Saturday, 28 March 2015

How I Met Your Awesomeness: Declara

This is the 3rd in the exciting installment of a 5 part series of particularly special and innovative EdTech companies and startups, how I found out about them and what makes them particularly special... not just (Indeed, not even) from a technical perspective, but from a cultural one.

Today I want to tell you about Declara who, not only has been dubbed as "The Google of Learning," but... If I have anything to do with it, will be the first suppliers to contribute to the #Get2ISTE fund and might even cover all of Craig Kemps costs. Intrigued? You should be!

Startup Lady... Taking on Silicon Valley
So it's the wee small hours, not that I notice because I've been getting cracked on with a spreadsheet that I've had a love-hate relationship for 5 months+ now. 

BBC News 24 is on for some background noise, it's pointless chatter about some politicians.

The news moves onto an article for International Women's day, I miss the start of the discussion, but my ears prick up when I hear it's a woman whose taking Silicon Valley on.

That's no mean feat you know! In one of my "Sales Matter in EdTech" posts I question whether it's the arrogant alpha male CEO's and Technology's Man Problem that is responsible for any Ineffective EdTech  

Then there was Rich Hall's "California Stars," a fascinating documentary including the history of Silicon Valley... and the surprising lack of diversity with the Bay Area tech stratups today: over 90% of startup founders are under 30, white and male.

The achievements of this woman were impressive. She was discussing how she was taking on the establishment and questioning the status quo... and winning. The conversation moved onto the issue of hiring female developers, and that she tried where to hire women, but can struggle to find suitable candidates... despite going out of her way to find women who could code.

OK, startup lady...You have my attention, I am hoping to arrange some Skype Classroom sessions with people that students will be interested in, and I know that some of my EdChat Moderator friends are off to SXSWEdu to talk about Minority Women in Tech #DigiDiversity.

I jump up from my chair to catch this formidable ladies name so I can ping Sarah Thomas (@sarahdateechur...Such bad spelling for a teechur, don't you think?) and Shell Terrell (@ShellTerrelldetails of the company.

I find her on Twitter and see that she has an interest in social mobility, and was the Chief Science Officer for Promethean. What?! She's in education? Let's check this Declara thing out! 

When doing a search for the company an article with the title: From Near Death to Silicon Valley CEO came up... whose not going to click on that article, right? What a story! Then I check out Declara's Twitter account and the first Tweet I see is this one:

By this point in my 60 seconds of research it's not so much any "Fuzzy Feelings" it's more like "WOW!" I clicked on the website and that was it, I'm in! 

If you are a Connected Educator check this out, and tell me whether you think this is the future or not:

I am bowled over! Not just because of the concept or relevance to the way people learn today, but this time it's personal! This 100% details my learning experiences! School was not the best place for me. My OU course was fantastic, I loved it! However, the relevance to what I do today is marginal. 

It is the books that I read for leisure (*Waves* to #Read4Fun chat people), and the learning and connections I've made online that has had the most value. I am so in! Could this be the one? Could a long hard journey be coming to an end?

Right, research over, a big *Gulp* as I pull Ramona's LinkedIn page up... time to see how much my skills have developed, and whether my current plans are a waste of time or not. My introduction to her was that;

"After watching your BBC interview I was very excited to hear about Declara. 

I'm doing work that will make it easier for US startups to engage with UK educators and would love to connect to discuss in more detail" 

Mr Microsoft: James Stanbridge
I received a prompt and polite reply from Ramona and that she'd be interested to hear more, but she also referred me to someone else to chat with. Great! Thought I, put onto someone in HR who will run through a tick box exercise where the end result will be

Then I check out the profile of who Ramona has put me onto, and I have two simultaneous thoughts and emotions;

1) I Think "Wow! This company MUST be something VERY SPECIAL!" then,

I am put onto James Stanbridge, Declara's Vice President, who has almost 15 years experience with Microsoft. The significance of this is that you wouldn't leave a job with one of "the Big 3" (Google, Apple or Microsoft) for a startup if you didn't think this was a game changing idea!

Why the panic? In 2010 I called round all the major tech companies to see if my experience might get me anywhere near being employed. No chance! Not even close to an interview. So, how would a discussion go with someone with this experience today? A few weeks later we have a chat on Skype and... 

The man from Microsoft likes my ideas! Yay! I detail what I am working on in terms of UK education, but point out that these ideas are months, maybe even a year or more, away.

This isn't a problem as far as James is concerned. while the company is based in Silicon Valley they are focusing on their "home market" of Singapore, because Singapore's Ministry of Education (Aspire) really got behind what Declara are doing and saw value in this type of EdReform. Once they have finished their beta testing and rolled out across Singapore, they will then be focusing on the US.

