A Virtual Internship Startup That Meets the Needs of Universities & Companies

Part of what I love about my work is simply learning about the many interesting and innovative things that people are doing in the education space. This is sometimes happening with new school startups, intrapreneurs within existing schools, and in classrooms around the world. However, there is so much happening in the education startup world as well, which is part of why I enjoy doing a modest amount of consulting in that space.

At least three or four times a week, I get an email, LinkedIn message, or direct message from one of those education startups, rarely to pitch a product. It is usually just to share ideas back and forth. Perhaps they came across an article that I wrote, one of my videos, or they were at a conference where I was giving a keynote or leading a workshop. Something that I shared connected with their vision or passion, so we follow-up. That is how networking works, right?  Well, this is more true than ever in the digital age.

A couple of weeks ago, one such conversation happened with Michael Quigley, co-founder of Promazo, and I’m excited to tell you a bit more about it. I apologize in advance to Michael and his colleagues if I misrepresent anything here, but here is what I heard and what excited me about what they are doing.

When it comes to higher education, we know that hands-on and real world experience are both powerful. First, it is an incredible way to learn real world skills. Second, it adds something to student’s resumes so, upon graduation, they are not applying to a job with absolutely not tested experience in a given field. Third, if helps students discover whether a given type of work aligns with their gifts and abilities. Fourth, if helps students understand the relevance of what they are learning in classes that would otherwise come off as abstract and disconnected from the rest of life. Finally, by being tested with real world projects, students get a better sense of their strengths and limitations. They can learn to build on their strengths, reduce their limitations, and fill in gaps along the way. As such, they start to take more ownership in their learning and personal development.

With such a long list of benefits, it would seem that internships are a no-brainer for college students. They are great ways to gain that real world experience, get to know themselves, apply their learning, build their resumes and more. Yet, there are geographic limitations to internships during the regular school year. Transportation can be a challenge for some students. And, given all the other responsibilities in college, it can be a challenge to fit an internship into that schedule. When we can make them happen (especially during breaks from school), these immersive, in-person internships can be tremendous. However, in the absence of that, is there anything else that can be done?

This is where I was excited to learn about Promazo and see what they are doing. As I talked to co-founder Michael Quiqley, they aspire to revolutionize the way students find jobs and the way employers find (and keep) top talent. Since much work is moving to become more virtual, why can’t internships be virtual as well? Promazo will work with companies to find a project that could benefit from interns. This is not the “go get me coffee type of internship.” It is real work that addresses real needs and has real deadlines. Promazo then works to find a group of University students at a given campus, assembles them as a project team, manages the project, and guides this team of students from project start to completion, sometimes even concluding with an in-person pitch of their product at the company headquarter.

They launched this idea with 7 college students working on a project for IBM. Now they have over 300 students at schools like Georgetown, Harvard, Boston College, Carnegie Mellon, and Notre Dame involved in these virtual internships for an impressive collection of well-known and well-respected companies.

There are countless benefits to this beyond what I’ve already mentioned, but consider these three. First, these are paid internships during the academic year, so this is real work that replaces what might otherwise be traditional campus jobs. This is better pay and more real world experience. Second, this is a great recruiting tool for these companies. They get a peek into the skills of these interns which can easily turn into a new job for a recent graduate and new, promising talent for the company. Third, this is a model that doesn’t depend on extensive work or coordination from the University. Promazo does much of the work, while giving the University a great internship program about which they can boast.

This is a solid example of an education startup that has a creative solution for both companies and Universities. They do this while not ignoring the need for a sustainable financial model for themselves. This is a brilliant model for a win-win-win example of educational entrepreneurship. I look forward to seeing how it develops over the upcoming years.

Education Startup Impact Factors That Make or Break an Effort

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.

Can a New Breed of Startup Solve the HigherEd Marketing Puzzle?

There must be a better way. Over the last fifteen years we’ve witnessed the rapid expansion of digital marketing in higher education, and this has implications for students. Universities compete to capture the attention of prospective students. However, there are signs of startups and innovations that might challenge or at least give an alternative to the current approach. Before I get to that, allow me to explain the current landscape.

Non-profit and for-profit higher education institutions spend billions annually on marketing. The “cost per acquisition” of a new student ranges from a few hundred to thousands depending upon the school, program and student demographic. For example, recruitment for online MBA students is extremely competitive, and it is not unheard of for an organization to spend anywhere from $2000 to $5000+ to recruit a single student.

This competition is further amplified by online degree programs. If you live in California and you use the Internet, there is little doubt that you’ve seen more than a few ads about Arizona State University’s online degrees. When it comes to online programs, there is little (expect for a large marketing budget) keeping Universities from marketing to students thousands of miles away. This means that a small or middle-sized school in a state is competing against millions of marketing dollars even when they are mainly focused on recruiting students within a few hundred square miles of their campus.

