Last week my friend Frank Catalano wrote a wonderful piece for the MindShift blog. He talked about the fact that there is a plethora of new companies looking to apply technology to the education market, but that there is still a gap between those entrepreneurs and their educator customers. Essentially, the entrepreneurs still need to understand what educators really need.
This resonated with me, because I am one of those “edupreneurs.” I’m in the first year of building my new business, Balefire Labs, an online curation service to help parents and teachers find the most effective educational apps for their kids. We haven’t launched yet, so bridging this gap is huge for us NOW, before we launch. In response to the questions that Frank raised, I wanted to share some of what we’ve learned along the way.
Frank’s first point: Technology alone won’t improve education. I agree and this is the premise of our business. U.S. consumers spent more than $175M downloading ed apps in 2012. We project they will spend about $500M downloading more than 1B ed apps in 2013. But all of those apps are not created equal. Just using apps won’t improve educational outcomes, no matter how much fun they might be or how entertaining they are. The Balefire Labs goal: Help consumers find the apps that actually help improve kids’ educational outcomes.
Frank’s second point: Time…not competing products…is the entrepreneur’s biggest challenge. Frank’s point here is well taken. Teachers are infamously busy and strapped for time. Trying to sell them a product that takes even more time than however they are currently doing that job just won’t work. In the case of our business, there are now 115,000 educational apps between the iTunes store and the Google store. That’s up something like 150% since I checked those numbers early last summer. And with that volume of apps, guess what happens? Teachers and parents don’t have time to search through hundreds or thousands of apps. So they do their best to find something reasonable. But Ruckus Media Group (2012) report that only 28% of parents who download apps for their kids believe they are educational. And about 58% of parents report feeling guilty about the apps they give their kids. So we have a marketplace where the consumers don’t have the time to find the best possible products and don’t feel good about it as a result. The Balefire Labs goal: Provide a tool that is easy and quick to use in finding effective educational apps.
Frank’s third point: The best products involve teachers and fit within their practice. It’s a pretty basic concept for any startup- talk to your customers early and often. But for some reason there are a lot of edupreneurs who think they don’t need to talk to teachers because they went through the education system as children themselves. I actually find it quite strange. Applying your experience as a student to decision-making about the needs of teachers and educators? And then building products on that basis? Hmmmm. At any rate, at Balefire we are fortunate to have teachers and former teachers on our team. In addition, we’re very excited to have just formed a strategic partnership with a major school district (>60,000 students) in a large urban area. I don’t want to disclose yet what that district is (stay tuned), but the point is that we will have tons of teachers to kick the tires on our service, giving us the chance to iterate before releasing to customers. The Balefire Labs goal: Listen to what teachers and parents want and give them things they didn’t even think to ask for.
Frank’s fourth point: Risk is a big obstacle. This is a tough one. When you are new to the market or are a small fish, getting an instructional technology person or principal to take a risk on your product can be challenging. When I used to work for Mimio Interactive Teaching Technologies, an interactive whiteboard company, we used to say, “Nobody ever got fired for buying SMART.” The point was that SMART interactive whiteboards were a known and trusted brand, and even if Mimio offered a better value proposition at a more affordable price, the risk of buying Mimio was still higher for that school employee. It’s something we have been weighing as we launch Balefire. How do you create a service that is compelling enough for people to want it, with a low barrier to entry so that they will try it, but still generate enough revenue to run the business? It’s every entrepreneur’s conundrum. There is no question that customers would love to have as much stuff for free as possible, and teachers and parents are no different. And our mission is to improve education, not to get rich. But it’s a delicate dance, no question. The Balefire Labs goal: Make the risk for teachers and parents as low as possible by offering an affordable price point and allow them to subscribe on a monthly basis.
Being an edupreneur is the most exciting and terrifying thing I’ve done, professionally. It has the potential to help a lot of teachers, parents and kids, and I am growing, growing, growing, both professionally and personally, as I go through it. I’ve never been so far out of my comfort zone, but I’ve never been more sure that I’m doing the right thing. And every day, I work on bridging that gap between me and my customers.
How am I doing, Frank?