Flexibility is Key to Finding a K-12 Market Foothold for Ed-Tech Products

When we first conceived of SmartyReader, we had a clear vision of how it would be used: in high school English/language arts classrooms. Teachers would assign daily Smarticles and have data on their students’ comprehension and critical reading and writing skills at their fingertips. We thought it was an easy sell: let class-wide performance on each close reading question tell the story of where comprehension broke down and use it to centralize discussion on those passages.

But it wasn’t so easy, and we hit road blocks. The first school we asked to pilot SmartyReader wasn’t ready to commit, even though my track record as an SAT tutor (my other hat) put my test prep company at the top of the college counseling office’s referral list. We rushed to incorporate their feedback and considered pivoting to sell to test prep companies. After all, by using SmartyReader with our students, we had witnessed gains on the critical reading section like we’d never seen before.

But when one of our ed-tech grant applications required a research component over the summer, we pivoted in a different way. We set our classroom features aside and zeroed in on the student. We came up with a summer reading program that would be bookended by PSAT scores to find out just how impactful SmartyReader could be on its own. Our focus shifted then from curriculum integration to motivating autonomous, sustained commitment. We needed to make sure students would actually use SmartyReader enough to make a substantial difference.

Two things seemed to happen at once: schools signed on, and our product-market fit began to crystallize. When the college counseling office at the first school emailed parents about the opportunity to use SmartyReader, we had one hundred parents sign up practically overnight. Parents sent follow-up emails to make sure their student had a spot.

So our target market shifted to parents, and our calling card became student motivation. If we can get students to use SmartyReader like a game, we can tap into the very same reward centers that distracting technology capitalizes on, only to do the exact opposite. With this approach, and using summer as a break from the often intimidating English classroom, we hope to gamify reading improvement.

That’s what we’re working on now, and we’re interested in other skill-based enhancement technologies that have tried or considered a backdoor approach. At the very least, we view it as a potential stepping stone and as scalable as your design permits.

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