What does all this spending mean for prospective students? While I realize that I’m oversimplifying things, each dollar that goes toward marketing is a dollar that does not go toward reducing the cost of higher education for students or improving the academic experience. I spend my day job in such a world, and we consistently talk about spending as little as possible while finding and recruiting the students who can best benefit from what we have to offer; but that is an expensive endeavor in the digital space.

Prospective students are persistently confronted with online ads, marketing videos, and other efforts to gain their attention. When students use a search engine to explore potential higher education options, they witness a digital competition among University web sites, each hiring internal and external talent to optimize their sites for search, to increase their page rank, to be among the first to show up. The results of searches also show web sites that specialize in listing dozens or hundreds of higher education options. These are often companies that make money by charging Universities based on the “leads” (prospective students) that are provided through the site. Once prospective students show interest in a school, they are likely to find ads for that school following them around the web, showing up on the side of their favorite news and entertainment web sites.

This means that the success or viability of colleges and universities, especially those that rely on tuition dollars, is tied to their capacity to find some way to compete in this new landscape. How do you fill that freshman class or meet those enrollment targets? This is a critical issue for many schools. It becomes especially important when we expand our conversation from the small percentage of students who pursue a traditional residential four-year degree to the majority of college students today who are working adults, commuters, accelerated, and/or online students.

While far from certain, I see hints that much of this could change as people begin to experiment with data analytic tools that match people with products and services that best fit their needs and interests. Admittedly is a prime example of innovations that hint at such changes in the higher education space. Here is how they represent what they do:

Our goal is to help high school students find their dream schools and get accepted. We aim to build a platform to help students at all budgets, which is why our platform is completely free for all students. We’ve recently launched accounts for parents, mentors, counselors, and current college students, and will be building those out in the future.

The idea for Admittedly was originally hatched while Founder & CEO Jessica Brondo Davidoff was working as a private college admissions counselor and SAT/ACT prep instructor for her first company, The Edge in College Prep, which she founded in 2005 just a year after graduating from Princeton.

I don’t think they talk about it this way, but my first thought was, “Brilliant! This is a dating service concept applied to prospective students and colleges!” You answer a series of questions ranging from your academic record to interests and preferences. The Admittedly algorithm does the rest, providing you with a long list of recommended colleges, ranked by best fits. It tells you which colleges align well with your academic preparation, which are likely stretch goals for you, and which match goals and interests but are probably in the stratosphere for you based on their admission requirements. There are plenty of other web sits that offer you help finding a good college match, but I’ve not seen anything as detailed as Admittedly and their database of 300+ questions.

This is only part of what Admittedly does, but it is a brilliant concept, one that is worthy of gaining traction. Of course, there are risks of abuse. Companies providing services like this could become just as cost-prohibitive by charging Universities large fees for the leads generated from their service. There is nothing inherently wrong with such a business model, but that doesn’t help us address that massive marketing expenses that I already described. Also, much depends upon which colleges are represented in such company’s databases, whether the college’s features and requirements are accurately represented, whether all schools truly get an equal chance in the algorithm, or if this also just comes down to who is willing to pay the most to show up at the top of a student’s “best college fit” list.

Yet, what if companies like this are willing to be largely neutral (maybe even held externally accountable) and/or transparent about their matching methods? What if they are willing to help decrease the marketing expense problem by reducing the cost per new student paid by universities? Then they are not only helping prospective students through a great service. They may also be indirectly helping higher education institutions find ways to reallocate some of that marketing money toward student services or tuition discounts. Time will tell, but if such services truly help students find the best college fit and therefore increase retention and graduation rates, then this is a for-profit business model that is contributing massive good to higher education.

Admittedly’s focus seems to be on prospective traditional undergraduate students, and I’ve yet to see an equal for the larger number of non-traditional or post-traditional college prospects or graduate students. I have also not seen something like this that specializes in helping people sort through the growing number of online programs available to them. These are prime markets for services like Admittedly. It is only a matter of time before we see people filling these needs. What is uncertain is whether these new startups will simply join in driving up the cost of higher education marketing or if they can provide a truly positive change, decreasing marketing expenses while helping prospective students find schools that are a great fit.

How Education Startups Will Change Higher Education

They’re struggling. The Department of Education, state-level oversight departments, regional accrediting agencies and program-specific accrediting agencies continue to have difficulty responding to current and emerging innovations in education. Add the complex bureaucracies and centuries-old academic cultures within higher education institutions and we have a perfect storm that stifles progress and new possibilities for formal learning in a digital age. The recent conversations about direct assessment and new approaches to competency-based education highlights such a challenge. Many of these groups are slowing and hindering innovation in higher education, while often not realizing that this is the logical result of their efforts.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” While some attribute that quote to Henry Ford, others point out that the true source is unknown. Regardless, it represents the role of these agencies and organizations in higher education. They are sometimes closed to the possibility of the automobile equivalent of higher education innovation. Their comfort zone is with evaluating schools on the speed of their horses. They reward and accredit better industrial universities, while remaining clumsy when it comes to imagining or supporting visions of post-industrial, non-hierarchical higher education.

