The Devil Went Down to the Details
Note: Chapman Snowden is the founder of Kinobi and an innovator in training at 4.0 Schools.
First let's welcome Stew Stout from Kickboard back to the table--he's helped me with this post.
Ed tech entrepreneurs need to work with teachers and school leaders to understand their needs. This is what should happen. The bigger question is how ed tech entrepreneurs work with teachers and school leaders, because it certainly is not easy.
We can hopefully all agree (yes, that means you too, policy wonks) that the process of getting fully functional tools into the hands of teachers is beyond difficult (Joe Siedlecki of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation provides an excellent overview). The conventional wisdom is that you've got two approaches--you go through schools or go directly to teachers. Going through district public schools can be hard because you need to navigate complex procurement systems (I've attached the NYC DOE vendor's guide if you want some light reading). What we both hear over and over is that the sales cycles are inordinately long and that the decision-making process frequently fails to secure the teacher support needed for success. I heard one venture capitalist aptly describe the process of selling to schools as "building pyramids to sell ice cream cones."
Distributing directly to teachers is even more delicate. Teachers don't have a lot of disposable income, and the money they do spend out of pocket on professional expenses is frequently for basic supplies like paper. If you're going to expect a teacher to buy your product, it better be friggen' amazing and have the ability to go viral. The market fragmentation is a formidable barrier, and there simply aren't great ways to access large number of like-minded teachers easily. Some promising organizations such as EdModo, EdSurge Beta, and EdUpgrade, who are trying to create a marketplace for teachers to access new ed tech products, indicate that things will change with time. But it's still an uphill battle for ed tech entrepreneurs to market directly to teachers.
Now the distribution model for getting marginally functional products into the hands of teachers for product developing and testing is even more of a nightmare. Many people, especially funders, will point to money as the barrier. Sure it plays a part, but time, or lack thereof, is the main barrier in involving teachers in product development. At face value, it sounds like a great strategy to talk to a teacher about prototypes and beta products. But the reality is that you have limited access to teachers for the 6 hours a day they are in the classroom. Then to get some of their time after class you have to compete with grading, lesson planning, making copies, calling families, or doing the thousands of other things they need to do. Oh, and their personal lives. When it comes to beta testing (exchanging free products for product feedback), keep in mind there is no "free" for teachers. You cannot expect some of the most time-strapped people to try your product just because they don't have to pay.
Despite these difficulties, there are some specific tactics that help entrepreneurs or startups get the feedback they need to develop their products. First, let's acknowledge that entrepreneurs, especially in education, are forced to walk a fine line between confidence and hubris--tis the nature of the game. I am confident that these tactics are not the magic answers that will work for everyone all the time. But they reflect some hard-earned insights from four NOLA-made startups, Kinobi, Kickboard, Dash, and ClassroomBlueprint.
1. Focus on short, frequent interactions
When I first started interacting with teachers about Kinobi, I would plan epic meetings during which I could get a laundry list of items out of the way. My thinking was teachers are incredibly busy, so I need to maximize whatever time I get it. Well, turns out teachers are human as well, and the whole attention span/quality of time spent came into play. So I switched tactics, and now try to shoot for frequent, 20-minute interactions with small clusters of teachers. This type of guerilla product development forces me to focus in on the 1-2 most important questions and also is far more respectful of teachers' available time, which definitely buys you credibility.
2. Find a core group of evangelists
Evangelists are crucial to a start-up's success. They are the people that are willing to work with you regardless of how bad your product sucks. And at some point(s) it's going to suck, so just be prepared. A great place to start is your own personal network. The three founders of Dash are all current teachers, and their colleagues are their evangelists. They enable them to improve their product, explore new options, and develop relationships that build their customer base.
Jess Bialecki, the founder of ClassroomBlueprint, fully embraces the evangelist idea as well. She loves that in New Orleans there's a sense that anything, and everything, is on the table, so no idea--if it meets a legitimate need and is teacher-tested and teacher-approved--is too crazy. This is to say, there's always someone willing to fight for you. Just keep talking to people, and focus on who suffers the most from the problem you're addressing.
3. Embrace Lincoln's team of rivals
The enemy of ed tech start ups is teacher indifference. So when you find someone who tells you that your idea sucks, keep talking to that person. In fact, ask that person to bring their like-minded friends to the conversation. Unlike in politics, the clash of ideas can be incredibly powerful.
When I first told Joy Robbins, a former teacher in the NYC and DC school system, about Kinobi, she unleashed an eye-roll that would impress any 16 year-old girl. She wasn't sold, and she had no problem telling me so. At first it's not pleasant to receive negative feedback (see comment about confidence vs. hubris.) But I learned to love it because she was telling me something, and it was really valuable. So I kept coming back to her for her opinions, because it served to broaden my thinking and help me develop a more powerful solution.
4. Observe, Observe, Observe
Remember the idea that a picture is worth a 1,000 words? Well, same holds true in the ed tech start up world. Ed tech entrepreneurs don't always have to ask a user a question--we can gain a lot of knowledge from simply watching how a teacher interacts with the product. The Kickboard takes team "field trips" to schools so we can see first-hand how teachers are using Kickboard.
Now I'm sure that anyone who has read Lean Start-Up material probably didn't find any of the aforementioned tactics to be groundbreaking. That's fine with us; they are not supposed to be these magical epiphanies that only we stumbled upon. The point is that these tactics can be incredibly powerful when used correctly. Remember, the idea is useless; it's the execution that counts.
--Chapman Snowden and Stew Stout
A previous version of this post incorrectly identified the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.