A chat with our Founder - Brett Shanley

Ella Burt

Ella Burt

8 min read

Meet Brett, the mastermind of Knoma. Brett’s knowledge and background in start-ups helped him understand and identify how he could solve the ongoing issue of unaffordable education; through fee-free and interest-free finance solutions.

Brett created Knoma with the motivation to not only make world-leading education accessible through financial solutions, but to also promote the importance of lifelong learning to reduce the digital skills gap.

Today I'm speaking with Brett to understand his journey so far, and what the future looks like for Knoma.

Let's start from the very beginning: what inspired you to start Knoma? And why did you do this?

Brett: The story of Knoma didn't start with Knoma, it started back in 2013. I had graduated from university and spent a few years in investment banking - which I hated. I always wanted to do something that I felt would make a positive impact on people's lives and as a trader, I was essentially buying and selling shares, I wasn't making or contributing anything; I was merely profiteering or losing on market movements. I realised this career path wasn't something I felt truly passionate about and felt unfulfilled, so decided to move to Australia.

There's always been a part of me that's wanted to get involved in startups, so when I moved to Australia I worked in a range of startups and eventually founded my first business in 2016, that's now called ZeeFi, previously called Study Loans. Essentially, there were two reasons why I formed the business:

1. I've always believed in the power of education and the importance of education in positively impacting people's lives.

2. The then Prime Minister in Australia decided to pull billions of dollars out of the tertiary education sector overnight, in which I saw an opportunity; opportunity to build alternative and supplementary funding sources over and above that of the Australian Government.

The first business still exists, but I'm using the lessons I learnt on what worked well and what didn't to help influence the success of Knoma. Ultimately, I want to positively impact more peoples' lives.

What is the difference between your Australian business in comparison to Knoma?

B: The old business in Australia was interest-bearing on the student. Although it had reasonable levels of interest, I wanted to come up with a product that was completely free of charge for the end-user (the student). I also wanted to ensure the UX and UI of the loan application was as fast and smooth as possible, which is something I don't know if we necessarily achieved to the degree I wanted in Australia.

Open banking is only now reaching Australia, while back in 2018 when I'd moved back to the UK, open banking had just been introduced, so the ability to use the data on a banking level opened up a range of additional opportunities to innovate the business model. At Knoma, I do not want it to be simply a finance solution - it is an education platform underpinned by ethical finance and the data to better inform students about course selection. By using open banking data, I believe we can start to add value back to our education partners and our users on which courses someone should be taking to get the best return on their time and energy.

Knoma’s marketplace offers courses from a range of industries, but why did you look at tech specifically and decide you wanted Knoma to specialise in offering tech courses to users?

B: I feel it was an obvious place to start in that you only have to pick up the newspaper, turn on the TV, or search the Internet to hear or read about the digital skills gap that’s growing. As the economy shifts further into a purely digitally led economy, the need for all workers regardless of age, sector, seniority; it’s paramount they’re upskilling continuously. With the advancement of technology, the type of jobs are changing rapidly, but then the skills needed for these roles are also changing rapidly.

Unfortunately, as we live longer, people are having to also work for longer. So you can't just have a certain set of skills that’ll see you through the entirety of your career. This is why I think it's critical that Knoma, being an ethical finance solution, is supporting people of all ages of all walks of life, to get the necessary tech and digital skills to boost their employability and job security.

What has been the biggest challenge that you've had to face at Knoma so far?

B: As a startup, there are always going to be a lot of challenges. One of the biggest and hardest challenges in an early business stage is convincing investors that you as an individual with no team, no infrastructure, no product, no customers, when it's you and simply a slide deck that you are credible, and that you can transform what you're saying into a successful business and a revenue-generating reality. So we've been very fortunate to gain venture capital funding early on; we're supported by amazing investors.

Our second and next biggest challenge as a lending business is then convincing a debt funder to give you debt capital, i.e. money to lend with, and that’s always particularly hard because you again have no previous customers, or performance on that data. Once again we were very fortunate to close our £20 million debt facility which allowed the business to go live and start expanding its offering.

What would you say is your proudest moment so far with Knoma?

B: I’m proud every day! Sometimes I have to pinch myself and remind myself of how far the business has come. It’s amazing that the team is now nearly fifteen people and growing with over ninety educational partners and counting. I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve built and the team that we have formed at Knoma and cannot wait to see what Knoma can achieve in the next twelve, twenty-four, thirty-six months.

Amazing! So what do you see the future of Knoma being over the next 1-5 years?

6-12 months:

• By the end of the year, I’m hoping to introduce a loyalty programme that gives users points, discounts and rewards as they complete courses. Hopefully, this will help to motivate individuals into taking on a lifelong learning mindset.

• I’d also love to start using banking data and LinkedIn data to drive our course recommendations for users to help them get the most out of their courses and ensure they see the best ROI on their time and money.

1-2 years:

• Over the next twelve to twenty-four months, I’d love for Knoma to expand outside of the UK. Knoma already has global partnerships e.g. UpGrad, so it’s important for us to expand globally. All going well, Knoma will launch in Australia this year.

2-5 years:

• Within the next two to five years, Knoma will look to build out an offering for SMEs and corporations, to help them with upskilling their staff. Knoma already serves the individual, but there are also huge workforces that work at big companies such as PWC, Goldman Sachs, Deloitte, for example, who aren’t staying up to date with modern skills for a modern economy.

Any last words?

B: Yes - I’d like to make a call out to anyone reading this post that’s looking for a way to fund their education and not be penalised through expensive interest rates and hidden fees - reach out to us now - Knoma would love to help you!

Anyone who’s looking at future job roles and is interested in the mission and vision of Knoma – widening access to education and reducing the digital skills gap – we'd love to hear from you also. Knoma is always on the lookout for new members to join the team.

Upskill today with Knoma

Are you ready to upskill or kickstart your new career? Check out our marketplace to find the best course to pay interest-free today.

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