Contributor: Jessica Lindl, SVP of Inside Sales and Marketing at Scientific Learning
As a student of the edtech landscape, you are no stranger to the potential pitfalls of starting and building the next great education company. You start out with a life-changing product, get evangelists on board, see triple digit user and sales growth and then decide – it’s time to truly scale, let’s bring in a sales and marketing team! Low and behold, a few months, later, your product teams are starved for resources as every dollar goes to building out your distribution model. Eventually, growth begins to hit just double digits, sales needs more investment to sustain even that “modest” growth and you are starting to consider your exit to one of the few standing publishers left. No fun.
It’s time for us to disrupt this model. Much of the science of startups focuses on how to discover customer value through the build-measure-learn product feedback loop. Let’s say you’ve been wildly successful at building these prototypes and attracting significant funding. But the challenge remains to make sure you don’t fall into the same trap as your predecessors by moving too quickly into the traditional K12 business model. Here are some tips:
- Test your Business Model in Parallel: Most companies I mentor are obsessively focused on the product, believing they can figure out the business model later. This is short-sighted. Your product’s value is dependent on how many users you can impact, which is dependent on how cost-effective it is for you to acquire and retain users. Make sure you are testing this in parallel with your product value testing and iterating the product to meet the needs of your business model.
- Hire a Business Model Scientist: Selling is both a science and an art, and as an industry we have a lot more artists than scientists. Make sure your first hire is marketing and sales scientist who is obsessively focused on prototyping and testing business models. Key metrics to focus on include conversion rate, cost per lead, cost per sale, cost to retain and ultimately ROI. Even if you’re not at the point of having a product you want to charge for, you can test messaging and response rates with online marketing and cold-calling tactics. There’s a great list of business models to experiment with on page 123.
- Blend Selling Models: You know one size doesn’t fit all in education, so make sure you don’t have just one approach to selling. These models should be used in combination to drive adoption at the user, influencer and decision-maker level and marry the best of selling science and art.
- Freemium, Trials, Pilots: Not only does this quickly drive your user base, it lowers the cost of marketing and sales dramatically as your customer educates herself on your value proposition.
- Inside Sales: If you’re an enterprise play, you need a live person at some point to close the sale. Most decision-makers today are doing five jobs at once and don’t have time to see a live person, but will readily jump on a webinar, online demo or phone call. And this isn’t just for the smaller districts – larger school districts are happy to have their schools make the decision, and even more so in this economy where every dollar spent is heavily scrutinized.
- Field Sales: If your business model demands elephant hunting at the large school district level, this model is still a must. Just make sure you use it sparingly (i.e. top 100 school districts) and you back them with the right resources to make sure these people are focusing only on what they do best – selling.
- Capitalize on Synergy: The same tactics to acquire US education decision-makers can be used to attract global education decision-makers as well as parents. Consider building your value proposition, product and business model to capture more demand in the education eco-system. Some critics may feel that you are trying to be all things to all people, but both the cost of customer acquisition (more effective tools) and customer behavior (let me educate and sell myself) have changed dramatically in recent years to allow you to sell more efficiently.
Let’s not allow the current investor enthusiasm go to waste. It’s time for us to create breakthrough business models, not just breakthrough products, to ensure your innovation is sustainable and has a chance to make a difference for many, not just a small few.