In this episode of the #GoFarFast Show, hear from Zubair Junjunia from Znotes, on how education's altered forever and the ways students are leading the change. See how Znotes has taken the global student population by storm, and the ways Zubair and his team are supporting students in a Covid-19 world, and, most importantly, helping to plug the education gap!
Merlie: Hello and welcome to the #GoFarFast Show! The show that gets you, our small business community, to the answers that you most want to know, fast.
So massive thanks as always to the National Enterprise Network for sponsoring the show. I'm back with my co-host, my trusty business friend, Aaron Patrick, Head of Accounting at Boffix and QuickBooks Labs. This guy will tell you everything you need to know about bookkeeping and how to use QuickBooks.
Aaron: That's right, and she's the fabulous Merlie, the founder of Farillio, which is the essential small business legal aid who is fighting the big fight – #LeaveNoSmallBusinessBehind – and I'm sure you'll all agree it's something worth fighting for.
Merlie: Absolutely. We do not forget that hashtag, ever. So we have a cracking show for you today, folks. If you are a student right now, or if you're learning how to run a business, or if you're really thinking about education and what comes next. Today's guest is definitely one for you to pay attention to, and I'm so excited aren't you Aaron, to hear his answers to the questions we've got lined up?
Aaron: I can't wait, Merlie! So today we have the pleasure of welcoming the one and only Zubair, who started his business, ZNotes, at the age of sixteen. I can't believe it! ZNotes has had over 20 million hits and has reached 2.5 million learners and educators across the world. ZNotes is on a mission to make it possible for anyone, anywhere, to make their life better, and I certainly can't wait to ask some questions about this one.
Merlie: Absolutely. And don't forget to like, comment and subscribe as we go through today's show. The format is exactly the same as usual, so questions from us first for Zubair and then questions from you. Aaron and I will do our best to put your questions to Zubair as you give them to us. So Aaron, shall we invite Zubair onto the show and get cracking?
Aaron: Zubai, tell us about ZNotes, your underground movement. It's taken the global student population by storm. What's the reason you've suddenly got so many hits and everything else that goes along with that?
Zubair: Of course. Thank you so much for having me here. I really hope to do justice to some of the questions that are coming up.
ZNotes is a community-led learning platform and I think that word 'community' is what really makes the difference. It all started off as a 16-year-old's blog for sharing exam resources. What really changed the tale, and is the reason I'm standing in front of you here today, is that it turned from something that was simply putting up resources into a community developing, creating and learning together.
We started off with revision notes for certain examinations and we've expanded into a whole bunch of other stuff which includes podcasts, live classes, and space for peer-to-peer learning to happen. We're really on a mission to end educational inequality for young people everywhere. That's us!
Merlie: I think it is such a powerful mission, Zubair. It's a mission that Aaron and I both feel very strongly about as well. You're another barrier smasher and we love anybody on this show who can smash barriers to knowledge, to empowerment, to the things that really matter to us individually, as well as within the business teams that we work in every day. So it's a cracking mission and I think everyone here wishes you every success as you scale up this underground movement that has become this huge success.
Zubair, the next question I want to ask is to do with what's been happening recently to students from GCSE level all the way to university. We've seen massive upheaval in the way that education has been running. Do you think we're changed forever by this? I think I know the answer to this question already, but do you think we're changed forever by this? What do you feel is the legacy that's been left behind by this upheaval?
Zubair: Absolutely. There's no doubt about it that we're going to look back and say, "Oh the time before 2020 and the time after 2020" – for many things. I'm sure that you've had some experts talking about economics and businesses but, in terms of education, we're seeing a lot of those ideas and concepts that were meant to be in place. I'm talking about things like accessibility, like remote access, like questioning why we have to travel thousands of kilometres from our homes to go to a certain university? Or to attend a certain conference?
All these questions are now being raised. Suddenly, all these university conferences are now happening remotely. Everyone is being able to attend, classes are being run live. Things are completely different now and, without going more into the current climate, I think what's going to be left behind is the fact that we were unable to really leverage technology when it was present. It has always been present. It's not like Zoom is a new invention, it's always been there. It's not like we weren't able to attend a live class two years ago. Suddenly this pandemic has accelerated those things. It's caused us to rethink how we deliver our content. So we're going to be thinking about that and we're going to be asking why did we not start doing this years ago?
Aaron: I love that, and I love that whole concept about having to rethink because it's not that we're reinventing the wheel is it? In terms of what we're trying to teach people, it's just about how we pass that information over, and I think that's really insightful.
