Barriers to Building for Kids 2/3: Conservatism

“Are the dogs eating the dog food?” is one of the canonical startup questions.

When you strip away a company’s nuance, toil, hope, and troubles this is what it comes down to. Are your customers eagerly consuming your goods?


If kids = the dogs (They do not. Children Are Royalty¹, but stick with me)

And adults = the dog owners

… then things just got a lot more complicated.

The fundamental problem is that kids, like dogs, like to eat lots of stuff that isn’t good for them. Adults, in turn, know that their most important responsibility is to ensure that their children stay safe and thrive. A child wants to eat worms: gross and dangerous. Candy and bacon — delicious, but not “real food.” Two gallons of ice cream! Stomachache, at a minimum.

Kids, adorable and bright as they may be, just don’t know what’s best for them. A guardian’s job is to know better and stay disciplined — to buy and provide The Right Stuff. If a child is really begging to eat something, a responsible adult’s default assumption is that they probably shouldn’t be eating it (see, re: bark, above).

This is a wild complication to startup dogma. A user’s (kid’s) enthusiasm for an unknown product (new food) is not an inherent commercial positive. On the contrary, a child’s excitement is just as often a buyer-beware sign for an adult as it is a compelling reason to purchase.

Unfortunately, children’s lack of credibility, when combined with adult’s wariness of the unknown, proves to be deeply problematic in education.

(Click here to read part 1 for additional context on learning and the challenges of building businesses for kids)

The well intentioned professionals in our school systems are especially driven to ensure that students “eat right”. New products (AKA innovations) fail the “known food test” by default. If it hasn’t already been vetted by generations of gastrointestinal processing then it cannot, by a traditionalist definition, be safe. Sure, a new service may look great. And yes, kids may love it. But remember, that same child was advocating for Temple Run just last blog post.

Adults are right to proceed cautiously. The first versions of radically new products are always full of flaws. The promise of technology — that it can improve quickly — is no good to anyone if Version 1 ‘kills the kid’ (or, in this case, leaves them a half grade level behind). Because the stakes are so high, each individual actor in education is incentivized to take as little adoption risk as possible. The first-order question of ‘safety’ has to be addressed before a new product’s other benefits — cheap, convenient, and kid-approved — will factor into adults’ purchase decisions².

Or, as one state commissioner of education often put it: “Ya know, I like you, but unless you bring the data we’re not going to date.

But, this conservatism, when expressed at a system-wide level, leaves students consuming the very same instructional material as their parents and grandparents before them. If a company produces a truly new product limited adoption will suffocate the business before its potential can be realized. If a company releases the old, established stuff in sexy new packaging (*cough* digital textbooks) there’s minimal impact for children.

Of all the many obstacles to building businesses for young kids, this is the defining chicken and egg challenge.

To build a large, differentiated, and profitable business³ learning software not only needs to be genuinely innovative and effective, it also needs to be thoroughly certified by risk-averse professionals as safe for consumption. That’s an extremely high bar for any company, especially a startup, to clear. It’s also a huge product development challenge to listen/learn/test with conservative customers while simultaneously innovating and holding the often unspoken interests of children in mind.

Overall, it’s tremendously difficult for companies to justify and execute bold projects in education when presented with such direct tradeoffs between innovation and commercialization. If you wonder why the experience of school has barely changed in a century — this is one big part of the answer.

So, it’s hard. At least we have lots of subsidies and support for research and development in education to incentivize risk taking — and many highly-capable and patient adults willing to take on the challenge — right? Right?

Not so right.

Click here to go to Part 3: Underinvestment, exploring the ways in which society fails to support innovation for kids / in learning.

Or, go back to read about the challenging tradeoffs implicit in building businesses for kids (Part 1).

  1. Customers are Family, Kids are Royalty is one of Edify’s four core values.
  2. And that’s without considering the substantial politics and friction that go into these purchase decisions, further reducing the likelihood of change.
  3. Another challenge with the incremental innovation currently found in education is that it’s easily imitated by competitors. As result, there’s nearly no profit for companies to turn back around into further R&D and product differentiation. Scarcity ends up becoming it’s own cycle that slowly strangles innovation; all to kids’ detriment.