My Advice to Education Entrepreneurs at Harvard

Yesterday I wrote a blog post titled Business Models in K-12 Education that was inspired by judging the Education Innovation Pitch Competition at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Today, I want to share a some advice that I offered to a group of students that evening. The student organizers were gracious enough to give me the opportunity to share a few reflections about the current state of education innovation with the audience – a bright-eyed group of 200 students that came from practically every school in the university.

Below is a summary of my remarks (embellished a bit since I now have the benefit of hindsight):

I started by admitting that the outline for my remarks was handwritten on the back of a drawing that my five-year-old daughter, Ella, had given to me to put up in my office. That was the only clean white sheet of paper I had on the flight from Seattle to Boston, and I didn’t think Ella would mind as long as I avoided scribbling across her drawing. “Nothing puts the importance of education innovation in perspective like giving a speech from your own child’s artwork,” I said.

Then, I described what I see as the confluence of several Uber Themes in K-12 education:

  • Ed is sexy; smart, hard-working, visionary students are flocking to this sector like never before (Exhibit A: the full house that evening)
  • The adoption of the Common Core by 46 states has created national momentum toward rigorous college readiness goals for all students, as well as the new types of content, tools and school models needed to achieve them
  • Parents, educators and industry are joining forces to demand that students also master more complex skills such as creativity and critical thinking, and non-cognitive skills such as tenacity and grit
  • The teacher effectiveness and teacher voice movements are bringing new attention to the science and art of teaching, and offering a platform for educators to share multiple perspectives
  • Technology is simultaneously improving, getting cheaper and proliferating rapidly in schools across the country; excitement is building over the potential of technology to facilitate personalized learning (my focus at Gates)
  • Funding in the form of government grants, philanthropic dollars and private capital is increasingly being channeled toward spurring early-stage innovation; at the same time, however, school and district budgets have been cut to the bone in many places

The confluence of each of these is giving rise to the enormous potential for entrepreneurs who are willing to pursue innovative ideas. However, I also advised caution based on the following:

  • Some good ideas may not translate into viable products; just because your solution alleviates a problem for a few teachers does not mean that there is a mass market for it
  • Business models in K-12 education are frequently unclear or unsustainable; this is largely due to the fact that the market is highly fragmented and difficult for small vendors to sell into (read this post for more)
  • Though it holds tremendous promise, technology is not a panacea; too many people are irrationally exuberant at this stage of the innovation curve and are overpromising results (read this post for more on Cautious Optimism vs. Irrational Exuberance)

Reflecting on the themes and the words of caution above, I then offered the following advice to the aspiring entrepreneurs in the audience:

  • Identify real problems; ideally those close to the instructional core so you can measure real impact on student learning
  • Talk to a LOT of real people – teachers, school leaders, parents and especially students – who currently face these problems; be prepared for them to tell you that your idea will not work
  • Do not feel constrained by the existing system; it’s almost always easier for innovations to gain traction outside of the existing system (e.g. summer and after-school, charter schools, tutoring, etc.) before trying to change what happens in the classrooms of traditional districts
  • Develop a realistic business model that can sustain your product or service at scale; this generally requires lots of customers to pay full value for the product or service you provide, which they are often unwilling or unable to do (read more)
  • Finally, start piloting as soon as you have a minimally viable product (MVP); you’ll learn a lot more much faster implementing a solution with real customers than you will drawing prototypes on a white board

In closing, I offered the following observation to the large audience in front of me, “Now is a great time to be in those chairs.” It really is, especially for the education entrepreneurs that have a realistic understanding of the market and build compelling solutions to real problems that customers are willing to pay for.

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