I know I hark back to it again, but to set this out as a 16-year-old is just amazing. It's that headspace of studying and actually doing what you're now helping students to do, and at the same time looking at entrepreneurialism and trying to set up your business. When you were thinking about ZNotes, how did you think it was going to help support students recently? For example, can you tell us a little bit more about how you're plugging the education gap, and opening up access to education where traditionally it has not been possible and making education more interesting and more immersive as well?
Zubair: When lockdown happened, the cogs in the brains of our team members started to turn. Suddenly people were ready to take up new ideas and we wanted to share some cool new stuff. We've always offered super cool revision resources for GCSEs, A levels and beyond. We realised we're all at home, we have a lot of time and we're all sitting down in the Zoom lessons. What can we do? What can we disrupt within this framework and this rigid structure that is our educational system? So we launched a couple of things. We've always been doing our podcast, The Tomato Timer, and we collaborated with STEM UK to run a really cool series with the STEM ambassadors who would have been out in schools teaching and mentoring their students. Instead, these ambassadors were joining us on a podcast and telling us about their STEM careers.
We launched ZNotes Live, an idea where we bring the community and the podcast format together as a live lesson. It runs through YouTube Live and we bring a host and an expert together for a really nice, concise episode. It's a very well structured design of teaching and goes through the whole syllabus in eight to ten weeks to brush up on the gaps. People who don't have access to expert teachers might be able to listen to this, watch this, and be able to get on the same footing.
There's some other cool stuff in the background. We've been working very hard on new features and things to integrate within our online platform, which we launched a couple of months ago. It's been really cool for us. I know I shouldn't be smiling this much and the pandemic has been horrible. It's been really difficult for all of us, for members of our family and our loved ones, but it has also shaken up the status quo. It's shaking what we've always believed in, and I hope that this can be a positive change. We need to look at all of the things that are happening and see it in the light of positivity.
Merlie: I love what you're saying here and I agree with you. I think we are being forever changed, and there is an enormous amount of positivity in all of this. I also agree with what you say about supporting people who, because of the pandemic, may not have been able to get into school or to have face-to-face sessions with their tutors.
I think, within education, many of us lack confidence. Many of us suffer from Imposter Syndrome, even when we're students. We think that other people are better than us, or that other people seem to have it sussed. I think it's incredible what you're doing in terms of providing this massive support network, helping people to build up their confidence again and making sure they're not falling behind. I think that is something that a lot of traditional organisations and institutions could really learn from. You touched on it a moment ago, Zubair, but how else are you planning to scale up? I know that scale-up, now that you've graduated, is a big thing for you, isn't it? You're really focused on building the platform.
Zubair: Absolutely. With scale comes the fact that all of your processes need to be less humanly engaging. For example, when I was 17 or 18 and ZNotes started getting enthusiastic emails saying "Hey, I can help out with this", I would sit there and reply to every email. I'd work with every single contributor along the way. I still remember replying to every single comment on the blog. That became impossible after we started getting hundreds of comments every day.
It's been amazing. We started off with a team of four or five guys. It's now grown to about fourteen interns, five or six volunteers, and mentors who talk to me every few days. We have contractors, developers and everything's happening. I think even though we feel at capacity, we also feel like we could be doing this, this and this, but we don't have the ability, the resources or the time. So for me, the next couple of months are really about doing exactly what you're talking about, Merlie. It's about ironing out those processes and making them super scalable so that it's not about me anymore. What I want it to be is: this is the concept, this is a toolkit that you can use, here are some ways you can contribute to the value that ZNotes provides, but localise it. Let's contextualise it to the places and exams that you're doing and just tap into the resources and the technical expertise we provide. So we're calling it the 'robustification process'. That's what's happening in the next couple of weeks and months for us.
Aaron: That's amazing and, what I love about that is that ZNotes is your baby. It's your business that you've built from day one, but you've already learned and taken on board the advice you've probably been given to make it less about you. As you've already said, that's the only way it's going to be scalable, and, amazingly, you've already found that. You've already given us an insight into how you're going to turn that around, and into your mindset in terms of being able to scale it and get it to the places that it needs to be, that's really important.
My next question to you, although I'm sure it's a question you get asked a lot is: what's your advice to students wanting to study but who are feeling frustrated or intimidated by the current educational structures or challenging limitations which Covid-19 has created? At the moment it's a little bit of doom and gloom, unfortunately. We want to put positivity out there, there are still positives as you've shown us. Can you give us some insight and your advice to students at the moment?