We left the discussion along the lines of "If there are any projects we can collaborate on so we could get to know one another, that would be really useful"

I mentioned my work with Edchats and said I would email some details, and may be able to make some introductions that could be useful. This conversation happened to be on the 19th March, so emailed him details or how I was working on ideas to get EdChat Moderators get support to get to ISTE.

From #Whatisshcool... to Where did you say Craig is Based?
When I wrote the post about the crazy idea of getting Craig Kemp to ISTE (An Amazing Global Edu Race: Get Craig to ISTE), I initially said that he was based in Australia. Craig sent me a message saying he was actually in Singapore. What? Really? I've just been speaking to a really cool company whose based there! I must introduce you guys!

I introduce them to each other on LinkedIn and then my crazy brain gets to work. There is a lot of synergy here, and it's AN AWFUL LOT MORE than Geography and ISTE.

Could Declara to Get Craig to ISTE? 
I would like to offer 6 reasons why I think there are mutual benefits for Declara and Craig working together to see if they can get him to ISTE. Some of these reasons could impact on many US educators in the not too distant future, especially connected educators.

1) Educators who know Craig, regulars of #Whatisschool and others who follow his Tweets and blog, take a look again at this link A Powerful Way to Learn, Share and Collaborate

Now ISTE and travel costs aside, if a company like this came along and asked you; 

"Which EdChat doyou think we should be speaking with for feedback about our beta product?" 

Who would be in your short list? I'd be surprised if #Whatisschool wasn't

2) Keep that Declara link open for a moment, now compare the companies vision with what Craig and William's Global Edu Race is looking to achieve for students. Synergy?

"An amazing race style project to encourage collaboration, engagement and innovation in learning for schools around the world"

3) Declara is working on getting their service right in their home market, which is where Craig is based. 

For all that technology is fantastic... proximity still matters! And, in my opinion, this is especially true with product development. What am I talking about "In my opinion" for? It's a FACT in major technology companies! The big tech companies will have staff work out the clients office during the development stages (See P35 What Would Google Do? It's well worth a read).

Indeed, if I was in charge of education policy, I would be tempted to make it law that Edu startups should be based in a school. Ridiculous? Go read up on Professor Terman how, why and what he did to get the Stanford party started!

“When we set out to create a community of technical scholars, there wasn't much here and the rest of the world looked awfully big. Now a lot of the rest of the world is here.” Professor Fredrick Terman – Father of Silicon Valley 

4) When Declara have finished their beta testing and have got the model working in Singapore, they will be looking to work with US educators and,

5) Which group of educators are going to be the most excited about this service? Who are most likely to be the first users, the early adopters? Could this service help to drive the connected educator agenda forward? Could this company play a role in speeding up the pace of change at their school? I know edchat regulars can vent their frustration from time to time on twitter because of the lack of progress?

6) If there was a product like Declara in development in another country, would it not be in US educators (And esp for proponents of EdChats) best interest to have a man "on the inside" or at the very least, just down the road to grab a coffee with...and where that educator can host a Twitter chat on some potential ideas that result from these real world catch ups? 

So, that's my argument. My original proposal was to encourage James and Craig to connect, spend a day together, make sure that Craig liked the product/solution and then see if anything could be done about ISTE. But then Craig replied to a Tweet... and he gave me an entirely different idea ;).

How about we take Mr Kemps suggestion and test his network against Adam Bellow's ISTE keynote comment;
You are only as valuable as the people you are connected to.

But, don't worry, Mr Kemp's followers (Or Mr Kemp for that matter ;))... No need to put your hand in your pocket here. All you might need to do is something as quick and easy as click on a link and leave your email address. That's it! A link that maybe looks something like this one, with a personal invitation from Declara's Vice President to pre-register for Declara.

Now, is this suggestion simply some shoddy sales tactic? A marketing gimmick? No! it's collaboration! It's taking Adam Bellow's advice:

Know where to ask for help, go to that personal learning network

I would have, and already have introduced these two people to each other. 
  • I heard about a startup whose looking for feedback on their beta product. 
  • I know that proximity matters and Craig and James are in the same place
  • Craig happens to be one of the best people in my PLN to provide feedback on this particular idea
  • The more feedback you can get the better. #Whatisschool regulars are ideal for this one. This is a chat with progressive forward thinking "Connected Educators" who ask "What Is School" just now and "What might it look like in the future." Declara is working on this change.
Remember my post from yesterday? Not being able to reach educators while having overheads to cover is an ideal breeding ground for ineffective edtech, so what would a hyper-connected startup be able to achieve? The answer to that question is over to you...Do you want to be able to say; 

"I was there Man! I was there when the "Google of Learning" was in Beta Test?"

Or... Do you just want to help get Craig to ISTE? 