At the 2013 Educational Innovation Summit, Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University, explained that there are three types of universities: élite, industrial age universities, and innovative universities. Crow suggested that the élite schools are the most insulated from the impact of innovation. They have extremely positive brand equity. They have a financial model that does not rely on tuition. And they a have a long waiting line of people wanting to join their community (whether it is students, staff, or faculty).

Then there are the industrial age universities. These schools are less insulated from the changes and innovations in higher education. They function with a traditional model established amid the industrial revolution. Some of their practices clash with the emerging nature of an information and digital age, but they tend to persist with past practices. Some make grand and convincing arguments about why they should not change. Others have trouble taking many of the innovations seriously because they believe so strongly in what has been done and what they continue to do. According to Crow, these industrial universities need exemplars that can point them in promising directions.

Finally, there are the innovative universities. These are the ones exploring, experimenting and even setting aside some of the industrial practices, replacing them with new models. They are bold, imaginative, informed about current trends and innovations, and they are re-imagining higher education. They are often criticized because they challenge longstanding traditions and defined roles in academia. They are not simply replicating what the university next door is doing, nor are they trying to model themselves after the élite schools.

All three university types, but especially the industrial and innovative, continue to be largely shaped and influenced by external bodies and government oversight agencies. These outside groups set up rules and standards based upon past practice in higher education. They use measures that people understand from past generations. They have a bias toward the traditional and the familiar, and while some practices like online learning have been assimilated, they continue to set up criteria for “quality” or “excellence” based upon past models. Even so, the élite universities remain insulated. They are far more comfortable ignoring some of the regional accrediting agency standards. As one person explained to me. The difference between élite universities and the rest is this. At the average university, people dress up and put their best foot forward for visitors from the accrediting agencies. At élite universities, the accreditors dress up and put their best foot forward.

What are the possible outcomes from all this?

Shifting “Market Share”

We are in an age of democratized knowledge, information and learning opportunities. Education startups are on the rise, and more of them are offering alternate routes to learning that do not depend upon formal learning organizations. They don’t deal in credits, degrees or federal aid; so they don’t have to worry about external accrediting bodies or as much government oversight. They are free to innovative in a way that focuses upon customer satisfaction and benefit to the end user.

One possible future for higher education is that it will shrink, unable to provide what the education companies offer. These companies are more innovative, agile, often driven by end user data, and they are not complicated by hundreds of years of traditions. They listen to what people want and need, and they are less likely to condescendingly declare that, “We know what is best for you.” As such, one possible future is that a percentage of learners and organizations will no longer turn to universities for help. They will go to for-profit and non-profit learning organizations that function apart from government oversight and accrediting standards, but they will demand that we judge all according to the learning that results from their products and services.

If the outside agencies keep it up, a third to half of what colleges and universities do may be lost to companies that are not bound by such groups or rules. Is that a bad thing? That depends upon your perspective. It might mean more options for learners. Some in higher education embrace such a claim, arguing that it lets universities focus upon what is most important to them anyway. Others are troubled by it, especially those with missions and values associated with increasing access and opportunity.  It as if universities are playing a board game and someone gleefully change the rules every few turns. Yet, some playing the game don’t have to follow any of the rules. As such, I expect a branch of “higher education” to emerge within the next decade that will largely bypass many regional accreditors, and I anticipate more models like Patten University that opt out of the financial aid program so that they have more freedom and flexibility in their offerings.

The Rise of the Innovative University

We might just see the decline of the industrial university and the persistence of the élite and innovative universities. The innovative universities may well explore educational offerings that go far beyond courses, credits, degrees and programs. This has been going on for decades with some of the most robust continuing education units at schools. We see it happening with some competency-based education and direct assessment programs. Perhaps more will come from such efforts, providing a larger variety of educational formats and offerings, some of which do not require financial aid or outside accreditors. The career track programs that are already highly regulated (like many healthcare professions) may well remain tied to outside oversight, but many other offerings can flourish by finding ways to be free from time-consuming outside rules and expectations.

A Re-imagination of Oversight

Another possible future is that more accrediting agencies will adjust what they measure, looking less at minutia and trappings, and more at results. Right now there are many expectations from various accrediting bodies about the appropriate percentage of adjunct versus full-time faculty, what formal degrees faculty must hold, library resources, and any number of items. In other words, they are directing what the University should look like instead of focusing upon outcomes. As this changes, perhaps we will see universities freed to embrace the best of their past while also venturing into new models like competency-based education, learning environments that unbundle the traditional role of professor, and tracks that are tied directly to employer needs.

 The more regulated the sector, the more difficult it is to make predictions about the future. As such, any musings about the future of formal education organizations are tentative at best. Yet, we are witnessing the rise of less regulated educational offerings through innovative startups. As these unchained offerings expand, they are bound to have an impact on higher education as a whole. Either they will disruptive, decrease, or re-define the direction of colleges and universities.