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Advice for Startups: Win Confidence of Schools, Quickly

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Success for a startup company trying to make it in the risk-averse and insular K-12 market turns on a combination of long-term thinking and the ability to prove yourself—right away—to those who matter.

Those were among the messages that came across in a recent webinar staged by the Software and Information Industry Association, which brought together a group of consultants who advise education companies trying to find their way. (The full webinar is embedded below.)

On the topic of long-term thinking:

Too many startups and entrepreneurs in ed-tech and other areas venture into school districts without being able to explain their business model and demonstrate that they'll be around in a couple years, said one of the panelists, Frank Catalano, the principal of Intrinsic Strategy.

That's a red flag for district administrators choosing between buying a promising-but-unproven product and a well-established one that's being offered by a player they know.

"How can I trust that you'll be in business when I need you?" Catalano said a district leader's likely to ask.

A lot of startups don't want to commit to a specific business model; they want the freedom to evolve and try different things. But superintendents and principals have to know that a curriculum developer is going to be able to make fixes if bugs arise, and that a data company is going to be able to retrieve student information when the district needs it.

"You should be able to easily explain how you make money, because if you say, 'Well, we don't, we're foundation funded,' and that's going to run out, or 'We're venture-capital funded,' you may not be able to get the sale," Catalano said. "Have something for people that [shows] you're going to be around in the long term for them."

On the subject of proving yourself, immediately:

Succeeding right out of the gate, on the one hand, requires a startup to do enough research on schools and how they operate to know that there's a clear need for the product they're offering, and that it can be easily put in place in the classroom, or district office, said Sue Collins, the principal of the company CollinsConsults.

"You have to be first-to-market, but not first-to-market if the market is five or six years behind where you are," she said.

Once startup leaders are confident they have a market, they can't flub the rollout, she said. School districts operate as a "collaborative market," she said, and if products don't work, bad news can spread quickly.

"You want a great first impression from the time you go out, and you definitely don't want people talking about, 'Well, it didn't work here, or it didn't work there,'" she said.

Startups also need to understand which particular market in schools they're going after, said Toni Morgan, executive vice president of TechERA, which consults with educators and tech companies.

Is their product a core instructional program, she asked, or a supplemental one? Or one of the growing number of programs designed to expand the learning day for students, by bringing tech tools to them at home or in other out-of-school environments?

Above all, those tools have to reduce educators' burdens, not pile on new ones, she said.

"There is limited time in the day," Morgan said. "Things that will specifically fill needs, and make teacher work easier, which is a very big deal, and easy to implement, will get the most attention."

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