When Ed-Tech CEOs Aren’t Educators, Foster a Culture of Continuous Teacher Engagement

CEO and Co-founder, StoriumEdu

This post is the fourth in a series about the challenges and opportunities that first-time ed-tech founders face.

Startup founders entering the ed-tech space may find themselves in an unusual and uncomfortable position: for perhaps the first time, they aren’t users of their own product

In the tech startup world, one of the most commonly cited bits of received wisdom is that founders should “scratch their own itch.” Building a product that meets your own needs is one of the most reliable and powerful ways to create the foundation for a successful startup. Being an active user of your own product pays dividends by keeping you focused on your customers’ needs and constantly aware of the state of your product experience.

But for many ed-tech founders, this can be difficult to achieve. Your users are typically students, teachers, and the people who support them. Since you’re unlikely to be a user of your own product you risk becoming lax in your understanding of users. And the less you understand your users, the higher the chances of ill-advised product changes or other mistakes and setbacks.

To compensate, ed-tech founders need to infuse their startups with a culture of continual teacher engagement. This means involving teachers in the product development process on an ongoing basis, starting even earlier than you might have planned to based on your prior startup experiences.

As I’ve previously discussed on this blog, teachers are arguably your most important user. Yes, the purpose of ed-tech ultimately is to impact students, but in order to do that, you must first impact their teachers. Teachers are more than gatekeepers; they’re also the people who best understand their students, and they are your channel to those students and to the precious feedback they can provide.

So how does one build a culture of continual teacher engagement? Here are a few tips that have worked for me:

Don’t Just Beta Test, Alpha Test

You’ve probably participated in “beta tests” of technology products, and you’ve likely heard of the concept of an “MVP,” or minimal viable product. In both cases, the goal is to put an early version of a new product in front of real users as early as possible, so as to collect feedback and validate the concept and implementation.

In ed-tech, beta tests and MVPs aren’t good enough. You can’t afford to wait that long.

Instead, you should share your product with real teachers as early in the development process as is practical. When is that? Well, a good litmus test is to ask yourself: is my product (or prototype) at a point where a teacher can understand it and form an opinion without having to involve their students? (Remember: classrooms aren’t test markets where we can move fast and break things.)

Even with these criteria in mind, sharing your product so early will feel uncomfortable. If you’re not freaking out when you hit “Send” then you’ve probably waited too long. You should feel a bit uneasy. It means you haven’t yet answered every question and solved every problem. And that means there’s still ample room for transformative feedback.

When we were developing StoriumEdu we didn’t just beta test: we alpha tested. Our first alpha was extremely bare bones and lacked functionality that we would later consider essential. I was deeply worried about sharing something so rough and unpolished. I feared it would send a bad message and turn people off from our future work. Instead, it unlocked invaluable feedback that fundamentally changed our strategy and direction, leading to another alpha test, followed by a beta. If we had started with a beta test or even a traditional MVP we would have sunk huge effort into the wrong implementation.

Make It Personal

When you’re conducting early product testing you should focus on the quality of interaction more than quantity. At this early stage, it isn’t a numbers game. It’s more useful to have a personal connection with a handful of early alpha testers than it is to have an abstract relationship with a lot of alpha testers.

You’re looking for product feedback, of course. But you’re also looking for less obvious (to you) user insights, second-order effects that aren’t easily communicated through survey forms or feedback tools. The only way to draw out this kind of feedback is through direct communication. So make it a priority, and make time for it. Talk directly to your testers, and not just via email. Get on the phone or Skype and have real conversations. Ask questions and follow the threads of their answers. These are the moments you’ll look back on as being formative for your product.

Get Hands-On

A culture of teacher engagement shouldn’t stop with product feedback. Whether or not your plucky startup has sales or marketing staff, as a founder you should make it a point to personally pitch your product directly to teachers on a regular basis.

There are all sorts of ways to do this. You can host workshops, camps, or professional development sessions. You can offer to give demos to prospective customers. You can reach out to existing customers and offer to walk them through the product in-person (or virtually, if necessary).

Forcing yourself to regularly demo your product and field questions from teachers keeps you connected to teachers’ perceptions and concerns, and in doing so keeps you aware of the classroom experience. And there’s no substitute for that.

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Image credit: Pixabay

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