What is the point of Unifrog, how did it start and where is it going?
4th July 2022
To find out, we sit down with co-founders Coralie and Alex…
First of all, let’s hear your elevator pitch for Unifrog!
Coralie: Unifrog helps young people find and apply for the best opportunities for them after school. We also help their teachers and counselors manage the careers guidance process.
We do this through an online platform sold as a subscription service to schools. This model means it’s free for students to use, and we build real relationships with schools, where we help them to support even the hardest-to-reach students.
Our mission is to level the playing field when it comes to students’ post-school destinations. Unifrog brings together every step of the process, from students exploring their interests, to recording their skills, to finding and comparing apprenticeship and university courses, to submitting applications.
Tell us a bit about who you are and what you bring to Unifrog
Alex: One important thing that’s a bit unusual, is that we are a husband-and-wife team! Another important thing is that we each bring very different things to the table.
I tend to come up with ideas for new things that we can build on the platform, and I also do the interface designs. I haven't had training in design, so I’ve developed a strange method of using Excel as an artistic tool to mock up how the pages will look. No one else does it this way, but it seems to work!
I grew up in Wiltshire on a farm, and studied English at Oxford uni. I started work aged 21 via the Teach First programme as an English teacher at Highbury Grove, an inner-city comprehensive. In the first year I didn’t know what I was doing and the students ran riot, but in the second year things got better, and I ended up teaching there for five years. I then started an education charity, The Access Project, that helps disadvantaged young people get into prestigious universities. I’ll never forget watching the magical moments when students understood something tricky, like when they cracked a hidden meaning behind a poem.
I’m a bit of a challenge fanatic, and outside of Unifrog I spend a lot of time playing sport, including taking part in open water swimming events and ultramarathons (this year I finished 21st in the Marathon des Sables).
Coralie: Whilst Alex thinks of what a tool will look like and do, I think of how the tool will do it. I also develop the data-based tools on the Unifrog platform (for example, all the search tools that let students compare post-16 and post-18 courses and apprenticeships).
I grew up in Paris and I’m the daughter of two mathematicians, who I guess passed on to me the problem-solving gene! After studying maths at Cambridge, I worked on a report for the UK government about how maths education could be improved. I was also a one-to-one maths tutor.
Outside of Unifrog, I make art and music, and write. I’m the co-author (with my mother) of a popular maths book called Math on Trial, and I’m often asked to give talks based on the book to students and teachers. I bring my love of writing to Unifrog too, where I’ve been involved in content creation, particularly in our Know-how Library - a library of 1,000+ guides aimed at students that cover all aspects of careers guidance, and also PSHE and Citizenship topics - this is one of the many tools that make up the Unifrog platform.
So what does Unifrog actually do? And why is it special?
Alex:In a nutshell, Unifrog provides unbiased careers information and advice to young people to help them make informed decisions about what to do after school.
On average, more privileged students have better access to the guidance and information needed to make decisions. We launched Unifrog in 2013 to try to change this, and now, just under 10 years later, we have over 1 million student users.
Coralie: When it comes to the platform itself, one of the things we are most proud of is that we host every post-16 and post-18 opportunity in the UK, so students can compare sixth form, Further Education, apprenticeship, university, and degree apprenticeship opportunities in one place. We achieved the feat of having every opportunity on our platform in 2015, and it’s been unmatched by anyone else, including the UK government, ever since. We also help students compare university programmes taught in English around the world, and we have the biggest database of these that exists!
When it comes to the way we approach careers information and guidance, our guiding principle is that we put students first. Half of the platform is built for teachers to be able to support their students, but even when working on teacher-focussed tools, we think first about how what we are building will help students. We try hard to make the platform enjoyable to use as well as useful (97.5% of the schools we work with describe Unifrog as ‘very intuitive and easy to use'), which means we have a high student engagement, and we’ve sometimes decided not to do some things that teachers have asked for because we felt that they didn’t benefit students.
Alex: Most fundamentally, our mission to level the playing field when it comes to young people’s access to information and guidance is unique in our field. Through our data analysis we can identify which schools and students need more support, and we give it to them through tailored customer service. We also create content and tools that are targeted at more disadvantaged students, for example guides to applying for student finance, and tools to find scholarship opportunities.
Was there a ‘lightbulb moment’ that inspired you to start the business?
Alex: Both of us have always worked with young people, and always felt that education is one of the main ways that we can fashion a fairer and more successful society.
Talking it over while on our honeymoon, we realised that there was already a wealth of data available to students to make choices on what to do after school, but nowhere that actually helped them navigate all the information. We knew we had a good idea on our hands when we mentioned it to friends and they unanimously said that they wished they had had something like it when they were at school.
Both of us are ‘let’s just do it’ type of people, so after getting back from honeymoon, I left The Access Project (which is still going strong) to focus full-time on Unifrog with Coralie.
Coralie: We started with building a tool that helps students to pick the five courses to put on their UCAS forms. We wanted to create something that left the decision-making in students’ hands, but gave them the information they needed to make smart choices (for example, encouraging them to pick courses offering a range of entry requirements).
Unifrog has grown enormously since then, and the way we do development is a combination of our own ideas, and what our users ask for - this second one is very important to us because we always try to solve real problems, and not create things that no one actually needs.
We couldn’t have grown the platform without the fantastic work of our lead programmer Stu Valentine, whose relentlessly logical and thorough brain helps knock our ideas into shape.
