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 decision.
- 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 utilizing. 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 school year. 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 Sign-In. If 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 school.
- Your product could be integrated with Google Classroom, but it isn’t. Right 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 issue.
- 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 too long.
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.