The startup challenge: the business of edtech

Hazel Davis investigates one of the biggest challenges in edtech history – how to get your company considered at educational institutions

The number of edtech startups in the UK is growing all the time. Global spend on education is $6tn, growing at 7% annually, and the global educational technology sector is projected to grow to £128bn by 2020, according to the Education Foundation. There’s no shortage of ideas or talent in the edtech world but one of the biggest challenges they face is breaking into the education sector. We asked some successful companies for their tips on how to break through.

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1. Make a product that appeals to both pupils and teachers

Edtech has to be accessible and achievable, especially for those who aren’t technically minded. Making a product that is simple for teachers to use and understand, but is engaging enough to keep children interested is very important, otherwise it will simply get in the way of lessons and won’t be viewed as useful. Getting this balance right is important, says Alexander Enoch, founder and CEO of Robotical, the manufacturer of Marty, the robot designed to make STEM teaching more fun: “From the child’s side, edtech has to make learning more fun, otherwise they simply won’t engage with it. Gamification or challenge-based learning is often key to this, as it allows children to find their own solutions to a problem in a playful way,” he says.

2. Remember that education is risk-averse

One big challenge to getting products into educational institutions is that education is quite slow-moving, compared to other channels. “It’s also usually quite risk-averse,” Enoch agrees, “and schools will often only buy something if they’ve used it before or had it recommended by someone they trust.” Word-of-mouth recommendations are important. Educators are pressed for time and are, understandably, fearful of getting new technology in the classroom. Nobody has time to spend days figuring out how things work, so this means that ease-of-use is critical in edtech products.

exporting education expertise

3. Be mindful of return on investment

Somewhat unsurprisingly, educators are really looking for something that can both improve lessons and justify its cost. “Products that work across multiple age ranges or subject groups are therefore the best – teachers and headteachers are unlikely to buy something they will only use once a year,” says Enoch. Edtech buyers are looking for something that adds value in areas that are stereotyped as dull or uncreative – such as the hard sciences – or where teachers struggle to engage students.

4. Build relationships

Like any startup in any sector, good relationships are crucial. “Build real relationships with your customers and lots of them,” says Vivi Friedgut, founder of award-winning financial edtech startup Blackbullion. “The more relationships you have, the better you understand the sector at a cultural and operational level. This makes you more likely to build something that solves a real problem.”

This might not always feel easy to do as education can be a tight-knit community.

The more relationships you have, the better you understand the sector at a cultural and operational level. This makes you more likely to build something that solves a real problem.
– Vivi Friedgut, Blackbullion

So having evangelists for your product or service within this ecosystem is a really important ingredient of success for a startup. “It’s not just good business to develop relationships, but helps you deliver better solutions,” says Friedgut.

5. Partner up

As well as friends and fans, good solid working partnerships are crucial. “Look around at the Google- and Apple-certified education partners. You may have an institute near you that could prove helpful, or you may be able to engage individuals online,” says Ben Harraway from edtech app Noisy Book, which helps develop the natural learning process by providing automatic sound effects to any story.

edtech in the UK

Once your product is in the market, use your teachers and advisors as product ambassadors. As long as your product is good enough, people will be happy to spread the word about it and it could start gaining its own virality. Ensure you make it easy for your partners’ social media specialists, with material that’s easy to share, and ensure efforts are reciprocal.

6. Know your demographic and tailor your product accordingly

Never underestimate the importance of knowing exactly who your target market is. “Education in itself is a broad remit, so the way to guarantee success is to target a well-defined group and study their needs intensely. Once you have done this, you must then address the issues they are facing by offering a simple solution,” says Matthew Jones, VP of content acquisition and strategy at online learning library Perlego.

Education in itself is a broad remit, so the way to guarantee success is to target a well-defined group and study their needs intensely.
– Matthew Jones, Perlego

The best tech successes usually solve a specific problem or serve a specific need (even if it’s one we didn’t know we had, such as Facebook). Jones says: “From experience, corporate learning is a simpler area of the sector to break into in the short term. Areas such as K12 and HE are often encumbered arbitrarily by long sales cycles and limited budgets. In contrast, corporate L&D departments are generally more open and willing to proceed quickly, that is, of course, if the product solves their needs in the first place.”

7. Look for innovation

If you’re looking to break into the edtech sector it’s a good idea to look for other areas of innovation within the space.

UK edtech hubs

A good place to start is, perhaps surprisingly, the professional development industry, where lots of interesting work is being done, advises Jeremy Shulman, chief editor, subscriptions and product at online education provider Interactive Pro. At the moment, virtual reality, user experience, gamification and multi-channel content and communication development are a few areas that are likely to be integrated into a more formalised eLearning environment. And, says Shulman, “there’s plenty going on in the personal development industry to get a company started.”

8. Seek the truth

Don’t just create something for the sake of it. Remember that your product should actually have an educational outcome. “This may sound obvious,” says Shulman, “but many edtech startups are focused a lot more on developing the ‘tech’ rather than innovating the ‘ed’.

A dedication to teaching and learning techniques that cater to a variety of learners and intelligences across a range of disciplines is a good first step.”

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9. Understand the funding system

Selling strategies of course differ from product to product. You might decide to go after independent schools with larger budgets, but that won’t be the right approach for everybody. It is important to understand where your product or solution fits into the funding ecosystem. In state schools, funding is available via schemes such as the Pupil Equity Fund in Scotland, for example. The key is to find early adopters who are passionate about your tech and start there.

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