Know Thy Market
We know that we have a valuable product, and not just because we think it's cool, but because our customers validate it and pay for it. As we grow our business, we are seeking new customers while simultaneously determining what portion of the education market we should focus on.
To grow an ed-tech startup, any entrepreneur needs to know the different roles of the many players in the education system and be able to appeal to these different segments. The consumer—often teachers or students—is not always the one with the purchasing power, so entrepreneurs need to develop a pitch that will appeal to the end user as well as the person who hold the purse strings. Autism Expressed has an advantage because I am a teacher. I have first-hand knowledge of the many pain points experienced in special education.
So while I designed Autism Expressed to be a product that engages and appeals to students directly, I understand that teachers will facilitate and manage the program in the classroom. I know how classrooms operate and the restrictions on every teacher's time as they address the endless tasks called for in their role as an educator. I've also learned a lot from other educational technology programs that I've used with my students in school. Often I learned what not to do and why these products are not useful or used by teachers consistently. Autism Expressed was designed by a teacher, and in many ways, for the teacher. The program is fun, easy to use, promotes learning for students and professional development for teachers. Most importantly, Autism Expressed's product includes tools that make a teacher's life easier. With all of these features, it would be easy to sell to teachers.
However, teachers are not typically the ones with the purchasing power. They are definitely influential in the decision-making process, but it's rare that teachers are managing the budget. When selling to administrators, I have to recognize that these school and district leaders will have a different set of needs. For example, if an administrator is going to spend a portion of the special education budget on a product, they want to make sure the teachers will use it.
Administrators are also responsible for ensuring that their organization is in compliance with special education laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). IDEA required federally classified students to have an Individual Educational Program (IEP). This document outlines a clear program that will support the students' needs and measure their outcomes to ensure growth. When a student approaches high school, they are required to have a transition plan in their IEP. This means that the IEP team must prepare considerations for the student's path for transitioning out of high schools.
Part of why Autism Expressed appeals to administrators is that it is not only a product that improves transition outcomes, but we also include the tools needed for the IEP document, like student pre-assessments and analytics that provide the data needed to measure student growth through progress monitoring. This is a priority for their role as an administrator, therefore highlighting this component to our product has been a strong selling point.
The difficult part for an ed-tech company is that districts can have many administrators, with slightly different angles and roles in special education services, and many responsibilities that pull them in a variety of directions. The sales cycle can be loooong.
When thinking about how to grow Autism Expressed, I'm also looking outside the boundaries of public school districts for other customers. Private schools and service providers like Bancroft also deliver the special education services required by IDEA. While their clients vary, these organizations typically focus on establishing strong relationships with parents to identify the priorities of their clients and nurture a collaborative partnership. For example, parents often voice concerns about their child's safety and ability to navigate the Internet safely. They want the best possible outcomes for their child and will work to find the supports to help students become independent to the greatest extent possible. Having a service as unique as Autism Expressed, gives private schools and service providers an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the competition and appeal directly to parents.
So to grow an ed-tech startup, know your market. Conversations with the various players involved are invaluable. Use the information gathered to organize talking points based on what is important to each of the players on your radar screen. Even as a teacher and an insider to the education market, I too can make assumptions as to what I believe is most important to a customer, but by listening to the questions our customers ask and their response to our product, I gain a deeper insight and can speak with more directed messages.
For now, I am doing my homework on my customers, even as I prepare to appeal to another market, one I know less intimately: investors. More on that coming soon.