A practical perspective on what it takes to make it from an edtech entrepreneur.
GUEST COLUMN | by Aaron Michel
I launched PathSource a couple of years with the belief that we could approach K-12 schools with an amazing career education product and immediately disrupt this huge billion dollar marketplace. Within a couple of years we’d be a juggernaut, changing lives for the better in every school across the country. And then I could become the next Bill Gates. Total timeline: approximately 5 years.
Shockingly, things didn’t go as planned. We did succeed in creating an awesome career exploration product with excellent efficacy data. In San Francisco, 50% of students who didn’t know what they wanted to do said that they found a career that excited them after using PathSource for 1-2 hours. Over 90% of students said that they would recommend us to a friend. In the Chicago Public Schools, in a multi-school pilot, 100% of teachers who used PathSource said they would recommend us to a colleague. All of this was great! We were changing lives. So why were we still in under 50 school districts? Why was this still so hard?
I’ve gotten to know a lot of the top companies and investors in edtech over the past couple of years and have come to the conclusion that there’s a confluence of challenges that make K-12 a uniquely difficult market for entrepreneurs to build a big business.
Here’s what I see as the most significant challenges:
- In K-12, everyone pays lip service to the importance of new technologies, but few people are willing to be the first to try something.
In K-12 public schools, as a mid-level decision-maker, you usually don’t get rewarded for technological risk-taking. If things go well, everyone will claim credit. If things fail, and you were the one who made the push for the brand spanking new technology that didn’t work, then you take the fall.
So truly brand-new edtech companies with interesting new technologies often spend months or even over a year looking for their first pilot. Many of these companies run out of runway (funding) by this point and simply cease to exist before they can prove their product works.
- IE6 and IE7
There’s a disconnect between Silicon Valley and most of America’s public schools. In the valley, edtech entrepreneurs read articles written within their bubble and think that every U.S. public school either has or is getting the most up-to-date equipment and every student has an iPad.
That’s fool’s gold. The reality is that many — if not most — U.S. schools have dilapidated equipment. I can’t tell you how many computer centers I’ve seen that still only have IE6 or IE7. Until we fund better devices for students across the country and get tech-savvy teachers to use them, all of the cool new software we develop in the Bay Area, New York and Boston (the major edtech development centers in the U.S.) isn’t going to mean squat.
- Tech-savvy teachers vs. entrepreneurs
I came across an edtech company recently that had an amazingly cool product that any technologist would love. Unfortunately, it required that every teacher be uber technology-enabled in order to use it. There are super technology-savvy teachers in schools across America. They are not yet in the majority.
Edtech entrepreneurs must understand that a good UX in K-12 education means creating a product that your grandmother could easily use.
- Lengthy relationship sales
The sales cycle to get a pilot running is often 6+ months. To get a district-wide purchase could take a year or more. These timelines should be terrifying to K-12 entrepreneurs and investors. An early stage company is lucky to get a year of initial funding in which to prove the product and business model. With a very long sales cycle, edtech companies are walking on the knife’s edge of the funding cycle.
Not only that, but often edtech sales are won by salespeople who have been in the industry for 10-20 years and can call their buddy the superintendent to get a meeting the following week. In K-12 education, the Old Boys Network is alive and well. The 22 year old nerd in Silicon Valley with the neat piece of software is at a distinct disadvantage. S/he lacks time, team and distribution. K-12 is an uphill battle.
Today, K-12 is facing a host of powerful trends. The industry isn’t being disrupted so much as thrown into a blender with the impact of free content, charter schools, weakening unions and MOOCs — all starting to shred the status quo, bit by bit. Change won’t be fast, but it will come.
In the meantime, my company has grown past its infancy. We’re in a number of America’s largest districts and are having a major impact. It’s not as fast as we’d like, but it’s happening. At the same time, we’re rolling out a Kickstarter campaign and microsite in September ahead of the planned November release of a free mobile app for 18-30 year olds. We’re connecting the dots between education, careers, lifestyle and budget. The road is long, but it is passable.
We’ll see what comes out of the blender.
Aaron Michel has started multiple online education companies, raised capital and was accepted into the MassChallenge accelerator. In the past three years, Aaron and his companies have been featured in USA Today, ABC, TechCrunch, The Wall Street Journal and other outlets. Most recently, Aaron received the Boston Business Journal and Mass High Tech’s Innovation All-Star award. Aaron graduated from Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He can’t wait for PathSource’s Kickstarter campaign to get rolling. He lives with his wife Susan, with whom he is contemplating one day buying a dog, or if she gets her way, a cat.
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