When Ed-Tech Startups Fail

This is a guest post by Audrey Watters, an education-journalist who writes for KQED MindShift, Edutopia, and O’Reilly Radar.  You can also find her work on her own blog Hack Education.

I received the email from Knack for Teachers on Wednesday that the classroom data tracking and visualization tool would be shutting down. There’s also a blog post on the site to that effect. The servers will remain in operation for the next 3 months, the blog post explains, a time frame that “should be enough for all users to archive data and/or find another online gradebook solution.”

The app developer, Jarrod Drysdale, has written a longer piece on his personal blog about his work on the project. Knack for Teachers was, as he describes it, “a labor of love” — one that he dumped about $2000 of his own money into, but that almost no teacher used (and even fewer paid for).

Drysdale’s post is, not surprisingly, pretty bitter about the failure of Knack for Teachers, and while he chronicles the efforts he made in order to promote the product and to change it to help woo new customers, his conclusion to the whole affair is that teachers are “lousy customers.”

There’s a lot of blame in Drysdale’s post, some aimed at himself, but far more aimed at teachers:

“I should have done more research about teachers before I started coding. I thought what I’d learned was enough. There were quite a few online gradebooks that charged money and seemed to be healthy businesses. I had found research that said most teachers spend their own money on their classrooms. I asked educators I knew if they’d pay for a web app. None of this was enough. I didn’t learn about the simple psychology that drives teachers’ desires and purchasing decisions. I didn’t realize there is a stigma amongst teachers—that they deeply resent having to spend money on their classrooms and careers. Many businesses, both online and off, have special discounts and freebies for teachers. This has warped teachers’ sense of value and fostered a sense of entitlement. (Whether teachers deserve free stuff is a different debate. I personally don’t think anyone deserves a free lunch.)

Beyond this, I’ve learned that teachers do not want technology solutions for their everyday problems. Teachers say they love tech. Some blog about it. They tweet about it in #edchat and #edtech. They even coin their own special tech terms. (PLN anyone?) This is a farce. Talking about tech and being on the Twitter make teachers look good to administrators and to the public. They can add “Technology Committee Member” to their resumes and congratulate themselves for being innovative. But using tech to do work requires a small minimum of effort and change, and any amount of these is too much for teachers.”

I’ve debated penning an excoriating response to Drysdale’s psychological profile of teachers. But why write a rant, I figure, when Knack for Teachers is closed, and now Drysdale is on to working on other projects. Considering the stance he takes in his blog post, I doubt very much it’ll be a tool for teachers.

Nevertheless, it’s worth responding — as calmly as I can — to what Drysdale has written. It isn’t simply that what he’s written about teachers — about their usage of and desire for educational software — strikes me as being unfair and inaccurate.

I take exception with some of the other aspects of the post as well. It overlooks some of the alternative explanations for the failure of Knack for Teachers: maybe his competitors built better products; maybe the business model — charging teachers versus creating a white label product for schools, for example — didn’t make sense considering the tool’s administrative bent; maybe the emphasis on data analysis and visualization simply wasn’t compelling for his customers, even tech-savvy ones. In light of all the talk to “data-driven decision making” in education, maybe a data tool — even a personal tool — seemed onerous and punitive, rather than helpful. Maybe the data teachers want to examine in order to assess how students are doing includes far more than just gradebook information. Maybe teachers simply don’t see learning and performance in terms of “data.”

Of course, there are a lot of challenges in building a successful Web startup, whether it’s in the education sector or not. But to perpetuate the notion that teachers are simply “lousy customers”; that teachers (unlike other professionals, I guess) believe they’re entitled to free software; that, as Drysdale says in a Hacker News thread, that “teachers are just not a ripe audience for software in general; that teachers are Luddites — these all feed into a larger political narrative about what’s wrong with the current education system. (Namely, “teachers.”)

But Drysdale’s take on the failure of teachers as customers is an interesting one, particularly as it runs counter to another new but commonly-held belief about how ed-tech startups should now approach the space. As more tech entrepreneurs are becoming interested in education, they’re realizing that customer acquisition can be done by wooing individual teachers as customers rather than having to go for the more traditional (and expensive) administrative contract in order to get their product into the classroom. However, when those entrepreneurs fail to win over individual teachers as customers, it shouldn’t be seen as “proof” that the education system — whether approached from the bottom-up or from the top-down — is impenetrable and immutable. Just like any consumer Web product, educational apps should still be good, and they still need to solve some sort of problem.

And even if both those things hold true, startups still fail. In fact, I predict we’ll see a lot more education technology startups fail in the coming months and years, if only because we’re seeing a lot more education technology startups, well, start up. They’ll fail for a variety of reasons: poor product, poor design, poor pedagogy, poor market fit. My fear is that failures will discourage more entrepreneurs from entering the space. My hope is that these failures will prompt entrepreneurs to listen to their potential customers — teachers, students, administrators, parents — and build tech tools that they actually want and need.

