Safari Kid: A new approach to schooling

53°N talked to Philippe Sachs Deputy-CEO of Safari Kid

Philippe was living in Singapore working at Standard Chartered Bank when he realised there was no school to provide the educational experience he wanted for his young children. As an American living in the east with a Chinese wife, he felt strongly that the right kind of school could perfectly marry the academic rigour of the east with the play based, child-centric approach of the West.

In today’s hyper-competitive world, children start interviewing for schools as young as four years old. Getting into the right school at an early age sets children on the long journey to get into the right university and eventually land a good job. So what does this have to do with three year olds? It is increasingly recognised that a child’s formative years are critical to development. The kind of development that gives you not only the analytical skills to become an engineer, but the ability to lead and innovate.

Phillippe then learnt about Safari Kid from his boss, Aniruddh (Rudy) Gupta. Safari Kid was a nursery school started in Silicon Valley for the Asian engineering community and it prescribed perfectly to the values Philippe was searching for.

Shortly afterwards Rudy left banking, secured the rights to Safari Kid outside the USA and opened their first school in Hong Kong. Rudy took on the full time position of Founder and CEO, whilst Philippe was one of the school’s first investors, with a seat on the Board.

Over the following four years, they scaled the business, building schools in Dubai, Malaysia and India, with Philippe eventually joining full-time as Deputy CEO heading up their UK office in London. They will end 2018 with circa 25 schools in five countries

Disrupting Education

Safari Kid is not only innovative in its curriculum, they’ve rethought almost every aspect of the nursery school experience.

Classrooms are designed using the latest neuroscientific research on stimulating colour palettes, ensuring that rooms are light with big open movable spaces. They have also placed a lot of emphasis on the parent experience. As Philippe said when talking about the cost of sending three children to school in London over three years, “in any other industry you spend £180 k and you are VIP. Here, there is very little communication, limited accountability and one twenty-minute session a term with the teachers.”

Safari Kid has a ‘parent concierges’ in every school, providing parents with a dedicated single point of contact. They also use apps to help parents stay in touch with their children’s daily activities; a platform to share schedules and the latest finger-painting masterpieces. Safari Kid aims to deliver the kind of service that not only reflects how much money parents are spending, but most importantly the level of trust they place in the school.

Philippe sees Safari Kid becoming the Ritz Carlton of Nursery schools, with the same level of assured quality in any of their international schools.

Building a Business

Scaling fast and maintaining that kind of quality is not done without some very well thought through business strategy. Rudy and Philippe were adamant about creating shared value and ownership with each subsidiary set up in a new country. Every ‘founder CEO’ is awarded equity as an incentive to care for the level of service delivery and excellence Safari Kid strives for. They have also implemented country teams responsibly for quality assurance checks, decentralising the responsibility from one headquarter. With ambitions to scale to as many as 300 schools internationally, setting up this structure effectively now is critical.

They have also taken a unique route to funding the intensive capex required for scaling. The first few schools were seeded with family & friends fundraising, but from there they leveraged the FOCO model (Franchisee-Owned, Company Operated) making each new school into a type of equity product, which promises a 25% IRR.

Every school is a new opportunity for new investors, where Safari Kid retains the option to buy-back shares, enabling them to stay capital flush and still in control.

For Philippe, employing this finance strategy has been one of their biggest innovations in the space of schooling. It has enabled Safari Kid to grow on its own terms and without the pressure that comes from traditional private equity investment. Going into their last fund raising round Safari Kid is still majority management owned, as Philippe says “this is fairly unheard of in a capital intensive industry.”

Where to next

Central to Philippe’s mission is that education needs disruption. He pointed out that the dominant pedagogy in early years education is Montessori, created over a hundred years ago in 1909. He sees great opportunity in turning Safari Kid into a type of ‘white label’ product. By licensing out their innovative processes and pedagogy, they unlock exponential growth and the ability to make a real impact on the future of education.

He is particularly mindful of this future, considering the current knowledge-based era where all of the world’s information is a quick google search away. As he says “everything that can be digitised will be automated away and humans will be left in the most human centric of roles. Reducing that all the way back means that education needs to be completely transformed. We need to move away from knowledge based learning to contextual, problem solving curricula.”

With three children under the age of six, we won’t be surprised if Philippe soon turns his attention to higher education.

On entrepreneurship

Integrating family into business has been one of the great benefits for Philippe in becoming an entrepreneur. He doesn’t believe any longer in work-life balance, but rather in work-life integration. His kids are part of the business, scouting sites and sometimes even making important design decisions.

When asked about the greatest adjustment in becoming an entrepreneur, he said, “reorienting my own personal relationship to mistakes.” He made the point that in institutions, there’s a real fear of failure and a tendency to lose a sense of proportionality, over-delivering in the wrong places. With the exception of clear red lines around child safety and quality of care, Philippe has become a strong proponent of the ‘80% is good enough’ rule.

And finally, our two wacky questions..

If Safari Kid was an animal what would it be? “Elephant – wise and deceptively fast, slows down and collects itself, is reflective.”

And if you could hire anyone in the world to work at Safari Kid who would it be? “Elon Musk, to understand how he’s built so many companies at once – where to retain control and deputize. Use first principle thinking.”

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