By Hannah Connolly
t’s not the typical founder journey that brought to life Ambessa Play, in fact, Sara Berkai had no plans to start her own business. With a background in Computer Science, Berkai came across a one-for-one business model whilst studying for a MSc in Child Development and Education.
“I never had any desire to start my business. Ambessa Play exists as a request from young children (whilst I was volunteering running STEM workshops) to design a DIY flashlight that would be educational and functional,” she tells The Stack World.
Ambessa Play today creates toy kits and workshops for children across the globe – the mission? To allow children to build the world they want to live in through STEM learning.
In Eritrean and Ethiopian, the word Ambessa translates to ‘lion’, a word you would say to a child to congratulate them for bravery, strength and power. Ambessa Play is a social enterprise with a lion's roar of an impact, working to diversify the STEM pipeline and providing children who may not have the opportunity to access learning opportunities. For every kit bought, the company will donate another to a displaced child.
But what is the big mission? “We have reached over 10 million out-of-school children globally and we have created, with children, a whole range of kits they can build and use in everyday life. I know we could be as big as LEGO.”
Currently, Berkai and Ambessa are in the throes of a kickstarter campaign to scope out how many people think the flashlight kit should exist and so far the impact has been tangible – hitting £10k in less than 24-hours. “Organisations have used Kickstarter as a marketing tool or a ‘should we exist’ tool and we definitely fall in the latter”, she adds.
Berkai is also a success story of our first Stack World Pitch night and a lot has changed since then: “When we pitched at TSW, we were still finalising the design of the product. We have since launched our Kickstarter and raised £10k in 24 hours, with 180 backers. We have 18 days to go on the Kickstarter campaign (it ends 30th April) and we have already achieved 400 backers and reached £20k+.”
Here we caught up with Sara about starting her business, her biggest tips for pitching and what the kickstarter could mean for the future of Ambessa.
Can you talk to us about social enterprise, have you always seen business and positive impact as an innate pairing?
I can’t remember who originally said this, but I was listening to a podcast with one of the Who Gives a Crap founders and they mentioned the quote "every pound you spend is a vote for the future you want to live in". For consumers that can be flexible with where they purchase their toilet paper, their winter jacket or the toys for their children - why not buy from a social enterprise that delivers tangible impact?
I wasn’t initially keen on forming a charity as grants can be unsustainable and restrictive. On our Kickstarter page, we included a pledge option to gift a displaced child a kit in case people were interested in donating versus purchasing a kit for themselves, which also donates a kit to a displaced child through the one for one model. We have found the 1:1 Pledge to be more popular than the donation pledge and that is helpful data indicating we should probably exist and operate as a business.
Can we talk about the Kickstarter? What is the impact you are hoping to see?
We are extremely bootstrapped and there is no way we could mass order and produce the kits from our manufacturer. Kickstarter allows us to assess how many people think this DIY flashlight should exist. If we did have the expenses to be able to produce a bulk of kits and sell them in stores, I would have probably gone for a Kickstarter campaign or a website pre-order launch regardless.
Building hardware is expensive, time consuming and riskier. 400 customers telling us they would back us is different from 400+ purchasing a kit with their hard-earned income. Customers are only charged at the end of the campaign if it’s successful in reaching the goal we’ve set.
I’ve supported a few projects on Kickstarter and I think it is a beautiful way of collectively championing and bringing a project to life. We were advised by other founders that the more funding you have, the larger target your campaign could reach. Organisations have used Kickstarter as a marketing tool or a ‘should we exist’ tool and we definitely fall in the latter. If we could not reach a £10k goal in 30 days that would be helpful data signalling that consumers think this product should exist. Kickstarter can be a helpful proxy for whether there is customer demand.
What has been your proudest moment on the Ambessa journey so far?
Our launch event! The team, our community of supporters, everyone who has been part of our lengthy design process - all came to celebrate together when we hit the ‘launch’ button. This took an entire village of people - from our pro bono lawyers, to working with Pentagram, to the other social enterprises we partnered with and supported. We hosted an exhibition space with posters and where attendees could play with the kit and browse and borrow the books that informed our design process. It was a celebration, a culmination of all the hard work over the last two years or so.
Can you share your golden pitching advice and how did The Stack World Pitch Night help you on your Founder's journey?
People say it gets easier over time or to just fake it and I find public speaking never does get any better, but your knowledge of the business does. Remember that you are the expert. When I felt most awkward and nervous it was because I felt like I didn’t know much, but you do and you care about the problem you’re tackling. With every pitch you will hopefully be asked useful questions that you can capture and answer in the next pitch.
Although we hadn’t launched yet, the Stack World pitch night helped us in crafting the pitch itself. Forcing yourself to practise explaining the business in under 5 minutes will only be helpful. I also care much less about an investor’s opinion and more about the audience itself (who are more likely to be our customers) and I assume this is the case for most founders. Pitch nights where you can pitch to a wider audience are great for gathering feedback. Learning about what the audiences liked or what didn’t make sense is all useful information. For example, learning where I spoke too quickly or what could have been more engaging. I am also obsessed with science self-efficacy and I can talk about how effective the product is in enhancing children’s self-efficacy for hours, but I have learnt this is not helpful or clear in a brief pitch.
Later, we had to make a 3-minute video for our Kickstarter campaign, and everything somewhat seems to boil down to storytelling, and whether you can communicate clearly to an audience what you’re building; and to an investor, why people will back it.
How important are events like The Stack World Pitch night? The Stack World has done an amazing job of creating a network of women who do cool stuff. A space to practise amongst other amazing founders has only been encouraging.
Where would you like to see Ambessa in ten years time and what is your personal or professional mission driving this charge?
We have reached over 10 million out-of-school children globally and we have created, with children, a whole range of kits they can build and use in everyday life. I know we could be as big as LEGO. My personal mission has always been focused on education inequality - creativity is universal but opportunity is not. I’m excited about the opportunity of encouraging children to tinker and build at scale, and what this could do to their agency and their belief of what they could do and become.
There’s a great quote by John Collison “As you become an adult, you realize that things around you weren't just always there; people made them happen. But only recently have I started to internalize how much tenacity everything requires. That hotel, that park, that railway. The world is a museum of passion projects.”. I’d personally want every kid who played with our kits to feel confident to go onto build anything else.
To find out more about Ambessa Play's kickstarter campaign then head here to be involved | Or to find out more about the upcoming Stack World Pitch Night then head here.
We caught up with Stack World Pitch Night alum Sara Berkai about starting her business, her biggest tips for pitching, and what her kickstarter campaign could mean for the future of Ambessa Play
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