opinion

Three Rookie Mistakes That Edtech Entrepreneurs Make

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Launching edtech products is challenging—especially when you’re working with something like social-emotional learning.

Last month, the World Economic Forum released a report—“New Vision for Education: Fostering Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Through Technology”—that explained why social and emotional learning skills like problem solving, collaboration and tenacity are critical for the workforce of the future. The report called on entrepreneurs to embed SEL skills into technology, which is not the current practice.

If you’re thinking about embedding SEL into your tech product and launching in either the K-12 or consumer marketplaces, the “do’s” and “don’ts” of creating and launching edtech products still apply. In fact, in the last four years, I’ve launched two edtech products, and I’ve collected three top lessons that any budding entrepreneur—whether in the SEL world or not—should consider when striving to reach a market.

#1: Find a pain point—a REAL pain point.

It’s no secret that educators are overwhelmed and overburdened. Their willingness to invest time and energy in a new product is motivated by their need to solve an acute and pressing problem. They simply don’t have the bandwidth to try something just because it’s new or “sounds good.”

The solution? Finding and solving educator pain—one that educators struggle with every day—is key for any edtech product. ClassDojo is a classic example of a tool that solves a real educator pain. Sam Chaudhary and his team identified the very real angst of managing a classroom of often distracted and misbehaving students. So, ClassDojo’s technology platform rewards students for demonstrating skills like cooperation and self-management.

Here’s a hint: talking to educators and administrators about the real deficits can pay in dividends, rather than taking wild guesses. For example, “Finding research based, Tier 2 interventions for students with social emotional difficulties is a challenge, but finding an individualized intervention that doesn’t require one-on-one support, that’s an even bigger challenge,” says Julie Stansell, Student Services Coordinator for Encinitas Union School District in Southern California. She describes that counselors and social workers are desperate for ways to engage and support students with identified skill deficits.

#2: Be agile.

The world of today looks very different from the world of just five or ten years ago, when few knew what a Tweet was. Tech products need to be agile or flexible. While this shouldn’t be news to entrepreneurs (it’s a key principle Eric Ries underscores in his best-seller, The Lean Start-up), it’s something that can sometimes be forgotten or looked past. As Ries describes, startups should continuously learn from the field and build their products to adjust to the requirements of education environments.

Take the Zoo U gaming platform, where the dashboard originally allowed only educators to access reports. As SEL data became more valuable to school district administrators, more of them sought access to this data. To accommodate, the Zoo U team decided to feature more diverse levels of access and views; a superintendent will be able to view a report by district or grade, while a counselor can log-on and still only have access to their students’ data.

#3: Don’t forget the marketing—a product can only be effective if users actually know it exists, and choose to use it.

In a recent survey by Common Sense Media, over 3,000 parents were asked to name their top concerns for their child’s education. Their number one response was “my child’s social and emotional learning,” scoring more than “my child’s stress” or “the quality of teaching.” Clearly, parents want their children to be able to manage emotions, persevere through challenges, build healthy relationships and make good decisions.

But parents need to know what’s out there to help them help their kids.

If your edtech product is consumer-facing, you’re competing with companies that are spending big marketing dollars to put their products in front of parents and kids. Thus, you must integrate effective marketing efforts into your longterm plan—or suffer the consequences.

Here’s an example. In late 2012, Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins cofounded his first foray into learning games. He sought to create a consumer-facing video game called “IF” that would teach children SEL skills like empathy and cooperation. When the team launched episode one of this game in February 2014, it was done in concert with a meaningful press effort, engaging in marketing efforts via cross-sector collaborations with organizations like Socialmoms and GreatSchools. The result? It became the #1 kids app and #1 education app on iTunes.

However, episode two of the multi-episode game launched several months later with minimal marketing. This time, parents didn’t flock to iTunes, even though reviews were through the roof. It seems that not enough people knew that the second episode was out there. The “if you build it, they will come” theory didn’t work, and the company folded in early 2014.

The above lessons learned creating and launching tech speak strongly to the SEL market, but can and should be applied to the development of any edtech tool. And although they may seem obvious, those creating and launching edtech need to be sharing what works and what doesn’t. Why? Consider Fortune’s Alan Murray and The Aspen Institute’s Walter Isaacson, who provide the public with a sobering thought:

“At a time when new technologies have the potential to transform and elevate education, our ability to implement the most innovative edtech concepts at scale has lagged.” 

Jessica Berlinski (@BerlinskiJess) serves as Chief Impact Officer of Personalized Learning Games, where she helps educators assess and improve students’ SEL skills through games.

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