As a former teacher who joined the edtech industry after four years in the classroom, I’ve heard plenty of fantastical tales about the sales process. Yes, it’s true that selling to schools is not for the faint of heart. But it isn’t impossible either.
Selling anything for a living requires plenty of thick skin, persistence and patience—and this is especially true in the case of edtech. But after a decade of teaching, marketing and selling to K-12 customers, I’d like to demystify some of the assumptions and fears that have prevailed among startup circles.
Myth #1: I can only sell in the spring.
Reality: Edtech sales happen year round.
I’ve often heard education entrepreneurs lament that they missed “the sales season,” but have never agreed with this assertion. I have fond memories of visiting Central Park-adjacent schools in the spring—and less fond memories of visiting not so conveniently located, more snowy, schools in the dead of winter. Throughout the year I was on the ground, building relationships and cementing new partnerships.
There are a few reasons to sell across seasons: First, different funds are released at different points in the year. Some may be ready by the summer, but other funds are dependent on the demographics of enrolled students, so can’t be calculated until the school year has begun. Second, administrators may not have used the full fund when it was first released, so they may still be looking for products for their funds’ balances into the winter and even late spring. Last, and most important, schools are always looking for new better products to improve student learning outcomes. If you pitch a great tool at any point in the year, but there’s no budget for it at the time, administrators will remember it when the money opens up. (And a persistent salesperson will help them remember!)
Myth #2: I need to know someone to get in the door.
Reality: Cold calls can and do work.
There’s no shortage of news stories about corrupt administrators, guided by greed and nepotism, offering contracts to friends. Just this fall, Chicago Public Schools was the focus of media attention around this topic. These stories strengthen the belief that knowing someone inside is the only way to penetrate district administrators’ walls, but they don’t represent the complete picture. While knowing someone can make it easier to get a district-level meeting, it doesn’t guarantee a sale. Similarly, you can make a sale without starting off with an inside connection.
Many successful edtech companies tap personal connections to find their first customers and pilots. But having these relationships shouldn’t be a make-or-break.A solid product can speak for itself as an introduction. It’s true that teachers and school technology heads are inundated with emails from edtech companies, but it’s also true that some of those emails get opened. To get a cold message read, a sender needs to have done her research and know what specifically an educator or district needs and how the product fits that need. A genuine email that is individualized has a good chance of getting opened and leading to a website visit.
Myth #3: I can’t land districts without a big sales team.
Reality: There are alternate routes to district partnerships, and you might not need them.
Having an experienced, strong sales team in place to sell to districts is ideal. But before a startup splurges to build this team (or lament the fact that it doesn’t exist), it should ask whether it really needs to go after districts. In many cases, districts can offer large numbers of users with one partnership, but in other cases, schools make more sense for targeting. For example, in the New York City Department of Education (which serves over one million students), there are many schools with more students than entire districts in other less densely populated parts of the country. Even selling to a fraction of NYC DOE’s 1,800 schools can be a game-changer.
If selling to districts still seems like the way to go, but the sales team is pretty green, RFPs (Requests for Proposals) can be a good place to start partnership efforts. By monitoring which RFPs a district is opening to submissions, the team will know ahead of time whether the product is a good fit for the district’s needs, and the district will (usually) outline exactly what they need to see and hear (through the RFP guidelines for submission) in order to seal the deal.
Myth #4: I need customers to get customers.
Reality: There are ways to entice new users without referencing current users.
When a potential client asks about current users, it’s great to be able to point her to schools and districts near and far, resembling her institution’s size and student population. For a startup, that luxury may not exist, though. New edtech companies can get users at this stage, and offer other perks in lieu of references or data on long-term efficacy. The compensation may be financial, in the form of a reduced price, or it may be in time. For example, the company could offer their time in the form of product trainings and extended support. This can be mutually beneficial as the school may experience a smoother implementation, ensuring users with a positive experience with the company from the start.
Myth #5: Without teacher support, an edtech product fails.
(Somewhat) false: If you’re in it for the long run, this will ultimately be true.
Teacher support of a product helps tremendously, and building a tool that teachers want to use is among most edtech developers’ goals. However, this goal needs to be tempered since purchasing and implementation are often top-down decisions. Given that structure, it makes sense to focus not only on teacher support, but also on that of administrators, whose support will come after seeing how your product can help them perform their challenging jobs more efficiently and effectively. Long-term success for an edtech product ultimately comes to those tools that can add value to everyone in the education ecosystem: teachers, administrators, students and parents.
It’s easy to get discouraged as the new edtech kid on the block, especially when one finds competitors on districts’ pre-approved lists and in every school. But it’s crucial to remember that those competitors were probably where you are today a few years ago. Despite all of the challenges that can arise at an edtech startup—small sales teams, lack of a strong network and customers to reference, less than ideal timing—sales can and do come to those willing to work tirelessly within those conditions.