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Why Ed Entrepreneurs Need to Be Thought Leaders

I'll offer a bit of free advice today for educational entrepreneurs and those who would be. Generally, good entrepreneurs (e.g. the ones who aren't peddling snake oil) focus on developing a terrific product or service, and on "making a difference." This mindset is pretty much innate in the entrepreneur's DNA.

As a consequence, the usual aim is to stay under the radar and deliver. All sensible enough. At the most prosaic level, entrepreneurs who have good stuff usually beat those who don't. Usually, but not always. Evidence that what you're providing is valuable can only help, but it's hard to know for sure whether many providers are adding value--and skeptics can readily argue that even those with outcome results are falling short on unmeasured dimensions, working with a select population, or mishandling funds. Meanwhile, school and system leaders who might be intrigued by what you offer are also very aware that their decisions are being judged by voters and elected officials--so they will often look favorably at providers that enjoy public acclaim, whatever their bottom-line.

K-12 is an unusual space. It's a public space, shaped by public policies, fueled with public dollars, and designed to serve the public's children. Succeeding in it is not just about effect sizes and customer satisfaction, it's also about learning to operate in the public space, where you need to be aware of policymakers, funders, and advocates and how they can make it harder or easier for good providers to succeed.

Fortunately, you can influence what this policy community thinks and how it acts. You can do so by working to become a thought leader; by writing, speaking, and informing the public conversation. This does not mean that you're simply shooting your mouth off--it means that you're offering expertise, experience-driven insights, and tough-minded truths that are specific to your efforts and that emerge from your work. Doing so frequently seems like a distraction or an unnecessary headache, but it confers five big advantages:

First, it creates credibility with policymakers, advocates, and key decision-makers so that they're reaching out to you for expertise. This allows you to share thoughts and insights as an expert, rather than a supplicant, and puts you in a position to help decision-makers think through the implications of laws, rules, or policies.

Second, it puts you in a position where you can help states and districts think about practical challenges and how to meet them. This means that you're in rooms talking with them, not as a salesman, but because they want you there.

Third, it makes you a spokesperson, generating free media and attention. This makes you more likely to get invited to sit on panels or deliver remarks to conferences and officials, opening doors and creating awareness. This can help create a virtuous cycle, in which the mystique helps in attracting talent, resources, and the rest--yielding business opportunities and more visibility. Think Apple.

Fourth, this kind of visibility makes it easier to attract the eye of talented funders, evaluators, and potential partners, making it easier to tap new resources and expertise at a big discount. That kind of evaluation, in particular, can help deliver the kinds of demonstrated results that help boost credibility and further accelerate the virtuous cycle.

Fifth, thought leadership helps put you in a position where community groups, advocates, and the like are more inclined to actually help you get into markets. When really successful at this, you get to the place where you've got districts competing for your attentions.

Now, doing this cost-effectively, strategically, and wisely is a complicated story. It's one that requires a lot of attention to the policy space, the impact of research, context, nuance, market specifics, and the rest. In truth, this is a place where edu-entrepreneurs can often use a little help. But, a quick look at some of the folks who've gotten this right in the past decade, like The New Teacher Project or Wireless Generation, shows that it's well worth the effort.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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