I am fascinated by the education technology business. I don't think there is any business like it. It's a business where you have to have a free aspect to get adopted, you compete against the big boys of technology, and startups can kill it and then die ultra quick deaths. The most fascinating fact may be, though, that the modern ed tech business has only been something that has emerged in the last ten years of technology.
The question, though, is why do you care? My guess is that most people reading this blog are just regular classroom teachers. You have so much to worry about that you just want things that you can get and things that work. Who really cares about the business side?
If that's your train of thought, you might better start caring. By understanding the business side, you can gain three advantages: you know how to evaluate tools that will stick around, you have a leg up on getting that pesky administrator to buy in and get you the resource, and if you wanted to start your own business you know what it takes.
The first and most important part is the evaluation part. Many ed-tech tools come and go every day. If you want to add something to your everyday routine, you want it to stick around. Naturally, you are going to gravitate towards a tool that is free, but is that really the best option? Eventually, that tool is going to have to make money, and so eventually that free start can become an issue that weighs heavily on the tool. It even sometimes leads to a close of the business. Whenever you use a tool, their monetization plan should always be part of the evaluation because, without a plan that makes sense, you may be grasping for a new tool in a few years.
The second reason to know the ed-tech business is that it can aid you in convincing an administrator to adopt the tool that you want! When you go to an administrator, what is the first thing they always ask you? Well, it's always, "How much does it cost?" If you can go into that meeting with a knowledge of what you are getting for the cost and why it cost that much, that conversation becomes much simpler. If you know what the business is it also becomes much simpler to navigate their structure and find what you need.
The third reason to understand the business is that one day, you might be the business. Teachers run into problems and issues every day that they think, "Well, I can solve that." Well, why not start something that does. There are amazing edtech businesses like Plickers and ClassCraft that were the ideas of former teachers. You could be that next person!
As I look at ed tech businesses, I think five aspects make businesses successful. Hopefully, by understanding these aspects, you can find success both in the classroom and maybe even with your business.
The 6 Aspects of Ed Tech Business Success
1. An Innovative Product:
The first thing you have to have for success in edtech is an innovative product. It all starts with the product. For a company to be a success, they have to have a product that is different than what is already out there. It's just like anything else, you need to be first to market, and then pray that the big boys of tech (Google, Apple, Microsoft) don't get in your field.
A great example of this would be the innovative app Touchcast. Touchcast is quickly gaining users in schools because it takes a current concept, video production, and it adds a great twist to it by allowing you to put interactive web content in the video. No other tool out there does anything like it, and it's so innovative that they are even licensing the technology out to news companies to monetize which means it will be able to stay free for teachers
2. Ease of Entry
The second thing businesses must do is find a way to give their product an easy entry point. Many edtech businesses fail because they come up with the idea that is hard to get a beginner involved in. Most teachers are beginners and need a concept that they can understand. Sometimes that idea can be something that is an improvement that they already know.
A perfect example of this is Nearpod. Nearpod's success starts ith the fact that it's an easy entry. Nearpod is an app that is kind of like PowerPoint on steroids. It has two big differences 1) It syncs the presentation on student devices instead of the front of the room 2) It has all kinds of interactive in it. It's set up similar to PowerPoint makes it an easy entry point for teachers, and then it can be used as a jumping off point for a teacher's next step.
The third thing that makes edtech businesses works is relationships. To really, make the business successful you have to have a place to test your product. You have to be able to take that product into a classroom setting, and you have to see what happes with kids and teachers. Without that prototype phase, you will have issues with your product in the future.
Finding a school or district to test your prototype in is all about the relationships you build, and those relationships take time. When you start a business, it may be effective to actually go to the local school or district and just ask them to do some research. This starts the relationship, and it helps you define the problem. Then hopefully eventually they will let you come back in and do some test with the product.
Relationships also become important when you talk about funding. You have to be able to build relationships with angel investors in order to get some funding to expand the business. One of the greatest examples of this is the startup incubator, Imagine K12. Imagine K12 is the startup incubator that birthed tools like Class Dojo, Remind, Plickers, Blendspace, and many others. Being part of that incubator opens doors to those relationships that you need, and it gives companies a set of similar companies that they can grow together with
To be successful in the edtech world, you have to be a grinder. You have to push and push and push to get your business off of the ground. That grind can mean consistent updates to your product, but you also have to go where the teachers are. Edtech is a weird business where startup growth is very word of mouth. You have to control that conversation which means you have to grind to edtech events big and small.
A good way to tell the grinders is to go to ISTE and pay attention to the way companies market. The major grinders start off guerrilla marketing. They use the power of social media to say where they are, they have conversations, and they do everything they can to get their product out there. The ones that aren't grinders are the ones who just kind of hang out at booths or are not at ISTE at all. Edtech success takes that effort and the ones that don't put it in quickly die.
5. The Right Business Model
The other thing that is tricky in ed tech is the business model. You have to have enough of your tool that is free to really hook a teacher, but you can't have too much that's free because you won't have anything to monetize. The other thing that can throw a monkey reach in the free scale is competitors that come out, and they offer an aspect you were going to monetize for free. It's a business where you have to get that balance just right, and that's very hard.
A company that I think has it right is Nearpod. From a free perspective, you can use Nearpod in teacher directed mode fairly efficiently with the free. The key for them though is that they have several features that make you quickly realize you want to pay for it. Basically, they have enough to hook, but they have features to get folks ton paid.
The other key point for them is that they priced the paid version in that sweet spot where they are not giving it away, but a teacher can still afford it. I think most teachers look at the below $125ish range as a possibility if they are going to use it all the time. By pricing it in that range, Nearpod can get a few teachers to buy in, and then the tool naturally spreads. Eventually, the school buys it making the business a success.
6. A Community
As the business and users grow, you can't necessarily hire staff at a rate to service the business in the way it should be. To answer this question, many companies have turned to the creation of an ambassador program. The idea behind the ambassador program is to give teachers some incentive to advocate for the product. This does two things to benefit the company: 1) It helps build that word of mouth as teachers talk to another teacher 2) It extends the staff as you now have a group that you can trust to train new users.
All ambassador programs are different as different companies have different needs. Some companies pay teachers to do training for them while others just give them things like t-shirts. Most of the time it all depends on the budget, but carving out a piece to support teachers in advoacting for your business is worth every penny.