“It’s still a rollercoaster ride with no seatbelts,” quips Jason Richards, founder of Minga, while we discuss his experience starting another business. “Maybe there’s a downside in making you less scrappy, but having previous experience around common pitfalls has helped me avoid them this time around. There are pros and cons.”
Minga, a platform in the education space that leverages social technology to positively assist youth, has found its footing. No doubt thanks to the experience that Jason brings, they have been able to roll out their platform to schools throughout the west coast. Additionally, he won Accelerate Okanagan’s OKGN Angel Summit 2020, bringing both financial support and confidence in the platform’s viability. “The capital we’re looking to raise would be 100% for sales and marketing growth,” says Jason.
When I asked what makes him uniquely skilled to run a company like Minga, Jason quickly remarks that he isn’t. Instead, he highlights what he believes are characteristics shared by all successful entrepreneurs: “an outlandish optimism and the social skills to convince a community around you of that outlandish optimism.”
I was able to catch up with Jason via Zoom from his rental home in Mexico. He’s been there with his family, sequestered by international travel bans amidst COVID-19. Lush palm trees and tropical bird songs serve as the backdrop to his shirtless, ponytailed figure in our virtual meeting. The setting presents an even more candid, charismatic and confident individual than he is on a normal day
Over the last 6 months, Minga has been excited to see its platform used as they always intended. That may sound like an obvious statement, but education is a system that does not move quickly—especially when adopting new technology. “They really think of these as 3-4 year integrations because they don’t implement them with a corporate iron fist,” says Jason, “now that we’ve been working with schools, we’re starting to see them adopt and use our technology.”
A lot of Minga’s success is due to the close relationships they build with the administrator’s using their platform. Jason reminds me that his favourite piece of advice to share is, “people like doing business with people.” He encourages entrepreneurs to be genuine and authentic in working with their team, customers, partners, whoever. “Every time you have an opportunity to do something awesome for someone around you, that will make you the most successful you can possibly be.” Given the unique and often ill-understood workings of the education system, Minga relies heavily on feedback and relationships so they can quickly adapt to the changing needs of schools. Even more so during a pandemic.
Amidst COVID-19’s forced adoption of virtual solutions, Minga saw a 400-500% increase in traffic to their website. However, Jason notes that most of these are “kick-the-tire” evaluations. “[Schools] are being forced to adopt a whole bunch of technology and platforms that they’ve never used before. That’s created a significant amount of tech-overload and tech-fatigue.” However, Jason is still confident that a lot of these interested parties are recognizing where Minga can offer a long-term solution once that fatigue wears off, “people are starting to see the value in preparation.”
This success, however, is pushing Minga faster towards growth than originally anticipated. “We’re starting to see school districts coming to us looking for a district-wide solution. We weren’t planning on doing district-wide solutions for another 2 years,” Jason mentions. “Rolling out to one school at a time is one thing, but our primary market is in California and they have districts with 200-250 schools.” In the face of this growing demand, Jason is eager to share with me his gratitude for the team Minga has put together. With most of the schools using Minga located in California, the team is already well versed in virtualized training for administrators, teachers, student leadership—everyone in a school’s ecosystem.
Jason steers our conversation towards his chief concern, “what will be more interesting is how we properly grow our support and training infrastructure.” From previous rollouts, Jason has noted that rollouts don’t end once training is completed. “We’re starting to see some writing on the wall. A district will test us at 4 or 5 different schools, then we get a flood of support requests.”
On the back of concerns for scaling Minga’s on-going support infrastructure, Jason considers what’s on the horizon for the education system as a whole. “The reality is that we don’t know what it looks like,” Jason calls out, “that’s got a lot of districts and ministries in a holding pattern right now.” The 2020/2021 school year is still a question mark, with discussions only starting to take shape now that talks of reopening are more prominent.
Despite these looming challenges, Jason is quick to talk about Minga’s lofty goals. From a quantifiable perspective, Minga 1000—1,000 schools successfully running Minga. It’s the next big milestone, having blown past their Minga 100 goal he mentioned to me in early March. However, Jason does not linger on the quantitative aspects of his dreams for Minga. Instead, he dives further into the qualitative aspects, “success at Minga, to me, is done at the individual level—when we get a message from a single teacher or a single student that says they love using Minga. Those messages are my favourite.”
“The big dream has always been to boost engagement, build stronger relationships between students, teachers, admin and their school community,” muses Jason. “There probably isn’t a better time in recent history where we’ve seen the value of connection to the community be so prevalent. I hear it from my kids, they say they miss school. They miss the connection with their friends.”
This vision was one that Jason shared during his participation in the OKGN Angel Summit. He wanted to build a stronger community of Kelowna-based investors that had a vested interest in Minga’s success and their goals for benefiting the education system. “The community of investors that I could develop relationships with were, and continue to be, amazing,” Jason recollects and determines that he met his goal, “coming out of the event, the people I’ve heard from, the words of encouragement, mission accomplished. There have been lots of shoulders to lean on, people to ask for advice, it’s been awesome.”
True to the picturesque manner in which he’s presenting himself in our video call, Jason appears unphased as we jump between discussing Minga’s challenges and successes. While we talked about the obstacles currently facing his company, I asked whether he ever had moments where he just wanted to walk away. To which he answered, in a moment of personalized nonchalant wisdom, “anyone who says no is a liar. There’s going to be fleeting moments, a day or even a few days. If it lasts weeks, then you’ve got a problem. But yeah, I’ve had days for sure.”
Entrepreneurs, like Jason, are all experiencing failures, victories, and daunting obstacles. This is the nature of startups, this is the nature of building something out of nothing. Regardless of an entrepreneur’s experience or stage of their company, having support and mentorship to help navigate the entrepreneurial journey is key.
Connect with Brittany to learn more about mentorship for startups.