Last month I had the opportunity to speak at the second annual EdTech Europe Summit in London as part of a SXSW edu delegation, chronicling our journey at Cerego from startup to sustainable business. This prompt forced me to reflect honestly on the past decade of work — both successes and missteps — and why at the end of the day, our team is wholeheartedly committed to what we do.
In thinking through this journey, several key themes began to emerge that helped get us to where we are now.
In many ways, edtech is finally starting to come of age. With greater adoption and increased investment, more and more companies are interested in advancing the role of technology in education. I hope the following learnings might be helpful for them on their own startup journey.
Start With “Why”
One of the concepts that I really appreciate in Simon Sinek’s book “Start With Why”, is centered around exciting the possibilities of creating emotional human engagement. As Sinek outlines in his idea of the golden circle, we always talk about the what, but rarely the why. And the what is easy, but what’s behind it is far more interesting.
The why is what really drives you, reflecting what you believe in and what you’re passionate about. In education, especially, it’s important to start with why. And in between the why and the what of Sinek’s golden circle is the how, which is your secret sauce — what you use to accomplish your why and the creation of your what.
The why speaks to the emotional mind, and engages people in a deliberate way. Edtech is a mission-oriented space, so starting with the why is imperative to the long term drive and focus required to succeed.
For Cerego, our why is to help people remember what’s important for them. The way we accomplish this, or our how, is by leveraging years of cognitive research about the way we learn and remember. Our what, then, is a personalized platform for accelerated learning and quantified knowledge.
But it all starts with why. This is our key motivator and guide for everything we do. It’s also a powerful element for your team in recruiting new talent in competitive markets and for staying aligned when times get tough — and any startup will experience tough times, believe me. Being able to clearly articulate and pursue your mission will help keep you focused on the right reasons behind what you’re doing.
Build a Platform, Not a Product
With Cerego, we wanted to create a business that empowers others. We started in Japan building a product called iKnow, which became the largest English language learning tool in the country.
Because of that initial success, it was tempting to keep going in this direction. It had positive cash flow and was making money, but it really wasn’t about our “why”. Though it was a successful channel and product, we wanted to go further. To do that and reach the level of impact that we envisioned for Cerego, we had to open up our technology and the learning science behind it.
Building the platform was daunting in many ways, not the least of which because it essentially meant becoming a startup again after building 10 years of success with iKnow. If we had stuck with the product, we never would have gotten to the platform.
Now Cerego is partnered with a number of innovative organizations, and expanding into areas we would have never of even thought of 5 years ago. We’re working with companies like Elsevier to power courses in nursing and publishers like McGraw-Hill to adapt their content to personalized learning environments. We’ve partnered with edX to support MOOC courses at MIT and the University of Texas, and received a grant from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to build open courseware for statistics and economics curriculums.
Being a platform enables other people to build their businesses, but powered by your business. For a mission driven company like ours, this is a win-win situation: it not only grows our reach and impact, but expands innovation and opportunity within the industry. I see a lot of great products introduced at edtech conferences that I believe have the legs to be great platforms, and I encourage those folks to think bigger about how they can use their technology to empower others.
Be Learner Centric
A lot of people give lip service to being learner centric, and I’ve heard a lot of publishers say that learners are at the center of their universe, but I don’t think that’s often demonstrated by the products and services that they offer. The bottom line for any company though, is that if users don’t love your service, you’re not going to succeed.
Somehow when it comes to edtech, we can’t seem to get this idea of user experience right.
For edtech, because it’s a mission driven industry, at the center of the business is the 21st Century learner. What’s unique about these learners is what they do with their time. They’re spending a lot of time on platforms and networks like Facebook and Twitter that are really user focused and focused on creating great, engaging experiences. Yet somehow when it comes to edtech, we can’t seem to get this idea of user experience right.
Users spend time on all these beautiful, engaging sites, and then are forced to work within systems that are clunky, laborious and non-intuitive to learners. We’re doing them and edtech a great disservice by not paying enough attention to design. As Steve Jobs, an expert on user design if we’ve ever had one, noted: “Some people think that design means how it looks, but of course if you dig deeper, it’s really about how it works.”
Our business is very much B2B, but designing that great experience for the user is what it all ultimately boils down to. Just as being a mission driven company and focusing on the why creates that sense of purpose and excitement, you need to inspire that same sense of engagement among your users, and that is all about design.
Practice the “Stravinsky Principle”
Seminal composer Igor Stravinsky famously declared that “the more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” I love this quote, and think it’s a valuable lesson for us in an age overwhelmed with information and options.
When you think about companies like Twitter, Snapchat or Vine, they have really exemplified the Stravinsky Principle and focused intently on one thing and absolutely nailed it. For us, it’s not just about product design — it has to be in the DNA of your company and speak to how you operate.
A great example of this is the difference between Agile Development and Waterfall Development. It’s a philosophical distinction about how you choose to run and grow your business.
Agile development allows you to continually iterate, rather than put all your eggs into a once-a-quarter release. For Cerego, this allows us to be opportunistic and innovative, but not lose our primary focus. We can move quickly because we have that focus, and know when something extends beyond it and might get us off track.
If we had tried to do everything at once, we’d have never gotten to where we are now. By constraining the system, and knowing when to say no, you are able to build long-term credibility and focus on what you do best. It’s tempting, especially with big partners, to just say yes to everything they come up with. However, I believe you often end up going down a dangerous path once you start capitulating to someone else’s vision. It’s important to know what you want to do and how to get it done, and to keep your partners rolling in the same direction you’re moving.
Choose Your Backers Wisely
You can’t grow your company without growth capital, but not all growth capital is created equally.
For a company that’s mission driven, it’s important that you have funders that likewise believe in that mission. If you run out to the Valley and say that you want to be the Uber of learning, there is probably money available for you to chase that lofty goal. But that money expects a big return, and they expect it on their timeline, for their fund.
That’s often a difficult way for edtech to work, because we’re operating on a different schedule. There is certainly nothing wrong with VC money, angel investors or other sources of growth capital, but you have to be on the same page. You and your investors have to be looking through the same lens with a shared vision. That means you have to have the same success metrics and KPIs as your investors. Too often, those metrics are not aligned.
You should also look for funding partners that similarly invested in making a real impact. And that means that in edtech especially, you need to have investors that are willing to take that journey with you.
Finding the right KPIs for your business is not always easy, especially in edtech. We’re not about eyeballs, and the number of users are really only as valuable as their retention rate. So for us, the most important KPI of success is engagement, and how much our users are actually actively involved and working within our system.
When funding Cerego, we focused on identifying backers interested in “ROI with a soul.” When doing this for yourself, you can’t ignore the return on the investment, but you should also look for funding partners that similarly invested in making a real impact. And that means that in edtech especially, you need to have investors that are willing to take that journey with you.
And that may be the biggest lesson of all these points: Entrepreneurs need to think of success as a journey, not a destination. You need to be focused and believe in the why of what you are doing; you need to focus on your users, and think beyond just product to how you can most effectively extend your vision and reach; you need to agile, but establish the constraints that can keep you on mission and know when to say no; and you need to find the right people and backers that are willing to join you for the long road ahead.