If you are an educator or a school administrator, what’s your opinion of edtech startups? Is it based on personal experience as an early adopter of new technology? Do you believe an edtech entrepreneur is just another Silicon Valley twenty-something who wants to make a billion dollars?
On the flip side, what do you think edtech entrepreneurs believe about you? Have they worked closely with you and understand your challenges? Do they think schools and teachers avoid innovation and won’t take risks?
Perceptions matter, and empathy is a two-way street. When schools and technology providers attempt to work together without understanding each other, the result can be a costly failure. Schools blame the technology provider for not delivering on promises or not really understanding their challenges. Companies blame the schools for not devoting enough resources or implementing tools with fidelity.
Does it have to be like this?
During my years working in startups, I helped mentor edtech entrepreneurs—especially to help clear misconceptions they held about K-12 schools and educators. But I’ve also seen, from working in a school district, that many educators also don’t really understand why these entrepreneurs do what they do.
To help correct these misunderstandings, I wrote “Coffee Shop Mentor: Winning in K-12.” The aim was to help startups understand how schools operate and navigate the mysteries of pricing, marketing to teachers, and other critical topics. But I devoted the last chapter to helping educators understand the challenges and realities that their entrepreneurial counterparts face. Here are some tips for teachers:
What Educators Should Know About Edtech Entrepreneurs
They can’t make their product better if you don’t give them honest feedback. Being encouraging and supportive is an intrinsic part of being an educator. But you may have to go against those tendencies when working with startups. If you really don’t like their product or you feel that something about it needs work, tell them what’s lacking or missing. A true entrepreneur will be eager for genuine feedback. You’ll be doing them a huge favor because they can fix the problems early or move on.
They can’t give you their software for free unless you are testing it out for them. It’s natural to want free resources for your students and school; many are available. If you’re taking the risk as an early adopter and testing new software, you shouldn’t have to buy it first. But for everyone else, startups have to get paid in order to continue to build a product, maintain it, support it, and market it. Be willing to purchase it.
Many edtech founders are not salespeople, so they can be uncomfortable asking for money. Don’t make them feel evil when they finally get around to doing it. Even better, jump start the pricing conversation for them. Give them fair feedback on their price. If it’s too high tell them why. But it’s even more important to tell them if their price seems too low! If you expect to pay more for similar products or you think that their solution has more value than they see, let them know. Startups don’t have the resources to do expensive market research on pricing, so they depend on their early customers for dependable information.
The entrepreneur is reporting on you as a potential customer in their sales process. Startups have boards of directors and investors who expect them to make money. If they are having ongoing dialogue with you as a potential customer, they are forecasting your purchase as future revenue. We’ve already agreed that educator DNA tends to be nice and encouraging, but here’s a case where you must say no if you’ve decided not to buy their product at any point in the sales cycle. You’re not being mean; you’re being kind because surprises are a no-no in startup land. Promising something that doesn’t happen will kill a founder’s credibility.
Most startups fail. Education technology companies are no exception. Entrepreneurs understand these risks going in but they have to be relentlessly optimistic anyway. So in some ways you have to be the grownup and be brutally frank. Don’t be afraid to cut the cord when you feel that the tool or service is ultimately not working for you or your students. You’ve got a lot on the line—if the experiment fails, there can be serious consequences for all parties.
Sherri Bealkowski is an education technology professional and the author of Coffee Shop Mentor: Winning in K‑12