Friday 4 July 2014

Don't Leave EdTech Startups Sitting on The EdShelf

What are the costs of being ahead of your time in a challenging sector like EdTech?

When working on the final draft of my EdTech report a question that I liked to ask some of my educator friends was;

"How easy do you think you guys are to sell to?"

The answer was usually "I've never really thought about it" this was followed by a surprised look on their face, as it dawned on them that "Wow! We must be a nightmare to deal with"

At the start of this weeks' #EdTechBridge chat the guys at Answer Pad asked how things were going... and I was feeling pretty lousy. I'd just heard news that an innovative company called EdShelf was ceasing trading.

Normally I wouldn't mention this at the start of a chat, I would simply exchange the usual friendly salutations prior to the chat. But #EdTechbridge is a EdChat and community designed to bridge the gap between educators and EdTech developers/entrepreneurs, and the truth is this gap is like a chasm at times... and far too often founders are at the edge of the startup precipice looking down.

I do not know EdShelf's founder Mike Lee, nor have I had any contact with him prior to sending Tweets and an email empathizing how tough EdTech can be after hearing this news.

Although, as an ImagineK12 company I was aware of EdShelf, but hadn't checked the site out for a while. I did check them out before the site launched and recall leaving a "note to self" to keep an eye on these guys as they are working on a similar model I was exploring, but never really got round to it as I've been focusing on my own particular challenges.

I am writing this post today because of the similarity of models. After I read EdShelf's press release I noticed a fantastic message that they Tweeted;

Of course I agree with this comment, but I was tempted to reply with a Tweet along the lines of

"Yeah, once they get to know you... but education can be extremely difficult to engage with"

I have spent a year and a half trying to breathe life into an alternative EdTech roll out method which is designed to address some of the inefficiencies that exist with the current sales models used to engage educators, but it sure has been a challenge.

Ahead of your Time
In my updated "Death of an EdTech Salesman" post I highlight that alternative models of engagement with suppliers' products will be the future of EdTech sales and I use EdSurge as an example.

We know this because word of mouth recommendations between educators is the best method of roll out.

We need look no further than ISTE for evidence of this and compare the difference in results and level of engagement that Crescerance had with their development partner Susan Bearden Vs some of the sales guys who stalked people with their scanners.

So surely the value of a website and service that gathers the experiences of educators and effectively acts as word of mouth referrals without the high pressure sales environment is obvious, right? I'm sure that the guys at EdShelf and Imagine K12 thought this would be a "no brainer" too in 2012 and that the idea would "fly out the door"... I sure did when I did my due diligence.

So why doesn't it? What are some of the challenges to this kind of model? I don't know enough about EdShelf to speculate on why they are winding up, but I can certainly speculate on some of the challenges through my own experiences.

EdShelf may be in no mood for reflection or contemplation... Even if they were, they may not have time to as they are going through the painful experience of winding up their business.While Mike and his team do this, I wonder if I might be able to encourage the sector to take a moment and reflect on what's going on here, why this model is so important... and what educators can do to help drive it forward.

Why would an EdTech review site be
forgotten about and left on the shelf? 
I have been working on an alternative model of Edu/EdTech engagement which I believe will save all stakeholders time and money... it should even help generate new ideas and/or improve the quality of EdTech startups products. But getting this idea off the ground has been tough. Here are some problems I've identified... and some potential solutions.

Educator Reviews
There are a few challenges with encouraging educators to review products on sites like EdShelf, which includes:

1) "My colleagues in IT are the best people to review EdTech products"
People seem to think that it's only IT that should review products. This is not the case! Anyone who is expected to be using the tech should be reviewing it. If a technophobe is expected to use a product they should also being reviewing them. If their input isn't MORE important than the technologically proficient it is certainly AS important.

2) Early stage products - Rolled out too early
Products that are in the early stages of development should be in the hands of the early adopter market, but this rarely happens.

The reason why this should happen is because this group is made up of the technically proficient who actually play a key role in debugging the product and help the company to iterate it's way to product market fit. The reason it doesn't is because products get rolled out too fast, a pace which is sometimes dictated by the company as much as educators, this leads to poor products being rolled out when they shouldn't

3) Nice Educators... Leads to Poor Products?
There have been occasions during EdTechBridge and other EdChats where developers have suggested that "educators are too nice to give brutally honest or negative feedback"

I think there is something to this statement. I want honest feedback with the educators I deal with as this will ensure you create great products. But you do need strong relationships for this kind of honesty.

If there is a review site which has 5 great reviews from fans, but none from educators who are being "too nice" to provide negative or honest input. With the voice of the detractors missing this provides a skewed picture... a product that is actually pretty poor may look good.