Zubair: I can share some real-life experience because, when Covid hit, I was in my last term at uni. I was lucky enough to have completed the last four years in person and I'd had lectures and all that, but suddenly I was getting Microsoft Teams lectures from some of my professors who had never used anything but a whiteboard and a chalkboard before. The challenges were apparent and they didn't think about that. I studied for a maths degree. We don't use any kind of tool to actually submit work. We actually write on paper, go into class and submit our paper. It's as if we're back in the 1950s or 1960s, nothing has changed. It was definitely a big jump for me to just accept that things were not going to be how they had been for the past few years. Obviously, a lot of my team members are also heading into uni, my sister is going into her second year at uni as well. It's tough. I cannot phrase it in a better way. It's tough.
It's going to be different, but what you have right now is an opportunity to leverage the situation that you're in. You might not be at university, you might be sitting remotely and listening in. You might not even be in the country where you're supposed to be studying because of travel restrictions. It's about making the best of the situation you are put in. It's not the best, you're not going to get Freshers Week, you're not going out with your friends. Suddenly you're putting masks where your phone and wallet would have been. All I can say is that some things might be different. You might be spending more time at home. You might be seeing there are specific opportunities for internships or remote opportunities that may not have been available previously. Suddenly all these companies which you might be dreaming about working for are now offering remote opportunities. Why not tap into that? It's not a very direct or clear answer because I'm not 100% sure about it, but what I can say, is that we're all in the situation together. We need to make the best of what we're given.
Merlie: I think that's very sound advice and I want to just echo the point that you made about looking for the other opportunities. I think it's true that in every period of adversity opportunities emerge. I've been speaking to people in the student community. Typically for me, it's talking to folks who are thinking about starting a business or actually are starting a business and, in some cases, people who are scaling up. A lot of people are looking for those extra opportunities. The remote internships are there if you try reaching out and saying to people "You know, I can do a piece of research", or "I can do a competitor analysis for you to find what's going on in the market".
A lot of businesses right now are looking for those kinds of solutions. I think you're right to say lever the extra time that you may have if you're not travelling, if you're not commuting, if you've got a little bit more flexibility over the way that you study. Enrich that study with life skills, with the life relevant experience that means you can bolster up that CV when it comes to applying for jobs after your studies finish.
It's time to turn to your questions. I had a cracking question for Zubair, which I will park for now and we can come back to it at the end. It's about whether government, schools and universities are doing enough to educate and to flex around this kind of new normal.
I've got the first question from our community and I'm going to dive right in. Zubair, are you ready? He is! He knows what's coming: ZNotes is such a great idea – I didn't know about it – and more students need to know about it! What kind of success rates do students get if they use ZNotes?
Zubair: It's a really good question and actually it's the motivation for what we're doing next. When this started, I wasn't really thinking that it was going to reach so many people in so many ways. There was nothing like a success metric that was associated with what we were working on. What we do have is testimonials. Students from all over the world are sending in their messages and talking about how they've been able to transform from a certain grade to a certain grade. They've told us how they've been able to get to their universities of choice. Some of our team members have been awarded scholarships and are studying at places like the University of Leeds, Carnegie Mellon and the best universities in the world.
We don't have metrics or specifics that say you've improved by 80% or 90%. What we can say is join us and whatever you're interested in, be it academic or social or another interest, suddenly you've found a friend across the world who has the same specific interests as you. What we are working on as a side project is to create an impact report. We're relating our metrics and times of using the platform to some really interesting things that we can hopefully share. So that's our slightly shady answer for that!
Aaron: That's brilliant and I'm loving the fact that it's not purely about education. As you said, you've got that social aspect and everything else. I think during this time, when people have been furloughed or have more time on their hands, this could be a really good resource for gaining more life skills to get themselves through this. If anyone out there is struggling through these times you've got an opportunity to learn something new and to push yourself forward. It's one of the best ways of coping with the sort of issues that we experiencing at the moment.
One of our other community members has come through with a really good question. They're saying they have to take a year out from going to uni because, although they got their grades, they didn't get the offer accepted in time: It looks like I won't get much chance to get a job although I'm working a few hours at a bar at night. Does ZNotes offer any courses or other forms of online learning that could help me avoid wasting a year of my life? It's a great question there.
Zubair: Even without Covid, I know many friends who've had challenges with visas and things like that and have been in a similar position. I think the #GoFarFast Show would be an awesome place for them to start and we also do a similar thing on our podcast, The Tomato Timer. We bring in interesting guests and have 25 minutes of really interesting conversation and questions from the community. We try to learn from their interesting and often unconventional experiences in life. We have everyone from big people in industry, to entrepreneurs, to people who are still students and running a side hustle. We address that mentality of "What can we do while we're not at uni?". So I would recommend checking that out.
