Contributor: Mike Lee, Co-Founder of EdShelf
You wouldn’t start a restaurant without having someone on your team know how to cook, right? Same goes for educators in an education technology startup.
Education is one of those fields about which everyone has an opinion. We’ve all been touched by it to some extent, so we all think we know what is wrong with it. Many of us go on to start companies based on our assumptions too. However, very few of us have meaningful teaching experience.
If you do, you are off to a great start. If you don’t, consider finding educators as advisors. You can hire educators into your team, but having them as advisors is just as good, if not better. I’ll explain why later.
1. Find educators
First, you’ll need to find some educators who are interested, willing, and able to give you feedback.
2. Identify potential advisors
Like identifying any kind of business advisor, identifying an educator as a possible advisor for your startup requires evaluating each person. Before inviting an educator to become an advisor, form a relationship with him/her to get a better sense of his/her character. Some issues to consider:
- Does this educator have integrity? - You may share a lot of mission-critical information with this person, so integrity is of utmost importance. Tech-savvy, startup-friendly educators are likely to be approached by startups all the time, including by your competitors. Make sure the person is trustworthy, honorable, and has good judgment.
- Does this educator have time? - Being an advisor means being able to offer some time. If this person never responds to your inquiries or requests, then this person may not be suitable. Many will be willing, but simply unable because of a heavy workload.
- Is this educator knowledgable? - The field of education is a wide one. Depending on your product, there may be key differences amongst elementary, middle, and high school teachers, not to mention higher education, homeschoolers, professional tutors, education consultants, etc. If you have a preschool product, a university professor may not be that knowledgeable about your target market.
3. Invite as advisors
You can recruit educators as advisors in two forms:
- As informal advisors
- This could be as easy as someone you email or meet for coffee on occasion. Such a person could even be a beta tester. If you have a group of informal educator advisors, you could organize them into an “advisory panel” to make the relationship somewhat more official.The advantage of an informal advisor is a low cost, perhaps as much as lunch or a cup of coffee. For a cash-strapped startup, this is attractive. Some argue that such an advisor is better than a formal advisor too, because he/she is motivated by intrinsic factors rather than financial ones.The disadvantage is potentially lower engagement. With no formality around this relationship, it’s easy for many to lose interest over time.
- As formal advisors
- Being a formal advisor means establishing a Board of Advisors and providing each advisor with equity. How much equity depends on many things, such as the stage of your startup, their contribution, their intrinsic value, etc. A lot goes into choosing a Board of Advisors properly. This article assumes you’ve already thought that through and are considering adding educators to that board. You may need to explain what being on a Board of Advisors means to an educator, as some may not be familiar with this concept.The advantage of a formal advisor is high engagement. With equity, the advisor has a stake in the financial success of your startup. In a way, they are buying ownership in your company with their expertise, time, connections, etc. They can continue doing what they love, while safely participating in the potential wealth creation of the startup world. And if this educator happens to have a high-profile, their name and network may also add a lot of value.The disadvantage is having to give up some equity in your startup.
Advisors vs employees
Why might an educator as an advisor be better than an educator as an employee?
- Real-world testing - A practicing educator that’s in a classroom everyday can provide a real-world testing ground. He/she can use your product in the classroom to get actual usage data. You can get this from beta users as well, of course.
- Grant validation - If the school district is your buyer, technology grants are a great way to help districts find the funding they need to purchase your products. These grants often need validation of your efficacy first. A practicing educator can help you with that research.
- Product evangelism - Who better to evangelize your products than an educator who’s actually using it in his/her classroom? You may even get more customers from that school.
- Conference representation - This person could speak at industry conferences on your behalf. Many educators have a natural distrust of for-profit companies. A practicing educator can have an air of authority that a corporate employee wouldn’t. It’s important to note that if you do this, the educator needs to disclose his/her relationship with you.
- Societal benefits - Philisophically, this means keeping a passionate and progressive educator in the classroom to teach our children. Some educators are ready for a change anyways, but every practicing educator you hire is one less educator in society.
This doesn’t mean hiring educators should be avoided. As a business, employing subject-matter experts is always a good thing. But attracting educators as advisors can also offer many important competitive advantages.