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About Audrey Watters

Audrey Watters is a writer and rabble-rouser. Her work appears in O'Reilly Radar, KQED's MindShift, and Inside Higher Ed, as well as on her own blog Hack Education. For more information, see her profile page.
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13 Responses to When Ed-Tech Startups Fail

  1. Karim says:

    This is an interesting topic. As someone who’s also developing a classroom product for individual teachers, I can sympathize with Drysdale’s frustration. The traditional top-down approach is a non-starter for most startup organizations. A single state can have hundreds of districts, each with its own priorities, purchasing departments, bureaucracies, etc., all of which requires a large sales staff that only the major publishers can afford.

    Given this, a bottom-up approach may be best: get teachers to use your product, have them share it with their colleagues and eventually evangelize it to the central office. There are obvious advantages to this. The first is simple: it’s the only option many small organizations have. The second is a bit more nuanced. A district won’t purchase something unless it expects its teachers to use it, but teachers often (and understandably) push back when central administrators require them to implement yet another intervention, attend yet another training session, especially if it’s only tangentially related to what they’re already doing. The teachers-first strategy avoids this.

    However, there are also a number of challenges in selling to teachers. These include:

    What’s the right price? – While teachers are accustomed to paying for resources out-of-pocket, there’s a huge asymmetry between what a teacher can afford and what a district can. A district may be willing to pay $700/teacher for your product, but if you depend on teachers paying that themselves in the short-term, then what’s the right price? You need the grassroots user today but don’t want to leave 90% of the money on the table tomorrow. If you can tier your product (regular, premier, etc.), this makes it a bit easier. If you can’t, though, it can be really tough to find that balance, if indeed there even is one.
    How do you market to individual teachers? – Even though it’s nice to imagine teachers collaborating every day on lessons, strategies, etc., teaching is still a fairly individual pursuit. So if you depend on Teacher A sharing it with B, C & D, how realistic is this? Also, how do you get Teacher A on board in the first place? A state may have hundreds of districts, but it has thousands of teachers, none of whom hang out in the same place.
    What do teachers really want/need? – This is where I think most ed tech entrepreneurs/Silicon Valley get it wrong. In all my years in the classroom I never heard a colleague say, “I wish I had an online learning platform for this,” or “I need a software program to dissect my student data.” Not once. Instead, teachers walk into their classroom every morning asking, “What do I need to teach today and how am I going to do it?” Because teachers are already so busy planning lessons, grading student work, attending meetings, etc., it doesn’t take much to convince them not to use a certain product. You can have the best product on the planet, but if it doesn’t address a teacher’s immediate need, it’s going to have a steep hill to climb.

    Of course, none of this is to say that “edupreneurs” won’t be successful selling to individual teachers. Indeed, I’m sure they/we can. (I certainly hope so, anyway!) It’s simply to say that it’s difficult, it takes a while and requires a very different mindset & set of expectations than if selling to districts. Yet for all the potential downsides, focusing on individual teachers has a huge upside: it allows you to build the product you want. Even if not everyone loves it, some people will, and perhaps it’s “better to have a room divided than one that doesn’t care.” Entrepreneurs often talk about scale as the main goal, but there’s a virtue in being niche. Just ask Van Gogh.

  2. Hi Audrey, you’re response is great. I’ve founded multiple websites for teachers, and can highly recommend two books and leaders for education startups:

    The Death and Life of the Great American School System by
    Diane Ravitch

    The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

  3. Jonathon says:

    The education system is not part of the free market, with the very small, pseudo-exception of No Child Left Behind related funding. Multiple tiers of regulation get in the way of any decision.

    You couldn’t offer free textbooks to most schools unless the books conformed to standards for content, many of which standards are set by the state of Texas and followed by other states, out of laziness. Which doesn’t speak much for your state/local educational boards’ willingness to make necessary improvements to public education.

    It’s awful in so many ways, but most of all in the quality of education dealt. I am speaking as a former K-12 inmate, teacher, and technology provider (turned self-taught programmer and app developer).

    I worked for Chicago Public Schools a while out of college. The 100+ schools I worked in wouldn’t know what to do with technology newer than a 5 year old Dell. They hoard keyboards as a resource (“they don’t get old, they just get ugly”).

    If you want to make inroads in education technology, I recommend you start with private schools and charters, or else get deeply involved in the politics of public education. For the record, if you are a citizen at all, you should get political about it. But you will get nowhere in business if you are not talking to district heads, principals or designated coordinators of various state/federal allocated budget programs.

