The ed tech boom has led to a “Gold Rush” of sorts. Lots of entrepreneurs have rushed in to 1) solve big problems, and 2) make some money doing it. What’s been great to see is the huge variety of new ideas that have been brought to the table from a variety of sources.
Generalizing for a moment—and knowing full well that there are outlier success stories that fly in the face of these characterizations—you find three types of entrepreneurs who start their own ed tech companies:
Each of these profiles brings a lot to the table, but each of them struggles in their own way. Why? The education sector is incredibly complex, and it’s really hard on new entrants—even with this newfound willingness to experiment. The skill set required to succeed in this arena is ridiculous. You have to be good at everything. It’s nearly impossible. Let’s look at how each of these profiles approaches the market.
Strength: Business acumen. Weakness: Domain knowledge.
Battle-tested business experience, savvy, and driven. They know how to run a company. They know how to inspire and motivate people around a common goal. They know how to get things done. Honestly, the education world needs people like this.
Where they fall down is that their customers, usually educators or administrators, don’t “obey” the rules of business. Education runs differently than business, and when these two things clash, it can be harrowing for each side. Many educators don’t trust the “profit motive,” and expect that everyone will live up to the sometimes idealistic reasons that they are in education.
What’s the solution? Get help building your network. You’re going to need it at every step in the process, from concept validation to product development to marketing and sales. The “trust threshold” is very high as well, which makes them slow to act.
Strength: Product development. Weakness: Market knowledge.
Innovation in education is driven by technology, so it’s only natural that you’d get an influx of tech folks. They approach the solution from a product perspective, as you might expect. Just build a really great tech tool, that’s all it takes. Some really great products fail over and over again with this approach. Why?
The sales landscape in the education sector is incredibly unforgiving, as there are often multiple stakeholders in the sale. There are usually multiple end users too—instructors, students, and sometimes administrators. All this, and of course, the product will be expected to live up to extremely high standards.
What’s the solution? Solicit help in reaching and connecting with your potential market. If you don’t seek to understand your market—and involve your customers in the process—your product will fail. Harsh but true.
Strength: Content, approach. Weakness: Business sense.
Teachers are the one who know the learning process best. They are in the trenches, and they are the only ones (besides parents, of course) who see the light “switch on” in that glorious moment when learning occurs. They know how to teach, and the ones who try to build an ed tech solution approach it from a consumer perspective. It’s hard to argue with that, right?
Their issue? They usually lack the business sense required to launch a company. School districts and universities operate differently than the corporate world. The brilliant idealism the fuels the ideas of educators runs head-on into the stark realities of the business world.
What’s the solution? Learn all you can about the business of education. Spend the time to truly understand the market, and get help in building a network.
Each of these profiles can be successful, and what you see in many ed tech companies is an assemblage of each of the above profiles. The “Dream Team” approach. Even so, every business has blind spots and weaknesses. Every business starts to rely on tried-and-true processes which can start to impede innovation. “This is the way we’ve always done it” is incredibly hard to avoid, even when you’re making a conscious effort not to do that. It happens, even in very young companies—and it starts to take root at the very first signs of success.
This is where I wanted to help. I built the Edvantage Group to help The Executive build a network on a foundation of trust, to help The Technologist understand and connect with the market, and to help The Educator with the business side of ed tech. To fill in the gaps for each of them. The education sector is so complex, and the parameters seem to change week to week.
I have a ton of respect for anyone who has the strength of vision and fortitude to try to build their own business. It’s not a sign of weakness to get some help—it’s good business.