How A School Becomes A Startup Whisperer

Editor’s note: We wrote recently about Junyo’s pivot--namely its decision to move away from supporting schools directly. Last week, CharterSchool Growth Fund Alex Hernandez weighed in with his observations on what happens when schools “date” startups. This week, we hear how these relationships look from a school’s perspective. Add your thoughts in the comments below.

At Aspire Public Schools, we’ve embraced working with startup edupreneurs for years. Along the way, we have learned a few lessons that have saved us from some heartache and have also enabled us to get in on the ground floor of some exciting products in the market and influence others we continue to use.

The key we’ve found is to listen carefully: first to identify those products that have the potential to help us, and then to find those entrepreneurs who have the potential to really listen carefully to us, their customers. Too frequently people focus on identifying the “right product” for their school. But when products are still under development, the entrepreneur is as important as the product--because it’s the entrepreneur who holds the vision for the product and will ultimately deliver on it.

You can learn a lot by the questions that entrepreneurs will bring to a meeting. More than one eager edtech entrepreneur has asked us crazy questions. Among them:

  • Questions that border on the ridiculous: “Can you just ask 1,000 of your teachers to sign in with us? Our second round of funding is next week!”
  • Wishful-thinking proposals: A bid to work with all 34 of our schools when we suggested starting with one classroom;
  • Postured hyperbolic promises: “We’re more rigorous than the Common Core”;
  • Unrealistic professional development plans: “We’ll need two full days to train your teachers”;
  • Generally unreasonable requests: These include wanting floor space in our offices, access to all our student data, a full day devoted to giving them feedback and our favorite: “Can you take notes while I talk to your principal and email them back to us?”

These kinds of comments are all red flags. They suggest that these entrepreneurs don’t really understand schools: they haven’t gotten their heads around how we work, how much IT or budget we might have, how we get teachers to do things, how they assume we'll just take what they say at face value, how they (sometimes) think they're doing us a favor.

That said, we’ve also found found much joy in both entrepreneurial and corporate-suite edtech folks who, at their core, listen empathetically to the needs of schools.

When you have encountered a product that could help your school and an empathetic--dare we say, adaptive?--entrepreneur, there are still a few guidelines that will help you build a strong and sustainable relationship:

  • Make really sure that your vision is aligned with the founder’s vision. Startups need to cater to their early customers but they also have to do things that will enable them to be scalable and profitable long-term. If what your school needs is not what the founder wants to build, then the relationship is destined for failure and frustration.
  • No matter what the entrepreneur’s credentials are, make sure you test them out. Test the startup’s ability to make small commitments and deliver on them before you engage with them in a big way. If they can’t delight you on a small task, they are sure not going to delight you on a big one!
  • Pressure them to deliver on time, but expect them to deliver late and build that into your schedule.
  • Check references for previous work the founders have done.
  • Test that the startup has a real empathetic understanding of teachers, principals and your situation. Being smart and enthusiastic is not enough--they have to understand K-12 or be willing to invest an enormous amount of time in understanding it. You can help them get that understanding more quickly.
  • Realize that your organization’s name and your organization’s participation and feedback are valuable to the startup; use them to your advantage!

We believe edtech entrepreneurs are transforming this marketplace in exciting ways and have the potential to use technology to identify and solve major pain points schools experience every day.  But they won’t succeed without the engagement and guidance of schools!

Lynzi Ziegenhagen is the Vice President of Technology and Liz Arney is the Director of Innovative Learning at Aspire Public Schools.

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