Written on the 6 May 2010
From his temporary residence in the US, Origo Education managing director James Burnett talks of his desire to raise the bar in the mathematics education equation.
At 24 he quit his teaching job to start a business with textbooks that would soon become the gold standard at home in Queensland.
While scraping the surface of a large US market, Burnett is about to launch a ‘hard and fast’ campaign in Canada.
FIVE years ago one of James Burnett’s employees was told by a publisher to always write to the lowest common denominator, but that’s never been Origo’s philosophy.
“Our point of difference is that we’re an educator first and foremost, so we hire sales representatives that can talk to teachers at their level or sometimes above,” he says.
“Origo is Latin for ‘the source’ so we position ourselves as a source of information, and with the national curriculum that’s happening, teachers and schools often come to us for information about what’s going on.”
With a goal to ‘raise the bar’, the Brendale-based company has 150 titles of books and programs, selling around 350,000 units per year across Australia, the US and more recently in Canada.
Burnett says this equates to an annual turnover close to $10 million, which he believes could grow more than seven-fold in the next five years.
“We hope to have 50 reps in the US and in five years time each will have a $1.5 million target, so that’s an annual of revenue of $75 million in the US alone,” says the 40-year-old.
With 46 staff, of which 32 are in Australia, Burnett feels a great sense of satisfaction knowing that so many students and teachers are using his product, which helps improve the level of education at home and abroad.
“In Queensland for example we had 60 per cent of school kids using our textbook, but we know probably all schools have been influenced because we sold more teachers’ books than there are teachers in the state,” he says.
“It started just in Australia but then we knew we could become more global, and that’s to do with our product and our professional service development.”
Risk and return
Entrepreneurship is all about risk and there is a strong sense of this in Burnett’s life story, quitting his teaching job to pursue his passion to write mathematics textbooks, along with co-author and current business partner Calvin Irons.
“The hardest part was to move from a very secure teaching position that would always be there, with good money and eight weeks holiday a year, and going to a position as an entrepreneur working six days a week with long hours,” he says.
“I was 24 years old and if I look back I think I probably wouldn’t do it if I were older. It depends, as I had no commitments and had the view that I could do anything, that I had nothing to lose at that age, so I thought nothing of it. It was very intense but I loved every minute of it and I didn’t really see it as work.”
Burnett is a self-confessed ‘dreamer’ who always had the vision to go global from day one, which became a reality in 2004 when the company was incorporated in the US.
“We’re only scrapping the surface and it’s a very light surface at that, but in 2006 we have doubled our revenue in the US,” he says.
“In some ways it’s easier here as we can go under the radar, as you’ve got the large multinationals – it’s open slather.
“We were incorporated in Canada last year and we have eight consigned representatives there for us at the moment, but we plan to change that model once we get brand recognition to having salary reps and set up our own office like we have in the States.”
Canadian distribution will be ramped up next year with plans to dominate the market.
“We’re doing quite well in Canada, turning over $15,000 a month and we’re not really doing anything. But next year we plan to do a big push, and that will also come from me personally,” says Burnett.
“In Canada we’ll get things up and running and are thinking of getting venture capitalists on board so we can get serious revenues – we’re going to go hard and fast.”
Closer to home, Burnett sees great opportunities in the national curriculum reforms and Origo Education’s website even has a ticker counting down the days until when it comes into force.
He says multinational companies don’t notice him in the US, but in Australia they have acted ‘unethically’ towards Origo Education, in a bid to discredit the company and gain competitive advantage.
“We’ve had companies back home doing some rather unethical things towards us, trying to undermine us, calling us a ‘backyard publication’ – one sales rep from a big multinational told a good customer of ours we would go bankrupt,” he says.