I took a quick look at the startup ideas on Ed Startup this week, and found that many of them are in truth more like non-profit projects or programs than businesses. Maybe it’s the nature of those that are in a service-oriented sector to begin with— I think most people that have an interest in education have a stronger instinct to serve ideals than to make money. God knows I also have a penchant for tons of non-profit ideas that do not lend themselves to sensible business models.
I am incredibly thankful for the role that non-profits have played in this world, they serve much neglected niches and give our societies incredible, dynamic energy. I want to be clear, also, that I believe that a non-profit is just as much a startup as a for-profit business. Regardless of where funds come from, I think it is imperative that we ask ourselves the difficult questions of sustainability when we set out to do something. It benefits both ourselves and the society (should our idea turn out to truly serve a need) that we execute our vision with sufficient understanding of the resources required. It gives the much needed rigor to our “startup idea” to push it one step closer to reality. It is also for the benefit of the education sector that entrepreneurs who truly care about education can thrive and sustain their operations.
I have also struggled with the business economics of my idea. What I have come up with may be a bit ambitious, but here it goes!
Create a membership-based co-working space/community that brings together K-12 educators and edtech startups. The community will be reputation-based, that is, membership will be vetted and restricted only to educators and companies who are of quality. Edtech companies will have to apply for a fee, while educators will be invited for free. The community will coordinate product feedback sessions, hackathons, networking, and other events to facilitate communication between the two communities.
There is a gap between the tech community and the educators community. There are too many products floating around that cannot find suitable markets, and teachers do not have the time to juggle all the new technologies. Many edtech companies build products that are not truly suitable for educators or fail to gain sufficient traction for their product. This is either because they have not conducted proper user studies with their target segment, or because of their limited network reach. For educators, there are simply too many products available to understand which ones are worth their time and money— and often they do not have enough time to give new products a good try, let alone have time to participate in user research beforehand.
Bring together the two, in real-time!
Teachers will be invited based on their reputation/teaching track-record (though they can also actively apply) and can be members for free. The incentive for them is that it will come with free tech-training workshops, possible stipends to supplement their classroom settings, other possible freebies/fellowship, and the opportunity to network with other extremely capable educators/techies. Not to mention, of course, they will have a much better idea of what’s good tech to use for their classroom since they will be exposed only to the best ideas. In order to join they must also commit firmly to a certain amount of time giving feedback/interacting with tech startups.
Edtech startups will have to apply and be vetted based on their quality. There will be an annual fee involved, and it should be something in the range of what it’d take for them to hire one additional community manager who will have to start their outreach from scratch. The incentive for startups is to have ready access to educators— both as a product research user-base and potential market after launch, and to have a community that helps them organize these product panels/networking with educators.
The community will be funded by edtech co’s membership fees, events fees, and possible other tech corporate sponsorships. Even though it seems a bit ludicrous to ask tech co’s to pay a fee, this is mitigated by the fact that it will reduce their other labor/research costs in community management. If there is sufficient interest/space, the idea could even be extended into a full-time coworking space for some edtech startups— many of them have to pay rent at other coworking space anyway! The primary costs of this startup will be rent/utilities and some administrative personnel.
There is not simply enough interaction, understanding, and collaboration between the two communities right now. Most efforts are sporadic rather than systemic. Educational technology is unique in that most end-users do not have the spare time or money to explore new technologies unless it really hits the nail on the head; hopefully this will help produce technologies that are really needed in the classrooms, and thereby help products find sustainable markets.