Few people in the UK edtech community will ever have heard of Robert Hunt, who died unexpectedly last November.
I was lucky enough to meet Rob and his wife Audrey several years ago in Sydney when they had taken over StudyLadder from its founders (two teachers).
Rob, was born in New Zealand and started his successful business career in electronics before he and Audrey founded the holiday booking site Stay with Chris Stayz in 2002. Part of Robert genius was identifying talented young people and with Stayz it was Chris Sharkey, the son of a friend. Chris a self-taught programmer who had just finished high school built and ran the technical side of Stayz until it was sold to Farifax in 2006 for $12.7m (Fairfax subsequently sold Stayz for $220m in 2013).
Rob’s approach to business was pretty laid back and when I first wanted to find out more about StudyLadder it took me months of emails and calls just to set up a meeting. The venue was Ricky’s Café Under The Bridge in Kirribilli, a few minutes walk from my flat. It was a lucky choice, Rob and Audrey loved the tiny café which is a mecca for great coffee and food. Over lunch we chatted, gossiped and laughed although I didn’t actually learn much about Studyladder.
Over the next few years I’d meet with Audrey and Rob either at Ricky’s, their home in Dural or in London. It was always a hoot and I could call or email Rob at anytime to ask him about edtech ideas, companies or issues. Our last meal together was a memorable lunch up at the top of the Shard where you had to have a strong stomach to survive the elevator ride down.
Rob’s genius idea at Studyladder was to make this primary school product totally free for students and teachers during the school day. If they wanted access outside those time then they had to pay. This unusual business model was risky, but turned out to be very successful in Australia and in several overseas markets.
The last time I spoke to Rob in mid 2016, we were chatting about the US edtech company Clever. Rob was telling me how Studyladder couldn’t be free to US schools who wanted to login using Clever. The reason was although he could provide the content for free, Studyladder had to pay Clever for access on a per school basis. Rob was disappointed, but understood schools liked Clevers’ simplicity and security and that equally he was running a business that had to make money. His solution was to charge schools a fee that just covered the cost to Studyladder of being connected via Clever. It typical pragmatic decision, but Rob had also become a passionate educationalist (in the broadest context of the word) whose mission was to give as many students as possible access to StudyLadders content for free while they were at school.
I had hoped to see Rob and Audrey in Sydney when I was there for a day in November, but I couldn’t manage to organise it. Sadly Rob died unexpectedly on the Friday before I flew out of Heathrow and I didn’t find out about this this morning when an email I’d sent him was replied to by Audrey. I almost couldn’t read it and have sat in front of my computer since 8am trying to think what to write.
To Audrey, who has lost a wonderful partner and to his children, I can only write that I share a tiny measure of your grief. I have lost a friend upon whose kind and wise council I relied, but I’m not sad, because Rob’s greatest legacy (aside from his family) is Studdyladder; something that hopefully will continue, to help millions of children all over the world. By my standards, that more of a testament to Robert Morris Hunt than any financial measure of his undoubted corporate successes.