Either way it Could be Win-Win
If Craig's followers were to pre-register for Declara, then this saves the company time looking for people to sign up, it give US educators the opportunity to input on a product dubbed as "The Google of Learning" and Craig's followers would be saving the company money... Money that could be better spent sticking Craig on a plane to ISTE.

And, as proximity does matter with getting feedback on product development, Craig could discuss Declara with ISTE delegates, get feedback and suggestions regarding any tweaks and/or new ideas while in Philidephia (Isn't that the City of Edu/EdTech suppliers love? Hug a vendor when your there) and take them back to Singapore. 

I hope I have laid out an argument that shows why this is a good idea above and beyond any sense of educators "Selling out" and/or companies using this kind of support as nothing more than a cheap sales and marketing ploy.

So, if Craig's followers were to jump on board Declara's pre-registration page, would there be the potential for Declara to make sure that Craig jumps on a plane to ISTE? 

Jame Stanbridge's message does say "You'll be in good company" ...A bit cryptic? But hopeful! I'll leave it for James and Craig to sort out since they live so close to each other.

Friday, 27 March 2015

ROI Vs ROR... A Tough Sell For Edu Suppliers?

This post looks at some of the issues with the roll out of technology using the current methods that a lot of EdTech companies use.

I also consider how and why I feel EdTech incubators have more and better success than EdTech companies who lack this kind of support, and detail what I have done when taking some initiatives from idea to conception, to replicate the model of incubators. I also suggest ways that others can do the same.

I have spent the last few years staying on my toes, with my ear to the ground, eyes peeled and my head in the clouds... all the while lending a hand where ever I could (What a contorted image that conjures up!), all in an attempt find "Product Market Fit"

"Product-market fit is being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market” Marc Andreessen

In other words I've been looking for something that I can stand tall and be proud of, knowing what I am involved with will stand head and shoulders above the rest (Hoy! Enough with the body parts! Get on with it).

My search for good projects has not been out of any sense of ego or pride, but simply so that I'm not wasting the educators time, or their students. This is education we're talking about here! 

Jim Collins Big Hairy Audacious Goal:
"What's the one thing you can be best in the world at?"

This might sound difficult enough when you have no product and no coding skills. But, when you're only resource is a laptop and an internet connection... it might sound all but impossible!

But it's not when you #Read4Fun (I may not join the chat but I would be lost without the concept behind this one! Here's my Book List on GoodReads);

“The starting point of all achievement is DESIRE. Keep this constantly in mind. Weak desire brings weak results, just as a small fire makes a small amount of heat.
Do not wait: the time will never be 'just right'. Start where you stand, and work whatever tools you may have at your command and better tools will be found as you go along.” 

Culture! Culture! Culture!
Through starting where I stood, I researched all I could about the effective and efficient roll out of technology. And I found that,

The primary challenge here is not technical, but cultural 

The nature of educators personal relationships with their faviourite supplier may be testament to this: And a special mention to suppliers who co-moderate chats with educators @SocialAssurity (EdChat: #DigCit), @KatyaMuses (EdChat: EdTechbridge), @Fishtree_edu (EdChat: #NT2T)

If you've been reading any of my "How I met your Awesomeness" posts (PledgeCents and EdTechChat/ClassDojo and like them, you might also find yourself agreeing with this statement too.

So I've just been hanging around educators, trying ideas in different areas (UK Further Education, Scottish Schools, English Schools and the US) and developing "slow hunches" all in search of that Eureka "Product Market Fit" moment, or finding the right market and validation for my business plan.

I would not necessarily have said that I've "Achieved product market fit" but one area where the feedback is extremely positive is the EdChat community.

I have established an EdChat forum on G+ (If you are a moderator and have not been sent an invite please send me a link to your G+ page). I also have a lot of moderators following me on Twitter, so we can spit ball some crazy ideas.

One Untested Product at 20 Schools Vs 20 Pilot Projects at One School?
All of the ideas that I've been working on and people like, were all started quite some time ago and were all developed simultaneously (And almost all ideas were a result of joining EdChats).

Some ideas, like curating EdChat Tweets, were dropped... until new ways of achieving the same goal was found. As progress has slowed with this, it may be worth exploring some alternative and/or interim solutions.

I worked on 4-5 projects at the same time, establishing one pilot project with one individual or small group, and then left them to discuss and explore for a while, then focused on something else. A big influence with this was. EdTech in India: Go Slow or Go Home

So I might do some work on each project every few weeks or if people are testing things, I'll check to see if things are going well, is the idea progressing and looking viable?
  • Is there a proof of concept? 
  • Does it need tweaked any? Or 
  • Is there a flaw in the product/service/idea that needs de-bugged?
  • Or is the idea itself just a cockroach of an idea, that will just bug people if it were rolled out?
  • Is the best thing to do simply to squash the idea completely?
“Most entrepreneurs start with a thesis and believe that if they build X, then Y will happen. More often than not, their thesis is incorrect. The best thing tech suppliers can do during the planning stages is to work closely with potential customers in their target market” David Feinleib (A lot of recurring comments appear in my posts... that's how important they are!)

