Advice to Ed-Tech Start-Ups
The biggest lessons I’ve learned from helping dozens of online learning platforms scale their impact
I’ve helped lead market expansions for ed-tech start-ups across North America for the past ten years. In that time I’ve seen as many new promising companies entering the market over this period as are days in the year. I’ve been involved in every aspect of growth strategy from helping start-ups find product-market fit to building new partnerships to expand their reach.
No matter which company I’m working with, I’ve noticed a few common themes emerging, that I hope by sharing, could help other ed-tech founders move up the learning curve more quickly.
Treat every district, school, and teacher like they are unique
Location and demographics only tell a small part of the story of a school.
The more classrooms you go into (I’ve been in hundreds if not thousands across the continent), the more you realize how different the needs and challenges are in not only every region, but also every district, school, and even classroom. There’s more than just the stereotypical Urban vs Rural / High Income vs Low Income / Public vs Private vs Charter divides.
Teachers may have an abundance of resources and opportunities or a complete dearth. They may have a lot of faith and trust in their administration and district leadership, or they may have none. They might have very tenured and innovative colleagues, or they might have a ton of TFA novices. They could have a majority of students that are English language learners, or a majority whose parents have attended college. They may have amazing bandwidth installed but only desktop computers from the early 2000s.
In other words, don’t just assume that because a school is rural that it has poor bandwidth, or that because a school is in a low-income area that it doesn’t have great teachers or that because a school has a lot of resources there aren’t still a students who could benefit from your product.
The variety of learning environments is endless, and always dynamic. A school can change overnight with the departure of a great principal, the injection of funding from a billionaire, or the opening of a new charter school down the street.
When you’re interacting with teachers or administrators, ask questions about their specific school and the students they serve. Work towards developing a product can serve students and teachers no matter the demographics of their students, the resources at their disposal, or the number of years experience they have.
Taking time to build local relationships will help you scale more efficiently
Education is hyper-local, and there are gatekeepers who could make or break your company in every region
Teachers regularly cite other teachers, especially those they know, as their best source for new resources. Their districts and schools provide professional development opportunities through conferences and (normally) in-person trainings. For this reason, it’s important to get some traction in as many regions and sub-regions as you can, as each will act as a proof point for other teachers considering adoption.
Teachers have a reputation of being resistant to change. Many are skeptical of trying out new tools because they feel they haven’t been part of the decision making process, or they’ve been burned in the past by using tools that end up being discontinued or too expensive for them to adopt long-term.
That being said, many teachers love to be part of pilot programs, or to test new resources. These teachers exist everywhere. Look for them. Just because one person in a school or district or region isn’t interested, that doesn’t mean they speak for everyone. They will become your early adopters who can help you understand everything from the local sales cycle to whether or not there are enough internet connected devices in the school to be able to easily implement your resource. They can also help you scale by referring you to other enterprising teachers, make introductions to district gatekeepers, and contribute to marketing collateral through testimonials, promotional videos, and case studies.
You need to involve multiple stakeholders in all aspects of an ed-tech business
Teachers, students, administrators, and often parents all need to be part of your product development and considered at every stage in your go-to-market strategy.
There’s usually a difference between users, implementers, and buyers in the education technology space. Ideally at least two of those stakeholders are the same persona (e.g. you’re selling a product to districts to be used by and implemented by teachers, e.g a student grading tool), but in many cases you will need to engage three or more groups of stakeholders to gain any traction in market.
For example, if you’re building online resources for middle school students to teach them about leadership and entrepreneurship, the course will need to be valuable to students as users, teachers as implementers, and most likely administrators or other partners as buyers. As you can imagine, what appeals to a student (is it engaging, relevant, etc), is different than what appeals to a teacher (does it comply with student data privacy laws, align to curriculum, provide insightful reporting, etc), is different than what appeals to a buyer (is it affordable, is there measurable impact, does it improve their reputation as a leader, foundation etc).
