In 2010 when Ricardo Allen, founder and managing director of One-on-One Educational Services Limited, "an online technology company focused on education that is really interested in bringing knowledge to as many people as possible", started tutoring mathematics with two students, little did he know that it would have morphed into an entity that is now the backbone of regional online learning.
"I am a person who is driven by passion...I've always been great at maths," said the former Jamaica College old boy who went to The University of the West Indies (The UWI) to read for a degree in actuarial sciences. Allen said after sitting in small tutorials at The UWI, the idea came to him that if learning could be individualised, then outcomes would be improved, especially for mathematics which had pass rates below 50 per cent at the time.
"So I started a tutoring business helping students at the university to excel at maths. I went to the high school market and I used the same concept. I started with two students, K'sha and Andre, who did really, really well [in their Caribbean Secondary Examination Certificate] â€” getting grade one. After starting with those two, we got up to 20 students, then 200 students, and then before you know it, there were up to 1,000 students coming for mathematics and science lessons," Allen outlined.
At that time, the lessons were taught in a classroom at Allen's alma mater but with the rapid growth, it had to be relocated to Liberty Academy a few miles down the road closer to Half-Way-Tree in St Andrew.
But the growth in that business was to be in direct conflict with his personal ambition to become a top mathematician. Leaving university with an actuarial degree in hand, Allen landed a job at the Sagicor Group, a financial services company with businesses in insurance, investments and banking. The company, seeing his talent, invested in young Allen, sponsoring further studies in acturial sciences for the young man who hails from Rio Bueno, a small village just off the Trelawny-St Ann border. During the interview, Allen reflected briefly at the times he would go to school barefoot, barely two decades ago in modern Jamaica.
"I grew up in less than favourable circumstances. In growing up in the environment that I did, I went to school with no shoes, but that didn't stop me from going."
Getting back on track with the timeline of starting his business, Allen said when the time came for him to further his own studies, he was torn, but was clear, after much thought, what he wanted to do.
"I wrote the most painful letter to my employees to tell them that I was resigning from my job. I was about to start my company. At the time, I had just received a Fulbright scholarship and three years prior, I was a Rhodes scholar nominee. My dream as a country boy coming to town was to attain the highest level of education there is. It was to go overseas, study for a PhD and to excel, that sort of thing," he told the Jamaica Observer.
His decision was to not only give up his job, but to turn down the scholarship and work on developing One-on-One. Investors were invited to help with the costs to take the start-up to the next level and "the best teachers" who were retiring were tapped to help.
"From the beginning, when I was just teaching two students [to help myself make some money], I had the mentality that I was not just doing this as a pasttime, so I reinvested some of the money into the business."
Having turned down the Fulbright scholarship, it was time to push ahead and a meeting was set with three co-founders, Rory White, Christopher Rochester and Steven Barnes, to sell the idea to them in the hope of securing funds to realise his dream.
"By this time we were at 1,000 students and had to consider how we were going to continue and it clicked," he said snapping his finger. The solution was to create videos for an online learning platform which could facilitate greater reach with a individualised approach. That I had gotten from studying myself using videos."
Allen said he then started to think about having businesses and governments use the platform to train their staff.
"But we didn't have the capital. We needed money. I recalled one of the investors coming up to me and saying, 'we need a million dollars to get your idea off the ground', and I looked at him and said 'no, we need $20 million' and that investor asked how would I get $20 million and my reply was 'nobody walks pass a good idea'."
I told them that we should focus on making the idea robust and attractive. "We did and we raised the $20 million in two years." That was 2013, before One-on-One was officially launched. Allen said the money was received in two tranches. The first sum received was $5 million in 2013 with that money used to demonstrate that the business idea could work. Having success, he said an additional $12 million was received in 2014 and those funds were used to build a technology platform for One-on-One ahead of its official launch in 2015.
"After we launched in 2015, immediately Sagicor came in and invested $40 million. The company that I left to start this business came back and said this was too good an opportunity for us to pass by."
He said that money from Sagicor was invested in a learning management system to distribute learning on a global scale. That investment would prove useful in later years, first, to help students in countries impacted by natural disasters and then more so when the novel coronavirus pandemic emerged and people were forced to isolate.
Investments were also made in content because "our business is all about content and technology." Allen, however, said there were issues.
"The problem we had was that the revenues were not growing as fast, and the company was running out of money."
