Posted on October 3, 2019 by staff

How entrepreneur with ‘war scars’ plans to plug skills gap


CEO Nelson Sivalingam is planning to change business’ ‘negative knee-jerk reaction’ to training with AI-powered education and learning platform HowNow.

Sivalingam, who co-founded the business in 2015 with his brother, has the backing of Fuel Ventures, which includes backers such as Mark Pearson of MyVoucherCodes and tennis superstar Andy Murray. It recently closed an undisclosed seven-figure funding round following an earlier £1.2m seed investment.

“HowNow is what a learning platform would look like if it was built from the ground up today,” he told BusinessCloud.

“If you look at traditional learning within the workplace, it’s always been a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach. If you ask anyone within a workplace, they now associate learning and training with a negative knee-jerk reaction of compliance courses and mandatory training.

“What we’re trying to do is create a learning ecosystem which is more around self-directed learning and continuous development.”

HowNow uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to personalise learning for employees and integrates with web applications including Slack, Salesforce and Office 365.

“Learning resources that are useful to an employee currently live in dozens of different applications, systems and websites,” explained Sivalingam. “Even your most motivated employees don’t know where to find the thing they’re looking for.

“It could be anything from a course to a playbook to a product question – for a lot of technology companies, but it might be the fact that the product is changing so quickly: how do you make sure that client-facing teams know what’s been changed?

“We plug into these existing systems to bring all of these learning resources together to a single access point; we then use artificial intelligence to recommend relevant learning content based on your job role, experience, skills gaps, business needs and on what the organisation wants you to learn – but also based on things that you would like to develop as an individual.

“Our interest is in making learning invisible within the organisation. And to do that you need to deeply embed it into an existing workflow.”

He added: “People tend to talk about a lot of the jobs that are not going to exist moving forward [due to automation]. But actually, there are twice as many jobs being created as a result of the change in technology. So how do you also make sure you’re reskilling people to enable job mobility?

“On a macro level, the big problem that faces our entire society is this skills gap – and we wanted to be able to plug that.”

Nelson co-founded his first business at university before running a successful video tech business which he eventually licensed to one of the largest reservation platforms in Europe.

“We had a T-shirt business around cartoony graphics,” he said. “Our university had this grant system for supporting student businesses and we got around a thousand pounds. The three of us thought we were made and were going to sell thousands of these T-shirts.

“Next thing we know, we ordered too much stock from a supplier in China; we couldn’t afford to get the T-shirts in colour, and it turned out our designs didn’t look great in black and white; and the T-shirt sizes were different in China compared to what they are in the UK!

“We messed up all of our stock and blew our money. But then it’s never a success with the first one… there’s a few war scars.”

So what did he take from the experience? “The key differentiator is the rate at which you can figure things out,” he said.

“The very nature of it is you’re doing a lot of things that you’ve not done before: you’re building your business in a market you’ve not built before, you’re raising more money than you’ve raised before, you’re working with people you haven’t worked with before – there are so many unknown variables.

“You almost need to spend less time resting on your laurels and more time constantly questioning whether you’re figuring things out as quickly as possible.”

The Sivalingam brothers are children of Sri Lankan Tamil migrants who fled to the UK during the country’s Civil War. Nelson says his brother remembers hiding from bomb attacks in northern Sri Lanka before the challenge of adapting to life in the UK.

He and his brother did not dive feet-first into HowNow, but rather spent some time testing the market for the most appropriate solution.

“We were toying around with a subscription model; going purely online; and particular types of format,” he explained. “We were essentially running a range of different experiments to build a case for what modern-day learning should look like.

“What we landed on was that the key to delivering engagement is making sure we get the right content to the right person at the right time. And as long as we can get those three things in alignment, we have engagement. And that’s what matters primarily within learning.”

The London firm has more than 500,000 users at 127 companies across 14 countries, ranging from scale-ups to corporates. Its clients include GymShark, Digital Mums and easyHotel.

“We have customers in the US, India, Singapore and we’ve only just launched in South Africa. We’re now looking at new markets and how we can drive that global expansion further,” added Sivalingam.