Of course everyone wants to create a solution that is win-win-win, but as soon as you get started you will see it’s not that easy. For example, if your pricing model relies on partnerships, grants, or district buyers, but your ultimate user is a student or teacher, you have to be deliberate about not building a product that satisfies the funder (e.g. by including multiple surveys or logos) at the expense of the user (e.g. by disrupting the learning experience to serve the funder’s wishes).
What works or students does not always work for teachers and vice versa. What appeals to buyers does not always appeal to implementers or users, and vice versa! What school districts might not be able to afford, individual families often can. What teachers don’t have time to implement at school, parents might at home.
As you develop your product and your go-to-market strategy, you’ll need to have a good understanding of what role each stakeholder plays in the buyers journey, and develop a strategy to target them accordingly.
Marketing is not enough, you need a sales strategy
It’s not enough to assume a product will sell itself, especially in education, even if it’s free.
No matter how great your product is, or how sophisticated your marketing strategy, every successful education technology company I know has had to eventually hire teams full of Sales Development Reps, Account Executives, Sales Managers, and Customer Success Managers.
Platforms with the leading penetration rates didn’t get there overnight, they hired teams of 100+ people to focus on building relationships in a given territory—following up with their leads until contracts were signed.
Between teacher turnover, curriculum changes, new competitors on the market every day, and the biggest barrier of all to teachers—time—it’s more important than ever to have personalized support and conversations to guide a lead through the buyers journey, through to implementation and renewal.
If you are a brand- or product-forward company, with a B2B model (ie selling to schools, districts, government agencies, NGOs, etc.), you will need to build a really sound sales strategy as part of your Go To Market plans.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
Build the Right Team
At a minimum, you’ll want to start out with one sales rep to do convert inbound Marketing Qualified leads into customers. These team members will conduct demos and training webinars, negotiate contracts, and potentially also manage upsells and renewals. Depending on the traction you’re getting through inbound, you may also want to hire a Sales Development Rep, additional Account Executives (or whatever title you want for someone who will “sell” to new accounts), and Customer Success Managers.*
The best Account Executives/Sales Reps and Customer Success Managers in ed-tech have a teaching background, but are hungry for a new experience and to expand their impact. They should think methodically, be creative, goal driven, eager to learn, and good at taking initiative. Overall, you want to hire “sales” people who are passionate about your mission and have a growth mindset.
*If you’d like to discuss how to build out the right team for your start-up, don’t hesitate to reach out to me!
Invest in the Right Tools
If you want to keep your sale steam lean, be sure to invest in proper Customer Relationship Management software (Salesforce is by far the best, but I’ve worked with companies that used Hubspot, AirTable, MailChimp, and Copper with ok results).
Whether you’re selling to teachers, districts, parents, or looking for funding from foundations or corporate partners, you need to know who your leads are and where they are in their buyer’s journey. A good CRM will help you understand the history of communications and contact you’ve had with the customer, if they’ve referred others, and help you spot trends that could help you increase penetration rates.
There are also tools like Viral Loops and GrowSurf to help you manage referral campaigns, while tools like Autopilot can help you automate email drip campaigns.**
**If you’d like help figuring out which tools to leverage to best optimize your go to market strategy, feel free to reach out to me to discuss further.
Lead With Curiosity & Empathy
Any ed-tech sales strategy that is selling to educators or administrators should treat their target buyers like the experts they are. The goal should be to understand their needs and whether or not your solution can actually empower them to do their job better. Your solution won’t be the right fit for everyone, so you should aim for a consultative, service-oriented approach instead of one that tries to convince everyone you talk to that they need what you are selling.
Don’t Be Afraid to Collaborate
Partnerships with existing distribution networks or platforms can help you keep staffing costs down. Consider what other avenues you have to reach your target customer besides reaching out to them yourself.
I’ve worked with hundreds of partners over the years, whether professional sports leagues or thoughts leaders, to help amplify our sales efforts.
Your Next Steps
If you’d like help developing a sales strategy, don’t hesitate to reach out! I love helping founders, and I can help you:
- segment your audience
- define your target personas
- build your pipeline
- create a process to qualify leads
- design an optimal customer journey
- optimize the value you provide to all stakeholders
- maximize retention and renewals
- look for new revenue opportunities