruiting team members. It isn’t enough that the individual has a fantastic CV — they also need to share your goal, and really believe in the mission of your company. When every employee shares your vision they are connected to one another, and so will work better together. Having a common goal is essential. I also strongly believe that in a workplace, team members should be able to foster genuine friendships. Building a strong workplace culture is so important and, as a company grows, it should always stay true to its core values.
  • Celebrate and enjoy every success: this will spur you to keep on building — In this, I really do mean every success. I celebrate a successful funding round or expansion to a new market just as fully as I celebrate feedback from a parent whose child has gone up a grade thanks to our service, or an email from a kid who has felt confident enough to apply to college, thanks to one of our tutors. It is easy to get caught up in growing your business, but it is the positive change that the company you have built is making that will keep your passion alive.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

As humans, we all want to leave our mark, and we are fortunate that we are able to choose what kind of mark we make. I’d advise every young person to think about the change they want to see in the world, and the steps that they need to take to make this a reality. Make it your goal to solve a fundamental, global problem. Dream big and leave the world a better place than how you found it. When you aim to bring about permanent and lasting change, you have a mission — and this will be a guiding light. For many of us, this sense of purpose is what we need to bring out the best in ourselves.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’d love to meet Elon Musk. I am fascinated by people who are absolutely at the top of their game, or that set new standards — which he consistently does. I’d want to hear his thoughts on what the big problems of today and tomorrow are and talk to him about how he thinks technology and innovation could be used to solve them. I’ve been particularly impressed by Starlink, and how it can be used to bring an internet connection to the most secluded places on earth. With GoStudent having been devised to bring top teachers to students, irrespective of their location, this technology really resonates with me.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can keep up with all that is happening at GoStudent via our social channels. We share key business news on LinkedIn, and Instagram. You can keep up with me on LinkedIn, too — feel free to connect.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.

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