Wednesday, 16 April 2014

What Comes first the Culture... or the EdTech?

I read an article this week by Bill Aulet called "Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast" where Aulet highlights that;

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast, technology for lunch, and products for dinner, and soon thereafter everything else too.” Why? Because company culture... guides employee decisions about both technical business decisions and how they interact with others. Good culture creates an internal coherence in actions taken by a very diverse group of employees. 

You get an idea of how important this is in Aulets' closing comments; 

"When I talk to entrepreneurs now, before I get too carried away with the idea, I want to probe them about their vision, mission and values. Ideas are cheap – and tasty too. Culture eats them even before its pre-breakfast morning run"

After reading this article I recalled the first time I met Bill Aulet. I attended an "Entrepreneurial Product Marketing" workshop ran by MIT in January 2011, thus began my journey into the future of engaging with educators. 

After reading this article I reflected how much I had learnt, how much of the course material that I could recall... and how far I had come in my professional development (for more details about this journey see One Small Click for a Digital Immigrant).

SensAble Due Diligence

It was also on this course that I discovered just how hard it is to get everything right when you're trying to create great technology! This was exemplified by studying the progress of an MIT startup called SensAble Technologies. I highlight the level of due diligence that the company went through to identify their initial target market in my EdTech report (See Page 33). 

The company wanted to find the best initial target market for them to focus all their energies on. They had identified 9 potential sectors and during the process of whittling this down to one niche area, the startup was looking to get answers to questions like;

1) Is the "target customer" well funded. Are they readily accessible to our sales force?
2) Do customers have a compelling reason to buy?
3) Can we deliver a "whole product" today to fulfil that reason to buy?
4) Is there no entrenched competition that could prevent us from getting a fair shot at this business?
5) If we win this segment, can we leverage it to enter additional sectors?
6) Can we show results in a one to two year time frame? 

Stop for a minute and compare this criteria with Education as a target market. In my experience, I have found that points 1 & 6 have been particularly troublesome... and I'm not alone. Indeed some serial entrepreneurs have even asked me "Why do you work in Education? Don't you know how tough EdTech is?"  

You don't ignore advice when it comes from people like this! But, at the same time, this is something I am passionate about and was reluctant to move on... So I decided to look at some of the reasons why "EdTech is tough." What I found was that products fail to live up to expectations for a number of reasons, but can usually be traced to having the wrong kind of culture in one way or another. Here are some of the things that I learned as a result of being on this workshop.

Poor Products... Poor Planning
The first question to ask is: how much "bad EdTech" is out there? I have asked a few educators "what percentage of EdTech products/services that they would you recommended to colleagues in other departments/colleges?" The answer? 20-30%.

With stats this low is it any wonder that there is skepticism when "the next big thing" in EdTech comes along? If I was an educator and would only recommend 30% of the technology I used, I sure would be wary! So what can be done, if anything?

I have found that more often than not, products that don't quite live up to expectation, comes down to poor planning... the company might not do as much due diligence in the early stages as it could have. In his book "Disciplined Entrepreneurship" Aulet asks startups to consider questions like;

Identifying with your customer
I was introduced to a number of great books on this course. One of these was Geoffrey Moore's classic Tech book "Crossing the Chasm". Moore suggests that startups who don't have any customers yet should build a profile of what their potential customers would look like. "Target-customer characterization" is a formal process of keeping the customer in mind when developing products and your strategy. Once you have this image in mind, you will be better able to use this as a guide to developing a truly responsive approach to their needs. 

1) What Job title do they have?
2) What course did they study?
3) What do they read?
4) What do they wear?
5) Where do they go?
6) What are their hobbies?
7) What is their career path?
8) Who influences them?
9) How do they view the world?

A Day in the Life of... 
Part of identifying the customer profile is to consider "A day in the life of..." the group you are trying to help. Moore provides some great proforma's including on how to paint a "before and after" picture of how much easier people's lives will be when using your product, as this is a great way of focusing the mind. This is also a good way of drawing out the benefits of your product, which is essential when your product/solution is nothing more than a vision... and a rough sketch on a napkin/whiteboard. 

