Knock Knock! How Your Sales Team Can Crack Districts’ Doors

Opinion | Entrepreneurship

Knock Knock! How Your Sales Team Can Crack Districts’ Doors

By Alex Rappaport     Jan 18, 2016

Knock Knock! How Your Sales Team Can Crack Districts’ Doors

How do I sell to K-12 schools? This is inevitably the question I get from every early-stage edtech founder I meet. We don’t talk about standards, curriculum, product or technology. Sales is the nut they just can’t crack.

The K-12 market is notoriously difficult. The sales cycle is long, particularly at the large, marquee districts that entice new companies. The procurement process is fragmented, often requiring evaluation and sign off from multiple administrators and boards. The red tape is thick and sticky, from RFPs to vendor forms to contracts that vary from district to district. The purchasing process is antiquated, right down to the faxed purchase order at the end of it. And yes, you still need a fax machine if you sell to K-12.

As the founder and CEO of an edtech company that is now 12 years old and growing rapidly, these are the five tips that I most often give when advising young companies on how they should think about their business models and sales organizations.

Know your customer and respect the market

Yes, there are facets of K-12 education that can be improved with technology, but educators and students are doing the intensely difficult work of teaching and learning every day. Arrogant entrepreneurs who think they’re saviors aren’t helping anything, so don’t stroll into the K-12 market trying to “disrupt” everything just because you’ve heard some buzzwords at a startup conference.

In order to sell to this market and ultimately succeed in it, you need to learn it and respect it. That means spending time in classrooms and district offices to learn what the pain points really are. Go to conferences and meet teachers. Ask them what they struggle with. Don’t make any assumptions, because unless you’ve been at the front of that classroom yourself, you don’t really know.

Once you know the landscape, make sure your product solves a problem that is real and relevant, and make sure it’s a problem that schools would actually spend money on. That’s known as product-market fit. If you identify a real, validated problem and stay focused on it, you’re more likely to succeed.

Keep it simple and be transparent

Educators don’t like smoke and mirrors. Hiding plans and pricing information is a bad idea. You may not want to publish your whole district discount menu, but you should make it easy for schools and districts to get a ballpark sense of your pricing. I have heard many district administrators say that they don’t want to fill out a “contact us” form just to find out what something costs.

Keep in mind that educators are much busier than you. One district administrator in South Carolina told me that she receives 900 emails a day. Pricing models should be simple enough to explain in the five seconds you’ll have on the phone with decision-makers like her. If your pricing has too many moving parts and conditionals, simplify it.

In general, the pricing models that prevail are those that charge on a per-school or per-student basis. You should go with the pricing model that matches your product’s typical use case. If it has a highly individualized student experience, you probably want to tie the price to the student population.

Sharing is caring

Word of mouth is the engine that drives K-12 sales and marketing. As technology teacher and education blogger Vicki Davis has said, teachers have a professional responsibility to share things they love.

Whether you set up a freemium model like Newsela or TenMarks, or a free trial model like Flocabulary, it’s a good idea to allow teachers to dig into your product and provide feedback. An administrator is much more likely to purchase a program that her teachers are clamoring for. We encourage teachers who love our product to literally bang on their administrators’ doors.

If free models scare you, another way to build support at the grassroots level is to create a premium version of your product that is designed for individual teachers. In this scenario, a school or district can buy for a small cohort and see how it goes before committing to a large-scale purchase. This strategy has been one of our keys to growth. A significant number of schools that start with teacher accounts become school customers, and many of those have turned into district accounts. If you have the kind of product that can be segmented into different plans, this “land and expand” method can be very effective.

Think local

An administrator in Miami doesn’t really care how well your product works in Los Angeles.

Teachers want to know that your product will solve their specific problems—and they work under the assumption that every region has a different set of challenges and procedures. “They do their thing, we do ours.”

The K-12 market can be very territorial—right down to individual districts—even though educators across the country are teaching the same subjects through a strikingly similar set of academic standards . The most effective way to sell is with strong, hyper-local proof points. Educators like apples-to-apples comparisons. If your product is working in the school down the block, it will mean a lot more coming from them than from a school in another state.

A good strategy for local expansion is to strategically offer trials or pilots to schools where you have a strong contact and are likely to get good traction. Once that school is up and running, invite teachers and administrators from neighboring schools and districts to see the product in action.

Don’t knock on locked doors

Edtech companies often make the mistake of trying to sell cold to large districts. This is like banging on a locked door.

So, find door-openers. These folks can take a variety of shapes, including independent (“indie”) sales reps or resellers. Indie reps, who often carry a variety of products, are generally connected in a local market. Sometimes a contract with an independent rep can jumpstart the sales process and get you some priceless initial traction. You’ll give away 15 to 25 percent of the sale, but you won’t pay anything up front. The relationships these folks bring to the table can go a long way. You can keep the reps on for a year or two and then go out on your own once you have some established accounts in the market. (Fair warning to SaaS companies: Think about whether you want to pay these reps perpetually on renewals.)

There are also door openers who won’t take a slice. These are often former teachers or administrators who simply love your product. These people are harder to find but have the benefit of being less “salesy” and not taking a cut.

While both of these techniques are valuable initially, think of them as temporary solutions. It’s ultimately best to take control of your own sales process. No one will be able to sell your product like you and your team can.

Alex Rappaport (@alexrappaport) is co-founder and CEO of Flocabulary

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