Tell us about Unifrog’s new work with universities and employers
Coralie: After seven years of working just with high schools, we started to partner with universities and employers to make the best use of their insight and expertise, and to help directly connect students with the opportunities they offer. This new side of Unifrog has been growing really quickly, and we already partner with more than 150 employers and Higher Education (HE) partners, including 60% of the UK’s universities.
A key element of these partnerships are the events we collaborate on. We started running interactive, online events during the lockdowns, ranging from international university fairs to skills and employability workshops. We frequently have thousands of students sign up to these and the appetite for them hasn’t diminished after the pandemic (though we’re also exploring in person events for the next academic year!)
Beyond that, we’re working on lots more projects to develop these partnerships, from facilitating students to do work experience more easily, to organising for students to hear first hand from employees and undergraduates about what their jobs and studies are really like.
Where can you find Unifrog around the world?
Alex: We now work with half of the high schools in the UK. We started working with schools outside of the UK very organically. Our first international sale was to a school in Bermuda in 2016, and we were so excited!
By 2018 we were working with 100 international schools, and now we are working with schools in more than 100 countries, from Burkina Faso to Japan.
When it comes to working with HE and employer partners, we’re working with over 50 international partners, from universities like Tilburg University and The University of Hong Kong, to international firms like Virgin Atlantic and PwC. This is one of the fastest growing parts of the business.
Coralie: From a development perspective, working with schools and universities around the world is great, because ideas that are common in one country usually turn out to be helpful for other countries too.
Have you had any challenges along the way?
Coralie: Yes, we’ve had plenty! We’re both almost unhealthily independent so even though we hadn’t run a business on our own before, we decided not to have any advisers in the beginning. Our naivety meant that we made some very basic mistakes – like not having lawyers draft our employment contracts!
Like the founders at many bootstrapped companies, initially we did every job going, from the VAT return to recruitment to buying the office biscuits. As the company grew, we decided that we would not become CEOs, instead hiring someone else to do the role (the excellent Dan Keller, who had started with us a few years earlier as a sales rep), leaving us free to work only on platform development.
This approach has meant that even though we employ more than 70 people, we have the time to speak to several teachers every week, and we remain the ones who make decisions about what we build on the platform.
Now that Unifrog is no longer a scrappy start-up, how have things changed?
Alex: The coolest thing now is that the platform has a significant impact. Across our 2,800+ partner schools, we’re helping 1,000,000+ young people fulfil their potential by finding the education and career path most suited to them.
Coralie: Unifrog has been going for nearly 10 years, and we’ve fully left the start-up stage. The company isn’t synonymous with us any more – it’s an established company with its own culture, reputation in the industry, and long-standing customers.
One of our favourite facts is that we’ve recruited several people who had used Unifrog as students. People in the team do great things (like running a series of workshops for 1,000s of students on how to save the planet), without us even knowing about it until afterwards. Unifrog is such a big and established part of life in some of our schools that they create permanent Unifrog wall displays.
Alex:One of the awesome things about working with so many schools is that, while we’ll always keep our focus on students’ next steps, we now have the opportunity to widen our scope to other things we think are important.
For example, we run themed weeks with focuses like ‘Citizenship’ and ‘Save the Planet’, which feature webinars where students can interact with relevant academics, entrepreneurs and young activists, and competitions to design direct-action projects, where we fund the winning ideas to grow.
What do you wish you’d known before starting Unifrog?
Alex: We wish we had been prepared for the fact that a lot of people want to give you advice, and you need to learn to sort out what is actually useful, and be confident to ignore the bad advice and take on board only the good stuff. When you start a business, you’ll constantly be set up for meetings with people your well-meaning friends think might be able to help you. This is often a waste of time, or worse, it can make you double-guess yourself for no good reason. For example, we knew from the start that we didn’t want to go the VC route, and that we didn’t want to be CEO, both things that most people tried to change our minds about.
Coralie: I think the biggest thing we’ve learned is how important the people aspect of a business is. This includes who you hire, of course, but also the culture of your team, and in particular the leadership culture, which needs to come from the top. We’ve always led Unifrog with our employees’ happiness and professional development in our minds, but it wasn’t until we took the time to truly think about the company’s culture, values and way of working, to put it down in writing, and to rethink our policies so they were aligned with our values, that the team really started to thrive.
What are your dreams for the future?
Alex: We want Unifrog to become the place where every type of student, all over the world, can figure out their interests and what they want to do, from primary school all the way to their twenties.
We also want to support all the people who are helping them - not just their teachers (who we already support) but also their parents and families, and potential recruiters. This includes doing things like facilitating long-term relationships between school leavers and their high schools so they can help the next generation of students, offering online taster university courses to school students, starting a jobs board, and helping parents and guardians understand the various application systems that might interest the young people in their lives.
Recently as part of our efforts to widen participation in HE and degree apprenticeships, we’ve started to deliver student outreach sessions, and CPD workshops for teachers. Going forward, in partnership with even more universities and employers, we will facilitate thousands of hours of work experience and coached skills development programmes for disadvantaged students.
Coralie: We love the idea of applying some of the things we’ve learnt at Unifrog to education in prisons, and we have ideas for a green business. We also both have artistic projects that we’d love to spend more time on, spanning writing, painting and pottery.