Luck was however on his side. In the following year, Cable & Wireless International, approached One-on-One to become its global education partner under a five-year deal. "We took the deal and it has really helped us to increase our profile. It helped us to go regional. When we got that deal, they said listen ,'you don't have to go out there and sell, we will pay you, just give us the technology and the content and we will market it to people to use it."
Allen said he was amazed at being able to focus on creating content while another entity sold it. That led the company from being a classroom entity though students were still coming to classes.
"In 2016 we ran out of money because we had invested so much in technology and the revenues were coming in slowly. We had to go to the Development Bank of Jamaica [DBJ] and using that five-year deal we got from Cable & Wireless, we took a loan using the receivables as collateral for the loan."
He said though he got a $50-million loan, the DBJ was not fully sold on the idea of using receivables as collateral and the investors had to give personal guarantees before the funds were disbursed. Out of those funds, Allen said the company embarked on building out its model and in the process, signed governments and corporations to use its platform. These entities include Caribbean Examination Council and Lasco Financial.
"The Government of Bahamas has 50,000 students who use our platform every single day to ensure they can stay connected to the classroom wherever they are in that country."
With that regional platform, Allen said One-on-One has grown to the point where 80 per cent of revenues is earned outside Jamaica.
"One of the things we did in 2018, when hurricanes Irma and Maria hit, we partnered with Cable & Wireless again, to go to all the islands that were affected by the hurricanes and One-on-One was the entity to help keep all their students connected to schools when none of the schools were open." He said that include Turks and Caicos, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, and St Kitts-Nevis.
Allen said that transition from being a pure educational entity to a technology company started in 2015 when the first deal was signed with Cable and Wireless. "Then it became real to us that perhaps the bigger placement and positioning of the company was to build out education software to enable online learning to happen. And so we positioned ourselves at the top of the food chain so that now, even education companies in the space are using One-on-One technology to run their businesses."
"We felt like investing in the backbone of education and the technology behind it was the best way, and we have been vindicated. When students were at home during COVID, we were the backbone of online learning in the Caribbean."
But now being at the top off the "food chain", Allen told the Business Observer that the company is returning to its roots.
"This has not been announced anywhere. But I am telling you now, we will re-enter the space to providing lessons online for students and staff at companies which need the help."
He said apart from re-entering the space to provide tuition for students, it has entered an agreement to provide resources for summer school for the government, One-on-One will also be providing technology for anyone or business to launch online course businesses and also to expand in the Caribbean to focus on digitalisation of the education system.
"We have just completed the digitalisation of the entire Bahamian education system. Every record has now been digitised. All the students now have the flexibility of learning in a classroom physically or virtually. All the Government has to do is to go into the system and they will see what is happening on the ground."
"This model that we have done for Bahamas, we have partnered now with UNESCO along with a company called Community Systems Foundation that is based in New York, has partnered with One-on-One to become the regional implementation partner of the Open education management system. This is something that is in 40 countries in the world and we have been asked to ensure that every Caribbean country is linked with a digitalised education system. That is how our future is going to look.
"Regional expansion is on our finger tips but Latin America is also where we are looking to go."
Allen said One-on-One has averaged impressive growth over the last few years.
"Over the last three years we have averaged 120 per cent growth in revenues year-on-year. We expect to continue to grow at a very fast rate and the next step for us is to enter the Latin American space."
Allen said he has a deal on the table to enter those markets with Costa Rica and Panama, the first countries that will be targetted. He said it means investment in Spanish-based content and the team is now being trained for that.
But is there any regrets on Allen's side to turn down pursuing further studies in favour of starting and running a busienss.
"Dashan, you asked me that question in 2014, and I told you then that I was scared. I have cried a number of times and was doubtful. At that time, I wasn't sure. But I can tell you now, looking back, I am very happy that I have made that decision. I am happy because we have served over 300,000 students since our inception. I am happy because we have employed 2,000 teachers since our inception. I am happy because we have employed over 200 persons as team members since inception. I am also happy Dashan, that recently I was able to travel back to Rio Bueno where I used to walk barefoot to school and I gave every single child $10,000 to help them to go high school. I am happy that I am now in a position to help even more persons. I am no longer scared. I am happy and excited to move into the future to create that promise that we saw a few years ago, and that makes me happy," he concluded.