At FETC, Vendors Told to Study State and Local Policy to Unlock K-12 Market

Orlando, Fla.

State and local education policies, funding, and school and district culture need to align for ed-tech products to find a successful foothold in the K-12 world, according to a panel of investors and consultants here at the 39th annual Future of Education Technology Conference.

But often, CEOs are pumping resources into products that may not resonate in the education market, or they fail to approach schools and districts in way that translates to sales.

The panel, “Ed-Tech Trends to Note: Understanding the Market to Inform Decisions” featured advisers and investors who put their money behind ed-tech companies they think will hit the sweet spot in the market. The discussion took place Tuesday at FETC, which draws nearly 10,000 teachers, administrators and IT leaders, along with hundreds of vendors featuring cutting-edge ed-tech products.

But those vendors often don’t understand the needs of specific K-12 markets, schools and buyers. For example, a company may have a product that is successful in one state, but when they bring it elsewhere, company officials don’t do their homework by researching how local policies may influencesaid Adam Giery, the managing partner of Strategos Group, a consulting firm specializing in education and technology.

While companies often target big states with many districts like Texas and Florida, for example, it’s better to focus on states where your product meshes with policy, Giery said.

Ed-tech companies may make the mistake of trying appeal directly to teachers without thinking about pleasing district central office officials who are often the buyers, said Kevin Custer, the founding principal of Arc Capital Development, which invests in education companies. “If you’re going to get into the school, you have to be able to satisfy the administrator,” he said.

In addition, entrepreneurs too often approach districts by telling them what they need instead of listening and discovering educators’ pain points. “They discount away where the district is really coming from and what they have going on,” Giery said.

How to Get in the Door

Educators are suffering from what Giery called “solution fatigue”—hundreds of products that claim to solve every problem they face. But there are successful strategies vendors can follow to make inroads in schools and districts, panelists said:

Do the research: Dig in on state and local policy, research district priorities and goals, and articulate how a product fits into that long term vision, specific statues and funding sources, Giery said. “That is a way in the door that’s intentional and careful,” he said. “If you do the homework up front you’ll save yourself quite a bit of capital.”

Don’t assume schools are all alike: Companies often see schools as a homogeneous group, Custer said. Vendors believe they’re selling to “schools,” but they really need to know who within the school is the target for the product, Custer said. The superintendent may be the top leader in the district, but many other “titles” actually make the purchasing decisions.

“What is the exact title of the person that you’re going to solve their pain?” Custer said he asks companies. Vendors “that succeed the fastest are able to turn around and narrow it down to exact title and even the district size of the people they need to talk to.”

Understand the sales cycle: Custer noted that selling season is Jan. 15 to April 15 and if vendors show up on May 1 to talk up their product, it’s too late to get a spot in the budget. There is also “end-of-year money” that administrators may have to use or lose, which can present opportunities. But to take advantage of this timing, vendors have to know when they occur.

Graham Forman, the managing director and founder of Edovate Capital, which also invests in education companies, cautioned that the education market is known for long sales cycles, particularly for high price point products. But smaller contracts should be able to go through the process in about three months, he said.

Use pilot projects wisely: Pilot projects can be successful ways to get products into classrooms and create interest, but only if executed properly, Giery said. Most important is high-fidelity implementation. “We advise clients to make sure the implementation is flawless,” he said, adding that the product should be simple enough that it doesn’t require excessive professional development or training time for teachers.

In addition, pilot projects should have an expiration data—whether that’s 30, 60, or 90 days—and should be paid—not free–even if the cost is low. Educators “tend to treat things well when [they] pay for it, even if it’s a small amount,” Giery said.

Focus on Efficacy: Educators want evidence that the products they buy are effective. That doesn’t mean the research behind it has to be an expensive double-blind, randomized control trial. Even internal, small-scale evidence of effectiveness has value. And Forman noted that LearnPlatform has a tool that allows vendors to conduct a rapid-cycle evaluation of products across large groups. While it may not be as rigorous as some research, the cost is reasonable, he said.

What’s Trending Now?

When it comes to emerging ed-tech products in the K-12 market, educators continue to be concerned about data privacy, an overload of screen time for students and data integration—all factors that vendors would be wise to consider closely, the panelists said. Other sectors of the ed-tech market continue to evolve as well.

Social-emotional learning products are flooding the market. But Giery said he’s seeing many “one-off solutions” that are interesting but “don’t have staying power on their own.” They are products that are likely to be rolled up into a larger offering eventually.

He also noted products that support mastery-based education may find more traction as state legislation evolves to support learning that doesn’t necessary rely on traditional grades and seat time to measure it.

Forman said he remains bullish on the trend of personalized learning in education, but said technology still has to catch up to the idea that self-direction, student agency, and individualized pace of learning need to be supported and enhanced.

While he said he is seeing a lot of education-focused augmented reality and virtual reality products in the marketplace, much of it remains tied to expensive hardware and may not serve a true educational purpose. But he noted that products that bring equity to the classroom—like virtual reality chemistry labs instead of a half million dollar chemistry laboratory—hold more promise.

Custer noted that there are opportunities in the market around special education products to train students for work opportunities, and boosting academic options.

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