What are the education startup impact factors that make or break an effort? I’ve been studying educational innovation and entrepreneurship for two decades, and I’ve come to discover that there are consistent traits of the most impactful ones. None of them should come as a surprise, but I offer them collectively as a short and simple list to guide current or aspiring entrepreneurs in the education space. Notice that I’m not just talking about successful startups in purely financial terms. I’m looking at the ones that have a substantive and positive impact.
Impact Factor #1 – A Compelling Why
Simon Sinek popularized the idea of a compelling why with his TED talk about the golden circle of great organizations. These organizations don’t start with how or what they do. They start with a why, something that fuels their efforts and innovation. The same is true for education startups. It isn’t enough to have a nice product or service. You have to start with a vision for why you are doing what you are doing, a why rooted in a spirit of social innovation in the education space, a why that gets you up in the morning, and a why that prods you to persist when the rest of you wants to quit. What is the problem or possibility that inspires you to create and offer this product or service?
Impact Factor #2 – A Customer, Client, or Beneficiary
There have to be people who want and need what you have to offer. You can have the most compelling why in the world and an amazing product, but if people have no interest in it, your startup will flounder and then fail. It doesn’t need to be millions of people, but there must be a target population that will pay (in money, time, interest, or something else) for what you offer.
Impact Factor #3 – A Workable Financial Model
Not all education startups needs to make a large profit. There are plenty of non-profit education startups that thrive and have a large impact. At the same time, there has the be some sort of funding model that will sustain the effort in the present and future. Again, you can have the best idea and motive in the world, but it is hard to have a mission without margin. Sometimes the customers pay directly. Other times you find ongoing funding through indirect or other creative options. I once heard of an innovative new school that covered all expenses by owning and running a fish farm. That is not the most conventional way to fund an educational effort, but it sustained their organization.
Impact Factor #4 – Focus on the Benefit, Impact and Experience
There are financially successful education startups that are not having a positive impact. Their product does little or nothing to benefit the lives of the people who interact with their product and service. The most impactful startups are obsessed with understanding how what they have to offer truly benefits people, and how they can get better or refine what they are doing. This is not just hiring a researcher or consultant to prove the efficacy in a one-time study. This is about a relentless, ongoing commitment to honestly looking at what you are doing and what it is doing for other people.
Impact Factor #5 – The Right Team
Great startups have great people. There is no way around this. They may not even be full-time employees, but behind every great startup is a group of people who bring distinct gifts and abilities that are needed to help the company thrive. I recently attended a pitch fest where there was a brilliant scientist who proposed a new and inexpensive solution to cleaning up oil spills. He was unquestionably brilliant, but even if his solution worked, he would not be able to sustain a successful startup on his own. He was going to need people with skills and abilities that supplemented his deep scientific knowledge. I’ve seen the same thing with education startups, amazing educational designers who lacked the sales, project management, financial or overall business savvy to make the startup work. You need the right people to make it work.
Impact Factor #6 – A Product or Service
This should go without stating, but a compelling why and vision is not enough. Somehow that vision and why needs to be embodied in a viable product or service. There are probably millions of great education ideas and visions, but the difference between an entrepreneur and an educational daydreamer has to do with whether those ideas turn into something tangible or experiential. Sometimes the idea itself can be the product or service, but it needs to be something with which people can interact.
Impact Factor #7 – It Includes a Successful Plan to Work in an Existing Infrastructure or Create a New & Viable One
Some ideas are ahead of their time. Others were made for the past. In the end, successful education products or services have to work for a given population in a time and within a given context. Many great education products struggle because they target a schooling system that has policies, traditions and practices that make it impossible to use the product or service. For Thomas Edison’s light bulb to really catch on, he had to build an infrastructure that brought power to cities and homes. Without that, it might have done fine, but it could not transform the world in the way that it has done. As such, the education products and services that thrive are designed to work in an existing system, or there is significant attention to building a viable and alternative system.
There are undoubtedly many other factors, but as I look at impactful education startups, these seem to be the non-negotiable ones. If you want to suggest another, feel free to do so in the comment section.