    Teachers? They need more than fancy grade books. They need a better curriculum to teach. They need smaller classes. They need responsible, committed parents. They need students that learned reading and critical skills at the critical age. They need systemic changes no app short of Facebook could possibly provide.

    I plan to take my application development into education, but not as one of my early technical ventures. Well, I have some ideas I’m working out…

  4. Jon K. says:

    To me another force is at work, and that teachers already have a CMS/LMS available to them (some of them for free like Moodle or Sakai) that does a lot of the same things in a more integrated environment. The compelling bit for teachers is the visualization, but visualizations tied to a small number set (say less than 100) are usually, well underwhelming. So it sounds like the product may have been good, but looked at capturing the wrong audience. Also, a gradebook that measures quizzes and tests is old news. Gradebooks need a paradigm shifter.

    With that said, teachers are barely on board with twitter et al. The ones that are, still wrestle with how to use it in a pedagogically sound way, so these things take a lot of time to get one’s head around.

  5. James says:

    Every entrepreneur encounters failure from time to time, and it can be crushing. But at the end of the day, failure’s ultimately your fault: you didn’t know the market or customers, you didn’t provide a product people wanted, you didn’t promote it hard enough or to the appropriate people, you didn’t get pricing right. There’s simply nothing to be gained from blaming others. I’m sure Jarrod knows this and he’s just letting off steam – and will be back in good time to make a product that leaves a mark. Best wishes to him.

  6. To all who are interested, I just posted a response: http://bit.ly/pp9my9

    I won’t spam the comments section here with the full thing, but here’s a quote:

    Since I started working on Knack, I have been a vehement supporter of teachers. Rather than following standard ed tech business models of chasing expensive district-wide contracts or going freemium and selling premium features to administrators, I built a grassroots app that could challenge it all. An app that could empower teachers to defend themselves against the barrage of attacks from politicians, media, administrators, school boards, voters, and the ed community in general.

  7. If it was a true startup, he would have put way more than $2k into it. Sounds more like a side project and he didn’t try very hard.

    Just like any business, figuring out what the problem really is and how to reach your audience takes just as much time, if not more than developing the app.

    I know a lot of teachers that are early adopters and would have been happy to beta test it for him to give him the feedback he needed.

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  9. Brian Dear says:

    One problem with education space entrepreneurs is that they neglect what teachers actually need in favor of a system the entrepreneur thinks is the “right way.” While a company like Apple can get away with forcing innovation (remember the floppy disk anyone?) when you’re in ultra-competitive space like education, that sort of approach doesn’t work — there are far too many alternatives (both digital and analog) competing in the space; and when trying to monetize it — well forgetaboutit; you’re product has to not only be good, but cheaper than inferior alternatives. Digital grade books are all well and good but unless they reduce work for the teacher, then it’s a waste of the teacher’s time. So what if I have a great grade book.. if I have to enter those same grades into the school’s grading system again, then it’s just duplicating my work with minimal gain. As a teacher and developer myself, I constantly wade through pages and pages of well meaning crap designed to make my classroom life easier. The other problem isn’t that teachers are necessarily Luddites — it’s that existing solutions are often too complex. If you can’t explain to a colleague how to use the system in a text message, then it’s too hard (in my opinion.) That’s perfectly fine for me and my company — the more data we get from the failures, the more we can pivot towards success. @Joel Henderson — The Lean Startup is a fantastic book and one that is perfectly relevant to the edu space as well as any other space when you’re dealing with innovation and gaining traction.

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  12. M says:

    As a teacher myself, this bit here seems to be the most crucial, in regards to teachers being bad customers:

    I had found research that said most teachers spend their own money on their classrooms. […] I didn’t realize […] that [teachers] deeply resent having to spend money on their classrooms and careers.

    If I had to point my finger at one factor that was most important to the failure of this start-up, I think I’d point at this one. Asking someone to spend their own money to furnish basic necessities for their classroom is outrageous – we’d never expect a barista to pay for the new nozzle on the espresso machine, for a police officer to pay for their own gun, or for a nurse to pay for their own syringes. Building a business on the assumption that teachers will be willing (even happy!) to take a voluntary, after-tax pay cut to buy something that should be part of a modern school is clearly the wrong way to go.

  13. ChinaMike says:

    I don’t get this guy at all. He didn’t take the straightess line for success in business– helping the other guy make more money.

    To paraphrase Patton- you don’t win by dying for your country (making teachers pay) you win by making the other poor bastard die for his (attack the resources at the source of the problem).

    And by the way, you will never be able to figure out how to do this with just a cursory knowledge of your market. This guy is wrong not only because he misunderstood the market but also because it doesn’t understand what his goal should be as a businessman. This guy is a coder, not a businessman. It is unlikely that he will produce anything of great value with this mindset.

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