This partial view of products and lack of honest input from educators will mean the review site lacks objectivity... There will be few reviews and/or poor products might look great.
  • Non-Techies not reviewing products, a lack of understanding about effective roll out and educators being "too nice" to give negative reviews diminish the effectiveness of review sites
1) The product is inefficient
Dave Feinleib highlights in "Why Startups Fail" that "No-one sets out to create bad products, but it happens all the time" then his book goes on to explore why this happens.

He cites the #1 reason as not finding "Product market fit" which is "Being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market"

The end of my EdTech report details how events can unfold when product market fit has not been achieved (See Appendix 3 & 6.) As you can see, deep down the founder and other members of staff know the product has issues, but they are committed... there are wages to pay and overheads to cover. They realise, a little too late, that the problem is because they didn't iterate their way to product-market fit with their customers' input in the early stages of development.

With products like this the company is reliant on the sales team and may not necessarily want their prospective customers to know what their current user feedback is like... at least not without either being in the room with the current and prospective customer to guide the discussion and/or being selective with which educator reviews that prospective customers see.

The extent of this problem can be seen in the Teachers Know Best report as it highlights that 50% of the EdTech is seen as ineffective. If you were the founder with a product in the bottom 50% of EdTech would you support this type of EdTech review site?

2) Great EdTech... Same Tired old Pitch?
Even the best EdTech companies do not seem quite ready to give up their old sale practices.Companies know that traditional sales methods are less welcome and less effective, but are not yet exploring "social selling" to the extent that they should, or don't fully appreciate that community managers and social media can facilitate sales... So convincing them and an EdTech review site could eventually replace an entire sales force is a bit of a stretch for them at the moment.

Stinky Pete deserved to be left on the shelf: EdShelf doesn't!
There are a few notable exceptions, but it's no coincidence that these exceptions are those who create exceptional EdTech with educator input at the heart of what they do.

Whatever the case, it means that suppliers perhaps don't quite get the value of sites like EdShelf...yet.

Let's change that today. Now! Please take a look at this letter by Mike Lee EdShelf to shut down and then take a look at the messages of support for both Mike and EdShelf and how useful the site is to those who have used the service and how they feel about it.

Support EdShelf
I'm facing challenges with implementing a service like this in Further Education in the UK and I'm really not sure if there is a solution, there's certainly not one that I've been able to figure out! So I'm not sure what I can do...but there sure as heck is something I can for EdShelf!

I have more people in the US who follow me and read my blog than in the UK, so here's the've got two weeks to get onto EdShelf and rate any products that you use - whether good, bad or indifferent; whether you've just come back from ISTE or a technophobe who feels overwhelmed by it all

Let's show EdShelf they have friends
The more educators that rate the products... the more accurate the review... the more accurate the review... the more sales this will generate... the more sales it generates...the more suppliers will start to reconsider their current sales practices that educators don't like.

Educators, you can't have it both ways, you can't complain about pushy sales people or bad products when you're not supporting the kind of model that can, and will, make it easier for the good suppliers and harder for the inefficient ones.

I have written a number of posts on both the need for greater collaboration in EdTech as well as the value of Adam Grant/Adam Rifkins "5 minute favour" which is: Something you can do that will only take you 5 minutes but will have a huge impact on the person you do the favour for.

Educators please take 5 minutes out of your holiday to make a big difference... Please get behind Alicia Leonard's campaign to #SaveEdShelf campaign by;

1) Register onto EdShelf
2) Review products that you use regularly, which includes adding any that are not listed
3) Tweet, email, scoopit, reddit and generally make sure that your education colleagues know about #SaveEdShelf and that they register and review products they use too

NB If people get behind Alicia's campaign this may lead to a large volume of traffic with other educators reviewing products on the site. Please be patient and of you cannot get access straight away, please revisit the site later. Alternatively why not email and leave your contact details and the team will come back to you.

I'll leave you with a video of the impact that taking 5 minutes will have... It only takes one person to get the party started. Mike, my dancing will probably put people off joining your party, but here's my RSVP... I'll be there! I wouldn't miss it for the world!
Mike Lee: Lone Nut Or Visionary? A question that is now up to Edu to decide


  1. I wanted to thank you again for this great post and all of your support! The response has been tremendous and I am eternally grateful to you and everyone in the education community. Thanks!!

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  3. Hi Mike,

    Absolutely no problem at all! As I mention in the post I've looked at some of these issues in the UK and my due diligence, and attempts to iterate my way to "Product Market Fit" told me that my ideas were too early for this particular sector (Either that or my vision and communications were not compelling enough).

    I'm delighted that my experiences have helped to highlight the importance of, as well as the current challenges with, EdTech review sites. I hope you find the support that you're looking for to keep the site running. Good luck Mike.