I’ve followed education startups and other entrepreneurial efforts in the education sector for a number of years: curriculum providers, educational publishers, app and other software developers, and more. During that time I’ve been delighted and disturbed as I review products, interview founders and product developers, and visit companies. As I reflect on the different products and services, especially those that focus upon student learning, I’ve noticed certain company traits or habits that impress and delight me, especially as I see the way such efforts impact the quality of what they have to offer.
1. They review the existing research. – If you are providing a literacy product, then what do you know about the massive and current body of research about literacy instruction? The best companies have product developers and/or others intimately involved in the product development who take the time to review this research, letting in inform their work.
2. They conduct their own research. – Not only that, many impressive products and services are informed by new research conducted by people at the company. In some cases, it is a product that people decided to develop as a result of one or more studies that they conducted. In other cases, they conduct research to verify proof of concept or to improve, refine, retool a product so that it is more effective.
3. They analyze data about customers and the students they serve. – While being informed by the research, many of the most impressive company products are informed by continually collecting data about the customers and the student’s they serve (Yes, you can do this in an anonymous and ethical way. I’m not necessarily promoting InBloom efforts.). They use this data to determine which features to add or remove, how student learn, what they learn and new products and services that could be added. This may involve focus groups and surveys seeking to determine readiness of the market, but it also includes split testing, user experience studies, and learner performance studies to figure out how to increase student learning and/or engagement. In other words, I’m not just talking about market research.
4. They engage in less guessing and more testing. – Perhaps this is just more about data collection and analysis, but I offer it in contrast to a practice that I see too often. I still see a good number of companies that launch a product or service based on a hunch, instinct, the experience of one (or a few), or even a hopeful guess that this might work. I see room for all of these in the creative process, but the best products and services don’t stop here. They test their guesses and hunches. They are brutal and persistent in their effort to figure out what is really working and what is not. They are not content knowing that their product is well regarded, in demand, and producing a profit. They recognize their role in the education sector calls for being deeply interested in how the product or service is actually benefitting the learner. Almost anything else risks becoming educational waste.
5. They have people who are listening, observing, and interviewing. – Not every company has a person or people who do this, but if you are in the education sector, how do you stay connected to the client base? In the political world, there are some politicians who rally the constituents for the big election but as soon as they win, they head off to the capitol, gradually losing touch with the people they were elected to serve. There are others who stay connected, maintaining a deep and growing understanding of the constantly changing needs of the people. The same is true for education companies. Many hire educators, but as the educators spend less and less time outside of learning organizations, they start to lose touch with that world. Even those who come right out of the classroom have only their experiences from which to draw. That is why some companies find ways to stay connected, get more connected, and invest in constantly learning about what is going on in schools, what is working really well, and what is not. They are not just learning from current and future clients, by they are on a constant search for the best and most promising practices in learning organizations. They observe, read, and interview people…and they use this to spark new ideas and refine what they are already doing. Google has the 20% rule for engineers to work on products of interest. I happen to think it would be brilliant for education companies to consider having a 20% rule for some of their developers, having them spend 20% of their time learning about the best and most promising things in education (whether it is happening in a classroom across the country, an after-school program down the road, a small pilot project at a University, or some government funded research lab). One thing is for sure. This effort is most effective if it does more than send people to a few of the big education conferences each year (with is helpful, but not adequate).
6. They distinguish between what is generalizable, transferable and isolated. – These first two are research terms, and if organizations are going to get informed about the research, it also requires understanding what research findings can be generalized to larger populations, which findings have principles that can be transferred, and which findings are potentially just descriptive of one or a few isolated events.
7. They have a student-centered mindset. – While many education companies do not sell directly to students and parents, I contend that there is a social responsibility to keep the student/learner as the central focus of their product development and design of services. We are talking about the education sector, which is founded in a vision of social good. While it is perfectly fine to be profitable (even wildly so in some cases), the education industry (if it is to remain ethical) is about positive outcomes for students.
8. They are honest about what their product does. – Some try to argue that their product is the secret or solution to the greatest educational needs in the world. Others oversell the range of benefit for their product or service. However, still others are clear and positive about the benefits and limitations of their product. They are proud of what they have to offer, but they are also honest about it.
I’m sure there are plenty of other important traits or habits, but these are a great foundations for companies that do or aspire to function in the education sector. Such practices will help ensure that they have a product or service about which they can be proud, that they are genuinely benefitting the education sector, and they are far more likely to build a strong and mutually beneficial relationship with their clients.