Contributor: Andrew Cohen, Founder Brainscape
EdTech startups are a lucky bunch. While most enterprise or mass-market B2C startups struggle to find enthusiastic communities of early adopters, EdTech startups are targeting educators, among whom are some of the most tech-experimenting and socially active mavens that you could ever dream of having promote your product. It’s therefore amazing that so few EdTech startups do a great job engaging teachers as constant product evangelists.
Where most startups seem to go wrong is that they view their early teacher customers as sales targets rather than as partners. For example, even when conducting free “pilots” in beta mode, excited startup founders are often tempted to foist existing features down teachers throats rather than starting with the teacher’s problems and building from there. Yet if you can instead start with the teacher’s pain points and make them feel like every product improvement was their idea, they are exceedingly more likely to tell their peers about your company.
At Brainscape, we began cultivating a core group of “teacher advisors” the moment we considered offering a classroom-wide learning tool over a year ago. As our company has grown, our core group of teachers and professors has been increasingly willing to recommend Brainscape in their listserves, PTA groups, Twitter circles, and at education conferences. In the process of growing this group, we have gained a very strong sense of what works and does not work when cultivating our Teacher Advisors program.
Below are 5 tips that can help you create a successful “teacher advisors” group for your own startup:
- Pick the right teachers. Don’t be too eager to name every early-adopting teacher as an “advisor”, since this can actually dilute your brand. It’s much better to start with your biggest fans and the people who best understand your technology already – or who are most patient with a technology that might still be buggy and non-intuitive (admittedly a minority of teachers!). As your user base grows, you should be constantly mining your database for the most active, vocal, and influential teachers who are already patiently using your product, then kindly invite them as advisors. Be up front about the tasks that they may be asked to perform as well as the benefits that they will receive (e.g. cred, sneak peaks at new features, privileged company updates, etc.).
- Make frequent small “asks”. Teachers are busy people. The easier you make it for them to respond to something, the better the chance they will act on it. Some subtle favor requests could be (1) sending them a 3-5 sentence email asking what they think about the wireframes for your upcoming feature, or (2) mentioning them in an education-related tweet that they can easily re-tweet if they so choose. (Never blatantly ask for re-tweets and make sure these tweets are only rarely about your own product.) Over time, the more small favors a teacher has done for you, the more “invested” s/he will feel in your startup, and the more likely s/he will be to promote it to others going forward.
- Maintain your advisors’ entrepreneurial spirit. As the size of your teacher advisors group grows, it becomes tempting to send out “mass” emails asking for favors and giving business updates. Try to avoid this at all costs. Instead, continue to send personal emails, or at the very least personalize the “Hi [FirstName]” salutation field in your mass email management system. Use language like “As an early adopter, you are helping innovate in education etc. etc.” When teachers feel like they are one of the first few people who have discovered a product (even if you already have thousands), and when they feel like they have a direct personal relationship with the founders, they are much more likely to tell others to “check out this company that I’m helping build.”
- Send out periodic company updates, with “shout-outs”. Teachers who have personally invested their time helping your startup love to hear about the fruits of their labor! Be sure to send your teacher advisors bimonthly updates about what’s new at your company. (e.g. product updates, new hires, recent press, and even photos from a recent company party.) It’s sometimes also helpful to include a “shout-outs” section for teacher advisors who have done particularly remarkable favors, like write about you on their blog, track down an important bug, or use your product in an innovative way. Seeing these shout-outs helps the other teachers feel more motivated to help out themselves. (Just be sure to get permission first before mentioning any teacher’s name in the email.)
- Save your “big ask” for later. There may be a time when you really need your teacher advisors’ help, like if you’re gearing up for a big press surge, and/or if you need them to help organize a more detailed pilot study with your new technology. Don’t ask for such big favors until a teacher has already provided several small favors and has grown to feel more invested in you and your company. In fact, you might even consider forming an “inner circle” of the most trusted/active advisors, so you’re not bothering the “outer circle” advisors group by making them feel like they’re asked to do too much “work” before they’re fully invested.
When teachers feel like they are your partners, they are motivated to create their own promotional materials and promote them via their own channels! (This video was un-prompted by one of our advisors.)
Whatever methods you use to form your own “teacher advisors” group, you’ll find that transforming your passionate teacher users into evangelists is the most effective way to help your EdTech startup reach the next level. Treating teachers as friends & partners, rather than dollar signs, will add critical horsepower to your entrepreneurial engine.