Dear Education Entrepreneurs, Please Don’t Sell Sugar Water.

When recalling the pitch that got him to move from Pepsi to Apple Computers back in 1983, John Sculley said that it came down to a single question from Steve Jobs. “Do you want to sell sugar water the rest of your like or do you want to come me and change the world?” Lately, I’ve thought about this quote almost daily as I continue my research on entrepreneurial efforts and startups in the education sector. Edupreneurship is a hot topic and there is a fair amount of funding available for such efforts. That is because it is a 7 trillion dollar industry and there are tons of gaps to be filled, needs to be met, and opportunities to be pursued. Go to an education startup pitch fest and you may come across pitches that address the cost of college, the need for more useful data in the hands of teachers (or principals…or parents), the ability to personalize learning, solutions to address truancy, attempts to improve math and literacy, or hundreds of other topics.

But here is the question that I find myself asking each time I look at a new educational product or service. Is this company’s product or service more like selling sugar water or changing the world? I use Postman’s questions and several of my own.

  • “What is the problem to which this technology [product, or service] is the solution?”
  • “Who are the winners and who are the losers?”
  • Does it a address a real and important need?
  • Is there any valid and reliable research to substantiate the claims behind the problem? If there is not, does the company have an interest and/or commitment to figuring out the true benefits and limitations of the product?
  • Does this product or service hide or blur our ability to see, pursue, address, and invest in the important and more immediate needs for a given context?

Let’s get back to selling sugar water for a moment. What social good comes from selling such a beverage? Or what benefit is there for the consumer? I can’t think of one. Yes, it might be a big company that creates jobs for people and even uses some of the money to do good in the world. Yet, the base product is pretty much sugar water, and if you want something like that, there are plenty of tasty and healthier options. Is the world really a better place because of the benefits of sugar water? I realize that we could point our criticism at any number of other products in society, things that give us a bit of pleasure or enjoyment but are ultimately not very good for us. But when it comes to the education sector, it is too important of an industry to entertain the educational equivalent of selling sugar water.

I write this for the consumer as well as those businesses and innovators behind the growing number of educational products and services. As I’ve written elsewhere, the education sector is about social good. I fully support revenue generating products and services, but I hold them to a different standard in the education sector just as I would in a sector like healthcare. The consumers should demand that the products and services provide true value, and the companies opting to serve this sector have an obligation to work toward social good and substantive educational value.

So, to all the education businesses and startups… If you want to want to make money and don’t care about creating true value in society, please consider moving over to sugar water industry. For those of you in the education sector who want more than that…the more the merrier. Welcome to an industry committed to changing the world. Your effort is welcome and appreciated. If you’re ever in the Milwaukee area, look me up and I’ll gladly take you out for a sugar water…or another beverage of your preference.