Contributor: Shawn Rubin, Co-founder of Metryx
If you are an educational technology company then more likely than not your objective is to improve learning in some way for students. Even if your product centers on organizing classroom apps or streamlining the student information process (SIS) to make the front office and administrators’ lives easier, you ultimately make life better for students, so an argument can be made that your edtech startup is about doing good.
As we launched Metryx and it evolved we knew we had a viable business model, but more importantly we knew that we had a potential way to make teaching and learning more personalized for students. No matter who we spoke to in the beginning, we always drove home the importance of Metryx as a tool for making education better, one classroom at a time.
However, this messaging didn’t help us to gain angel or seed funding. This message didn’t help us to find quality developers, and it definitely didn’t convince any new teachers to use our product if they weren’t already interested, but it did excite the general public, and these people have become our biggest proponents, which ultimately gives our product a support network most startups don’t have. This is particularly helpful for startups located outside the major tech and funding centers of Silicon Valley and New York.
No matter where your company is located, you have at least one of the following possible networks of support, and if you know the education space well enough and you believe in the power of your product, then your job is to convince as many of these potential support networks as possible that the success of your company is a win for them as well.
If you are lucky enough to have the time, connections and strength of concept to get yourself into a killer incubator then you will have no problems securing incredible mentors. However, for the myriad edtech startups that don’t find themselves in Imagine K12 or TechStars, it’s essential to find sympathetic leaders within your community who believe in the power of you and your product to improve education.
Many CEOs of big companies, lawyers, accountants, and even VCs are also parents. They have kids who are in school, and many of them are paying for private schools because they see the problems and challenges that our public education system is facing. Every day they live within the challenges that your start-up is trying to solve.
At Metryx, we have had incredible luck engaging talented, local business leaders emotionally and convincing them that our product is one that could potentially benefit children just like their children. If you can win over a fellow CEOs heart then you have won that CEO’s pro-bono counsel, which is more valuable than money for early-stage startups.
Non-Profits and Foundations
Metryx was born in Providence, RI, which was just named as one of the worst states in the US to have a small business according to CNBC’s 2012 rankings. As a startup I could see this as a near-impossible obstacle to overcome, but instead I see it as an incredible opportunity.
States have funds to increase and support job growth and business incubation, and the worse things get economically, the more important it is for a state to foster its startups. Most of this money is distributed through a state’s larger non-profits and foundations. If you can get the ear of people within these non-profits and show your startup not only has the potential to grow the state’s economy, but also solves a local education problem as well, then you may qualify for many different forms of support.
In addition, when states struggle their schools often struggle as well, which means that there is increased need for non-profits that work within schools, like City Year and Teach for America. These larger non-profits are often tough to crack because they are subject to the whims of their national offices, but if you as a startup CEO can find connections with leaders of their local branches or even better a small mom & pop non-profit that actually works within schools, you can find yourself a valuable partner as invested in your product’s success as you are—if it works it means students are learning, which ultimately means the non-profit’s mission is being met as well.
One of the first connections Metryx made was with the Education Department at Brown University. University education departments are looking for innovative solutions to education problems so they can research these solutions to see if they work. These research opportunities help these universities with funding, and if the product takes off it’s a win-win: your product receives important study and use, and the university looks good for being at the table from the beginning. Better yet, if your university partner does receive money to study your product in action you now have research-backed validity that your product works or doesn’t work, which is again more valuable than money.
Perhaps the most logical partner and yet sometimes the most elusive are schools themselves. In the K12 sector, having a school to alpha test, beta test and ultimately swear by the benefits of your product is a gift from above.
Edtech tools must have teacher voice behind them in order to make them increasingly better with each new release. Metryx started in my kindergarten classroom at a school where I had been teaching for 12 years. I had the benefits of long-lasting friendships with the other teachers in the building. When I asked my colleagues to test Metryx for the first time, many did it as a favor to me, and when the going got tough because the bugs were many, these friends and colleagues stuck with it—giving me feedback, but never quitting on the product itself.
If anything I had to grow thicker skin, because as friends and colleagues they felt completely comfortable to tell me what they disliked about the product I had put so much time and energy into building.
Now, as Metryx moves into version 1 this fall, these same teachers are eager to get their hands on it, because they’ve seen its evolution and are now invested in its success. They are Metryx biggest promoters and currently its only marketing department.
Whether your startup is a non-profit venture or a for-profit LLC you must look locally and believe in the power of your product to improve the quality of education for the community in which you live. Only then can you build a network of support that will bolster your company through the difficult times, pick you up when you are having doubts, and push your company over the top when it is most needed.