Moving up the eLearning-curve: taking online training from Plymouth to the world

Thirteen years ago, Louise Pasterfield started a sideline business in the embryonic eLearning market. Today that sideline – Sponge UK – is a world leader employing over 100 people. So what has she learned herself along the way?

You can follow Sponge UK on Twitter @Sponge_UK

"VR offers new and unique opportunities to create more effective learning experiences"

Louise Pasterfield remembers clearly when the idea for Sponge UK first sprang to mind. “It was 2004, and I was running a design & marketing business in Plymouth called Gusto,” she recalls. “I could see the internet was taking off, and I thought it would be really cool to learn and train people online rather than in a classroom.”

Few other people were offering this type of service, so she set up an eLearning company called Sponge UK alongside her main day-job. For its first four years the business ticked along, turning over about £200,000 a year. Then in 2008, the market exploded.

“Demand for eLearning just took off,” Louise explains. “The market was suddenly ready for what we were doing, and we were inundated with orders. We didn’t have enough people to handle all the work, and had to retrain graphic designers and developers in the latest eLearning tools.”

Projects came in from household-name corporations including Toyota, quickly followed by contracts for the UN, helping to train its humanitarian workers. “We weren’t afraid to go for any opportunities that emerged,” says Louise. “And that attitude meant we were able to win some significant global clients.”

By 2012 Sponge UK’s workforce had expanded to 14 and the business was turning over about £800,000 a year. But that proved to be just the start of the growth curve, as the company’s push into international markets began to bear fruit. Five years on, the business now employs 103 people and turns over £6m a year, with almost half of its revenues coming from continental Europe, and a relatively small but increasingly significant slice from the US.

Helping to fuel this rapid growth is ongoing investment in digital innovation – an area for which Sponge UK is increasingly renowned.  In June 2017 the company launched its new innovation department – Sparkworks – which is headed by Louise’s daughter Kate, and is breaking new ground in areas like virtual reality training. Sponge UK has also been ranked in the Sunday Times’ list of 100 Best Small Companies to Work For.  

As founder and managing director, Louise has piloted Sponge UK throughout this amazing journey. And has being a woman made any difference? “If I’m honest, in most areas of the business it’s made no difference whatsoever,” says Louise. “The success of any company actually boils down to having the right people around you, and investing in developing and growing them. I also work with a business mentor – the Canadian business author and thinker Michael Walsh – who’s helped me tremendously.” 

There’s only one area where Louise feels being a woman has sometimes been an issue – and that’s when the company is going out to seek funding. “I have an excellent CFO who’s a man, and I always bring him along when I’m talking to a bank,” she comments. “With financial stuff, my experience is that it just seems to help to have a man there. So I play the game.”

Given what she’s learned over the years, what advice would Louise give to any female would-be entrepreneurs starting out today? Her answer is basically to go for it – and don’t listen to the people who say your vision won’t work out.

“If you really have the strength of conviction to do something, and believe it’ll work, then you should do it,” she says. “There will always be sensible, logical people who’ll try to talk you out of it. But being an entrepreneur isn’t a rational thing: it’s about belief, passion and making things happen. If you really believe in it, go for it.”

Louise has certainly taken her own advice. And now she has a global, world-leading business at the forefront of digital innovation to show for it.

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