Moore uses the example of an airline mechanic and how they would benefit from making the switch from paper copies of the aircraft's manual to ebooks, and the impact the new method would have i.e. More planes will get fixed quicker, thereby saving money and having happier customers.

"A day in the life of our customers" also helps to differentiate between a products features, functions and benefits

It can be surprising how often tech enthusiasts (and salespeople) can get the 3 mixed up. While it's great to consider a day in the life of your customer, there is also a challenge with new idea... Most people don't like change, we can be creatures of habit and like our routine. It's for this reason that some investors/entrepreneurs suggest that a new method/solution needs to be TEN TIMES BETTER than the existing way of doing things. Ouch! 

Reading the situation
After attending Bill Aulet's course I read most of the books on the "Recommended Reading" section of his website.

I have noticed a curious thing about some of these books... any time I have been to any UK based Tech or EdTech networking events and ask "Have you read Crossing the Chasm?" or other books that have had a big influence on me, there have been blank looks "No I haven't, what's it about?" In other EdTech circles I understand these books are on most people's bookshelves. I know they are at MIT... And maybe that has made all the difference. 
These books have been crucial, I don't know where I would be without them. If you read them and then look at any company that is experiencing rapid growth and/or are doing great work, you will start to see a trend... which is you end up thinking "They must have read the books the guys at MIT recommend."

This is part of the reason that I am such a big advocate for Steven Isaacs (@Mr_Isaacs) and Katya Hott (@Katyamuses) #EdTechBridge community, as it aims to bring together people with an interest in creating great EdTech to come together and share the things that they have found to work.This includes understanding what educators what and how they would like to be engaged with.

Sales Matters
Something that really surprised me about both Aulet and Moore's advice was their attitude and views on sales. In most companies one of the first roles that they fill is for sales people... after all "Nothing moves in here until someone sells something" right? 

But is this also the reason that sales has the highest levels of staff turnover in startups? Can good sales people get blamed for poor uptake, when the root cause is actually a product that has some flaws? (See Pages 37 & 42).

Compare this with the discipline and focus that MIT recommends. SensAble Technologies did not employ any sales people until AFTER they had identified that their focus would be on the CAD industry. Then they employed people who were already working in the sector, who were known and trusted within the industry.

So much changed after I attended this course. I learned all I could about Inbound Marketing, especially as I realised that my sales experience was rapidly becoming out-dated, obsolete... and unwelcome. I needed to re-skill! And fast!
I discovered early on in my exploration with Inbound Marketing that this was time well spent. I received an email saying something along the lines of;

"Please can I unsubscribe from your corporate emails, but keep me updated with the stuff you send via LinkedIn and social media" 

Unfortunately my boss at the time "Didn't get" any of this work and insisted that I continue with the cold calling. 

But I continually see the benefits of taking the time to attempt to re-skill with content marketing, and this week is no different;
  • Watch "The Call Center" for 5 minutes and you get a sense of how people feel about cold calls
  • Content Marketing is attracting more and more interest from various groups
  • I have had a number of people who can only be described as "Influencers" in education engage with me
  • Some of these people recalled and praised me for some of my ramblings in my reports and blogs, even content that I had produced 2 years ago. 
It's for all the reasons above that I believe that a team with the right culture but the wrong product is better than a team with a great product but the wrong culture. 

Tonight #EdTechBridge will be discussing "Strategies for nurturing relationships between Educators and EdTech Developers & Entrepreneurs" and I will be very surprised if the advice for educators is not mirrored in the advice that MIT would offer.

So if you're in EdTech and have not already read some of these books, then go check them out: Bill Aulet: Recommended Reading


  1. Will -
    This is an incredible blog post. I hope your readers take the 5 minutes. It's WELL worth the read!

  2. Thanks Scott,

    Glad you liked it, I hope that anyone who is in EdTech and reads this will also take the time to check out the books that Bill Aulet recommends... They have been an integral part of my personal & professional development and have shaped my views on how to assess and roll out great EdTech.