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What Every Edtech Startup Should Sell: Classroom Solutions, Not Products

Rusty Greiff

Managing Director, Education Ventures, 1776

One of the most common themes we heard during Challenge Festival throughout our education-related programming—from the daytime conference, to the startup pitches, to Keynote Night—was that education technology innovators often struggle with understanding the impact of their products with their actual end-users.

The idea first arose during Monday’s education conference, when Everfi CEO Tom Davidson mentioned innovators’ tendency to—as he called it—“crop dusting.” Edtech crop dusting occurs when a company tries to drop its product onto a wide swath of schools or classroom, without really stopping to evaluate the product’s effectiveness.

And more often than not, that approach isn’t very effective. Often, it actually creates more confusion and disorientation for teachers and learners, the end users these products are trying to support.

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson raised a similar concern during Keynote Night, ending the week on almost the same note it began. According to Henderson, many edtech applications purport to have a dashboard that will streamline students’ data into one, easy-to-use platform. It sounds simple, but what if a teacher uses three or four different edtech products, each with different functions? If each of those products has its own dashboard, suddenly students’ data is split across an array of programs—and one startup’s simple solution suddenly becomes a pain point. Many well-intentioned and talented entrepreneurs design siloed strategies and product impact without factoring in the more holistic approach for the overwhelmed teacher, student or parent.

If that seems backwards, it is or it certainly can be. At times, entrepreneurs—with their demands on product timelines, distribution, fundraising, team building, and validation pilots—can find themselves surprisingly out of touch with the actual populations they serve.

This miscalculation became a consistent theme across all of our industry verticals throughout the week. Moreover, it laid the groundwork for another theme: sell solutions to problems, not just products.

But what does that actually look like in practice? Successful edtech companies start by getting students and teachers involved in the product development process. That’s exactly what Chris Johnson and the team at Permission Click, a competitor at last week’s Challenge Festival, did. According to Johnson, Permission Click interviewed stakeholders at more than 70 schools to understand how to shape the solution before even putting a finger to the keyboard to build the product.

“It seemed universally accepted that digital permission slips and forms would be a great idea, but the more important question we had to answer is, ‘How do we build it such that your school and district can actually onboard and use it?’ The other way to figure out how important the ‘itch’ for schools is validating how much they would spend to solve the problem if you delivered the solution.”

Similarly, Kara Carpenter, founder of Teachley and a former teacher herself, says that her company’s products grew out of her own classroom experiences.

“We design our games working alongside students and teachers. We have partnerships with several schools in Harlem, and we specifically ask to work with kids who are struggling in math,” she said. “So when we’re developing a new game, we test out all the new features and interactions to make sure they really help these struggling learners.”

However, even with this approach, a founder can get disconnected from the classroom and caught up in selling a product. The trick seems to be staying connected to end users by building lasting relationships with them. Companies that embrace their end users can avoid some of the quagmires that crippled and even shut down companies hailed as the next great edtech platform.

For example, we’ve written in-depth about the fate of inBloom, a data-management system that would have allowed teachers to collect, aggregate and sync student data between other platforms—a potential solution to the problem Henderson highlighted during Challenge Festival last week. However, inBloom failed in one key area: Even though it built extensive privacy protections into its system, the company didn’t communicate effectively with parents—inBloom’s silence on student data collection and privacy led it to become the scapegoat for massive fighting between parents, districts and policymakers.

inBloom’s critical misstep was that it remained disconnected from a key group of stakeholders—parents—and ultimately was forced to shut down as a result.

Part of the furor over inBloom stemmed from confusion over the platform’s purpose. This led to the assumption that inBloom was somehow moving toward a business model based on storing and selling student data, away from their primary perceived goal: student success.

If student success is the key goal, then entrepreneurs must not incorporate students’ & teachers’ voices in the process simply because it’s good practice. Rather, entrepreneurs need to include users’ voices in order to ensure that the technology actually facilitates learning outcomes.

Solutions—not just stand-alone products—demand collaborative and coherent alignment across the critical stakeholders. The sophisticated entrepreneur understands that he or she must sell a solution, not just a product, to meet a classroom need.

And the only way to recognize classroom needs is to get back to intensive farming, rather than crop dusting. As Everfi’s Davidson says, edtech innovators need to get “boots on the ground working with teachers.” That’s when technology implementation has the greatest opportunity to be successful.

Rusty Greiff

Managing Director, Education Ventures, 1776

Rusty Greiff is the managing director for 1776's education ventures. Most recently, Rusty served as Chief Strategy & Development Officer and co-founder of SF-based Learnist, one of the fastest growing…

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Melissa Steffan

Melissa is the former assistant editor for 1776, where she worked on the media team to create compelling, idea-driven content and reporting. A Seattle native, she graduated from Seattle Pacific…