by Jeffrey M. Welch
There is a huge problem in the educational technology business. Educational technology enterprises fundamentally do not understand how schools work. In this post, I will highlight some of the most common errors, these can all fit more or less under the headline: “Edtech Businesses Try to Sell to Schools, but Have No Idea How Schools Actually Operate”.
There is a land rush in educational technology right now. We have a happy combination of new money due to the recovery of the economy, Common Core driving change, and new affordable devices that can be put in every child’s hands. Smart business people can see this, but what they don’t seem to get is how schools operate, who the decision makers are, and how a classroom actually functions. Not understanding these issues is a fatal flaw and will lead to many business failures.
Like many classrooms, mine has become more technology oriented in the last few years, this year my students will use a Chromebook nearly everyday in my classroom. Everything for me and for them seems new, almost like we are in school for the first time. The technology isn’t all new, but the constant use of it is. I am on a constant quest to find new, exciting, and engaging activities that I can use. As a result, I have tried all sorts of tools some of which are amazing. Nearly every tool requires the teacher to sign up and provide contact information. As a business be VERY careful what you do with this information.
In my interactions with educational vendors it is often very apparent that the salespeople have never worked in a school. They neither understand how a classroom operates, who their contact is, or how they should keep in contact with their potential leads.
So here are the top mistakes that vendors make in selling and delivering products to schools:
- You are making a product for a classroom environment, but no
teachers work for/advise your company. It is so completely obvious when you are
dealing with a company that does not have former teachers in their
workforce (sales and product design), as advisors, or on their board of
directors, etc. If you do not have someone with recent classroom
experience able to give you constant and useful feedback, then close your
doors now. You are done as a business.
- You don’t understand that your user/sales lead and the decision
maker are almost certainly not the same person. Your sales lead is probably a
teacher. Nearly every vendor doesn’t get that most teachers aren’t
authorized to make purchasing decisions. In almost all circumstances the
teacher will have to convince a supervisor to buy your product. This is a
slow process, and you better be prepared to wait. You might want to
consider asking your sales lead to put you into contact with their
supervisor since that is the person that can actually make a funding
- If your sales lead is a teacher, you call them on the phone… ever. When I put in a phone number
into a website, I have come to expect a phone call from that vendor at an
always inconvenient time. Many sites REQUIRE a phone number. That the
sites require this information and actually use it when contacting a
teacher demonstrates their ignorance of the education market, and very
likely will prevent many sales. This morning, 7 minutes before school
started a vendor called to talk to me. My school like most has a decrepit
phone system. We don’t have voicemail, and can’t even forward calls to
individual classrooms. Because my office staff did not know if this call
was important they summoned me to the office. The call was from a vendor
that I almost definitely am going to use. But just because a salesperson
needs to make their weekly quota does not mean I need to talk to them,
want to, or have the time to do so. On other occasions, I have made the
error of putting my cellphone number into a contact form. The result of
this is invariably a phone call in the middle of my teaching. This not
only makes me angry, it could get me in trouble if my supervisor is
observing me. A classroom could not be more different from a typical
business environment. I cannot have my classroom interrupted by an eager
vendor. It is always a bad time for your phone call. If you think you need
to talk to a teacher, e-mail them and ask when they can talk to you, and
tell them why you need to talk to them. If you try to force the contact
for your own needs and timeline you will fail.
- You didn’t make the free part of your freemium site worth
This one is something to really think about. Many sites have limits built
in, like 30 students at a time, or 100 students total. Most teachers will
not be able to use your tool. All of my classes are over 30 students, and
I always have more than 100 students in my total classes. I need to use
your product successfully with all of my students or I will never ask for
money to pay for it. Freemium is a good way to prove to a teacher that
they need your site, but you need to give them enough to prove to them
that they want it all.
- You don’t understand the flow of a typical school year. When is the best time to make
a sale? If I were an education vendor, I would use a calendar like this,
try to generate interest in early spring, try to pin down sales in late
spring, if your leads have not bought your product by the end of May, do
not contact them again until August unless the lead is a principal or
district office administrator. Teachers usually will not be engaged in any
school related business for June or July, they start to pay attention
again in August. August and September should be good sales months. If they
are not using your product by September, it will take some convincing to
get them to try it later. You may have another window after winter break,
or if you get your product highlighted at a professional conference.
- You make major changes to your product at the wrong time of the
Major new features of your site should be rolled out in July and early
January. It is fine to make incremental changes and bug fixes throughout
the year but major changes to the appearance, layout, or functionality
should be right before the new semester begins and never in the middle.
Confused teachers are bad for business.
