It's a great pity to see the demise of OnlineGrinds.ie recently.
Sulware were approached back in 2011 to be the web development partner on this project. Initially we turned it down on the grounds of it not having any kind of marketing budget whatsoever, (as well as any other kind of budget!). The CEO at the time managed to later secure a modest investment, which we took as a positive sign and came on board with the caveat that the majority of the funding be spent on marketing. It was a gamble for us. Instead of taking any fees we agreed on taking a stake in the company in lieu of development services. We would build the website and get it live, and fully support it for 6 months at our own expense, and in return we would become full partners with the other shareholders.
The concept behind OnlineGrinds was to provide a website whereby junior and leaving certificate students (second level education), could get access to the best teachers in the country in the form of live and interactive online tutorials, or “grinds” as they're known as in Ireland. It was a great proposition really. No longer would students have to travel to centralised area's to receive expensive grinds. Instead they could get access to the same teachers from the comfort of their own homes at a fraction of the cost.
Anything involving video online is potentially challenging. Add in the concept of broadcasting live video coupled with an interactive chat room and you're looking at lots of potential headaches. Quality of the broadcasting would depend heavily on the quality of broadband connections throughout the country, which in Ireland even to this day is mediocre at best. As well as live and interactive the videos would be stored in an online library which members of the site would have full access to depending on their payment plan.
Once we agreed the requirements with the business, we began building the site in the latter half of 2011. The goal was to have the site ready for go live in September 2012. As the site build happened the business partners were busy sourcing teachers and premises and getting things ready from that side.
The Technical Bit
The website itself was built using ASP.net. Fundamentally the site comprised of a custom built framework which took care of the management of the membership base, teachers, grinds, timetables , advertising, reporting, logging, payment handling, payment gateway integration and integration with other third party systems. Third party components were used for the streaming of videos (the super JWPlayer), the live chat component and the bulletin board component. The bulletin board was a last minute business requirement so instead of writing our own we decided to go for one of the best of breed third party libraries commercially available. Each of these systems needed to be integrated with the customised membership system which took a bit of elbow grease and time but for the most part was relatively straight forward.
The Business Bit
By August 2012 we were ready to go into test, but the CEO decided that a September launch wouldn't be wise and instead pushed things out to January 2013 the idea being that the target audience would be more receptive to our offering at that time of year. This caused some concern as the companys funding was severely limited and any delay meant eating into the marketing budget, but the CEO was adamant. To offset our concerns the CEO agreed to signing up 5000 members to the site by December 2012, but unfortunately this target was severely missed, with the site being launched to a membership of just under 1000.
In November 2012 we started user beta testing opening up Maths grinds to selected individuals. Initial tests were all encouraging, and by January 2013 we were up and running.
Our first commercial live broadcast went out on January 14th. There weren't many in the live classes but enough to form the beginning of an online virtual classroom community. From an operational perspective there was a broadcast studio in the heart of Dublin with a 20MB broadband line. The small studio consisted of an Apple Mac broadcast machine running broadcast management software which was connected to a camera, a second PC used to monitor the chatroom, lighting, a radio miked teacher, and a couple of broadcast assistants.
Basically the video was captured and processed by a piece of software called Wirecast and then sent up from there to our excellent server partners, Tibus, who had a CDN media server, capable of handling 5000 concurrent connections viewing the stream. For the most part this worked very well, considering there was zero contingency in the system. There was only one camera, one radio mike, one broadcast machine, one internet connection in the studio, one media server, one web server. If anything went wrong with any part of the system the broadcast was dead. From a technology perspective this was a disaster waiting to happen. Zero contingency in a system like this is asking for trouble. But this was a start up in it's purest form and budgets just weren't there to provide that contingency. However, thanks to sensible technical choices and a sound website design and development strategy, there were very few actual issues. The most serious incident we did have was in May of 2012 when due to an ISP failure we lost connection with the server for 4 days. Not great but in the bigger scheme of things, we got off very lightly.
One of the other few technical issues that we ran into was a minority of users experiencing some poor video quality and stuttering in play back, which for the most part were down to poor quality internet connectivity on the customers side. Also in houses where the internet connection was shared by several other family members the connection to our video stream would be compromised. This type of issue was expected with such a video service and after a short while support of these issues became pretty straight forward with the broadcast assistants mostly informing the class before starting to just check some basic items in their own homes to ensure best service.
