Should Your Edtech Startup Join an Incubator?

Contributor: Andrea Lo, Founder of Piggybackr

Tech incubators are designed to help early-stage companies accelerate by providing them with extensive mentorship and sometimes even seed capital.  These programs are often times highly selective, last anywhere from 6 weeks to 4 months, and ask for a percentage of your company’s equity in exchange for their support.

As an edtech company you have a specific set of challenges other tech startups do not face.  So, how do you know if joining a tech startup is right for you?

My company Piggybackr, a web platform that teaches students how to fundraise online for their schools and teams while helping them develop 21st century skills, was one of 11 companies that emerged from Angelpad’s spring 2012 class.

AngelPad was started in 2010 by a group of ex-Googlers committed to helping technology companies succeed during some of their most formative periods pre-funding. Founder Thomas Korte had been angel investing for some time and wanted to get even more involved with his companies. In a few short years, AngelPad has climbed to be ranked the #4 global incubator by Forbes and has helped companies raise over $35 million in funding.

Here are 4 reasons why I found my experience with a tech incubator completely worthwhile:

1.    A network of like-minded founders

Starting a company can be an incredibly isolating experience because most people don’t understand what you’re going through.  No matter how many blog posts or TechCrunch articles you read, there are a lot of things you’re never told until you do it. Having a close group of peers is critical.  During our 10-week program, we worked out of the same office space, discussed struggles over countless slices of pizza, shared resources, and emerged as friends.

2.    A valuable alumni network

Beyond my own class, alumni were also a tight-knit and hugely helpful bunch. There were alumni, whom I met just once, who bent over backwards to reach out, help make connections, and teach us what they had learned.  Alumni become an important pool of people whom you can meet investors through or even hire as future employees.

3. 1:1 time with awesome mentors

Thomas Korte would meet with every single company at least once a week for upwards of 1 hour each. During these sessions, he went out of his way to challenge us to be the best we could be, ask tough questions we didn’t always have answers for, and work with us.

Beyond these one-on-ones, we also had a vast network of allies that included many of the who’s who in Silicon Valley at our fingertips for lectures, calls, and private one-on-one feedback sessions.  Being part of an established incubator gave us more credibility than other early stage startups vying for the same attention because we had in many ways already been vetted.

4.  Get challenged to rethink everything

Though Piggybackr had spent several months prior to AngelPad doing customer development, building a prototype and getting our first users, there were moments during the program where I felt like we were back at square one, re-evaluating the very assumptions our entire business was built upon. It was difficult at the time, but was hugely important to take a step back early on to evaluate whether you’re building a big company that has disruptive potential.

Incubators are not for everyone. If you expect people to pat you on the back and tell you you’re making good progress, then it’s not for you. But if you are a founder committed to building a successful and scalable technology company (not suited for lifestyle companies), willing do whatever it takes, adapt to feedback, and focus on moving forward through all the ups and downs, then it’s hugely helpful.

Sound completely worthwhile?  Here are 4 questions you ask yourself as an edtech company before applying.

1.  Are you ready to be a venture-backed company?

If you join a tech incubator, you imply that you will be building a for-profit venture-backed company.  That means you will ultimately seek investment from angel investors and venture capitalists and give them a percentage of your company.  Your idea will have to be big (think national or global) and have a huge potential to make investors a lot of money.

2.  How will you make money?

You’ll have to prove that people are willing to pay for your product.  Solving a classroom problem or improving a student’s outcome alone is not enough. People will ask you this question a lot because education startups have historically had slower pay offs and fewer acquisitions than other tech companies.  Assuming that teachers will pay for your product out of pocket will not be enough.

3.  Will you be able to scale quickly?

Most tech investors are weary of the long sales cycles that come with selling to schools so think clearly and cleverly about how you plan to quickly reach students and schools.  Edtech startups have to deal with way more regulations and decision makers than the average startup selling directly to a consumer or business.  Be aware of this, as this will affect how quickly your company is able to scale.

4.  Can you build your own edtech network?

Though there are a growing number of education focused investor, advisors, and even incubators, they are still relatively few and far between. Don’t expect a tech incubator to hand you automatic access to these networks of people.  Your team, product, and networking skills will have to do a lot of the talking.  However, being around other startups not in education is important for opening up new networks while also challenging you to think differently.

Ready to go?  Here’s your chance to accelerate your potential to impact millions of students, address a market sorely in need of disruption, show others why you’re the team to execute on it, and ultimately pave the way for the future of education!

One thought on “Should Your Edtech Startup Join an Incubator?

  1. This post is helping me redefine my concept for a digital talent incubator for emerging professionals that want to build solutions in the fashion and product development space, into a scalable business model that investors will support.

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