We're also thinking about things to develop within ZNotes which are going to be less linked to the syllabus and more linked to life skills. Things like entrepreneurship, sustainability and equality. I don't want to go into this because it's would take up the whole episode, but there are so many challenges that are suddenly being highlighted and that we're suddenly thinking about. Let's not forget these have always been present, but now we have that headspace to think about some of these challenges. It's meant that there is a lot more happening out there.
There are obviously things happening at ZNotes. Opportunities are being listed in the community, but make sure that you also keep your eyes out and, if something sounds interesting, reach out. Speak to people, find yourself a mentor, speak to big companies, speak to a business based down the road. Ask if you can help them. Again, repeating my first point, that opportunities are present, it's all about going out with the right mindset, discovering them and actually pushing yourself to do them.
Merlie: I think you're right. One of the two things that I've seen a number of people do recently, broadly with success and with a positive, mindset impact, has been volunteering. You can still volunteer remotely. It's slightly different from the volunteering that we think of in the traditional sense, but there are plenty of volunteering opportunities. The other thing I've seen a couple of people do recently, which has been amazing and I am loving following these, is to blog. Many of us have these ideas in our heads that we never get a chance to share because there's never time. It's those small and the quirky things that occur to you every day, but you don't quite get the chance to jot down. People are blogging, and blogging hones a multitude of different skills – before you know it you're managing social media, you've got a community! You're conversing about things that could potentially be a business idea. If nothing else you're keeping your brain sharp, your skills there, you've got something to put on your CV when you do go back to uni. Who knows, some of these ideas might actually turn into something that makes you rethink the way that you want to study.
I think there is definitely is a sense of opportunity. You don't have to waste a year and I think if anyone's sitting around feeling like they're going to waste a year, get up and see what else can be done. If you're short on ideas, reach out. Go to ZNotes and see what other people are talking about doing and how they're learning, because there is still a lot that you can do, it needn't be a waste of time.
Next question for you Zubair. I like this question because I relate to it completely: I'm so used to learning in-person and I'm nervous about not having this as much at college because of Coronavirus. Do you have any advice for adapting to online learning and doing it well? I end up feeling quite isolated and I know I work best when I can chat with my friends about what we're doing and share ideas. Sometimes I just don't feel very inspired to watch things on my laptop, being remote doesn't create friends or keep people feeling connected.
Zubair: I resonate completely with this as well. The best way I learn is by sitting with a group of friends just talking loudly and hashing out maths problems after maths problems. I talk about it as if it's back in the day – but it's literally a couple of months ago! Online learning is challenging. The biggest challenge with online learning, I think, is the social disconnect. As much I'm enjoying this show very much, I would love to be in front of you. I would have been able to hug you, to say hi to you, and to have a coffee after the show. That's would have been perfect but, unfortunately, that's not possible.
We're humans, we're social animals. We want to be around people, we want to be loved, we want to be cared for. We want to have conversations and sometimes online learning is so artificial. It's almost like you've looked at a classroom and you've taken away everything that's surrounding it. All the teasing that happens in the corner, that funny kid who always makes a quip at the end of everything the teacher says. All of that is gone. I think the first step is to accept it, to realise that this is different. That this is not school anymore, that this is not a university anymore.
That first step will stop you from pushing yourself down when you think about the fact that you haven't spent 9–5 studying. At the end of the day, what you're getting in a one-hour Zoom lecture is very different from what you get in a one-hour lecture in your class or your university. It's very, very different to what you get if you're in a school and you're sitting in a classroom full of 20 kids. Acceptance is a big part of it. I know that when I started getting some asynchronous lectures, I couldn't focus for 45 or 50 minutes straight. I'd have to pause and I'd have to take my head away and think about other things.
I'm a very social person and the way I've been surviving is through my running. I need to get out every so often. I need to get outdoors and feel the wind on myself, feel the sunlight, and that's the way I've been coping. I would say a find something aside from learning and interleave it. Build it into your day. Don't sit in front of your laptop or your computer for ten hours straight or six hours straight. Get something, eat something, and get out of your house.
Remember that this is not what a university is like. Remember that this is a very different form of learning and online learning does not equate to in-person teaching. Finally, find people, friends, a community. A lot of people are feeling the same way. Just reach out to them – you might have seen someone in your Zoom lecture – message them if they sound like they're asking the right questions or if they resonate with you. Even when things were still normal I would still have Zoom or Skype calls. Five or six of us would be on a call together. We'd be in our own dorm rooms, we'd be working on our own stuff, but we'd still be around each other. Having someone making a bit of banter while you're doing your maths problem is fun.
