My first boss: CEO and founder of Sandbox, the digital learning company

·5-min read
Wyclef Jean and Bhavneet Singh MD and EVP, MTV Networks International attend the MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMA) with Zain at the Moi International Sports Centre on October 10, 2009 in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
Bhav Singh, right, during his time as MD and EVP, MTV Networks International, pictured with singer Wyclef Jean in 2009 at the MTV Africa Music Awards. Photo: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Bhav Singh, 49, is founder and CEO of Sandbox, a company that provides digital learning tools for teachers and home learners. Formed in 2015, it has 17 market-leading properties, with the likes of CoolMathGames, Hopster, and Code Kingdoms under its wing. It is now valued in the region of £500m following the pandemic boom.

The UK-based cricket fan holds a track record in scaling businesses within the media, entertainment, sports and e-learning sectors, and is a former executive VP of emerging markets at Viacom International, as well as president and CEO of Pearson English.

I owe Bob Bakish, CEO and president of Paramount Global, on multiple levels.

I was working in a mid level position and Bob was brought in to help turbo charge the international side. He came with a different perspective on doubling down on certain aspects and is one of these amazingly clear strategists who has a good eye on execution. He gave me the gig to run the high growth markets and trusted me with the ability to run them globally.

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Bob realised my strengths and gave me the freedom to go hard at some things. Bob is a down to earth guy who can get to the nub very quickly. He was a partner in crime as my boss and held me to account on deliverables when needed. Bosses tend to either fall in the category of ‘here’s what I want, figure it out’ or micromanagers. You need people to steer you and help you pick through complex issues. He was a great practitioner of these things.

I learnt from Bob how you toggle from being a leader to being a manager. For me, increasingly it’s about leading, not managing people: leading is foremost. It’s about how you give people the confidence that they are managing themselves.

I also learnt a lot about accountability during my days at IMG with Andrew Wildblood. I was having to take a decision on cricket rights in India. I was in my mid twenties and it was an exhilarating, sometimes overwhelming time.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 05: Ynon Kreiz, Chairman and CEO, Endemol; Bob Bakish, President and CEO, Viacom International Media Networks; Miki Chojnacka, Vice President, Entertainment, Emerging Markets, Viacom International Media Networks and Bhavneet Singh, MD and EVP, Emerging Markets and Viacom International Media Networks, attend the launch of the new global entertainment channel, Viacom Blink! at Sanctum Soho on May 5, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart Wilson/Getty Images for Viacom)
Bhav Singh, right, pictured with Bob Bakish, second from left, at a Viacom media launch in 2011. Photo: Stuart Wilson/Getty Images for Viacom)

Andrew had this amazing ability to give me the confidence to follow my own instincts. He helped me to get into the detail and taught me to create a cushion of contingencies and fall backs. He would never give me the answer but he would point me in the right direction to really think it through.

Now, when I make an investment decision it’s things I learnt from Bob (the operating elements) and Andrew (the synergies), as well as former Pearson chief executive Marjorie Scardino who taught me to focus on the person before making financial decisions.

The starting block for Sandbox had come when I was at one of the senior meetings at Pearson and trying to acquire more video based content for kids’ learning, where the likes of Teletubbies were being bandied around at the time.

The more I looked into it, the more obvious it was there was no one scaling up in games, e-learning and videos – it was mostly individual startups.

When you are clear about your strengths, stay core to them, was one of Bob’s mantras. I’m better at scale up than being a startup, better at putting people and properties together and connecting the dots.

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It's how to get young kids to spend two hours a day with my products in a way that is safe, and a parent would feel happy with. I’m not about trying to build businesses for valuation, it’s about a scale up mentality. If I can do that with an appropriate set of products and services that are focused on learning by stealth, then I’ve achieved my goal.

I used to be told I was too entrepreneurial, now I feel like I was too slow at the time. I’ve learnt about resilience, perseverance and bull-headedness to say that I will see this through. I didn’t know I had it in me, but I am thankful for the people who have coalesced around our cause at Sandbox, which now numbers now 350+ people across multiple countries.

SEVILLE, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 03: (from 2nd L) Bob Bakish, Georgina Rodriguez, Cristiano Ronaldo and guests attend the MTV EMAs 2019 at FIBES Conference and Exhibition Centre on November 03, 2019 in Seville, Spain. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)
Bob Bakish, Georgina Rodriguez, Cristiano Ronaldo and guests attend the MTV EMAs 2019. Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

The founders who have also decided to roll their businesses up with us and stayed, I feel like they are senior to me in their journey as entrepreneurs. They are the veterans and I am the rookie. I bring the scale up expertise, but they bring the startup hustle, mindset and ways to innovate at speed. It’s that melting pot which makes Sandbox unique.

We are now at a cross section of video streaming, educational gaming and e-learning. All those three are massive, high growth spaces and from a consumer standpoint we are at the beginning of the journey.

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The pandemic has reinforced the popularity of online learning. We have moved from a niche to a mainstream industry in how young people and families consume our products and services.

I love cricket as a consumer, but I’m not sure I would be very good at running anything in the sport. Anything you are too emotionally invested in sometimes makes it harder to be dispassionate about.

Perhaps we will do something in sports in the future, but as it stands I’m pretty passionate about what I’m doing here and we have a lot more to do. It was Bob who had this concept of piloting and stress testing a business setting and, once that worked, to double down hard. It has served us well at Sandbox today. We have had a good start, with a great platform.

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