OPINION: Is Your School Ready to Date a Startup?
Last week, the news got out: heralded edtech startup Junyo had called its school customers, one by one, to let them know it was discontinuing its first product--a blended learning platform that allowed schools to access online content from different providers. The announcement surprised many because the product had launched just a few weeks before. But Junyo realized that to fulfill its mission of answering “what students should do next,” it needed to shift away from schools and refocus on content providers, helping them make sense of the torrents of student achievement data flowing through their systems.
For several schools, Junyo was the first startup they ever dated. Reactions from schools ranged from disappointment to anger to resignation, raising questions about the future of schools and start-ups.
It’s not you. It’s me.
Like many startups, Junyo needed to change its strategy in order to succeed. In the startup world, this is called a “pivot.” For example, YouTube started out as a dating site called ‘Tune In Hook Up.’ When this plan failed to attract enough users, the company pivoted to the video-sharing giant we know today. In education, Grockit recently pivoted from test prep to its new social learning site Learn.ist.
While pivots can be disappointing for customers, they are necessary. Startups that don’t pivot usually go out of business. Big companies change strategies and discontinue products too. Remember Gerber’s line of adult food? Sony’s Betamax video players? Apple’s Newton tablet?
All companies--startups and big companies alike--need to course correct in order to be sustainable and delight their customers.
Should schools date younger companies?
Here is some dating advice for schools and startups that are interested in one another.
- Startups are small, nimble and can be much more innovative than big companies. They try to bring products and services to life that solve real problems or pain points.
- Startups want your business and can respond to you in minutes or hours instead of days, weeks, months or never!
- Early products will come with lots of bugs and updates. Even so they should do something that’s so compelling that schools are excited to help improve and shape these products.
- Realize that you may only get 50% of what you were initially promised when the product ships.
- Expect downtime and some mistakes (e.g., Twitter’s famous network outages).
- As companies grow, expect to work with different people.
- Negotiate the very best deal for yourself, but treat startups like partners, not just another vendor.
- It can take years to perfect and optimize a product.
Note: All the points above describe startups at their best. There are startups I know that are unresponsive, for example, and schools shouldn’t waste their time.
- Respect educators’ time. It’s the #1 scarcest resource in schools, given that most of the day is spent in class or meetings. Professional development time is even scarcer. Fierce and glorious wars are fought over professional development time even before your request was put in to train educators on your product.
- Schools have annual purchasing cycles. What they see in the spring is, at a minimum, what they are expecting to see if they implement in the fall. Summer and fall pivots hurt.
- Products used in classrooms have a higher standard for up-time and continuity.
- Schools love customizations and you have to be disciplined about spending precious resources building features that other schools don’t care about.
- Switching costs can be high for online learning products because educators invest time and energy getting to know the product and incorporating it in their instruction.
- Schools have limited capacity to communicate updates or changes to teachers and students.
- Expect varying degrees of patience from K12 customers. Some of the early school adopters are startups themselves and have limited capacity for additional uncertainty.
- Expect varying degrees of feedback.
- Schools have many network configuration and infrastructure issues along with a limited ability to troubleshoot them.
My first kiss
Schools have not historically done much work with startups and, without that experience, it’s easy to make missteps. I asked a few leading school organizations for their wisdom on working with startups. Here (in my own words) are a few things I heard from schools:
Define a clear process to pilot innovations
“Connect startups with that team of people in your school that likes innovation and experimentation. Create a formal piloting process so there’s a constant stream of feedback between the school and the startup--and now you have an R&D department.”
“Have a pilot with 2-4 stakeholders for a semester at least before anyone else [in your organization] even knows about it."
“We never put anything in front of students without testing it out first.”
Don’t assume everything will work out
“Don’t build your [program] around something that’s a mock-up in January thinking that 5-6 months is enough time to build a [mission-critical] product.”
“Schools need to thoughtfully build redundancies and back-up plans for when things don’t work.”
Manage your time and resources closely
“[When implementing new solutions] we often have to run manual systems in the background to mimic what the product promises to deliver in the future. The bigger the school [or school network] gets, the more manual systems we have to implement, and the harder that becomes.”
Will I ever meet “the one?”
Dating can be a mixed bag, but most of our schools will grow up to marry startups because startups drive innovation. Think how Google outmaneuvered Microsoft with Internet search and web-based applications. Facebook beat out Google in social networking. Instagram surpassed Facebook on mobile. Big K-12 textbook publishers, trying to avoid the fates of content providers in the music and newspaper industries, are trying to morph into technology companies, not by building their own products, but by acquiring--you guessed it--startups.
Most of the schools I spoke to are still bullish on startups because they view startups as playing an important role in transforming K12. But these schools also expect startups to pivot and make mistakes. Innovation is messy and there will be ups and downs. By creating clear processes to test new ideas, our best educators can partner with startups to shape the future of K12--without putting teachers and students at undue risk.
Also see: Shift Happens: Junyo Changes Course