Chief Operating Officer and Publisher, BMedia, BAComm (Hons)
With her MultiLit story starting at the Macquarie University Special Education Centre (MUSEC) in the late ’90s, Chief Operating Officer and Publisher Freya Purnell knows more than most just how far MultiLit has come over the years.
When she officially joined MultiLit in 2014, Freya brought more than 20 years of experience in business journalism, editing, publishing and business operations to the table and has since played an instrumental part in the company’s monumental growth.
Here, she shares her insights on the early days, how MultiLit products come to life and what drives our culture of innovation and commitment to effective instruction.
What inspired you to want to work in the education sector?
While I was studying, I worked as a classroom assistant at MUSEC. We ran an intensive program for Year 5 and 6 students to help them catch up to their peers in literacy, so they had a better chance of keeping up in high school. We held a ‘graduation’ celebration before they returned to their schools where the students would speak in front of their families and friends, about how the failures they’d experienced had made them feel, and how learning to read had changed their lives.
It was all I could do not to burst into tears every time. It was an unforgettable reminder that literacy is an essential key to open the door of opportunity, and without it, students’ experiences of school and what is possible beyond are very bleak.
How long have you been with MultiLit?
My MultiLit story really starts with my time at MUSEC, when I worked in the program that would later become MultiLit and as a tutor with low-progress students in the first iteration of our Literacy Centres.
My degree was in print media and journalism, so I went to work in business publishing and started a custom publishing business with my husband. We reconnected with MultiLit around 2007 to assist with publishing the original programs, Reading Tutor Program and Word Attack Skills – Extension.
I officially started in-house with MultiLit as Publisher in 2014, with my part-time role growing until I took on the full-time position of Chief Operating Officer and Publisher in 2019.
What are some of the key responsibilities in your role?
From conceptualisation through to market and into the customer’s hands, my key areas of responsibility are product development, publications, production, and sales and marketing. In an average week I might work on a proposal for a new product development, brief an illustrator on a book project, review upcoming stock orders, collaborate on a sales and marketing campaign, meet with our research unit regarding program trials, work with our technology team on website or system issues, and recruit for new staff.
As well as our range of programs, resources and books, we also publish a range of internal and external publications, including training materials, newsletters, a biannual magazine, research reports through Five from Five, sales and marketing collateral, and downloadable resources to support our schools, so there is always a lot happening and plenty of deadlines to meet!
Is there a moment that you see as a key milestone for MultiLit becoming what it is today?
For many years, MultiLit was focused on the remedial space, and while we had been very successful in helping students catch up in literacy, it was disheartening that there were still so many requiring intervention. So, an ambitious project was hatched to create a whole-class initial instruction program for Foundation to Year 2.
InitiaLit took five years and was a massive team effort which stretched us in new directions. Creating decodable readers for the first time, producing engaging whole-class materials and conducting school-based trials on a larger scale all required taking our product development and publishing operations to a new level. InitiaLit was also a game-changer in terms of how schools saw MultiLit.
How has MultiLit’s approach to product development evolved?
Up until we finished InitiaLit, we had a single product development team working on one or two projects at a time. We had a long list of new projects we wanted to tackle but didn’t want to compromise on quality or the close connection with our research ‘heartland’ in the MultiLit Research Unit (MRU).
That gave rise to our product development framework, which defines how projects are approved for development and how programs and resources progress through our five-stage trialling process in schools. It formalises the relationship between the MRU and the product development team to ensure projects are well governed and the final product remains true to the research evidence.
The framework allows us to develop multiple products simultaneously, increasing the speed at which we can bring products to market. Members of the product development team are able to take the lead on projects under the mentorship of Product Development Manager Alison McMurtrie, which helps to build capacity in what is a very niche area.
How has MultiLit grown over the years?
MultiLit has grown from being a small business in a single office in Sydney – with a small range of programs and training a couple of hundred teachers a year – to an international business with offices in three states, selling more than 800 different products, training more than 9000 teachers a year, and supporting more than 6000 schools to implement a broad range of programs. It’s funny to think that only six years ago, we used to pack and ship every kit and workbook from a packing room in our office!
The growth has been rapid and has required scaling up in many ways – outsourcing warehousing and logistics, implementing ecommerce, introducing training by videoconference and taking on a major Commonwealth-funded project to provide programs and professional learning to 42 majority Indigenous schools.
Being part of that expansion has been an exciting and fulfilling road, and of course, it requires being adaptable and willing to take on new challenges.
At its heart, MultiLit is still the same as it has been from the beginning – a group of people who feel passionately about the importance of literacy and effective education, who believe in science to give us the answers on how to achieve better outcomes, and who are compelled every day to improve the lives of students, teachers, parents and carers.
What drives MultiLit’s culture of innovation?
Having started as a research initiative within a university, MultiLit is fuelled by scientific enquiry, with a relentless focus on finding out what constitutes effective instruction and how we can deliver that practically. There is an experimental culture – a willingness to take risks and test ideas and concepts – that I believe has contributed to our success in innovating.
Unsurprisingly, there is also a strong culture of continuous learning. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to study at Harvard Business School, completing a program on product innovation with a diverse, international group of business leaders. We were able to look at how some of the biggest brands in the world, including Apple, Lego and Flagship Ventures (the R&D incubator that gave rise to the Moderna vaccine) encourage innovation and manage their product portfolios. This has provided me with a wealth of ideas and insights on how MultiLit can continue to innovate, build and meet the challenges that will no doubt emerge in the coming years.
In that way, MultiLit ‘walks the talk’ – we look to the research and learn from the best in the world, so we can continue to provide world-class solutions to Australian schools and teachers.