Customer and Press Reaction and Monumental Challenges
On the whole the website was technically a fantastic success. Customers were surveyed three months into to the service, and the site got over 85% approval rating from a 100 plus random selection of users. Also independent reviewers from national newspapers gave the site similar ratings, with the Irish Times giving the site 8 out of 10 for Accessibility and navigation and 9 out of 10 for overall website presentation and use. High praise indeed.
However in true start-up form, the first year was a major struggle. Funds were just too low. The studio technical infrastructure was being held together by "sticky tape" with zero contingency. Only a fraction of the original investment was spent on marketing with most of it going into operational spend. The site couldn't really afford the 5 month initial delay in going live. As such, the brand struggled to make any type of impact on the market and another minor investment in May 2012 was made to more or less keep the lights on.
By June 2013 serious management conflicts between the CEO and the other shareholders/management team came to a head with the end result of the CEO falling out with all parties and subsequently left to pursue other interests. However, the remaining shareholders wanted to continue the project and work to resolve the financial and general mismanagement issues.
A second start, but just not enough
Thanks to additional personal financial investment and hard work from the team the site got a second chance to try and make it albeit with the odds stacked heavily against it.
Despite the management upheaval, the remaining shareholders still had a high confidence level in the site, and went out to look for other partners to help achieve the goal. Many months were spent rebuilding the operational and legal infrastructure of a new company to take over the running of the site and brand, all at significant cost to the shareholders
During the late summer of 2013 a leading grind school in Dublin came on board. The new partner would provide both facilities and teachers to the operation in return for a substantial stake in the company. Also the new partner had significant links with major local advertising players, that would result in some much needed national coverage of the brand, (which alas never happened).
Over the following Autumn and Winter the new team worked hard to counter not having a full time CEO and to forge the new partnership. However almost a full second school term passed before OnlineGrinds.ie would broadcast again. This happened in Easter of 2014, with the broadcasting of a weeks intensive revision courses covering 7 subjects. This was to be a trial run of the new partnership with a full relaunch of the brand and service happening in September 2014, two years after the original planned launch date.
The Easter revision grinds were a relative success, both technically and commercially (albeit quite modest), but highlighted some critical problems namely the need for company structure and more importantly highlighted the need for a full time dedicated CEO and supporting team, something that just wasn't financially feasible.
The team explored several options but eventually in late August 2014, after much debate and soul searching it was unanimously decided that OnlineGrinds.ie just wasn't feasible as a business without significant investment.
It's an awful pity that the project died. From a technology perspective it was a very exciting and interesting space to work in. The business proposition was also equally very exciting. It was fundamentally making a lucrative private service available to everyone for a fraction of the cost. However, at the end of the day, a critical breakdown at the highest management level coupled with a funding deficit resulted in a potentially great company dying a slow and painful death. I honestly believe that a venture as ambitious as OnlineGrinds needs a significant amount of investment to really give it a chance of success. The brand has to be driven into peoples minds, technology needs to have a serious budget allocated to it, and the right people need to be retained and properly rewarded for their work.
I've no doubt that this type of service IS the future, for the educational sector OnlineGrinds was targeting and for other training sectors in other markets. From a purely technical perspective it really is a shining example of the benefits that technology and the internet can bring to a pre-existing highly constrictive “bricks n' mortar” working model.
Needless to say our original agreement of building the website and supporting it for 6 months at our own expense in lieu of a shareholding, didn't really work out for us. We built the site and then supported it fully for 2 years at our own expense. We calculate this cost us in the region of about €150K in lost service revenue, but we had a very strong belief in the technology, and were heavily invested in it. Also for the most part the team behind it were super and a dream to work with apart that is from one key and critical very obvious exception.
We've learnt a lot from OnlineGrinds on various levels. In particular we've gained a substantial amount of experience in providing video online both in pre-recorded and live scenarios. This is something that we'll no doubt be involved in more moving forward with our clients in Sulware.
We wish our partners in the venture all the best in the future and look forward to working with them again on other projects over the coming years.