- Your pricing model is completely unrealistic. A while back I found what
looked like a really interesting website that I thought would be great in
my classroom. I submitted a funding inquiry. The company quickly responded
with what they thought was a reasonably cost. It was $4 per month per
student. I have 170 students. So for just my class that comes out to $680
per month. Since a year long classroom budget for me is less than $500,
this offer wasn’t even in the realm of possible options. That was my last
communication with this vendor.
- You don’t understand a typical classroom budget. At a school that has been
generous to its teachers, a typical teacher might have $500 to spend for
the entire year for all classroom needs. Read that last sentence again…
Yes $500 for everything, and that is generous. Many teachers have no
budget that they can spend at all. Some teachers spend their own money, but
this is a terrible idea for the teacher, and unfair for either a school,
district, or vendor to expect. A classroom budget isn’t going to cover
your site costs unless you can convince a whole site to buy in.
- You don’t understand a school or district budget. Schools and districts have far
more money at their disposal and the higher you go up the chain, the more
authority you have for decision making. Teachers want a product and can
ask for it. School site administrators have some ability to order the
product on a site wide basis, but they have limited budgets. School
district administrators both have authority over the full resources of the
district and can push their staff to use a product. If your product has
wide ranging uses in multiple grade levels and subject areas, you should
approach district office administrators. If it doesn’t, you should
redesign your product. You are not going to make much money with a niche
product or by focusing on one classroom at a time.
- It is difficult to turn your activity/site/game into a grade. Some students will use your
product because it is fun. Some students will use your product because it
helps them with a particular task. Many students will not use your product
if a teacher cannot easily grade it. No grade, no student effort or
engagement. Have a plan, or at least an explained theory on how a teacher
could use your product as a grade. Figure out a method and make it easy
for the teacher who already has too much to do.
- Your product does not allow teachers and students to use Google
you don’t know why this is important you are in trouble.
- Your product uses Facebook or Twitter only for log-in or focuses on
social network integration. Many sites have these in addition to Google, but I
doubt the are used much. Most K-12 schools have blocks on
Facebook/Twitter/Etc. Some don’t but they are few and far between. If this
is an option, that is probably OK, but don’t spend a lot of effort on
social network integration since it will rarely be usable in a public
- Your product could be integrated with Google Classroom, but it
now, if you are in the K-12 education market and you are not integrated
with Google Classroom, you are missing most of the market. Teachers are
busier than ever; Classroom can save a lot of time. If your activities can
be delivered and graded in classroom, you will open your product to the
world. The industry appears to be moving en masse to Google Apps for
Education, Chromebooks, and Google Classroom. There are other options, but
they are niche.
- Your product is convoluted or too hard to use. Workflow matters to teachers
and to students even though they don’t know it. Your product should be
logical have good flow between features and be usable the first time someone
looks at it. Change and frustration are very high in the education field
right now; don’t frustrate your users away.
- Your product has obvious broken features. In the tech industry it is all
about execute and iterate. Teachers are pickier. If it is sloppy, it is
misspelled, or it doesn’t work, you won’t get traction. Last spring, I
e-mailed the founder of a very big and popular education app because the
site misspelled his name in the “about” page. It has been six months and
his name is still misspelled. If I were that guy, I think that would be
important. If little things don’t matter, why should I trust your site
with my student’s confidential data?
- Your developers have a sense of humor and make funny jokes that
mess up your site because they don’t appear to know about web filters. Last spring, I was evaluating
an awesome education site which shall remain nameless. I was using it with
a group of students and all seemed well. A day later something went wrong
and our web filter inexplicably filtered big chunks of the site. Upon
investigation, it was discovered that a whole section of the site had been
moved into a new folder labelled “weed”. I could only conclude that
someone thought that this would be funny. Well the site did not work for
several days because as far as a web filter is concerned “weed” means
drugs. This and many other words can can have other possible uses, but in
my experience the dumbest software that I ever encounter is web-filtering
software which neither has a sense of humor or any sort of discernment.
The site was fixed, I imagine it was a bad day for whoever caused that
- Teachers don’t need or want to use your site constantly, in other
words you have a one trick pony. It is surprising how many edtech vendors try to get by
providing one product that can be used one way. You need to have a usable
and flexible tool. You need to have it used in classrooms, and have a
cookbook on how to use it in new and different ways. If it is so useful
that I want to use it all the time, then you have a winner. If I only use
it a few times a year, I will probably move on to something else before
The technology world is fickle, and the education world is too. If you don’t create major engagement with your users, they will move to something else quickly. You must continue to innovate but be mindful of the needs of schools and your student and teacher users.