If you go to startup pitch events, you’ve seen it happen:
An entrepreneur says something—something so naïve, egregious and hackneyed—that it makes the investors, along with educators who are now increasingly in the audience, physically cringe. As funders wince and squirm uncomfortably, some are thinking along the lines of: “How do I respond to this pitch genuinely without coming off like a jerk?”
In the interest of fixing this problem at the source, I reached out to some of the advisors and investors in the Dreamit Edtech network to get their “lemon lists” of concepts, statements, and business models that edtech entrepreneurs may want to think twice—or thrice—about.
For convenience, I’ve aggregated their suggestions into two broad categories: Cringe-worthy Concepts and Modest Missteps.
These are not inherently “bad ideas” per se. It’s just that the investor community have seen tons of these, and in order to impress you need to jump right to what makes your approach a quantum level better than everything else out there. Hint: “It’s mobile,” “We have a better UI,” and “It’s for millennials” are not the answers.
Student engagement and retention mobile apps
Yes, this is a big problem. But there are many startups in this space. Most of them offer some variation of the thesis that improving how “engaged” students are in their coursework and community will boost academic outcomes which will then increase retention. Yet academics are not the main reason student drop out; according to a study from Inside Track, it’s the fifth most important factor.
The other solutions I see in this space tend to throw a lot of features (such as calendars, student to student messaging, event check-in, and newsfeeds) into an app and hope better retention just happens. I’d cite a few examples of this approach but, as you can imagine, startups who take this approach rarely get off the ground and those who do don’t last long.
Parent communications platforms
There are already several well-capitalized startups (including Bloomz, ClassDojo, Remind), established companies (SchoolMessenger), and other deep pocket players from learning management system providers that already boast significant traction here. Like Peter Thiel says, if you are not delivering a 10x improvement, you don’t stand a chance.
Chatbots are hip and cool these days and, while I agree that they have a lot of potential, most of the pitches are simply applications that turn IBM Watson’s natural language processing technology loose on a university’s existing FAQ page. If that’s all you’ve got, what makes your business better and defensible? In these situations startups that master the space early get a rush of initial business—until the mass of fast-followers come in and drive prices down to the bare bones.
College recruiting and lead generation
The growing population of 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S., along with the stream of foreign applicants to U.S. universities (which, to note, has taken a small dip under the Trump administration), the widespread adoption of online applications, and nearly 700 colleges accepting a common application, combine to make college admissions more competitive than ever. So finding and getting into the right college is clearly a major pain point.
The catch is that the vast majority of people suffer it only once. This means that customer acquisition is challenging and your company’s revenue model has to be rich enough to support it. Unfortunately, the days when you could sell a lead to the university solely because a student visited its page on your website and clicked “save” are long gone. For your lead to be worth much to the college you need to have robust data about that student’s underlying needs and preferences, and demonstrate that students value your site or app as a highly trusted source of information and advice.
Peer-to-peer or crowdsourced tutoring network
Simply saying “We’re the Uber of education!” doesn’t make it so. There’s a graveyard full of these startups (such as Tutorspree) and only a few survivors like Wyzant. They almost all underestimate the cost of customer acquisition and overestimate how much usage and viral boost they will get.
To be clear, it is not any specific dollar amount that concerns us; it’s the ratio of customer acquisition cost (CAC) to the lifetime value (LTV) of the customer. As a general rule, LTV has to be 3x higher than CAC for the business model to work. But when I see these kinds of businesses, if they estimate CAC at all, it’s based on a small experiment that won’t scale. So I ask them, “If the economics are that good, have you maxed out all your credits cards to pour every last cent into this customer acquisition channel?”
Invariably, they start backtracking, hemming and hawing, and eventually admit that there either are channels that cannot absorb more marketing spend (e.g., they were bidding on rare search terms that just don’t come up that often) or that CAC starts to rise as others spend more (e.g., startup bidding on more competitive search terms).
Particularly unconvincing: telling us you got a few hundred signups at your college “with zero marketing spend.” What this tells us is that you have no idea what it will cost to get students onboard at the other 4000-plus colleges you do not attend.
Any B2C app for language learning
Personally, I like using Duolingo, and Voxy is a great option for people who want to learn English. But as with tutoring networks, the customer acquisition costs are much, much higher than you think, especially the ones that, like Google Adwords, can scale with you are you grow.
Some of the apps do reasonably well at getting free users, but usage drops off pretty sharply when they are asked to pay anything. That means the acquisition cost per paying customer is very hard to recoup.
These next few ideas were great…back in the day. Now, the market is pretty much locked up. Startups that are attempting to build the following tools are at least 10 years too late to the party, especially if they’re attempting to tackle the US market.
Yet another student book exchange
Yet another LMS
Switching something as deeply entrenched in a school’s operations as their LMS is so painful that it’s basically a non-starter. Switching costs are high, and most schools are not likely to switch from solutions like Blackboard or Canvas for the sake of a prettier interface or more “social” features. Sometimes you could give your solution away for free and they still wouldn’t switch. In fact, a freebie option is emerging as some schools are adopting Google Classroom as a lightweight LMS.
Yet another Test Prep Provider
MOOCs or General Assembly for country X
Do you know what company is “Facebook for country X?” Facebook is. (Except for in China, perhaps.) Which leads us to…
Don’t Say These Things
“90%+ of teachers hate their LMS/SIS/etc.”
And yet they don’t seem to switch. What does that tell you?
“It’s fully integrated. Plug and play... as long as there are APIs.”
So it works. If it works. Except when it doesn’t work. Gotcha.
“And we haven't even started selling to parents yet!”
Yeah, that’s not hard at all…
“If we only get 1% of the market…”
Yeah, that’s not hard either…
“I created this because it is what my child/class/students needed.”
My follow-up question: “Is it what other child/class/students need?” If, after two years of cranking away, there are only a few dozen of other schools that are willing to pay to solve this same problem, most investors will lose interest very fast.
“We will get the teachers using the free version and then school will pay for it.”
Ah, no they won’t. Why would they when teachers can use the free version? It’s not surprising that a go-to-market strategy that avoids the pain of selling directly to a school administration by hooking the teachers and effectively deputizing them to drag the principal along appeals to a lot of founders. But figuring out where to put the paywall between free and premium is critical. The free version has to be useful enough to teachers that they will use it, but you have to keep enough value in reserve that the administration will make budget for it.
So now that you know how to make an edtech investor cringe… please don’t. Take the time to pick the right concept and get it right. Then, we’d love to hear from you.
Author’s note: I’d like to thank all the people who contributed their ideas to this warning list… but most of them asked to remain anonymous (I wonder why?) so I’ll just say “Thank you all… and you know who you are” :-)