EdTech Incubators 
This is why I believe that EdTech incubators produce better products, because the founders can;

1) Go slower because there are fewer overheads and more financial support (Less bills! Yay!)

2) Startups can reach educators easier because the incubator has built up a network of early adopters and advisors

3) Incubators have staff that do certain functions for all the startups, which again keeps the overheads low.

Because incubators can get feedback quicker and can keep overheads lower, this means they can go slower too. 

I have applied for a place at some incubators, and EdTech startup competitions. I have also applied for jobs with them... all to no avail.

I have even reached out to see if I could help out in any way, but got no reply.

So, I "started where I stood" and went about following their example, starting from scratch and in the hope of helping others who are not in their club.

As you can perhaps see my offer of helping brands that I like is not dissimilar to the EdTech Incubators: back the founders and startup ideas I like, and work with 4-5 at the same time... focus on what works and shelf what doesn't for a later date. And progress is being made.

Given my failed applications to incubators, my view of "Just because an incubator's selection criteria does not see it as a good idea, doesn't mean the ideas are not viable" So am happy to help people who, like me didn't "Make the cut," remember Trunkies in the Dragon's Den?

(Btw any incubators reading this, the offer in your inbox from me a few years ago still stands).

EdChat Salesman... Apply Within?
What can suppliers who are in a similar position do? What if a well meaning founder with a great product;
  • Lacks a network of educators to get feedback from, or test their product?
    (I spend a year and a half on a business park with a college 5 mins away and refused to meet regarding any one of a number of ideas that I had?!)
  • Have overheads that means that you can't afford to go slow? You need to get the sales in or the business closes.
As you can see this is a lethal combination... and one that I would argue, is the reason for products are not "Must Have" widgets, gadets and gizmos. This no one person or groups fault... it's something that falls in the cracks of the culture between various stakeholders.

Listening to educators, getting involved with the discussions and finding out what the issues are have helped me. I am also a huge fan of the idea of San Francisco's Circle the School, and believe that there are ways to replicate this outside of California.

If suppliers called their local school, a client, or an educator in their PLN and ask "How can I help you achieve your goals" I think they'd get a positive response. That's what I'm doing, and there is a new and cost effective campaign that's just started @PledgeCents #Get2ISTE

How much exposure would a brand get at ISTE if they supported this? 
Just Hangin' Chattin' & Searchin'
That's what I am doing. I'm going to hang about with these awesome educators for a while, not because they are "influencers" or any other reason, except that;

1) I see EdChats as the place that the early adopters, growth mindset, reformers can be found (Please see my experience with #EdTechChat)

2) I think I can help with any one of 5-6 ideas that others have not spotted as potential opportunities.

While Google saw huge opportunities in search, the incumbents Inktomi, Yahoo and AOL ignored the potential and it remained a side project for them... Look what happened there.

I have no idea exactly what opportunities this could throw up but, what I do know is that any viable ideas could help the two groups I am extremely passionate about: our educators and startups who have innovative ideas whether or not they meet EdTech incubators criteria. I will do what I can to give  their ideas a better chance of succeeding.

But first I need to prove the concept and deliver some results. So I think I will send some crazy ideas to some EdChat friends and see if they can help to grow their chats and improve a couple of things.

Will any of these crazy ideas work? Given that;

"Eight out of ten new businesses fail within the first three years. Even only one in ten venture-backed startups succeeds, and venture capitalists turn down some 99% of the business plans they see."

No! Not all of them will. Even those that do will be extremely unlikely to provide any ROI for anyone.

However, I see the potential with helping Educators "Just because I can" as a good idea, there may not be an ROI... But I can guarantee there is DEFINITELY A WHOLE HEAP OF ROR

I hope to demonstrate the power of this ROR by coming up with some ideas for EdChat participants and suppliers who support #Get2ISTE get value for their contribution, to deliver mutually beneficial arrangements.

Note to Suppliers
When I wrote to some of my supplier contacts about the opportunity to help educators #Get2ISTE, I was surprised to get a few people request to be "Unsubscribed" from the update. I found this a little surprising given that it was a form of support that educators are in favour of. As this is a new idea any ROI will be unknown... But the potential for a sizeable ROR looks very promising.

I'll leave any suppliers who are reading this with some Tweets from some "influencers" in your "target market" and one of my faviroite comments from "Small Giants" and one of the core values of one company:

"We will always do what is right, even if it is not necessarily profitable"