Aaron: It certainly is and I can relate to that massively. I have the other hat on – I'm a trainer and a tutor for QuickBooks. Pre-lockdown, it was all about getting out there training and practising my craft in front of people. I was talking to people and helping them with their issues and problems. As trainers and as tutors, that's what we thrive on. We thrive on that human interaction and being able to get in front of people. So it's not just thinking about this from the student's point of view but also from the tutor's. They're missing out on their favourite part of their job as well.
I think it's massive what you said about accepting – that was the first thing we had to do as an organisation. We realised that we're not going to be able to train in the way that we'd like to train. We're going to have to find an engaging alternative and we're going to have to emulate as much as we can in an online world. It has been tough and it has been tricky, and we decided to build an online platform and change everything from being in-person to online.
One thing we knew from day one is that, even if the government told us tomorrow that we're allowed to go and train again, we're not going to get the same people coming back because people are anxious and people are nervous. That's what we've got from the next question – they're saying they're really anxious about being back in contact with people. She says: my mum's shielding and I need to keep her safe and help out, but I also need to study and I want to do well. Can ZNotes teach her how, instead of going back to the sixth form, she can still have an opportunity to still learn those vital lessons?
Zubair: Could you add a little bit more to the question, just make it a bit more specific?
Aaron: From her point of view, she doesn't want to go back into that real-world scenario. She doesn't want to have to go out there and make contact with people because she knows that could put her mum at risk. Is there any way that ZNotes can help someone who has the opportunity to engage in face-to-face learning, but their preference is for online learning? Is there anything that can help them out?
Zubair: So I'll point back to the community. We have an awesome discord server – imagine Slack for young people! It's in dark mode and it's all super cool. We have some really interesting stuff happening like voice channels and radios which run within the server. It's not just academic channels, which are super popular, we also have interest-based channels, a chat lounge and things like that. So there are places out there where you can communicate and engage with lots of different people around the world.
I want to pick up on the point that she prefers online learning and maybe this goes to the question that Merlie didn't yet ask about government and what they're doing about this. We have realised challenges and we know people have mental health issues. We know anxiety exists and, even more than that, we know accessibility challenges exist. We know some people can't go into certain buildings or into certain places of work and, in all at the time we've known this, we've never made any changes. Suddenly we've been forced to do this, and now we're okay with every lecture will be recorded. We're okay with everything being available online as symmetrically as possible with what's happening in real life.
I think this goes back to the first question we were talking about, about how this is the new normal. It's going to mean that some of those challenges that we should have been addressing are finally being addressed. It means that we can't go back to 'normal' because we weren't doing stuff right during that time either. We need to have online material available and to have that foresight to make recordings available, and to accommodate students who might not be able to make it on time. This is going to be crucial, whether it's an educational or economic activity, and this needs to be part of the design rather than "Oh we'll think about that and we'll add it on top." That has been something which I'm really interested in. After all of my harping about leveraging technology and making education better, it's finally happening because we've been forced to do it, so I want to see how the world takes it.
Merlie: I'm with you, I want to see that too. I think it's fascinating, isn't it? We are being changed and we can't go backwards if that makes sense? What's happening now is making us reassess not just the challenges right now, but also how we should have looked at accessibility before. How we should have been much more committed to recognising that certain people are excluded – and there is no longer any excuse for them to be excluded. I think it's a really powerful realisation that, as you say, is changing a lot of what we're experiencing now. And it's likely to change a lot more of what we experience in future.
We are out of time folks, which is deeply frustrating because there are at least three other questions that Aaron and I were really keen to ask you, Zubair. Thank you so much for such comprehensive answers and such honesty. I think it's very inspiring looking at what ZNotes is planning to do next. What it already does is pretty impressive, don't you think Aaron?
Aaron: Definitely, and I think it's been proven that we'll have to get Zubair on here again because there are so many more questions we want to ask. There's so much more we want to pick out about this one. Again I just need to say thank you very much for your time, it's been really insightful. I think more than anything you're giving a bit of inspiration to people out there and that's what it's all about.
Zubair: Absolutely, it's been a pleasure and those are awesome questions. I hope I've gone far and fast enough!
Merlie: I think you definitely have! You're taking hundreds of thousands of students far and fast with you, many of whom we hope will go on to have a stellar studying experience. Guys, we hope you go realise your dreams and create businesses, create teams, lead people, and do the stuff that inspires you! Be unlimited by what's happening right now.
It just remains for me to say again a massive thank you to the National Enterprise Network for making today's show possible. To say to Aaron, high five buddy, thank you so much for coming up with the show and the questions with us. Zubair, you were fantastic, do come back – we will hound you until you do! In the meantime, guys, have a cracking week and #GoFarFast.
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