A lot of people fancy themselves experts about school. After all, we all attended school for many years, so we know what schools need to be successful, right?
Unfortunately, just being a student doesn’t help us understand how school systems work or what their needs are. If you really want to serve schools and have an impact on their students, there are some key steps you can take to better understand the market you want to support.
1. Don’t make assumptions.
In education, everyone is trying to do the right thing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the system is set up to allow them to do the right thing all of the time. What motivates administrators may not be the same things that the system incentivizes them to do. To meet their needs, you need to ask them what their goals are and how they measure success. If you can help them meet their goals, then your business is more likely to be successful.
2. Get the inside scoop.
One of the best ways to truly understand the nuances of the education market is to be on the inside. If you look at any number of successful businesses in education, many of them were started by former educators. When you can’t get this type of experience yourself, you can learn from others who have it.
Start by being nosy. Schedule face-to-face time with administrators and ask how you can help them work through their problems. Don’t gloss over their concerns by talking about your own tools. Be interested in the person you are talking to, but also be genuine and authentic. If you are faking empathy, they will see right through you.
I find the ability to enter a district office and strike up a conversation is underrated. Schools and districts are not like typical large corporations. Even large districts often operate like small businesses and are open to these conversations.
3. Don’t rely on the freemium model.
Silicon Valley is very much about the freemium model – building software and giving it away – and our company was not any different. We built free software to help schools with the logistics of managing substitute teachers. When we met with schools to talk about our solution, they said, “This is great, but that is not our highest need.” Their highest need was finding quality substitute teachers, and they told us to get back to them when we could help with that.
While our plan all along was to make money on the hiring of substitutes, this led to a change in our priorities. We found that our potential customers, those who work in HR, were concerned about retaining staff and keeping them from burning out, and part of that is about making sure they get time off. We found we could help with that — and our way to penetrate the market was less about giving away software and more about meeting this need.
4. Do on-the-ground outreach.
To sell school districts, you need to hire field sales reps. This is a relatively expensive distribution model which seems counterintuitive, but you can’t just put up a website and expect school districts to flock to it. District sales are typically not organic or inbound. In our early years, we struggled with how to let people know about us. What we found was that about a third of our potential customers needed on-the-ground outreach, and more than 50 percent of our sales came from this outreach.
Ultimately, we’ve learned that if you really want to run a successful education company, you need to be a true partner to schools and provide solutions that meet their current needs. Getting there isn’t easy, but is possible with the right combination of research, patience, and on-the-ground presence.
If you have any comments or questions about this post, or if there’s any topic you’d like me to cover in the future, please find me on @edumiketeng or firstname.lastname@example.org!
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