Letters from the Socratic Labs Trenches

Opinion | Incubators

Letters from the Socratic Labs Trenches

Lessons learned from the alpha cohort of an incubator

By Heather Gilchrist     Sep 4, 2013

Letters from the Socratic Labs Trenches

When we set out on our ambitious journey of creating a unique community for edtech entrepreneurs, we knew we had a long and challenging road ahead of us. We knew we’d learn at least as much from our cohort companies and community as we could teach them. Our goal was to be the convener and collector of wisdom. And yes, have we learned a lot!

We’re proud of the accomplishments of our Alpha cohort. Our teams have raised money from top investors (including Rick Segal of Rethink Education), inked deals with major strategic partners (including Pearson OpenClass and several major education publishers), and grown in really impressive ways. Our own team has grown, too: we’ve added Priya Garg as co-Managing Director (Morgan Stanley, Training the Street), lined up a new operating partner who will join us soon, and got Deborah Chang to join us as Chief of Staff (KIPP, Achievement First). They’ve been tremendous as we prepare to launch the next stage of Socratic Labs.

In the true spirit of lean startup, we want to share what we and our cohort members have learned in order to help others participating in (or hosting) accelerators and other communities make the most of their experiences. We also hope to encourage an open and productive dialogue so that we may collaboratively usher in great things in education.

Lesson One: Be Present

We found a direct correlation between physical proximity and success. During our Alpha cohort, we allowed teams to work remotely in an attempt to be flexible. The teams that showed up and worked alongside us every day got the most out of the program; they could turn to us at any time to ask for advice or request an introduction, and they got immediate responses. The teams who were present in the space also participated in more of the sessions we ran and were able to meet with folks who dropped in on short notice--folks including Matt Greenfield and Frank Bonsal III, collaborators from other programs, school partners, and visiting founders passing through NYC. In our experience, Marissa Mayer, who made waves as Yahoo’s CEO by abolishing Yahoo’s work-from-home policy, was on to something; in the future, teams participating in our accelerator program will be expected to work alongside us.

Lesson Two: “Fit” Must Be Multi-Sided

We learned quite a bit about selection. For our Alpha cohort, we invited most teams in to spend a “trial week” getting to know us. That process allowed us to earn the trust of the startups (as we were a new program) and it allowed us to gauge their receptiveness, assess whether the team was equipped to address a major pain point in education, feel out whether we could add value, and more.

We also learned that assessing “fit” isn’t just about whether the startup matches the incubator and visa versa: fit involves the whole community. Teams must fit together with one another, we must all fit well with schools and strategic partners, and teams must fit with their own co-founders. Now that we know how important these different “fits” are, we will create better mechanisms to assess them during the selection process. We aim to make sure that we are as right for them as they are for us--and for one another.

Lesson Three: Set Clear Expectations

We tried to be as clear as possible in communicating to our first cohort that we, too, are a lean startup. That means we need feedback from them to ensure they are getting what they need from us. As John Doerr has said, “communicate, communicate, communicate.” We’re picking up best practices here--such as regular check-ins and accountability for all parties--and expect to continue to do so.

Lesson Four: Founders Can Offer the Best Perspective

The best advice, of course, comes from founders themselves. Some will love us; some won’t. Our goal is to find the people with whom we can have the most impact, and encourage others to find programs where they can do the same. That’s exactly why we collaborate so openly with so many other programs in cities around the country and around the world through our Edtech Passport network, a network of education focused accelerators and incubators around the world from Boston to Toronto to Tel Aviv.

In that spirit, our accelerator is just one piece of a more expansive ecosystem for educators and education entrepreneurs. For instance, beginning in October, we’re launching a new month-long program called EdText that brings educators, entrepreneurs, business leaders, and technologists together to learn from and provide consulting to partner schools. Our goal is for EdText participants to emerge from their experience fluent in identifying the problems, solutions and points of collaboration that will benefit schools.

Great ideas don’t happen in isolation. All edtech entrepreneurs can benefit from an open and frank dialogue, aimed at improving the environment for learning--so chime in.

Comments from Socratic Labs Alpha Cohort Founders on Making the Most of Your Accelerator Experience:

Be Receptive to Feedback

"Be receptive to feedback. Where of course it would be impossible (and unreasonable) to implement everything someone suggests to an entrepreneur, an accelerator provides an environment where initial ideas lead to a more robust network effect of ideation. Working through business challenges with other companies can help provide some insights on your own business model and strategy."--Katie Palenscar, Unbound Concepts

Get People Talking

"Try to leverage all opportunities the accelerator affords you to get your product in front of teachers and press."--Michael Bernstein, Penpal News

Focus on What You Need

"Honestly evaluate where you are in your product and business life cycle, and then think about how to best leverage the strengths of the incubator you are in. For example, we were one of the earlier teams in Socratic Labs in terms of lifecycle, so we were more focused on leveraging the incubator as a way to meet other teams, entrepreneurs, and organizations in the education technology and education ecosystem. In short, the value that we took from our incubator experience was the broader education and education technology network that we left with versus the one we entered with--even after 2.5 years of having worked in the non-profit sector prior to joining the accelerator."--Waine Tam, Careerosity

Take the Long View

"Be careful how you spend time and resources. Accelerators create lots of stress to show positive results in a very short time period, typically 3-6 months. Don't make short sighted business decisions in order to "look" ready for demo day. Also, too much advice from mentors can cause analysis paralysis. At the end of the day, listen to thoughtful feedback, but trust your gut on decision making."--Andrew Josuweit, Student Loan Hero

Be Your Own Advocate

"Any accelerator program, or any formal educational training for that matter, is only as valuable as the effort you put into it. I made the most of every opportunity, made amazing connections, asked a thousand questions and listened more than I spoke."--Abran Maldonado, NuSkool

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